Symposeum cover artist Steve Loya and cover musician Tristan Welch in conversation with editor Matt Miller.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. It is a special feature for the digital edition of Issue 2.
Matt Miller: How did you two meet? How long have you known each other?
Steve Loya: I saw some footage on Instagram posted by a local record collector of Tristan playing the guitar with a saxophone player. They were playing at a record store in D.C. and I thought, “Wow…this is pretty cool.” So, I looked Tristan up and I saw he was playing nearby. I contacted him beforehand, introduced myself and explained that I’d been working on a project where I make abstract paintings influenced by music. I asked if he’d be willing to collaborate on a similar project. So, we met up in person online. He was all for it. It happened organically as a low-pressure project that resulted in a beautiful set of music and paintings.
MM: What did that look like at the beginning? Were you trying to advertise it, put it out there, get some engagement?
SL: There wasn't anything too concrete at first. We thought, let's just see what happens. I'll send you some images, you make some music and vice versa. Eventually, it started to take shape. Halfway through the collaboration, we thought maybe we could make this into some kind of album, maybe a compact disc or a digital format. Something that could be consumed by the public. Some record of our audio-visual, artistic collaboration.
MM: This project explicitly references chromesthesia, which is a condition in which sounds evoke color and other visual sensations. Do either of you actually experience chromesthesia? Or is something you were interested in thinking about through this project?
Tristan Welch: I hadn't really thought too much about it. But, I should say that a friend of mine was actually working on a similar, synesthesia-based project. I was familiar with the idea when Steve brought it up: synesthesia is when one sense triggers another sense. Numbers or letters may have specific colors to them, you know. Or sounds feel like touch. So chromesthesia is just a specific form of that.
Anyway, about twelve years ago, I started to play music with people and I wasn’t as rehearsed as a lot of the people I was playing with. One of the guys who was helping me, teaching me some riffs, said, “I think you should think of your guitar as a paintbrush. Think of every note you're playing as a different color.” I've never been interested in playing covers of The Rolling Stones. The idea of my guitar being a paintbrush, creating art, color, vision, was attractive to me. So when Steve mentioned the idea, this memory instantly came to mind. I wanted to jump right in. This is exactly how I approach music: that is, it’s not necessarily about creating a pop tune or something catchy.
SL: I remember thinking it was a cool coincidence that your guitar instructor said that about the guitar as a paintbrush. I never really pictured you as someone trying to get in touch with their inner Eddie Van Halen, anyway.
I have never personally experienced chromesthesia myself. At least, I don't think I have. At one point, Tristan and I were talking about how it could be a learned thing. Sometimes I'd sit down in my basement studio in the dark and I would see things like colors. But, it was never anything explicit or vivid. I have always been fascinated by films like Disney's Fantasia, where they try to illustrate music visually. You see bands and artists do this a lot, trying to put pictures to the music. Tiko, for example, is this musician with very strong visual elements in his live shows and even in his album covers. He's a graphic designer himself. And of course quite a few musicians and artists have collaborated in the past.
MM: That's a really organic way to approach it. So, I have to ask: What are your favorite colors? Are there certain sounds that make you think of those colors?
TW: Steve works with a lot of colors, but the truth is: I'm a black-and-white kind of guy. If I'm ever doing any graphics on my own, I stick with what's visually appealing to me. But, when it comes to Steve's art, my wife and I have a bluish-green painting of his in our home. What I like most about it is the mesh of color, the combination.
SL: I'm really attracted to a teal or turquoise kind of bluish-green. It has an aquatic element to it. I like that in music too: fluid, flowing, aquatic.
MM: I sense a lot of that movement that you mentioned, Steve, when I listen to the three tracks that Tristan made for this collaboration. More specifically, I’d like to touch on the titles of the songs: “Open,” “Willing,” and “Honest.” They seemed familiar in a way. And then I remembered these words are also part of the language used in addiction recovery circles. So, I wanted to talk about the idea of recovery, in general, and also how it relates to you. How do you see this idea reflected in your work, technically or emotionally?
TW: Originally, I started with the title of Steve’s series of paintings: Ascending. I liked the word itself and thought it portrayed an experience of recovery. After I recorded the songs, however, I realized that our understanding of recovery was different. So, I ended up with the titles that you mentioned: “Open,” “Willing,” and “Honest.” To put it bluntly, I was an addict and I needed help. In order for me to overcome my drug addiction, I had to be open to the idea of recovery before I was willing to do it. Then, I felt that I had to be honest with myself and decide that recovery was something that I needed. That's why I titled them the way I did and in that order. My path towards recovery goes along with Ascending—rising above.
SL: I find art to be a healing practice. At times, I suffer from some minor depression or anxiety. When the pandemic hit, it really hit me hard. The first month I was in a full on panic. Everything that could go wrong went through my mind. I was trying to sort out: How can we get through this? What's going to happen? The unknown is very scary. I was paralyzed for a bit there, but I kept painting. I have been painting a lot actually. I’ve taken up painting again over the past few years. But I'm going to keep it small, and I mean that literally. Small canvases are simpler to manage. It's a gradual process, getting down into my studio, not thinking of anything else, just focusing solely on the painting.
MM: Tristan, I have two questions specifically about the quote from Bandcamp Daily in which contributor Marc Masters called your collaboration with Steve "a mini-soundtrack to a movie about fading memory." Do you think much about memories? How do you think music helps us recover memories?
TW: My music is instrumental, so there are no words to give context. But I do try to give themes or at least reference points. For example, I had a record called “40 hours” which was dictated around workers’ rights. That idea came from a direct experience. I was remembering something. Do I think much about memories? Yes, I do. Not in a nostalgia kind of way, though. Our experiences inform who we are, and I think about that a lot. It was a good description or a good analogy—"a soundtrack to memories”—which are experiences that may be fading. Music could be a way to hold on to them or could be a way to cope with them. The latter is more accurate for me, personally.
MM: I think a collaboration between you two on memory would be really interesting. Steve, the Bandcamp piece says your work is bold and expressive. What kind of adjectives would you use to describe your work?
SL: If I had to choose just one, I would say intuitive. I did have some art training insofar as I went to school, so, it is informed by experience. It’s interesting, my schooling, because half of it included very formal art classes and the other half was about how to be a teacher. (I’ve been an art teacher to small kids for twenty years. I myself have been making art since I was a kid.) These abstract works have been very intuitive, maybe even expressionistic as far as color. I worked on a series a while back that featured endangered animals and wildlife. After a few years, all the fine detail was taking its toll on my eyes and my hand. I knew I had to do something different. That’s when I first dove into abstract work.
MM: Do you listen to the music as you're creating your visuals or do you consume the music, digest it, think about it, and then circle back to make the visuals?
SL: It's a little bit of both. I don't have any musical training or formal understanding of music, but I am an avid listener. It's really the gut feeling I have when I hear Tristan's tracks. They're clearly not party tunes. It’s a more contemplative, more reflective experience. His music has a mixture of emotions: some melancholy, some hope, some optimism, some light. It’s almost like a light beaming through the fog. I found that the music I was listening to was determining, in some ways, the direction of my squeegee, pallet knife, and which colors I was using. The process itself can get pretty messy. You have to use a lot of paint, arrange your set up, and there’s always a lot of cleanup afterwards. I eventually moved towards creating pieces on an iPad, mostly out of convenience. I wanted to try out some different apps, including one called Procreate. It's an amazing, touch-sensitive program. You can control just about anything: opacity, transparency, texture. My paintings for the Ascending series became more and more minimalist as I went along.
MM: Tristan, I have a similar question for you. What was the recording process like?
TW: For these recordings specifically, I started with deeper sounds and used them as a bassline. Then, I let it grow from there. I also have a guitar effects pedal that, in essence, makes my guitar sound like a synthesizer. As I said before, I’m not a great technical guitar player, but I have a decent ear. I know what works for what I’m trying to portray. It's a lot of layering of different notes in a certain key or a lot of repetition. I wanted it to be ambient in nature, more of an experience.
MM: When I listen to the music and click through Steve’s pieces, what I notice most is a move towards resolution. Initially, things are drifting away from each other, past each other, in tension. Then, things gradually thin out, line up, come to a resolution. Steve, you mentioned earlier that Tristan’s music evoked emotions for you, including optimism and hope. What colors or shapes evoke hope in your mind?
SL: I'd say a lighter shade of blue. As far as shapes, jeez, I’d have to say circles.
MM: Tristan, are there any sounds that you especially love hearing? What do they evoke for you?
TW: Somebody once asked me: how do you make your guitar sound like angels? I think he was referring to an arpeggio. When the notes go up into higher octaves, it's very high pitched. I absolutely love that sound in particular. It gives me a sense of, like you were asking Steve, hope. It's a very hopeful, pleasant sound to me. You can add it into the darkest atmosphere imaginable and it brings this slight lift of pleasure.
MM: You both added some great color here, as they say. Thanks for sharing.