Describing themselves as “Slacker synth-wave refuseniks”, POLYCHROME’s brand of filmic dreamwave as showcased on their self-titled 2018 debut album found favour with TV producers and advertising agencies around the world.
The duo of Vicky Harrison and Oliver Price wrote the majority of their first record in isolation around the serene surroundings of Grianain Eco Lodge near Fort William.
Utilising grainy Lo-Fi synths, old drum machines, WEM copycat tape echo, minimal guitar textures, the emotional centre comes from Vicky Harrison’s angelic vocals filtered through vintage microphones but airily layered using modern production techniques.
Having recently signed to Outland Recordings, both parties are celebrating their union with the release of a brand new single ‘Starts With A Kiss’. Vicky Harrison chatted to The Electricity Club about the evolving sound of POLYCHROME.
How would you describe the sound of POLYCHROME?
Our debut album was a mix of dreampop, synthwave, chillwave and shoegaze, so it wasn’t very specific, no! It shows how interested we are in different genres, especially underground electronic styles. But bands tend to end up sounding like the bands they like don’t they? People say “oh, you sound like so-and-so…” and you reply “Oh yeah, I love them, they’re one of my favourite bands so…”*laughs*
Which acts have been key influences, it would appear ELECTRIC YOUTH and CHROMATICS are but who else?
Definitely the ‘Drive’ soundtrack, we were making music in that kind of style but because our track ‘Final Kiss’ did so well, we decided to continue POLYCHROME.
When the first album came out, we got a lot of references to COCTEAU TWINS, M83 and we also had dreampop references, LANA DEL REY and GOLDFRAPP, that sort of thing.
POLYCHROME are very active on social media, how did you and Oliver go about developing this?
It’s more me driving the social media, but Ollie does a lot more of the production so it evens itself out. I’ve been thinking a lot more about how we can connect with fans and try to change my attitude to online platforms being a barrier to people, to being a way of connecting with our fans. It’s trying to think about what they want, rather than what I like or want *laughs*
It’s been very interesting actually, I noticed quite a lot of our fans seem to like metal music as well, as I’m not really a fan… a lot of rockers have come into synthwave, I don’t know what it is, the dark basslines maybe?
From a visual image point of view, you are comparatively more understated to go with the music?
It’s all about the music maaaan… *laughs*
I’m not against a strong visual image at all, in fact I’ve just ordered a really cool catsuit that I may be wearing in our next live video and I want to very much consider our look as well.
But I’ve always been just a bit of a music geek and in my old band VICTORIA & JACOB, the whole thing was set on the music and being very much understated and introspective with the stage presence.
I’ve analysed it quite a lot since to understand why I decided to go down that route, because I really wanted people to connect with the emotion of the songs. But with POLYCHROME, I want to go a step up from that and think more about my stage presence, the look and how I present myself. Our aesthetic is to be more shimmery, glitter and that sort of thing. You will see more of that, a strong visual image does make people look and check out the music.
It’s got to be considered even if it’s understated… when I think of understated, I think of LONDON GRAMMAR, I love that band and I love her voice, but I love that she just wears a pair of jeans and a black top. And THE XX, every time, black tops, black trousers, it’s still considered and not random.
What do you think when you look back on your self-titled debut album?
I’m really happy with it, I do think it’s a grower and me myself, I like albums that grow on you. I like weird underground electronic music or I like something pop, so I think we do have some of that pop sensibility in quite a few of our tracks. There were lots of soundscapes in there.
But there are always things you’d want to improve; our writing process is in the studio so we’re recording and writing at the same time.
So sometimes it’s the final product although we do go back and tweak. You need to sit on it for a few months to review it with a little bit more perspective.
So is a lot of it done with you both sitting in a room together rather than remotely by exchanging files?
We did one track sending files to each other but yes, we had this friend in Scotland who has this amazing lodge which she let us stay in. We felt quite at home and we were definitely inspired by the landscape.
We’d go out on long walks, meet with my friend who is an amazing cook and it all felt very comfortable. We wanted to make sure we had this time to reflect and put it into the writing process. It was really fun and we probably won’t get the chance to do it quite like it again.
‘Synesthesia’ was the tune you opted to get behind to do a video for. What was it for you about that song particularly?
We did work with a PR company so they might have had some influence, we did want their advice. I really that track, we worked with a guy named Stephen Hodd who co-wrote it with us, he’s done a lot of work with PASSENGER and LAMB so I think you do get those influences in ‘Synesthesia’ from him, so there’s an element of folkiness and trip-hop.
The closing track ‘Don’t Be A Stranger’ took its lead from ‘Stranger Things’, how influential do you think that series has been on popular culture?
We’re big fans of ‘Stranger Things’, especially the first series. We’re influenced by anything with a nostalgic element to it and ‘Stranger Things’ had that 80s thing going on. It was one of the big shows that really captured people’s attention. I did meet Nora Felder, the ‘Stranger Things’ music supervisor, at an event so I asked if she’d consider putting POLYCHROME in their but she said “No, we only take 80s originals!”*laughs*
‘Final Kiss’ has become your most popular track and has a disco lento femme fatale air about it, what was its catalyst in terms of writing and production?
It was a long time ago! I did a fair bit of the production on this and the vocal for ‘Final Kiss’ was done with a mic we found in a car boot sale, a vintage harmonica microphone.
Whenever we record, we try out a lot of microphones but quite often, we come back to that one because it just seems to capture the best frequencies of my voice. I don’t know where that Italo disco thing came from, it must be in me and Ollie, the nostalgia from that era must just resonate *laughs*
‘Final Kiss’ did particularly well and what sort of kicked POLYCHROME off to do a whole album. It’s had quite a bit of coverage, we’ve had it on adverts in Poland and Denmark, it was part of a Russian brand campaign.
More recently, it was on ‘The Unorthodox’, a series on Netflix. Denmark has particularly brought in a lot of fans and we’d like to tour that region at some point when we’re ready.
Many artists say they have a lifetime to prepare for a debut album but for the second, its much less, any thoughts?
After our first album, we took a break because we put a lot of effort into it; we started a record label called Hi-Lo-Lo-Hi to release it ourselves. There was a lot of investment and being an independent band, it takes a lot of time to make back what you’ve put in, so we needed a bit of recovery time after that.
Then we re-evaluated our approach to the business and releasing music, hence my improvement with social media. It was to get rid of this belief that somehow, a PR company is going to make something happen for you… sometimes they get something and sometimes they don’t. But you have to make sure you are consistently in control of your fanbase and building it, keeping it and giving them what they want.
I think me and Oliver were a bit stuck in the old model, a record label and a PR company because that’s how we’d done it in the past but things have moved on. And there aren’t that many print magazines now so you can’t get a write-up there either!
What would be the creative dynamic between you and Oliver?
Oliver comes to life in the studio and there’s this great dynamic. We just bounce off each other I guess.
I’ll send Ollie quite a lot of samples or source out a new piece of equipment but he does most of the production stuff. He has quite a clean pop sound although I don’t know if he would agree with me there! *laughs*
The new single is ‘Starts With A Kiss’, so you like kissing as it appears to be a recurring theme?
I know! That’s what we wanted because we’d finished with a kiss, so now wanted to start with one. We had originally delayed the release due to the sensitivity with the current situation but now we’ve just decided to go for it.
It has vocoders and a FM rock guitar solo too…
The guitar solo is by Bjorn Ågren from RAZORLIGHT who is a friend of Ollie’s, apparently he just loves his 80s stuff so he was really up for it. We’ve gone a little more synthwave with our new tracks so we’ve tried to be a bit more specific, but even when we try, we still come out synthpop! *laughs*
On the new material like ‘Signs’ , there appears to be more of the vocal glitch processing techniques that were heard on the first album with ‘Dreaming About You’, ‘Final Kiss’ and ‘The Call’, do you see the voice as being as much an instrumental aesthetic as much as synth or guitar, so fair game for treatment?
Yes, like with ‘Final Kiss’, the vocals were a hook so we wanted to keep and develop our signature sound. It’s definitely part of the instrumentation but it’s also part of the interpretation of the story, crossing the humanity with the technology.
At the moment, I’m working a lot on how to interpret our own songs for live, thinking more about what the songs mean.
So I’ve come up with a character that lives throughout the stories of the songs so I can keep a consistency through the interpretation in the hope of keeping a stronger connection with the audience. The character is a young Asian girl called Lucy and she’s in this post-apocalyptic world and she is living under water in the sea as one of the last humans; she’s developing a connection with a romantic partner and there’s this strange dependency going on between the two of them, there’s hope and comfort in there.
The journey will take you through the story as the characters are relying on technology. In my mind, they are partly made of technology and Lucy is relying on the technology to interpret her own feelings.
You mentioned previously that you feel vocals are the most important aspect of a recording?
That’s going to be very individual to the listener but for me in any track, the vocals are important to me. I’m a singer, I’m a voice teacher, I’ve analysed the voice, I’m studying the voice, so for me, the voice has been so important to me in my life as a means of emotional expression.
I’m just fascinated by it, how it works, how you can get different sounds and create different connections to your audience, using just your voice, it creates a sense of humanity and makes it more personal. You can have great instrumental tracks but in my mind for it to stick out, the voice is essential. You make what you love. I am used to instrumental versions of our tracks because we want to get our music out on TV and films for producers to consider using as an atmosphere to back a visual.
How has your voice changed over the years?
I used to use a clearer tone but with POLYCHROME, I’m a lot more breathy, it just happened.
I just liked the atmosphere so I added in more breath. It matched the style of the music but contrasted it as well against the electronic sounds and made it a little bit sexy and eerie.
Atmospheric would be the made word here because with dreampop, you’re not using the lyrics so much but creating more of atmosphere or feel, an emotion or vibe. The lyrics perhaps aren’t as important… you might not hear them on first listening and be drawn to the melody, and then later on, you become involved with the lyrics.
Another new song ‘UltraViolet’ seems to sound more aggressive musically with that loud rimshot and layers of synths?
It does! I don’t know why! *laughs*
It’s quite driving with a faster tempo and I think it leans more towards synthpop, but there was no particular conscious choice. We made a series of electronic vibes and picked what we liked and started sculpting those. We might do that in a few sessions on one song, it still needs a lot of work but the main body is there by the time we get to the end.
You’ve signed to Outland Recordings for your next release, what are your hopes and fears with regards the future of POLYCHROME?
We’re very excited to be working with Outland, we met Stuart McLaren about a year ago and he’s a fantastic chap who is well into the synthwave scene. I guess that’s drawn POLYCHROME a bit further in that direction and it’s been interesting to get to know that scene.
I met a lot of lovely and dedicated fans, they’re always super friendly so that’s really nice. So regarding the future of POLYCHROME, we’re just going to release these tracks and see how they go.
We have a good direction with regards our music being used in television for adverts and we’d like to continue that as our music seems to go down well. At the moment, we are looking to try and find people to represent us in different countries for that and we’re hoping Outland gets us some good playlisting.
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Vicky Harrison
The Canadian princess of slinky synthwave DANA JEAN PHOENIX has grabbed the attention of not just her homegrown fans, having established herself as the top retro female artist, who toured extensively throughout Europe last annum after the release of her superb long player ‘Pixeldust’.
The tiny powerhouse is a rocket on stage and her live performances have you dancing from the onset, thanks to Phoenix’s fabulous persona and her ability to get the audiences moving, nurtured over the years on the musical theatre stage.
Having collaborated with many artists within the genre, the slinky pursuer of endless possibilities joins forces with Vienna-based POWERNERD. The POWERNERD guys are rather elusive, describing their product as “synthwave with heavy metal vocals”, which sounds hard to fathom and whets the appetite even more.
‘Megawave’ is the baby of this unlikely collaboration, seeing the Toronto princess lend her sweet vocal to create something uniquely enchanting. The title track establishes the tone of this sunny record, with a classic easy listening tune, good enough to fall in love to, with the retro offerings the dainty singer is well known for.
Next she’s fighting robots, oh yes, but she doesn’t want to do it by herself. ‘Fight These Robots’ is a classic funky number with a dose of girly cheekiness, while ‘Living Rent Free’ introduces more electronica, still holding on to the retro themes, blossoming into a perfect summer’s day song.
‘Sunrise Stance’ gets one up and dancing, Dana style, it’s bouncy, cool and glossy; leg warmers off, hair down and neon lycra mini dress on.
Thanks to the wonders of ‘New Technology’, Phoenix and co create an extraordinary synth ballad. But it’s ‘Moves Moves Moves’ that lures you back into the arcade and out again to the disco. The electrifying twister beams with musicality and craziness of the long gone era, creating nostalgic nod to the bygones.
‘Figure Me Out’ presents itself twice, first as a grand synthylicious piece, then remixed by NEW ARCADES. The latter is deliciously current, being scrumptiously old worldly, no cloud in the sky, sun beaming high and Dana’s in her element.
However, it’s the glorious arpeggios of ‘Fight These Robots’, this time remixed by STRAPLOCKED that shines most brightly on the new offering. This version is punchy, straight to the point and very wholesome.
Phoenix has previously worked with POWERNERD who produced ‘Only One For One Night’, as well as STRAPLOCKED who helped her with ‘Iron Fist’. Collaborations are plenty in the world of synthwave, which the Toronto artist fully appreciates.
She’s also glad for the fact of not having been born in the midst of the synthpop era, as she feels she’s got more musical freedom in the world of today: “I’m actually so glad to be here and now. as awesome as the 80s were, there were huge barriers of entry for artists who weren’t willing to have record companies dictate their sound and image.”
Nobody dictates what DANA JEAN PHOENIX does, she’s her own boss and does extremely well for it.
Over the last 10 years, The Electricity Club has been a voice for the discerning enthusiast of electronic pop.
With a balancing act of featuring the classic pioneers of the past alongside the emergent new talent for the future, The Electricity Club has become well known for its interviews and reviews, asking the questions people have always wanted to ask while celebrating the continuing development of the synthesizer in popular music. All this while holding to account those who deliver below expectations, assuring the listener that if they are perhaps not hearing the genius that some devoted fans are declaring, then The Electricity Club is there to assist in affirming or denying that assessment.
But when artists do deliver, they tend to build a strong relationship with The Electricity Club. So with the site celebrating its first 10 years, presented here are greetings and messages from some people who you might know…
Rusty Egan, VISAGE
TEC is 10 years old with the synth knowledge of a 50 year old. If I can’t remember something electronic I don’t Google, I TEC!
Glenn Gregory, HEAVEN 17
The Electricity Club and its wonderful leader Chi is like the League Of Super Heroes for Electronic Music. Our future is safe in his hands.
I have been involved in electronic music making for 40 years, yet one half hour conversation with Chi makes me realise how little I know. From then to now, he’s knows!
Neil Arthur, BLANCMANGE
Chi has been brilliantly supportive of BLANCMANGE, for which I am very grateful. We’ve always managed to have a good laugh during our interviews, as he would ask me about the darkness and gloom lying within a given BLANCMANGE song! I look forward to our next chat.
The Electricity Club has a very important place and a role to play, in spreading the news of electronic music, new and old, far and wide. Here’s to the next ten years. Well done and good luck.
Gary Daly, CHINA CRISIS
Thanks for all your wonderful support Chi, so glad someone has taken the time to ask some great questions…
Sarah Blackwood, DUBSTAR
I love The Electricity Club website. It’s a treasure trove of informative articles, both a very readable historical archive and a forward looking platform for encouraging new talent. In what can be traditionally and lazily categorised as a very male dominated scene, Chi encourages great music regardless of gender and I enjoy the updated Spotify playlist if I’m ever stuck for what to listen to whilst running.
As regards interviews, it’s always enjoyable – Chi is a bit too easy to talk to and his passion for music and synth geekery shines through – heaven forbid you try sneaking a (cleared) sample past him, he will spot it!
Is it 10 years already? Happy birthday TEC!
Chris Payne, DRAMATIS
With 18,000 likes and 12,000 Facebook followers; The Electricity Club under the guidance of its purveyor Chi Ming Lai, has become the leading place for the Electronic Music fan. Intelligent, well written and well researched journalism with a great team of writers presenting an array of brilliant fascinating new acts (and some older ones as well!), hopefully it will continue for at least another 10 years.
Tracy Howe, RATIONAL YOUTH
Congratulations to The Electricity Club on ten years of brilliant reporting of, and support to, the electronic pop scene. TEC is the authoritative publication “of record” for fans and makers of synthpop alike and is the international rallying point and HQ for our music. We look forward to many more years of in-depth interviews and probing articles, all in the beautifully written TEC style. Happy birthday TEC!
Mark White, ABC + VICE VERSA
Chi Ming Lai and Paul Boddy are two of the most learned, nay, erudite music journalists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, a rare experience indeed to be quizzed by a pair who know their onions. And unusual integrity. Chi promised me if we asked, he would turn off the tape recorder and it would never appear in print. And has been true to his word. This has literally never happened in my career. Also these two chaps are bloody good fun. I laughed til I cried. Go see the movie!
Rob Dean, JAPAN
10 years of The Electricity Club? Only one for me (yes, I know…), but it’s heartening to know that Chi and the crew have created a site so cutting edge for us die-hard fans of electronica. Having read the highly entertaining VICE VERSA chaps interview, I was delighted to be asked to do my own, confident that the questions would be thoughtful and intelligent and yes, a little bit probing too. Here’s to the next 10 and thank you!
Richard Silverthorn, MESH
On several occasions I have done interviews for The Electricity Club. Every time I felt like they actually cared about the music and scene and put some educated thought into the questions. It’s good to feel that enthusiasm.
Tom Shear, ASSEMBLAGE 23
Congratulations on 10 years of covering and supporting the scene! Here’s to another 10 and beyond…
Sophie Sarigiannidou, MARSHEAUX
I first met Chi at Sparrowhawk Hotel, Burnley in November 2000 for an OMD convention. It took me 13 hours to reach by train to Burnley from London due to bad weather.
I saw him playing live (!!!!) with his covers band THE MESSERSCHMITT TWINS, they were having their time of their life, dancing and singing, so so happy! Us too of course!! From that moment on we became friends.
Then he supported our band MARSHEAUX from the very early beginning and I thank him a lot for that! It’s always great having Chi asking questions for interviews . We as a band had our best interviews with The Electricity Club! We spent a lot of hours talking about the history of electronic music and the future of synthpop. My favourite articles on TEC are the “A Beginners Guide To…” series, you have a lot to learn from these pages!!! Happy Anniversary Chi, we’ve indeed had 10 amazing years with TEC. I hope and wish the next 10 to be even better.
Erik Stein, CULT WITH NO NAME
The Electricity Club elected not to review earlier CWNN albums, so we just had to keep making better and better records until they would finally relent. They finally gave in from album number 7 onwards, and it was well worth the wait. The writing was spot on and not a single DEPECHE MODE reference in sight.
Mark Reeder, MFS BERLIN
Congratulations and a very Happy 10th Birthday TEC! Over the past 10 years, The Electricity Club website has developed into becoming the leading website for all kinds of electronic synthpop music. It has become a familiar friend, because it is something I can personally identify with, as it is maintained by fans, for fans.
However, it is not only commendable, but can also be quite critical too, and that is a rare balancing act in the contemporary media world. It has been a great source of regular electronic music information. I have discovered and re-discovered many wonderful electronic artists, and regularly devour the in-depth interviews and features.
Through TEC, I have been introduced to and worked with some of the wonderful artists presented on your pages, such as QUEEN OF HEARTS or MARSHEAUX and in return, it has supported my work, my label and my artists too, and I thank them for that! We can all celebrate ten years of TEC and together, look forward to the next 10 years of inspiring electronic music.
Per Aksel Lundgreen, SUB CULTURE RECORDS
The Electricity Club is a highly knowledgeable and very passionate site! They are digging out rarities from the past as well as exploring and discovering new acts, giving them attention and writing about them often before anybody else around have even heard of them.
This makes TEC a very interesting page to follow, as their in-depth stories about older bands “missing in action” as well as the latest stuff “in the scene” gets perfectly mixed together, giving you all you want basically in a one-stop-site for everything electronic. I also love the way they give attention to unsigned / self-released bands and small indie-labels, giving everybody a fair chance as long as the music is good enough. Congrats on the 10th Anniversary, well deserved!
Jane Caley aka Anais Neon, VILE ELECTRODES
When VILE ELECTRODES were just starting out, we heard through the Facebook grapevine about a new electronic music blog called The Electricity Club. We had a London gig coming up, and had recently made a promo video for our song ‘Deep Red’, so we dropped them an email about both, not expecting to hear back, since we were virtually unknown. However it transpired they really liked our sound, likening us to “Client B born and raised in the Home Counties fronting Dindisc-era ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK”.
The Electricity Club subsequently gave this very description to Andy McCluskey, which piqued his interest such that he checked out our music. We were invited to tour Germany with OMD as a direct result!
George Geranios, UNDO RECORDS
Chi is a really rare quality of a man. He is passionate about music which is so obvious of course while reading The Electricity Club. Through our mutual love for OMD, we discovered that we have the same musical taste. TEC helped us promote all of Undo Records projects and finally we ended collaborating and releasing this brilliant TEC double CD compilation! Chi, I wish you health and to continue writing the best music texts in the industry!!
Adam Cresswell, HAPPY ROBOTS RECORDS
Some people say The Electricity Club doesn’t support the scene but I’ve not found that to be the case; having been a part of two TEC gigs and the recent CD, I know how much blood, sweat and tears they put into what they do. TEC might get a few people’s back-up, but they know their stuff when it comes to synth-driven music and I’m massively grateful that they have supported so many Happy Robots artists since 2010.
Stuart McLaren, OUTLAND
It’s no secret that the burgeoning new synthwave genre shares a common history with the great synthesizer acts and pioneers of the 80s, like Dolby, Jones, Luscombe, Wilder, Daly et al who created new soundscapes with what we now define as vintage synths.
These sounds are brought back to life by pioneers in their own right like FM ATTACK, GUNSHIP, ESPEN KRAFT and BETAMAXX to name a few.
The Electricity Club and Chi Ming Lai have always been at the forefront of championing, interviewing and reviewing the luminaries of this great instrument past to present, and are likely to remain the de facto voice of the synth scene well into the future… we agree on one thing and that is FM-84’s singer Ollie Wride is deffo one to watch as a star for the future!
Paula Gilmer, TINY MAGNETIC PETS
Happy Birthday TEC. thank you for your support. You never fail to impress with your encyclopedic knowledge of synthpop. Here’s looking forward to 10 more!
Mr Normall, NUNTIUS
I’ve been following most of my favourite artists since they were brand new and often this means 30+ years, yet reading articles and interviews by The Electricity Club, I have learned every time something new about of my favourites.
Following The Electricity Club have made me paid attention to several new acts that I would likely know nothing about if they hadn’t appeared on the page.
Catrine Christensen, SOFTWAVE
An outstanding magazine supporting new and upcoming artists whom they choose carefully as they have great taste of music regarding to their huge knowledge within the synthpop genre, when it comes to their writing and promotion – there’s no one like them. Happy birthday 😘
Elena Charbila, KID MOXIE
Happy 10th birthday TEC! Your love and commitment to the synth community is unparalleled and your support has meant a lot to me on a professional but also on a personal level. Here’s to the next 10 years! 😘
Alexander Hofman aka Android, S.P.O.C.K
I’m a fan of The Electricity Club for several reasons. You showed up when I perceived the majority of the electronic scene had turned more and more harsh; as much as I can appreciate an occasional emotional outburst, I’m a happy guy and thus I’m into pop – TEC showed, and still shows me that there’s still electronic pop music being made. Good electronic pop! Which makes me glad, as I find the greater part of the generally popular darker scene to be of lower musical quality.
Moreover, TEC writes in an amazingly happy tone – remember, I’m a happy guy, so it’s right up my alley. Add the fact that TEC regularly publishes interesting articles, using intelligent and varied vocabulary, shows enormous knowledge and interest of the theme, the style, the scene – and I’m hooked. Thanks for being around – keep up the good work, it’s much needed! And congratulations – let’s grab a beer again! 🍻
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 17th October 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/
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.