Intense & Vulnerable: An Interview with Infinite Color & Sound
Guitarist Mike McCready of Pearl Jam and visual artist Kate Neckel chat about their audio/visual collaboration, Infinite Color & Sound.
Infinite Color & Sound is the collaborative art and music endeavor from Seattle guitarist Mike McCready (of Pearl Jam) and New York artist Kate Neckel. In 2018, McCready's wife, Ashley O'Connor, insisted McCready see Neckel's work after experiencing it and commissioning a piece at the Seattle Art Fair. When the two later got a chance to meet in person, McCready and Neckel "immediately connected artistically and began their journey through color and sound" (per this bio).
The two have found and are expanding the interstices between their respective art forms while pushing each other beyond their comfort threshold since October. While initially inspired by Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, IC&S thought it better to narrow their scope. That eventually led to a nearly two-month-long exhibition in Seattle that included several public performances.
For their first run of shows on the east coast, Infinite Color & Sound scheduled three shows, one in New York City at PublicArts and two during the Sea.Hear.Now music fest at Asbury Park. Ahead of the NYC show, McCready and Neckel chatted with PopMatters, discussing how the group developed, how they collaborate, and give hints on what to expect at the shows. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Coverage of the PublicArts show and SHN to come.
Between your solo work, or band projects for you Mike, how much time have you spent together on the Infinite Color & Sound project?
McCready: How much have we? About a year, on and off.
Neckel Yeah, I feel like leading up to our first exhibition at Winston Wächter Gallery that happened in March, we kind of worked pretty regularly from October through March last year. Right, Mike? Daily creating --
McCready: We started quickly, and it happened very quickly.
Neckel: -- creating art and making music and building songs.
McCready: During the beginning of the year, very much all the time for six months probably.
Where did the name Infinite Color & Sound come from?
McCready: Where did it come from?
Neckel: We were initially talking about the Exploding Plastic Inevitables --
McCready: Yeah, what [Andy] Warhol used to do.
Neckel: -- and we were playing around with lots of different words on a piece of paper, and then, I don't know, I just remember having a sketchbook, and we were saying --
McCready: You were writing lyrics or... I don't remember. But it's kind of based on what Kate was saying about the Exploding Plastic Inevitable things that [Warhol] used to put on.
Neckel: I still have the notebook -- we're like, it's Infinite Color & Sound because --
McCready: I think it's because if you did it wrong, it would say "I See Us Pee" [ICSP]. I know that it wasn't Infinite Color & Sound Project cause that would be kind of a pee joke, so we didn't do that. I remember that (just to drag us down in the gutter there for a second). But it came from mixing those words, but I don't really remember.
The name got me thinking of the idea that the sound waves can be out there forever -- decaying over time.
Neckel: We'll go with that.
McCready: We'll take that from you. That sounded so much more intellectual than my pee pee-poo poo brain. That's gross. Sorry, go ahead. I digress.
Between the two sides of the project, music, and painting, do you find the inspiration for one comes from the same part of your brain as another? How do you balance them?
McCready: I have to go consciously, "Okay, I'm okay with painting. I'm okay with painting, I can do this." Kate has allowed me to make it a lot easier for me to do any kind of art that I've never done before. But I still have years of ingrained thought processes of not being able to paint and thinking that and telling myself this lie. I have to think about it too sometimes, but then I want to feel it too, so [I think] "I'm okay, I'm doing this," but I have to really stay on my brain for doing that. And then being satisfied with it.
Neckel: What I've noticed is that I've been writing some songs and when the songs usually evolve. We'll work together intensely in the studio, maybe creating paintings for our show or working on some mannequins. But then we'll have a break or some time. Mike will be working on his stuff or be traveling, and then words or phrases or elements of our time together, our project will kind of start building songs in my brain. I'm having a hard time talking about it because it's so new to me. But you get these whispers of words and maybe a melody. That whole process has been very exciting, to kind of be like, "Oh, this is maybe something", and then I'll send it to Mike, and he's like, "Yes, that's something. Don't think too much about it. Just keep doing it."
McCready: That's the cool part about it. Kate hadn't played guitar and sang before, but it's second nature for her now, I think if I can speak for her. It feels like, for painting for me, it was the same way. I'd never done that and felt comfortable about it, but breaking through that is the important process.
Do you still feel you have vulnerabilities?
McCready: Tons. You'll see it when we're playing at the show. We kind of plan out how we want the show to go, but then it changes as we do the show. It gets more intense, or it gets more mellow. But [it's] very vulnerable.
Neckel: We have an idea, but we just really try and feel off each other. We follow each other's lead and --
McCready: It's just a learning process. But it's wonderful because it's opened me up to many other ways of looking at art and having confidence.
Kate, did you ever previously paint live? What are some of the challenges you find working this way with Mike as opposed to working in your studio?
Neckel: I've done live art before. I've drawn on the walls of the Ace Hotel and did various projects. There's a band called Honduras out of Brooklyn, and I painted on them years ago, but I've never had a situation like with what's happening with Mike. We're so connected, and we're so intuitive, and he knows what to do with what I am giving to him. I've never had a collaboration that symbiotic. It's a very rare and beautiful thing. I'm so grateful for it because it's something I've wanted to do for so long. I've always wanted to combine my love of music with painting and the Polaroids and photography, and Mike is of a similar mindset, and he knows exactly what to do with what I'm feeling.
McCready: Kate's done a lot of really cool commercial stuff around here in New York. Kate has deep roots here, which makes me feel more comfortable being here. I love it here, but I feel like it's another level of intensity, I guess, being in New York. But I'm up for it because of Kate's vision and her history here and our thing we do together.
You have brought a lot to this artistic/musical project, like adding photos or adding mannequins. Are there limits, or is it unlimited, to what you are bringing to the table?
McCready: I think it's unlimited in terms of the infinite part of it (not to be too cliche). We have Joseph Arthur playing with us tonight, a local who played with Jeff Ament in this band called RNDM, but he's also a local in New York. [A] very, very fantastic artist in his own right, who plays guitar and paints. That's going to add another element of excitement.
Neckel: That's the fun part of this project. We've played with Josh Klinghoffer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on, I think two shows, and it's a really beautiful thing to be able to invite other artists or musicians.
McCready: It's freeing. It also kind of helps the process a little bit. Selfishly, it's like, okay, I can do less work now. I didn't admit that. I never said that. No.
Don't worry. I won't tell Joseph that he's got the burden of the work.
Neckel: I'll take a nap on the stage.
Kate, in one interview you said you respond to Mike's playing with your marks. Do you ever sense his playing is leading to a different color?
Neckel: I do like I know we'll talk about some colors, but then I'd grab the colors, and it's very connected. It's like this mind-reading, intuitive. I feel like his playing, and his hand guides my hand and moves it for me. It's kind of like you're in a trance.
McCready: Yeah. There's a trance that kind of happens between both of us, I think. And then Joseph [Arthur] will be in that net too. And in terms of like the colors, Kate will ask me, and I don't ever know. Maybe I don't have the confidence to know what colors would be good.
Neckel: You say like the red, or there are certain blues, certain colors you'd like to work with, but...
McCready: I defer to you on that a lot, though, but I'm open to all that, too.
Neckel: But it changes on basically what we're feeling or what the energy of the show is or Mike's energy or what he's playing on the guitar or playing...
McCready: She just did a spoken word thing, kind of her poetry, and that was an example of what you're talking about, I think. But I played, and then you got more intense, and then I followed you, and you went down, you went up. And so that's a new aspect. We haven't done that.
Neckel: Yeah, we're going to do that at Public Arts. It's a combination of spoken word or things I've written about New York.
How do you approach performing in a new venue? Like, Public Arts is a dark basement as opposed to where you're performing at Sea.Hear.Now, which is near the beach.
McCready: That'll probably bring out different aspects of our personality, and where we played in Seattle, at Winston Wächter, was different, too. That was very, I recall that being light, too. A beach and this thing are totally different.
Neckel: We had a walk-through yesterday, and Mike was like, "Oh, you know, I have ideas in this space." It tells you what to do. We know exactly what to do. We know what we want on stage. I saw this space back in May, and my kids have seen in pictures of it and videos of it. But yeah, there's like this feeling I'm getting is different. The show will change based on the space.
McCready: Luckily, we have some good people around us helping us work out all of the logistics of how to do that and what to do -- Chris Adams, my wife Ashley [O'Connor], and our friend Neil doing guitars and stuff. [They] are helping us organize all this work so we can just do the art, and that really helps.
I want to go back to the tracks that you released on vinyl and are streaming. Was the recording a spontaneous process?
McCready: What you're hearing on those was Kate was painting, and I was playing guitar. We released three singles through my label HockeyTalkter. Those singles were just the music and our artwork on the front. So what that is is just me playing music to her painting.
Neckel: We're scoring, following each other.
McCready: We're singing songs that Kate has written [since then] tomorrow. We're playing those live. But that's something that's not out there yet. It may be on YouTube.
Neckel: You can see some videos I think online of us performing our songs together. But yeah...
McCready: That stuff is just like the scoring kind of element, I think.
And the song titles? I was trying to discern if I should interpret the song titles.
McCready: I think I grabbed this song titles out of some of her lyrics, from what I recall.
Neckel: I recall "Canvas" and "Free".
McCready: Those are on some of the lyrics that she wrote. So, while we were writing or she was, we were writing these songs, she had lyrics, and we were pulling one word from each of those songs.
Neckel: They're tied into songs that you'll hear tomorrow night.
McCready: You should interpret it however you want to. That's the beauty of it, too. I mean, I feel like if you have any kind of cool interpretation, that's awesome. That's what it is for. That's how exciting music and art can be for me to see your thoughts on it.
What do you envision for the future of Infinite Color & Sound?
McCready: [We're] leaving the future open. I don't know. I don't know what that is right now. We just have to get through these days and see how that all goes. I'm sure there's more to come. I don't have an answer for you at the second.
Neckel: I'd like to record the new songs that we sing on at some point. We did a couple of demos of those and we'd properly recorded them. But we've had a good time with this project and will take it as it comes, you know?
What are some outside influences or art that you shared with each other along the way?
Neckel: When we were creating for our exhibition at Winston Wächter, [Mike] would constantly put on another record. He has an amazing collection of vinyl. and I learned a lot.
McCready: I definitely will talk about music a lot.
Neckel: I like to listen to books. I listened to Life by Keith Richards. I've been thinking a lot about Patti Smith lately. She's been a great role model for me in terms of somebody that has transcended many different mediums. It can be a little overwhelming to think, "Can I do this? Can I move move from painting to singing to..." and I love Just Kids, M Train, and her amazing career and her life story.
McCready: Kate sends me things that she sees of other artists -- like older footage or newer artists that I don't know about. That's always cool to get. Some of the stuff is an influence, too.
Neckel: Yeah. We're always sending each other [stuff]. Gram Parsons --
McCready: Or New York stuff, all the Velvet Underground. We're listening to that while we're here -- getting the vibe of New York via the songs of that era.