ZAN LYONS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – Video Art in the Music Hall

by JC Gonzo

Editor’s Note: This is one of a thematic, two-part piece, the other being an article with Atari Teenage Riot’s original femme fatale and former member, HANIN ELIAS. You can read that article by clicking here.

The London-based artist Zan Lyons is a self-trained violist, violinist, cellist and videographer. He delivers synchronized live audio/video shows with his laptop and viola in hand. Live looping and remixing of original and found video work combined with musical performance deliver an icy, unsettling atmosphere. His work contains many aesthetic similarities to notable filmmaker Chris Cunningham, yet retains it’s own unique style and vision.

He is also the new videographer attached to the newly, partially reformed digital hardcore band Atari Teenage Riot. The band broke up in 2001 after MC Carl Crack died of a drug overdose, which coincided with frontwoman Hanin Elias’ frustrated departure. The remaining two band members, Nic Endo and Alec Empire, continued to collaborate. They are the members responsible for Atari Teenage Riot’s critically acclaimed 2010 tour revival with the newest initiated member, CX KiDTRONiK — who shares more than a few striking stylistic resemblances to MC Carl Crack.

This new collective variation of the 90’s band, who were considered the central cog in Berlin’s digital hardcore scene, also recruited a new videographer. In the 90s, Philip Virus was their cutting-edge provider of visuals. Now, Zan Lyons is offering the most unique addition to the new Atari Teenage Riot. Rather than mimic Philip Virus’ lo-fi, highly synthesized analog video treatments, Zan Lyons harnesses a polished look to create a very specific ambiance of sci-fi, mystery, and terror.

I use the term “terror” with hesitation, perhaps “anxiety” is a better description. Zan Lyons’ work won’t make you jump, but perhaps flinch after you’ve been sucked into his lush, cold color-scapes.

His work has been screened at Cannes and he played live at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival in February. His work-in-progress, “Androids with Delayed Reactions”, was so impressive that even in its unfinished state it got picked up by MTV2 circulation.

ANDROIDS WITH DELAYED REACTIONS:

Despite the prestigious attention he’s received from the film world, such as being invited by the Latitude Festival to remix the sci-fi classic Blade Runner for a live audience, he continues to perform primarily in the music scene.

And, as prolific as this young man is, Zan Lyons remains rather quiet and out of the spotlight. I was lucky enough ask him a few questions.

Tell me about the live Blade Runner vs. Zan Lyons performances, and your interest in the sci-fi/terror aesthetic.

I think it’s more a cinematic aesthetic. A lot of independent film focuses on creating either a realistic, almost-documentary feel or bad quality faux abstract – neither of which ever translate to the big screen. One of my earliest memories is my parents taking me to E.T. in the cinema at the age of 3. I can still remember the screen going black and then the film beginning and the sheer magic of seeing these impossible images on the screen.

I’m an independent film-maker and my shorts are visually narrative rather than story driven, but at the core is that cinematic feeling. Wong Kar Wai’s work and Blade Runner are some of the finest examples of using cinema as a canvas in my opinion. The vs. Blade Runner shows combine my improv live methods with Blade Runner. I literally remix the film live – creating a new soundtrack, cutting up the scenes and splicing in my own visuals. It’s very different to the original so fans of the film and non-fans can both appreciate it.

It’s been very popular and is ever-evolving. I’d like to tour it through 2011.


As a video artist and filmmaker, why have you primarily chosen the stage and stadium to showcase your work as opposed to gallery installation or even physical video release? What makes this channel of performance so special to you?

I’m a musician, so to me, if you can’t do it live, you’re not the real deal!

I love the urgency of playing live. I never have set-lists, so each show is unique. The feeling of improvising a viola phrase and looping it live then adding beats on top-while triggering a visual: It’s completely anarchic and exhilarating. Nothing beats it!

My shows are a call to arms. Everything I create is done without government funding or corporate sponsorship and is completely carbon neutral.

Would you ever do a physical video release?

A physical release is on the horizon. I’m working on a DVD album. I can’t give a release date as it’s such a slow process, but it will be an album of new music with a film for each track. Really enjoying making it. I want to push this album to the next level; it’ll be a true audio/visual experience with a very unique narrative somewhere between music video and feature film.

THE MIRROR:


How did you find the marriage of video and strings?

I’ve always loved the sound of solo strings – especially in the Gypsy and Klezmer traditions, where the players are really emoting with their instruments. I found the violin and cello to be the instruments I was most comfortable with. I was able to teach myself in the way most people do with the guitar. I wish more people would approach strings in this way. There’s unfortunately still a cloud of elitism over orchestral instruments that discourages people from just picking up and playing. The combination of strings and video is pretty simple. I play strings and I make films so their paths always cross.


Do you ever consider yourself one over the other; musician or videographer?

It’s not something I really think about.  They both tend to feed into each other, so it’s such a symbiotic process that I can’t really separate the two. It’s an incredibly exciting time. Technology has reached a place were we have inexpensive near-limitless creative potential, so why not use it?

How were you approached to do the new video work for Atari Teenage Riot?

It all happened pretty naturally really. We’ve been friends for about 10 years, collaborated live and have a mutual respect for each others work. When ATR returned. Alec asked me if I could film the shows. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to collaborate on something visually.


Your video work that is not mixed live seems premeditated to perfection with the high polished edits and haunting synchronization of image and music, etc. Yet, the work you’ve done for ATR is “extreme” documentation. Their live-shows demand decision-making on the spot, I’d imagine.

It’s funny you should say that because the opposite is true. The way I make my films has more in common with punk. I use what I have to hand , and just make something. I go with energy of what’s in front of the camera and the same with the edit. I think the synchronization comes from me being a musician. If a bassline does one thing, then a beat does something that works with the bassline ect. So when I edit my images, the same way of thinking applies. I want the experience to be interconnected not the video for – or the soundtrack to… I want something that’s 3 dimensional where the sound and images are inseparable.

When I make a film, I’m reacting intuitively to what I see in front of me. Even  with shots where I set up the lighting, it’s never a controlled experience. The same goes for the editing. It’s a constant reaction – always’ looking for that element that excites me in the moment
So the ATR shows very much fit into how I work. The energy flows and I follow it!

Stills of Nic Endo from ATR.


You mentioned to me earlier that you saw Atari Teenage Riot’s first incarnation (with Carl and Hanin) back in the 90s. What do you think of the new lineup and performances?

I saw them 4 times in the 90s and they were amazing but I think they’ve gone to the next level. I was initially apprehensive about them playing more shows but when I saw them in London it was like seeing ATR version 2.0! Nic belongs at the front on vocals! and CX brings a whole new dynamic to the band. Mainly they feel like they’ve matured. Obviously they’re 10 years older but a lot of bands try and remain 22 for their entire career and ignore the inevitable changes and transformations life delivers.

Contrary to what most people think, they are very positive, balanced people and I think this comes across more in the new incarnation. The world has changed, We’ve had 911 and the 2 Bush wars but we’ve also had Obama and healthcare reform in the USA and gay marriage in the UK.

There’s a lot to fight but there’s also a lot to celebrate. The new ATR shows reflect this more than ever before.

* * *

Zan Lyons is currently on tour.

(For more on a similar topic, please read HANIN ELIAS INTERVIEW – Adopting New Sounds in a New World)

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