Originally, the video for “The Wave and the Powers That Be” was going to be about a guy falling into a puddle and discovering a strange, underwater world.
“Every time I see a puddle,” says Phourist and the Photons front man Nick Hill, “I imagine you could fall through it.”
But filming a mud puddle posed some problems, so Hill opted for a mason jar of water. From there, his stop-motion animation story concept came together into a three-minute underwater adventure that at moments seems playful and fun and at others is downright creepy. The frenetic song that serves as the soundtrack, highlighted by Hill’s startling and urgent vocal delivery, only adds to the effect.
“It could scare children,” he says, then smiles a shy smile. “It’s creepy, yet kind of cute at the same time.”
Creepy and cute. This is what happens when a visual artist crosses over into music, and vice versa. Hill has feet squarely in both camps. The video, which seems to be over in a heartbeat when you watch it, actually took two weeks’ worth of 10-hour days to film.
“That was a lot shorter than I thought it was going to take, honestly,” Hill says. “I’ve seen stop-motion movies, and those usually take, like, a couple of years. I kind of got lost in it. … I had fun doing it, so it didn’t seem like a long time. That’s the thing about music and art and stuff, because it doesn’t seem like it’s taking a long time.”
Of course, he also painted and designed the characters and backdrops and edited the video, which also figured into his investment. Between that, writing, rehearsing and playing frequent shows with his band – which also includes Adam Crowhorn (guitar, bass, air, backing vocals), Cher Von (bass, percussion, ambient sound, backing vocals), Scott Boice (drums) and rotating member James Bohr (guitar, percussion) – it’s hard to imagine he would have time for such a project. Such is the life of an artist. And visionary.
The video for “The Wave” is actually a microcosm of a larger story Hill envisions, one which began a bit differently than it ended up.
“The other idea was to have the story be from the perspective of a puddle who wanted to be a musician,” Hill says. “He wanted to be a musician, but he was a puddle, so he couldn’t sing.”
Hill mumbles something unintelligible to illustrate what a singing puddle might sound like.
“It’s a really weird idea,” he admits. “I decided it’s just too crazy to do.”
I share this part of my recent conversation with Hill only to illustrate how many honest and original ideas flow through this prolific guy’s mind. Interestingly, to meet him and experience his “aw, shucks,” shrug-and-a-smile demeanor, you’d expect him to be the guy who hangs out at the library on weekends and really likes to play chess, not someone imagining wild concepts and creating complex musical compositions.
In fact, while he and his Photons can indeed rock a bit, it is actually ambient, soundtrack composition that really inspires Hill. And it was a long process arriving where he is now. He started out at a very young age interested in writing before shifting into visual arts. This got him into DuPont Manual High School.
“There’s a bunch of nerds at Manual, so I fit right in,” he says. But visual arts weren’t his ultimate calling – specifically the idea of studying visual arts.
“I learned the basics,” he says. “But you know what? You can’t learn art, man. It’s ridiculous to think someone can teach you art. People come up and say ‘How do you start something like this?’ I say, ‘I don’t know.’ My recommendation is just to do things – do something, then move on. Then do something else.”
But music validated him. He admits being “enthralled with melodies,” but says performing and the instant feedback it provides was the real hook.
“I can’t think of a time when I was like, ‘I’m going to do music now,’” he says. “Back [when he first started], I was just playing piano. I would play something for people and they would like really enjoy it, and that was cool for me. I got more positive feedback from playing music than anything else I did. That kind of led me in that direction.”
His interest in music was piqued listening to soundtracks and ambient stuff. As a young boy he memorized the “Star Wars” soundtrack note for note and would hum it relentlessly.
That focus on the non-traditional may have crept into the latest batch of Phourist recordings. “The Wave” is a downloadable single that was originally part of an EP, but the other songs sounded so different he decided the continuity wasn’t there to release it together.
“It was like an epic piano and drum thing,” Hill says. “It sounded like I was trying to be like Nirvana on the piano or something.”
As for the curious band name, Hill says the idea started with his mom. Hill’s middle name is Forrest, and he knew if he used that, the film “Forrest Gump” would eat him alive on Google. So he combined Forrest with “phosphorescence” (in addition to music and weird underwater journeys, Hill also has a thing for light bulbs) and got Phourist.
Hill has a Phourist and the Photons album written and ready to be recorded; he just needs some financing and the right studio. He says he is talking with representation that could help get Phourist music into film and video, but that discussions are just beginning. In the meantime, he continues to hone his band’s sound and perform relentlessly. Oh, and come up with plenty of wild new ideas.
A couple of weeks after my interview with Hill, he sent me a message in response to my asking him how he would describe the sound of his music. He wrote (in part): “I had landed on a descriptive term for the next record – that it was probably gonna sound ‘like bone marrow exploding.’ Like, liquid-y with textural rhythms. … [But] I’m not sure it’s gonna sound like that anymore.”
How would one film a bone marrow explosion? Hill is probably the only guy who might be able to figure that one out. Don’t be surprised if it happens.
Catch Phourist and the Photons this Saturday, May 31, at Open Gallery, located at 2801 S. Floyd Street, along with Tall Squares and Buffalo. Doors open at 7:30 and cover charge s $10.