On an inconceivably warm July evening, the night before kicking off a tour supporting his forthcoming release, Brunei (out Aug. 26), internationally acclaimed visual artist, musician and Valley kid Lionel “Vinyl” Williams greets me with a shy smile as he lets me into the parking garage behind a large, inconspicuous building in Virgil Village.
The location is Non Plus Ultra, one of Los Angeles’ many yet-to-be-widely-discovered DIY art and music spaces, and is also home to Williams, a handful of other artists and two cats. One is Williams', and it looked so comfortable sitting in the single chair in his room that the artist suggested we take the interview outside rather than disturb it.
Vinyl Williams opts to live as far outside the realm of convention as possible, often immersing himself inside the virtual realities he designs. Excitedly, he shows me the one he created to accompany Brunei, diving into our interview before I get the chance to start my recorder. He goes on to describe another project he’s just about finished, a video game console he helped create for Meow Wolf, an immersive art experience production company in Santa Fe. It sounds out of this world.
“It just has psychedelic, explorable realms that are pretty vast, and you can just walk around them in first person,” he explains. “I have to build this Enochian keyboard with this alien language as the buttons and a mouse, this weird animal-looking mouse that’s totally not normal. It’s weird, but it would be intuitive to use.”
Before I can ask what an Enochian keyboard is, Williams is already teaching me about Möbius strips — “things which the inside becomes the outside and where the surfaces switch, and they’re inter-dimensional objects that you find in a black hole, but we actually have them on Earth” — the mysterious 45-degree curves of the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, and the hazards of archaic radio waves. “Their signals are vertical, meaning that it’s extremely detrimental to our biology. But harmonious waves are actually more horizontal. So, what you can do with music, potentially, is flip the waves of electromagnetism so that it’s actually good for you.” Which is what Williams has attempted to do in all of his releases: “I put biogeometrical shapes on the tape magnet when I was mastering my album,” he explains — the same shapes that were used to carve out the Temple of Karnak, which he purchased from an Egyptian architect.
As with most things in his life, Williams takes a similarly intellectual approach to making music. He admits that many of his ideas may come across as “mumbo jumbo” to some, including his longtime collaborator Chaz Bundick, aka Toro y Moi. “When I bring up esoteric stuff to him, he doesn’t want anything to do with it,” Williams says, adding with a laugh, “But he is a human. He’s a grounded human being who does wonderful things for people.”
Williams' aim is to do wonderful things for people, too — to create a positive response to the harmonious waves he attempts to make in his music and give them “that goosebumps thing that happens when you listen to certain types of music.” Spooky, the 1992 album by Lush, gives Williams this feeling — he listens to it every day — as does Brad Laner’s Medicine catalog, which is why Williams enlisted him to help make Brunei.
Williams wants to give “that goosebumps thing” to others with his music by translating what he describes as the single most important experience of his life: his vision of the center star of Orion, Alnilam, a place he describes as “heaven.” (Judging by Brunei, heaven sounds like chillwave. On his SoundCloud, he calls it “celestial pop.”)
“I never even took music seriously because it had just been around me my whole life,” says Williams, the grandson of famous film composer John Williams and son of Mark Towner Williams, a producer and session drummer who also toured with Air Supply when Lionel was a kid. But experiencing Alnilam gave Williams the artistic vision he was previously unable to tap into. “I was essentially dreaming but I was just sitting there. … There was a civilization there, there was architecture that was a cluster that was changing its form, and a waterfall, and everything was modular and changing. I could spend my entire life depicting that and I would still never get the complexity of what I experienced, 90 hours of footage in nine minutes,” he says. “Ever since then, I've had an art practice.”
But Williams doesn’t just want Brunei to make people feel good; he wants the album to inspire political change around the globe. The way Williams describes Alnilam, it’s a place where all forms and religions exist in harmony, an element of his vision he’s made a priority on this album.
“It has become political,” he says. “What I experienced was a rainbow crazy place, and to give back, what I could stand up for, at least, is LGBT rights. Because even in the No. 1-ranked Islamic nation, Brunei, they just incorporated Sharia law, which enforces death by stoning. … It’s really not their fault, it’s nobody’s fault; they’re just living with their long-lived family lineage of culture in mind, and it’s a jail.”
Williams' goals are ambitious, and even he’ll admit that he’s failed at creating the exact harmonious waves he’s strived for in the past. “To be honest, I’m not even close to doing what I really want,” he says, estimating he’s conveyed about 1 percent of his vision of Alnilam. “I’ve just been trying to do it as unfiltered as possible, but it’s funny because it just ends up looking like the most embellished, Instagram-filtered, film-burned, paper texture thing in the world.”
But in addition to his qualitative research, Williams approaches making art with wisdom, humility and patience. “I’m just actually trying to come as close to that initial experience as possible, which is never gonna happen,” he says. “But that’s just what human existence is about.”