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Violens Create Brutal Beauty With Proenza Schouler’s Alejandro Cardenas

The creative team talks about their many artistic directions



Tommy Kearns

Violens are proud anomalies of the contemporary music scene: they sound fantastically expansive, self-possessed and in command of their art in an era of self-aware lo-fi and lowered expectations. As art kids who became first known as Lansing-Dreiden – a Miami-based multimedia troupe whose creations encompassed an art gallery, a journal and some really great cinematic pop – frontman Jorge Elbrecht and his cohorts eventually relocated to Brooklyn, hid away for awhile, then rematerialized in 2010 as Violens, an all-out rock band. Their name provides a major clue to their dual-natured musical M.O.: their sound evokes the elegance of violins while hinting at the threat of underlying violence.

Their dramatic productions are bolstered by equally intense art and videos, most of which have come courtesy of their longtime friend Alejandro Cardenas. A painter and art director, he is also the textile designer for one of New York’s most respected fashion labels, Proenza Schouler. Just as he’s served as a conduit for bringing Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez’s innovative, often challenging womenswear concepts to life, Cardenas uses his sharp eye to bring progressive, sometimes unsettling visual treatments to Violens. On their latest collaboration, the video for the band’s single “When to Let Go” (from new album True), Cardenas captures a couple’s leisurely stroll on the beach as it takes a sudden, abusive turn. The confrontational clip stands out in its strangeness and can be linked to the themes of The Hunger Games.

Elbrecht and Cardenas spoke to Rolling Stone about “When to Let Go,” their lifelong creative kinship and how their individual approaches to art and fashion have created their unique synthesis of beauty and brutality.

What was the origin of the “tender abuse” concept for “When to Let Go?”
Alejandro Cardenas: The concept came out of the lyrics of the song, which describe a similar kind of relationship. 

Jorge Elbrecht: I know Alejandro was thinking about the lyrical content of the song when he came up with the treatment, though this is something that should be felt rather than explained. We realize it’s something many artists have done in the past singing softly to deliver a brutal message but when we started Violens that was one of the main ideas behind it, violence and violins.

The video has invited comparisons to The Hunger Games for its mix of romance and brutality.  Do you think there’s a renewed fascination with confrontation in a generally passive youth culture right now?
J: Maybe; it would be an interesting sociological study. But we tend to be fairly insular with our interests and creative process, so [we] probably wouldn’t be the best people to ask. I haven’t watched The Hunger Games, sorry!

A: Passion and aggression are primal and universal, so I’d imagine they will continue to be interesting.

What are signature traits of a Violens video?
A: I think darkness and visual refinement in equal parts.  I personally like videos that feature one idea, presented cleanly.

J: Alejandro and I have tried, at least in the videos that we have worked on together, to make the visuals feel like the music sounds. There are things like “prettiness meeting gore” that happen from video to video but it may not be fair to call those “signature traits.” We also like to surprise ourselves with what we make, so while a consistent aesthetic is definitely an interest, we are both willing to throw it out the window for a genuinely different idea if we’re excited enough about it.

You’ve worked together on many videos and artwork now. What about your mutual aesthetics works well?
A: Jorge and I have been friends and collaborators since we were in grade school, so the majority of our development has been parallel. You could say we like the same things, so it’s a short road to creating something we agree on. It’s a very fun way to work.

J: We’ve looked at/listened to/loved much of the same stuff – music, movies, artwork, etc. – for many years now. We usually arrive at things we like pretty quickly and are comfortable with our roles along the way at this point. Not a lot of disagreements.

How does Violens’ sound transpire visually? Does it bring you to a certain frame of mind?
A: I think the videos come as close to describing the way the music makes me feel. It’s hard to put into words and easier to make art about it, if you can believe that. I can say it’s music with depth; I’ve listened to the songs since their early demos and I still find new feelings and images within. It’s good inspiration music.

When you record and perform, do you go to a certain place visually? Do you imagine a world for Violens’ songs?
J: Not really; I’m pretty solidly there in the moment. Lately, instead of facing forward with my back to the band, I’ve been performing stage left at an angle, which helps me to feel connected to what’s happening onstage and in the audience at the same time.

Does Violens prefer performing in music videos or allowing the clips to be more representative/symbolic, as “When to Let Go” demonstrates?
J: Since we started Lansing-Dreiden and before that, I have had very little interest in being an icon or visual representation for my music. I like playing music with my bandmates and I have more and more fun onstage these days, but the part where you’re supposed to be a salesman for your music is pretty unappealing to me.

Watch Violens’ “When to Let Go”:

Alejandro, what does your work with Proenza Schouler teach you that you still apply to your film work today?
A: I think working at Proenza has taught me a certain sense of refinement, like everything has to relate to everything else and be nicely finished. That and to work like a beast and get things done quickly.

I was always fascinated with the “tropical raver” prints of Proenza’s Spring 2010 line – what was the genesis of that inspiration for you? And do you find yourself more attracted to color or monochromes these days?
A: When it comes to print/textile work, the inspiration and direction comes from the designers. These prints were inspired by tropical fish and it took a ton of work to get them there; it’s something I’m very proud of. Color vs. monochrome is pretty situational; I don’t have a preference really. It’s a project-by-project decision.

How does art and/or film influence Violens’ contemporary aesthetic?
J: I studied painting, sculpture and video in both undergrad and grad school – so it must weigh in pretty heavily. But I’ve always been more interested in music and I’ve always admired music that can evoke a cinematic experience. The place it’s probably felt the most is in the initial idea for the band – how attached/detached I can be as an artist within it. And in the mixes, which I like to think of in a very sculptural/three-dimensional way. Thinking more about it, the initial idea for a song – or vision for how the instruments and parts could come together – is a pretty sculptural image, too. Almost like an animated exploded-view diagram.

What do you think the prevailing cultural mood is in 2012? Does that influence how either of you approach your own creative work?
A: It’s very difficult to say exactly what the mood is, but I think the fact that one can record an entire album or make a feature film with a laptop and a DSLR is really amazing. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a time when you couldn’t do that, so I really appreciate it.  I still see people my age and younger looking to get big deals and budgets to make stuff, but all that money comes with a price in terms of creative freedom. I guess everyone finds their own path but I would rather just make what I want now, even if it’s kind of rough.

J: I don’t think I have enough of an interest in 2012’s cultural mood to connect with or reject it. I’m compelled by the ideas that arrive when I’m not trying, and I follow them through almost every time. I feel fortunate that these days, there are a lot of them. You could argue that they are informed by everything I’m experiencing culturally around me but I don’t, for example, look online for new music or art very often, and I don’t think there is much in contemporary culture for me. Maybe every once in a while. It’s a needle in a haystack kind of thing, and I’d rather spend that time working on a new song.

What is your ultimate dream project?
A: I see myself as a creative person. I just want to make as much stuff as I can with as much freedom as possible. It’s the conceptualizing and working that’s the fun part.  Ideally I’d like to make animated films for adults since it combines all the different things I’m interested in, but right now they are too expensive to make at an indie level so I’ll stick to what I can do with what I have. Right now, I am working on prints for the Spring 2013 Proenza Schouler collection and shooting a short in the fall and writing a live-action feature I plan to shoot in Miami next year.

J: I’ve thought about having individual homes for what I find to be my three main interests in music. I don’t think one project would make sense for all of them right now. Sometimes I think our first record, Amoral, is an attempt to combine them all, where maybe True is a more honest presentation of one of those interests. Obviously, [I am] still figuring out how all of this will end up working, but I guess there’s no real rush!

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