While covering Ultra Music Festival in Miami last weekend, we had the opportunity to catch up with Vello Virkhaus, the founder of V Squared Labs (http://vsquaredlabs.com/project/ultra-worldwide/) and official VJ of Ultra since it’s inception. Mr. Virkhaus was recently named #35 on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 50 people in EDM to date. What followed was a candid discussion about his past, present, and future projects, along with some of the more intimate details of how the amazing visual production at Ultra comes about.

TMN: Vello thank you so much for coming and speaking with us at The Music Ninja. Our readers are really interested to hear about what you’re doing and where you’re at. So first of all, how’d the show go today?

Vello: Everything is running really smoothly and it’s great to see the vortex come to life. I happen to love vortexes, they’re a personal favorite.

TMN: Now what do you mean by Vortex exactly?

Vello: As a visual artist, this stage. The designer who created it made it in kind of a radial array that recedes in space, so it has an effect that’s like a tunnel almost, which we call a vortex, or wormhole, which has a lot of movement. So it’s a really complicated surface and it’s awesome to see it mapped out. I’m really proud of our team this year. On an engineering and deployment level, we’re pretty small scale for a large festival like this, which has been good. We have more room in front of us, which is nice.

TMN: How did V Squared get started up?

Vello: I guess my first big entertainment project was with Korn in California. So Korn got me in to doing more concert visuals for rock bands…EDM actually lead to Korn, and then Korn went back to EDM so we’ve all been spinning in strange circles with people like J Devil coming out with his whole, evil-self, dubstep thing and being progressive. So it’s a nice circle. So we started there and it’s been growing slowly every year.

TMN: You have an art background correct? You went to Kansas City for a while I think?

Vello: One year there, and then I had my little rebellion, and then I moved to Chicago and went to the art institute there. So yeah I did my tenure, climbed the pole to my bachelors and then went in to post-production.

TMN: You had some other projects prior to V Squared as well?

Vello: Well, we really started in Ultra with Rabbit in the Moon. They were our first collaborators, and that brought me to Florida. And through Rabbit in the Moon, and Dave, and all the original people who were in this scene, they brought me to Ultra and brought OVT, our first company, in to do visuals. It’s been a cool growing process. So, from the beach to here, on the yacht, is like a time warp almost.

TMN: Tell me a little bit about the process when you’re going in to planning a show like Ultra. What goes in to that?

Vello: This show’s a monster. It’s a little more crazy than our West Coast EDM stuff.

TMN: How so?

Vello: Just that time frames are pretty tight. Things change a lot. Miami has a certain craziness about it overall that’s just different than anywhere else. There’s maybe more expectations, more international representation, it’s a giant dance gathering that’s just getting bigger and bigger.

TMN: When you’re designing visuals, is it a computer program that you use? Do you have proprietary software?

Vello: Yeah, so live performance for us, we use our own media server that we’ve been developing called Epic. We’ve been writing it inside of Touch Designer, and we have that on Carl Cox and we have it on the Main Stage this year. It’s doing all the processing, so it allowed us to have guests address a whole complexity of screen surfaces through one output, and then capture that and re-map it which is really cool.

TMN: When artists have some of their own visuals that they usually utilize in their performance, how do you correlate that with what you’re doing?

Vello: Well, everybody’s different. So there’s a lot of VJs now on the Main Stage: more than ever. We’ve seen a huge growth in the VJ, or visual performer, being more a part of the actual touring act, which is really cool because I remember when Cider Collins and I used to tour, there were only a few DJs we knew that were touring with their own visuals and collaborating together. And now, like at Main Stage, there’s more teams of people than ever. Whether they’re a real team or just hired, who knows the story, but there’s more artists working together with their own teams than ever before which is pretty cool.

TMN: So you got to collaborate with them and share your ideas, or they just kind of take over?

Vello: It’s a whole new territory of unexplored…everything. 5 years ago I would have done visuals for maybe, 12 hours straight, up until Armin Van Buuren came on and then I would have logged off and said “whew, holy cow, that was crazy!” So, it’s kind of nice to have a break, and it’s actually weird because as our technology has evolved in what we’re doing, things get more generative and new people come up and old people do other things.

TMN: Are you also incorporating things like fog cannons and pyrotechnics?

Vello: All the lighting here is designed by Steve Lieberman, and he is fantastic. He designs most of the stages and most of the lighting for the whole festival. So he handles lighting, and there’s kind of a department for everything here at Ultra. Then there’s another company, or 3, or 5, that do each of the different kind of effects I think. Then they’re each linked up to one board, lighting is on one board, so it’s literally like lighting and effects is one floor, sound’s one floor, and then video is one whole floor. So it’s like from that wall (points to wall) to here, is us. We have port places where guests can come and just plug in, some switches and sub-switches, and then our little processor brain. Then there’s racks under racks, you know, some of these stages are super complicated. The Carl Cox thing is just awesome. The screens move up and down, it’s rad.

TMN: I heard you’ll be over at Carl Cox’s megastructure later this evening?

Vello: We gave our server to Hobbs, who’s Carl’s VJ and we’re going to go jam. We’re going to go do some minimal techno visuals and get architectural, and audio reactive.

TMN: What do you mean by that?

Vello: So I’m going to bring my laptop so I can capture the audio data, and then convert it into a data stream and assign it to different attributes of various visual synths in the system. So it’s kind of like playing a moog, but it’s video. You can get lost in it.

TMN: Is there a lot of rehearsing and preparation that goes in to your performances? Are you kind of reading the crowd? Reading the DJ?

Vello: All of that for sure, but since I’ve been on tour with Ultra now, I kind of have Showtek down. I think this is my eighth or tenth time doing Showtek through the different festivals. So I know where Showtek’s going at least, and their vibe. A lot of people I’ll know some arc at least, but there’s a lot of improv, that’s just necessary. It just gets better and better looking as it gets darker. Daytime is hard. I’m going to be really, in a much better mood when I go to Carl Cox and see some visuals at night!

TMN: You travel with Ultra around different venues worldwide?

Vello: Worldwide, yeah! I’ve been to all the worldwide ventures, I didn’t go to the first Brazil, and I’m actually glad I didn’t because Steve told me about his flights and it sounded…tough. The second one was pretty rad. I think that was the last time I saw Rabbit in the Moon, so that was cool. Korea’s been great. Europe’s awesome. Croatia’s amazing. Cape Town is great. I went on Safari in Johannesburg. The Ultra team took us on a safari and it was totally killer. We were hanging out, petting lions, and cheetahs. The tiger freaked me out a bit.

TMN: Well you still have your legs, so, it must’ve worked out OK?

Vello: It didn’t lock on to me, I stayed back. I know better than to go close to a tiger!

TMN: How did you land the Ultra gig?

Vello: I think I was filming Rabbit in the Moon live, on-stage, and because they liked Rabbit in the Moon’s visual show. They wanted to know who did the visuals, and OVT went down and we did the festival and we did Rabbit in the Moon. It was an expansion from Rabbit! From a glowstick to the big screen!

TMN: So it sounds like Rabbit in the Moon was a good partnership for you then?

Vello: Well my first partners in the first visual company that I had were touring with Rabbit in the Moon, so they kind of brought me in to the fold of that, and then we brought each other in to different cool projects and we’ve collaborated for years since, doing all kinds of interesting things together.

TMN: Moving forward, what’s on your plate next?

Vello: I’ve got to fly home and make a show for Lady Gaga right now, so…

TMN: Well that’s BIG!

Vello: I try not to think about it too much, but my phone is blowing up!

TMN: I hear she throws pretty good shows.

Vello: It’s going to be interesting. We’re getting the ball rolling there. We’re also making a secret show for someone who makes me laugh when I VJ for him for Coachella. That’s going to be great. I can’t wait to laugh again and VJ, that’s fun! You don’t get to do that a lot, unless you’re doing improv visuals on a comedy show maybe? I don’t know how many VJs do comedy shows. I haven’t seen a lot of live video performance in the stand-up thing yet.

TMN: Are there any artists that you would really like to work with?

Vello: Everybody asks me this, and I’ve figured that I would need a time machine to do the artists who I really wanted to work with, because they’re all gone, and that’s what’s sad. But, if I would’ve done a visual show for The Grateful Dead, for example, that would be cool. I would love that. Just for my own personal, and not “pop star” status, but just to check a box. And then, Lou Reed, you know? Velvet Underground, get really in to that…then have Nam June Paik play cello with Lou Reed, do some visuals, that would’ve been rad. But I can’t take a time machine, so going forward, I don’t know!

TMN: So you’re willing to take anyone on?

Vello: Well you know you’ve gotta keep food in your fridge right?

TMN: Money is good, I like money. If you were to go back in the day, what sort of materials would you be using with THAT sort of technology versus what you’re using today?

Vello: Oh yeah, that is a good question. Film. I think Grateful Dead did oils, and film projection layered together, which would’ve been great, because film is beautiful.

TMN: Have you done any work like that before?

Vello: That’s what we used to do is film loops. In early Chicago rave days that was what OVT used to do. We used to do film loops and video projectors. We used to set up huge weather balloons and do film loops from weather balloons. We’d bring inflatables, hang stretchy screens, and do cool sculptural lycra film loop inflatables and slides. We did a lot of slide projection, that was fun. It’s old school, that’s old school media.

TMN: What else would you like The Music Ninja readers to know about you, and the work that you do?

Vello: Love your VJs!

TMN: How DO we love our VJs? How do we show love and appreciation?

Vello: We need to learn how. Nobody knows.

TMN: Putting hands up in the air? Pointing back at you?

Vello: Shouts out and thumbs up! Support your visual artist. #VJlife

TMN: I’ve got a couple of random quick questions to finish up the interview if you’re OK with that?

Vello: Sure.

TMN: What would your last meal be?

Vello: It would have to be something caramelly.

TMN: Caramelly?

Vello: Yeah.

TMN: So you’re a dessert guy?

Vello: Yeah I’m a dessert guy. Cheesecake with caramel on it…and a double cappuccino. Set up with a candle, I can see it now. White table cloth, black leather chair.

TMN: That sounds sexy.

Vello: Maybe a biscuit for my coffee? Butterscotch something. Couple of butterscotches, and maybe a brandy then after that!

TMN: Lamborghini or Ferrari?

Vello: Neither! I like American muscle man.

TMN: So Chevy or Ford?

Vello: I like Delta 88.

TMN: I don’t even know what a Delta 88 is…

Vello: That’s Oldsmobile. Yeah, it’s like the old school cop car. I like those. Fast, big block V8.

TMN: They don’t handle all that well though, that’s a heavy car right?

Vello: It’s a big car yeah, it’s good for you. That’s the one that they can’t quite shoot through as easily. It’s better for the apocalypse, and you can outfit it better to mow zombies down, so…

TMN: What is an absolute necessity on your rider list?

Vello: I like hand sanitizer. I LOVE baby wipes.

TMN: Interesting…is that for like, when you go to the bathroom?

Vello: For hands! Ahhhhh. That, and a paint brush. I need a paint brush. Gotta have a paint brush for dusting the gear off. I like to have a mat to stand on too, but I bring that now because no one has ‘em.

TMN: Who has been one of your favorite crowds to perform for?

Vello: There’s been a lot of great crowds, but one of the best crowds I’ve ever seen was when we did the Amon Tobin show at Mutek in Montreal. That was a cool…they’re like a weird crowd. Because, at first I wasn’t sure…it was just, strange movement. I’ve never seen people moving around like that. Everybody had a whole different kind of dance moves thing and everybody was really mesmerized. I loved it because everyone was connected together and it was one of those experiences where it’s a little transcendental, and there was really a sense of crowd connection. I’ve seen a few of those moments, but it’s a rare thing. I like it there, cool city! Montreal is a rad place, love it there.

TMN: Blondes or brunettes?

Vello: Brunettes.

TMN: Apple or PC?

Vello: The acronym…um, gosh I don’t know.

TMN: Ahh, you’ve got an iPhone, you’re Apple man…

Vello: Nah, I have a lot of PCs. I can’t decide, I like ‘em both. But the PCs kind of…I’ll go with 70% Windows love now. Slowly gaining. Windows 8, touchscreen PC, 1 terabyte solid state drive, real time VJing off the touch screen laptop that’s like that (makes a small space with his fingers) thick, at 60 frames a second…I don’t know I kind of like Windows now. That’s pretty sick, pretty over the top! 880m mobile whatever it is with nVidia, 4 gigs of ram in a laptop…it’s kind of done. Mac’s kind of finished…I mean, mine’s kind of cool for playing titles now…hahaha!

TMN: Banishing Apple, oh no!

Vello: Well I’ve got a stack of probably 10 Mac laptops in the office, I mean I probably had like 40 laptops…I wish I would have kept them all, I would’ve had a giant stack to the ceiling of all the G3s, the brown one, et cetera.

TMN: You could probably do an art project with that!

Vello: Now I’m keeping junk. They’re trying to get me to get rid of it and my office keeps getting bigger, like a whole part of it is just for analog junk. I’d hate to get rid of it now!

TMN: We’ll see you on Hoarders soon?

Vello: I don’t know…yeah, I’m turning in to a mild hoarder. Analog could come back.

TMN: Beer or Wine?

Vello: Wine

TMN: White or Red?

Vello: Red, Argentinians

TMN: Monster or Red Bull?

Vello: Monster gives me heartburn. I’m a fan of Red Bull, and we make animation for them, so Red Bull rules. Monster is heartburn, ditch it.

TMN: Vello, thank you so much for your time today, that’s all the questions I have for you. It’s been pleasure meeting you sir, I really appreciate it!

Related items::