January 22, 2014 by Dan Swinhoe
Most metal videos are pretty shit. Live videos feel cheap, lyric videos feel lazy, and the rest are usually half-hearted efforts with cheesy special effects. So imagine my surprise when I came across the video for Empyrean. Mouthless guitar players, eerie flower people, riffs. The video is surreal, mixing starkly coloured dreamscapes and Hindu imagery with a crushing Djent soundtrack.
Pretty good, no? Empyrean is the work of Ganesh Rao, an Artist, film-maker and musician based in Texas. So I caught up with him to pick his brains about the concept and making of the video, and about combining metal and hindu into one musical mix.
DR: ‘Empyrean’ is one of the most impressive metal videos I’ve ever seen. Can you talk us through the concept/inception of the video?
Ganesh Rao: Empyrean was done as a school project, and the idea was to explore techniques of digital filmmaking and visual effects integration. The concept started out as a series of sketches that I had drawn after being inspired by personal dreams. And it eventually developed into a narrative about birth within an alternate world, where the human body is intertwined with plants. Artistically, I was interested in combining mythological imagery from Hinduism with the aesthetics and simplicity of Butoh performance. I focused on creating an ambience and mood where we saw the formation of an individual.
How long did it take to film? What were the most difficult aspects of filming?
Our process on Empyrean was very experimental, we had ideas which we had never attempted before, so we constantly did tests and trials. The preproduction process lasted about four months, during which did two shoots and ran the footage through a quick visual effects integration process to determine how we had to alter our method for the final shoots.
The final production shoot was spread out over two weeks, and each session required four days of preparation for setting, reseting and preparing the stage and lights. Each shoot was preceded by roughly six hours of makeup and costume, and the shoot itself would last several hours. I remember on one of the days, I had spent six hours painting all the models using a small airbrush and then gone straight into filming for another twelve hours without any breaks. It was exhausting but we were all very passionate and our setups usually included rather weird elements that it felt like one really long party.
What were the reactions like when you revealed the video?
Reactions have been mostly positive and encouraging. Most people react to the form and craftsmanship, either appreciating it or drawing parallels to works of other artists. Some go beyond the medium and ponder upon its meaning, often verbalizing thoughts and emotions that the piece evokes in them. Personally, I enjoy hearing someone say something that changes the way I think about the piece, those are the kind of reactions you always hope to receive, the ones that help you grow.
Why are most metal videos lacking the kind of creativity that ‘Empyrean’ showed?
I don’t think there is ever a lack of creativity, because creativity is a process of refining thought, and everyone can do that. However to make something valuable, it requires a great deal of commitment. You have to be able to put aside your ego, and have the determination and discipline to focus on the work, and learn new things, and do what the project demands. If you are honestly interested in the project and committed to the process, then you will naturally find ways to overcome all obstacles and create something valuable.
Have you been approached to do any more music videos because of it?
Yes, I had the opportunity to direct one video for TesseracT from UK, and one for Gods of Eden from Australia.
I had spent six hours painting all the models using a small airbrush and then gone straight into filming for another twelve hours without any breaks.
‘Empyrean’ was featured at SXSW 2012, how did it feel getting your work to such a big audience?
It was very rewarding and encouraging to see the work featured among internationally claimed artists. And the unique experience at SXSW was that it felt very homely. I was able to meet with several people who were responsible for the work that was shown there, and it was very humbling to realize that we were all facing the same set of challenges irrespective of the scale or diversity of the end-result.
What’s the status of your ‘Forbidden Circle‘ project? Is it finished, and will it be released as a whole?
I get to work on Forbidden Circle only between projects, so it is developing rather slowly but I’m happy that it is making progress. I have given it about three years of my life so far, and I’ve tried to weave it from the most interesting ideas I’ve been able to produce in that period. However, these ideas haven’t fully matured yet and it needs more time to grow into a smooth surface and become a unique entity in itself. I keep posting unpolished vignettes from the project on my SoundCloud page just to keep myself excited about it, but the project as a whole has a long way to go before I will be comfortable revealing it.
In your interview with Musings of a Djentleman, you said you wanted to blend hindu music with ambient metal, what is it about mixing these two styles/cultures that interests you?
Picasso said that painting is a way of keeping a diary, and I think that is very true of all art forms, because all art is unconscious self portraiture. My music is definitely no exception to this, because it is a representation of my memories and thoughts. I grew up in Southern India surrounded by symbols and practices of Hinduism and those memories seep into my music and I proudly embrace it. The same holds true for the choice of instrumentation and style. I became interested in consciously thinking about music right about the same time when I was listening to artists like Steve Vai, Mattias Ek Lundh, Arch Enemy, Pantera, Tool, Meshuggah, Dream Theater, Prem Joshua, Air, Björk, Massive Attack, Portishead etc. so my musical thought is deeply rooted in the language within their work. I can’t separate it from myself and I let it guide me.
Your music is made up of instrumentals, have you ever been tempted to bring in guest vocalists?
I enjoy collaborating with individuals who are devoted to experimentation. The earlier in the process that they get involved, the more fulfilling the experience becomes. When I find such collaborators, if they decide to bring their vocal instrument to my playground, then I’ll gladly accept it.
What projects are you working on at the minute?
I currently serve as the director at Ushtaang Productions, a company that I started in 2012. We’re a small group of dedicated artists and strategists and primarily focus on visual fine art and filmmaking. We’re currently working on a few projects including one piece directed by Jonny Greenwald (who directed photography for Empyrean.) We’re also working on a few other commercial projects including a music film for Gods of Eden. Besides that I’m working on developing my personal artwork and constantly searching for exhibition opportunities.
What’s your musical background?
In the late 90s I became interested in singing on the stage, but I couldn’t find backing tracks to sing with, so I decided to create my own backing tracks using software. I never learned music formally, but I was experienced with computers,so I downloaded a trial version of FruityLoops and started experimenting with it. Eventually I got the hang of it, and was able to program full length tracks from scratch.Later I began hearing new melodies in my own head, and I started programming those ideas using the software to create originals.
While I was in undergraduate school, I bought an acoustic guitar and took ten sessions with a local guitar teacher who taught me to play the basic chords shapes. Once we got high-speed internet in our house I started learning from videos on Youtube. I watched several hours of technical guitar tutorial videos and focused on playing licks, solos and cover songs. I wanted to be able to shred, but I was unable to do it with precision, character and emotion, and practicing with metronomes wasn’t very satisfying.
I then had to move to USA for graduate school, and during the first year there I didn’t have any means to make music, but in that time I learned about visual story telling and animation in school. So finally when I bought an electric guitar and started making music again, I became interested in telling stories though my music. I focused on song writing, and creating moods, and expressing personal emotions through music. I took a class on electronic composition and got exposed to experimental techniques, and also became interested in production techniques, especially mixing and mastering, and creating organic sounds. When pursuing a masters degree in fine art I read essays on art and philosophy which I think have helped deepen my understanding and appreciation for music as an art form of subconscious communication.
What are your biggest influences, and which metal bands are you into at the moment?
Musically, I enjoy the thrill of variety than the comfort of familiarity, so I was never interested in closely following specific artists. However, initially I would listen to a lot of Steve Vai, Mattias Ek Lundh, Dimebag Darrel, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert and Björk and it helped me understand the medium. As I grew I felt the need to distance myself from these artists, because I saw it as an act of leaving home and venturing out to arrive at my own identity. At the moment I find myself gravitating towards world-music, and the writings and live performances of Antoine Dufor, Andy McKee, Zakhir Hussain, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Anoushka Shankar and Prem Joshua. Besides songwriting, in terms of production, and arrangement, I think my techniques are deeply inspired by Meshuggah, Katatonia, Karnivool, Freak Kitchen, and the recent trend of palm-muted-playing set by TesseracT, Uneven Structure and Vildhjarta.
Anything else to add?
I have always been looking to connect with other artists and learn new ways of thinking from their work. And more recently, I am glad that my work is beginning to help me find and connect with such interesting people who have valuable ideas and insights on life.