June 11, 2010
Michael McQuilken, of The Few Moments, created a record album. Then illustrator Ira Marcks drew a stunning 50-foot illustration designed to scroll across the screen accompanying the music. It is part short film, part liner notes and part music video, and can be viewed here. Today, contributor Cole Stryker speaks with Michael and Ira about their enchanting collaboration.
CS: Tell us a bit about the Few Moments and how you got started performing as a one-man band.
MM: I first built a one-man contraption in 2000 for a play in Seattle — it was made out of discarded metal bits left lying around the theater and a big blue water jug — all mounted to a piece of a bed frame that was screwed into a piece of medical bracing that was designed to strap onto a person’s front. So the whole thing was able to hang from my torso as I hopped around the stage. About a year later I found myself discontented with my day job at the Space Needle and decided to try playing this by now year-old contraption on the street for money. Happily, it worked pretty well. I could make $200 on a good day working only about four hours. During this time I was also learning about studio engineering, and as soon as I could, made a record with the junk contraption.
When I was able to sell records in addition to getting hat money, I could make a pretty good living. Only problem was that stomping on pavement and screaming all day takes its toll on the body. So after about two years I threw in the towel, but still played the occasional festival (which could bring in enough money to get me by for four months). Sometime in 2003 I got called in to audition as an on-stage composer/musician for a play at the Intiman theater in Seattle. By then I was playing with loopers and such and — to make a very long story short — I got the gig after playing a loop-based improv for the director on bass and kitchenware. That show got picked up by the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and I won an award after that show. I was 23 at the time. After that I was sort of a go-to guy for ensemble-sounding music performed live by one man. I was also a hell of a lot cheaper than a band.
I wore the same pair of black Chuck Taylor’s for the entirety of my street performing adventures, which took me through the US, Canada, and Europe. I taped plastic bottles filled with change to my feet, as shakers, and they were the only shoes that could withstand the constant put-on and peel-off of duct tape.
CS: Tell us about the ‘box’ and the philosophy behind it.
MM: The RIG was a way to keep a loop-based composition/performance station constantly set up and able to travel. So the instrument is the road-case and simply unfolds to be played. I figured it would also be a pretty rad performance trick to come on stage with a fairly nondescript box that instantaneously transforms into an entire band’s worth of sound. But since I got into grad school (I’m studying theater directing at Yale) within a few months after finishing the first draft of the project, I haven’t had the chance to take it out into the world yet. The idea remains that I will eventually put all of my designs online so people can copy or borrow or change ideas from the RIG to help with their own creations.
Similarly, back when I was a street performer, I would always take time to teach kids how to make a junk contraption like mine between sets. Kids were always the biggest fans. I would try to convince them how much cooler it was to make instruments out of “garbage” than it was to play video games or watch TV. I think it pissed off a lot of parents, but the kids would usually walk away totally stoked to build something. I figure it was a success if it turned their attention away from manufactured environments for a few minutes and put them into their own.
CS: And this is where Ira came in. Ira, what’s your deal?
IM: First and foremost I make comics. There was a brief point, when I went off to college, that I thought I wanted to work in interactive media, but I always found myself returning to sequential art. It’s my favorite way to tell a story. The lyrical theme of the narrative felt very mythical and epic to me. I referenced motifs from cultures that are notable for recording history through images. The “flatness” of the overall work is from that influence. The album is full of interesting textures ranging from clean, traditional instrumentation to enhanced digital effects. When new sounds appeared I would adapt the visuals too. Also, the shifts in mood throughout the album influenced the illustrations. When you really dig into a well-produced album, it’s impossible not to uncover inspiring imagery. I was pretty lucky to have been teamed up with Michael.
CS: Were there any surprises where some visual element accidentally synced really well with the music?
IM: There were no surprises. A major part of the process was in my planning of the imagery. Each 30 seconds of music is represented by 8 horizontal inches of illustration. Each drawing is a specific response to the music.
CS: How did you two meet up?
MM: To this day I have never met or spoken with Ira (whose work I find incredible and amazing and unbelievably rad, by the way). A mutual friend was starting a small label and I pitched this idea of creating a RIG-based record to him. I showed him the designs I’d made in Sketchup (an amazing free 3D modeling program that google owns now), and that seemed to convince him. At the time, he had no idea what the art of the project would be, but after I handed in a narrative record that followed the story of boy that never slept, he came up with the idea for the 50-foot long illustration. He had already begun working with Ira before telling me about the idea. Luckily (and I think he knew this would be the case) I loved the idea. I mean, who wouldn’t?
CS: What was your first reaction when you saw Ira’s visual accompaniment to your music?
MM: My mind was blown. there’s no other way to put it. The way that Ira generously added his own artistic interpretation to narrative images that had been bouncing around in my head for months was wonderful and humbling. On some level, since I have never met the guy, he remains this sort of magical giver of beauty…
CS: What’s next for you as an artist? Are you working on any new projects or do you have any live performances coming up?
MM: I’m working on my thesis production as a director at Yale. I somehow managed to convince my faculty here to let me write and compose my own final project (well, technically, the final steps of developing the script will be done with the company as a collective). It has much in the way of music (both lyrical and non) and text, so it will keep me busy through the summer in preparation for rehearsals next year. I’m also finishing a second Few Moments record… which, now that I have access to the Yale recording facilities and gear, sounds sooo much better than the first (which was cobbled together in a basement over 2 weeks with borrowed mics… a little rushed and, you might say). This upcoming record is the first part of a three-part story (the first record is the 3rd part of this story). I’m not recording this one with the RIG, but I will arrange it for live performance on the RIG eventually.
I’m also mentoring an elementary school playwright this summer. I haven’t met him/her yet, but at the end of a two-week program, i will have helped him/her to complete a ten-minute play to be performed and directed by graduate students at the Yale School of Drama.
IM: I do a weekly comics strip called WITCH KNOTS to exercise my narrative and cartooning muscles. I’m also working on a kid’s sci-fi graphic novel and producing an experimental radio drama based on my work in horror pulp; Weird Tales Magazine.