A concept album for the most unusual of years
Rip it up and start again:
A conversation with Jonny Miller.
Jonny is the London based Manager of Sonarpilot Audio, the label behind The Mirage Project and an essential third member of the team.
Taking stock of 2020, the most unusual of years, we sat down and looked back at what impact The Mirage Project has had on the label and the world...
Let’s start at the beginning – how did you get involved with Sonarpilot?
I had worked in the music industry since the late 90s, producing my own tracks, remixing and releasing music for others alongside my other job, teaching music production at schools such as Point Blank, Sub Bass and London School of Sound. In 2010 I met Michael through a producer friend of mine. He told me about this Swiss guy who was looking for someone with the label side knowledge to help him with the release of an album that he was working on. Michael and I finally connected on a very long Skype call, I remember actually laying out on the roof of my new house at the time, it was summer and I had found a way up there, it's funny we remember these things... we set out most of the vision of what Sonarpilot Audio could achieve on that first call.
Ten years in and we have a full catalogue of singles, albums and EP’s. All Michael's music alongside a whole range of electronic artists from around the world guesting on the label as remixers. It's been a lot of work, a lot of fun and we've become really good friends in the process which has I think been the driving factor.
Tell us a bit more about your role at Sonarpilot Audio...
It's mainly the operations, everything involved in releasing the music alongside the marketing, the promotion, the social media side of things. Michael and I work closely together on all the A&R though, ultimately crafting the path the label takes with each new release or project. We discover new artists together, bounce ideas and music off each other, I've learned a lot from him.
How did you guys come up with the concept for the Mirage Project?
The first ten years or so of Sonarpilot Audio, we really just ticked off everything that labels usually did... releases, remixes, album projects with physical variants, we were starting to think we wanted to do something new and by late 2018, the basic spark idea for The Mirage Project was there. In hindsight, the world was a very different place too, the tried and tested production line of making and releasing music, to us just felt tired and while culturally the music evolves onward, changing within its genre season to season, the process above that, of releasing music and what an 'album' was really hadn't moved on in a long time.
If you ask yourself, and be honest... when was the last time you sat and really took in a full artist album? Start to finish, visual materials in hand as you listen... when was the last time you truly experienced an artist's full vision - if they even have one? Those basic questions of what an album was, how it was presented and how it was released to the fans really drove The Mirage Project into existence. At the beginning, we just knew that we wanted to create something different. Michael started to explore a number of ideas and finally came back with the idea of a contemporary concept album – a series of videos with their soundtracks that ideally, we could release over a longer period of time, like a series rather than just a single drop date.
It was a very ambitious project, certainly for a small label with limited resources, but it was also very exciting, it was something new. Initially Michael did not have a clear concept how he would produce all this material. He got in touch with his film maker friend Roger Maeder and the two played around with a few ideas. The breakthrough really came with their discovery of fractal technology, opening the door to a whole cosmos of strange and amazing new worlds.
... When they came back with the first test films it was clear that this was a perfect fit for Sonarpilot project.
The idea of exploration of other worlds and ideas was very much in line with the identity of the label. The first Sonarpilot album was called “Mothership”- A series of journeys into the enigmatic world of fractals felt like a very natural evolution. For me, and away from our single and EP releases that year, most of 2019 was spent working out just how we were going to present this audio-visual thing on the label.
So, what made the process of releasing the Mirage Project so different?
The Mirage Project was certainly going to be the most ambitious release that I ever worked and yes it was clear it would be very different from everything we'd done thus far. As the 'mirages' as they became known were created, video by video, the soundtracks as free-flowing and unique as the visuals, Michael soon knew this would be the 'concept album' he'd always wanted to make and we settled on making the project a 'series of videos released monthly on our base website, across the net on YouTube and on our social media channels - to the fans, for free. The label would accompany these episodic releases with digital singles for each mirage's soundtrack and wrap up the project at Christmas with a full album collection.
And then the pandemic hit... What was the impact that this new reality had on the Mirage Project?
Initially, we had no idea what kind of impact the pandemic would have on our industry and the most ambitious release that we as a label had ever planned. The first wave hit us just when we were getting ready to launch the project in the spring of 2020.
In hindsight, it turned out that it was almost perfect timing. Everybody was stuck at home. Travel became increasingly difficult, and so people were looking for other ways to break out of the limitations of their new reality.
And how was the Mirage Project received?
City in the Sky launched The Mirage Project to the world in June of 2020, the world in lockdown and all of us getting to grips with a new way of life and the time to discover new music, art and interests...
NewSickMusic online magazine wrote...“City in the Sky” pulses with electronic life as the rhythm crunches beneath. There is bustle and a clean, bittersweet melody that complements the images that don’t accompany the track, but elevate it. A city appears floating above the world and at turns slips from view. Perhaps it’s in pieces, or maybe we just can’t see it all as it dissipates and reappears. Impermanence permeates”. - We could tell now that people would build their own story of what the mirages meant and most importantly, that the music and the visuals were seen as being one.
Fossil and CodeX were perhaps the two most challenging and alternative mirages of the series. Both with distinct themes embedded of human interaction with their world, destructive and scientific respectively, but ever moving. Music Existence wrote that“there's a gentle evenness to the simplicity of the video’s flow, and yet with every epic image that bleeds into the next shot materialising before our very eyes..".
The breakbeat and eastern soul of Imperium is perhaps my personal favourite of all six mirages. Released in October, it resonated beautifully with the fanbase and switched new eyes onto the project...
One writer for the IndieMusicReviews portal reflected this..."I found the fluid design of “Imperium” to be particularly inviting and open to those who might not be all that interested in this genre of music otherwise..." - This is exactly what a concept album can do and by the time the Mirage Project was two thirds delivered, we knew had created something very special.
In November, NewSickMusic wrote for us again as Cathedral and The Last Machine were released...“Though the images are set in an alternate 2020, there is a sense that this journey is evocative of a future. The present-day EDM groove with the nostalgic dial-up tone are of our world, which pulls both time and space into question. Artificial intelligence is, after all, at our fingertips” - An alternate 2020 clearly in mind as we all started to take stock of just how crazy the last 12 months had been on planet earth.
Did you notice a different response from the fans too?
Absolutely, the visual elements just stood out and added that extra 100% to the listening experience. Underground labels always struggle to achieve real, organic engagement on social media, without the super branding and shared experience of a live setting, it's hard for any label or artist to stand out based on music alone. Our ever-growing fanbase on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram seemed to really connect with the videos, sharing with their friends and regularly offering us their own take on what the videos meant. That was really nice to see and it was the kind of engagement artists and labels dream of.
On the completion of Season 1 of The Mirage Project, what's been the main takeaway for you as a music industry figure?
For me, The Mirage Project was made for 2020. I try not to sound hyperbolic often but the phrase rip it up and start again comes to mind. Sonarpilot's work and vision have shown me that within this world of music, culture and work, new concepts and new ways of doing things need to be done every once in a while. It's a bit like our shared new way of living, my office is now in my lounge at home and almost everything work-related is done online or on a zoom call. This is reflected I think in the way artists perform now too, doing live streams instead of being at a festival is the new normal. I think there's never been a better time to chance the new... never been a better time to dream big.