Interview With General Chaos Visuals – ‘Luminations’ Premiere

Photo by Jamie Todd

General Chaos have been performing their unique, hand-painted live visual projections at concerts and events in Toronto for over ten years. If you’ve ever been to shows at Wavelength or the Ambient Ping, chances are you’ve seen Steven Lindsey (below left) and Eric Siegerman (below right) flickering fingers or other flotsam over their projectors’ beams. As if the stage were covered in a huge psychedelic painting, this time it’s one that is alive and changing throughout the show. The defining aspect of these ‘translucent light paintings’ is Lindsey’s hand-painted transparent discs, rotating in front of projectors and casting their coruscations upon the stage.

All those years performing live for countless bands and honing their art has culminated in the production of the film Luminations, a collaboration between Lindsey and ambient artist Jamie Todd, aka URM. Luminations is an epic hour-long examination of (literally) the interplay between sound and light. Unfolding over six segments (the music performed in real-time), Luminations reveals itself to be a beautiful and complex film, cosmic in scale yet organic and minutely detailed up close. It’s not hard to lose yourself after a few minutes. As the music builds you find yourself wondering where one layer ends and the next begins.

Luminations will be shown at the final night gala presentation of the 2011 Images Festival on Saturday, April 9. To celebrate its release, I tracked down General Chaos to try and get the low down on how they get down.

V: What’s the history of General Chaos? You’ve mentioned on your website a “seemingly fated bunch of equipment”. What is this mysterious story?

GC: Eric and I both met at a nicely way-out-there Hawkwind festival in New York State in ’97. It was also there that we met Liquid Louise, who had handled the Canadian ticket sales, and who was doing visuals together with Wizard Stu, the organic pyro wizard. She used to do visuals with Change of Heart here in Toronto with Jim Lasko who was running the festival but who was totally into visuals too. That was my first lesson that visuals weren’t done by industry pros but by hardcore artists that cobbled together equipment from what they could find and afford. It was maybe a year later that my company at the time had a big warehouse sale, for employees first. Someone told me there was a bunch of slide projectors, otherwise I might not have bothered at all. So when I saw that they were like, $10 I figured I’d call Louise and see if she wanted more slide projectors. So when she freaked out when I mentioned how cheap they were, I started to think that maybe I had a very much one-off opportunity to try my hand at visuals. So I filled my car with as many slide projectors and stands and controllers as it would fit, all for the princely sum of $200. The slide projectors were from the boardroom, and were starting to be made obsolete by such things as ‘PowerPoint’ and laptops in general, so they had like 16 projectors for sale. That was the start of my lucky run in salvaging gear that was becoming obsolete in the corporate world. I snagged another big load from a Bell Canada sell off; I still have more 16mm projectors than I’ve ever really managed to use, but at $10 a pop who cares really.
I did one show before I realized that this was more gear than one human being could possibly handle, (back then it was all slide projectors and overhead projectors plus the ‘core’, a web of cables and slide controllers). So I thought that perhaps Eric might be interested, (having hauled him along to the first show haha!) Hawkwind were very much my inspiration for doing visuals, and I hoped he’d share the interest. Luckily for me he did and we were off!!!!

V:. Did you earn your name or decide on it?

GC: So our name comes from Brad Ketchen (Hollowphonic, In Support of Living), the second band we worked with, after a band called Saucer. I showed Brad the footage from a Saucer show, and he commented as to how he liked a sequence at the end where I had a lot of very fast alternating slides, he referred to it as descending into general chaos. So I liked that, and I always liked the story of how Keith Moon referred to an early as yet unnamed Led Zep gig as ‘going down like a Led Zeppelin’ and thus naming the band unintentionally. So as we were still tossing around names, that was it. Cosmic inspiration from an external viewpoint !!!

It wasn’t until later that a certain Doc Pickles started to call me General Chaos as a title or nickname. Until then it was just general chaos visuals, general chaos as in chaos everywhere, not a rank. Everyone at Wavelength had a nickname or stage name then (Doc, Jonny Dovercourt, etc), so as I couldn’t think of one, I suddenly became a General. Eric and I were doing a lot of other shows together, particularly Ambient Ping shows, but Wavelength was more my thing as I liked the eclectic thing, which was a real challenge to try and come up with ways of lighting and choosing visuals for.

V: You’ve been a stalwart of the music scene in Toronto for a long time, having worked with Wavelength from the beginning as well as being very involved with The Ambient Ping. Anything pique your interest or ire these days? What’s your thoughts on Toronto and it’s various artistic energies?

GC: Yes it’s strange, really lucky for us as to our timing. Wavelength and the Ambient Ping both started the same year, and both just celebrated their tenth anniversary this past year, and this will also be the tenth year of the Sadies at the Horsehoe, I think? That’s another Toronto landmark that somehow I was lucky enough to get involved with at ground zero. I’m real happy with the series of shows we’ve been doing with the Hoa Hoas, there’s a real energy and excitement about the shows. Good crowds. It’s the first time I’ve thought that there was a burgeoning psych-rock scene wide and popular enough to break through for many a year (think Do Make Say Think circa 2002-ish).

V: Explain your method of projections. Do you create the paintings yourself? Do you create new paintings often or have anything specific in mind when you create them?

GC: I paint my gels or transparencies with paint designed for glassware. As far as I know this is something I’ve figured out myself. I experiment a lot and over the years I’ve amassed a bunch of techniques I like to use as a base to build yet more new stuff from. It’s interesting to paint at a macroscopic level, where everything is going to end up 50 times bigger, behind someone’s head.

Another fundamental part of our technique is overlapping projections from multiple projectors at different angles and distances. I love to be able to capture silhouettes from musicians, but yet have the silhouette filled in from another projector at a different angle. Ultimately the multi overlay approach came from necessity. The old projectors can’t light a whole stage on their own, so we have to use multiples, and from there it’s a case of making it an artform haha…

V: You remain staunchly analogue, yet your interactive element is something that predates the newest in technologies. You’re never resting on your laurels during the shows so you obviously take it seriously. What are your thoughts on interactivity, technology and the future of live shows?

GC: Good question. I love the interactive nature. I think you have to get the projections right first, though, before you start thinking about doing fades and pulses and beam interruption stuff. It took us a while over the first few years to get the confidence to really jam with the musicians. Laptop controlled video is good, but less than optimal IMHO. Also I worry that the death of the analog projector (well perhaps someone will come up with an equivalent), where you can put things right in the focal plane and fuck around with it in all kinds of interesting optical ways, is a limiting factor for the live visualists to come. One of my best discoveries was finding out how to trigger my slide projectors with a jack hammer response time for interesting drum play alongs. Definitely not what that electrical connection was meant for, but if you experiment great things can come.

V: Do you work in video or any other visual mediums?

GC: I’ve created a video of treated projections as a soundtrack to a piece by Jamie Todd, from the Ambient Ping, under his URM moniker. It was an interesting extension, I filmed the visuals on a white wall, and used distinctly different styles for the six pieces. I was able to do things in the editing process that I can’t do live, and I’m real happy with the results. Now we have to finish it and let people see it, we’ll probably do a show or so around it too…..

I do paint and draw some, but somehow my projection art is what I’m most proud of for sure.

V: You’ve worked with so many bands! What are some of the memorable shows you’ve done?

GC: Oh gawd, ermm six or seven hundred shows, so many bands… I’m sure for both Eric and me actually doing Hawkwind shows was the ultimate in terms of our inspiration, the Flowers Of Hell show, when they opened for My Bloody Valentine at the Koolhaus (‘Yeh sure mate, Kevin says you can use their backdrop…’). The courtyard show last year at the Music Gallery, every one of the many of the Wavelength anniversary shows of course, Blue Cheer on their 40th anniversary tour, Dicky RIP, The Legendary Pink Dots when Lee’s Palace had a bit more open space, some great spectacles we helped with such as at the Om Festival, wild Elevator shows where Rick White would sometimes turn around and jam with the lights, an interesting turnaround, Oneida with Kid Million drumming insanely with visuals going every which way over his ermm sweaty torso, likewise The Hidden Cameras with dancers with colors going every which way all over them. Lighting a gothic book reading for Luminato was a different challenge! The Space Is The Place Festival, where we managed to get people to watch a light show on the ceiling…….
I’ll always remember the first Julie Doiron show at Wavelength though. I think It was the first time in the very early days that I showed I could be, well, understated, as well as colors all over the place…everyone was ‘wow that was amazing..’ and I’m like ‘I hardly did anything’,  but from then on I was definitely ‘da man’ and ten amazing years later here we are…

V: Having done Wavelength from the beginning (ten years!) without hardly ever missing a night is in itself a monumental feat! How do you keep up the energy for all those nights? What inspires you?

GC: Oh that’s easy. Wavelength was (and will always be I’m sure) an excellent excursion for the musically inclined, there might have been one or two bad ones in the 450 or so I was at, but not more. It was always the highlight of the week for me, kudos of course to Jonny and the other bookers, for finding and booking the diamonds. I never once worried about the quality of the acts or the bands, it was amazing to see how much talent there actually was out there, and to benefit from people who were in tune with the new music that was being created out there, and had a night to book them into. I love music, fresh good music, quality music. Interesting ideas that people have devoted time to, because they think someone, somewhere might want to hear it.

V: What’s up next for General Chaos?

GC: There’s my film project Luminations that I’ve mentioned. If that goes well I can see doing more filming work to produce videos. We’ve had a couple of requests in that area, but haven’t had the time to get to it. I’d love to do a big projection display during Luminato or Nuit Blanche, but I’ve never really got around to organizing it. If someone has an idea that might involve us I’m all ears!!

Wavelength and the Ambient Ping both continue, if a little less frequently. We’re still doing other bands and gigs as requests come up. I had thought about whether I might one day get involved in a new weekly series. I’ve also thought about organizing my own series of psych concerts ‘An Evening in Space With General Chaos’. One way or another we’re going to continue finding great music to light up. I think my motto from the early days was, “Theres only one thing better than seeing a great band live, and that’s seeing a great band with great visuals live.” Still applies!!

Luminations plays the closing gala at the Images Festival on Saturday, April 9th. Go to http://www.imagesfestival.com/index.php for more details.

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