Interview by TRADE
Daniel Routh is a self-described "multimedia creative" working predominantly in the realms of video, photography, and music composition. Daniel's visual work tells tales of his personal travels and explorations across the country, while his musical compositions travel across multiple genres showing a depth of emotion and range. Read on to find out how his multiple disciplines collide, as well as his latest project about an attempt at breaking a world record.
What is the focus of your work?
At the core of what I do I'm trying to stir up something inside of people that maybe they haven't been in touch with in a while or ever before. I want to break away from surface level thinking in terms of 'art' and really push the boundaries of our contemporary views concerning what art is or is not. So in my work, whether it be a composition, or a video, or whatever, I want people to feel that there is something deeper, something more meaningful and more real. I have a real distaste for a lot of mainstream music, art, and films. I don't mean that to sound pretentious but whenever I watch one of those movies or hear that music on the radio I find myself completely unmoved – like I'm no different now than I was before I went into that movie. And to me that's a complete waste of time. It's like candy, you kind of can't help but like it but it will never sustain you and isn't good for you in large quantities. I'm constantly trying to go deeper, to get more meaning and more substance in my work, and to do it in a way that I just think is cool.
From where do you draw inspiration?
That's a hard question. It's often times from unpredictable places but generally I find a lot of inspiration from other artists, from the natural world, from strange or peculiar sounds, from books and poetry. Some of my favorite artists are Beethoven, Arvo Pärt, Mark Rothko, René Magritte, and C.S. Lewis.
What kind of work do you make?
I call myself a multi-media artist. For me, that encompasses music, photography, and video.
What drew you to that form of art?
I've always been the kind of person that needs variety. Growing up, my older brother and I would film skateboarding videos using our parents’ VHS video camera. Then we would edit using two VCR's where we'd start and stop one of them and hit record on the other one and add music. So that got me really interested in video, I would film everything I could whenever my family and I went out to do things.
I always wanted to do photography but the kinds of cameras that I had access to were never really able to produce the quality of images I was looking for. Last summer, a friend and I took a long road trip up to the Pacific Northwest with a loaner 10 mega-pixel Nikon DSLR and an iPhone case that allowed us to attach an old Nikon manual lens. We filmed everything and took a ton of pictures. When I came back I put together a video of the trip which was my first video I'd made since was a kid. That experience really re-sparked my interest on a surprising level.
I grew up in very musical home. My dad is a piano tuner, my mom used to be a singer, and my step-dad is a musician and composer as well. Through high school I was really involved in band and jazz band and I spent the summer before my senior year touring with a drum corps. I wanted to study music at UNT but I had switched instruments a whole lot and didn't have exceptional talent on any one instrument. Because of that, I was initially rejected into the music program at UNT. But I knew I wanted to study music composition and I wanted to do it at UNT, so I practiced three hours a day for 8 months and then auditioned two more times until I finally got accepted, probably just out of sympathy.
It was a weird time for me, I knew I had a lot of potential as a composer and a musician – I felt it inside me – but I couldn't play any one instrument exceptionally well. I had all these people telling me that I wasn't good enough but I knew that I was good enough. In the end, all it really took was just a lot of patience, a little bit of spite, and a few people who saw the potential in me to help me through that time. Four years later, I won one of the biggest competitions a composer can win at UNT and I had a piece that I composed performed by the UNT Symphony Orchestra.
Do you find that your different creative disciplines influence or inspire one another?
Definitely. It's cool because especially when I'm editing video I find myself doing the same kinds of things that I do when I'm composing music. For example, a lot of times I'll create formal, structural designs and then I'll try and create these 'moments' that are special and stand out because of the context I've built around the 'moment'. That kind of thing definitely transfers over between composing music and editing video.
But the more challenging one for me has been photography, because I've been so used to working within time and suddenly I'm doing this thing that isn't really time-based. So I'm constantly asking myself "how do I create something deep and meaningful without time?" With photography, people can look at a photo any different number of ways but I think a good photo will almost lead the eye to where the artist wants it to go, and I think that's partly what would make a person subconsciously want to stop and stare at an image for a long time, it's almost like they can't look away. Those are the kinds of images that I try to create – something that almost pulls them in and makes them feel like they're inside the photo.
Tell us about your workspace and what tools you use the most.
I have a small music studio at home with recording gear and lots of miscellaneous instruments and music paper, so when I'm working on music stuff I usually do it at home. When I'm editing photos or videos I'll often times go to a coffee shop because I like the atmosphere and I usually am working around other photographers of videographers who can give me high-quality, honest feedback.
I use DSLR's for most of my video stuff, I think that's becoming a pretty standard thing now. For photography, I'll typically use a DSLR and my Pentax ME-Super film camera. I'm still trying out different films but my favorite so far has been Ektar 100 which is made by Kodak. I really want to learn some alternative photographic processes like wet plate collodion photography, camera obscura photography, as well as using alternative chemicals to process my film negatives (things like vodka and nail polish remover).
Your most recent video project is about your Step Dad's attempt at breaking a world record. Tell me about that project as well as a little about the inspiration behind it.
Well my step-dad, Michael Combs, had some really bad heart problems about 10 years ago that stopped his heart for several minutes. He clinically died twice in three days. But before he was sick he always had this dream to be a pilot, so because of his near-death experience he vowed to himself that when he got well again he would learn how to fly. Five years later, after being laid off from his job, he told us that not only was he going to get his pilot's license but that he was going to fly an airplane into all 50 states to spread the message to people that it's never too late to follow your dreams. Today, more than three years later, he has completed the 50 state goal and we estimate that about 30 million people have heard his message.
Last summer he and I attempted a time-over-distance world record attempt at flying coast-to-coast in his airplane which is a special class of airplane called Light Sport. Unfortunately, we got within 91 miles of the east coast destination but then had to abandon the record attempt because we got completely enveloped in some wild thunderstorms. We planned to try again this summer and have been waiting all summer long for clear weather so we can make our second attempt. It just hasn't happened yet and at this point, we’re not sure it will. We’ll likely need to wait until next year.
My plan has been to make a short documentary chronicling the whole endeavor in order to continue spreading his message about not giving up on your dreams. Honestly, if it doesn't happen until next year I'll be somewhat relieved. There are just so many factors in setting aviation world-records that it really makes attempts stressful and nerve-wracking.
Has living in Denton influenced your work?
Living in Denton has definitely influenced my work. There's this strong community of artists here and there's this way of thinking that Dentonites have that is just magnetic. I'm not from Denton, or even from Texas, I'm from Colorado, so coming here was a big culture shock for me. But as soon as I started getting into making art and doing creative things I found myself totally embraced by Denton and by the people that make up the creative community. There are lots of talented people engaged in so many different disciplines and on some level everyone is helping everybody else; I feel really fortunate to be a part of a group of people like that.
Is it important to you to be a part of a creative community?
It really is important to me. To have a group of people that I really trust and who I really feel respect me and what I do is totally invaluable. I feel like the quality of my work would really suffer if I didn't have people to be honest with me and tell me "that sucks" or "this part here is weak" or whatever. This was especially true when I was really first starting out.
Are there any local artists that you take inspiration from?
There are a whole lot of them. I can’t remember his name but I met this painter at the Denton Arts & Jazz fest several years ago. We talked for close to four hours and he told me something that that really opened my eyes to the way that I approach art. He said something along the lines of "Art is not the painting, nor is it the painter. Art is the exchange that happens between the painting and the viewer." That just really blew my mind and totally made sense to me. I mean a piece of music or a painting is not art. How could it be? It's just air molecules being knocked into each other or just colors arranged together on some paper. The thing that is art is that magical thing that happens when someone hears the music or sees that painting. And I think this is why people have different ideas of what makes good art and bad art, or even art and non-art.
So I took what that guy at the Denton Arts & Jazz fest said and I ran with it and now, four years, later my work is very focused on creating something that can be very personal to the viewer almost on a spiritual level, and doing so by creating something that might challenge them to look a little bit deeper. I love things that appear simple but actually have this subtle, nuanced depth to them that you kind of have to hunt for.
Then there are also the really talented people that I'm fortunate enough to be friends with or are at least be familiar with. People like Jordan Smith, Ryan Polly, Justin Lowe, Mark & Lauren Apel, Patrick Peringer, Carlo Canlas, Jeremy Ottens, Mandy Hampton, and a whole host of other highly skilled people.
What was the last film, video, and/or composition that blew your mind?
A short film called "Union Man" by Bobby Lewis. It's real short, like 9 minutes, but it's this really honest, gut-wrenching look at this janitor who works in the university union at UNT. It's all in black & white and there's this somber, melodramatic, bluesy piano thing that's going on underneath these visuals of him cleaning windows and mopping floors after everyone else is gone. The janitor, the "Union Man", is narrating the whole time and as it progresses he starts to really open up about his fears and his emotions. And then, when he has become most vulnerable with his words, it cuts to a shot of him playing that piano tune on this baby-grand piano that sits in the union. So Bobby used that tune as the score for the film and the music really sums up all the feelings that the guy described and it's so pure because it's coming straight from the source. It's really powerful stuff; a really simply made, vulnerable look at this guy who everybody else just writes off as a loser or whatever. I thought that was really cool.
What future project are you most excited about?
Well, I have several things in the works that I'm excited about. I'm really looking forward to making the documentary about my step-dad's upcoming coast-to-coast world record attempt. I'm also scoring a short film called Hero for writer and director Brian Anthone here within the next month or so. I'll also be composing music for a feature film called REM but that probably won't be until next summer. Lately, I've been working with the people at TRADE to produce a video that will hopefully generate a lot of interest in the future of the project.
Additionally, I've been working closely with Denton's new clothing line, Threadwell, doing mainly photography stuff. I’ve been designing their website kind of in my spare time the past couple months and we launched the site recently. As a photographer, it's really a great opportunity for me to work with Threadwell because we'll organize these shoots, I'll show up, and I'll have three or four different models who are really talented and make the shoots go really smoothly.
I stay pretty busy, which I'm really thankful for, but the thing I'm most looking forward to is simply to continue to deepen my skills as an artist, whether it be in photography, video, or music. As a multi-media artist, I thrive on creating things in all three of those mediums and I am very fortunate to be able to support myself by doing so. I pretty much have three criteria for my life's work: I want to benefit others in a long-lasting, meaningful way, I want to create really cool things, and I want to travel all over the world. So I'm excited to see what the future holds!
TRADE is a forthcoming collaborative creative space started by Heather Gregory and Tristan Bynum in the heart of Denton. TRADE works to bring together artists and creatives from different backgrounds and mediums by providing access to the space, tools, resources and creative community they need in order to thrive in Denton.