Still from Dillinger Escape Plan "Panasonic Youth" music video

"Josh Graham on a Sun That Never Set" NYArts Magazine (September/October 2004) Vol.9 N.9/10.

            It was because of the blackout last year that I was introduced to the work of video director Josh Graham. After the "party in the dark" rebellion of that hot August weekend some friends of mine and I settled in my basement with a fan and some DVD's we'd rented from Kims. My apartment being among the first to have electricity it seemed the most logical choice.
            We threw in the Neurosis DVD for their "A Sun That Never Sets" album and were blown away. Well at least I was. My female companions were frightened by the imagery and turned off by the gutteral death metal vocals blaring from my TV's speakers. To me this was amazing though. Here were visual textures and sequences of film so gritty, dark and sophisticated they elevated what I heard to a new level.
            I hadn't seen such a refined treatment of the much marginalized genre of metal ever. It affected me more than most of what I'd seen in the galleries that season and got me thinking. What influence does fine art have on video directors like Josh Graham? And what is the interplay between the fields of commercial music video and fine art video as we know it today? I tracked down Josh and asked him these questions and a bit more. Check it out:

Aaron Zimmerman: The Neurosis "A Sun that Never Sets" DVD was the first work of yours I ever saw. I was taken by how well it submerged the music in layers of atmosphere as well as the way you used the elements, the earth and the body to speak to what I was hearing. I saw in the liner notes that you were Neurosis' "visual artist". How did that come about? And, if you could, articulate the process of arriving at what I saw on "A Sun That Never Sets." What kind of dialogue do you have with the band? etc....

Josh Graham: In 1999, I contacted Neurosis via email, just saying I would be interested in doing some motion graphics work if they had any projects it would work on. We had conversations about working together at some point in the future, though no specific project had really been discussed. Then, in 2000, Steve Von Till asked if I was interested in possibly putting together some visuals for a one- off show in San Francisco, for the release of the Sovereign EP. I agreed, and started to work on some visuals. Two weeks before the show, Pete Inc. (Neurosis' projectionist for around 7 years I believe), was forced to quit do to some personal circumstances. I frantically tried to prepare enough material for that show, closing in on two hours of material. Somehow it worked out, and everything was finished in time. The show went very smoothly, and the new visuals were very well received, and people were genuinely excited to see the new perspective.
            The DVD came together over a very long period of time. Steve and I had many discussions on different ways to approach the project. We settled the idea of very abstract images of landscapes mixed with psychedelic light patterns, etc. I started shooting footage August of 2000, in places ranging from Death Valley, to parts of Europe (while on vacation).
            There was never a very clear visualization of what the end result of the DVD would be; the final product basically developed in stages. In accordance with the lyrics, we knew that the visuals would originate from the elements of nature. After the majority of the background footage was accumulated, I put together some rough segments to get a feel for how things were developing.
            At this point, I made the decision to integrate actors into the scenes. The human integration was a very hard thing to accomplish, because we wanted it to remain timeless, making sure that any element was not linked to a current style or surrounding. The answer to the question of how this would be done; was to break down the base ideal of the Human Condition and how these anonymous characters would relate to the elements of their surroundings. We made the decision to portray these events in a very non-linear method, leaving it open to personal interpretation.
            There is no explanation or reason for why these characters exist, or where they are, only that it is happening or this instance of time. All of the themes do, however, relate to the lyrical and musical content of the songs. For example, in The Tide, which is very blue in color, we see a figure who may or may not be drowning in the ocean, but we are aware that there is a struggle to survive going on in some context; From the Hill, a rusted orange tone, features a character, or apparition who is born out of the earth wandering the deserts, almost like our Neanderthal ancestors, and Stones from the Sky, also blue, features the crow, searching for the unknown, seeing for his blind master.

AZ: Would I be wrong in saying there was a reach for something archetypal with Neurosis? Describe the difference between that and what we see in the Bee and Flower video.

JG: Archetypal...within what regard? Their music in general, or this project? I guess with either it would be yes to a certain extent. The use of symbols have always been present in Neurosis, as well as kind of taking that archetypal ideal of the unconscious reacting to a collective past.
            Bee and Flower is very different from any of the Neurosis ideals or imagery. This piece relates to the lyrical context of the song, as well as the to the overall mood of the band. I simply wrote a story I wanted to tell, one that would compliment the music and the band itself, as well as further my work as a narrative director.

AZ: Do you prefer working with a narrative structure?

JG: It really depends on what the project is. I appreciate both methods, and really concentrate on paying attention to what method will fit each piece best.

AZ: What fine artists (of any media) influence you?

JG: There's a ton, ones that come to mind immediately are Bill Viola, Gerhart Richter, Nam June Paik, James Turrell, Tadanori Yokoo, Mariko Mori, Dali, Eugene Atget, the decadence of Matthew Barney is pretty amazing, Eva Castringius, John Currin, and I'd have to say my friend, Todd West's work is pretty influencial at times.
            Todd did 6'x12' paintings on acetate that we used to shoot the band through on Falling Unknown, and on the interlude just before "Stones from the Sky" (toddwest.com).

AZ: Nice plug! That's great. I really liked the sheer "heavy metalness" of those screens. How do those artists influence what you do with musicians and commercial projects?

JG: Ha ha, oh yeah, shit, how can I forget, Nicole Boitos, (another plug, yes...Ha Ha nicoleboitos.com). Her work is amazing, she actually did a lot of work on Bee and Flower, she illustrated the little sequence in the video, as well as drawing the horse, and designing the bee/deer thing.
            Bill Viola has been a big influence, especially his Five Angels for the Millennium series, there seems to be a bit of similarity between that series and some of my owrk on the DVD, but it's funny, I hadn't heard of him until maybe a year ago. Actually his sound design in that installation influenced some of the sounds in my band, red sparowes (me + members of Isis... redsparowes.com)... hopefully I'll get to do a video for our band...
            I think as a whole, these artists an fine art in general really influence me in the way I approach music videos in most aspects.
            I really cannot stand most of what music videos have to offer today (Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry are still great however.) Everything is so based in current trends that it really ends up repeating itself over and over. I think that while the Enon video turned out to be a great piece, it may also be a bit more based in current design trends that I would ultimately like to be in; and the Uppercut video, was really a bastardized version of that, requested and manipulated by the artist and agency who hired me to do it...what a nightmare that project was!!
            Fine art helps me look at things in a different way, it keeps me grounded while I am trying to keep each piece unique in some way, tailored for the artist. I can look at these still images and get inspired to create a living, breathing world. the light that Atget captured in his dark photographs of Paris, really influenced a quality of the environments of Bee and Flower.

AZ: Nice. I knew you had a band but I didn't know it was with members of ISIS. You told me before this started that you were working on a video project for them. Tell me about that.

JG: Yeah I'm really getting into the idea of this video, it is going to be 100% live action, more along the lines of the Neurosis stuff in that way, but the equipment used will be 1000% better. It should look a bit like the Dillinger Escape Plan video in the quality of light, but less saturated, almost black and white. It will be around 8 or 9 minutes long, and is the last step before I do something more film based, whether that be elements of an installation piece or an actual short film. As far as the video, I can't give out the the story as of yet, we want to keep it under wraps, but its about a figure who is being watched slowly becoming, transforming into one of the Watchers. We're shooting in August in Los Angeles I believe.

AZ: Yea funding's a bitch. So this will be like a music video installation based on the performance once it's done?

JG: I think it will be more like a short film, pretty abstract though, probably not a linear story , but a sequence of events that are related somehow. The exact meaning will be left to the viewer. The band element will kind of just work as the score to the piece, although it will work on it's own as well.

AZ: Thanks Josh.

Josh Graham's work can be seen at suspendedinlight.com.

The Neurosis "A Sun That Never Sets" DVD can be purchased at neurotrecordings.com.

Images courtesy of the artist.