An Interview With Music Video Director Hiro Murai

We at DRA have loved music video director Hiro Murai’s work ever since Matt wrote about his video for St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader”. We reached out to him for an interview and spoke with him over the phone about his creative process, his inspirations, and why he has a case of musician envy.

JM: Describe your process. To what extent does the artist collaborate with you or have a vision for the video?
HM: It’s piece by piece. Some artists are more vocal than others. Most of the time, they’re wide open. They’ll give me a budget and a range of shooting dates based on availability. They might give me very abstract tones or Tumblrs with random photos to clue me in on what they are currently into. Also, the label will have specific requirements about performance. For me, it’s a pretty straightforward process, besides listening to the song like 4,000 times [laughs]. Sometimes, it’s more narrative-based, so a story will pop up first. Sometimes, it’s more visual and tonal, with a bunch of disparate images that come to me and I have to try to figure out how to not make it seem random.
JM: You’ve worked with a wide range of artists—in terms of popularity, too—from David Guetta to Annie Clark. Did you notice any sort of difference in process correlated with popularity?
HM: I don’t own a David Guetta record, but I definitely own a St. Vincent record. The music that I enjoy listening to tends to yield more personal videos. But the process is the same for me. I just try to make the best video I can. The only difference might be how much the label is part of the process. And the budget. The smaller the budget, the less responsibility for us to cater to the label.
JM: Let’s talk about the video for “Cheerleader” [by St. Vincent]. Matt and I first came across your work when reading your interview with Pitchfork. We were struck by how you took influence from sculptor Ron Mueck. Is that the only video you’ve done where a single artist has influenced both the aesthetic elements and the narrative?
HM: Yeah, it is. In general, all ideas have to come from somewhere. Sometimes, it’s an image that has stuck in my head, one from a film, paintings, or graphic design.

JM: You’ve talked a lot about one image sticking in your head or one image that defines a video. Would that be something like the skeleton on the back of the jumpsuit in the video for “Chum” [by Earl Sweatshirt] or the close up image of a sliding James Mercer [in the video for The Shins’ “It’s Only Life”]?
HM: James Mercer being dragged on the ground came before what was dragging him [which turned out to be MONSTERS]. Sometimes, you make music videos on the fly.
JM: In general, what aspects of the song inform the video’s visuals?
HM: I tend to focus more on tone than lyrical content. I take the lyrics into account, but I don’t put too much weight on them. I try not to do a literal interpretation of the lyrics.
JM: In the David Guetta video [for “She Wolf”], you actually coordinated the shaking of the camera with the sound waves. That’s really visceral compared to lyrics or mood, which can be abstract.
HM: The David Guetta song was very bizarre to me. It was pseudo-operatic vocals combined with large-sounding chord sections. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I naturally built a video around the difference of those two sounds. The chorus contrasts the natural environment of the chord sections.

JM: When I first saw the video for “It’s Only Life”, I thought it to be understated. I was surprised to see you take that even further, with the “Chum” video in black and white.
HM: Lately, I feel like I’ve been simplifying things more and more. At heart, I’m a minimalist. I like things to be clean. There are a lot of fantastical elements in the videos I do. In the “Chum” video, there are gigantic frogs and a lot of bizarre images. But I wanted that to feel organic. Shooting in black and white has a tendency to mesh weird effects into the footage more naturally. I’ve always been a big noir buff, too. I love harsh lighting and deep shadow. I took a lot of influence from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.
MK: With a lot of your videos, we see the artists singing, but then you insert moments of surrealism. How does the surrealism elevate the “story” of the song?
HM: Again, a lot of the time, the surreal elements come to me first, and the artist grounds the video so it’s not a series of bizarre vignettes. The artist performing in the video is a classic motif and makes you understand what you’re looking at. The surreal images often serve as frosting, but they’re more true to me.
JM: What are you working on next?
HM: I’ve been taking it kind of easy. I might be helping out with something for a live performance at the Grammys, but I can’t say any more [laughs].
JM: Generally, what filmmakers, artists, musicians, or writers, do you watch, listen to, or read, whether they’ve inspired your work or not?
HM: I’m just finishing Haruki Mirakami’s Kafka On The Shore. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to the book, but a lot of its surreal animal imagery has made it into my videos. I’m mostly watching a lot of Oscar movies right now [laughs].
MK: How has your passion for music played into your work over the course of your life?
HM: A lot of filmmakers have musician envy. I took piano for ten years, but nothing really stuck. Part of me is angry about that. I’m trying to contribute to music in the way that I can, which is through visuals.