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What's Inside Purity Ring's Interactive Light Cocoons?

By the time Canadian duo Purity Ring released their debut album Shrines, internet audiences were already obsessed with their glitchy and spellbinding futuristic pop music. The internet served as an incubator for both their songs and their fan base—Corin Roddick composed beats in Montréal and sent them to Megan James in Halifax, who then added her shimmering soprano and twisted fairytale lyrics and sent the results back to Roddick, who finalized the songs and uploaded them to Tumblr, where a rabid community of fans quickly formed. Using Tumblr as a distribution platform, listeners could download the tracks for free and disseminate them over social media, and it wasn’t long before the tracks went viral—“Obedear," their fourth song, reached 40,000 views on YouTube less than two days after it was released.

A year and a half later and Purity Ring were playing to huge crowds at SXSW, Pitchfork Festival, and Pop Montreal and went on to do a sell-out tour. For artists whose mobility on stage is limited by being tethered to electronic instruments that are still largely incomprehensible to typical audiences, translating the emotional connection of their recorded material into an engrossing live show can be a challenge. Roddick’s previous band, Gobble Gobble, dealt with this by having band members act as hype men—dressed in tutus and fairy wings (and not much else), Roddick and company ran into the crowd, dancing up a frenzy. Purity Ring, though, went for a chiller approach.

On their last tour, the duo teamed up with Vancouver-based sensory installation producers Tangible Interaction, who also designed the light-up zygotes for Arcade Fire’s Summer Into Dust performance, to create a series of light cocoons, which they explain in the video above.

We also caught up with Roddick and Tangible Interaction’s Creative Director Alex Beim to break down both the stage show and the broader idea of how to make electronic music feel organic in the interview below.

Purity Ring perform “Belispeak” at Pitchfork Music Festival 2012

Corin Roddick: Rock music is made on drums and guitars, so you can watch someone recreate it on stage on instruments. But with electronic music that’s made strictly on a laptop, you can’t really watch someone in the original environment that they created it. Or you could, but I don’t think it would be very stimulating. So you have to go above and beyond and find different means of actually creating a show.

It’s funny, with DJ culture, people aren’t looking at a DJ, they’re dancing. But when you put the DJ into a band context and it’s just a room of people staring at them, suddenly it gets super weird. Something needed to be done about it.

Setup 1. Photo by Steve Louie.

The first version was for the first few months we were playing shows. The idea was to have an instrument that could be played percussively, like with mallets, but would send signals that would connect to a synthesizer or multiple synthesizers and would make the noise I wanted but also give visual feedback. The first one we made was just a bunch of copper and brass pipes stuck together kind of in a tree all over the place. It was a good first attempt but it didn’t always work the way we wanted it to.

Setup 2. Photo credit by Joshua Brasted.

So that’s when we came up with the second version, which is the separate lanterns. When you hit one of the lanterns, there’s a touch sensor that sends a signal to the synth that tells the synth to play back the signal and it sends a signal to a lighting controller and tells the lamp to light up and glow or pulse in a certain way.

I’m not an electrician by any sense, so it was very trial and error, DIY. I knew what I wanted to do but not how to do it.

With it just being the two of us, when we get on the larger stages, there’s a lot of space to fill. I’m typically stuck behind my instruments, behind a table of electronics and things, so I don’t really have much freedom to move around and it’s up to Megan to fill this huge stage. So it’s really helpful to have something going to help it seem like more of an intimate space.

We had these ideas to expand the live show, but it was getting to a point where it was obvious that it was not something we could do on our own, so we needed to get some professionals involved who could help us turn our ideas into a non-sketchy reality. So when we started talking to Tangible Interaction, we talked for quite a while before we settled on a certain idea. And the idea was conceived of having cocoons hanging off of giant fishing poles.

We tossed around a lot of different ideas involving lasers, all sorts of moving parts, but they all funneled down into this because it was very feasible.

The big idea.

Alex Beim: They emailed us like many people do, wanting to upgrade the lighting system. We get approached by a lot of bands and we listen to music, and we figure it out. In this case, [Purity Ring was] also a Canadian band and we already knew their music and we already liked them, so it was really easy for us to say yes and get really excited about it.

Cocoons in the Tangible studio.

Megan makes her own clothes, she has a style, and we wanted to respect that style and actually bring it out. We started looking at very organic things—large bird cages, different fabrics, and we ended up creating these warm cocoons to give this really warm feeling to the show.

The mold.

The mode.

The controller.

Roddick: The best thing about this is how compact it is. All the cocoons squish into a fairly small box and all the fishing poles contract and everything sort of folds up and fits in the back of a van pretty easily.

It’s nice because pretty much every part of it expands so we can come out of a pretty small vehicle and get on stage and expand it into something that takes up most of a room.

First setup with the band.

Beim: These guys usually travel on their own, in a minivan, so you have to be able to carry it and get it up on stage in 20 minutes. We put a lot of thinking into making it totally collapsible. You can shove all of [the cocoons] into a bag—they’re made of rubber. And when you take them out of the bag, they retain their original shape. All those sticks are telescopic so you basically get to the show, set up the basics, extend the telescopic poles, hang the lights, connect it to the power supply and you’re ready to go.

System planning.

We developed an application called Cortex. Cortex generates an algorithm of lights, and this pattern is triggered by the instruments. The application runs on a computer. It connects Corin’s computer to wireless. He uses Ableton Live for his music, and we’re using something called Max for Live. We just created all these different behaviors that he can trigger from his instruments, and we can also sequence and record it and channel these triggers from his computer. We designed the software, we designed the LEDs, we designed the modules, we did absolutely everything from scratch.

Cortex at play.

It’s really organic to control. You assign all the cocoons and say, OK, I have 20 cocoons and they show up on screen and you decide what you want to control. You click each cocoon and move it in place to match the setup on stage, and everything you touch, it lights up so you know where it is. Let’s say you want all these cocoons to do these flickery effects that are controlled by Megan’s voice—you drag the behavior to the interface and Megan sings and this pattern shows up and the louder she sings the brighter the lights are.

It becomes a very creative tool for lighting—you’re not thinking, you’re just experimenting until you find a thing that you like.

Band rehearsal.

We like creating experiences so what we wanted to do was to look at what Corin and Megan were doing and make that into a complete show—create a lighting system that would respond to what they do and really make people excited and create patterns and textures that are not really seen every day. [Many electronic artists use] LED screens and things like that and they spend millions on technology. We focused more on the idea and on what people are going to feel.

The band and people are seeing it not just as cool lights. They create a set, they create an emotional connection with people, and that’s what I really love doing.

Megan James.

Tickets for Purity Ring’s spring tour go on sale today, February 15th! Find dates below, and visit their website for more information.

· 4/02/13 Ritual Nightclub—Ottawa, Ontario
· 4/03/13 Town Ballroom—Buffalo, NY
· 4/04/13 Mr. Smalls—Pittsburgh, PA
· 4/06/13 Plush—St. Louis, MO
· 4/07/13 The Granada Theatre—Lawrence, KS
· 4/08/13 Gothic Theatre—Denver, CO
· 4/10/13 Urban Lounge—Salt Lake City, UT
· 4/11/13 Beauty Bar Las Vegas—Las Vegas, NV
· 4/17/13 Bottom of the Hill—San Francisco, CA
· 4/23/13 Wonder Ballroom—Portland, OR
· 4/24/13 Neptune—Seattle, WA
· 4/25/13 Vogue Theatre—Vancouver, BC
· 4/27/13 The Republik—Calgary, AB
· The Starlite Ballroom—Edmonton, AB
· 4/30/13 Louis Pub—Saskatoon, SK
· 5/01/13 WECC—Winnipeg, MB
· 5/02/13 First Avenue—Minneapolis, MN
· 5/03/13 Metro—Chicago, IL
· 5/04/13 The Crofoot Ballroom—Pontiac, MI

@Nina Mashurova

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