In Conversation with Stuart McLaren
The success of ‘Drive’ and ‘Stranger Things’ with their notable synth dominated soundtracks attracted a new audience to electronic music.
With it came a desire for live events incorporating filmic aesthetics that embraced a nostalgic futurism for an escapist world that was more like David Hasselhoff’s ‘Knight Rider’ rather than David Cronenberg’s ‘Crash’.
Having organised big events in London, Glasgow and Toronto, as well as double and triple billings alongside summer sunset boat cruises on the River Thames, Outland recently launched a record label.
Outland’s next adventures include two shows headlined by OLLIE WRIDE in Glasgow and London, with a multi-act presentation led by DANA JEAN PHOENIX called ‘Retrowave D’Luxe’ following in the capital a few months after.
Stuart McLaren kindly took time out from his busy schedule to talk to The Electricity Club about Outland’s aspirations and progression within the realms of modern synth music.
Outland has just announced ‘Retrowave D’Luxe’ taking place on Saturday 6th June, this is your biggest live event for a while?
It’s quite a big line-up in that we have six artists performing and the last time we did anything like this in London, was back in 2017 for the first Outland city-series event. However, ‘Retrowave D’Luxe’ is more of a boutique-style synthwave event since it’s held at Gigi’s Hoxton Underbelly, which is only 220 capacity.
‘Retrowave D’Luxe’ is not on a boat, starts early and doesn’t go on too late… that sounds perfect for The Electricity Club! What can people expect? 😉
Aaah yes, we’re well aware of TEC’s aversion to water-going craft and the fast moving water of the Thames! This event will showcase the lighter poppier side of synthwave, so expect vocal performances and a distinct inclination towards the retrowave aspects of the genre. We’ll be focusing on the positive and feel-good side of live synthwave while keeping the tempo and energy up.
No matter how big or small though, each Outland event showcases the talents of our VJ Will C, who creates bespoke visual elements which are projected on stage for each of the artist performances. We never try to stray from providing a seamless immersive experience of live synthwave for any of the shows we produce. We approach every show as a first; a showcase for folks who are attending an Outland gig for the first time or who have only recently discovered synthwave.
What inspired you to put on synthwave themed events in the first place?
There weren’t any taking place! Modern synthwave music remained largely an internet phenomenon consumed through online streaming platforms, at least first through Myspace circa 2007 when THE VALERIE COLLECTIVE out of Nantes France kicked off what would later become known as ‘synthwave’, along with the UK’s very own 80S STALLONE and US acts like LAZERHAWK and MIAMI NIGHTS 1984.
I guess synthwave still remains a largely bedroom / home studio-produced music genre – there’s nothing wrong with that of course, some of the best 80s synthpop was written and produced in dank bedsits across the country in Thatcherite England.
By the time the mainstream caught whiff with the release of the movie ‘Drive’ with its luscious synth soundtrack and also M83’s ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ in 2011, there was still no sign of live synthwave performance, at least not in London. When British synthwave act GUNSHIP (ex-FIGHTSTAR members Dan Haigh and Alex Westaway) released their self-titled debut in 2015, there was yet to be some form of live synthwave event here in the old smoke. At the time, I was performing in a Prefab Sprout tribute act and promoting and managing touring South African artists and comedians in the UK.
My old friend and synthwave cohort Brett Simpson suggested we form a brand and host live synthwave events in London. It was really for the love of the music and to satisfy our own selfish needs of wanting to see our favourite synthwave artists live! And so Outland was born – we presented the first Outland production at London’s Clapham Grand in 2017. I’m not sure what we were thinking going into a 1200-capacity venue, but it certainly caused a stir having piqued the interest of Gary Langan of THE ART OF NOISE and the other 650 people in attendance – a massive ball-twisting gamble which paid off somehow!
Were there any particular artists that you enjoyed who made you think something like a scene was emerging?
Absolutely. Artists like GUNSHIP, TIMECOP1983, TREVOR SOMETHING and FM-84 began blowing up on social media and also through video releases on New Retro Wave (Synthwave YouTube channel now with almost 1 million subscribers). We knew there was an online market but there’s one thing contemplating that and knowing one can put bums on seats in a venue – it’s so risky but then that’s par for the course with live music promotion, I guess. It took some convincing for the venue managers and programmers and of course lots of marketing spend, but luckily that first show panned out – London’s live synthwave scene was born!
We were lucky to have gained the trust and participation from some of the biggest names in the scene at the time in TIMECOP1983, NINA, 80S STALLONE and SUNGLASSES KID. We would have had London’s NEW ARCADES on that line-up too had they been available and not cavorting on the ski slopes of Chamonix!
Outland had put on more, shall we say manageable sized presentations over the last 18 months like NINA + KNIGHT$ or DANA JEAN PHOENIX, KALAX + LEBROCK, FM ATTACK + FUTURECOP! and OLLIE WRIDE + WOLF CLUB, having tried the all-day and late-night event formats initially?
Well actually, we’d have preferred to continue hosting the big shows in London year on year but a couple other synthwave promoters picked up on things in 2017, so we felt things were becoming a bit crowded in what we felt was still a very niche market.
So we took our big city-series productions on the road to Glasgow in 2018 and then Toronto last year, with the view of proliferating and propagating the ‘word’ beyond London. But being London-based, we also wanted to ensure we were looking after touring artists who might be including the capital with their European tour plans. That’s how the first DANA JEAN PHOENIX show came along with NIGHTCRAWLER in March 2018 at Electrowerkz.
I have a long-standing relationship with The Halfmoon in Putney and was offered an Independent Venue Week slot in February last year, and what a better showcase for synth in South West London than to host NINA and KNIGHT$, which turned out to be quite a party south of the river. We generally also found attendance levels dropping so by necessity we had to drop capacity and work with venues which only offered ‘gig slots’ with curfews at 10pm-11pm.
It was all a bit hit and miss really, until we were able to find a formula that now sort of works, which is selling out smaller venues with artists that the ‘scene’ hasn’t seen yet. This is why the FM ATTACK show was such a phenomenal success as well Ollie’s sold out solo show at Camden Assembly.
Yes in the sense that we were trying to gauge what artists work and what artists don’t, as well as what capacity it took to sell out the venues we put those artists in. One can rely a little bit on Spotify listening stats and social media vanity stats, but those don’t necessarily paint the whole picture.
Take L’AVENUE for example. Here’s a new kid on the synthwave block with very little Facebook reach, yet his inclusion in the ‘Retrowave D’Luxe’ line-up has had an enormously positive response so far. Ultimately though, we’d like to think we’re building an audience from the artists’ fanbases as well as those who simply want to attend an Outland show for the experience.
The FM ATTACK gig which Outland put on at Electrowerkz was interesting as that appeared to attract a much younger club crowd than would normally be seen at synth-based events?
I’m thrilled you mention that. A large chunk of the average demographic of attendance to synthwave shows is in the region 35-45 years old and mostly male. I think popular synthwave blogger Vehlinggo calls this the Dadwave effect haha. We’ve been trying to break the scene to the ultimate viral market – students – but I guess grime and reggaeton is the new grunge now! We’ll get there though. I suppose both FM ATTACK and FUTURECOP! draw a younger fan base due to the nature of their style of music, which lends itself more to crossover contemporary club beats and melodies. Whilst FM ATTACK has one foot firmly in 80s keys and synthwave, the other is always stepping forward with modern arrangements and future sounds.
So what’s it been like dealing with the various venues in the UK?
We’ve found that once we’ve dealt with the venue programmers and booking teams and produced the shows, we’re always invited back due to the both the numbers we pull and the bar sales on alcohol. We’ve always had compliments back from venue managers on what a fantastic trouble-free crowd the synthwave lot are. I guess it’s also important to pay careful attention to venue hire agreements and terms so that there are no surprises down the line.
However, all this doesn’t necessarily make things easier in securing the right venues for Outland productions. In London especially, we’ve understood that much of the synth crowd hold high pressure jobs and tend to prefer weekend shows. This is problematic since most decent venues in the capital are booked out months in advance – in most cases 6-8 months. The other issue we face, which seems to be a new thing across the board, is that venues seem only prepared to offer live ‘gig slots’ with 5pm load-ins and 10pm curfews, so as to make way for their own ‘club nights’ thereafter.
Live synthwave of course can be presented both as a live band performance but also as one-man DJ + MIDI keyboard and pattern sequencer performances, so the whole production lends itself to an all-nighter type experience. We’d prefer also to run our events to the early hours, like our promoter friends Miami Cyber Nights (Frankfurt) and Retro Synth Fury (Paris) across the channel do.
Whilst venue hire fees are reasonable in London, there are one or two venues we’d love to work with but the rates are just way over the top for the capacity on offer, which is a pity. Mind you, we were exploring running the next city series show in New York City this year and when I found out that a 1000 cap room on average there costs over $15k a day, my eyes shot out their sockets – it’s still unbelievable to me.
Outland ran its most ambitious event yet in Toronto, how did you find working in that city compared with London?
It was hot! Devil’s-ass hot! Seriously though Toronto in the high 30s is almost unbearable, mad as a box of frogs that was – I don’t recommend it. We were however very lucky to secure the 660 cap Mod Club in the Little Italy area of Toronto. Management and tech over there were great to work with and very accommodating with load-in and late curfew times – we went on until 1am I recall.
The whole lead up to that event and the phenomenal support we had there from both the fans and the artists was eye-watering. Nothing beats promoter satisfaction flying artists from all over Europe and America to Canada and then selling out the room. I’m not sure we can trounce that one but we’ll see what happens later this year…
Canada does appear to be something of a creative hub for synth music at the moment; did that make it more straightforward to put together a dreamboat line-up in Toronto?
Well, we aspire to taking these big city-series events across the world to new places – in cities where there’s a healthy music-loving market, especially if there’s even a hint of synthwave and retrogaming fandom. Toronto was an easy choice for us because some of the most cutting-edge synth artists are locals: DANA JEAN PHOENIX, MICHAEL OAKLEY, PARALLELS and MECHA MAIKO. Not only that but Canada forms a big part of the whole history behind synthwave.
THE VALERIE COLLECTIVE’s David Grellier aka COLLEGE teaming up with Canadians ELECTRIC YOUTH to write arguably the most well-known synthwave tune ‘A Real Hero’, which appeared on the movie ‘Drive’ featuring Canadian actor Ryan Gosling. Then there’s the whole LE MATOS and MIAMI NIGHTS 1984 affiliation to Canada and, lest we forget, the incredibly hilarious antics of popular synthwave video blogger and Torontonian Andy Last from Beyond Synth.
We generally prefer to take Outland to cities where synthwave hasn’t necessarily been showcased live yet, hence the reason not taking the brand across the channel to Stockholm, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris or Amsterdam, where popular synth promoters Night Arcade operate.
There was the cancellation of an event in Manchester that was due to be headlined by TIMECOP1983, is synthwave set to be a London-centred phenomenon, in the UK at least?
Yeah that was a bit unfortunate. It’s disappointing seeing synthwave shows cancelled outright because then people start talking about the genre for all the wrong reasons. I’m just not sure if enough promotion went into that event. A popular Kiwi musician once told me: “Stu son, if you want to fill a venue then make bloody sure you spend at least 10% of your perceived gross on promotion! That’s Marketing 101 fella.”
Manchester actually has a healthy little synthwave scene on the boil there with local promoters like MCR Nights / Max Speed and Steel City Synthwave holding the torch. THE MIDNIGHT performed there last year in Albert Hall and it was near full. While London continues to top worldwide Spotify listenership stats for synthwave in general, we’re very positive that the penchant for the genre is growing across the country. Our Glasgow event in 2018 was well attended and LEBROCK are selling out small venues from Bristol to Peterborough, so there’s definitely something happening.
As an enthusiast of synth-based music for over 40 years, it’s had its ups and downs while The Electricity Club has seen many promoters come and go, some good and some very poor. Is it important to manage expectations as far as the perceived popularity of the form and therefore, adapt events to that?
Great point and absolutely. When we saw attendance numbers dropping a tad in 2018, we had to think out of the box and that’s how the Outland Sunset Cruises came about. There’s a helluva lot more financial risk hiring a Thames River vessel for 200, but ultimately people flocked to it and were willing to part with their dollar as it was a new experience – we do it year on year now.
I think it’s important for managers, promoters and artists alike to look at ways to add value to stage performances, whether that’s spending extra on LX / FX or adding a visual element. Gone are the days where U2 and dare we say DEPECHE MODE, are the only acts that can afford to sprinkle on a little technical gold dust and wow factor. Simple and affordable solutions now exist that leaves no excuse to being creative with presentation in small venues. It is what will drive popularity of the live performance across the music spectrum, especially in this modern era where people can laze out live streaming live concerts on massive HD home theatre systems from the comfort of their home sofas.
Is there much mileage in long all-day events or ones running through the night with more than ten acts?
London is crying out for this sort of thing. Combine that with a screening of a retrosynth film like ‘Kung Fury’ and some relevant cosplay dress up, together with live performances in separate rooms of chillwave / lo-fi acts, retro synthwave and darksynth and we’ve got a synth festival winner. A venue like Electrowerkz lends itself perfectly to this, but the issue is finding a weekend that isn’t booked up a year in advance by the goths or Torture Garden! *laughs*
It’s going really well, but it’s lots of work. We’re trying to take it slow so we’re actually turning down quite a fair amount of submissions.
Apart from NEW ARCADES and MORGAN WILLIS, we’ll be looking at a releasing a few other artists this year, but ultimately, we need to be realistic and continue to offer the best we can in focused artist development and promotion.
We’re not a glorified physical merch distributor acting as a label – there’s release plan and content strategy, upstream and distribution, registering rights, release promotion and PR. Then the label management aspect as well as artist development and A&R.
We’re moving into the publishing side as well because there appears to be so much value in synchronisation opportunities for synthwave. The ‘Stranger Things’ OST is only the tip of the iceberg. It seems the whole music industry is being turned on its head and if a music company is not diversifying, then there’s risk it can get left behind or go bust.
Record labels are becoming streaming services; talent management companies are becoming record labels; distributors are having a go at becoming managers and publishing agents. Ticket agents have become venue owners. And artists are stuck in the middle.
However, we were already promoting artists and their releases, as well as showcasing their talents live through the events. All we were missing was the content to get behind, so going the label route was a natural progression for us. I guess we’re trying to ensure we’re covering all the bases we know we can manage well, to ensure the genre gets the recognition it deserves without taking too much of an unmanageable bite at the same time. It’s a fine balancing act but it’s a thrilling ride.
It would seem there is a lot more what is being termed “vocal synthwave” and although The Electricity Club is enjoying this variant, it considers this to be more like classic synthpop, how do you see synthwave developing? The purists do seem to prefer things to be solely instrumental…
I think there’s a common misconception, even from the so-called synthwave purists, that the music became popular through its instrumental roots. This couldn’t be further from the truth – much of the gateway songs to the genre originate from the ‘Drive’ soundtrack, so, ‘A Real Hero’ by COLLEGE & ELECTRIC YOUTH, DESIRE’S ‘Under Your Spell’, KAVINSKY’s ‘Nightcall’ and so forth. GUNSHIP’s seminal debut was almost entirely vocal synthwave at its purest.
I can understand why there’s a preference for the instrumental though – WAVESHAPER’s ‘Sarah’s Theme’ is a glorious piece of music. The MIAMI NIGHTS 1984 back catalogue is instrumental synthwave at its purest. While there seems to be traces of insanely possessive custodianship of the definition and preferred path synthwave should take, I think it’s ultimately vocal synthwave which will present the sub-genre to the mainstream properly and place it firmly on the map.
It’s already happening – THE MIDNIGHT are filling +1500 cap rooms across the UK, Europe and US. From experience of the UK market, those numbers tell me many of their fans don’t even realise they’re listening to synthwave, which I think is a good thing – it means the music is traversing boundaries of genre. If there were 1500 ‘synthwave’ fans in Manchester, the Night Arcades TIMECOP1983 event there would not have been cancelled.
Yes, it’s like CHVRCHES fans aren’t exclusively ‘synthpop’ enthusiasts, Kerrang called them an “alt-pop trio” when they were featured so as not to upset their regular readership…
There’s a fine line distinguishing vocal synthwave apart from 80s and modern synthpop, and certainly some artists can be palmed off as both eg MICHAEL OAKLEY, NINA, OLLIE WRIDE, DANA JEAN PHOENIX, PARALLELS, NEW ARCADES and of course THE MIDNIGHT. But at the same time we’ve found that there are loads of modern synthpop acts that are trying to pass themselves off as synthwave, just to climb on the bandwagon of the recent popularity of the genre.
Of course like back in the day, there are those who want nothing to do with being ‘synth’ at all despite using synths! It happens the other way round too though, as there are OMD fans who are in denial about the band using sequencers…
Yes, we have what I would define as the synthwave deniers – the popular gateway acts that are well and truly synthwave in many aspects, but distance themselves entirely from the genre label – I think it’s unhelpful.
As a synthwave promoter, we’re obviously keen to push the value of propagating the term and related hashtags and to ensure it obtains the genre recognition it deserves within distribution aggregators and digital advertising platforms. Furthermore, referencing synthwave for what it is, sets it apart from the tens of thousands of standard synthpop and electro acts that exist today.
It’s interesting how the ‘synthwave’ term does allow more variation in some ways, with the metal sensibilities of LEBROCK and the AOR aspects of THE MIDNIGHT?
Yes for sure. Well, we like to define the term synthwave as “electronic music and art aesthetic influenced by 80s synthesized music, soundtracks and video games which inspire the listener to imagine a future that never quite happened”.
LEBROCK ticks that box as they define themselves as “80s melodic rock riffs with shimmering synthwave melodies…”. Perhaps the term ‘Retrorock’ should be added to the myriad of synthwave sub genres to make matters even more confusing!
Seriously though, the rock element within the synthwave genre isn’t new – axe wielding wizards DANCE WITH THE DEAD are famously synthwave and when we start drawing in darksynth acts like CARPENTER BRUT and PERTURBATOR with their almost metal sensibilities, they’re still synthwave acts at heart to their fans, and indeed even gateway artists to the whole genre.
However, while those acts are able to fill The Roundhouse, I feel THE MIDNIGHT, FM-84 and OLLIE WRIDE, who are represented professionally by the best agents in the business, are less underground and therefore in a better position to put the genre on the map via daytime play on mainstream radio stations.
OLLIE WRIDE does look set to become synthwave’s first crossover star don’t you think?
Yes, he is a true musical legend in the making and quite frankly, one of the best singer songwriters I’ve ever come across personally. Even Thomas Dolby rates him highly. I think he has already solidified his image as the Prince of Synth within the synthwave community, but I also think he has that star quality and work ethic to stand up next to (and even show up?) Brandon Flowers at Coachella for example. His work as a frontman on stage is second to none and there’s no wonder we’ve seen comparisons to performances from artists like Freddie Mercury, Michael Hutchence, Billy Idol and even Tina Turner. His shows in London and Glasgow in April are going to be next level.
Taylor Swift has been borrowing from CHVRCHES, do you think she will go synthwave next?
It appears a few mainstream artists are borrowing, intentionally or unintentionally from the synthwave aesthetic, both in music and art. Though CHVRCHES don’t define themselves as synthwave and neither does Taylor Swift, her latest album definitely exudes touches of synthwave. ‘The Archer’ could be mistaken for a NINA song, but then 2015’s ‘Style’ is baked in a synthwave / outrun soundscape, so she has been at it for some time now.
Is it intentional or is it just that vintage synthesizers like the Roland Juno60 are coming back into fashion? Does a track with an 80s synth bass arpeggio make it synthwave? Our backline provider was saying that in the last few years he has seen a tremendous increase in hire of early 80s analogue synths. Artists like JAI WOLF and THE WEEKND are all experimenting with synthwave soundscapes but it remains to be seen whether that’s intentional or not.
It’s a well-known fact that many mainstream artists worth their salt keep their nose firmly on the underground and emerging fads to incorporate into their own. Take MUSE for example – their album ‘Simulation Theory’ is steeped in synth and retrowave visual aesthetic and there’s no bones about it that they enjoy the genre – KALAX’s song ‘Levitate’ was used as an outro on their 36-date ‘Simulation Theory’ World Tour! THE BLACK EYED PEAS went full tilt synthwave / outrun visual aesthetic recently, but don’t even get me started on that! *laughs*
What were your thoughts on ‘The Rise Of The Synths’ film?
I thought it was an absolute wonder work and a fantastic representation of the roots of modern synthwave. The documentary might have included a few more active and current players and artists within the scene, but when we consider that the project was over five years in the making, it’s still a well-rounded presentation. It started out as a crowd funding effort and as we know, sometimes those things don’t pan out well for anyone. But kudos to the team for sticking it out and delivering on their promises. I think it’s a well-produced and perfect introduction to synthwave and I would love to see it placed on Amazon Prime or Netflix someday soon.
Talking of films, are you looking forward to ‘Kung Fury 2’?
Absolutely. We tend to include retro films in our annual city-series events – ‘Turbo Kid’ was screened in Toronto and ‘Kung Fury’ featured at Outland Glasgow 2018. If ‘Kung Fury 2’ is anything like the original short film, then we’re in for some more of the same absurdity and martial arts hilarity from the upcoming release. Throw in Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Fassbender this time around – what could go wrong!
Are there any other plans in the pipeline that you can tell The Electricity Club about?
Well we have another one of TEC’s favourite boat parties is happening in London on 1st August and we’re also working on the next city series event, with our eye on the US around September / October. We’re also booking agent for FM ATTACK, NEW ARCADES and MORGAN WILLIS, so they’ll be performing quite a bit this year. I work closely with OLLIE WRIDE’s agents in a management capacity and there are some exciting things planned there.
As for the label, we have a few more releases and continued work around our current roster artists, as well as an exciting release of a new mobile retro-inspired driving game called ‘Retro Drive’, available on iOS this Summer. We’ve partnered with the developers and will be licensing some exclusive synthwave and outrun belters for the game, which will later be released as a compilation album.
In closing, I would just like to say a big thank you for the support that The Electricity Club have shown for us at Outland and for giving synthwave a new voice – we look forward to seeing your readers at our shows. x
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Stuart McLaren at Outland
‘Retrowave D’Luxe’ presented by Outland takes place on Saturday 6th June 2020 at Gigi’s Hoxton Underbelly in London featuring JORDAN F, DANA JEAN PHOENIX, HIGHWAY SUPERSTAR, NEW ARCADES, DUETT + L’AVENUE – tickets available direct from https://www.wegottickets.com/event/495994
Further information on upcoming Outland events such as the OLLIE WRIDE concerts and the Sunset Neon Cruise 2020 can be found at https://www.weloveoutland.com/
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
3rd February 2020