Karma Fields Gives First Interview, Previews Live 3D Experience: Exclusive
In March of 2015, the label Monstercat's regular podcast appeared to fall victim to a hack, as regular programming was interrupted by a teaser for a video from an artist named Karma Fields. "Build the Cities" featured vocalists from in-demand Estonian singer Kerli and remarkable visuals courtesy of Raven Kwok. "Every time I run the system, it will produce a different visual outcome due to randomness of the initial parameters," Kwok explained to Billboard Dance at the time. "So the music video itself is an organized yet unpredicted outcome."
As for Karma Fields: the production was later revealed to be the work of an advanced artificial intelligence. Earlier this year, the A.I. released its debut album, New Age | Dark Age, which featured more alluring visuals and collaborations with Talib Kweli, C.C. Sheffield, and Juliette Lewis. The deluxe edition of the record, out earlier this month, included classical versions of several songs — along with sheet music for those curious to play the music themselves — and a free BitTorrent bundle containing all the music is forthcoming.
The next step for Karma Fields is to take the show on the road. In order to do so, the producer constructed a 20' by 19' foot hexagonal structure that will show live visuals — again the work of Kwok — which will react to the music. Check out a preview of the set-up below before Karma Fields' NYC show at Webster Hall on April 29. Tickets are available here.
Billboard Dance caught up with Karma Fields to discuss the goals of the project and the transition to live performance. Read excerpts from the conversation below.
Why did you pick Monstercat as the label to team up with?
Honestly I think Monstercat is the future of the music industry. Looking at all the other majors, or even the sub-labels of the majors, they're just kind of gated and they have a system. They run people through, and people have to have the same sound. Monstercat is an open format that's open to change, so I think I saw them as something that's different and unique.
Why do a visual with every song?
The project from day one has been a full audio visual experience. I found Raven's work to be the visual equivalent of my music, where you're using a computer to make stuff that's very organic and human. Through imperfections and things that are unpredictable, if you look at the visuals or the audio, it feels like it's real even though it's made by a computer. The relationship between me and Raven is really natural that way.
And that's a larger goal for you — to illustrate the blurry line between human and computer?
Exactly. The first album was definitely more the computer side. As I go, the second album I plan to be more human through more audio recordings, different samples, real musicians. It's gonna slowly be an evolution over the years the albums come out.
How did you encounter Raven's work?
I found his Vimeo account end of 2014. He was still in school getting his Masters. I reached out to him, sent him the music, and he hopped on board. We both understood what we were trying to do, and we both saw potential in it.
You have several vocalists on the album — was there any worry from your perspective that the human presence would take the focus off the artificial intelligence component?
Initially that might have been. But it worked out how I hoped where they brought a more human element to it. It's always a collaboration: you work with this singer, they brought what they did, you brought what you did.
Was it easy to get them on board with this sort of unusual collaboration — working with an AI?
It wasn't really a problem. I found the people that I thought were unique and doing something a little different, whether they had been around for a while or were newer. Like with Raven, I sent a bunch of music and visuals, like, here's what we can do, let's make it work. Every time, they were on a board with it.
So the Hex video gives a taste of the live aspect of this project?
That's exactly the live set-up. We're planning our shows now. I'm gonna do a showcase with Monstercat pretty soon; next year we're gonna do a full tour. It's a real simple set-up I designed — it can travel well, it's easy to transport and everything. We plan to take it on the road everywhere we can. All year, Raven and I have been working on the live show, from modeling it to finding the right materials and the visuals and how to perform it. Like all of Raven's work, the visual is based on the music — the visual runs through the music, and reacts to it.
Is that the first A.I. tour that you know of?
I think people have done similar models — if you look at Gorillaz maybe. They put the art form first and don't really stray from that. That's all you need: your music videos, and the feeling of the project is converted into live. Music vs., "pay attention to me." When you're at the show, you're like, I know this — this video is an alteration on the "Build The Cities" music video.
You also put out some classical sheet music with the deluxe edition of your album — what was the thinking behind that?
I thought people would really enjoy it. There's a lot of acoustic covers I see — people playing some basic four chords on the piano and singing on top. But [I wanted] to do it in a bigger way and show that the scope of the project is not about just dance music. The feeling is more important than the genre.
We actually had some of the most downloads of any link I put up with that sheet music. Thousands of people downloaded it in the first day, which I thought was really interesting and a little unexpected. At first I thought it would be a small, passionate group of people. How many people can play songs? I think even people who didn't know how to play piano, wanted to learn how to play piano because of it. Or at least fumble their way through it.
Then you're also releasing a BitTorrent bundle of the music for free?
The way I see it is, people buying music now is very much supporting the artist. If it comes out on iTunes, they know that they can stream it on Spotify or steal it if they wanted to do. But I think people appreciate having the artists chart and financially supporting them. But then there's millions of people that don't do that. If they're not gonna do that, might as well reach out to them. The people who pay still get a head start. You can't stop the internet. You might as well embrace it.