The Glitch Mob spent a year making a VR experience as otherwordly as their music | Tech News

glitch mob pink background
Daniel Johnson

Watching electronic dance music (EDM) group The Glitch Mob perform would seem to be the perfect greeting after being abducted by aliens.

The group’s current stage design is a space-inspired work of art known as The Blade 2.0, and the trio of musicians perform in glowing pods with thick Dell touchscreens at their fingertips, like Star Trek pilots. But the elaborate design isn’t only about aesthetics. The touchscreens are there for the group to precisely re-create their complex music live, and the pods are partly so the crowd isn’t staring at the back of laptops for an hour.

“The technology is just there for us to be able to perform our music.”

“The important thing, really, is that the technology gets out of the way,” Glitch Mob member Justin Boreta told Digital Trends. “The technology is just there for us to be able to perform our music.”

Boreta spoke with Digital Trends after Glitch Mob brought The Blade 2.0 to this year’s Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City. He discussed how the band’s latest album entered virtual reality, the group’s influences as “children of music technology,” and why they think Windows-based hardware is better than Apple’s.

Digital Trends: Explain to me exactly what this spaceship-looking stage design called The Blade 2.0 is and who came up with the idea? How is it an improvement on 1.0?

Justin Boreta: I’ll give you a brief bit of context here. We all used to be DJs. The way that we came together as a group was that we were individual DJ’s, and we decided to play at the same time. So we started by connecting our computers and having a sort of DJ jam-out. Then at some point, we decided to make original music, and then it continued from there. Collaboration has always been in the DNA of what we do.

At one point, we wanted to figure out a way to perform electronic music but not with instruments and keyboards, and stuff like that. We wanted to actually play music like a rock band, and have the live performance aspect on stage. So we started taking these touchscreen controllers at the time called Lemur, which are not even around anymore. This was right around the time iPads came out, or right before iPads. We would tilt them toward the crowd and remove the laptop from the equation. So when you’re up there DJing, and you’re looking at a laptop, it’s hard to really connect with people. So, we tilted these touchscreens toward the crowd and started triggering all of our sounds off Ableton, which is the software that we use to write and perform it.

A stage design isn’t just about function, it’s also about form. What were the compromises you made to make sure The Blade 2.0 not only performed well but carried a certain aesthetic?

An interesting thing about doing a show like this is that it has to get taken down and put up every single night. So, there’s a special skill set of our crew, team, and the designers that have to know how to fit in all these different stages right. We played Bonaroo last week in front of 30,000 people, or something like that, on this massive stage. Then sometimes we’re traveling around the country playing very small stages where we have to shrink down. So the whole thing can really telescope out and become larger. There’s a lot of compromise that happens there, just spatially. I mean, if we had all the space in the world to play with, we would do a lot more stuff.

glitch mob blade 2.0 at governors ball
Simon Bonneau

EDM, unlike most other forms of music, has its progression tied largely to the technology used. What have been some technologies that didn’t exist, or weren’t as popular in 2010, when you debuted with your ‘Drink The Sea’ album, that have come out in the years since?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that it’s part of our ethos, to use technology to get up there and perform. It’s an important part of what we do because we are children of music technology. Everything that we do is pushing the boundaries of the computer. We’re always using the fastest computers and always breaking them. [Laughs]. We have 20 controllers plugged into one laptop. Just what we can do right now, on stage with The Blade, wouldn’t have been possible even a couple of years ago. In the very beginning, it was totally different.

“What we can do right now, on stage with The Blade, wouldn’t have been possible even a couple of years ago.”

So, mainly, the software we use for everything is based off of Ableton, Ableton Live. We have a laptop running this massive session with all of our songs in there. We have a documentary about the craziness of it. But, there’s really a lot that’s going on behind the scenes to make everything feel reliable so that everything doesn’t crash. But really, what we do wouldn’t even have been possible a couple of years ago, or without all of the sort of music tech stuff. … The important thing really is that the technology gets out of the way and the touchscreen turns into something else. The technology is just there for us to be able to perform our music.

Your new album, ‘See Without Eyes,’ has such a wide variety of sounds meshed together. In some cases, I’ve never heard anything like them before. What are some of your favorites, and were there any weird or accidental ways you’ve discovered a new sound?

Absolutely. The way that we work, there’s a lot of found sounds that go in there into the music. There’s a lot of custom sounds. There’s field recording from our life that go into there. There’s also a lot of experimentation and happy accidents. So, some of the songs started off at one tempo, and they changed to be another. Or we recorded vocals for one song, and then use them for another.

So for instance, the vocals on Take Me With You were actually recorded for a different song on the album. We have all this material that we treat like samples, almost as if they’re samples we’ve taken off of vinyl, but they really are vocals that we recorded. Then we take it, chop it up, mix it, recontextualize it, and put it in there. So, there’s a lot of that sort of mosaic work that goes into the record, and there’s tons of sound design that is really just there to add another layer of narrative and a cinematic texture to everything.

You’re also putting out a VR experience in support of your new album. What are the benefits of VR for musicians and how long did it take to create your experience? Who did you work with?

We collaborated with a company called [TheWaveVR], Dell, and Alienware to create this VR experience. VR’s really exciting, even though it’s something that is just all happening right now, and the technology is getting there. But there’s some really crazy stuff that’s possible. This is an entirely new way to experience the album. It’s a music video times a million.

This is an entirely new way to experience the album. It’s a music video times a million.

You get to get inside of the music and interact with it, and you’re on that trip through this four-song — I think it’s four songs right now — journey. It’s an entirely new way to experience music because you actually get to go into a literal narrative through it. I mean, I heard it in an entirely new way, and we have a lot of visual cues that we use to create the album art, to create all of the videos. We collaborated with [TheWaveVR] and this guy named Strangeloop and his studio, who we’ve collaborated with a lot, because they understand the ethos and the DNA behind the project. They were able to create a whole world around it, easily.

How long did it take? How involved were you guys in the final design?

Took about a year. It’s actually interesting because we were very, very involved in the whole process. We didn’t do any of the actual programming ourselves, but we’re getting constant contact, texting, calling, and going to the studio all day to look at stuff. But if you go on YouTube right now, you can see that we have a video for every single song in a sort of visual accompaniment for the album. So, Strangeloops Studios created that using game engine software used for VR. … He created the video mainly in Unity and Cinema 4D, then he went and made the VR version of it because he had created the world using gaming engine software. So, already it was easy to turn it into a VR experience.

This is your first album in four years. Why such a long gap in between albums? How has the group changed?

Well, it took us about a year to a year and a half to write the album, and we had an EP come out in 2015, mid-2015. So basically, we were just on tour. When we released the album, we did a two-year tour cycle. Pretty much all 2015, we were on tour. Then 2016, we started writing the album … . So, it’s really sort of like pausing the whole tour life and coming back to really do the work it takes to write a full album like this and everything around it.

With such complex music, it must be common for songs to go through numerous iterations before they’re released. For the new album, what was the most difficult song to complete in terms of how many different versions you had and the hardest to put together?

How Could This Be Wrong, I think was the one that had so many versions. It was up into the hundreds. [Laughs]. We had actually got rid of that song and deleted it, and then at one point, we thought, “Wait a second. We want a song that has this particular vibe.” So, we brought it back, and we had met Tula, who is the vocalist on there.  She was also on the Keep On Breathing track. She did vocals on Keep On Breathing, which we loved.

So, we took the song out of its grave, sent it to her, and she sent the vocals over, and we actually revived it. So, that was the last addition, but it took a lot of wrangling to change everything, and take it from where it was to a completely different song.

See Without Eyes is your second consecutive album to hit No. 1 on the Dance/Electronic Album chart after your first few records failed to reach the Top 5. How much of your recent success do you attribute to new distribution technologies like streaming?

I mean, clearly, I think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that the algorithms that measure what becomes No. 1 change over time. To be quite honest, we don’t stay too focused on that. I mean it’s nice that we have a No. 1 song and a No. 1 album, and the fact that really our fans are out there listening to music over and over again. We’re an independent label, we don’t have a major label behind it, we did it with our own machinery here. We’re pretty DIY. It’s a great sort of hat tip to the music and the fact that we try to make music that’s classic and timeless, and that people will grow with.

The Blade 1.0 was used in promotion of your 2014 album Love Death Immortality, and 2.0 is for the most recent album. Will you continue this trend for your next album? And if so, what do you think it’ll look like?

It’s an interesting progression because, as technology gets stronger and there’s the ability to create more immersive shows, we’ll be constantly finding new ways to tell a story with music. So, who knows? But we have some more music in the works. We have some cool stuff that’s going to be coming out soon. I think for the fall tour, we might make some updates. It might be a Blade 2.1 or maybe a 2.5. I can’t say just yet, but there’s going to be some fun updates to it. We’re all trying to figure out new ways to rock out more on stage.

Go back in time for me a bit. What was the first gadget you fell in love with?

“We use the most powerful Mac Pro, completely maxed out next to the most maxed out Alienware and it’s quite a bit more than twice as fast.”

The first gadget I ever fell in love with? Wow, that’s a really good question. You know, it would have to be my very first computer, which was an Apple IIGS, very early Macintosh. My grandfather bought it for me when I was super-young. I was like 5 years old or something like that. [Laughs]. I spent a lot of time playing games and learning how to write computer code and I always had a computer from there on out. I’m not a classically trained musician, in any way. None of us really are. We all just came into it from tinkering.

Then after that, I had a PC with Fruity Loops in high school. I would spend all of my time learning how to make jungle and drum and bass. So for me, I come into music through technology. I’m completely a student of the tech first and then sort of a music theory [student] second.

What is the current tech obsession or fascination you have right now?

I think the biggest thing is the move we made over to Windows machines, which is funny because, in the music world, people typically write on Macintosh. But … we really need the most horsepower possible, and there’s a lot of graphics and graphics cards we have in these Alienware machines. We used the most powerful Mac Pro, completely maxed out next to the most maxed out Alienware, and it’s quite a bit more than twice as fast.

So, for us, that just means we can play more music. I think that it’s going to be a really exciting time for Windows and Dell, specifically because what they are doing with allowing musicians to create stuff is going to allow some pretty next-level art to happen. It’s the same thing with VR. What we can do, all that stuff happened on these really powerful gaming machines. The gaming machine, the graphics cards, and the GPUs you need, putting that into the music tech world, we can do some really crazy stuff.

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