Max Pearl explains how this US artist's high-def synth pop sound perfectly suits our technological age.
WeTransfer supports Breaking Through. Download two exclusive tracks from Motion Graphics's self-titled album.
Imagine the opposite of bedroom recording quality. That's the simplest way to describe Joe Williams' music. Every element of Motion Graphics, the debut album from his project of the same name, sounds like it's encased in flawless glass. He wrote many of the melodies using hyper-real symphonic software—clarinets and marimbas arranged in superhuman pirouettes. They're layered with crystal synths that ping and trill like notification alerts. Add to that his understated voice and a foundation of frenetic drums and you've got an uncanny pop hybrid of human and computer music.
It's tough to make heads or tails of the album, even after repeated listens, because it's both eerily familiar and totally otherworldly. "I wanted to make a synth pop record without any nostalgia," Williams told me while spooning a bowl of red borscht in a Polish diner in Williamsburg. "Beyond that there was no nitty-gritty concept there. It wasn't until afterwards that I looked back and realized, oh, that sounds like the ringtone from an iPhone." Motion Graphics captures the sense of freedom that technology can offer—a frictionless world of unbounded access and mobility. 40 years after Kraftwerk longed for a Trans-Europe Express, Joe Williams dreams of a different kind of high-speed travel.
"The computer is liberating," Williams said with wide eyes. On the video for "Houzzfunction" you can see what he means. It's a 360-degree experience that invites users to explore a cluttered galaxy of neon objects. There's a parallel between the video's twitching, three-dimensional polygons and Williams' post-human software instruments: they both have a life of their own. "Now you can just set up an environment where the software writes the music for you," he said. "Like with those sped-up arpeggios or the LFOs I use to make oblique MIDI patterns." Williams, like a millennial John Cage, welcomes random data into his compositions, letting algorithms take control.
You may already know Joe Williams from his last album, though it came out a decade ago. The way he talks about it, you'd think it was someone else's life. "I can't bridge the two, so I don't know how anyone else could," he laughed. Recorded under the name White Williams, Smoke is a charismatic art pop record that laces glam guitars and hook-y lyrics with quirky digital flourishes. Like Motion Graphics, it was an intensely DIY project. He recorded and tracked everything himself, but where Smoke sounds low-budget, Motion Graphics rivals the most expensive sound design on the market.
"Even when Smoke came out I was already going elsewhere," he said. "And for that to be my most visible thing is sometimes a little awkward for me. It just feels like I used to do one thing, and now I do this other thing."
It all began for Williams in 1998, when he was a 15-year-old drummer for a noisy hardcore band in Cleveland, Ohio. The experimental scene in Ohio was modest, so a few different subcultures rubbed shoulders along the circuit of dingy venues. "Breakcore was big," Williams reflected. "It made sense in the Midwest, which always had this dark, kind of punk outlook."
He began leaning towards computer music a few years later, inspired by the mischievous chaos of golden era IDM—producers like Venetian Snares, Kid606 and μ-Ziq. Along with UK outfits like Rephlex and Planet Mu, he became fascinated with Kid606's anything-goes label Tigerbeat6. "I started off making straight-up computer music, but Tigerbeat released records that had vocals on it too, and that got me thinking." A string of glitchy chiptune tracks released under the name So Red landed Williams opening duties on tour with a little-known Pittsburgh act called Girl Talk—this was in 2002 and 2003, a few years before Night Ripper turned the mash-up artist into a college radio superstar.
"I started lurking on forums, trying to teach myself about recording voice and guitars," Williams said. "That's what Smoke was—me just figuring out how to do vocal music." He was 19 when he wrote the album and still busy with school in Ohio. It was intended as more of a personal exercise than a public statement. "It was just something I'd mess around with," he told me. "I never even thought it would get released." When Kid606 called, asking to put out the album on Tigerbeat6, Williams was as surprised as anyone.
How did he get from fuzzy electro-glam to serene pop? "I never stopped making music," Williams said. "But it wasn't until I started collaborating that I got into a more productive headspace." A few years after Smoke, he began working with the Baltimore-based producer Matt Papich, AKA Co La, co-producing two of his albums—Moody Coup in 2013 and No No last year. Williams brought technical wizardry to the table, designing software instruments from the ground up using the programming language MaxMSP. "He's a scientist," Papich told Decoder Magazine last year. "Instead of writing a song and using whatever synths are available, he makes a sound that's between a xylophone and a guitar, and then writes a song for it."
Papich recruited Williams for a new collective called Lifted, which also included Future Times label boss Max D. They released an album of digital psychedelia for the experimental label PAN. "If it wasn't for those collaborations, I don't know if I'd be doing what I'm doing now," he said. "Those projects gave me a language to work with." Earlier this summer, Future Times released the first Motion Graphics record, a two-track single that preceded the LP by about a month. The spiraling woodwind loops on "Brass Mechanics" sound like Philip Glass minimalism with a faint digital edge.
"What I like about that software is that it raises the question, 'Where is this coming from?' The origin gets blurred, because on one hand the timbre of the instrument definitely sounds like a person is playing it, but the speed of the patterning—that's where it gets tricky." Another piece of software that powered the album is a module that recreates the lifelike effect of strumming a guitar. In commercial sound design, strum sounds are everywhere—not just in advertisements but in operating systems, like when you reboot or receive an error message. They're inviting, human noises that tell users not to be alarmed.
When I listen to Motion Graphics I see a dreamlike world of floating touch-screens and colorful interfaces. I asked Williams if he had a similar concept or a vision that he hoped to bring to life. "It's more like something I figured out in hindsight," he said. "I'm into Japanese music, like Yellow Magic Orchestra and the whole technopop movement, but that's as far as I went in terms of conceiving of the album." Our conversation turned repeatedly to Yellow Magic Orchestra, the proto-electronic three-piece that formed in Tokyo at the end of the '70s. Their virtuosic style channeled technological fetishism through a framework of stylish, psychedelic funk.
"Both Kraftwerk and YMO made music about their country, and what their country was going through at the time," Williams said. "They were responding to the dawn of pocket electronics in the '80s and all of these new imports and exports. YMO made music for commercials and then starred in their own commercials. They were pop stars."
Motion Graphics, too, is about the sounds of the commercial sector. A review by the prominent critic Philip Sherburne referred to the album as "vaporwave," since it interpolates corporate aesthetics. But where vaporwave takes muzak schlock and transforms it into something else, Williams is more interested in letting these sounds flow through him unfiltered. "With vaporwave, a lot of those artists sample corporate music," he said. "It's really aestheticized, and I don't think my music has that. What I'm doing is representing the music that's around us, like ambient sounds, incidental sounds that are just part of our everyday existence."
Like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Motion Graphics doesn't offer a critique of corporate music or sound design. There's no takeaway. It's something more ambiguous, more impartial, like a time capsule to be opened in a hundred years (or a golden record, shot into space). What a future listener would hear is a vivid portrait of the sonic landscape at this moment in history.