Karen O + Danger Mouse (photo by Eliot Lee Hazel)
Karen O + Danger Mouse (photo by Eliot Lee Hazel)

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Karen O on building an immersive experience for “An Encounter with Lux Prima”

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Published on April 23, 2019

Karen O + Danger Mouse (photo by Eliot Lee Hazel)

When Karen O, lead vocalist of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was listening to an early mix of Lux Prima, her new collaboration with Danger Mouse, she had a moment of inspiration when she knew the music was “calling out for an extraordinary presentation.”

“My husband and I were lying on our living room floor listening to an early mix of the record on our big vintage speakers,” says Karen O. “When you listen in that context, a movie starts playing in your head, takes you places. We thought, ‘Wow, what if we build an experience that further enhances all these things we feel with our eyes closed lying on the floor—an installation that evokes the elements, that stirs parts of your consciousness in ways difficult to put into words?’”

In the days ahead, Karen O began making that vision a reality by assembling an all-star crew including creative director Barnaby Clay, sound designer Ren Klyce, lighting designer Tobias Rylander, and visual artist Davy Evans among others. They began collaborating on an experience that would be even more immersive and communal than a typical concert. Working in different locations around the world, the team relied on Dropbox and Dropbox Paper to bring their ideas together and bring the project to life.

The result is “An Encounter with Lux Prima,” a marriage of light, art, music, space, design, and motion design. It’s part concert, part listening party, part laser light show. Imagine watching the stargate sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey” projected in three dimensions onto a monolith while Karen O’s voice and Danger Mouse grooves swirl around you in quadraphonic sound. That description doesn’t do justice to how mesmerizing the experience is. So we asked Karen O if she would tell us about the project’s origins, evolutions, and aspirations. Here’s what she had to say.

"Listening in the 21st century needs an overhaul because the simple act of listening to music can be a spiritual experience and a recreation unto itself."

What do you hope the audience will take away from the experience that they couldn’t at an ordinary live concert?

KO: People listen to music these days on their phone speakers or maybe a pair of headphones.  Listening in the 21st century needs an overhaul because the simple act of listening to music can be a spiritual experience and a recreation unto itself.  It was important for me to introduce the power of this kind of surround sound HiFi listening. And of course, when done in a communal context, you have the chance of being part of a happening, which makes it all the more special and in some cases, you can lose yourself further with other people around than by yourself.  

Another goal was to deep dive into the immersive possibilities. I’ve always been into the idea of bringing weather indoors, so if there is a song that makes you think of rain on an autumn's day, how awesome to bring that rain to you where you sit inside the Marciano. Nature is powerfully evocative. Think of how much it affects our moods, our emotions. So we worked with references to natural phenomena because coupled with music, which is also powerfully evocative, it's awe inspiring. 

"I’m a homebody, I like the convenience of everything being at my fingertips…until I force myself to go out to see a concert or to take a walk in the park and be around a bunch of strangers, then I feel more alive and more connected to the world around me."

Ren mentioned how getting together with friends to listen to an album is a rare shared experience now. Why do you feel it’s important to bring back that shared experience?

KO: It’s goes back to what you hear a lot these days about how we’ve never been more connected (via social media/internet) and yet more isolated. After performing live for almost 20 years, I understand the value of bringing people together for a shared cathartic experience. It’s fucking beautiful and more precious than ever. 

I’m a homebody, I like the convenience of everything being at my fingertips…until I force myself to go out to see a concert or to take a walk in the park and be around a bunch of strangers, then I feel more alive and more connected to the world around me. 

Music is one of those gifts in life that can break through our outer shells and expose and unite us emotionally. It’s been saving my life for the past 25 years at least. So whether it be going to a live show, or the opera, or listening lying on the floor of your house with someone you love, or coming to our immersive installation, we want to share it with you with an experience of togetherness.

Do you think of the event participants as collaborators who are helping shape the experience? If so, what would you say the audience contributes to the encounter?

KO: Yes, absolutely. Have you ever meditated with a group? It’s about 10 times more powerful than meditating on your own. I know I’m in new age territory here, but the energy of a collective of people focused on the intangible effects of this installation will surely impact how you feel when you walk out of there. Hopefully, the more the merrier and the bliss will be flowing.

Danger Mouse and Karen O at the private opening of "An Encounter with Lux Prima" (photo by 1point8)
Photo of Danger Mouse and Karen O at the private opening of "An Encounter with Lux Prima"

"The best way to overcome all the moments where it feels like the bottom is going to drop out is to move forward with a 'It’s gonna be awesome' attitude even when it feels completely the opposite."

What challenges did you face while creating the installation and how were you able to overcome them? 

KO: The biggest challenge was trying to explain this installation to people who had the finances to help us make it a reality (thank you, Dropbox) simply because it’s a new idea and as cool as we can make it sound there hasn’t been a precedent for it and people like to know what they are getting themselves into. We’ve asked for a leap of faith and it has been one of the hardest parts of this project and it’s truly AMAZING that we got it made in the end. 

So whether it resonates with you or not, always give props to whoever makes something “new” out there. It’s a colossal achievement to put something different than what people have experienced into the world, whether its any good or not! 

The Encounter is great by the way… The best way to overcome all the moments where it feels like the bottom is going to drop out is to move forward with a “It’s gonna be awesome” attitude even when it feels completely the opposite. I believe in all the collaborators and they seem to believe in me and that goes a long way in overcoming the challenges.

How would you describe the way your team works together? Would you say it’s a unique way of working?KO: The creative part of this has been the most natural part of the whole process. All the artists involved are phenomenal and total ballers in what they do and were itching to do an art project like this so they can flex their talents in a wild way. Unique is an understatement. Tobias Rylander the lighting artist/director was mapping out his “spherical time line” from day 1.

Barney Clay, the creative director, has been agonizing over such intricacies like incandescent moths and Japanese rakes they use to rake patterns in stone gardens. I mean, it’s trippy stuff, but we all were tuning into what the essence of this installation is, and all artists aligning beautifully with it. Davy Evan’s contribution is one of the most outstanding. He brings our Lapis to life in a way that will floor you with its ineffable beauty.  At its core, this is a listening experience and we mixed the music with Ren Klyce in deluxe quadraphonic sound with very low end bass. Don’t know what that is? You just have to hear it!

"I liked the idea of a monolith as the centerpiece of this installation. Monoliths are mysterious, ancient, imposing, and sometimes quite alien."
Photo of "Lapis" from "An Encounter with Lux Prima"

Could you tell us about the significance of “Lapis”? What does the stone symbolize? 

KO: The Lapis is both a portal for us to travel through and a canvas for us to project the depths of ourselves upon. I liked the idea of a monolith as the centerpiece of this installation. Monoliths are mysterious, ancient, imposing and sometimes quite alien. They remind of us our insignificance and impermanence. They put us in our place, humble us, and when we’re humble, we are open to all that the human experience has to offer.

In part two, we speak to Danger Mouse about his creative process in “An Encounter with Lux Prima,” and producer Mungo Maclagan about how Dropbox helped make it happen.