The new music video for the band James’s single “To My Surprise” is full of timely issues. Refugees. Gun control. Drones. Corporate greed. Drugs. Police brutality. If it’s been on the news and made you feel depressed about the bleak world out there, “To My Surprise” has it in spades. But don’t worry, the animated video is not solely content with showing us a dystopian vision of current affairs. In a refreshing take on hope, “To My Surprise” imagines a robed crusader sneaking through the streets to detonate a “love bomb” that will prompt many of these social ills to dissipate. Think of it as a 21st century version of flower power.
The moment that’ll surely have everyone talking? The shot of Donald Trump kissing a male migrant worker. You can thank director Kris Merc for that iconic image. Merc, who credits his Nuyorican identity with giving him the ability to “perceive the world in an interesting fashion” and who admits that growing up in Spanish Harlem in the ’90s surely shaped his aesthetic and cultural outlook, knew early on that he wanted to use that image as a way to push back on what he sees as the increasingly hateful rhetoric from the business mogul turned Republican frontrunner.
Merc, who’s also done work for De La Soul, The Griswolds, and The Peach Kings is constantly setting his eyes on more challenging projects. In fact, his similarly ambitious video, “Mojo Thunder” for that Los Angeles based duo earned him a trip to France last year to the famed Annecy International Animated Film Festival – a feat he managed yet again this year with “To My Surprise.”
We obviously had to chat some more with Merc about Trump, the artistic influences in his work, and his desire to push the music video format to tackle social commentary.
How would you describe your style?
My work is a bit of magical realism, a bit raw, and oftentimes about finding something relating to love or loss. I practice the art of Bricolage which means I’m a bit of a remixer, I love to visually mix influences, culture, visuals, so I’m a very multidisciplinary director. I’m comfortable with Cel Animation, stop motion, live action, and CG, which makes me a bit of a mixed-media beast.
How did the idea behind James “To My Surprise” came about?
When creating James “To My Surprise” I started with the audio, and listening to the song I really wanted to find something powerful. The lyric of “asshole” gave me a vibe—there was an energy to it. My original idea was centered around a series of kisses. I had originally imagined enemies kissing, and I was going to pull from pop culture. So Batman and the Joker, Soldier and Rebel (which still is in the actual film); it was all centered around the ideas of visual-social symmetry. But as the idea became more modern and grounded in our world, the icons became more rooted in current conflicts. The core was, what if enemies suddenly became friends?
I was deeply inspired by anime, murals of Diego Rivera, Occupy Wall Street movement, and Berlin wall graffiti.
I wanted to explore two contrasting visual worlds. One that felt bleak, in tones of monotone greens, and then one that was pink and bright, hopeful, and tantric. Me and Tim Booth [who wrote the script] would talk a lot about tantric dancing, and visuals, and how they are rooted in spiritual moments and love. Visually I was deeply inspired by anime, murals of Diego Rivera, Occupy Wall Street movement, and Berlin wall graffiti. It’s an odd assortment of references that somewhat represent my interest and alignments.
Can you explain the process of creating these narrative-driven music videos?
With music videos the experience is always unique. “Mojo Thunder,” which is a very personal piece, really came out of a creative vision I had which emerged from growing up with Santeria around the fringe of my family, and a bit about the complicated relationship between vice and virtue I started to notice within my family. The Peach Kings, who are great to work with had a very open brief so they really embraced a lot of narrative ideas. I came up with that story from scratch and to this day it feels super personal. It was a difficult process to be so candid and open about something and try to make it something great. It’s a very alienating process in some ways. I definitely left feeling vulnerable, awkward, and even hurt after finishing that project.
In some ways “To My Surprise” is an expansion on what I was exploring with “Mojo Thunder,” in creating a bit of a tone. “To My Surprise” was much more collaborative. I was still writing a lot, but I worked with Dan O’Rourke (founder of Not To Scale) and Tim Booth (lead singer of James) to flesh it out. Both are incredible talents and great storytellers so having them around to bounce ideas off of really did help. The story became much more sophisticated in the process because of their help.
What social messages are you presenting in this video?
We live in interesting times. Entertainment, politics, culture are all colliding into what looks like a hyper-reality to me. I wanted to tell a story that was pointing a mirror to our world, a bit of a dystopian story in the vein of something out of a Margaret Atwood novel. I’m a fan of speculative fiction in general, but what I found working on this, was that that line is a blurry one, and maybe I was telling a more contemporary story, and that’s a scary thought. I’m a big believer in love as a driving force for good, as campy as it sounds, I think there is a power in approaching things with love as the driving force, and I think the overall idea is that we need to separate ourselves from hateful rhetoric, and be a society who is rooted more in compassion, love, helping our fellow man.
How did Trump find himself into the video?
I remember working on the video and going, “Yea, I’ve got to have Trump kissing a migrant worker.”
Art is at its best to me when it is saying something very real, be it an emotion or political statement. I was inspired by this famous mural, “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” by Dmitri Vrubel, which was on the Berlin Wall. It’s a great piece of socially charged transgressive graffiti. In the mural two political leaders are kissing. The video started somewhere in October of last year and he had recently made these insane comments about Mexicans. I remember working on the video and going, “Yea, I’ve got to have Trump kissing a migrant worker.” The whole team was really into it, and we all got pumped. It just felt like Trump was this madman, and we just wanted to address that colliding of imagery, the absurdity of it all. As a Latino I was just deeply offended and honestly scared. To me it says a lot about our society about him becoming the primary candidate for the Republican nomination.