When Daniel Lopatin started his career over a decade ago, his touring partner was an old Juno-60 synth. Now, his musical universe is realized on stage with the help of a live ensemble, dancers and surreal installation art. As he prepares for his final performance of MYRIAD, Oneohtrix Point Never takes us inside his “concertscape” concept.
s Daniel Lopatin and his ensemble rehearse on the stage of London’s Roundhouse for the last-ever performance of MYRIAD, a monstrous yellow sculpture is carefully unpacked from a large wooden crate. Close up, it looks like a lump of biomass that’s been generated by a 3D printer hooked up to Google’s DeepDream program, but when it’s hanging from the rigging later that evening, it looks a little bit like a giant booger.
The sculpture, half of a pair designed for the show by visual artist and frequent Lopatin collaborator Nate Boyce, is a fitting visual metaphor for an artist whose music regularly combines black humor with both the grotesque and sublime. Over the past decade, Lopatin’s music as Oneohtrix Point Never has explored memory and nostalgia, body horror, and, on 2018’s Age Of, the Anthropocene era and humanity’s destruction of the planet as told by an advanced AI race at the end of time. Although MYRIAD isn’t an opera as such, Lopatin refers to this post-earth tale as the libretto for a show he calls a “concertscape”, an ambitious multimedia production brought to life with the help of artist, sculptor, video artist Boyce, who has crafted much of the OPN visual universe since a video for ‘Russian Mind’ in 2009. “I think of him, really, as the architect for the visual atmosphere of an OPN show, and beyond that, I think there’s a lot of ways that he’s influenced me over the years,” Lopatin says. “It often just has to do with translating my whims or my weird sort of visions for the live show and actually kind giving it a sense of dimensionality and space.”
As MYRIAD unfolds later that night, it’s not just the sculptures that create the impression of having a front seat into Lopatin’s mind. At the back of the stage is what looks like a shattered, abstract church window, onto which CGI visuals that tell the story of MYRIAD’s four epochs – Age of Ecco, Age of Harvest, Age of Excess and Age of Bondage – are projected. Later in the show, as he performs Age Of standout ‘Black Snow’, he’s joined by a masked cowgirl dance troupe he describes as “denizens of the apocalypse dancing at the end of time”. It dives deep into the unashamedly prog aspects of his music to create a visually arresting show that unfolds like a dream.
On stage with Lopatin is an ensemble of artists that operate in a similar musical universe: classically trained pianist Kelly Moran and percussionist Eli Keszler, as well as Aaron David Ross, who provides synth, vocal harmonies and foley sounds. Performed by the MYRIAD ensemble, Lopatin’s music takes on a different character; synth parts Lopatin previously recorded or sequenced via complex MIDI rolls in the studio are re-rendered by artists performing seemingly impossible musical feats, such as Moran’s speedy finger runs during fan favorite ‘Chrome Country’ and Keszler’s superhuman percussion solo at the end of ‘We’ll Take It’. Despite all of the show’s visual elements, the MYRIAD ensemble’s greatest achievement is perhaps the way it folds the human and machine parts of Lopatin’s music into a cyborg version of itself.
“I think the thing I always remember when I get together with other people is that these are songs with verses and choruses,” Lopatin says. “They just don’t really have conventional bits and bobs filled into those components of the song, but the components are pretty understandable. And they’re fun to play because there’s still this sense of openness in these songs and it works really well for this group.”
You’ve described MYRIAD as a “concertscape”. What does that mean exactly?
Nate and I were traveling a lot together doing OPN shows, and we were seeing the same kind of setup every night for shows and we were just trying to dream up ways to make our show more interesting. The first thing I was really frustrated by was by playing in front of a big white projection surface and feeling that there could be some way of splitting the difference between the things that are good about a concert and the things that we like about theater, installation art, things that we might be able to cross pollinate with those ways of working, find something new for ourselves.
Does the show have a narrative?
There is somewhat of a story. I had this [idea] when I was recording Age Of about this kind of song cycle that was essentially a generated opera, generated by this machine species that didn’t really understand history, didn’t really understand their progenitors – us – and we’re trying to piece together the most common type of story that we would tell about ourselves. And it just happens to be a story of us slowly falling out of sync with nature, and then gradually imprisoning ourselves, and then our extinction at our own hands. This was imagined as one cycle among an infinite amount of them, and they all have these different contents but always in these four chapters that start with a sense of space and openness and become more and more claustrophobic and more and more negative.
What kind of inspirations have gone into MYRIAD?
Seeing Orpheus and Agon, seeing Isamu Noguchi’s setpieces for those types of contemporary performances. Often it’s not another concert that will inspire me but random happenstance things that happen to me, like playing a video game or hearing music presented in a certain way that’s not a concert.
From the outset I thought it would be a collaborative thing with a contemporary ensemble of some kind or a larger ensemble and it eventually became in a way more like a band.
How did you go about picking the musicians and figuring out the roles they’d take?
I knew Eli going years back to the Boston experimental music scene and Aaron David Ross was in Gatekeeper, which was one of my favorite bands. Kelly was someone new that I learned about through her association with Voice Coils. She’s a great keyboardist. I knew that I wanted mostly keyboard players. I didn’t really see a conventional or traditional rock setup, even though there’s a lot of sounds that are traditional, so I really wanted a bunch of keyboard players. Eli is interesting as well because he’s not really a drummer, he’s a percussionist who can drum. There was so much energy and so much intensity that comes from his non-linear approach to rhythm. It was just perfect for the songs, so everyone fit really well and I was lucky that they all happened to work well together and be available and everything else.
What specifically do they all do on stage? Kelly plays some of the more complex parts that you’ve written in the studio, which much have been challenging for a human to learn?
Everyone has to be a little bit more like a machine for this particular suite of music — although there’s openings in the set where we kind of lovingly return to just being a mess. It’s weirdly what OPN is all about: this slipperiness between trying to keep your shit together and falling apart.
Kelly is a really great pianist but in the context of our group we always like to think about it as like a biological arpeggiator. She was tasked with this extremely difficult job of taking music that was written in the piano roll impossibly – it’s not exactly Conlan Nancarrow, but it’s getting close to that level of weird erratic specificity and she takes that, interprets it, creates a score and then executes it. Her job is very difficult and she does it really well.
Aaron David Ross is almost like a surrogate for me, he makes it possible so that I’m not having to play all the pads and small parts. We do vocal harmonies together and he does all this crazy stuff with foley and sound effects which is really one of his great strengths, so there’s a lot of that going on.
Eli, similar to Kelly, spent a lot of time looking at the parts broken out from the album, studying them, figuring out what the best way to handle each idea was – is it an electronic sound, is it better to play it on kit? Everyone in the group is very good at being specific, so as strange and erratic as these little sound events are, everyone in the group is really committed to expressing those little details. That’s what makes it good.
The sculptures hanging from the ceiling look to me like giant boogers, which made me think the pubescent Garden of Delete character, Ezra. Are they meant to represent anything specific?
We’ve always wanted to have Nate’s sculptures in the shows but it wasn’t really possible until now. What we wanted to do was have these sculptures drip, very slowly, and have puddles accumulate. Everything would be timed so that by the time you get to Epoch Four, the puddle is fairly noticeable and it’s a problem. This was a huge concern at venues so we weren’t able to do that but they still exist to hang there and shift the story from one epoch to the next.
They’re each double sided and one of them characterizes the atmosphere of epoch one, Age of Ecco, and epoch four, Age of Bondage, and the other one characterises two and three, Harvest and Excess. It’s more than just surrealistic booger hanging from the ceiling. They’re the best visual way for us to get the libretto over to you, so we have the sort of poem that drives the libretto being amplified while these things are coming down, being highlighted.
What’s the significance of the dance routine during ‘Black Snow’?
We wanted to take some of the ideas from the video for ‘Black Snow’ and incorporate it into the show. The dancers seemed like the most logical way to do that. It’s also quite fun to chop things up and break up the monotony of just seeing a band on stage. [The dancers are] kind of denizens of the apocalypse, dancing at the end of time and they’re kind of keeping time. That was a thing that we liked about them in the videos: they represent this ticking away toward the end of the cycle, so they appear towards the end as a reminder of those themes. But again, a lot of it was just really fun. I was working with Emily Schubert who designed the costumes, seeing what we could come up with and I was thinking a lot about the Wild West and all of these tropes while I was recording the album.