The American genius Josh Graham is known for a handful of bands (A Storm of Light, Neurosis, Red Sparowes, Battle of Mice) and his work as a media artist. With his solo project IIVII, Josh bestowed upon us his sophomore drone/ambient/electronica album ‘Invasion’ (released on Consouling Sounds), which thematically revolves around alien encounters. IIVII live grants a multisensory experience where extra-terrestrial slow crawling drones, fractured rhythms and textured electronica are followed by the imagery of a dystopian sci-fi movie. People are eradicated, cities are disintegrated, and the aliens build floating environmental cities. I caught up with Josh at Ancienne Belgique where he played alongside Belgian artists Syndrome, Wiegedood and CHVE. We talked about IIVII, murky narratives of an apocalypse, politics and visual arts.
E: Before we dwell into music, can you tell us about your work as a visual artist?
J.G.: I do a bit of everything, from album packages to concert visuals, music videos, websites, logos and merch. For some bands I do all of those creative aspects, and for others, I work on pieces of the puzzle. Recent work includes a couple of Enslaved music videos, and a campaign for Matt Cameron from Soundgarden. I also just finished working on creative elements/branding for a new band. We worked on their elements periodically for the last year. They are very patient and professional, and I hope they will be very successful. I can’t say the name yet, as they are just getting ready to approach labels and management.
E: With regards to music videos. Do you come up with the ideas yourself? Do you do cinematography as well?
J.G.: Every video is different. A lot of times I will come up with ideas based on the band’s lyrics or artwork. Sometimes they will come in with a pre-existing idea and we will work together on how to achieve that goal, or how achieve an affordable interpretation of that goal. Sometimes I shoot the videos myself, and sometimes there is a director of photography. It all really depends on a budget. Through years I’ve learned to work within confines of almost anything, from few thousand dollars to a hundred thousand dollars. Sometimes you can make cooler stuff with less money, because with a lower budget there is generally more freedom and more flexible timelines. Major label videos can rack up expenses with huge crews, quick turnaround times, and flying around the band / managers / video commissioners.
E: I absolutely love the video you did for Isis ‘In Fiction’.
J.G.: Thanks. That was a crazy one. It took a while. We shot the still photography over a few weeks around downtown LA, then shot the film in a 17hr day in an abandoned paper factory. Then I put everything together and realized I needed to add some special effects to bring the entire concept together. The initial concept was brought in by the band. They wanted to create something in the vain of La Jetée, a late 60’s silent science fiction film by Chris Marker, which was done entirely with still photography. Marker’s film was also the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys.
E: What other interesting locations have you worked at?
J.G.: From Budapest and Prague for Given to the Rising, to Kiev for some of the upcoming A Storm of Light images, to an abandoned vacation island in Connecticut, shooting on location is always an adventure….
We shot in an abandoned hospital for Dillinger Escape Plan’s Unretrofied…and broke into a basement in Philadelphia to shoot Panasonic Youth.
For a Bee And Flower video, we rode bicycles around New Orleans in the middle of the night (pre-Katrina) photographing people’s houses and various buildings.
Neurosis’ From the Hill was shot Death Valley in the middle of the night (with no permits). We hauled a rented generator into to the middle of the sand dunes, to run our crappy Home Depot work lights, while scorpions circled us and the nude actress.
I’ve also done quite a bit of shooting in insane asylums. In one, I was there taking pictures with my wife, Julie. Neither of us believe in ghosts, however… We were in one building shaped like the letter E, and we heard a bunch of kids’ voices coming from somewhere in the building. We both assumed they were in one of the other wings, but then the voices shifted to the other side of the room we were in. Julie was like ‘I am fucking getting out of here’. I never experienced anything like that before. I could hear it almost as someone walking past you, moving.
E: Let’s talk about the incredible visuals you do for IIVII… They remind me dystopian games a bit.
J.G.: Thanks a lot. The visuals are massively important for IIVII, primarily because you can’t see what I am doing on stage. With Invasion’s visuals, I got a lot more in-depth with the process and presentation (a little further than I wanted to) than normal, but I discovered some new approaches, which hopefully I can take and adapt for other future projects, be it with my bands, or for other bands.
The abstracted framing and layout of the images began from the fact I that had no budget for the visuals. I’ve done visuals for artists like Jay Z and Drake on several different tours, and the physical screen configurations are awesome…super complex and super expensive. The control and impact they have are both pretty stunning. When you step away from those production budgets, and you are only left with one HD rectangle, it can become artistically frustrating. That’s when I had to figure out how to make that rectangle much more dynamic.
As far as the footage itself, I like to use found-footage from the news, youtube, and internet in general. Tapping into what is happening now around us, adds more weight and impact to the imagery. One example would be when Jay-Z played in Hackney, right after the riots there. We scoured the web for Hackney riot footage, and then used that footage as the projections. It was crazy. I don’t even know if the audience was aware of what was happening because it was presented in a rather abstract way. But it was pretty heavy.
IIVII visuals take that found footage approach, and twists everything into a new narrative. CCTV footage, facial identification, riots, alien conspiracy shit, etc, all come together to create an abstract story of alien invasion. The first song of the record starts with an invasion, and then as the story progresses, people are eradicated, cities are disintegrated, and the aliens build these floating environmental cities. It’s apocalyptic and hippy at the same time. Ha.
photo by Josh Graham
E: What is your relationship with religion?
J.G.: Personally, I am totally unaffiliated with religion. While I understand the need for belief, and respect everyone’s right to practice, it’s just not for me. In my opinion, the world would be a better place without organized religion.
E: And politics?
J.G.: A Storm of Light is very political. All the lyrical content is. It’s basically anti-human and pro-Earth. I am actively following politics and the decline of the United States. Whenever I write music I feel compelled to think about politics… With A Storm of Light, I posted lyrics of a song, which is about nationalism and flag worship and this guy that I know said that we are trashing the flag and that we are anti-US. It pissed me off so much! So I started working on a new A Storm of Light record… I was so upset. I know where a half of country is going, but it’s different when you are face to face with someone you have known for 8 years. I guess in a way it is good because I already have four songs for the next record. The new stuff is more contemporary based, more observational of the decline of our country… With IIVII I can let that go. IIVII is about science fiction. It is an escape for me.
E: I miss more of politics and socially relevant lyrics in the metal scene…
J.G.: I think sometimes people don’t want to think about it when they are listening to music. A lot of metal is very light in a way, it’s about demons and witches. It’s not really scary or dark. It’s comic. When bands talk about politics, it’s much heavier to me... I grew up in Arizona and started playing live shows when I was 16. There were a lot of Nazis. Growing up I was navigating all that bullshit. There are great people, a great scene, but also a lot of violence. A unique mind-set seems to exist in southwest desert.
E: Wow! You started playing at the age of 16... What were the first bands you listened to?
J.G.: Black Flag and simultaneously Joy Division, The Cure and Ministry. I was always pretty open to different kinds of music… But when I play, it’s mostly dark. IIVII is the first project that is not overtly metal. I made a conscious choice not to have guitars.
E: It should be interesting for you to play different venues with different line-ups and audiences, outside the metal scene…
J.G.: IIVII played the post-rock festival DUNK! and the reaction was really good. I also played Incubate festival in Tilburg, which was a very open festival musically (I guess it’s no longer happening). The curating was really diverse, ranging from metal to pop, electronica to experimental jazz, world music and more. Europeans are much more open for mixed bills. In the US, audiences seem to be much more narrowly focused, which is unfortunate. I’ve been to metal shows, where people only watch the band they came for, and stand outside for the rest.
From a lot of touring experiences like that, I started to get a bit burned out on metal, which is when I started working on IIVII. The goal has been to keep pushing out of my comfort zone.
E: Do you have a clear vision in your head before you actually sit down to write music?
J.G.: Yes, most of the time. It’s probably a bit clearer with IIVII than with A Storm of Light, but formulating an approach, or thinking about how the next record should evolve from the last one, greatly helps my writing process. The final result is always a bit different than the first brainstorms; however, those initial “road maps” help guide everything down a new and hopefully unique path.
E: Lastly, a simple question. The name IIVII?!
J.G.: Working with asymmetrical logos is always a challenge. One example is my own band, A Storm of Light. Actually I hate working with that name. It is just difficult to make some words look good. Not because of the name itself but because of how letters are distributed. Live and learn! So this time I wanted something symmetrical and abstract. I had 15 different variants. ‘IIVII’ is semi-pronounceable [ivy]. I’ve seen a magazine said it’s [eve]. I thought that was cool or even [two five two]. It’s a name, a logo and an icon at once.