This post was selected for inclusion in our Future of Art and Work series in December 2016. The series, sponsored by Microsoft Surface, selects some of our best posts exploring the topics of how art and work will look in the 21st century. This post was originally published in June, 2016.
In May 2016, as part of the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy, Mark Pritchard and Jonathan Zawada hosted a gallery installation at Red Bull Studios in Manhattan. Part visual art, part music, the nearly 360-degree video installation featured artwork from Zawada made in collaboration with Pritchard for his latest album, Under The Sun. It’s the culmination of years of work, and coincides with the release of Under The Sun, a meticulously crafted collection of ambient and vocal works that features legends such as Thom Yorke and Linda Perhacs.
Both artists have ties to Sydney; it’s Pritchard’s home base, and Zawada’s hometown. Pritchard, a veteran producer and DJ with contributions across various electronic music subgenres, has used many aliases, but has been releasing music under his own name since 2009. Zawada’s visual art has been exhibited throughout the world, and Pritchard is not the first musician he’s collaborated with.
After visiting the installation and spending a few weeks with the album, we met with the artists at Red Bull’s NYC headquarters to discuss the particulars of the unique collaboration. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
Flavorwire: How long have you guys known each other? Who connected you guys?
Jonathan Zawada: I guess it must be four years. I think it was Dom [Flannagin] at Warp [who suggested we work together.]
Mark Pritchard: Ghosts was the first one [we worked on]… I’d been in L.A. for about a year. Dom had maybe just come into it at that point, he was working with LuckyMe and Ross [Birchard]… he’s part of the Glasgow crew, and I’d met him up there a few times. Then he started to work for Warp, and I was there. I said, because I knew he was really into art, he’s an artist himself, “Can you send me some people that you would really rate?” He sent me like ten, maybe.
I went through them all. What I noticed is that most people had a thing, and I liked some of them. But then it went to Jonathan’s and it was all sorts of different things going on, different styles and different projects. There’s a lot of color, which I liked. I’ve never had that real use of color in most things. It’s kind of an exciting, fresh feeling to me, but also not fresh in a kind of modern way where it’s just over the high port. It had a freshness, but also something of my taste. Kind of like a Modernist, but it also had some ties to things that I like from the past. But never retro.
When you talk about commercial art, almost everyone tells you you need to have a style. You need to be able to market a specific visual aesthetic that people will say like, “Oh, that’s Jonathan Zawada.”
MP: Yeah. I’ve done all different styles of dance music, and non-dance music, and you hope that there is some thread there, in amongst it, because it’s very hard for you to know yourself if you’re doing it. But I’ve had people say that they can always hear me in whatever they can hear. Those people I’ve known for years, who know my stuff, they hear my voice in there somewhere.
You’ve released music projects under several different names before starting to release music under your own name. What prompted that shift? How have you approached something which is very much yourself as opposed to some alter ego?
MP: I did wonder about that, especially with an album that was not club music, and could be perceived as a more personal work, and I’m using my name. The actual main idea behind doing it was that I’m always writing different types of music — this album has been written over a long period, I’d say half of it [around] 2009, 2010. So as I’m writing the Africa Hitech stuff, I’m writing this stuff, I’ll go to the studio and make usually whatever I feel like that day, so sometimes I might make a jungle tune, the next day I might make a dancehall thing, or an ambient tune, or a folk tune. It really does go like that. And then of course there’ll be periods where I’m focusing trying to finish EPs off, and I’ll be working on more of a certain style more often, but then it was like the frustration of having this stuff sitting there, and how can I get it out? It seems like they have a lifespan — the Africa Hitech thing, you do the album and then it goes into the world and it has a certain amount of time when you tour it, and it doesn’t make sense to put an ambient thing in the midst of it. It doesn’t really fit.
The Beans track (“The Blinds Cage”) I wanted to put on the Highland 313 album, but it didn’t really feel like it fit. So it sat there for 12 years, and I waited for the right place to go, and I was like, “If I get rid of all these names, just do it under my name, I’m hoping that it’ll need to be a bit more diverse, with things coming out in the future, and try and let people know what’s gonna happen. This album’s almost created another problem again, where it’s been received well so far, and now it’s made me think, “Well, if I drop like a fucking dancehall thing, people who have heard me for the first time aren’t going to know what the fuck’s going on.” You know, maybe they’ve heard of me because of the Thom Yorke thing [Under The Sun’s “Beautiful People”], obviously because he’s got a massive presence. I’m fully aware that people who’ve probably never heard of me all of a sudden heard that track and they were like, “What’s he do? Oh, he’s done some ambient stuff, but then if I then come with something like a jungle thing now, I need to work out how I’m gonna get around this issue.
It seems like it’s a historical thing with dance music or electronic music, the idea of being able to channel a specific aesthetic into a name and then just leave it, and go do something else. And people might still know that that’s you, at least the ones who are paying attention, but it’s clear that this is something else. So you’ve got a new set of challenges.
MP: Yeah, and I thought I might’ve solved it, but now it might not’ve worked. Oh well.
This specific collaboration is something you’ve been working on for a while. What are the mechanics of it? Do you work completely remotely?
JZ: It’s all totally remote. Weirdly, I live in Los Angeles, and Mark lives in Sydney, which is where I used to live, and right before we started working together I moved [away]. I don’t know how we never met [before]… I mean I know how we never met, I never go out. The EPs started off in a traditional way with the record label, and getting artwork approved, the normal kind of process. But by the end of the EPs, I think we were just in a rhythm of talking directly to one another without all of that stuff, so I think over the duration of the album it was quite a lot of time we’d spent. Mark keeps weird night hours in Australia, which match up perfectly with me.
MP: I’ve been nocturnal for at least two years. [Jonathan] gets up quite early, so what’s about two in the morning for me is about lunchtime-ish. [He] might be up about 7am or 8am.
JZ: We’ll have a Skype chat for about two hours, I guess, and just, not always about anything, just chatting. [Mark] will be talking about instruments [he’s] using, or sending me versions of the tracks — as [he’s] developing ideas [he’s] were sending them over, and vice versa.
In progress? As opposed to “Here, this record’s done?”
JZ: Absolutely, yeah.
MP: It started off slightly as a false start. What I thought was gonna take me three days, it took me two weeks. I’ve never learned to get around that. I’ve tried to, but yeah, that’s the way it is, things always take longer. I stupidly think I can speed the thing up, and it doesn’t work (laughs).
We kept it very much between us, like we’re just going to talk to each other, and show Warp stuff from time to time, but it’s between us, this thing. But they trust me, anyway, they don’t get involved in the music. Dom did make a suggestion to put a Linda Perhacs collaboration, because he knew that I was a fan, and it just so happened he knew the manager. But generally he was hands-off, and that’s how I think they are with a lot of their artists. And I’ve been doing stuff for them for years.
JZ: (Laughs) there were points where I was like, “I’ve got all this stuff and it’s been sitting here for a year and a half, and is this ever gonna happen? I have a hall of stuff that I want the world to see, that no one’s ever gonna see, because you hadn’t finished.
MP: Yeah, I was worried about that. My thing was, “Well, it’s down to me. So it’s definitely going to happen, no matter what anyone says.” I think that got me through.
Stepping inside the installation, there’s this idea of “Under the Sun” being very much a literal representation, a landscape. At what point did the Under the Sun title enter the process?
MP: Well, the title came very late. Normally I’ll get a title halfway through something, and I was struggling. I really wanted it to have a nonsensical word, or something that didn’t make any sense, something that really didn’t mean anything but had a cool vibe to it. I’ve had success in getting album titles and track names if I read certain books. It can happen; it’s happened before from reading books, it’s happened before from listening to philosophers. I was listening to this John Cage and Morton Feldman, just an amazing conversation between those two, where they talk for six hours, and they’re friends, so it’s just not an interview, it’s them talking in a room, so it’s like what it’d have been like to have the evening with John Cage, chatting about life. And I listen to things like that often. It’ll just spring a title. And I tried everything, and nothing was really coming, and I thought about Under The Sun as a title, but I didn’t really want to use it, because the last album was called 93 Million Miles. And there’s a track on that album called “Psychic Sun.”
You’re just obsessed with the sun.
MP: I was worried because I lived in Australia and it’s sunny. I was just like (sighs). Also from trying to do something that was unusual, something that didn’t really mean anything, in the end the album felt like having a literal title and having something that was not just weird felt like the right thing to do and the sentiment behind the nursery rhyme “And the Sun Is.” What that whole piece means is I really like the feeling of that. In the end it makes sense. And then Jonathan did the artwork.
JZ: That was the last thing that happened, the actual album cover. Everything else or the bulk of it was already done a long time ago. When you told me what the title was, I was like “Well, now the cover is right.”
It’s funny, because it’s quite literal and quite direct, but I think none of the rest of what we did was that. Everything else was kind of the reverse. It was quite nice that there is that. I think to what you were saying, I think something that was quite precise and clear helps ground and give substance to some of the less precise. It makes it all not just this ethereal wishy-washy kind of thing.
In general, is ambient music more well-suited for these types of visual collaborations? A lot of it is very atmospheric.
MP: My gut reaction was that the vocal tunes need to not be on there. My initial feeling was I need to go for the more droning, ambient side of things. But then I just felt that I want to show what the album is about. So I want some vocal elements, and I want some things to come in and out and not just be drifty. It would have be easy to do an ambient soundscape but I wanted it to be a bit more disjointed. I want it to sort of surprise. The initial feeling was it makes sense to do ambient drifty stuff, but also with the visuals as well.
JZ: It’s a bit structureless. I definitely was interested in doing something that wasn’t like a normal gallery video installation. I have a friend that does similar sorts of stuff, and he works with musicians for the same reason that I do, because we’re both frustrated because you go to a gallery and you want to see this beautiful installation and you kind of end up seeing something that you sort of step into for two minutes and you’re like “Well, alright, how many more minutes do I have to stay here for?” and “Can I go now”” and “I got nothing out of that.” You can be more generous than that, and you can try to make something that people want to be in or genuinely get something out of. From editing it together, I had that same feeling that a lot of this is an ambient track. But then when you think about it, There’s Beans, there’s Bibio, there’s Thom Yorke, there’s Linda Perhacs. It was quite a lot of vocals for something that is not that long. It ended up feeling like there’s no vocals because it’s not structured. It’s not in a song structure, necessarily.
MP: Subconsciously it was like, I need to do some deconstructive stuff. It’s like watching a movie or something. It’s not just something you just have a look, and people are chatting and you have a drink and then you go “Oh this is quite cool.” I wanted people to go in and feel the power of the frequencies that were there and the expansiveness of the visuals and be like “Fucking hell.” That was the idea. It changes a lot in the first half, I think that was a good thing.