Moving Pictures: How a Visual Artist Changed the Music Scene

Johnathan Singer is an artist in every sense of the art.
Moving Pictures: How a Visual Artist Changed the Music Scene
Courtesy of Johnathan Singer

If you’ve been to a festival or any major concerts over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed some innovations happening around the stage. Gone are the days of just stationary or moving lights for arena shows – it’s all about LED screens and 3D projections now. In fact, for most major acts, if you’re not consistently elevating your stage setup and performance, you may start to bore even your most die-hard fans. After all, no matter how much you love a band’s song, one can only listen to Africa by Toto SO many times, right?

While this may seem commonplace to some in this day and age, back in the early ’90s the majority of stage setups consisted only of sets of spotlights, with the back wall typically reserved for an oversized display of the headliner’s logo. This may not be unusual now for bar shows and smaller venues, but when your fans are paying sometimes hundreds of dollars to see you perform, you better make sure you’re consistently delivering.

One way major artists like Dead & Company, Tipper, and Shpongle ensure they’re consistently bringing their A-game is by employing visual wizards like Johnathan Singer.

Chris Dyer remix

A lifelong creative, Johnathan Singer is something of a legend in the Moving Visual Art world. Having helped consistently advance the art of VJ-ing, Singer has been moving lights and painting stories for well over two decades. 

“I was always an artist. Always doing graffiti and street art. Trying to participate in that world in LA – which is a tough, but a great thing, because anytime you’re in an environment like that – having competition always allows you to raise your level instead of staying stagnant. Growing up in Los Angeles, as you can imagine, everything was going on.” Singer said, “As you can see in Venice, nowadays, you can imagine the ’80s – where Hip Hop was fresh, skating was fresh – you know, stuff was happening where hobbies for people at the time were growing up and turning into jobs…”

He can trace most of his artistic roots back to his upbringing. His early years included helping his mother produce a local magazine in Culver City, where he discovered a passion for his ability to develop an idea from beginning to end. 

“My mother was a huge inspiration!” Singer noted. “She taught me about production… we worked on plays together as I was growing up. My family was very supportive. I also grew up with a huge amount of friends that always inspired one another. Everyone raised each others level.” 

Fueled to create, Singer can trace his fascination with the psychedelic scene back to the first Grateful Dead concert he attended at the Silver Bowl in Las Vegas in 1992. 

“I got a very special show. 5/30/92 was a double rainbow show – I had no idea what to expect at all.” Singer reminisced of the experience. “It was absolutely magic…. And I chased it, you know, as we say, I chased the sparkle.”

Since Barnes remix

His next show, however, changed the trajectory of his life from that point forward.

“In ‘93, the second year that I went to Vegas, they brought out these screens, and it blew my mind. There was nothing that I had seen like that. It was actually Candace Brightman, and they were using the toaster, which was this brand new mega camera mixer software – a crazy psychedelic thing that nobody had ever really seen before. It was the first time that they were really doing live visuals with the band, and to me it was just like everything I wanted. I remember looking at the screens and going ‘That’s what I want to do!’”

After taking a few years to develop his ideas, he began performing live in 2000. By 2003 he was on tour.

“One of the things that I love are folk tales. That’s kind of what I’ve tried to do with my visuals. It’s very different than a lot of what you’ll see out there – which is very fast, very rapid. I really like to blend images together that actually tell a story with the music.”

The most amazing thing I gathered from my conversations with Johnathan was the complete lack of ego involved in his process… for him, it’s really about creating a memorable experience. It was this mentality that lead him to invite friends like Android Jones into the fold to continue to advance these performances – which now often involve several high-powered projectors and multiple visual artists performing in real-time alongside the auditory performers. 

This egoless approach has proved valuable for Singer’s career, eventually connecting him with Tipper, a British composer popularized for his diverse range of genres and insanely impressive turntable skills. Tipper, who’s a notoriously shy performer, truly believes the music he’s playing is more important than his physical being. He’s even been known to perform off to the side of the stage to allow fans a fuller view of the visual performance. It was the marriage of these mindsets that allowed this pair to bring a true renaissance to the performing arts world – reimagining how the DJ and the VJ can perform in sync. 

“He never wanted the spotlight on him. He has always allowed for the music and the art to speak for itself.” Singer said of Tipper, “This is truly what allows for the journey. The music and the art are the vessel. The ego just gets in the way. Since day one there has always been that collaborative spirit. He believes in the artist he chooses to work with and allows them to bring their art into the mix. Never has he told me anything except ‘Do what you do’.”

(If you’ve never seen one of Tipper’s performances, or had the privilege of viewing one of Singer’s visual journeys, the pair will be performing together next weekend at Summer Meltdown in Darrington, WA for what’s sure to be a memorable experience. I don’t want to oversell, but you’ve got to see what this guy can do to trees. When I tried to press for more info, he replied simply “It’s been awhile, so I’m super excited to work with Tipper at Meltdown. We have some very special things in store visually.”)

Since Barnes remix

His developments to the medium eventually caught the eye of the Grateful Dead’s management – the band that initially inspired him – and nearly 20 years after beginning to blaze this trail his journey came full circle, and he was performing alongside some of his biggest heroes as the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well tour’s ‘visual mixologist’.

It wasn’t always an easy ride, though. Technology has often failed to keep up with Singer’s vision, and he’s used to having to wait sometimes years to try some of his desired experiments. Much of what he does today was not possible back in the mid 90’s when he was starting out, and many of the advancements made to that tech can be traced back to Singer’s dreams and community. For example, one of Singer’s early dreams was to connect multiple projectors to expand the range of view, as well as add in additional projections from other artists. He’s exploring this more in depth with the team from Datagrama at some of Tipper’s events, and is part of pioneering this exciting new format combining multiple visual outputs in one performance.

Having worked with and supported some of the world’s most renowned artists, Singer’s network expands far beyond the secular art scenes he grew up in. Singer’s visuals have supported countless other improvisational musicians like Steve Kimock, Rat Dog, and Mickey Hart, typically re-working art from renowned visionary painters such as MARS-1, Luke Brown, and the inestimable Alex & Allyson Grey. More recently he’s begun infusing his own art into the mix, and his plans don’t end there. 

“I haven’t done a show visually without music, or music directed by me, although it’s a huge dream. I would love one day to listen to what musicians thought my visuals sounded like… Create a live improvisational show.” 

After surpassing what seemed like his least likely dream just a few short years ago when being asked to join The Dead on tour, Johnathan continues to concoct new experiments and ways to innovate on his own creations. When asked ‘what’s next?’ he’s got a slew of answers. Besides the VR projects and clothing lines he has in production, Singer is working with Slightly Stoopid on their visual performance. He’s also developing a curriculum to start teaching the art of visuals. And while it may take some time, he’s still got another dream in mind: 

“I’m going to project on the Great Pyramids of Giza. I’m not giving up on that!”

(Disclaimer: I lied about Toto earlier. Africa is the greatest song ever written and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since 1993.)

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