“On a breezeless day, in total darkness, on the underside of the planet, somewhere in Austin, The Protocorn pulled a laptop from a rock and called itself Single Unicorn. Drawn to the roiling lumps of the sound waves, other corns appeared: an impossible trio. The Unicorn became Total.“What do you get when you put a composer, visual artist and choreographer together? Cool content.
Thrown in a unicorn.. and things get cosmic.
Enter Total Unicorn.
A performance-based group, with multiple twists: Composer Lyman churns out some serious grooves.
Consciousness-expanding, hallucinogenic, dope.
Visual specialist Stephen backs the music up with some crazy illustration. Layers, colors,
dimensions- all if it synced to make sense in different parallel universes.
Lindsey, the choreographer, perfectly rounds out the performance with resounding energy & elysian
moves. Man, these Unicorn’s know how to tune in.
We caught up with these guys to talk about their show, and the world they live in. Try and see if we can bring some of that awesome sauce to Mother Earth.
It all began when, according to Lyman, Stephen had an idea about the visual delivery of Aesthetic Acid- that you could dose yourself or others with beauty itself, and asked to illustrate that idea with music.
“He then proposed we do this live, to dose entire audiences with our Aesthetic Acid, on a mass or semi-mass scale. Thus was born the idea of Total Unicorn. Lindsey (Unicorn Pink) happened upon one of these happenings, and offered to add a dance physicality to things.”
Total Unicorn say they were complete when the three dimensions of vision, sound and dance were present in equal quantities. But the journey begins with the Music.
Says Stephen, “The music usually starts the conversation. Often times, a moist concept forms in the dark. The witch reads the coffee grounds, the oracle orates, etc. Nowadays, story is critical when we’re making new material. We like pieces that introduces a new character, or that can elaborate on our backstory. I like to make apocryphal stuff about us. Like, if you’re paying attention, there’s a universe to discover.”
Checkout some of their work here:
When asked about his process of creating the audio, Lyman says it starts very simply with a beat, sequence or sample that catches his ear. It then gets run through various electronic and virtual processes- which adds a pulse and makes the sound breathe. Companion sounds are then added and with EQ, compression and other “nurturing” elements, the whole breathes as one. “There is no premeditated idea of what should be the sound. The sound comes to life, and tells me what it needs, and I attempt to deliver those goods to the best of my ability.”
About his visual design, Stephen has a pretty cool process. He loves creating narratives. These ideas only evolve when he plays around with contributing “items”.
“I have these huge libraries of rotoscoped images, 3d models and vector artworks that I’ve created over the years. I synthesize things with those, to get warmed up. Also, I like to do image research at the beginning of each new piece, and explore an obscure art movement, subculture, mythology, memes, mimes and different times”
“I love creating costumes from vegetables and auto parts, and I love modeling environments in 3D. I could spend a day just working on some filigree or other tiny detail. I suppose that I could sketch things out, and not waste so much time, but I would miss out on the spontaneous hexplosions.”
Hardware & software-wise, these guys have a lot of components coming together to create their vision.
Lyman recommends Abelton which he uses to build and indulge in the complete mutation of sound of any of the DAWs out there. Pro Tools is occasionally used as well. He uses a lot of secret and not so secret plug in mutation tools (the special sauce) which help break down and reassemble the component parts into music. Analog sources (Moog Sub-37, Realistic MG-1, Elektron Analog RYTM, Little Korg boxes, etc.) meet digital sources (Native Instruments, Sugar Bytes, Glitchmachines, et al) and “hilarity ensues.”
On the visual side, Stephen use the Adobe suite and Cinema 4D to produce animations. Some of it is cel, 2D, a lot is 3D and they occasionally shoot some live action on green screen. Stephen then distills that in After Effects and renders it for Resolume.
“There, it’s chewed up and broken down into digestible proteins. Resolume adds the presence, the performative quality, and the seasoning. Effects are added, and clips are broken up and cue points are programmed. If mapping is needed, if audio-reactivity is required, then a sacrifice is made, and the ancients are satisfied."
Resolume, as per Stephen, is the most straightforward, reliable and affordable tool for performing live projections. “I encourage a lot of my motion graphics friends starting out with live visuals to give it a go. The DXV codec is one of its strongest attributes, in my opinion. It makes performing with it, across operating systems, very stable.”
“I have actually done shows with artists using other applications and watched them crash or get bogged down with their clips at critical moments, while Resolume powers through. It’s insane how many layers of HD I can mix with in real-time on a laptop. Also, the interface is so intuitive. It’s really easy to visualize my composites when I can see thumbnails, and the layering is reminiscent of most editing programs, so that felt very familiar right away. I can label everything and plot my set left to right. It feels very natural, like writing.“
Lindsey has a “library” of moves of her own. They are essentially things that look cool in the mirror. “I then combine those with other moves from memes, GIFs and Youtube videos. Finally, I season with aimless flopping, slo-mo sequences, and feigned distress.”
When they perform live, Lyman runs Ableton Live with an APC40 Controller, a vintage Memory Man and a Red Panda Particle for a few delays and effects, the Moog Sub Phatty for sequences, all running through a Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6. He also just picked up an Electron Octatrack- “so once I get my head around that universe I think the music will migrate into the boxes and the computer will stay at home.”
Stephen’s setup is, partially, a holdover from a time when he was using slower laptops. One runs Arena- used to drive the projections on the larger screen behind the band. The second runs Avenue- drives our smaller, free-standing vertical screens.
“I still have this Livid Block from several years ago which just keeps on ticking. That triggers effects, clips, mixes layers, and I use the knobs for time scrubbing clips on the fly. I also use this old Korg drum pad to trigger video cues so I can play them rhythmically. And there is a game controller (or whatever other type of USB controller I can get my hands on) to trigger clips on the smaller machine. I run this old Max patch that converts the controller signals to MIDI (or OSC)-kind of like a primitive version of OSCulator.”
Lindsey has the most interesting piece of equipment of all. A liquid spine with all the attached accoutrements.
Essentially believing in freestyle, Stephen creates the visuals to the track. But when they perform, it’s being triggered live by his living hands.
They decided, early on, not to have everything triggered automatically by one machine. Says Stephen, “The performance is essential. Rehearsal, repetition, regeneration. I mean, there are moments of improvisation, but we like to keep it tight.”
Lindsey’s dancing is a combination of choreography and improvisation. “On one hoof it’s important for me to know when the musical changes occur, but on the other hoof I need to keep it loose enough to be able to adapt to different situations as they occur. “
When asked about where Total Unicorn draws inspiration from Stephen said,“ From everything and everywhere. It’s all blended in the hyperspindle: the part of the brain filled with the softest, richest, most flavorful cream. Our cream is abundant, allowing the spindle to swell.“
Hmm.. Until we see you again, ponder on this:
"The Unicorn is perceived as this fanciful, sweet creature, but it’s really kind of terrifying. A Unicorn can be anything to anybody, and since few have seen one in person it gives us a freedom to be who we are, without fixed ideas or boundaries."
Photo Credits: Allison Turrell, Celesta Danger and Maye Marley