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YACHT’s Claire Evans: Creating Without Boundaries

on April 21, 2014, 12:00pm

After a year absence, Moogfest is poised to once again descend on Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a festival reborn. What was arguably the greatest electronic music festival in the world has now evolved into something more. Touting itself as a five-day “synthesis of technology, art, and music,” Moogfest isn’t just pulling in some of the biggest and brightest names in music to perform; it’s pulling in some of the most innovative and genre-spanning creative minds out there, from futurism to funk-fusion. Will it work? That remains to be seen. (And we intend to find out first-hand.)

Among music titans like Kraftwerk and Pet Shop Boys, the writers of Futurama, and the world’s first government-recognized cyborg, stands a woman as diverse as the festival itself: Claire Evans. She’s not just the lead singer for YACHT, a journalist, and a driving force behind the reboot of one of the most beloved sci-fi magazines of all time, Omni. She’s also a leading figure in what today’s D.I.Y. art culture is all about: creating without boundaries.

In addition to playing the festival with YACHT, she’s putting on a panel called “Xenomusic: Science Fiction and the Synthesized Sound” (Sat., April 26th), where artists, musicians, and scientists will muse on what music will sound like in the future and what it might sound like on other worlds. She recently spoke with CoS Art Director and lead Nerdy Show host Cap Blackard as well as Nerdy Show‘s sci-tech host, Jon West, about the panel, growing up with computers, what’s new with YACHT, bringing Omni back from the dead, and a lot more. Read the interview below or listen to the full interview via Nerdy Show:

Claire, your panel sounds really exciting. Were you approached by Moogfest to put on something, or did you go to them?

Claire Evans (CE): No, they approached me, but in fits and starts. First, they asked me to speak at Moogfest, which I signed on to do a long time ago. And then later they realized I was running a magazine, and they were interested in collaborating in some capacity, so they asked me to put on a panel, and then YACHT got asked to play. I think mostly out of convenience at that point because I was already going to be there. So, now I’m involved in at least three capacities. I’m also writing an essay for the Moogfest program, so I kind of got it on lock, the whole Moogfest thing.

So, as per usual, you’re exploring every possibility.

CE: Yeah, I like to, and I think that I’m interested in synergy. Jona [Bechtolt], my partner and I, we don’t want to place any limitations on what we do, or what defines what we do, because rock ‘n’ roll, as exciting as it can be, can also be extremely predictable and very easy to fall into standard rock ‘n’ roll complacency of going from one place to the next, playing the same songs over and over again, and that can be limiting after a long time. You start to feel a little bit pinned in.

So, for us, anything we can do to make our experiences more engaging, more interesting, that will allow us to have bigger, broader, and more different conversations with different kinds of people and also allow us to display the fact that we’re fully fleshed-out human beings that care more than about just music or playing shows. We read, and watch films, and are passionate about things. I’m passionate about science and science fiction, and I don’t feel like there’s any reason for me to place boundaries on any of those things.

So, to be able to express every manifestation of my interests and my career in one space is very, very rare, and I think Moogfest is exceptional in the capacity that it’s actually bridging music, art, science, technology, and maybe a little bit of science fiction if I have anything to do with it. It’s really special. There’s not a lot of places you can do that, so I’m really going all the way with this one.

moogfest 2014

I always enjoyed the festival in prior years, but if it lives up to be what it promises to be, it could be one of the most incredible events anyone has ever put on.

CE: They’ve kicked it into overdrive this year. They’ve brought in a new set of programmers. All the daytime programming I think is going in a completely new direction, and I think they can’t go wrong. The amount of cool and interesting people under one roof, or rather one sky, I mean, nothing could go wrong. Even if it’s a disaster, it would still be a lot of great conversations.

What’s the experience been like bringing Omni back with Omni Reboot?

CE: It was a very bizarre chain of events that led me to this position. Omni represented a certain kind of gonzo inquiry that really defines the way I think about science fiction. I really loved it as a magazine. Obviously, I’m too young to have bought it on newsstands, but I came across a treasure trove of it at an estate sale, and I have a huge collection of it. It’s my go-to reference for a way of bringing together very serious science journalism and a kind of screwy, adventurous, fun, intellectual … You know, it encompasses so many things without being pretentious and without being unapproachable. It was a warm and inviting magazine.

I wrote a piece, actually, about the history of Omni for Motherboard, a website I write for sometimes, and I interviewed some of the currently still alive editors of the magazine. And, about a month after I published that, my editor told me that there was a man that owned the Omni archives and asked if I wanted to visit him. I happened to be on tour and had a day off, so I spent a day with this man, Jeremy Frommer. He accidentally bought Bob Guccione’s entire estate. Guccione was at one time the richest man in America. He was publisher of Penthouse and Omni, but died bankrupt. Years later, Frommer was bidding on storage lockers as a hobby and unknowingly bought some of the Guccione estate. He found the first print of Caligula, a bunch of weird papers, and things that didn’t add up as just junk. So, he dug further and realized what he had. He then managed to buy up the entirety of the estate.

omni magazine YACHTs Claire Evans: Creating Without Boundaries

So, I went through all of the archives, and it was like nerd Shangri-La for sure. Just drawers and drawers of original acetates and cover art. All of the original magazines, proof copies with notes in the margins … Later on, I was on the phone with Jeremy, and he offered me the [Editor-in-Chief] job. I had to say “yes” because of how insane it was. I’ve been a journalist for years, in a rock band, doing a bunch of art stuff, but I never worked my way up through the chain of command in journalism. I’m now Editor-at-Large. It’s a bit of a broad position that allows me to do stuff like the Omni panel, but I ran it day-to-day for six months, and it was a lot of pressure.

There are so many people who have so many fond and distinct memories of what Omni was. A lot of people who I have spoken to have credited Omni with defining who they are as scientists and science fiction writers. I felt like getting that job was a key for a lot of doors. If you just say, “I’m with Omni,” a lot of people will respond to you.

 YACHTs Claire Evans: Creating Without BoundariesWere you the brains behind assembling the Xenomusic panel at Moogfest?

Totally. That’s all me. Right now my job at Omni is special projects and special experiences, so I’m trying to do more and more things like this. Omni was a print magazine and was very much about being a print magazine. Transitioning that to the website, something is lost and we can fill in those pieces a bit by having experiences in the outside world. We’re trying to do more and more real-life conversations and happenings. Places where we can engage with people directly and have conversations with people beyond the page.

When I was thinking about what to do for Moogfest, the thing that really jumped out at me was music’s relationship with the future and its relationship with the fictional representation of the future, that is to say science fiction. Whenever you see a club scene or a disco in science fiction movies, the music is always wrong. It’s always techno, which is like shorthand for futuristic music. But if you really think about it, music in 200 years or 1,000 years won’t even be recognizable. It’s like surfing the edge of cultural trends that we aren’t even there yet. So, talking about how we can create music for science fiction that is future-proof … I think it’s an impossible pursuit.

With the panel, what we’re trying to do is have an interdisciplinary conversation. For example, we have a musician, King Britt, who is making scores to artwork of the Omni archives, creating, I guess, retro-futuristic speculations to some of the artwork we have. We have Doug Vakoch from SETI who is the Director of Interstellar Message Composition. His job is thinking about how we write messages to extraterrestrial life. I really wanted to get John Carpenter on my panel, but he doesn’t do that [kind of] thing. I want to see him talk about making scores to his films, because he was such an awesome synth geek. I really tried! I made a valiant effort.

The nature of science fiction isn’t to be prophetic or extrapolative in a way you can hold accountable. It’s one thing to say, “William Gibson invented cyberspace,” but that’s not what anyone sets out to do. Science fiction is literature. You can’t hold literature to a standard of whether or not it got the future right. But, impossible questions usually lead to interesting conversations.

ageofspiritual YACHTs Claire Evans: Creating Without Boundaries

In Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, he presents the concept that in the future, humans will be so cybernetically augmented that an unaugmented person couldn’t even perceive the future equivalent of music.

Wow, that’s a bleak point of view. Though, I guess I agree. I think the music of the future will be electronic, not because it is futuristic, but because the ears of the future will not be ours. The ears of the future will be those of the artificial intelligences we have created for ourselves. It’s a scary thought, but aesthetics are relative. Maybe there is something beautiful about that that we don’t understand.

I’m not a big Kurzweil fan. I think the idea of trying to escape death through technological hubris is very dangerous territory for the human race.

We seem to be coming across a lot of those lately. You know, the constant security messages. The robotization of the military…

Yeah, the future is terrible! You can’t think about it. It’s hard to read the news and not see it as a premise for some sort of dystopian novel. But you have to separate the two a little bit. Not everything is leading to some horrific climax. There’s just too much randomness and complexity to everything.

(Watch: YACHT perform “Utopia” for our Off the Avenue series)

Growing up, when did you first go online?

Early. Really early. I can’t remember a time before it actually. My dad worked for Intel. I can’t remember a time before I had a computer, and I was regularly online by the time I was eight or nine. I think that probably explains a lot. I had a website when I was kid. I remember being in chat rooms — like being a child and being in chat rooms for children when those kind of things could still exist. I was deep in.

This is going to be maybe the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever said in an interview … I moved to California and went to college in California because I met my boyfriend on a Weezer message board. That was like my entire life for four years. I haunted this one Weezer message board, day in and day out, like a lunatic. The entire trajectory of my life was based on decisions I made with people I knew on that message board.

ubik cover YACHTs Claire Evans: Creating Without BoundariesThe best sci-fi usually asks bigger questions about the nature of humanity, with the genre functioning simply as a backdrop. Have you read anything recently that you felt really played to that angle?

For me, the ultimate would be Philip K. Dick. He’s my go-to for that kind of thing. I think for a lot of Dick stories, and the same goes for episodes of, say, The Twilight Zone, there’s sci-fi trappings like moon colonies and rockets, but that part is barely there — almost to accommodate the genre but not define it. The real questions are like, “What is the nature of reality? What is the nature of time?”

I think Philip K. Dick defined reality as something “that doesn’t go away when you’re not looking at it,” which I think is such a deeply confusing and beautiful point of view. I just recently read Ubik for the first time. It’s amazing! I love that kind of stuff that’s borderline insane. You get the sense that the writer isn’t creating logical projections but just somehow is moved by madness or is somehow looking through a portal to something that is concealed to us in our everyday lives.

Do you have anything special planned for YACHT’s Moogfest performance?

Probably. I mean, the live performance is always shifting, much like a Philip K. Dick novel. The reality of what our band is is always in flux. It will probably involve four human beings, some number of analog instruments, and a large number of electronic instruments being performed in synchrony. Some video. We always have a video. Some kind of immersive, participatory audience engagement thing. And a lot of volume, and a lot of physical touching, and a lot of back-and-forth, hopefully! We’re constantly re-writing everything. We’re rearranging songs. We’re rearranging how the video looks, because we get bored very quickly, so we always have to tread water.

You guys put out a track, “Plastic Soul”, earlier in the year. Is there an impending album release?

Yeah, there is, but not for a while. We’re doing a lot of different stuff right now. We’re recording, but we’re also working on a TV show with Amazon about being in a band. It’s a comedy about being a support band called Support.

So, you’re not playing yourself then?

Well, that’s up in the air. I think we will hire professional actors to do that job, but for the time being, we’re just writing it. But who knows? Things are always changing.

So, we’re just working with that, and we made an app recently. We’re kind of juggling a lot of different projects, but we’re also recording, and we hope to have an album out next year. It’s hard. We finished “Plastic Soul”, but we didn’t have nine more songs finished, and we didn’t want to wait a year, so we just put it out. That’s kind of how we go. We’re very much self-directed, 21st century, point-and-click Internet people, and it’s very hard for us to think in the long-term that way.

We just want to make things, put them out, package them out as beautifully as possible, and send them out into the world, so we can still be part of the conversation and keep moving. Normally, you’d put out a single and then put out a record right afterward, but we just put out a single because we wanted to, and at some point in the future, we’ll put out a record.

You guys have always been pretty upfront about how much you’re doing your own thing, and working at your own pace, and not being confined by the machines that the record industry represents.

Yeah, thank god! We’ve been doing this for too long, and we both come from DIY cultures. We spent the first eight years of music putting on our own shows and silkscreening our own t-shirts, and it’s really hard to revoke that control once you’re used to it. Most of the time if you see something out in the world that has our name on it, we made it. Like the file emerged from one of our computers. Maybe we’re a little bit drunk on power, but it’s nice to be able to be in control of everything you put out in the world! To not be beholden to the bottom line, or someone else’s priorities.

yacht2013 YACHTs Claire Evans: Creating Without Boundaries

It must be difficult as an individual to keep operating on such a broad spectrum.

Yeah, you need a big skill set. We’ve been forced by necessity to do a lot of things that other people maybe farm out. And for us, that’s fun. I’m a writer, so I do a lot of the text, and the press releases, and those kinds of editorial things. Jona is a designer, so he does all of the visual stuff. We’re lucky in that we have a broad skill base.

We love to learn how to use new kinds of software in order to represent ourselves to the world through the two-dimensional medium that everyone perceives things through anyway. Everyone is getting like 90% of the experience of any art through some kind of flat plane of LED, so whether you’re a whole team with a marketing budget and a nice office or whether you’re two people with a bootleg copy of Photoshop, the end result is the same if you do it well.

There’s a lot to do at Moogfest. Other than your performance and panel, is there anything in particular that you’re excited to see and do?

I very rarely have the opportunity to go to a conference like that and be on the ground all the time. Normally, we play these kinds of festivals, and we have to just go in and out. I’m excited to be there for four days and to just talk to everyone and be open. Of course, I’m excited for Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk, and I want to go to all of the panels, but I just want to drink it all up.

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