Danny Scales is a Brooklyn based musician who is a designer and photographer at Philistine Design, Director and co-founder at Voiid Studio and Art Director at Felte. He directed the ZA cleansing line video and was the illustrator of the original ZA skulls. Read on to learn more about his practice in music, art and design.
I think of my creative life as a process of learning, collecting and assimilating languages — different palettes and media for different ideas and feelings.
I’m still amazed by what remains — what is it that’s underneath the waves of all the changing syntax and grammar that stays intact, even if you translate a poem into 14 different languages.
Tell us about your creative experiences and your visual aesthetics.
I think of my creative life as a process of learning, collecting and assimilating languages — different palettes and media for different ideas and feelings. I actually started with music, composing on the piano from a very young age — that was my first love, creatively.
I taught myself to play by learning saccharin 90s pop ballads, Beethoven and Enya songs by ear on an old cassette player (I am 500 years old). And I was an insatiable reader so I began learning to write — whatever the hell it is, that kids like — I was writing surreal horror stories mostly, then poetry as I got all romantic and pubescent. I entered eventually a slightly less disastrous prose as I got older.
Somewhere in there my aunt bought me paints, some canvases and a portfolio (which I still have in my apt here in Brooklyn) — when I was in maybe 4th grade — and I fell in love again, this time with the visual. I made weird, dark, completely naive abstract paintings until I was in my late teens. Around then my roommate bought an old PC with Photoshop 5 (I am 600 years old) and I started getting really excited by the possibilities of creating and manipulating imagery digitally, reveling in the ability to finally realize all these ideas I could see in my mind but couldn’t paint.
I was almost completely oblivious to the concept of formal graphic design but I was in love and I’d stay up for days at a time working on projects, just learning and experimenting with the new language, which suddenly included literally everything I'd ever seen because of the internet. I remember being so exhilarated.
All the while I was playing in bands around Detroit so I would make posters and flyers for shows, album art (for cassettes! for burned DVRs! I am 700 years old!), etc. Becoming interested in “actual design” happened only incidentally, almost on accident and sort of by necessity as I discovered it was something I could do for money if I could become more skilled.
After years of designing, I got frustrated by not being able to control all the incoming imagery so I got interested in photography and have been doing that for years now too. And then when you add music, storytelling, design and composition, photography and poetry together you get film. As I’d always been in love with it, that was a natural next step and then I started Voiid Studio. So at this point in my life, after trying relentlessly to assimilate all these different languages, I’ve now worked as an illustrator, graphic designer then art director, as a musician in bands and as a solo artist releasing records and composing music for film, as a photographer, a producer and a director and as far as I’m concerned — they’re all essentially the same thing, just some weird impulse translated into all these different languages.
People talk about things “getting lost in translation” but what I’m still amazed by is what remains — what is it that’s underneath the waves of all the changing syntax and grammar that stays intact even if you translate a poem into 14 different languages? That's the space I find myself attracted to, that’s the spell I’m trying to learn to say by learning all these languages.
What did you want to portray through the video? What was your visual intention throughout the video?
I wanted to tell the simplest possible story of liberation, of a metaphorical “cleansing’ that allowed for the maximum amount of freedom to experiment visually within the constraints of doing a production in a smaller studio.
I imagined a mythical being suddenly coming to, becoming aware and realizing it was trapped, then proceeding through these phases of liberation in these different psychic spaces; coming to recognize and wrestling with fetters in something of a void, a place of shade, then the removal of the veil and bonds in a harsher, lightening space, the removal of the mask in a false-sky, a place of illusory freedom, and then a sort of death with the abandonment of that identity, and the final cleansing after a reawakening in a dark, cave(womb)-like space, moving into the real light, a clean, pure light and finally revealing the face of our beautiful Maria, released at last.
It’s more of a poem, there’s no need to go into deeper explanation of the symbolism — it’s clearly just running on some unrefined kerosene-like archetypal fuel, it structured itself very intuitively. Talking about it now — I admit, it sounds a more than a little… spiritual… I’m fairly certain I didn’t pitch it that way… *shrug* sometimes we show our cards on accident. I think it’s a hopeful piece. Maria was a dream to work with.
What do you find most inspiring and where do you find inspirations?
I have no idea where inspiration comes from. If I did I’d be in a very very different place I think. I’m not sure you get to know stuff like that really — you kinda just have to wait it out, staying alert, darting your eyes around like a predator.
I do know if I read a couple books at once, swapping every other chapter, then watch a bunch of movies and don’t talk to anyone for a couple days something will bubble up. Sometimes it all comes in a flash while I’m just walking around trying to remember what my girlfriend told me to get from the grocery store. I will 100% always forget something and I’m like “Did she say onions? Or onion powder? I think it was onions. Oh my god I should make a video about a translucent robot malfunctioning in a park.”
Not sleeping also really helps. Sometimes I listen to music, but that’s so attached to other practices of mine it can be too distracting, I start thinking technically and the ideas die. I actually come up with a lot of ideas while I’m playing video games. There’s something very meditative about running around shooting your enemies in the head. Keeps the id occupied so the other parts of your nature can talk to you for a little while — mine is a little loud most of the time, unfortunately.
How is living in NYC as a multi-artist?
It can be good. Fortifying. Even a little romantic if you’ve been a couple and are feeling sentimental. But it can also be terrifying and deeply, deeply stressful. Mostly that, really, if you experience feelings of doubt like a normal person.
A lot of times it feels like you’re competing in the Olympics of everything-you-ever-dreamed-of-doing and you’re surrounded by people laden with gold medals and $2000 jackets and you have no idea how they got there, and you’re like, “Is the race over? Everyone seems to be standing over here…” and then a bunch of 22 year old kids blow by, lapping you, dressed like they’re from the future and you’re like what the hell is going on? But maybe that’s just me.
So mostly I just don’t think about it and work. Read and watch and work and chase ideas and think about how expensive rent is in this godforsaken place I can’t imagine ever actually leaving. You know it’s been 10 years I’ve never even seen the Statue of Liberty or gone to a play or seen the cloisters?
How did you like collaborating with Too Cool For School?
I loved it. It was a little daunting pitching my somewhat overwrought concept, but once I nailed down the looks and tone and approach and story for them and really established that it was in fact all executable with the means at hand, we just bolted for the finish line. Shot it all, as well as some product shoots, in two days. It was bananas.
Tim (our ultimate, on-set, swiss army knife AP) saved us a dozen times at least — a vacationing hematologist showed up to PA one day. Then I handled the edit, the effects and color grade and the score myself, which was insane but made a grisly kind of sense at the time, and TCFS was unbelievably patient and supportive. I still feel really grateful for the opportunity and support. It was a really rare experience. I’m glad we all survived.
as told to Too Cool For School
New York City, October 2017