'Two Turntables and a UFO': Beck, Cat Power Highlight 'Station to Station' Train Tour

The 10-city art collective trek is where "the analog meets the digital world," Levi's' James Curleigh tells THR.
Courtesy of Levi's

For the past three weeks, a train full of artists, musicians, chefs and cultural influencers has been chugging across the U.S.

Station To Station, a public art project led by artist Doug Aitken and funded by Levi’s, kicked off in Brooklyn on Sept. 6 and has made a total of ten stops at cities like St. Paul, Minn., Barstow, Calif. and Oakland. Each stop came with its own unique “happening,” reflecting a collaboration of media, culling together culture, art, music, film, literature, food and fashion as individual art installations.

The train, described as “a moving, kinetic light sculpture," exhibited a diverse collection of cars as well. Among them: a tricked-out showcase car with a recording studio and a 1948 smoking car used as a lounge. Levi’s is presenting the project along with Aitken’s team and enlisted tech company Fake Love to create hacked analog items, like a 1901 Underwood typewriter that's able to send tweets in real time. For the brand, STS was an opportunity to be involved in something large-scale that helps bolster their existing image as a dynamic company that is invested in the arts.

“We’ve always been talking about finding the edge of the modern frontier,” James Curleigh, President of the Levi’s Brand, told The Hollywood Reporter on the train at the Los Angeles stop last week. “We said ‘How can we truly understand where the modern frontier’s going to be?’ You think modern frontier and you think about the analog-digital [dichotomy]. This notion of a train going across, pioneering, came up. We came up with this idea of a nomadic festival idea with a train that involved music, culture, art, fashion. If you put people together on a longer, nomadic adventure, on a train, and put it in motion, you can probably put people and ideas in motion too.”

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Each of the ten stops involved a rotating lineup of artists and musicians, which included Beck, Cat Power, Dan Deacon and No Age. The performances were meant to be unique to each circumstance and location. For instance, in Barstow, where STS arrived at the desert city’s Skyline Drive-In, a UFO created by artist Peter Coffin flew over Beck’s performance as he chanted, “I’ve got two turntables and a UFO.” Many of the locales brought in local food trucks and the majority of the artists and musicians rode the train between stops to extend the creative collaboration.

“When you think about your life you don’t have one dimension where you have food and another where you have art,” Curleigh said. “You don’t break it up that way. And in life you’re in motion. You’re literally moving through life. To us, the whole notion of a train reflects that. You think about pioneers -- they typically go from East to West and they’re collaborating and learning something every day. So I think the notion of a train represents the ability to go to somewhere new and create something that maybe hadn’t been in existence before.”

STS invited THR to ride along on the final stretch of the tour, from Los Angeles to Oakland, which took about 13 hours up the California coast. Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr. hung out in the Levi’s car with Jorge Rodriguez-Cano, creative director of Mexican artisanal mezcal brand Mezcal Amores, who was also invited aboard. At 5:01 p.m., the car hosted Levi’s happy hour in honor of the brand’s 501 denim and Aitken, Dan Deacon and members of No Age indulged in the final celebration of the three-week trip.

The underlying idea behind the project, made evident at Oakland’s now defunct 16th Street Station, is to encourage something tangible in the digital age. The Oakland event, which featured two stages of music, food trucks, an installation by Evan Holm involving submerged turntables and a smoke performance by Olaf Breuning, was meant to urge participation in the present. Deacon closed the evening with a set that asked fans to be involved in the music, dividing them into dancing teams. Many of the artists will later use the works they’ve created on the journey. Liz Glynn has been constructing new pieces in one of the train’s cars while Olafur Eliasson built a kinetic drawing machine that he installed in the recording car.

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“I think there’s going to be all sorts of creative output when this done,” said Curleigh. “It’s happening live. That’s the beautiful thing about the analog meets digital world, which we’re surrounded by here. We have this old typewriter but it’s actually got a specific digital feed in there for Twitter. We have what looks like a normal Gibson guitar but it’s also hooked up to Soundcloud. So we’ve been collaborating and creating live as we go. But I also think [this project] will show people what’s possible. It puts Levi’s in a position to say ‘Levi’s is always at the edge of the modern frontier and we naturally belong here.’”

Entry for each happening cost $25 a ticket, a notably low amount considering the talent on the bill. Proceeds from ticket sales are earmarked for the Station to Station Cultural Fund, which “enables artists of all disciplines to produce significant new work that advances public understanding of creative expression and introduces new definitions of art and culture to a global audience.” The Fund, run by Aitken’s team, supports various foundations and cultural institutions around the country, which means each happening has donated funds to various organizations selected by the involved artists. According to STS’s website, the Fund raised a total of $19,060.

“It’s as much about the awareness as it is the funding,” Curleigh added. “We support the train and the entire event as Levi’s, but the whole dynamic is really about giving awareness and points of entry and ticket sale revenue to specific projects.”

For Levi’s, being lead brand partner on STS provided an opportunity to prove that the brand is at the forefront of artistic endeavors. It’s also an apt lead-in to the brand’s upcoming Levi’s Stadium, the new home of the San Francisco 49ers, which will house 68,000 football fans when it opens in 2014. “We’ve done some ambitious projects before,” Curleigh notes. “We’ve got a pretty ambitious project right now with Levi’s Stadium. But this one was one of those calculated risk moments to say, ‘Hey do you guys want to support a train that’s going across the country and collaborate with artists and musicians?’ You can’t say ‘Let’s be pioneers and find the modern frontier’ and then not join the train journey.”

Twitter: @emilyzemler