Meet Max Weisel: The 20-Year-Old Behind Björk's Interactive Live Set-up
Four years ago, Max Weisel was a precocious 16-year-old who spent his free time trying to figure out how to hack and make apps for the original iPhone (this was before the app store, before the jailbreak, back when the iPhone was still an inscrutable, perfect device handed down from on high by Steve Jobs and his team of developer-wizards at Apple). So when the iPad came out two years later, Weisel knew he wanted to be one of the first to release an app for it. “At the time, nobody really knew what iPads were for, they hadn’t made that section of the market yet,” he says. “So I made this app with lines and dots that I can play around with to say I got something in the app store and it kind of caught on and became pretty big.”
Tonight, Weisel will make his debut on The Colbert Report as the newest touring member of Björk’s band. That app he hacked together back in 2009, called Soundrop, caught the Icelandic songstresses’ attention when she was working on developing her Biophilia app-album. She ended up tapping the then 18-year-old Weisel to develop three of the album’s 10 apps and serve as musical director. Not a bad gig for a college freshman.
Now, Weisel, who has since dropped out of school and moved out to San Francisco to start a business with a couple of friends, has put his blossoming career as a developer on hold to tour the world with Björk. He’s developed an interactive performance component using a rig of iPads that control several of the custom-made instruments Björk had commissioned for the Biophilia album, and will be performing with them live for the first time tonight. We caught up with him over Skype to find out more about the innovative set-up and what it’s like collaborating with Björk.
The Creators Project: You’re having your first ever live performance with Björk tonight on The Colbert Report. What are you going to be doing?
Max Weisel: You know how every electronic artist has that cliché laptop guy up on the stage? You don’t know what he’s doing, he could be checking his email for all you know. So [Björk] wants me to basically replace that laptop session with a set of iPads that play the same thing, except it’s a much more organic and visual interface. The audience can connect what they see to what they hear and that’s basically what I’ll be doing on tour.
Weisel’s “Moon” app
That sounds really interesting. Can you describe the set-up a bit?
Well we’ve got like nine iPads and I built this set of apps that links them together so they act like a giant touchscreen. You can take parts of the screen and rearrange them and it just adapts. Basically, every song is a different setup on the iPad, so I can rearrange them, go through a little quick setup and then start playing the song. The iPads control various instruments on stage, like this mini harpsichord and gamelestes and things like that. One of my favorites is this tesla coil we have. So it’s basically this rig that’s configured to play all sorts of different apps and is meant to be this touchscreen instrument that we reshape for every song.
Are you using the same apps one would find in the Biophilia app that accompanies the album? Or are these custom built?
A few of them are [from the Biophilia app]. Unfortunately, some of the apps that you can download don’t really fit for the live performance—for instance, some of the ones that aren’t as interactive, like “Hollow,” which is a video that plays throughout the song. I believe we’re playing the same video on the screens above the stage. On the apps, the videos [that coincide with the Biophilia apps] are shown above the stage, but some of them are much harder to adapt to live performance, so most of it is pretty custom, especially because a lot of the live songs aren’t from the newest album.
What was the process like of working collaboratively with Björk?
It was like nothing else. She has this ability to sort of inject her ideas into your mind with a few simple words. I totally envy it. I’m not very good at communicating and it’s interesting ‘cause I think that a lot of people would assume that she tries really hard, sort of like Lady Gaga or someone, to make these really “out there” concepts. But with [Björk] it’s really refreshing ‘cause her goal isn’t to be out there or to be different, but rather to do something new and still have a purpose. Her reasoning isn’t to just be different—she’s very passionate about the concepts and genuinely interested in all these ideas. Whenever I’m talking to her, she really knows what she’s talking about and has done a bunch of research. I think that’s why she is so good at explaining her ideas for different concepts.
So what was your take away on the overarching concept and vision that were driving this project?
For the apps that I did, I was under the impression we wanted to make custom instruments that were really engaging and interactive, but also open-ended. I didn’t want to make an interactive music video where you see the same thing over and over again, it was meant to be something where a user can take this and keep going with it and make their own music. So the idea was to make these instruments that are intuitive and also work with the song and aren’t too limited.
It’s true, playing the apps I was really surprised by the level of sophistication and complexity. I almost felt unqualified to play them to their full potential. It seems that there is so much you can do, so much richness, that I feel like I’m not even capable of taking advantage of the possibilities of these instruments.
I think one thing we were shooting for is keeping the interface intuitive enough that anybody can enjoy it. Even if you don’t feel like you’re enjoying it to the full potential, it’s definitely something you can use. Whereas the average person can open up a popular desktop music program like Ableton and not know where to begin because it’s not meant to be intuitive, it’s meant to be really technical and feature-focused. There’s definitely a lot of depth to a lot of the different instruments that we made and I’m pretty proud of it.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: your age. You just turned 20 years old. How do people react when they find our how old you are? Obviously you’ve been getting tons of press heralding you as a boy genius and the like.
Which is funny cause before I had this reputation, it almost had the opposite effect. People would go, “Well, you’re not even 20 years old. What do you know? You probably don’t know what you’re talking about.” That wasn’t an experience I had with Bjork but it was an experience I was afraid of having. And so the first six months of collaboration, I didn’t let anybody know how old I was, nobody even saw a picture of me. I tried to keep from doing any Skype calls that had video. Eventually she proposed we meet in Iceland and collaborate and hammer out all the concepts for the app. It was cool, we all got dinner together the first night and I think everybody was kind of surprised that I was there, kind of curious who I was. I probably came off as somebody’s son on vacation. But it was really nice, they really embraced it after they saw the work that I produced on the project.