Jamal Gray and St.Clair Castro Discuss Their Bold New Music/Visual Performance Piece, CTRL Space CMD


Aside from being prolific artists in their own right, D.C. residents Jamal Gray and St.Clair Castro are also one facet of CMVPTR CLVB, a collective of musicians, visual artists, spiritualists and futurists behind the ambitious performance piece CTRL Space CMD. The product of three years-worth of research into projection mapping, video manipulation, sound production and pre-Christian esoteric spirituality, CTRL Space CMD is a conceptual performance piece that will explore mankind’s “intrinsic connection to Space, Time, & The Creator.” It’s meant to be as educational as it is entertaining, using the power of live music and cinematic visuals to craft compelling narratives that will be told over the course of four separate events at Capital Fringe‘s Logan Fringe Arts Space.

I met up with Castro and Gray to discuss the finer elements of their project in a discussion of faith, technology, the future, and our contemporary political climate, as a means of unpacking all the distinct parts that inform CTRL Space CMD, and how the project reconciles ideas of the past and future in the context of our present.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

D.C. Music Download: In your own words, what can you tell us about CTRL Space CMD in describing the most important facet of the production? What do you think excites you the most about this show?

St.Clair Castro: CTRL Space CMD is not escapism, it’s an escape route… It is an exhibition series aimed at cultivating knowledge surrounding Afro-Futurism and technology, not only from a present standpoint, but also from a past perspective, where we have been the forerunners of the science and technology disciplines. We’re combing the whole educational aspect with aesthetics, such as space, lush African landscapes, nomadic tribes that have this knowledge, alongside the current technology we utilize today, [such as] 3D mapping and projections.

Jamal Gray: This project is an interstellar escape plan as we like to say. Lately we’ve all been facing darker times and there’s been a lot of discussion about what the future may hold for humankind in general. People feel as though their futures are being held hostage in a lot of different ways, or when the future is spoken upon it doesn’t include them. With that, they feel threatened, so we want to empower people by giving them ideas of alternate ways of approaching life and their ultimate destinies, as well as alternate realities to the one we feel as though we’re suffering through currently.


DCMD: I recently watched the video for Nag Champa’s Luce Unplugged performance and was blown away by the synthesis of dance performance, prop setting, and live music. Would you say that those who saw that performance can expect the same at CTRL Space CMD?

Gray: That was definitely the foundation of this project, in terms of our parameters for this performance in general. The first time was more of a free form improvisation, where we were just asked to back up the performers at the time. The second time it was more concentrated, so now we have this bigger idea of how we’re going to explore this even further, where can we take it, and make the performances a score to the actual production. We have experimented with visual elements, projection mapping and video modulation with other performances, but this is the first time where all the elements will be in one place; the synthesis of production and beat making, the live instrumentation, the dance, the prop setting, video manipulation and other installations that will create this whole immersive experience. We’re trying to transform the stage into almost a holodeck, it will become this place where we’re creating a virtual world.

Castro: That stage [Smithsonian American Art Museum] was a good litmus test for seeing what we can do in the future, how we can expand live ideals and concepts that were used in the performance, and create that setting and ambiance. We wanted to see how far we could take it–if we can scale it up, essentially.


DCMD: You indicated there was three years of research that went into curating CTRL Space CMD. What was the nature of the research, what was the process like, and why did you wait this long before rolling out this project?

Gray: It was three years ago when we really started experimenting with the technology behind projection mapping and video manipulation and learning how far we could go with that, either in a grand scale or a microscopic focus. You can create a whole immersive landscape, 3D objects… all of these things we didn’t think were feasible. I didn’t comprehend it because it wasn’t even a real thing to me. When it came into our understanding, it was then a question of how far we could push it.

We kept meeting people who were adding different elements to the installation, bringing different skill sets, some creating visual mapping with programs they were creating or dated programs. Some weren’t using [digital] programs all, they were strictly using hardware that they could build themselves and manipulate. It goes just as deep as synthesis culture with music. It’s been a three-year process for us as musicians in learning different skills, performing in front of people, learning D.C.’s landscape as it’s changed a lot. It was a process of adaptation, learning, and applying what we were learning, making some mistakes, coming back. It was a huge growth period.

Castro: The past three years have been a process of self-realization and organic network building, understanding our skill sets and how to grow them. Now, we’re starting to incorporate augmented reality in our shows, in this show. Pretty soon we’re going to get into full-on holograms once the technology increases relative to our budget. It took a lot of time to gain that proper education, to educate ourselves, and to build that organic network while doing research into African civilizations, past technologies, and how they’re being used today.

History leaves out a lot of pages before the Dark Ages. What was going on before that in technology? No one is talking about the technology of the Aztecs, in Africa with the Dogons and the Wodaabe. Europe was caught in the gaping maw of the Black Plague… it took years for us to have all the information we have now, and the question has been how are we going to build on that? It takes time.


DCMD: I want to talk about the promo image for the performance piece, featuring spiritual figures, obelisks, pyramids, satellites and black holes. How does this aesthetic play into CTRL Space CMD?

Gray: I think Man has always been fixated about what is going on around him. Early on, you had these civilizations, like the Dogon, the Greeks and the Romans, which had a fixation on what was going on around them, be it the stars, the future, the Creator, or lack thereof. All of that is what we’re trying to convey with this.

All music or art should be a reflection of some type of curiosity, some type of philosophy or yearning. This fixation on space and future is easily intangible for people, so the symbolism behind what you see in the artwork created by St. Clair–that was conceptualized together between the two of us–is a reflection of [St. Clair] being deep into spirituality. To be deep into spirituality means to be into a bunch of different ideas. What you follow is one thing.

We lose connection to what’s happening right now because we’re looking too far ahead or too far in the past, y’know? The deities and markings you see are time markers in a sense, because we’re all trying to answer the same thing.

There are recurring themes we see throughout history. Twenty thousand years ago, we would be carving this discussion on a rock or something, but now we’ve got all this technology to do it. We’re carving the same messages on our own rocks.

Castro: What was even popping off 20,000 years ago? History is of course his-story, the conqueror has all rights to the narrative. All the artwork created for CTRL Space CMD is a representation of these concepts and points of knowledge as a culmination in art and music. CTRL Space CMD is playing on our concrete knowledge of history, but also posing the ‘what if’ element of spirituality.


DCMD: Would you say CTRL Space CMD plays on general conceptions of primitivism in a Western context and cross compares it with science and technology?

Castro: When we look at the past, we deem it archaic and ancient, not on our level of advancement. In my opinion, I think we have devolved the more technology has advanced. Social media has devolved our interactions with one another, how is that evolution? Depression, nihilism and cynicism are at an all-time high because of social media. How is that evolution as a people? It divides us further and further.

Community was the main thing in the past, it was nurturing of the soul. We look outwards to fulfill what’s going on inside and vice-versa. The expressions we see all around us is what’s coming from the self. People go about their lives with drugs, personal relationships, objects like money and assets just to fulfill themselves, but it never really does. We don’t understand that we’re souls having the human experience and not the other way around. If we get too caught up in our flesh, we lose our souls and are destroyed as a people.  CTRL Space CMD is another way to help free people of that cycle of destruction.


DCMD: Regarding the sounds of CTRL Space CMD, can you talk about the music we’ll hear at the performances?

Gray: We wanted to present the music in almost a festival style format, and feature a lot of different artists. Some of them are Tony Kill, a Maryland and D.C.-based producer, St. Clair Castro, Crue, a great violinist and keyboard player who will be joining us, Sirius Juju, a great band from Philadelphia, Sir EU and more. There’s a ton of people that I could name. It’s all about future-minded, progressive music that moves and emotes.

My band, Nag Champa, will be playing, but we’re trying to bring some sonic shamanism, recognizing the power of music and creating experiences. The musicians are creating the score for the piece, but we’re also players within the piece itself, like theatre. The performance will be in a black box theatre, so everyone that is on stage is either a prop or a player. No one is out of place. All the musicians are primarily from the D.C.-area and represent what we think the future sounds like, what despair sounds like, what joy in the year 2270 sounds like. All these kinds of emotions we’re trying to convey visually, the music will sonically represent that. It’s a mix of future-based soul, punk, ambient, explorative electronic music, jazz, a lot of drone and modulated synth stuff. But people will be able to dance, it’s an exhibition that we think is thought-provoking but still aimed at engaging the people.


DCMD: Can you talk specifically about the technologies employed in this performance?

Castro: 3D modeling, 3D projection mapping, a lot of visual video modulation and video synthesis. We’re gonna be using some augmented reality apps. It’s the culmination of all the technology we’re utilizing and introducing some new ones. We’re also doing a lot of tech installations with TVs, monitors, some three-layered projection screen that will also work as a moving, ever-evolving collage.


DCMD: St.Clair, you made a joke about black hat hackers earlier.

Castro: I don’t fuck with Anonymous.

Gray: But anyone that’s with Anonymous would say they don’t fuck with Anonymous.


DCMD: But is there any element of hacking and current technology-politics that influenced this project?

Castro: The geopolitical and judicial systems don’t understand the implications of the power behind cyberheros and cyber criminals. Power grids can be taken down, corporate websites, databases, and bank accounts can be drained in the blink of an eye. A lot of these guys are archaic dinosaurs, they don’t hold any power unless it’s given to them through casting our ballots. Those who are on the forefront of technology– programmers, developers, technologists–we have all the power! We can take over everything, and CTRL Space CMD is letting people know the future. This generation has the power, we don’t have to submit to the ideals of those that are dying out and trying to leach off our youth, our passion and our energy. Let’s take that shit back! They fucked up by giving us tech.

Gray: A lot of people following what we’re doing might be involved in different graffiti grates, or they might be involved in different freedom movements, whether it be for social, racial, food or climate justice. By nature, living in D.C., you’re going to be around people working in social justice, freedom movements or spirituality. The time we’re living in is a very explorative time, information is open, people are exploring; there’s a good amount of people who are still closed-off, but there’s enough of us that are open to things. Their music and their art reflects that. If we’re making contemporary art it should be with that in mind, we should have these times in mind.

Right now people are thinking about their future. There’s worry it could be compromised, or the future they thought they were building for themselves doesn’t seem as tangible anymore. That’s what we’re trying to say. Personally, we’re going through some tough times, 2016 was a dark year for us.


DCMD: Obviously, this is a fairly tech-heavy performance. Do you ever worry that with sensory overload it may be better for Nag Champa to pursue each venture on its own?

Castro: We never got into a space thus far where there’s been sensory overload, but with CTRL Space CMD it will be a true test of combining all the elements we’ve done in a myriad of show and introducing new elements. It’s the ultimate immersion experience.

Gray: It’s definitely a reflection of both myself and St. Clair’s art styles. We’re collage artists. A lot of my stuff is based on field recordings or samples I find–soul
and hip hop samples. So, just like in the artwork, it blends. We kind of want a sensory overload. We want to shock, in a sense. Like a bad anime.


DCMD: What motivated Nag Champa to want to record a live album as a part of CTRL Space CMD?

Gray: For the last two-to-three months, we’ve been working out of Paperhaus’ headquarters with Rick Irby (who plays with Paperhaus, Den-Mate and other projects), and out of those sessions we got a bunch of songs. Some of it is material we’ve been practicing and working out live. Most people know us from our live shows. We kinda did it the opposite way of the modern band template, where you blow up on the internet and then you get shows, so you’re trying to catch up to your internet buzz. Now we’re in the process of perfecting the recording technique and playing with a lot of psychedelic sounds, echoes and heavy effects. It’s a lot swampier. People know us for a more jazzier, funk-driven sound when they hear us live. This has those elements still. There’s a lot of Pink Floyd influence, definitely some Toro y Moi and contemporary music in general, but we still look to the past a lot.

We still listen to Sun Ra a lot. We’re getting into obscure music to influence what we’re doing. We want to capture this live experience before we put out a recorded project. We’ll be coming out with a project called Libations, which will be a four-track thing. It’s an ancestral suite, as we call it. That’ll be delivered a bit differently and have a visual component to that as well. CTRL Space CMD is just preparing everybody for what’s to come from Nag Champa, St. Clair Castro, CMVPTR CLVB and the extended family… it’s a launch pad, a first of many projects to be released by the collective.

Castro: We have one special project coming out of a CMVPTR CLVB collab called Blank Space, so be sure to be on the lookout for that.


DCMD: What dates can we see CTRL Space CMD?

Gray: All the performances will be at the Logan Fringe Arts Space on Florida Avenue. April 6 will be the first night, called “Ritual: The Psychedelic Revival.” It’ll have St. Clair Castro, Sir EU, Rob Stokes, as well as Exaktly and Ustelo.

Night two, April 13, is “Alter: Interstellar Escape Plan,” which is a black Vaporwave-inspired night. Sexy Dex & the Fresh, which is a band primarily composed of D.C. musicians who are currently based in New Orleans. It’s a future-minded, retrofuristic Prince-inspired band. Tony Kill will be debuting his album, Thought Crimes, and a live installation that he’s producing. Jenna Camille & The Free Radicals will be there–they’re a great D.C.-based group.

April 20 will be “Sauvage: The Untamed Planet” which is Nag Champa presenting a live record, along with Sirius Juju, Crue, and Who Taught You to Run. The last night will be a reiteration of a production called “Meta: The Evolution of Blackness” on April 27.

CTRL Space CMD will take place at Capital Fringe’s Logan Fringe Arts Space from April 6-27.