Transforming Your Guitar Into a Glowing, Shape-Shifting Work of Art

Is going grander a foreign concept? Your live shows are incredibly intimate.

They are, and I want to keep them that way. “Grand” to me means instead of watching something on Netflix, you go down to your local art theater and watch something on a screen. Grand is by no means gigantic. My relationship with the audience and my ability to read the audience and see what they’re feeling has been important to me. It changes the way I play shows. I’ve had the opportunity to be in crowded rooms that are lively and loud and fun, and I’ll play that completely differently than a room where you can hear a pin drop. I am concerned that the show will have too much of a barrier between myself and the audience. We’re working on that. It’s not like you’re just watching a movie I’m playing guitar to. My visual collaborators, my lighting guys, my sound techs—everyone’s playing a piece of visual theater. We’ll be able to tell what’s working and not working and try to give the people what they want. There’s nothing wrong with that.

You’ve spoken before about how you associate color with your music. Do you identify with synesthesia, or is that putting it too clinically?

It’s funny, because I think of synesthesia as something that’s a problem that affects you and interrupts your life. But I identify with it. Every number has a color for me. The number 3 is light green and the number 4 is yellow, and that’s just the way it is. Certainly, when I made my first record, I was really upset that it had a red cover, because, obviously, in my mind, it is so clearly a blue-green record. That is not even something that can be argued, it just is. Color and texture are things that have been descriptors for music. It’s very hard to describe music, as we all know.

Had you been trying to play with visuals before in other ways in your career?

Not really. I was very against any kind of tricks. I love the very sparse stage setting. I love the very plain, simple, and elegant lighting. I was so devoted to my two hands and what they could do. So after the record Junior, that’s a rock record, that’s a whole different story for me. I thought, what am I good at? How do I do what I’m good at? How do I enjoy it? Let’s just go back to playing guitar. No tricks, no frills, no pedals. It was almost like taking on some sort of martial-arts challenge, where it’s me and the guitar, and that’s all you get. Building a show that was 90 minutes long after that was an incredible challenge because there’s nothing to hide behind. And I embraced that for a long time. Now I’m ready to do something different. But I will always love that kind of show. That’s how I learned to perform. That, to me, is the ultimate goal and challenge. If you can hold people’s attention for an hour or longer with you and the guitar and nothing else? That’s the hardest thing I’ll ever do.

When your last album, Glow, came out, you talked about being at a crossroads and having an existential crisis after putting out Junior. Did this project come out of that crossroads, or was it all worked out by that point?

It had. I really spent a long time touring prior to Glow, and then after, really getting those skills back. It’s a humbling experience to tell you the truth, after the cockiness and fun, fucking Blink-182-sounding jams that were on Junior. That record’s not my favorite. I was trying something, and some things worked, and some things didn’t. I had to remind myself that I am not the master, the guitar is. I’ll always be the student. I’ll always be learning. To think otherwise is ridiculous. So in that vein, going toward this project is just continuing to peel back the onion of the guitar and myself and what can be done. The truth is, projecting images onto a guitar just looks really pretty! We don’t have to go too deep here! It’s a beautiful form of expression for that instrument. Before I move onto my next thing, this is worthy of some serious exploration.

It sounded like you had the idea for the project before you wrote the songs.

It was a chicken-and-egg type thing. I knew I wanted to do something with visuals for the first time. I started taking meetings with various lighting and design companies. And these guys, Glowing Pictures, they were very interested in it, but they were like, “Send us some music!” And I was like, “No, you send me some design!” Who takes the step in creating something like that? The first step was to get the room, get the projectors up, and see what the guitar looked like when you shine a light on it. Once we saw that, I wrote a script. The script came first. We were really going and rolling, and out of the script came the music. It’s been a very interesting and circuitous process for me. Normally I would have these pieces of music lying around and a couple songs finished, and I would fill in the gaps. This was almost like scoring. It was like taking the idea of these images and what they would eventually look like and pulling photos off the Internet and writing to those pictures.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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