Little Dragon, Octopus Project, & the art of staging a show

Sunday night, my bandmate and I indulged in one of the many spoils of living in Austin and saw local favorites Octopus Project open for Sweden-based Little Dragon at ACL Live’s historic Moody Theatre.

Little Dragon – Ritual Union

A few reflections:

Sights for Sounds

For both of these bands, music is just one element of the show. Lighting, film projections, animation, and even attire are designed to complement the music. The intended result (and successfully so at most times, I would argue) is an overall more submersive experience. It’s mixed media in musical performance. For Little Dragon, custom-built neon structures placed in an encompassing crescent around the stage were synchronized with the setlist to create an illusion of movement at varying speeds and colors. Adding to the atmosphere, the three instrumentalists were decked out in pseudo-matching (or at least themed) jumpsuits with asymmetrical patterns and positioned such that a little dancefloor was left open in the center of the stage for the lead singer.

For Octopus Project, even greater concerted efforts went into constructing visual components to the show. But this is nothing new for Octopus Project–the ultimate DIY band–who have been known to hand-make their clothes, album art, and even a good portion of their merch. Their light show and a video of what was clearly homemade animation and art that was projected behind them when I first saw them perform several years ago…and how well it all fit into what they were doing on stage, how it meshed with the music…was what I originally found so compelling about them. And the theremin, of course. What a wildly cool and strange thing to master. They compose a new stage show, film projections, and all else for each tour. This tour’s projections were split across several 2′ x 5′ screens in sequence set up behind the drummer.

Blocking, lighting, costumes–it’s all thought-out and part of the stage show. In a lot of ways, the production of it felt as much like a film or theatrical set as it did a rock show. All of the little details create a larger set, another place, another world. They make it easy to get lost in the saturation of it all.**

Staying Power

At one point in the evening, I recall commenting to Audrey about my pleasant and inspired surprise that Octopus Project had made it this far and stayed together for as long as they have–which is not to say that I had low expectations of the band. But I know how hard it must be to keep any band together for over a decade–successful, commercially funded ones, even. Here was a group of very experimental DIY-ers using synth, theremin, and a whole host of other obtuse sounds to make avant art-rock. I loved it. I wanted to see them succeed. But I knew the odds. I thought of the dozens of other bands I’d fallen in love with over the years who have tried to do something new, unique, and challenging. Most have a good year-or-two run and move on to other projects. The fact that Octopus Project has been around since 1999, has garnered a devoted following over that time completely on their own, and are now owning the crowd and stage at Moody Theatre…it’s a happy moment; a scenario unique enough to be worth mentioning.

 Oh, and the music 

Octopus Project. Aside from noting that a few obvious influences might include Stereolab, 1970s krautrock, and just about every Kubrick soundtrack I can think of, there’s not a lot I can or wish to say about the music itself without speaking of it in the context of a live performance. So listen to the albums, check out their music videos, do all of that. But know that their live show is where it’s at. Some bands are brilliant at building perfect masterpieces of recorded albums but have trouble translating it to a live environment. This is not one of those bands. GO. Experience something new. And buy a t-shirt f’christssakes.

Octopus Project – I Saw The Bright Shinies

Little Dragon. This was the first time I’ve seen Little Dragon and I was a little surprised at how energetic their performance was–especially considering it was their last show of a world tour starting in Japan. I have to admit, I’d only heard a handful of their songs prior to the show. I was more familiar with some of the collaborations they’ve done with other nouveau trip hop bands like Gorillaz, SBTRKT, and my favorite of the bunch, DJ Shadow. “Scale It Back” has made it into a few of my personal mixes.

DJ Shadow feat. Little Dragon – Scale It Back

While Little Dragon’s own material is reminiscent of European club music that you might find in a designer drug-laden discotheque at times, they are certainly not confined to that. They’re of the more innovative in their genre often experimenting with beats, loops, and timing that is more to the effect of electronic jazz–which, I promise, is a lot more palatable than it sounds. “After The Rain” from their first album is a good example.

Little Dragon – After The Rain

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**Not recommended for those with epilepsy. Seriously. It can get a little intense.