Music is one of the most intimate and personal expressions of the human experience. From Beethoven to Behemoth, Portishead to Poison Idea, lyrics are often malleable to the listener’s individual trials and experiences.
Whether delivered over triumphant harmonies or discordant dirge, whether dubbed punk or hardcore or blackened-thrash-sludge, or whatever hyphenated, tangential combination is your favorite sub-genre, music, especially in the underground, elevates the idiosyncratic experience for an audience.
So, when Tony Wolski grabs a camera and attaches his distinct vision to bands like Converge and their musical babies, the permanent pairing of specific visuals is sure to be daunting.
As vocalist for The Armed (also Old Gods and Genghis Tron), it might not have been difficult for Wolski to attain his first gigs as director of their music videos. But, he eschewed the predictable tropes of live group shots or band performance intercut into a loosely literal interpretation of lyrics.
And the resulting videos for The Armed established Wolski as a director in command of vibrant and stunning visuals, one with control of actual narratives. His videos are short films, dismissing the rote cutaways to band shots and stage-rocking shots.
“If I could come up with a way where the dual narrative or stage-rock edit seemed novel or original to me, I absolutely would try it,” Wolski says. “In the meantime, 99 percent of the time, it just seems like a trope that wouldn’t service the ideas I’m trying to realize. I do understand from a marketing standpoint, sometimes people need kind of a ‘commercial for the band’ thing in there. It just doesn’t super appeal to me most of the time. Never say never, though!”
Wolski’s confidence is echoed in his projects.
“I tend to only take projects where the band is open to some sort of outside vision,” he says. “Ones where I can basically interpret the visual from scratch. Then, I’ll home in on little details with them after putting together a treatment. I do always want audio first, because I think pacing and vibe of the audio are integral to choosing an appropriate story to tell. Lyrics can be hugely helpful, too. But I rarely try to do too many literal interpretations. Oftentimes, I use them for little Easter eggs and stuff.”
Wolski’s amorphous visions grow as the process develops and the work on set is executed. But, planning is his cornerstone.
“Pre-production is everything,” he says. “Especially on music videos, which tend to be pretty low-budget labors of love where everyone involved is wearing many hats. Having time to get all your ducks in a row tends to be completely necessary to achieving your vision within the budgetary constraints.
“Storyboards are lovely when you can afford them. Most of the music videos I do are narrative. I have a very clear editorial path in mind before we start shooting. So, storyboards can be amazing tools of communication with your director of photography, and then in post [production] with your editorial team as well, if you have a clear vision and intent from the get-go.”
As mentioned, Wolski has done videos for Converge, a band that have an established visual artist, Jacob Bannon, penning lyrics for them. Bannon already has fully fleshed concepts attached to those songs, and that perspective being present could harvest intimidation, but Wolski knows his role and his capabilities.
“I think the only thing is that it might limit the shared space of the Venn diagram where your tastes and tendencies overlap,” he says. “I don’t really think it’s intimidating, but if you work with someone who has clear aesthetic vision, they’re naturally going to have more opinions up front. So, you might need to work harder to find out what works for both parties.
“I think with Jacob Bannon in particular, his tastes, with regard to visuals, are very strong, and many times differ greatly from my own. So, it’s a challenge to find that overlap. But it almost always exists, and most of the time, pursuing that space imbues a cool, new angle on something. I think it’s very rare that artists are 100 percent incompatible.”
The most striking and egregious strokes of Wolski’s palettes are his bright and highly saturated colors. Wolski enjoys high contrast in some instances, with realistic textures, but often, he utilizes vibrant neon monochromatic solids. This is a stark contrast to his muted earth tones that envelop the character in a drab reflection of their psyche.
“Well, color theory is quite a big topic!” he says. “But, I think, in a very broad sense, it’s fun to use color to inflect mood via lighting, a la [Nicolas Winding] Refn. And, it is even more fun to use big, physical color-blocking to indicate mood or emotion, and then use very neutral, bright, or clinical lighting to create a dissonance between those visual cues a la [Stanley] Kubrick. Color is everything!”
Visit Tony Wolski’s website for more of his work.