Telesonic 9000 – Art Rock, Electropop, & Vintage Cinema, Interview

Telesonic 9000 is an innovative audiovisual project that blends art rock, electropop, and vintage mid-century films. Created by Berlin-based American drummer and producer Dominick Gray, the project integrates live drumming with electronic music and archival footage to explore themes of technological optimism and the human experience. Telesonic 9000 debuted in 2015 and has since developed into a distinctive “film concert” experience. Since its inception, Telesonic 9000 has evolved into a “film concert” that weaves together dynamic music and vintage visual elements. The 2019 album and film, Progress, and the 2023 EP E•C•H•O, explores the promises and challenges of technological advancements.

Telesonic 9000’s official site

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, what were some of the most influential musical experiences you had? What were some of your earliest musical influences that shaped your sound in Telesonic 9000?

Music and movies were pretty much always on around the house, and luckily my parents have great taste in music. As a kid I saw my father – also a drummer – play a lot around Toledo. A major shift happened when I started attending Toledo School for the Arts around age 12. Studying music and being in an artistic environment 5 days a week really laid the groundwork to explore creativity. The Midwest is an interesting place because the scenes exist outside of the major cultural influence of the coasts. There you find a lot of unusual, left-of-center music that makes a big impression on you growing up. My high school band Phantasmagoria was very influenced by high-concept bands like Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, and DJ Shadow. And seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey at the right age, 13 or 14, really set the stage for what I’d get into later.

What’s the story behind the name Telesonic 9000?

I had performed it for a long time without a name, and eventually spent days scribbling down phonemes and syllables before settling on something which has that midcentury whizbang sound and gives the impression of a state-of-the-art media creation machine. 9000 comes from the HAL 9000 supercomputer in 2001.

What led to your decision to move to Berlin in 2014 and pursue drumming full-time?

Impulse, mostly. I was living in Chicago and working in theatre. It was a great experience, but I needed to make the jump to playing music full-time. A few recurring dreams and that internal voice which says “Go” got me curious about living in Europe. It was very spontaneous and I didn’t have much of a plan. A series of chance circumstances led me to Berlin, which I had previously visited for about 4 days.

Telesonic 9000 Turin 1 Credit Ratavöloira
Telesonic 9000, Turin, © Ratavöloira

Can you describe the initial challenges you faced when starting Telesonic 9000? What was the atmosphere of the Berlin music scene like when you first started performing there? How has it influenced your artistic direction?

The audiovisual elements are great since they allow the project to take a lot of different forms – it can be performed in a club, a cinema, a museum, or even screened as a standalone film. But because of this it took me a long time to get to the core of Telesonic’s voice and identity.

The Berlin scene was – and still is – very diverse in terms of people from different countries interacting and creating with one another. It widens your perspective pretty profoundly. At the same time, it was a chaotic place to jump into without any connections. There I joined a pop band called Alright Gandhi, which completely changed my playing style to be more sensitive to songs and dynamics. I’ve been able to meet and work with great people, and it’s taken me around the world.

Telesonic 9000 Credit Riley Dale
Telesonic 9000 © Riley Dale

How do the visual elements of your performances enhance the audience’s experience of your music?

That’s hard to pinpoint. It was my goal to make a 3-headed creature of a live show. There’s interplay between audio, visuals, and ideas, all centering around drums. So it’s up to the audience how much they balance that out and what they get from it. Some people dance and respond to the music and drumming. Others stare at the video screen and zone out. Sometimes people come up to me after the show and discuss ideas which they picked up on. A lot of times they make connections which I didn’t make myself when creating it. One person was even inspired to make his own project using percussion and VHS-style media to communicate the autistic experience. He’s now taking that to CalArts.

What is your favorite piece of equipment to use when creating your music?

My practice pad.

What are some unique challenges you face when performing live as both a drummer and a multimedia artist?

I had to work on keeping a strong presence as the sole performer onstage. It’s something drummers aren’t wired to do, usually. But I feel good about that now. Other times, people don’t quite know what to make of it until 10 minutes into the show. Some hear ‘multimedia artist’ and expect an hour of noise and abstract visuals, which is not what I do. I’ve gotten very used to adjusting new audiences to the show quickly, with very little context.

How did you develop the idea of a “film concert” format for your shows? How do you decide which historical themes to explore in your audiovisual projects?

The film concert came about when solving the puzzle of how to do a solo show that could be unique and more interesting than a drummer alone onstage. And asking What kind of show would I like to see? I had a small collection of public domain archive films (now over 1000 strong), and worked with editing and reassembling the footage. It satisfied my curiosity about filmmaking. The starting point was Running Man, and from there I added more songs and accompanying footage to make a live show. Immediately it became clear that the videos could be used to create a contour to the performance and allow the project to embody many different ideas.

The themes usually decide themselves. It starts intuitively from a kernel of an idea – a musical demo, a great piece of footage, a moment needed in the live show, thoughts about life – and after a lot of experimentation, a through-line emerges and I shape the footage and music to support a unified idea. I believe all of the themes are in some way rooted in my subconscious. Years after putting it out, I see what I was really getting at.

What was the inspiration behind your album and film release Progress?

Progress is essentially the first batch of songs and videos which made a complete album and film. There wasn’t a grand theme in mind at first, but a friend mentioned that it should be named “Progress”, and it clicked. Each video contained some form of forward movement or progression, and the “future-is-now” spirit of the source material made it clear.

What are some future projects you’re currently working on?

There are live band performances in the works as well as a few single and EP releases that will bridge the most recent songs and videos to the next full album / film release.

What inspired the themes for your latest release, the EP E•C•H•O?

E•C•H•O is a reaction to social media and the attention economy which is all the rage right now. It follows the initial wonder and promise of new technology, then shifts into an area where that charm is broken by the realities of tech over-integration. It concludes at what I think the logical endpoint of this phase will be: pure information overload. The Parallax View from 1974 has a montage which heavily inspired the framing device of E•C•H•O.

Telesonic 9000 Videocitta 2 Credit Monkeys Video Lab
Telesonic 9000 Videocitta, © Monkeys Video Lab

How do you approach the theme of technological optimism in your work, especially considering the current state of the digital age and the evolving role of generative AI in music production?

I like to think that one can always look at the work and relate it to where we are now.

Telesonic is very American, despite me being based abroad. All of the footage has a self-reflexive quality that captures the postwar period of American upward mobility, innovation, and cultural output. At the same time, that revolution set the stage for the anxious and uneasy place we find ourselves in in the 21st century. Somewhere along the line, collectively, we in the West stopped caring about the world being made for future generations, so optimism became a nostalgic thing. It’s defined by loss, and hope. We could learn something from the midcentury idealism, which for a time was rooted in using technology and industry as tools to provide everyone with a dignified life.

AI in music production is the same as AI in any field. It’s a material threat and existential challenge to human purpose. Maybe people don’t care enough about the uniquely human elements of expression. So the more AI and ‘smart’ technology integrates into our lives, the more the world will probably feel pretty synthetic, until we decide to put more value on the humanities. Digital intelligence fundamentally does not contain any element of relatability, so it is uninteresting to me. AI gathers information and ‘learns’ from pattern recognition. Humanity does that too, but creates purpose through meaning and expression. 

Photos courtesy of Dominick Gray

Last Updated on July 9, 2024 by retrofuturista

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