Coachella 2019 had its fair share of viral moments — from #Chapchella to Ariana Grande's big *NSYNC collab moment — but the unsung heroes of the festival will always be the artists' set designers. The large scale coordination that goes into every set change, every graphic, and every spectacle that occurs onstage is nothing short of miraculous. Designers and directors are often given tight deadlines to adapt already existing stage shows, and sometimes even bring together brand new shows to the massive desert platform in Southern California.
One of the undisputed great show designs to come out of the festival this year was the set for electronic DJ and producer Gryffin. The show, titled "Gravity," is based on the producer's debut album of the same name, and was creative directed by Jordan Miles Rosenheck. As Gryffin's creative director, Rosenheck wanted to prepare the show to be as connective to audiences as possible, since Gryffin is soon to take "Gravity" on tour across the nation.
Gryffin's music has a hyper-specific pull within the vast pool of modern EDM. Despite also capitalizing on collaborations as a way to draw in pop listeners, a la electronic royalty Zedd and David Guetta, his tracks are much more spacious without leaning towards an ambient sound. Masterful pop melodies delivered by the likes of rising artists Elley Duhé and Katie Pearlman fit perfectly in between Gryffin's bright keys and shifting drops. There's an entire universe to explore within every Gryffin song: a universe of galactic proportions.
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Unsurprisingly, the theme of the stage show is just as fitting to the motifs within the songs' compositions. Rosenheck set out to design a show that would tell the story of the universe for Gryffin, winding through his discography and pulling festival goers into the narrative, all under the humongous Sahara Tent. "Gravity" is divided into sections, beginning with the Big Bang and ending with an examination of human connection in present day. From the storyline to the visuals, like stock video, packs, and intricate lighting designs, Rosenheck had his work cut out for him — not to mention an extremely short timeframe.
PAPER caught up with Jordan Miles Rosenheck to hear more about the process that went into creating the show and the insider challenges that designers face when presented with such a task like Coachella.
Let's start with the idea of "Gravity." Why did you build the show out from that concept?
We actually didn't come up with "Gravity" until we had built out some of the track artwork and we moved forward with a portal theme. We knew that we were coming out with a full-length album, so I was pretty much tasked with, "OK, what's the best name for this album?" We had a long list, and we actually didn't come up with "Gravity" in that initial list. We liked a few names, but it didn't quite feel right with anything on that initial list. I scrolled past the movie Interstellar, and it circulates around gravity and how gravity is the thing that connects everything in the universe in a different dimension.
I called up Dan, aka Gryffin, and he mentioned it was one of his favorite movies and we started to get really comfortable with the idea of calling it "Gravity," for many reasons. One, it had really good creative utility because it's the same length as "Gryffin," as well as the same first two letters. Visually, it looked great. We liked that it was concise and a big word with a big idea. Above all else, we're dealing with portals and gateways and stuff like that, and when you really take a step back, gravity is that main force that connects everything. It's invisible and elusive and mysterious in that way. It makes sense with the portals, because if we were able to jump into a different dimension or go to another place in the universe, you would likely do that by leveraging gravity. It seemed to encompass everything we wanted really well and also have a big feeling to it, which Gryffin's music is big.
It makes sense, the part about traveling through the universe and having gravity be a central force. It somehow also has a really cool metaphor for DJing, too, with transitioning through tracks and building out songs on a really grand scale.
Totally. The idea of music and the idea of it being a universal language — it connects the universe, it grounds us to our Earth, and it's so inexplicable and unexplainable. Gravity is our connection to the universe.
"Gravity is our connection to the universe."
What music did you grow up with?
Music in my life has always been around and important. My dad was more so into the jazz and classical stuff, my mom more so some of the pop stuff, a lot of bossa nova and world music, which I've grown to really, really love. I honestly think that's the future, as the world becomes more globalized and cultures start overlapping more. I had music like that in my life.
How has been your experience navigating the music industry?
In college, the best experience you could have in music in Santa Barbara, where I went to school, was working for the West Beach Music Festival. It was primarily reggae stuff, and it was right on the beach. That was my first gig in college, and then after coming back to LA, I started working at CAA in the music department. I was an assistant there and pretty early on I realized I didn't want to be a booking agent. I pitched the head of the department on creating somewhat of an art director role for the department that wasn't there. That was mainly creating pitch decks at the time. It evolved into more, but I ended up creating that position and was in that position for a bit. Working at the agency can serve as a solid foundation for propelling yourself elsewhere.
After CAA, I went to a startup called Boomrat, where I was the creative director. Soon after joining Boomrat, we were acquired by Live Nation, and Live Nation had recently acquired Insomniac. I stayed on with Insomniac as an art director, and helped art direct a few of their electronic festivals like EDC and the many others that they have. I left Insomniac about a year and a half in to join the founder of the previous startup, Boomrat. We started a new company separate from music, but had a lot of music people on the platform. We created an app for co-working spaces, specifically for a co-working space called NeueHouse, which was like a mini LinkedIn that connects people within a co-working space. That had a lot of music people on the app, and during that time I was doing some contract work with a few different DJs and artists, as well as Red Bull Music quite a bit. About a year and a half ago, I decided to start my own creative studio. I'm still involved with the app, but I really started focusing on being a creative director and working with both artists.
How did you meet Gryffin?
Serendipitously, I was at Interscope Records for a meeting with the marketing department and Gryffin's manager walked by the meeting. We ended up meeting and about a month later he hit me up telling me that they were looking for a creative director for Gryffin.
It's amazing how all of the experiences connect that you never think really would. You know they're all related, but it all comes together when you have the right amount of talent and the right opportunity.
It really is. I wasn't at Interscope Records to meet Justin, Gryffin's manager. I was there for a completely different reason. It ended up, through gravity, our paths crossed and we ended up working together. It's been the most creatively fulfilling and challenging thing I've ever worked on and I'm super grateful for it.
"A dream for me would be that we'd create a show that could live in a Sahara Tent or a Broadway theater."
Now that you have the ability to lend your artistic voice to Gryffin's project, especially in the Sahara Tent at Coachella, what do you see in other concert visuals that you want to expand upon?
I would always go to Coachella and watch shows and have these grand ideas in my head about how I would design a show for that artist. There are bits and pieces that I've collected from shows that I liked that exist in our show, but in a different way. I also collected a lot of inspiration from nature documentaries. As soon as I was watching, I started researching and storyboarding the show. Every time I saw these visuals, I was like, "What if the story of our universe was presented in a much more engaging and beautiful way by the best animators and best studios across the board? What if all this content was so much more relatable to a young kid to watch, where they're more interested in understanding what the story of the universe is because it's done with great music and incredible visuals?" A dream for me would be that we'd create a show that could live in a Sahara Tent or a Broadway theater. It's not artist or DJ-centric, but more of a visual experience with a bit of a narrative, and dancing and choreography, whatever it may be. Kind of a la Cirque du Soleil, but with more of a narrative and less weird, where maybe in the future of the festival you're going to see an act and experience a narrative and be told a story.
Jordan & Gryffin
That comes through, too, especially the storyboarding part when watching the nature docs. I think that's something people neglect to do, especially with set design: research, but research for yourself, not just on a topic. There's a certain amount of looking inward to cultivate a shared voice while cultivating a specific image.
Exactly. I also feel like, something I've learned from building the show — and rightfully so — is that you can only do so much storytelling in a concert design or a show when working with an artist. There's so many variables. You don't want to overshadow the music, clearly, so you want it to be subtle enough and nuanced enough that people aren't watching the visual so intensely and trying to find out the story. You want to have more easter eggs, which I think we've done a good job with. I'm actually curious if people came out of it and said, "Did I just get told the story of the universe?" I did find that you're limited in how much storytelling you can do, and it's because you don't want people focusing on too much. The setlist changes, the music and the vibe changes, so it's a hard thing to do. I think that is something that wasn't frustrating, but was like, "Oh, if you want to really tell a story visually, you have to do this maybe without an artist up there, or perhaps create a separate show that is more about creating a narrative."
Did you experience any real roadblocks when building it out, besides just storyboarding?
I'd say the biggest challenge would be timing. Before going into our Palladium show, which was the first show that we presented the "Gravity" show with, we didn't have a ton of time. It was like, a month and a half. It's a lot of visual content in our show, and it was an hour-and-twenty-minute show. Fortunately we happened upon a couple really awesome animators and studios, and an awesome editor who worked really hard with us to get to the finish line. I was really impressed with what we were able to build before the Palladium. I think timing was one. Money and budget is inevitably one. More money is great, you can hire better studios, have more revisions if you have the time, and so on and so forth. I do also think there's something to say for having a budget that's a little bit limiting, because you're forced to get more creative with your money and be more efficient with it to maximize your dollar. I think we definitely experienced that, and some of the visuals that came out of that pressure were really beautiful.
Like with anything, and any music project, the budget and time seems like it's never enough. A month is crazy, though, but it's a testament to the team and the network you built with this show.
I come from a different type of background than show directors or designers where I haven't been in that space for a long time. I think a lot of electronic artists pick from a similar pool of studios that do this kind of content. The time limit actually restricted us from working with two studios. By that I mean, two studios were like, "It's too late, we can't help you." So, in conjunction with that we wanted to reach out to some non-traditional studios because I'm obsessive on Behance, and there's so many talented studios across the world that don't get opportunities like this. It forced us to reach out to even more of these non-traditional studios, and in that process we happened upon a few incredible animation studios, but specifically Tolm Studios, all the way out in Estonia. They had recently posted this project for a library client, and I could tell that it was a very passion-driven project to show their versatility and animation skill. It blew my mind. They ended up working with me, and I really do believe they're some of the more elegant visual effects that I've ever seen. I feel super grateful to have crossed paths with them. It's like gravity, baby!
Gryffin is on tour this summer with "Gravity." Check out a complete list of tour dates here.
Photos via Spencer Miller