Bjork’s "Biophilia" brings new meaning to the term "Multi-platform" - it incorporates a massive live show, a 90-minute documentary and of course, the singer’s anxiously awaited seventh full-length album, due in September - but the centerpiece remains the iPad app suite that makes each song an interactive experience. Scott Snibbe, a Los Angeles-based media artist who previously created popular apps like "Gravilux" and "Bubble Harp," was one of a handful of developers who played an instrumental part in putting the ambitious project together. After Bjork reached out and invited him to join the project, Snibbe spent much of the past year turning "Biophilia" into a one-of-a-kind experience that was produced by Scott Snibbe Studio.
Below is the full interview with Snibbe, parts of which appear in the cover story on Bjork in this week’s Billboard, in which he discusses the beginnings of "Biophilia," how the different apps work, and the future of the iPad as a creative tool.
Billboard : What brought you to Bjork’s attention, to the extent that she reached out to you to help with "Biophilia" ?
Scott Snibbe : I have a fine art reputation and career, but I never really wanted to sell art through galleries because I always saw it as infinitely reproducible. And the App Store came along, and all of a sudden there’s a market, this is always what I wanted to do. So I released these apps and I got an e-mail from Bjork’s manager who said, "Oh, Bjork’s a big fan of your work, and we were wondering if you know anybody who might be able to help us with an app project we’re working on." You know, a very kind of understated, British approach. And of course I wrote back, I said, "I’m a fan of Bjork," which I genuinely am, from the Sugarcubes days. She’s not just an incredible musician, but one of the world’s great artists across all media. So I was thrilled to have that introduction.
We chatted, and she sent an amazing e-mail that summarized the whole project ; an incredible, incredible, huge vision for it. We had some Skype conversations, and then we met in the U.K. in August last year. I met her designers in Paris, and… then we started talking about what my involvement would be, and also what the structure of the project would be. We were originally thinking about 10 individual apps, and then the idea of combining all into a kind of "mothership" to contain the whole project. And what it finally ended up with-after many, many months of talk and discussions and a couple trips to Iceland, and involvement with other really talented people like the guys from TouchPress-we ended with my studio producing the whole project, and also creating three of the apps. One is like the mother app — which is kind of like a galaxy in which all the other apps live — and two other apps : One about electricity called "Thunderbolt," the other about viruses called "Virus."
BB : How did you and the other developers interact throughout this process ? Was everything done remotely ?
SS : It was mostly online, with people all over the world, from Australia to Paris to London to Iceland, with some real important in-person meetings. I mean, Bjork is not going to work in an office setting-we were working in a lighthouse [in Iceland]. And the lighthouse was on this little strip of rock — to get out to the lighthouse, about a quarter-of-a-mile walk, and you had to get there just in time because [the rocks] get covered by the tides. So we’d get there and kind of rush in, hauling all this equipment, and then we’d be trapped in the lighthouse for about eight hours as we worked. And then you get out when you can.
BB : How was the project funded ?
SS : Bjork keeps saying that this is "back to the punk days." My understanding is that it’s the most expensive project she’s undertaken — I mean, once you start getting involved with computer software, it’s hard-core. It’s highly skilled people and long stretches of time. Her record contract ended and she owns all of the rights to her music, so she has the freedom to decide how to distribute it, how to create this new album, and that’s part of why this project could happen. Bjork did it in a different way… which is that she said, "What we can offer you guys is to have a creative partnership. Let’s equally invest." She’s investing an enormous amount in the production of the music for the album and other aspects. And then we as the developers are gonna make our own investment in creating the app, and we’re sharing the profits.
BB : Some people who read this might not be familiar how iPad apps are utilized - could you break down how these apps are related to the songs, and how they’ll be used ?
SS : So the idea with the apps is that they’re not merely a music video, and also not just some kind of pure musicological analysis, but they’re actually a new creative experience that uses music, nature, technology and interactivity. For example, "Virus" is about viruses and other sort of parasitic phenomenon, that’s the natural aspect ; and then musically it’s about generated music, music that’s created through processes and algorithms. The first single, "Crystalline," is about crystal structures in nature, and musically it’s related to musical structure and special environments. The way Bjork explained it to me at first is that this app represents the way Bjork sees music inside of her head, specifically pop music. So "Crystalline" is like a tunnel you’re going through collecting these crystals, and the tunnels have different numbers of sides, and the numbers of sides and the choices between tunnels when you come out of them, all relate to the way music structure relates, and how only certain parts can go with certain other parts.
BBB : Will other apps feature snippets of the song and you have to piece them together ?
SS : They’re all a little bit different. The spectrum is from "music video" to "instrument," and generally all the apps are fitting somewhere in between that, sometimes in multiple places. So some apps are totally, totally creative, that you could create almost any song with the apps, that it’s a new type of musical instrument, and there’s a mode where you can use it to play along with Bjork’s song, or to make Bjork’s song. And other apps are much more like a story, like an interactive story or a game that you go through and you make certain choices, or it has certain interactive elements that have a much stronger narrative.
BB : Do you ever see "Biophilia" expanding to non-Apple tablets or products ?
SS : It’s possible. The thing about the Apple platform is that they give you real control over the audio-visual experience — you know the app is going to perform and work exactly the way you designed it. It’s kind of heartbreaking to imagine someone’s going to hear some awful version of your song, or a two-frame-per-second animation of your app. But Bjork’s wish is to reach as many people as possible, so if there are other platforms that can support the vision of this app, I’m sure it’s possible. But right now the Apple platform is the one that’s working.
BB : The album’s seeing a physical release and a digital release, but iPads are not ubiquitous. I’m wondering how someone who doesn’t own an iPad will be able to experience the whole effect ?
SS : It’s surprising how many people ask this, but I think the question comes from not realizing that this is a new medium. This is like the birth of cinema. It’s an extremely exciting moment for musicians, for artists, and I think this project is a nice step towards fully leveraging the medium with one of the world’s great artists to see what you can pull off when you get one of the world’s greatest musicians and some of the world’s top developers in interactivity to work together. And I think you’ll see a lot more of it. I know the artists want to embrace it, and if the record companies and labels can find a way to make this work financially and contractually for the artists, I think everyone will really thrive.