Los Angeles is a very weird place. If artist and musician Lionel Williams (aka Vinyl Williams) is anything to go by, the people that live there are even weirder. He boasts a visual aesthetic that is a fantasy of pre-Egyptian imagery immersed in a hazy vision of personalised, two-dimensional Utopias and music that is equally as dreamy and amorphous. Now, following his 2011 album release, Leminscate, there’ll be a new EP, Ultimate World, out on London-based label Warmest Chord, April 9.
Still studying and only 22-years-old, Williams has already exhibited in Berlin, jammed with the likes of Electrelane’s Verity Susman and Einstürzende Neubauten’s Jochen Arbeit and toured South East Asia with US chillwaver Toro Y Moi. And that’s not even the half of it. He has a grandfather in cinema score giant John Williams, responsible for the soundtracks to Star Wars, E.T. and Indiana Jones, and a father in Air Supply and Live touring drummer Mark Williams. There’s also his home in California, the upbringing in Utah and a severe aversion to the Mormon faith as a result. Being Jewish on his mother’s side didn’t help.
Plus, you have a traumatic first gig in front of thousands of people at age nine, a serious fondness for metaphysics and an irrepressible urge to expound on it. Needless to say, Williams, his work and most importantly his conversation are equal parts interesting, outrageous and at times downright exhausting.
aqnb: Can you put yourself into context? Why are you the way you are? You said you’ve had some really weird experiences.
LW: Fuck yeah, I have. One of the largest, most defining experiences I’ve had, which was drawn out over the course of ten years, was living in Utah. Do you know much about Utah?
aqnb: I know that it’s Mormon.
LW: That’s correct and I’m Jewish. I grew up in Los Angeles from zero to eight [years-old]. I was going to a pretty rigorous, religious Jewish school, always knowing there was something wrong about it and that was fine, my parents are pretty reformed, so that was cool, it’s no big deal. But I moved to Utah when I was eight years old and, from the ages of eight to 18, it was on of the most horrendous, abusive experiences possible and it was all driven by the religious dissonance that’s there. It’s literally an actual pressure that you can feel; the air is thick.
aqnb: In what sense?
LW: It’s very suburban and it’s very weird. The little tiny sects, they’re just like the sects of Christianity and they can get very occult and very scary. The little village that I lived in was a Swiss Mormon community. There was no separation between Church and State. I remember being in elementary school and having to pray and I didn’t even know who Jesus Christ was. I’d never heard that name before I got there. So I was treated like shit for years for being technically Jewish and that really created my entire art practice, or at least was the root, or the source of it. Because of the religious dissonance, it made me want to create the opposite, which is religious harmony, or cultural harmony.
aqnb: Why were you in Utah?
LW: You know the band Air Supply? Yeah, my dad was the drummer of that band, which is shitty. They’re like the shittiest romantic 80s band ever but they live in Utah. I don’t know why the fuck they live in Utah, they’re actually English. No, one of the dudes is from Sydney. One’s Australian, one’s British but they all live in Utah for some reason. It makes no sense to me but he was the drummer and we had to move there. We ended up living In this tiny little village, this weird cult little neighbourhood and that’s what started it. It’s very weird.
aqnb: Because your dad’s a session drummer, right?
LW: He’s mainly a studio drummer but he toured with Live for like ten years, which is hilarious.
aqnb: Then how did Air Supply deal with the weirdness of Utah?
LW: Well, they have a lot of money, so it doesn’t really matter to them. They basically own their own city. They own their own village in Utah and they just live there and don’t really have to deal with it.
I remember one of my first show experiences ever was actually performing in front of an audience, playing keyboards with Air Supply when I was nine years old, on one song. They wanted to give me that chance, to see if I could actually pull off a keyboard part in front of thousands of people and that literally traumatised me.
It was in Utah and I was still in that really vulnerable state because it was just a year after I got there. All the people back stage were giving me these weird vibes and, I don’t know whether it was me being on acid as a child or I had this heightened awareness, but I almost had this sense, especially on that night, of this really uncomfortable feeling that everyone involved, the stage managers and the audience, feeling that I shouldn’t be there.
The show itself was a great. I thought it was this great accomplishment. But, performing in front of a few thousand people, I never thought I’d be doing that again. It’s actually the last thing I ever wanted to do. [laughs]
aqnb: You seem pretty spiritual, which you’ve said is opposed to the “strip mall” vibe of where you’re living at CalArts. Are you trying to achieve something in your work that LA can’t offer?
LW: There’s definitely not the idea of ‘the future of LA’ in my work because I could really care less. I feel like LA is on a downward spiral and eventually it’s going to be this weird lost city. It’s just not efficient enough to remain itself for long enough. So it’s really not about LA but it is about how the human brain has sort of degenerated, or not degenerated but become too locked within a certain spectrum of human intelligence.
I feel like the human brain has become a little more imbalanced to the rational side and this is global. It’s not just the United States but the United States is definitely an emblem of rational thought, which makes more uncomfortable about being here. I don’t know if there’s much of an arrival or a goal of my work but, if you had to label it, I guess it would have something to do with rebalancing the spectrum a little bit and providing more of an imbalanced, intuitive, part, or counterpart. Because that’s what I am. I’m not much a rational personal at all.
aqnb: When you say that we’re imbalanced towards rational thought is that why you’re so interested in the so-called spiritual sciences?
LW: Yeah. That’s an oxymoronic term but I think that paradoxical statements are an incredible way of expressing something beyond language, in a way. There are these new sciences that are not really new but revitalizations of old technologies. They really interest me because the language of these sciences is about essentials. They’re about what’s underlying this surface-level world.
The surface-level world is the most rational world because it’s just within our sensory experience but there are other worlds that are being brought in with these new spiritual sciences and I’m not even talking about other dimensions. I’m talking about any vibration and current that’s slightly or far outside our spectrum of experience.
aqnb: I guess science itself is still a theory. It’s a very functional one but it’s almost a belief system in the same way that magic and religion can be.
LW: Exactly. And the reason I don’t gel with that belief system is because it’s so fucking quantitative. It’s based on results and repetition and it doesn’t necessarily enquire into all of the aspects around an object, or a function, or a force because it only includes aspects that are within our sensory experience, again. That’s very narrow, and I’m realising that more and more. There are these aspects of sound and light, basically the inter-relativity of our senses, that produce a more vast vision, or a more vast sensory experience that go beyond this really tiny, narrow pocket that we fell in to with humanity.
aqnb: I suppose that’s why you focus your energy on visual art and music?
LW: Yeah. Especially improvisation because that’s a direct conduit towards using intuition as an impetus, or a driving force and in a collaborative sense that actually creates this friction. That’s the only way that I can explain how you arrive at these natural climaxes, these crests and curves, that happen and are not based on decisions but they happen instantaneously and they happen harmoniously. It even happens with people who have never met each other, in situations that are purely spontaneous. I just think that’s weirdly revealing.
aqnb: That reminds me of eastern ideas of Enlightenment. Where you try to detach yourself from the past and the future and put yourself solely in the present, which is very difficult to do.
LW: It’s extremely difficult to do but, especially in my visual work, I try to emulate this quality of simultaneity. You can think about it in a tangible sense or you could think about it in an intangible sense, like time, where past, present and future are actually happening simultaneously in a moment.
When you are truly enveloped by a moment it’s one of the scariest and one of the most beautiful experiences ever because you’re experiencing all of the suffering and all of the optimism of the world at the same time. It’s a very weird feeling but, if you can really sink into the moment, it’s one of the most amazing feelings.
aqnb: If the simultaneity of improvisation is so important to you, then how do you feel about having your music contained to a recording?
LW: I personally love fiddling with recordings and I love manipulating and degenerating recordings. Turning it lo-fi and then making it digital again, then analogue, then digital, then analogue; to have this rigorous cyclic process, to where it gets further from its rooted melodic structure. I love the process and I love listening to how recordings shape themselves and how it starts to naturally change.
I don’ think I could ever get away from that process and I think having it contained is a little inauthentic, obviously, compared to a live experience, where you can actually feel presences. That’s a huge thing that’s lost in the new age –an actual human presence and I feel like in a few generations that won’t even exist anymore, which is a little scary. But I want to retain that presence in the recording, which is important to how it degenerates or it loses its fidelity. If you listen to them they sound pretty shitty and it’s just because of the process of creation.
aqnb: Your entire upbringing feels like a pretty weird environment and you’re full of contradictions.
LW: I am. I think a contradiction is the only way of arriving at a real idea, which is weird. There are so many paradoxes that have occurred to me in the past year and the only meaning I can extract from them is that, they just exist. I don’t know whether that’s meaning but there’s this intelligence that I’ve gained out of these paradoxes.
Vinyl Williams’ 4-track EP Ultimate World is out on Warmest Chord April 9