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Great Wall of SXSW: How LEDs are bringing arena rock swagger to the small stage

Going to a STRFKR show is like living in an 8-bit, pixelated world for a night. Between the frenetic energy of the crowd, the pulsing beat, and the shimmering dots of light that illuminate the band from behind, you feel like you’ve stumbled into a party thrown inside a Super Nintendo – and yeah, I know how stoned I sound saying that. But it turns out you don’t need drugs to create the ultimate live music atmosphere. You just need an LED wall.

I caught the debut of STRFKR’s unique LED-powered light wall in the band’s (and Digital Trends’) home town of Portland, Oregon, then again at the opening of SXSW in Austin. With two shows seared into my retinas, I can confidently say the wall is the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to STRFKR’s Joseph, a silent fifth member of the band that has nearly stolen the show.

STRFKR wouldn’t be the first band to take their live show to the next level with a light show – or even to harness LEDs for it – but the scale and intensity of its presentation is unique for a band without the backing of say, U2. The sheer size of the wall, and how it connects you to the music simultaneously makes you keenly aware of the experience while also taking you outside the confines of the concert space – a perfect complement to STRFKR’s 80s-pop-meets-electronic-alt feel.

“Why don’t they just do a projector with a screen like everybody else?”

“I’ve watched a lot of bands set up projectors on tour and it always seems like a huge pain,” explained band member Keil Corcoran. “You’re either dealing with a sketchy wireless transmitter to get your video to the project, or you’re running 100 feet of cable and taping it to the ground so no one trips on it. On top of that, it just doesn’t seem effective enough to me. Seeing DJ LED setups like Daft Punk’s was a big inspiration, and I was interested in seeing it was possible to do something on the cheap.”

The band approached Hans Lindauer in the spring of 2012 with the idea to create an LED wall in time for MusicFestNW. “I’d done high-intensity LED lights on the stages for other bands before, and one of the guys saw those and came to me and said they were thinking about doing something like that, or a video wall,” Lindauer says. “Honestly, I didn’t tell them this, but I was thinking to myself, ‘Why don’t they just do a projector with a screen like everybody else? But they obviously had a better vision for it than I did, because … it’s so cool.”

Lindauer, who creates 3D graphics for Smith Optics by day, said the side gig took him the summer to complete, admitting “it turned into considerably more work than I thought it would be.” Originally, he thought he would construct it out of plywood panels, but after looking at the material, he decided there was no way it would work. “I realized it was going to be 800 pounds and super floppy. Plus, all these LED strips would have to be fastened to the outside and I couldn’t figure out how to get them to stick to plywood.”

The solution turned out to be panels traditionally used to create greenhouses, which in a Goldilocks-like twist of fate, happened to feature cavities that were just the right size to slide LED strips into. “All the strips could be enclosed – so you could throw beer at it all night and it wouldn’t hurt it,” says Lindauer. “We talked about the dimensions before it was built, but we weren’t really prepared for how awesome and massive it looks,” Corcoran says of the build. “The construction far exceeded any expectations we had. It’s insanely rugged and sturdy. Hans is a genius.”

STRFKR LED Wall SXSW

Lindauer used CAD program Rhinoceros to design the wall, and friend Alex Norman took over the software aspect, along with input from Corcoran, Morris, and Glassford.

“Me, Patrick, and Shawn did the programming for the wall together,” says Corcoran. I started with a bunch of GIF and flash animations, and taught the dudes to use some software. We ended up doing most of the programming in about four 14 hour days before our fall tour last year.”

A computer running Linux translates video data from a standard RCA input into the code the digital signals to drive the individual LEDs, and an iPod supplies the actual video. The hardware and software of the wall are open source and available for any brave soul to download and attempt (and Lindauer provides plenty of explanation for the project online). “Anybody that wanted to could make it,” says Lindauer. “It’s not really that difficult.”

I had to ask: For such an enigmatic accessory, does the wall have a name? According to Corcoran, it’s just “the wall.”

STRFKR is currently on tour in support of its latest album, Miracle Mile, but will continue to expand on the wall once the tour is over, potentially adding free-standing sections that will surround the stage, for an even more immersive experience – which is pretty hard to imagine at this point.

To lay eyes upon STRFKR’s LED wall for yourself and get lost in a light-induced haze, check out the band’s upcoming tour dates in a city near you.