Maybe you were one of the fortunate few who saw a bold, jaw-dropping performance staged by Austin-based Octopus Project in one of a handful of their concerts last year.
The quartet of long-time friends conceived of a multimedia performance for which the 2010 album Hexadecagon was written as the soundtrack. Presented in the round, the staging included eight strategically placed speakers to create something akin to a surround-sound audio experience. Above the stage were screens onto which original videos and stills were projected. It was an incredibly ambitious musical, visual and staging tour de force. And in typical Octopus Project style, mad fun for everyone who experienced it.
It was the kind of stuff that might be expected of bands with far deeper pockets, larger egos and a history of concept albums. It was also the kind of stuff that those with the means might not pull off so successfully. Chalk up the whole experience to the integrity of the band.
According to multi-instrumentalist Josh Lambert, like many things the show was conceived in the back of a van. "We were touring a couple years ago, brainstorming while driving about creating a meditative performance experience," Lambert explains. The idea evolved from a concept that initially considered having the audience lying on the ground ("too few people could participate") to one with the eight-speaker arrangement and multiple projection accompaniment. Settling on the latter, the band set out to create the music.
The approach makes sense given the members' backgrounds. Lambert, wife Yvette (keyboards and theremin) and Toto Miranda (drums, guitar, bass) grew up together in Houston before earning degrees from UT-Austin (Josh and Miranda in film, Yvette in psychology). Fourth member Ryan Figg (guitar, bass, keyboards) studied computer science and joined the band in 2007. The band created the visual content and tapped friend Wily Wiggins to figure out how to integrate and stage it. Another friend, Bryan Ritchie of The Sword, was recruited to apply his sound engineering skills to the audio staging. Once the production was written, "we literally spent 10 hours a day every day for four months working on [the staging and performance] before the first SXSW shows," Lambert says.
Why would the band throw itself into such a project for so few to see? For the Lamberts, music is a passion. By Lambert's accounting, "music takes up 99.9 percent of the time we are not eating and sleeping." Though they had the band for fun while in school, they didn't conceive of a career in music then. Within six months of graduation they had a deal with Austin-based Peek-A-Boo Records (other alumni include Spoon) and released their first record in 2002. "We have taken a very different track than we thought we would in school," Lambert says with a laugh.
The band continues to stretch itself. With rare exception, Octopus Project has been instrumental, but not because of a fear of singing or bad voices. "We view the voice as another instrument we'd like to use," Lambert says. "None of us sings amazingly well, but we are OK. But writing lyrics is horrifying." No surprise that a band that tries to bring integrity to everything they do would struggle over what to say. "Definitely in the future we'll be doing more singing."
And the band stays busy. They just finished a soundtrack for a film by the Zellner Brothers and are writing for a new album they hope to release around April. "It's the most poppy thing we've ever done, and I'm really excited about it," Lambert says.
The set list for the upcoming Kessler Theater performance can be expected to include a few of these new songs as well as a good sampling from the entire catalog of the band. All eight hands of this Octopus will be busy.