As well as comprising of regular TEC contributors Monika Izabela Goss and Paul Boddy, there was British born, Swedish educated, Canadian citizen Simon Helm, curator of the Nordic-friendly website, Cold War Night Life. Joining the panel as part of a visit to the UK that included a live appearance in London with VILE ELECTRODES were NIGHT CLUB.
The LA based synthpop duo of Emily Kavanaugh and Mark Brooks have so far released three EPs, but their profile has had an enormous boost recently, thanks to their acclaimed soundtrack for the animation series ‘Moonbeam City’. Broadcast on Comedy Central, the series itself features the voice of Brat Pack superstar Rob Lowe and a guest appearance by one-time ‘Batman’, Adam West.
Pondering a series of questions about the state of the synth nation, it was a lively and forthright discussion that included opinion on the various instrumental albums that appeared in 2015, the validity of YEARS & YEARS as a synthpop act and whether promoters have actually learnt from the Alt-Fest debacle of 2014…
2015 has been a much stronger year than 2014 for new releases, particularly from veterans and more seasoned acts. But with regards fledging acts, the quality has been variable. Why is this?
Monika: The UK scene remains unchanged. Nobody stands out drastically and, unless VILE ELECTRODES or MESH release an album, the rest is pathetic, to say the least. Some of the UK newer acts are blatantly unbearable with poor production and unoriginal vocals, or both. The European scene, especially the Swedish one remains the strongest out there. The Americans have some new acts, but neither the likes of RARE FACTURE or PRIEST have been original or anything to go crazy about. Strangely enough, my two favourite releases this year have been from the UK, IAMX and John Fryer, but interestingly enough neither have been operating from the UK.
But the flip side is that it’s possibly TOO easy to make it, anyone with a few iPads can bang a few electro loops together and an octave bassline and claim to be a synth band.
But things like being able to sing, vocal production and songwriting skills are traits which take longer to get good at… a lot of indie bands are embracing electronics, so having a synth player is COOL again, but there doesn’t seem to be too many decent electronic acts that are starting like that in the first place…
Simon: There are a number of good, new acts that have come through. But we haven’t seen them being picked up by a label and given the kind of support that they really need. If I pick a band like DELMER DARION from Exeter, they caught my ear earlier in the year and had a very good song featuring Emily Burns on vocals, but no label has given them support, so the production value behind what they do is always going to be somewhat limited.
My sense is that there are good, new artists emerging – like REIN in Sweden or NEON LINES from France – but the challenge is, who on the production side is helping to distinguish them from the mass of amateur material that’s coming through Soundcloud and Bandcamp? I think that’s the biggest problem. On the veteran side, there has been some good material from TWICE A MAN. I wish that more artists with that kind of pedigree were actually putting out material. In previous years, we’ve had a rush of good synth music, but this year I think has been a little more challenged.
We’ve been watching the growth of female collectives like FEMALE FREQUENCY, as women have started to make their own material outside of the usual industry pathways, supporting each other in production, arrangement or songwriting. Similarly, in Norway, you have the KOSO collective, which includes PIECES OF JUNO, who has worked with KARIN PARK. They have started to work together to provide the infrastructure that artists need to heard. They have the confidence and strength to do it. I think that’s probably the feature of 2015.
Monika: That sounds a little bit like GRIMES, she blatantly avoids going into the studio with any male producers and wants to do everything herself so that her stamp is on it, rather than some producer who can turn around and say “I did that on her album”.
KITE have been around for a few years, but seem to be finally gaining wider attention with their ‘VI’ EP. Which albums and artists have caught your ear in 2015?
Monika: KITE have definitely made it into the mainstream more, which is great news as they are strong and worthy of recognition. Many excellent acts have come out of Sweden this year, like ME THE TIGER and DESTIN FRAGILE amongst others.
BEBORN BETON released a decent collection of songs, so have CAMOUFLAGE, FROZEN PLASMA, VIVIEN GLASS, DIE KRUPPS, ASHBURY HEIGHTS, VILE ELECTRODES, TORUL, MARSHEAUX. But above all, there’s been both enterprises by the amazing John Fryer, SILVER GHOST SHIMMER and MURICIDAE, and IAMX’s magnificent ‘Metanoia’ album.
Simon: If I had to pick an album for the year at the moment, it’s TWICE A MAN’s ‘Presence.’ They came from a Prog Rock background and grew up through New Wave, but are still showing people how to take chances making great music. ‘Presence’ is very politically charged, so they haven’t concealed their views or been restrained in their musical approach. I think that’s been refreshing.
Another artist who impressed me through the course of the year was ME THE TIGER. They were a definite standout. Seeing them live was one of the highlights of 2015. Their music is of a quality that can influence UK artists, if it ever reaches these shores.
What I’ve missed in some way this year are new artists with new directions. So, stylistically, I don’t know how far things have progressed in 2015. But bands like KITE still produce exciting material and have shown the way to go with the EP format… I think there’s a lot more to come from them.
Paul: EAST INDIA YOUTH really caught my attention… the first album by-passed me mainly because it was championed by The Quietus and I assumed (wrongly) that it would be hipster b*llocks like FACTORY FLOOR; ‘Culture of Volume’ is a wonderful album and William Doyle can cut it live too…
Do online music blogs and publications have any influence at all these days in breaking new acts?
Paul: Yes, if the circulation / demographic is big enough…. The Quietus did it by setting up a label for EAST INDIA YOUTH…
Monika: In my opinion, they do. Surely it’s better if someone is talking about new acts, rather than not. Of course, some of the acts featured are very poor, but then, there’s room for everybody. And if they gather a number of listeners, that’s great.
What makes me giggle with the fledging acts, is that they quickly start referring to their circle of friends who support them, as ‘fans’, as if forgetting where they come from. Also some bands seem to only “like” others, to get a “like” back and that’s hilarious. Instead of gathering a true audience, they circle around each other rubbing shoulders. It’s hilarious to watch.
Simon: From the reader’s perspective, having somebody curate the flow of music is the most important thing. Then, they can affiliate with the writer or a publication that delivers, for them, consistently good material. In the old days, one could follow a particular writer in the NME or Sounds and know that what they wrote would be of interest.
So, if you come to read my Cold War Night Life material, I will talk one week about LAU NAU and the next about ROBERT GÖRL. If that’s the kind of music you like – ie something slightly leftfield and electronic influenced – then it’s the place to go.
Similarly, I read The Electricity Club and particular writers because I know that I will be introduced to artists who are going to pique my curiosity, so I get new leads as a fan that I can trust.
Generally speaking, though, you get the same quality control problem with the blogging community as you do with the musical community. The barrier to entry is low and it’s far too easy to produce content. The trouble for the reader is finding the right kind of content, just as it is for the listener faced with the flow from Soundcloud.
Mark: To me, a case in point is when we got exposure with The Electricity Club. That exposed us to people that typically are predisposed to kind of like the music we do and go “I’ll buy it!”, we saw people buying stuff from the UK directly from that. So it really correlated to me. But the problem with the blogs is they have to be curated just like everything else, it has to depict direction. We had a publicist for a while and they would get us on these random blogs and it wouldn’t do anything. But ultimately, it came down to curated blogs.
There are these blogs that don’t appear to write anything…
Emily: Oh, like if they just copy the press release? *laughs*
Mark: That happens all the time… it’s not negative but it’s not necessarily very positive!
Emily: I mean, any press is good, but it doesn’t say anything…
Mark: As a band, you’re just trying to cut through the clutter to some degree.
Emily: Would you rather read something like that? Or something more… what would make you check it out?
Mark: With ‘Moonbeam City’, we started getting on blogs like Neon Vice and these Synthwave / Vapourwave outlets that deal mostly with instrumentals… all of a sudden, our website gets 40 clicks from that website! Whereas, we’d been all these other outlets and nothing! Like, you can see the more specialised it is, the more curated it is, it has impact!
Emily: With ‘Need You Tonight’, that INXS cover that we did, our publicist got us on a blog that was specifically for covers and we sold a bunch of songs from that because it was so, if you want a song that’s a cover, go to this website.
Mark: Again, it has to be curated.
Emily: I’ve had so many! *laughs*
Mark: It depends how much you’re set up for a fall. I’m thinking of certain bands where the stakes are this high because you came off this great record that everybody loves, and the new record stinks! And everyone gives you a bad review… it tanks! When you’re unknown, and somebody says “I don’t like them, I hate their music”, it doesn’t impact at all because it’s someone hating on a band that doesn’t have an audience to affect. I mean, when ‘Moonbeam City’ started on Comedy Central, all these people started reviewing this show saying it was moronic and stupid… that hurts in the ratings and stuff!
Emily: The New York Times were very critical…
Mark: So we had to slowly fight our way back up to now where people are watching the show and they’re digging it. But we had to get past that wave of bad publicity… that’s because it had Rob Lowe and Will Forte, so the bar was high! I think that’s what happens with DEPECHE MODE because the bar is so high, those records now are never going to get close to that.
Emily: So when you start from down here… *laughs*
On the opposite side of the coin, can a media outlet destroy or manipulate a scene?
Monika: Hugely so… an established act like DEPECHE MODE can get a bad review and still continue to be loved by their fans. A newer act, hoping for publicity, can be wiped out in the matter of seconds, if receiving negative press. Trouble is that many new acts are simply not good enough to be given a decent shout out.
As to the scene manipulation, yes hugely! Media has a huge power and so does the money. The more money and exposure the band has, the more they will sell. It’s always been this way. TV commercials are a prime example of that. If someone has enough money, they can buy into that or a support slot with say, DEPECHE MODE!
Mark: No, a band will destroy its own band! *laughs*
Simon: I think it’s important to note that there are ways to buy your way into obtaining publicity. There are blogs or magazines that will feature artists who pay them or provide other kinds of consideration. I think readers need to be careful about where they are getting their information from. On the other hand, I don’t know that blogs and E-zines can take a lot of credit for the success of a career of a particular artist. What they can do is help to reach the influencers who actually can build up the fanbase.
If you’re asking whether we can destroy a scene, I doubt it. I think people will go to gigs or support artists if they want to, irrespective of whatever anyone with a pen or a typewriter thinks!
Paul: There are some pretty average bands that are getting undeserved attention, normally as a result of having a friend in an established band and getting them to put in a word… the only thing is with those acts, eventually they’ll get exposed and will hit a glass ceiling… there needs to be more than a modicum of talent to propel them into any major success.
YEARS & YEARS? Are they the new HURTS? Has the ‘synthpop’ name been tarnished by the mainstream press?
Paul: YEARS & YEARS aren’t synthpop, but they are using the name in a post-modern / COOL way… I’m not sure if it’s them or the ignorant press that has labelled them as such though!
Monika: The simple answer is yes…. in a big way. HURTS should have never been branded as synthpop, their latest release confirms that and couldn’t be more designed for high chart positions on the mainstream charts. And to be perfectly blunt, YEARS & YEARS are rubbish. That is all I’ve got to say about that!
Yes, YEARS & YEARS are just BROS with a house beat…
Simon: I thought HURTS were one of the interesting discoveries of the past few years because they approached music from a slightly different angle. YEARS & YEARS are approaching from a well-trodden path and I’m less impressed with them, compared with a lot of other artists who have received less publicity – people like Johan Baeckström of DAILY PLANET who had a great solo album this year, for example.
One thing that has struck me is the rise of what’s called Synthwave music, which suggests there’s a positive side to the way that people think about synthpop. There’s been a generation gap for some time, where younger people have not necessarily picked up synthesizers with the idea of making pop music. Synthesizers are ubiquitous in studio settings these days for EBM or more urban genres, but with Synthwave they are making more avant-styled pop again.
Mark: I think in some ways it’s been tarnished but it’s been tarnished by a lot of things! People are just throwing the word synthpop around to describe that music. To me, YEARS & YEARS are almost like a RICK ASTLEY thing… you could say BRITNEY SPEARS is synthpop because its synthesizers, but what defines it as synthpop in that underground way is what NIGHT CLUB or CHVRCHES do.
Mark: Absolutely! YEARS & YEARS are like a mid-90s past-its-prime attempt at soulful vocals that’s kind of text book. I feel like that has been done.
Emily: I haven’t listened to their music enough but I know that I think it’s more 90s.
Do you remember BROS? YEARS & YEARS are a bit like that!
Mark: Yes! That’s totally what it is! That’s something I’ve never really enjoyed!
Last year, Alt-Fest collapsed and in 2015, smaller scale events have been cancelled or had trouble attracting punters. What do you think is going on and what can be done to ensure a healthy music scene?
Monika: For starters, the events need to be hosted by dedicated electronic music lovers, not people who are only willing to make money. The UK has always been a bit hit and miss. There have been some events this year, which proved successful however. It comes and goes really!
Paul: Alt-Fest collapsing was a shame as the line-up was too good to be true… because electronic music is still seen as a niche to many, a lot of fans are sceptical about buying into a festival based around it… many said Alt-Fest would fold at the outset and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy…
Simon: Promoters of events need to have money, because if you try to fund an event with pre-sales of tickets, it’s doomed to defeat. The money simply does not flow in fast enough to cover the costs of the acts, which is what happened with Alt-Fest. I think having fans involved is excellent – it helps to make the choices easier – but the way Alt-Fest was trying to crowdsource who was going to play, listing every band that ever existed and trying to book them at the same time, guaranteed defeat!
How are things in America with regards electronic events?
Mark: There is NO scene in the US, its either EDM or random people like us trying to do their thing but not connecting necessarily. As far as gigs are concerned, it’s still a bunch of rock bands. So when we get on stage, people are going “what are you doing?” and they’re kind of confused by it. It’s strange because it’s 30 years later and this is still confusing to everyone what’s going on here! *laughs*
What do you think about bands who put music events on, but actually play it themselves? It is the only way electronic acts can get gigs today or is it more narcissistic?
Simon: I think that’s normal…
Monika: It is hugely narcissistic indeed. Going back to my previous statement of “you like my band, I’ll like yours”, it’s pathetic and surely they must realise how shallow that is. A true artist would have to do nothing like that. You don’t see IAMX begging other artists for support in exchange for his.
Paul: I don’t see a problem with this, it’s more of a punk aesthetic like being able to release their own music on things like Bandcamp and cutting out the record label middle man
Emily: We’ve learned that no-one’s gonna do it better than we do it, because we are working hard for ourselves. We know our audience so it makes more sense for us to do it.
Simon: I’ve seen shows put on by artists who want to play with like-minded people and their way to do that is to run their own event. But the most successful shows are the ones where somebody is having an objective look at the market, understands what it means to put certain artists together, and is coming at it from a less ego-driven place.
There’s a few UK promoters who do electronic events, but don’t seem to know anything about electronic music… how well do you need to know the electronic audience to be sure you’re going to do a good event?
Mark: You need to know it really well to do a good event… unless you book the top crust because people will come because of who they are. But if you do anything below that, it needs to be properly curated.
Paul: The MARTIN GORE one was probably born out of frustration at the slow process it takes to release a DM album… the main problem with it is you will always want it to have added vocals and think “this would be so much better with Dave Gahan singing!”
Monika: This isn’t going to be hugely popular, I did review MARTIN GORE and gave it quite a good review… but to be perfectly honest after a bit of time and in the backdrop of other instrumental works by JOHN FOXX and BLANCMANGE, I’m not sure now what he was thinking with ‘MG’. Perhaps his new bride has totally wiped him out of his creative abilities and artistic sense.
Simon: Instrumental music can also be a form of art. Listening to the TUXEDOMOON and CULT WITH NO NAME soundtrack for ‘Blue Velvet Revisited’, for example, shows that amazing material is still being produced that doesn’t require words. But I’m entirely with Monika: you listen to something like ‘MG’ or even before that VCMG, and it’s clear that knob-twiddling, both musical and otherwise, seems to be the priority for some artists.
Of course, NIGHT CLUB recently soundtracked the animation series ‘Moonbeam City’…
Emily: I will say that’s it’s harder to write non-instrumental songs. I mean, when we were doing the instrumental stuff for ‘Moonbeam City’, we were literally pumping it out in a night…
Mark: Yeah, you figure out what the scene and almost in a way, it’s freeing because it’s so easy! To write a song that you want to keep playing, over and over for years, it’s hard… that’s why we’ve not done that many songs and releases.
We have this bar that we want to hit and if we don’t hit it, we don’t release it.
So with ‘Moonbeam City’, were you composing to moving images they’d given you or a story board with a script?
Mark: Sometimes, it would be “here’s the scene, we want ‘this kind’ of a song” and the scene is built around our music, and others, we would go in and write music to a scene that already exists.
So how was it working with Rob Lowe?
Emily: We read the script and knew there would be a STRAY CATS parody and Lowe’s character Dazzle Novak starts singing…
Mark: The lyrics went something like “Cop this town…”
Emily: We made a pretty close demo and it was too close, so Comedy Central made us do it again! So we came up with a more generic Rockabilly song. I did all the dummy vocals for the show and when Mark was with Rob in the studio…
Mark: … he went “Alright! What’s the f*cking deal? You think I sound like a chick? Do I have to sing with her?” – I said to him “No man! We just did it like that so you know what the words are!” and he was like “Oh, OK! I thought you were saying I sound like a girl!” *laughs*
Emily: It’s just dumb vocals! *laughs*
There’s been a lot of talk about Apple Music and Spotify. Streaming versus downloads in the digital marketplace?
Simon: I think the challenge for music fans will come when they stop paying their subscription fees and discover that they haven’t got any music! I’m indifferent about the form that the music takes, whether its download, vinyl or whatever, as long as you have access to it. I do think the streaming model disadvantages fans; and, as TAYLOR SWIFT demonstrated, it disadvantages artists.
Paul: Spotify is wonderful for the consumer, but awful for the artist… the royalty rate is risible, I should know as I have had a few pop up on a couple of my royalty statements!
Monika: Streaming can be helpful, but ultimately when a punter wants to buy the album. It’s good to “try before you buy”. I have bought downloads of many albums before, which I’ve never listened to again. So I can see why some people would say it’s not a real thing which is great. But I’m not one of those people because I’m a minimalist and I don’t like my house cluttered with lots of albums and things. So it’s all on my iMac, iPad and iPhone I’m afraid. I have bought a lot of music before. However, Apple Music does puzzle me a bit and scares me… I don’t really understand it *laughs*
Mark: I think if we were on a label, we would get next to nothing on Spotify royalties. But if you own your own music, it’s not necessarily as bad it’s been led to believe. It’s just that if you’re making 8 points on a record, after all expenses are paid, you’re not going to see those Spotify royalties. Ultimately, it’s better off that people buy your record if you want to have a career as an artist. It doesn’t really matter to me, people find us on Spotify and iTunes. It’s why we put out our own music… I DON’T want to sign a record deal. We just want to put out our music so that we’re in control of it.
Monika: If you think of the new GRIMES album ‘Art Angels’ and who she featured on it, there was a Taiwanese rapper ARISTOPHANES who she would have never found had it not been for Soundcloud. When you search among the known artists on Soundcloud, after a few clicks, you eventually come across someone who’s got 3 likes but is creating interesting music. If GRIMES hadn’t done that, she never would have found the rapper and collaborated on such a great, high profile record. It can’t be a bad thing.
Emily: I think steaming is good for awareness, I know a lot have people have discovered NIGHT CLUB on Spotify who wouldn’t have heard us otherwise. It’s beneficial for bands as no-one really buys stuff anymore.
Mark: We never had people really buying our records that often but there was lots of streams. Then this TV show came out and all of a sudden, we started selling CDs. And our streams, it kind of flipped and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a perception think and people think “oh, they’re worth money now”, as opposed to “ah, listen to it for free”!
What about vinyl versus CD debate with regards tangible products?
Paul: In my opinion, vinyl is resurging because there is an element of the public that wants to reclaim ownership of their music library and not just have this virtual / floating music collection which they don’t actually possess.
I admit to frequenting car boot sales and buying up LPs of artists I like… I don’t do it for sound quality, it’s partly nostalgic, but as mentioned, good to have a more physical item and to be able to appreciate the artwork / packaging
Mark: I love vinyl, I think it’s awesome. I’d love to make vinyl but it’s expensive and hard to carry around on tour and there’s lots of disadvantages too like selling it at shows, because that’s ultimately where we would probably sell our music.
That’s the argument I would put forward for new acts playing live… if someone likes the band and they want to buy something, the easiest thing is a CD. If you hand over a download token at the merch stand, they’ll lose it!
Mark: It’s that tangible thing, it’s like a token of the experience,“I saw this band, I bought this”… you don’t go “I saw this band and I went on Spotify!” *laughs*
Simon: I’m putting out a RATIONAL YOUTH tribute compilation album and it’s going to be in both vinyl and CD form, to give people who don’t have a record player the chance to hear it, but they’ll be forced to look at the artwork. There’s not going to be a download option, because the idea is precisely to have people interact with the album as an experience.
My sense is that, when Urban Outfitters are selling vinyl to a new generation of 18 year old kids, that cannot be a bad thing. The physical challenge is still there with the snap, crackle and pop problems and the danger of warping, but having something on the shelf that is of a certain size and has the artwork – I think it ties you to the music and to the artist in a much more profound way than simply having a Spotify playlist.
Monika: This depends on an individual, your needs and how you interact with your music. Like Simon says, it’s great to have the whole package with the artwork. Mentioning GRIMES again, she is one of those people who designs everything, makes her own music, produces, plays her own instruments and directs her videos… I’m all for it.
However, I confess I’m a digital format girl and have been since the purchase of my first Apple product but that’s more to do with the way I am. It’s easier, faster, and suits me – the minimalist. But I know many people, especially collectors, love to have the physical product.
I look back to my younger years when I first started listening to DEPECHE MODE; I had ‘Black Celebration’ on vinyl and it had all the inserts with the lyrics… that’s how you learnt the lyrics because we didn’t have the internet at the time so there’s a place for everything. Collectors prefer the vinyl, but I wouldn’t have anything to play it on these days *laughs*
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
Interview Photos by Keith Trigwell
5th December 2015