Dallas based Jessie Frye started releasing and performing music in 2008.
A classically trained pianist and vocal coach, she chose the vintage pop sounds to showcase her musical talents and since her beginnings, has gathered a decent following of fans from synthwave by blending a nostalgic outlook with modern production techniques.
Having shared stages with well-known acts of the genre like COM TRUISE or PHANTOGRAM, she has also performed alongside Beck and Pat Benatar.
Frye’s songs are “the stories of her heart and life experience” with the highlight of her career being performing for thousands during Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016. Produced by Matt Aslanian, her new album ‘Kiss Me In The Rain’ on NewRetroWave Records comes in at the right moment to try and raise spirits beaten by the difficult first part of 2020.
An American version of NINA, Frye opens up with a ballad to celebrate the release of her long player; ‘Fantasy’ is uncomplicated and cleverly served over the familiar synthwave elements, leading into equally demure ‘Angel’.
FM-84 singer Ollie Wride joins Frye on ‘Malibu Broken’, lending his voice on this fast tempo number, while Stock, Aitken and Waterman could have easily backed ‘The One’ with its fast paced danceable qualities where Jessie’s vocal attempts to marry the voice of Amy Lee of EVANESCENCE and Sinitta.
‘Faded Memory’ is what Frye hopes not to be, supported this time by TIMECOP1983. This mega synthy number is reminiscent of the superb achievements of Dana Jean Phoenix, but the bombshell descends with ‘No Sleep’ where somewhat rocky elements are introduced into the mix.
‘Ocean’ injects a further dose of sunny synth, while ‘High’ sees Frye collaborating with Robert Parker on this glistening easy listening track. ‘Eighteen’ slows the tempo again to lead to the closing ‘Wild In My Eyes’ which is a quintessential synthwave positivity loaded track.
If you’re in need of a pick me up this summer, parts of this album will do just this. Being a synthwave undertaking, it is just it at most parts.
However, at times Frye’s voice is dying to branch out and it would come as no surprise if she switched genres in the future.
German born NINA took the synthpop world by storm, releasing her debut ‘Sleepwalking’ in 2018 and lending one of her early songs ‘My Mistake’ to a Mercedes-Benz advert, alongside landing support slots with DE/VISION, ERASURE and others.
Clubbing together with Canada’s PARALLELS, she toured America, creating a wild audience eager to hear more from the gifted Berliner.
And so comes ‘Synthian’, not only superbly titled but also delivering a more mature, darker tone to NINA’s repertoire.
The songstress shares the achievement with her collaborator, Laura Fares aka LAU and producers of note such as Oscillian, Richard X, Till Wild and Ricky Wilde. As described by NINA, “‘Synthian’ is the bigger and bolder sister of ‘Sleepwalking’. It’s more mature and daring”.
Indeed the title track is very deep and brooding, with catchy poppy synth line, eloquently dispersed with acute guitar and a longing vocal, preparing the listener to be taken onto a retro journey with a difference. The following ‘Automatic Call’ picks up the tempo quite stunningly, arpeggiating away while carrying the wonderfully produced vocals, to achieve a perfect synth gem.
‘Runaway’ glides over the scales, entering the retro world with ease, showcasing that NINA at her best with some gentle help from Ricky Wilde. A big fan of Wilde’s sister, NINA loved collaborating with her talented brother: “Ricky comes up with the most beautiful melodies and harmonies. I loved working with him. He’s humble and patient”.
‘Unnoticed’ is a romantic cry for love from a lost soul, wrapped in a cosy electronic blanket of greatness, showcasing the German synthpop queen as the owner of the most incredible voice as well as one that can write mesmerising tunes.
‘The Calm Before The Storm’ continues the serene tempo, while ‘The Wire’ brings out those darker, harsher tones; it’s deliciously deep and expresses deeper thoughts.
“It’s about feeling disconnected from the world” she said, “Losing a sense of being human and having a deep desire for the human touch”. One may say the track was written to describe the world of today, where that loss of connection has become more apparent than ever; the synthy pandemic anthem, you could say.
The cute ‘Love Is Blind’ meanders around the retro musicality and layered vocals, while ‘Never Enough’ ushers further nostalgia leading into ‘Gave Up On Us’, whose mesmerising arpeggios are deliciously uplifting; it’s like going back in time, roller-skating along the promenade with a Walkman and pink bubble gum.
The closing and very apt ‘The Distance’, delves into NINA’s personal life, describing her experiences with a long distance relationship. “‘The Distance’ is about a long distance relationship and how true love can span miles and beyond. It has a more cinematic approach; heavily inspired by the likes of M83 and WOODKID. It’s a very personal song. A lot of people are being apart from their loved ones right now and can probably relate”.
Indeed the later than anticipated release of the opus, couldn’t have landed at a better time. More placed than it ever would be, NINA wishes to bring some light and hope into the uncertainty of current situation, so difficult for many.
And if your wish was to “make people feel better through music and offer some kind of hope”, then you certainly did just that. A superb album.
From her early single ‘My Mistake’ and its use on an advertisement for Mercedes-Benz to support slots with DE/VISION and ERASURE to her own joint headlining tours of North America with Canada’s PARALLELS, the rise of NINA to become The Queen Of Synthwave has been remarkable.
The German-born songstress has successfully straddled the line between synthwave and synthpop, thanks to her exquisite retro-fusion of New Wave and electronic pop
As with her debut album ‘Sleepwalking’, NINA has created its eagerly awaited follow-up ‘Synthian’ with silent partner Laura Fares aka LAU, while producers Oscillian, Richard X, Till Wild and Ricky Wilde have also put their stamp on a number of tracks.
Although NINA’s popwave is still more than evident, this new record unveils a darker aesthetic and an air of cyber-expressionism. NINA spoke to The Electricity Club from her home city of Berlin about her continuing musical adventures.
Guessing by the title ‘Synthian’, it doesn’t sound like you’ve gone rockabilly or anything, how would you describe the album? It is a natural progression from ‘Sleepwalking’?
I see ‘Synthian’ as the bigger and bolder sister of ‘Sleepwalking’. It’s more mature and daring.
‘Synthian’ also explores the depths of love, desire, spirituality, the duality of the human condition. Unity vs Isolation.
‘Sleepwalking’ was a long time coming for many reasons but if you include the touring you’ve been doing, ‘Synthian’ has been a comparatively swift follow-up?
Yes, we’ve been super busy touring the US and Canada twice and playing shows all over the world, so I guess two years isn’t all that long. We actually wanted to release ‘Synthian’ early in 2020, but had to keep pushing it back for various reasons, which was a little frustrating but we’re finally getting it out there.
They often say that a debut album documents a whole life while a second album is sometimes a snapshot of less than a year?
I feel like ‘Sleepwalking’ was definitely a reflection of a lot experiences I’ve made in my younger years, while ‘Synthian’ took all those memories, shook hands with it and created a new Universe.
‘The Calm Before The Storm’ could be described as being quintessential NINA, the title almost seems to be capturing your anxieties before the making of a new album, was it like that for you?
Yes, it’s like I knew what was coming before it happened. ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ is about feeling lost. Wanting to start over. ‘Synthian’ is definitely the beginning of new ‘uncharted’ ideas.
What is the creative dynamic with Laura Fares aka LAU when you are writing?
We usually listen to a beat (mostly by the incredibly talented Oscillian) and throw out some ideas. It’s usually a lot of “blah blah’s” and “bluh bluh’s” before words start to unfold 😉
We often take words from my poems and turn them into lyrics. I then start recording the idea. I feel like something magical happens when you first record a song.
It’s that fresh and undeniable emotional connection with a song you sometimes have; it can never be replicated. So we often stick with the original vocal takes.
You’re working with Oscillian and Richard X again, how do their methods differ for you that provide enough creative incentive while also being comfortable in their environment?
Working with Richard X is super inspiring. He’s so focussed and I’ve always been a fan of his well-known collaborations with ERASURE, GOLDFRAPP, PET SHOP BOYS and NEW ORDER etc. I have huge respect for him and his “Black Melody”. He works very fast and is very easy to work with. I’ve written ‘Unnoticed’ with him in his home studio in London.
With Oscillian, I feel like I’ve found a friend. We really get each other. It’s like we circle around the same Celestial sphere. So writing and recording ‘Synthian’, ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Distance’ in his home studio in Sweden was comfortable and familiar.
How did Ricky Wilde become interested in working with you? Are you pleased with the end result?
This is actually a very sweet story. I was at THE MIDNIGHT’s gig in London and Ricky’s friend Lee approached me and said “You’re NINA right. My friend Ricky is a producer and loves your music. I think you should get together and write songs”. That’s it! We met up for a writing session just a few days after our first encounter.
Ricky comes up with the most beautiful melodies and harmonies. I loved working with him. He’s humble and patient. I’m very proud of the two songs we’ve written together with LAU, ‘Runaway’ and ‘Gave Up On Us’. They’re very catchy and uplifting. I’d love to meet his sister Kim one day and tell her what a huge inspiration she’s been for me growing up.
The opening title song has a real widescreen atmosphere that sets the scene, what is the song about?
‘Synthian’ is a love note to my fans for being so incredibly supportive. I gave them the nickname a while back and mentioned to Oscillian that we should write a song about / for them.
‘Automatic Call’ is a great uptempo tune that has got a lot of positive reaction?
Yes, ‘Automatic Call’ has been a very popular track. I really enjoy performing it live. I like how upbeat it is while the lyrics are rather gloomy in contrary.
‘The Distance’ is quite an apt title in these strange times?
‘The Distance’ is about a long distance relationship and how true love can span miles and beyond. It has a more cinematic approach; heavily inspired by the likes of M83 and WOODKID. It’s a very personal song. A lot of people are being apart from their loved ones right now and can probably relate.
What are your own favourite songs on the album?
It’s impossible to choose! I love them equally. I will say that there are standout moments. ‘The Distance’ is clearly very romantic, while ‘Synthian’ has a joyous spirit to it.
‘The Wire’ touches a darker side. It’s about feeling disconnected from the world. Losing a sense of being human and having a deep desire for the human touch. I really enjoy the darker synthwave vibes.
You’ve opted to make a bonus instrumental version of the album available again like you did with ‘Sleepwalking’? Are they reworked or the backing tracks that you vocalised over?
They’re the original instrumentals without my vocals.
Do you feel aggrieved that some listeners want your music but not necessarily your vocals?
Well, it’s all part of my creativity. All aspects of the songs honour my musical cosmos. It’s a mood thing. Either way, you’re hearing me. I love instrumental music and am particularly proud of the producers I work with. So, it’s cool to shed light on the intricate details of their arrangements. There’s allot of teamwork going on.
You’ve continued your collaborations with other artists like FUTURECOP! and MOONRUNNER83, are there any more on the way you can tell us about? Is there less pressure for these productions or more?
I’m working with a few different producers and artists right now, all to be revealed soon. And I’ve recently started to collaborate with RADIO WOLF, who I became friends with while on tour with PARALLELS in 2018 and 2019. He’s a very talented producer, songwriter and musician and I’m so excited to share our creation with everyone soon. It’s very New Wave / Rock ’n’ Roll.
I’m always exploring new territories in music, I like thinking big and beyond. Collaborations are definitely something I really enjoy. I am also working on material that is very personal and individual. There may be a ‘lone wolf’ NINA record down the road. Anything is possible, that’s how I roll!
At this point in time, you are due to open for OLLIE WRIDE in London, surely you two are destined to duet together sometime in the future? 😉
How do you know we haven’t already? 😉
Ollie is great! I have so much respect for him. Truly a one of a kind artist and all around human being.
So has the lockdown made you more creative or more reflective? What are your hopes for the future?
It’s made me both! I’m making use of the time I have and being very productive. My heart goes out to everyone who is going through a tough time. I hope I can make people feel better through music and offer some kind of hope. Uncertainty is always scary, but we will prevail if we stick together in spirit. Until then, we have ‘The Distance’. We’ll make it through and it won’t break our hearts!
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to NINA
Founded by Brett Simpson and Stuart McLaren, Outland have become one of the best known synthwave and retrowave brands in the UK.
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.
Had these gigs been to test the water and build an audience?
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.
Photo by Connor Watt
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*
Outland has now gone down the record label route, how is that progressing? Please tell us about your signings?
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.
Photo by Gina-Leigh Smith
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 24th July 2021 at The Dome in Tufnell Park, London featuring JORDAN F, DANA JEAN PHOENIX, HIGHWAY SUPERSTAR, NEW ARCADES, DUETT + L’AVENUE – tickets available direct from https://www.wegottickets.com/event/504216
French musician MORGAN WILLIS is something of a synthwave veteran. He’s been extremely prolific since his 2012 debut long playing release ‘Science Fiction’ and the 2015 electro-funk flavoured ‘Night Rider’ to become a respected exponent of the sub-genre.
His latest offering ‘Dreamer’ has been called a “synthpop fairy-tale” and certainly this primarily instrumental set has been bolstered by the sweet feminine magic of PARALLELS, NINA and KEL to continue a tradition that has been a key part of MORGAN WILLIS releases since 2016 with JJ Mist on ‘Behind The Mask’.
One of the not undeserved criticisms of instrumental synthwave is that its hazy soundscapes emphasise texture and feel, rather than tunes and dynamics. So when The Electricity Club’s idea of a synth instrumental is ‘Theme For Great Cities’ by SIMPLE MINDS and ‘Astradyne’ by ULTRAVOX, then the comparison bar is always going to be set quite high.
‘Dreamer’ contains songs and these prove to be the highlights of the album. Best of all is ‘Rabbit Hole Chasing You’ featuring regular collaborator KEL who compliments the throbbing electronics with an airy lift, while a number of more sparkling upper octave sounds get to gently penetrate through the incumbent aural wash. ‘Back to the Start’ sees NINA making good use of her natural range of vocal capabilities. Her higher notes offset the musical middle ground inhabited by the bed of synths.
And this is why the deep male voiced ‘Invisible’ doesn’t make as much of an impression as it mushes in with the backdrop. However, the syncopated funky stance and whirring synths of the single ‘C.O.M.A’ with a similar deep male vocal is much more satisfying.
Holly Dodson of PARALLELS makes another of her synthwave guest vocal appearances on ‘Dark Before the Dream’ and with guitar-derived arpeggios at the start, the Canadian songstress provides an almost Country & Western demeanour before the electronic drums kick in for some of the classic new wave tinged synthpop that her own band is known for.
However, a couple of the instrumentals do the trick. The lengthy closer ‘Forever’ is a beautifully expanding epic with luscious melodic hooks and pulsing arpeggios, while ‘Teenager’ captures the energy and exuberance of youth with a hint of ‘St Elmo’s Fire’.
But with slow fades and steady builds, the album and a few of its tracks are maybe too long.
Now while the point of many synthwave concepts is soundtracks for imaginary films, this can be challenging for some listeners to imagine amongst the aural hue without visuals, while also waiting for a vocal.
‘Dreamer’ probably requires an immersion of full relaxation for it to be effective and to that end, the title track and ‘Daydream’ do what they say on the tin. So if you are into the idea of a reconfigured soundtrack for a Brat Pack film coated in magenta pink, then ‘Dreamer’ will be for you.