Step Inside Flying Lotus's Mind-Blowing Performance Sculpture

A rendering of Flying Lotus inside the  Layer³ performance sculpture. Image courtesy of Timeboy  

At the New York date of Flying Lotus’s 2014 tour for You’re Dead, the audience watched the opening act, Thundercat, with their eyes fixated on the giant canvas hypercube behind him. Everyone knew that this structure would be a central part of the main event that evening, but no one could guess exactly what it would do. As Thundercat mesmerized the crowd, plucking away at intricate bass patterns, the looming stage sculpture sat dormant, tallying the curiosities of everyone in the room. In a few minutes, its various faces lit up with a flurry of fractal visuals and Flying Lotus appeared as a silhouette inside it, his only discernable feature a glowing pair of aviator lenses in place of his eyes.

Flylo's aviator sunglasses glowed through the Layer³ performance sculpture. Photo by Glenjamin Han

“We’re calling it the Layer³ [pronounced LayerCubed] show right now,” David Wexler tells me at his Los Angeles studio. Under the alias Strangeloop, Wexler has produced a range of visuals for FlyLo’s Brainfeeder imprint and collaborated with fellow visualist John King, also known as Timeboy, to create a live projection setup for FlyLo’s 2012 tour. They called the first incarnation Layer 3. Wexler describes, “It’s essentially two projectors—a rear projected screen and a front projected screen. You can get a certain amount of three-dimensionality because we have a foreground projection, Flying Lotus performing in the mid-ground, and a background projection.” The team continued to employ Layer³ for live shows, beefing it up with new visual content for each performance. And for the 2014 tour, Strangeloop and Timeboy transformed the live experience from virtual 3D to actual 3D.

Layer³ stage design specs. Via Timeboy 

The stage darkened and then roared back to life with a beating synthetic kick drum that coincided with the flashes of light that revealed Flying Lotus inside Layer³. The structure’s extended panels pointed back at him like giant blinking arrows. The lights went out once more and he welcomed the crowd, “My friends, my friends. Thank you all for coming. But I regret to inform you all… You’re dead.” The set then flooded with red and blue light, commencing an explosive set that traded the reflective moments in his catalog for bass-pounding bangers accompanied by the triggered kinetic animations of Strangeloop and Timeboy.

Before the show began, visitors had no idea what to expect from the massive on-stage tesseract. Photo by Glenjamin Han

As pre-planned as every step of the show appeared, though, it all happened on the fly. “It’s all live improvisational performance,” King tells me, “So [FlyLo] may play something totally abstract that we’ve never heard before or everything might be out of order.” The seamless synchronization between music and visuals relied on Wexler and King’s responsiveness to what the performer is playing, and to each other’s instincts. King describes their connection as “almost telepathic.” After two years of building on the animation concepts for Layer 3, they’ve hit a new stride. “Now we have this huge arsenal of content to draw from,” says Wexler. “We’ve have great moments of flow and synchronicity and we’re finding new things all the time because it’s not set, it’s not time-coded.”

Image by Strangeloop

Image by Strangeloop

While Wexler takes the lead on visual content and King is the mastermind of the physical design of Layer³, both create the original animations and select the works of other animators for the show. The Terminal 5 concert opened with a barrage of floating dead bodies drawn by famed Japanese manga artist Shintaro Kago and animated by Wexler. Skrillex’s tour visualist Scott Pagano contributed visuals, as did “Kill Your Coworkers” animator Beeple, and a mysterious Russian motion fractal artist known as Unc. The various styles congealed in a cinematic experience that combined Flying Lotus’s animated music videos with plenty of new eye candy.

Flying Lotus - You're Dead! from Warp Records on Vimeo.

In an age when most major electronic musicians have elaborate stage setups and an orchestra of projectors, Wexler and King have come up with a way to differentiate their show. “ISAM put the bar way up there,” says King, referring to Amon Tobin’s astonishing geometric jungle. He and Wexler saw a preview performance of ISAM before it came out in 2011 and they agreed it was a game-changer. “Dave and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well he did that for the projection mapping show.’ He went there, and that’s as far as a projection mapped show can go, in that sense,” says King. 

Layer³ incorporated visuals from Flylo's music videos as well as the project's designers. Photo by Glenjamin Han with projected images by Strangeloop

But where the physical set of ISAM stood as the centerpiece of that show, with only momentary glimpses of the performer, Wexler and King sought to use their structure to enlarge Flying Lotus. Layer³ was a half-tesseract with FlyLo performing at the very center of the entire production. He was visible as a shadow behind the translucent scrim material of the foreground screen adapted from Layer 3. From time to time, the visuals behind him strobed, creating freeze frames of his figure reaching into the air. Each time this happened, the crowd goes wild. “From the beginning of Layer 3, we wanted the show to feel like all the imagery was emanating from FlyLo’s movement and performance and energy,” Wexler tells me, “And that the visuals wouldn’t just be a big spectacle that was behind the musician, but something that he was embedded in.”

Visuals from Flying Lotus's Layer³ performance sculpturePhoto by Glenjamin Han with visuals by Strangeloop

Around halfway through his Terminal 5 set, Flying Lotus dropped the opening notes of “Zodiac Shit,” one of his best-known beats and music videos. He screamed “I’m back in New York,” and as the second the beat hit, Layer³ exploded into the familiar shape-shifting figures of Lilfuchs, augmented with a meteor shower of white light. With every sonic detail of the track, the visuals flashed and pulsated on cue. FlyLo’s hold on the crowd was unshakable thanks to the two men keeping them enthralled. In an unseen booth, Wexler and King were melding minds over a console, shaping the next graphic combination that would set fire to whatever song Flying Lotus decided on next.

Photo by Glenjamin Han with visuals by Strangeloop

Follow Abdullah Saeed on Twitter: @imyourkid

You're Dead LP debuted in the US on October 7, 2014. For info on the album, click here

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