At first glance, there appears to be a touch of cognitive dissonance to a collaboration between noisy electronic punk and Hype Machine hero NVDES' Josh Ocean, and avant-garde photographer Parker Day, whose work is celebrated in queer and feminist circles.
Not only is it unlikely that their audiences have much overlap, but Ocean is a freestyle-based laptop artist who makes music by chopping up recordings of spontaneous jam sessions, honing in on "raw, authentic" musical moments — whereas Day's maximalist photography often reveals exquisitely and sometimes grotesquely costumed subjects, playing with performance, artificiality, and camp to explore identity.
But through a chance crossing of Instagram wires, and the discovery of a mutual love of faux fur (Ocean has a white faux fur carpet in his home studio apartment where he collabs, Day often shoot her subjects on or behind furry jewel-toned fabrics), the pair came together to create a 11-chapter video series, a companion series to NVDES new album of the same name, that tells the story of a colorful, wonky and slightly appalling fictional locale called Vibe City Utah.
The 11 bizarre, kaleidoscopic vignettes, each shot in a different room at a California bed and breakfast, are the marriage of NVDES' knack for slicing the vibe out of an idiosyncratic moment and turning it into offbeat, noisy dance music — and Parker Day's ability to conjure and capture full fleshy worlds of nostalgic kitsch, which reveal the tender beauty in the garish, freaky and ugly.
Their styles, it turns out, overlap in terms of sensory assault and comedic absurdity. Each video is a visual and sonic feast, based around a different one of the peculiar, tragic cartoonish characters that populate Vibe City Utah: each on their own parodied "egoic struggle." The vibrant costumes are courtesy of Orchid Satellite, a frequent collaborator of Day, while the editing which gives each an offbeat feel is by Jing Niu, and all were filmed by Grant Bell. Day also pulled in an indie-famous ring of collaborators from her LA art circle, like Mood Killer, Molly Milk and Priscilla Ruth.
So far, in the five released videos, we've met the "homecoming queen," an indulgent alien girl of simple desires who lives within "Ou La La La." Iyana and Melian are powerful women who covet luxury in "They Wrong." Oliver Tree is a confident cowboy headed into the frontier in "Running." Rashied is a stoner with a big idea in "Daddy Bubble," and Congolese artist and BADBADNOTGOOD collaborator Flockey Oscor dances his way through the whole hotel in "Mind Body Soul Music."
Today PAPER premieres the sixth installment in NVDES and Day's series, the visual for "On My Magic," which tells the story of a neurotic, reclusive woman, played by Molly Milk, who spends her days reading gossip rags and confiding in her pet cockroach. She's visited by a clownish, blue-haired fairy godperson who emerges from her closet, convinces her to get dress, leave her roach and magazines behind, and sends her out the door into the world.
PAPER sat down with Ocean to talk about NVDES, how he and Day became collaborators, and the process of dreaming up Vibe City Utah.
Tell me a little bit about how NVDES came to be: where it started and where you've come since starting.I started NVDES in the summer of 2015. I wanted to create this universe where I could openly experiment with different people: my friends or whoever I wanted, to experiment, jam and create this world [where] there was no real expectation of what we needed to create. Especially myself coming off of other projects and having lot of my music friends in L.A. that have projects, artists feel this pressure to create in a certain style that's uniform with their "brand. I created NVDES to be this place where I could just create with people that I wanted to create with, without any label. I wanted to preserve the idea of rawness and roughness. So what I do is invite people to come and jam in my little studio apartment, where everything is basically like in one room, where I'm just sitting an exercise ball at my desk with my laptop. I use a wireless mic a lot of time and just pass around the mic to people as they jam, and I splice those moments up and build them into songs. That's technique is really what NVDES is, and it's really grounded at my studio, which I called Vibe City Utah, which was the origin of the album.
Vibe City Utah the album is named after your studio?
Yeah, one day I was like this is Vibe City Utah, a place where people come and jam and we make stuff. So just to bring us up to now, I've really found my purpose and my vision as an artist and producer in building on and maximizing those raw, authentic moments that happen when people are jamming. Vibe City Utah album is the most focused, my most ambitious version of that style that I've ever recorded.
Would you say there's kind of a moment behind every song?
For sure, for sure. Most of these songs were all freestyle. Of the 11 songs on the album, ten of them are complete freestyle –– we're recorded vocals in one take, nothing was pre-written.
The lyrics weren't written ahead of time?
All completely freestyle. Nothing written. Everything is a freestyle that I then chopped it up and just arranged to fit into songs. I want to expose people to what it feels like to hone in on those first ideas, those first inspirational moment. A lot of times that's the magic of music, but it gets lost in modern production. That first idea, that first spark is so easy to lose when people are overproducing. Like for "Mind Body Soul Music," for example, we were playing Uno, picked up a mic and a guitar, pressed record, my friend freestyled for six minutes. I took the vocals, I chopped them up, sped them up to 15 bpm, programmed drums to it, and basically the structure of that song was there. And so that's how this record was made.
It's interesting to hear you describe that freestyle philosophy, when this video series feels is such a maximalist production.
That's actually a really interesting thought, because I do think there is a maximalist quality to a lot of what I do, which I try to fight but it's something that happens naturally for me. But the really interesting thing about the videos, and like you said, how it's this huge maximalist thing is that the videos were actually made pretty much the same way as the songs. We shot ten of the eleven videos in two days.
That's really insane to me, they're so intricate and detailed.
It was fucking insane! It was definitely like one of the most interesting creative experience I've ever been a part of and the really cool thing about how the videos and the album came together is I connected with Parker originally just thinking it would be cool if she did some promo shots.
Did bringing together your music with her visuals feel like a natural combination?
I was actually just sitting at a cafe in L.A. It's this French cafe and my wife Audrey is French and we started talking to this French woman. Audrey started showing this girl the NVDES Instagram and she was like "Oh I know this photographer Parker, you should reach out to her." So we emailed Parker and just set up a meeting to talk about doing some press shots.
But I was like, "how can we do something really cool with her?" A week later I made this crazy, stupid, ridiculous proposal, and emailed her a song I was working on that wasn't even finished and was like, "Hey do you want to make a music video for this song?" She said yes, and at the same time I was talking to my manager and we decided to ask Parker if she'd want to do visuals for the whole album, before the album was even written or recorded. There was only one song done. She said "Yeah, let's do it," before I even had music to send to her, which was super awesome because it pushed this whole project forward. I didn't have the album together and she had never directed videos before but they came together very hand in hand. I should also mention that when I had looked at Parker's Instagram, what hooked me right away was that she often uses this colored fake fur as part of her aesthetic.
What attracted you to that in particular?
A my studio, Vibe City Utah I have this fake white fur rug that, as silly as it sounds, is really important to my music making. I always encourage people to if they're writing vocals or freestyling to lay on the rug and roll around, because there's just something about rolling around on that fake fur carpet that makes you loosen up, and people have great ideas. So that type of material is a part of my process, and to see that that was a centerpiece of her work really solidified the connection in my mind.
Were you thinking about these visuals as you were creating the music?
The plan for these visuals was happening at the same time the music was being made. Our original plan to just film eleven characters in front of different colored fur carpets. So it was going to be a very super minimal lo-fi execution: here's the character in front of the carpet, just one moving visual. But we realized that we were going to have to rent a studio, and we came up with the idea, that if we were going to use a location, why don't we really use this one location. She sent three locations of different options where we'd shoot for 1-2 days, one of which was Hicksville Pines Bed and Breakfast, which inspired the way that the videos are shot in nine different rooms with nine different characters, and nine different universes, nine different worlds based around each song. Except for the video for "Running," which we shot in my friends backyard but kept the same aesthetic.
Each video is so different and weird and hilarious and intricate. Was there an element of spontaneity or was each one carefully story-boarded?
Once we had all the songs, then Parker sent a list of 50 models that she said could be good for the characters and then I went through and selected the characters that I wanted for all the videos.
Did the characters emerge from the cast?
The storyboards really came together while we were casting. For example the concept for the video for "Daddy Bubble," which is just my friend Rashied (Robinson) in his underwear eating cereal just came out of this picture of him just in his underwear eating cereal, and I was like "we have to do this." We really tried to put the models personalities into each video. We were just like "Hey, Rashied, you're just in your underwear eating cereal." He didn't even know we were making a music video.
For "Heads On Fire," which the characters is played by Mood Killer, and he does this art where he dresses up mannequins up in suits. The song is about going to work in an office where you hate your job, so I thought,"we can pull some of his aesthetic, this an awkward guy in a suit."
Parker did a really amazing job as far as writing down the shots that she wanted. There wasn't an official storyboard, but there was a shot list, she knew the shots that she wanted to get, and I knew certain shots that I wanted to get. It was very scheduled. You know, we had nine rooms, and we shot 10 videos at this location, one of the video. One of the videos ended up just being a montage of one character bouncing around all nine rooms.
So we're premiering the "On My Magic" video. Tell me about that one?
I think "On My Magic" is both mine and Parker's favorite. The energy of how this song was created was super special. Out of all of them, these characters really demonstrate how Parker's wanted to really stress these awkward moments, and awkward sense of time. So a lot of the frames feel super long because we wanted them to feel like that. It was just each character really just settled into that rhythm in such a way that was just so good. Also Orchid Satellite did an amazing job putting together these outfits that really pop like real life cartoons. Wesley Doloris, the guy at the end of "On My Magic," actually calls himself a "toonpunk" on Instagram, so he already had this natural animation to himself.
With "On My Magic, there's a really special shot when she's eating the cheese puffs and she looks to the side and her head just starts shaking and I remember when we did that shot, that's when I instantly knew that everything was gonna be good on the whole shoot, there was just so much magic in that shot. It's also important to mention the editor, Jing Niu, she did an incredible job.
We put so much into setting up the shot, that we then could be spontaneous in the moment while we were shooting. It's the same thing when I make music, so much of what my work relies on is making sure people come to my studio, come to my living room, come to work with me, that they feel like they can be themselves, be nude with themselves, and just express whatever they want to express in that moment. That's what it was like with these videos. You know, we prepared these spaces, we set the world, we set the vibe with the stylist, with Parker's direction, with the casting, and it was Grant Bell who filmed, it, who was a great cinematographer.
What about the characters of "On My Magic"?
With "On My Magic," this wasn't the original intention, but there is something really relevant about it to this that we're living in now. Every character in Vibe City Utah is battling this sort of egoic struggle, that they're kind of interacting with in every video. In "On My Magic," it really about woman played by Molly Milk and she's living in this little tiny world. She's reading tabloid magazines, smoking cigarettes, eating cheese puffs, her best friend is a roach. She's very much a recluse in her tiny tiny world. She lives in fear. And then this weird fairy godperson, Wesley, that comes out of her closet and inspires here to go out and leave her bubble, leave this place she's hiding. There's a really strong parallel between certain people that listen to hateful rhetoric and put themselves into an echo chamber of negative things that's extremely isolating. People need to open themselves to outside influences that can push them to go out and experience the world. People just need exposure to a different perspective. So there was that really strong parallel from the character to the video, to be blatant, to Trump supporters. That was what was magic about that video.
Something I know Parker works around a lot is exploring the malleability of identity, and how we're all performing characters. Is that something that resonated with you?
Totally. In all of it. And I think that, going back to the idea, that all of these videos are featuring these egoic struggles of these characters, it's kind of just like hyper-exaggerating things that we feel ourselves. And if you were to blow up one of your neurotic tendencies, one of your tics or one of the things that defines who you are in this moment, but maybe something you can let go of. Like one of your extremes? If you were to hyper-exaggerate that, it would be ridiculous and cartoonish. I think that these videos are kind of just highlighting those kind of parts about people that we interact with all the time.
Do you hope people will sort of mine and analyze these videos?
The whole thing with NVDES is always just to expand the universe, and give people a place to come and discover. There's so much in these videos, but it's ultimately just there for viewer to come and make of it what they want. That's my intention NVDES: to expose people to raw creative moments to inspire them to, when they hear ideas, the same thing, I want want people form their own ideas about what this stuff means, form their own ideas about what the songs are about.
Photos via NVDES