George Clanton on an ESPRIT 空想 Classic, Five Years Later
While few modern vaporwave fans are likely to call the genre “dead” outside of a memetic context, the genre’s sound has no-doubt ebbed and flowed in the half-decade or so. Though there’s no pinpointable pivoting point between the age of “classic” vaporwave and today, several notorious meta-releases from late-2014 through 2015—like Floral Shoppe 2, of course, Vaporwave is Dead, and the rise of hardvapour—suggested a dawning contrast between sweet self-containment and cynical self-awareness.
Pointed social commentary and complex theming may be a hallmark of today’s vaporwave, but there’s something inescapably innocent about vaporwave’s golden age when weirdly evocative and uncannily familiar virtual sounds could be appreciated for their own anachronistic sake. Virtua.zip, a 2014 release by ESPRIT 空想 falls squarely into that camp. The vaporwave alias of world-class electronic artist George Clanton, ESPRIT 空想‘s sound trades vaporwave’s characteristic sample-heaviness for recursive remixes of Clanton’s more lucid work under another alias.
“The stuff on Virtua.zip is kind of like demos that I had been labouring over for a year—and more than a year in some cases. Just songs that I had been toying with, trying to make my next Mirror Kisses album. And I just couldn’t find my sound,” Clanton says of the experience. “In the end, I just said ‘fuck it,’ and I stopped trying to put lyrics to it and structure it like a pop song.”
“And then I just started chopping it up,” he adds. “Slowing it down and mixing it drastically differently. I guess once I let go of the idea that I was trying to make a pop song. The songs just really took on a new life of their own. The songs that ended up on Virtua.zip, I made those cuts in one day—out of demos I had been working on for a year.”
Clanton goes on to reveal how the original material behind Virtua.zip’s “Whispers.wav” is available for direct comparison.
“If you listen to 'Notice Me' by George Clanton, a B-side I released later… I just took that song because I couldn't like write lyrics to it. And I slowed it down. Chopped it up, and looped it. And like made it sound... you know... ooey gooey.”
The music on Virtua.zip wasn’t the only part of the iconic album to be produced in a day. Clanton reveals that the now-instantly recognizable art on the cover, featuring Akira from Virtua Fighter 2, was put together during that very same span.
“I played it on my cousin's Sega Saturn when I was a kid,” Clanton says of the game behind the album. “And I thought that the graphics are really good back then…I guess when I was making the music, I hadn't played that game since whenever it came out in the mid-‘90s. [Yet] the music reminded me of Sega Saturn video games. I didn't have any specific reference point, but just in my mind's eye, I kept picturing that.
“So I'm sure that the music in Virtua Fighter doesn't really sound anything like the music of Virtua.zip at all, but maybe an alternate soundtrack.”
Ultimately, Clanton says the album’s short production timeline was more cathartic than crazed.
“I just put it up on the Internet, as kind of like a ‘letting go’... because I felt trapped,” he says. “So I just put everything together really fast and didn't think. I didn't want to think too much about what I was doing. And you know? I'm glad.”
“I didn't have as much of an audience to worry about. I felt maybe more free to just kind of... release anything and see what happened.”
Now considered a late classic of the early vaporwave era, Virtua.zip is a testament to its time, and Clanton agrees much of its production and staying power comes from this connection.
“I think that Virtua.zip holds a dear a place in people's hearts because of the time that it came out. You know it's more in that classic era,” he says, comparing it to what he considers the more new-age sounds of ESPRIT 空想‘s 200% Electronica. “Stylistically, I was listening to a lot of Saint Pepsi, 18 Carat Affair, and like Luxury Elite, and if you go back and you look at those albums from that time, it seems like the trend at that time was just…little. You know, thirty-second to minute-and-a-half long songs. Really short songs and lots of them.”
“in hindsight, I'm a little disappointed that some of those songs on Virtua.zip are so short,” he adds in retrospect. “I think if I did it again today I'd extend them quite a lot so that you could really get into the groove. But you know, it is what it is. It's got its own vibe as a result of that.”
But Clanton’s vibes are anything but static. During his label 100% Electronica’s recent American tour, Clanton prefaced his own headlining acts with live performances as ESPRIT 空想,
“I just had to kind of let go of the stage presence idea,” Clanton said of translating songs like Virtua.zip’s to a venue. “When I perform as ESPRIT 空想, I sit down, and I'm like perpendicular to the audience. I don't even look at them. So. As George Clanton, it's a very involved, very in your face performance. For ESPRIT 空想, it's kind of the opposite...it's a different way of performing a song, so I have a lot of fun playing the songs on the sampler. It's kind of like a video game like Guitar Hero or something.”
“And it surprises me that people want that. But they really seem to enjoy it.”
Clanton calls the experience experimental, especially during sets when he performed across from fellow 100% Electronica vaporwave producer Satin Sheets.
“Some of the stuff that we came up with was among our best work,” Clanton says of the Satin Sheets collaborations. “It was a lot of fun. I would take the reins sometimes and sometimes he would, and if he was just kind of doing his thing, I was able to kind of manipulate the video that we were projecting on us and work with that. That was a different thing that I'd never done before. It was a lot of fun. Like. It was really fun… even though we're just sitting there and we're not facing the crowd, we are looking at each other to try to figure out what the next one is going to do. And we don't have it planned out. So we have to kind of communicate and just feel each others... You know just pick up on it, like ESP. And just try to like predict what the other one's going to do next and try to do something that's going to excite that, you know build it up.
“I think we kind of invented the only interesting way to perform that music.”
While Clanton says he hopes to record a similar set with Satin Sheets next time the New Zealand artist returns to the states, for now, we can content ourselves with Virtua.zip’s recent vinyl reissue, alongside a first-ever cassette pressing, each including the album’s bonus tracks, released in 2016. Clanton may not have any immediate plans to release Virtua.zip on other physical media when asked about the thought of a real Sega Saturn game, he closed by teasing one of 100% Electronica’s many ambitious projects to come.
“Yeah, that would be cool, if there was some sort of like interactive [Virtua.zip] game,” he says. “Now that you mention it, there is something… we are kind of working on some top-secret interactive stuff which I think is interesting, but I wouldn't consider that a music release format. There's a lot of more fun, inner ways for people to interact with the music that hasn't been explored by anyone yet. But anything that piques your interest is worth exploring. Ah, that's the vaguest shit I've ever said!”
Dan Goubert is a contributing writer for Æ². He is the Features Lead of Private Suite Magazine as "deliriously...daniel," and when he isn't collecting cassettes or blogging about breakfast cereal, you can find him thrifting, playing with his cat Jupiter, or scribbling something arcane into a notebook.