Artist Spotlight: Dustin Stuppy (Vacancy)


Contemplative creativity.

The path between having a good idea and executing it to fall into place, requires discipline and consistency. Musician and filmmaker, Dustin Stuppy traverses this path between the two camps like a well-seasoned veteran of both. His music, simply put, (under the name Vacancy) is beautiful. Using pianos and synthesizers, his compositions lay lush, serene beddings of calm textures. His filmmaking, on the other hand, provides similar tranquil landscapes. Creating an experience on both sides of sound and vision, Stuppy not only maintains a plan, but has figured out ways to continually move with unexpected changes to both crafts. We talked to Stuppy about how he finds ways to remain creatively fulfilled, while also, allowing his art to grow. See more below.

Marmoset: What came first, film or music? Tell us your story.

Dustin Stuppy: Music definitely came first. I had a lot of exposure to it when I was a child and developed an interest early on. When I started watching movies, I was always fascinated with the way music was used in film. I bought soundtracks from my favorite films and would replay the movies in my head while I listened to them. So, the two merged together pretty quickly. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago when I started working with my long-time friend and filmmaker, Zach Reese (whom I’ve worked with on three film projects now), that I started discovering the true potential of combing music and film. There is so much to explore in that intersection.

M: How does working on both sides affect your approach to kicking off a new film project, as well as writing new music?

DS: When I begin writing an album, I usually need a visualization of the album before I can start writing music. So, as I’m rough sketching musical ideas and thoughts, I’m also capturing visual ideas. These are usually still images or short segments of videos that I capture with my phone -- but the goal isn’t to have anything super polished. The same goes with film. When I’m collaborating on a film project, I’ll generate some musical ideas to go along with the film in its very early stages. Which isn’t very traditional, but I’ve found that bringing music into the creative process as early as possible is helpful in capturing the right tone for the film. When we go to a film shoot, we’ll often draft a musical score for that particular shoot, and then keep it on repeat throughout the entire shoot. Having the music on in the background while filming adds an emotional awareness to the shooting process.

M: Has gaining experience in film given you more confidence as a musician? How so?

DS: For sure. With instrumental music, I think one of the primary objectives is to create imagery in the listener’s head. You want to transport them to another place. You get amazing experience doing that in film, where you have to be sure that a physical space looks the way you want it to for a shot. In some way, I think all forms of art are complementary to one another like this. So, I try to practice in as many forms as I can. For instance, I’m pretty bad at drawing, but I still try to do it because it forces me to think about expression in an entirely new way.

M: How do you feel your experience in film is reflected in the music you write? Or, is it the other way around?

DS: Since music came first, it set the stage for a lot of the ideas I wanted to explore in film. I knew from composing music that I was less interested in telling stories through human subjects, and instead wanted to focus on the environment and atmosphere as much as possible. So, a lot of the films I’ve worked on have expressed their narratives through places or inanimate things. Essentially, the themes that I wanted to explore in music are reflected in the types of films I work on.

M: Tell us about your recent film, The Last Place I Saw It. What was your filming experience like? Was this your first film? What inspired it?

DS: The Last Place I Saw It is a short film about our attachment to the material world and how objects can be imbued with sentimental value. It’s a very personal, reflective film. The idea actually came to me while I was searching for something that had gone missing in my house. I kept coming back to the last place I saw it, even though I knew the object wasn’t there. It was almost as if this empty space had some sort of sacred value. I realized that when we lose something, we tend to search in the most unlikely places and we assume that the impossible is actually possible. I try to extract everyday things like this and turn them into creative ideas whenever I can. After coming up with the idea, Zach and I worked on developing it as much as we could, with him focusing on the visual elements and myself focusing on the soundscape. In total, the project took us about eight months to complete, and the finished film was just under nine minutes long.

M: What was the most memorable experience you have from filming The Last Place I Saw It? What made it so memorable?

DS: We had some outdoor night filming to do in December. Unexpectedly, it started snowing really hard. We were so cold by the end of the shoot, but the addition of the snow made the footage so much stronger. So, we just went with it and pushed through it as far as we could. I really like that about filming... that you only have so much control over your environment, and at some point, you just have to embrace the conditions you’re given.

M: You mentioned your passion for seeing music paired with film. Did you score The Last Place I Saw It? If so, did you feel that your background in music helped or hindered that process? 

DS: Actually, I thought writing the music to this film was one of the easier parts of the project. The film features narration throughout, so there were a lot of words to use as directional cues for the music. And, because I was there for the entirety of filming, I knew the arc of the film and where I wanted to build or hold back the score. When you have that sort of proximity to the emotional core of a project, it’s almost like the musical ideas are already there when you go to record.

M: Have you always been passionate about the process of pairing music and film? Did it develop over time as you gained more experience?

DS: I’d say over the last five years or so it’s grown a lot. I usually have a film project that I’m working on alongside a musical project. So, I’m always trying to think of ideas that would be a good fit in an audio/visual collaboration. Since I write music as a solo artist, it’s really nice to have the collaborative atmosphere of making a film. It almost feels like Zach and I are a band in some way. My instrument is primarily music and his is primarily film, but through each of our media we are able to offer input to the other side. That process of sharing ideas and feedback is so essential to a creative project.

M: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given in both music and film? And, what advice would you offer to those in your position five years ago?

DS: The best advice I’ve gotten is to worry less about getting tons of plays or views, and instead concentrate on creating content that you feel happy about. It’s so easy to get caught up in how many followers you have, how many likes you have, how many views you get... and it’s tempting to read it as an indication of how “good” your work is. But, there is a ton of freedom gained once you let go of all that. Instead of focusing on the popularity of your work, it’s important to think about why you are making it in the first place. Keep it genuine, and keep it close to you. Make something that even if no one else saw it or heard, you would be happy listening to or watching years later.

M: We also heard you have a new EP coming out this fall. Can you tell us about it? What inspired your recent EP? What can fans expect?

DS: It’s still very much a work in progress, but I’ve got some ideas that I’m really excited about. Every time I sit down to write a new EP, I’m trying to push myself to experiment as much as possible. That can be exhausting at times and really fun other times. Recently, I’ve been using a lot of field recordings and ambient noises as backdrops and I just love the textures those sort of things add. Even though most of my songs have an electronic edge to them, I’m always looking for ways that I can make things feel more organic and rooted in our everyday lives.

Posted on June 24, 2016 and filed under Field Notes, Music.