“The last three months of our lives have been devoted to this night,” said Yvonne Lambert, dressed resplendently in a bustier-meets-Wild West parlor dress. She stood behind her keyboard on a circular stage positioned under a giant rectangular tent in the parking lot of Whole Foods. Surrounding her and her three tie-wearing bandmates, collectively an instrumental rock band from Austin called the Octopus Project, were a couple hundred curiosity-seekers gathered last Friday night for show one of a two-show spectacle.
Surrounding them were eight speakers blasting a cacophony of sounds, and above that eight screens transmitting all sorts of psychedelia: rocks piling up in supermarket aisles, animal headshots, cartoon planets, random patterns, the view of a snake slithering through grass, cityscapes, atom signs, pink Grimace-looking figures wearing mirrored masks like those found on the front of astronauts’ helmets, and, in the final scene, a pair of girls in matching blond wigs who could have been David Lynch characters.
And surrounding all that, buoying the entire operation with euphoria, was the Octopus Project’s music, a glorious waterfall of humming circuitry. You are now in “Hexadecagon,” an imaginative example of not only the convergence of music and cinema that’s representative of SXSW, but also the free, open-to-the-public scene built around the fringes of official festival showcases, in this case with visual stimulation in the vein of the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests and auditory aspiration on par with the Flaming Lips’ “Zaireeka” album.
“It’s either a 16-sided shape,” Wiley Wiggins said in an interview a week before the performance, “or a really crazy, giant tent.” Wiley’s an actor/multimedia man who first leaped onto the pop culture radar by playing Mitch Kramer in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.” He was enlisted by fellow Austinite Josh Lambert, husband to Yvonne and a multi-instrumentalist who shares duties on drums, guitar and keys with Toto Miranda and Ryan Figg.
The band tasked Wiley with designing and broadcasting eight simultaneous videos at once live from his computer. “Each song has its own weird theme,” Wiley said of the vignettes. So while what might have looked and sounded like improvisation under that tent was really an orchestrated affair. And to hear the Octopus Project talk about the mechanics of it can make you feel clueless.
“Think of it like choreography for sounds,” Miranda said of the eight-speaker configuration and the possibilities therein. “Whether it’s clockwise, counterclockwise, bouncing from one side to the other — we’re just trying to think of as many different ways to have a sound move.” The Octopus Project also were able to manipulate the video through their audio using a MIDI and effects software called VDMX. “Like, a hi-hat hit will trigger images of some guys dancing around,” Josh said.
But all of that was lost on the crowd, who basked in the operatic melisma of Yvonne’s theremin, an instrument played by moving your hands in the air around it, like a conductor. The hour-long show had two-minute intervals of silence between songs to allow the computers and instruments to synch up. Josh said some of the songs will end up on the band’s next album. To see him watch it all play out was quite a sight — he spent stretches on the drums just staring at the underside of the tent with a smile that couldn’t have been wiped off with a full bottle of Windex.
But things weren’t always so free and easy. The band knew it needed help if it was going to break its annual tradition of playing Emo’s for SXSW, without compromising the ambition inherent in a tireless creativity made manifest in its historically elaborate, costume- and prop-filled live shows. The Octopus Project needed corporate sponsorship. They contacted Whole Foods.
“It was the first time we’ve ever had to go into a boardroom and give a pitch,” Yvonne said. “But they said, ‘yes,’ like, within two hours. We were all pretty excited but there was also kind of this holy crap moment, where we were like, we actually have to do this.”
[Additional photos courtesy of Wiley Wiggins and Knoxy of knoxphotographics.com]