18+'s Digital Role Play

The Internet-Based Pop Band Launches “Three Song Medley,” an Exclusive Director’s Cut of Their New Music Video Trilogy

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Director: Haw-lin
Music: 18+

Co-founded by artists Samia Mirza and Justin Swinburne, 18+ is a proposal for what a pop band should look like in the digital age. Using Internet tropes—such as anonymity, remixing, and role play—the band has become known for their mysterious and sexually charged persona, as well as their self-directed music videos. In their first video collaboration, 18+ has teamed up with the Berlin-based creative studio Haw-lin to create “Three Song Medley,” a director’s cut of three videos from their new album Collect.

Zoma Crum-Tesfa spoke with Mirza and Swinburne of 18+ on the occasion of the video’s release:

Zoma Crum-Tesfa: Let’s start with the inception story. How did you guys begin collaborating?

Samia Mirza: We went to art school together in Chicago. We both studied sculpture together, and after graduating we moved to L.A. for different reasons. It just kind of happened out of nowhere.

Had you guys previously collaborated on objects?

Justin Swinburne: No, actually. Not at all.

SM: He sent me a beat, and I tried to add my voice on it. We put it to a video of a dancing woman in the ocean, just to share with some of our friends. It didn't have a name, or any real premise to start off with other than just us having fun and trying something out together that wasn’t sculpture. And it did pretty well because it got in the hands of one of our friends who shared it with others.

What was going on with your art practices at the time?

JS: Mine was pretty productive. I was showing a lot, and then when this started happening, I started paying attention to it less. For me, it was definitely an escape from acting as an individual person just trying to become a career artist, which seemed really boring at the time. Or really redundant. A lot of my friends were doing it, and becoming successful very quickly, and I was just kind of jaded. Now I can approach art more as a hobby.

SM: I was making a lot of sculpture in school, and then when I got back to L.A., I was making sculpture. But we were both fully employed by the time 18+ happened. So I was trying to make art on the computer while I was at work. It really solved this need I had for creativity.

“Authorship starts to disappear in this project. The roles of who makes what aren’t what’s important.”

—Samia Mirza

Is this video the first time you’ve worked with a director other than yourselves?

JS: Yes, it is. It was basically a situation where I am good friends with Nathan from Haw-lin. And we’ve always sort of been in mutual admiration of each other's work. Organically, it made sense. I knew that Sami and I could work with him and their team.

What was the concept behind the videos?

JS: So the concept for these videos was that we would take this sort of raw personal content footage—that is obviously coming from cellphones and stuff like that—and then re-photograph it in a sort of commercial photography context. So we got some screens and lighting equipment and stuff and recreated the theater of commercial photography, but took our more intimate content and forced it into that context. It’s basically an overarching metaphor for what we’ve done with 18+, which is take this thing that was sort of organic and online and put it into the marketplace. To see how it inter­relates.

Do you think that your project lends itself to a more open collaborative process than a more traditional band?

JS: Absolutely. Just starting with our approach, and how we like to take things from everywhere. Even the idea of calling this 18+, it was about creating an umbrella that everyone could be under. And it fed into this brand that was constantly absorbing people, things, and images. It’s very fluid, nebulous even. You don’t know who’s making what—or what is original content, or what’s appropriated.

SM: I think authorship starts to disappear in this project. The roles of who makes what aren’t what’s important. In fact, I’d like to have more hands in it. Working with Haw-lin has been a great collaboration. Even with our mixtapes and videos, everything feels like a remix.

When the band first started, you were both anonymous and that was such a huge part of the discussion about you guys. How did you decide to drop that element?

SM: We’ve always worked within what felt natural to the project. In the beginning, the music was released online without playing live shows, so anonymity made sense. Then as we’ve grown, we began to perform live, conduct interviews in person, and work with a label. So our physical presence became necessary and anonymity no longer made sense.

“I think whenever you enter a recording into a microphone, an element of fiction is created.” 

—Justin Swinburne

When you started, you referred to yourselves as Boy and Sis.

SM: Those were anonymous placeholders for our roles.

Are gender roles part of your subject matter?

JS: For sure.

How so?

SM: With me, there’s a cool, collected behavior. There’s also a feeling of entitlement and empowerment as a female in the role I take in the lyrics, or even maybe this bitter voice that sounds like I’m talking down to someone.

Do you think the dominatrix trend is here to stay?

SM: Sure.

JS: I think submission and dominance should always be cyclical.

SM: When you’re in front of the mic, you see who you become. You can become something that comes out with some fiction, but there is some sincere autobiographical content too. In “Slow,” the last song, there’s a line where I say, “I’m beginning to act like a whore, and I’m always checking my score.” I felt vulnerable saying something like that, because you know this is still going to be put out with a label, and still be purchased and digested by an audience. I wasn’t using the idea of the whore in just sexual acts, but also in terms of creating this thing that people are listening to and purchasing and digesting.

JS: When talking about “Sense,” for instance, that song specifically is about a character that is sort of missing the point. Someone who thinks that monetary success is the goal, but then in actuality he's just becoming very desperate and unhinged.

How did this character get created? Because truthfully, I had no idea if the person I was about to meet was a Scandinavian hip-hop fanboy, or like a bro from D.C. or Santa Cruz—where are you from?

JS: Moorpark, California.

I mean, I guess I’m asking a really loaded question.

JS: I don’t know. I think whenever you enter a recording into a microphone, an element of fiction is created. But I don’t know. “Sense” is a song where I do tend to get uncomfortable, for any number of reasons. It has this element that could be read as a minstrel show in a lot of ways. It’s talking about money and it sounds like a parody of a hip-hop song. But it’s actually just about people and masculinity and desperation. It’s about being terrified of being perceived as poor and directing that fear into the wrong direction. I was really broke at the moment, and that was just sort of the feeling I had genuinely.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on Mariah Carey? I’m pro.

SM: I grew up listening to Mariah Carey. Her vocal range is obviously impressive, but also her ability to shift personality has always stood out to me. For example, “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” are fun, lighthearted, like a teen singing about a crush. But then you have songs like “My All” and “I Still Believe” that are incredibly mature, serious, and profound, like a woman singing about a long life she's lived. The two styles and everything in between builds an interesting character and body of work. 

Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
Director: Haw-lin
Music: 18+