Two years in the making, ‘Odyssey’ is the second album from Michael Oakley.
His first album proper ‘Introspect’ mined the Toronto based Glaswegian’s love of NEW ORDER and PET SHOP BOYS, particularly their Italo disco-inspired classics while he also threw in the DX and Fairlight derived sounds of that danceable pop era in homage to producer Trevor Horn.
All of the songs on ‘Odyssey’ bar the title instrumental have been co-written with Ollie Wride and having worked together on the Englishman’s own debut long player ‘Thanks In Advance’, the fruitful partnership has made a natural progression with artists such as ENIGMA, ACE OF BASE, THE TIME FREQUENCY, THE BELOVED and MOBY being reference points in a move away from the popwave nature of Michael Oakley’s sun-kissed debut release ‘California’.
The opening statement of the ‘Odyssey’ title track presents some ‘Blade Runner’ atmospheres in a sad but triumphant homage to ‘Rachel’s Song’ while meeting PINK FLOYD along the way. The rousing ‘Wake Up’ is a bit Steve Winwood with strummed acoustics used in a textural way for a TEARS FOR FEARS ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ vibe, indicating that classic MTV is still very much in Oakley’s mind. The saying goes that you can take the boy out of Glasgow but you can never take Glasgow out of the boy but more of that later!
THE TIME FREQUENCY inspired energetic pop of ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ is relatable to now but actually harks back to Oakley’s rebellious youth in Glasgow. Our hero gets lost in vices and a rabbit hole of bad behaviour while seeking that inter-personal connection, but it all goes too far! A cry for help to a dance beat and maybe Oakley’s very own ‘True Faith’, Hayley Stewart aka Mecha Maiko gives the song a beautifully eerie ghostly feeling with her backing vocals
‘Babylon’ offers more strums while a sax comes courtesy of Jesse Molloy, best known for his work with THE MIDNIGHT. Like Robert Palmer meeting ENIGMA, it is a joyous shuffling number from Oakley about meeting his wife and alongside all the tropical bird sounds is a fantastic solo which is all synth.
The hopeful ‘Real Life’ also takes the tropical route with exotic percussion acting as the backbone while there is further sax sweetening and a joyous chorus of female voices which sounds as though everyone has had the time of their life 😉
The pint-sized Canadian powerhouse of Dana Jean Phoenix makes her presence felt on ‘Glasgow Song’, a big ballad duet which also has bagpipes and a rhythm sample from TEARS FOR FEARS. Reflecting on Oakley’s love / hate relationship with the city he grew up in, but ultimately concluding that home is always where the heart is, it is loud and proud.
The driving octave pulse of ‘Queen of Hearts’ offers some uptempo punch using that classic Linn Drum sound with Hayley Stewart making a more prominent harmony turn, but is that Ollie Wride who can be heard belting one out there too? Of course it is!!
However, the closer ‘When Stars Collide’ will polarise and reveals Oakley’s love of TAKE THAT. As far as songwriting goes, there is no embarrassment in taking a leaf out of Gary Barlow and Oakley has never been afraid of enthusing over what some might consider “guilty pleasures”.
Perhaps as a reaction to the stagnation and elitism found in some quarters of the synthwave community, Michael Oakley has focused on the songs rather than the any particular style for ‘Odyssey’.
A varied album, it will surprise those who embraced ‘California’ and ‘Introspect’ but the shift will more than likely open his talents as a writer and producer for much wider recognition.
Canadian based Scottish singer / producer Michael Oakley first came to wider prominence with his debut mini-album release ‘California’ in 2017.
Like many of his fellow countrymen, he looked towards America and ‘California’ did as the title suggested, embraced a sun-kissed Trans-Atlantic vibe conjuring images of open-topped sports cars with his melodic synth-flavoured pop.
Embraced by the synthwave community, for his debut album proper ‘Introspect’, he signed to NewRetroWave Records in 2019. Utilising more Yamaha DX and Fairlight derived sounds to capture the spirit of producers such as Trevor Horn and Stephen Hague, one of the ‘Introspect’ highlights was the mighty Italo statement of ‘Left Behind’. The album also saw Oakley work with established artists such as Ollie Wride and Dana Jean Phoenix, with the associations continuing on his new soon-to-be-released album ‘Odyssey’.
Michael Oakley chatted about the making of the ‘Odyssey’ album with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK while playing a round of Vintage Synth Trumps.
And the first card is the Roland Jupiter 8, have you ever played one?
I haven’t played a Jupiter 8 but when I was a kid, there used to be a chain of music shops in the UK called Sound Control.
One day I was in, they happened to have a Jupiter 6 which I always felt was the nicer of the two sound-wise.
I’ve got a few Jupiter 8 plug-ins, I’ve got the Arturia one and the Roland Cloud VST which I’ve used on this album, although I like the sound of the Juno more.
You basically get two type of synthesizer; there’s the Japanese ones like Yamaha, Korg and Roland which have a very coloured, synthetically warm kind of sound and then American ones which I probably prefer because they have more of an idiosyncratic quality like those from Oberheim, Dave Smith, Sequential Circuits. I like the unstable ghostliness of those, they were a favourite of Ulrich Schnauss, that’s how he gets his sound. If I want warm character types of sounds, I would go for the Japanese synthesizers.
With your new album ‘Odyssey’, what would you say was your approach this time round compared with ‘Introspect’?
When I started ‘California’, I just wanted to make the kind of music that I liked, it was a very open modus operandi. Whereas ‘Introspect’, I had this thing about not repeating the same steps that I’d taken, I never like to do that. So I made ‘Introspect’ a tribute to the more synthpop sounding stuff I liked as a kid such as NEW ORDER and PET SHOP BOYS or Italo disco. But also, the synthwave sound was already starting to become very plagiarised with copycat acts and I didn’t want to be part of that. It felt like the right time because I’d just signed a deal with NewRetroWave. So I wanted to do something special as the label was paying for things, there was more hands on the wheel and ultimately more pressure.
So fast forward to ‘Odyssey’, I sat with this for a little while and I decided I wanted to move into more 90s territory. I think there’s three type of people who listen to synthwave, there’s 80s aficionados who might be more middle of the road with it, then there’s metal fans who like the darkwavey guitar-based stuff and then other camp which I come from is the trance fans who like 90s dance music.
Synthwave uses a lot of dance production techniques, that’s what makes it sound modern. I was inspired by GEORGE MICHAEL, ENIGMA, ACE OF BASE, HADDAWAY, THE BELOVED and MOBY’s ‘Play’ album, all that type of stuff! It’s weird, you have these potential things but you end up looking back and think “it’s not really like HADDAWAY is it?”*laughs*
So it’s been written over 2 years, the longest I’ve taken to write an album and I only wanted to do it when I felt like it. So it’s a Tapas menu of different things and they don’t sound like each other.
I hate it when an album has two songs which sound the same, that bores me. I liked to be presented as a listener of an album with different tempos, styles, moods and themes, it feels like you’re on a journey.
You’re co-writing with Ollie Wride?
All of the songs on this album with the exception of the intro track are co-written with Ollie Wride. We started to work with each other on ‘Introspect’ and I was working on his album ‘Thanks in Advance’, we just have a great partnership when we write together.
For me, Ollie is the best songwriter within the scene and if you get the opportunity to work with someone like that, you step back a little bit and take counsel from them in the process, I trust him.
We talk a lot; on ‘Glasgow Song’, I was on a Skype call with him telling him what the song was about, my life in Glasgow while I was growing up and sent him over ideas, a whole monologue, like a letter about it all.
I sent some lyrics that I had and he worked with that to carve it into something really magical. I do write lyrics and I did on ‘California’ but I don’t necessarily feel I enjoy writing lyrics. I had it planted in my head who I wanted to work with on this album, writing with Ollie was my priority. He’s my brother, we’re great friends now as a result of all of this.
When you work with somebody else in that co-writing situation, it stops you from being self-indulgent. It’s easy for me to write about my life but you can end up with a very myopic “ME-ME-ME” view and you write in a way that isn’t open for others to make it their own experience. The songs I don’t really relate to are the ones which have been written in a way that are from a very selfish viewpoint. The songs which are a little bit more ambiguously open-ended, they’re the ones where I see myself in the song.
Oh the next card, and it’s an ARP Odyssey…
I’ve never played an ARP Odyssey but recently, I downloaded Daniel Miller’s sample pack full of drum sounds for Ableton created on his ARP 2600 which was previously owned by Elton John! I’m looking ahead to what I want to do next, and I’m conceiving all of the drums being made on analogue synthesizers so I’m collecting sounds for that.
Vince Clarke also did a sample pack, he is the king for that, especially on the ‘Chorus’ album and the ‘Abba-esque’ EP, those type of drums which don’t sound drum machiney!
What sort of an album would you have made in 1981?
I would probably be somewhere between PINK FLOYD and VISAGE!! I would definitely have done something a bit like Jean-Michael and THE HUMAN LEAGUE with the direction they were going in from ‘Travelogue’ to ‘Dare’.
You make a statement with the ‘Odyssey’ title track that something different is coming with that ‘Rachel’s Song’ homage meeting PINK FLOYD acoustic guitar!
Yeah, you’re probably right… I did a similar vibe on ‘Introspect’ with an intro track as a way of saying “here’s the album… it’s sad but triumphant”. There’s definitely a ‘Blade Runner’ thing going on and later in the track, there’s a Vangelis CS80 brassy thing, I love a lot of his mid-80s stuff like ‘The Mask’ and there’s one that he did called ‘City’ which is all Korg M1, it’s amazing!
‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ is an uptempo dance number but reflected on your youth in Glasgow, like a cry for help?
Absolutely, it’s about the lack of connection and looking for it, the way you get lost in vices in order to look for that connection. For me specifically, that story is in the 90s, I was in my mid-teens and got myself into drug culture, it was a big thing where I came from and with the older boys who I hung about with, you went down that rabbit hole of smoking weed and taking ecstasy, that song is about getting into that. At the end of the song, it’s then a cry for help to get me out of this because I’d taken it too far.
It’s interesting because I had done a version of that track and sent it to a good friend of mine, Jon Campbell from THE TIME FRQUENCY who had a string of Top10 hits. He said “this mix sounds great but it’s too much like me! Gimme a week, I’m gonna do you a mix, I don’t normally do this but I love the song”. So he sent me a mix and it captures a certain magic, so that’s the one I use for album… he quipped “my mix sounds like you!” *laughs*
‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ is very relatable to now…
Yeah, it’s got many layers and relatable to people at home, not being able to socialise or connect, that genuine experience.
Having Hayley Stewart aka Mecha Maiko on backing vocals gives the song an eerie feeling to too?
Yes, I had a call with her and Dana Jean Phoenix to be part of the album as I wanted a very female centric backing harmony sound to it like PET SHOP BOYS have on their early album ‘Please’. I always feel that contrast of a male lead vocal with female backing vocals adds a certain flavour. NEW ORDER did it on ‘World’ as well, it’s more poignant, it makes more of an impact on records, especially with guys like Neil Tennant or Neil Tennant who are not the greatest singers. So Hayley brings that ghostly ethereal sound which is why I used her on ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’.
I didn’t ask Dana to be on that track because she sounds better on stuff like ‘Babylon’ and ‘Glasgow Song’ because she has the more diva soulful voice, in your face whereas Hayley is more textural so she’s more prominent on ‘Queen Of Hearts’. They are both just incredible singers.
The video for ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ has bits that are like ‘Addicted To Love’ for the synthwave generation, is that one girl or twins?
Haha, that’s the magic of television! We filmed that at Neon Demon studios in Toronto, the girl we hired Murphy, and we said to her ‘Addicted To Love’ as a reference and also MGMT ‘Little Dark Age. So we had a split screen with two Murphy’s who were different, one with a keytar and one with a keyboard plus there are some other scenes. She was fantastic, it was filmed over an 8 hour day and she spent most of the time getting done in make-up by Amy Harper, and she was a one-take wonder! Cool, next!
Our next card is a Korg 800DV…
Out of all the Korg synthesizers, the one I liked most was the M1. I know it’s not analogue per-se, but it was a great workstation. They were still selling that synth 10 years on because it was so good, it was the first that was famous for the presets. You had the classic M1 piano that was on all those house records like BLACK BOX ‘Ride On Time’ and “Universe” was the other one, a gorgeous choir patch with fluttery things in the background. I’ve used a lot of M1 sounds on the new album.
I used to own a Wavestation which was really nice too… Korg have done some nice stuff, I see Behringer have released their reimagined version of the PolySix; the PolySix is that classic synthwave based sound you hear on all those records that everyone is chugging out, it’s like “let’s get a TR707 and a PolySix bass and away we go!”*laughs*
There’s ‘Glasgow Song’, a big ballad duet with Dana Jean Phoenix that also has bagpipes and a TEARS FOR FEARS rhythm sample from ‘Shout’?
I definitely took a nod to TEARS FOR FEARS for that 100%, all of those sounds are Fairlight samples… I tracked them down and recreated it. When you listen to ‘Shout’, it’s in B flat but that actual sounds are pitched wrong! I know it works in the track but I pitch-shifted those agogô sounds to B flat and be in tune with the track, it was just an interesting realisation! I went for that same effect, even right down to the panning.
Are the bagpipes real?
Yes, I reached out to a genuine Scottish piper, Lorne MacDougall and told him I didn’t want it too crazy so that it didn’t sound like a tourist walking in Edinburgh! What you hear is what he played, he layered that up with 14 different takes and I mixed it all in to sound like a bagpipe band. I must say, that was the only decision where it could go either way, it was either going work or be really sh*t!
It’s an obnoxious instrument and very on the nose, in your face, loud and proud. Was definitely a hard one to tame. I did have some issues in the production to make it fit in the track, but I managed to find the right balance with military drums and guitar supporting. I’m glad I persevered because it packs an emotional punch which really hits the message about how home is where the heart is, no matter what you think of where you come from. You have a love / hate relationship with the place but home is always where the heart is.
‘Queen of Hearts’ offers some more uptempo fare and uses what sounds like a classic Linn Drum Computer?
Those drum sounds are from a company called F9 Audio, it’s this guy James Wiltshire of FREEMASONS who makes incredible sample packs, it was from one called Grid Trilogy. They worked so well, they have a retro sound but they’re dancey as well. The problem with a lot of retro sounds is they don’t have the low end that you want when you do dance music, the kick doesn’t have the punch which you need in a club. These drums were cutting but had the right low end.
So you were after a meatier version of the Linn sound?
Oh yeah, the pack was done so that the drums could be dropped into Ableton as the hits were done individually and you can see the processing he’s done on it, I didn’t have to do anything to them myself as he had made them sound so good. It was probably the only time when I’ve been using drum samples that I didn’t really need to do anything apart from EQ the group to tame the highs, but they were perfect.
Another card, the Octave Kitten…the same company made the Voyetra which NEW ORDER and EURYTHMICS used…
I like the Voyetra, and I know one of the presets was used on ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, the little “dit-dit, dah-dah, dit-dit” that sounds like a banjo! I have the plug-in version and I only bought it because I know Ulrich Schnauss uses it. I did nearly buy a Behringer Cat, but I bought their Pro-1 which I eventually sold to get a Deep Mind 12.
The Behringer Deep Mind 12 is their version of a Juno 106 but I think it’s better, it sounds like one but offers way more options for the unison mode for one of the oscillators in the effects section, just some of the routing options as well.
It’s been called a “Juno 106 on steroids” and even though I haven’t used it much yet, I’m gonna keep it for my live show and I will find a use for it. I mostly stay in the box when I’m recording, 95% of the time. The only synthesizers that I use for recording are an Ensoniq VFX, a MR rack and a TS10, nothing sounds like the Ensoniq range, they are the most gorgeous sounds, out this world bell tones and really ethereal pads.
‘Wake Up’ is a bit Steve Winwood? Had it been more intention to have more guitar on the album, like strummed acoustics?
I definitely wanted more acoustic guitar and electric but used in a textural way, not in a heavy blazing way. It adds a certain contrast to the synths. There’s a lot of guitar on ‘Wake Up’, that’s John Kunkel, while Derek Elliotson (who I record my vocals with) played acoustic guitar. It gave it more of a TEARS FOR FEARS ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ vibe, I just go with whatever works.
Was it a reaction to what’s going on in synthwave?
I love the synthwave scene, they’re been very amazing to me and adopted me where everywhere else, the door was closed. I’m very grateful for them rolling out the red carpet for me but my criticism of the scene comes from me wanting to protect it. It’s wonderful because of the original songs, that’s the thing and they’re dressed up in retro clothing.
But unfortunately like when a band like OASIS came along, for every OASIS there’s a CAST or a SUPERGRASS,. So for every act like THE MIDNIGHT, there’s a truckload of people who are just copying that sound and it doesn’t add anything new. It frustrating because it’s hurting the scene and the good music in not being listened to in favour of the spam posting of all this other stuff which are literally low-bar entry productions. It’s like when someone listens to TIMECOP1983 or THE MIDNIGHT, and they do the equivalent of drawing a stick man trying to be a Van Gogh, that is just sh*t! *laughs*
I would always encourage musicians to carve their own identity and never follow trends, because if there is a large contingent of people copying other people’s sounds, that in one way is good because you will stand out when you come out with something new.. whether or not that will be appreciated is another completely different matter. I think some of my choices have definitely been reactionary to the scene and I’ve avoided clichés, I never use the same presets twice in my music, I’m very careful about that.
‘Babylon’ features more strums and sax, what’s doing the solo?
The sax is Jesse Molloy who plays on THE MIDNIGHT’s records, but there’s a lot more tropical sounds on ‘Babylon’ like if Robert Palmer did a track with ENIGMA! *laughs*
The solo is all synths, I actually dug into the Roland JV1080 for that, especially the flute and Taj Mahal presets, to picture being in The Hanging Gardens Of Babylon. It’s about meeting my wife, there’s a lot of songs about her on the album. In biblical terms, Babylon was the first civilisation next to heaven, this is the closest to heaven you can get, it feels like Babylon being in this relationship.
The music is very mysterious and even the intro was a nod to the start of FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD ‘Welcome To the Pleasure Dome’, all these bird sounds and being in paradise. *laughs*
The final card and it’s a Prophet 5!
Yes, I would love to own one but for now, I’ll just have to make to with Arturia! There are some Prophet sounds on ‘Babylon’, it has that gorgeous pad sound. It was what I was saying that you can hear the difference between a Prophet 5 pad sound and a Jupiter 8, you hear that creamy, unstable oscillation like ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel ‘Mercy Street’, the records are endless… oh the Prophet is the ultimate pad sound 🙂
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Michael Oakley
Originally released in November 2019, ‘Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years’ collected together exclusive tracks from the world of synthwave and electronic pop.
Curated by Aaron Vehling, founder of Vehlinggo, the 17 tracks presented the musical ethos of the Brooklyn-based website, podcast and multimedia platform. Having been issued digitally, ‘Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years’ is now available on CD with a slight adjustment in running order to reflect Vehling’s vision of an imaginary film soundtrack.
Any good compilation contains promising talents alongside established names and this is certainly the case here.
The reconfigured tracklisting begins in a cool stylish fashion with ANORAAK’s ‘Panarea’, a funky nu-disco instrumental. Retrospective references surface with Canada’s PARALLELS on ‘The Magic Hour’, an exquisite slice of synthesized new wave that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a classic Brat Pack movie.
Remaining in Canada which has become the creative centrepoint for much of the best modern synth music, Ryan Gosling favourites FM ATTACK offer more of their trademark atmospheric electronic disco on ‘Paradise’.
The mood changes though with the appealing girly Italopop of New Yorkers BUNNY X and their ‘Revolving Doors’.
Now THE MIDNIGHT have become possibly the biggest synthwave crossover act with their sax assisted AOR but their appeal still baffles some observers; ‘Sometimes She Smiles’ does not change things and sounds not unlike busker balladeer PASSENGER but constructed using VSTs.
But with the pacey ‘Rage Of Honor’, proceedings are rocked up by LE MATOS although the backbone is still predominantly electronic. With a track entitled ‘Hi-NRG’, BETAMAXX begins proceedings with a cowbell frenzy but the speedy arpeggios soon join in for a Giorgio Moroder homage complete with digital chimes.
The shiny electro continues with the Sweden’s Johan Agebjörn and ‘Have You Ever Been In Love?’; using robotic vocal treatments like FM ATTACK, because this is a dub version of the track, the featured vocal of Tom Hooker, the voice behind many of the hits for famed Italo star Den Harrow, only comes in phrases which proves to be frustrating; the solution is to track down the original mix of the song from the ‘Videoman’ soundtrack.
MAETHELVIN cuts a solid funk groove on ‘Dance Through The Night’ aided by a LinnDrum derived pattern but maintains a chilly air, while from the Italians Do It Better stable, the previously unreleased Johnny Jewel produced ‘Gold’ by IN MIRRORS builds on some staccato tension.
The throbbing ‘Girl On Video’ from FORGOTTEN ILLUSIONS is loaded with hooks and big synthetic drum fills but while it is passable 4/4 synthwave fare, it is overlong and may have benefitted from being constructed around a 6/8 Schaffel to give it more bite.
A self-confessed “21st Century ’80s” artist, DIAMOND FIELD takes the delightful Dana Jean Phoenix into an interesting direction on ‘Freedom Pass’ by producing something that comes over like THE GO-GO’S gone synthpop. It recalls when Jane Wiedlin was working with PET SHOP BOYS producer Stephen Hague after the group first disbanded.
Beginning with some female prose en Français, DEADLY AVENGER‘s ‘Your Phone Is Off The Hook, But You’re Not’ is reminiscent of the quirky French underground from which cult acts such as MATHEMATIQUES MODERNES and RUTH emerged. Meanwhile, the wonderful MECHA MAIKO contributes the arty ‘Selfless’ which stands out with its screechy backdrop before settling into an avant pop concoction that makes hypnotic use of her repeated “It’s alright” phrasing!
‘She Sees A Future’ from Lakeshore Records signing VH x RR perhaps has the most nostalgic references like THE LOVER SPEAKS meeting ANIMOTION, but proceedings are taken down a notch by the filmic vocodered mood piece that is METAVARI’s ‘Be What You See’.
But the best is saved until last with HIGHWAY SUPERSTAR and the gorgeously dreamy ‘Slow Motion’; featuring a fabulous vocal by Zoe Polanski, the end result comes across a bit like ELECTRIC YOUTH.
‘Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years’ does its job well of showcasing new and established international talent from an American perspective.
Coming from variants of electronic music that have been labelled as synthpop, Italo Disco, synthwave, nu-disco and French disco, what actually matters is whether the music is any good.
Considering this compilation contains largely of previously unreleased material with the baggage that can come with that knowledge, the majority of it is excellent. Listeners will of course have their own favourites, but there really is something for everyone who loves electronic pop with quality and substance.
It has been a tough 2020 for everyone, but one of the shining escapist highpoints has been ‘Megawave’, the most recent album from Toronto synthwave siren Dana Jean Phoenix.
Recorded in partnership with Viennese electro-rockers POWERNERD, ‘Megawave’ expands on their previous collaborations over a full-length DJPNRD work, lending a thematic consistency that has perhaps not been captured on her previous releases.
Futuristic, danceable and fun, ‘Megawave’ has been just the intergalactic tonic that this planet has needed. Dana Jean Phoenix kindly took time out to talk about the making of the album and the new ‘Cobra Kai’ inspired promo video for the slinky title song.
How did you first come together with POWERNERD?
Powernerd Paddy initially reached out to me to collaborate on the song ‘Flame’ from POWERNERD’s album ‘Testosterossa’. We played live together in Vienna, and continued collaborating on tracks for my album ‘PixelDust’ and their album ‘Far From Human’. It’s always such a wicked time whenever we collab and play live together.
In terms of creative dynamic and chemistry, what was the process with regards writing and recording?
We initially talked about what vibe we wanted for the album. Paddy would send me tracks and I’d get to work on the vocals. I felt I could lose my inhibitions more at the microphone because Paddy was so game to try anything. Then, we’d touch base about each track to see what tweaks or additions were needed. It was a very fun, exciting, and reciprocal exchange back and forth.
You’ve played live across the world over the past few years, had that been a factor in the eventual sound of the ‘Megawave’ album? It’s a quite joyous record!
Thanks, and absolutely! For me, capturing the energy of live synthwave shows I’ve played was important in creating these songs. I’ve been fortunate enough to tour Europe, Canada, and the US a few times, and it’s afforded me the opportunity to see which songs really resonate with an audience in real time.
It’s also allowed me to discover things about myself as a performer and what kind of music feels most exciting and joyful to play and share with others.
How did it feel to be making a cohesive album artistically as a body of work as it would be fair to say that in the past because you’ve worked with lots of different producers, your previous albums have been more collections of songs?
I really enjoyed this approach. I often like the different moods and perspectives that emerge from working with various producers and their unique styles. With Paddy, he’s quite prolific and versatile and there’s always an edge and playfulness to his ideas. It always felt fresh and it kept me inspired to try new things, all while keeping cohesiveness and a good flow throughout.
Photo by Hayley Stewart
Although you concentrated on lyrics and vocals on this album, you got your keytar out a couple of tracks on the album?
Performing with my keytar, Jareth, is the best. When I play the keytar, it feels like I’m donning a superhero cape – some other side of me emerges, particularly during a solo moment. I’m sure guitar players can relate. So, it was fun to jam on solos for ‘Figure Me Out’ and for ‘Fight These Robots’. Jan-Friedrich Conrad played some absolutely killer key solos on ‘Sunrise Stance’ and ‘Living Rent Free’ and Paddy’s guitar solo on ‘Figure Me Out’ is pure fire.
So what is ‘Figure Me Out’ about, or is the answer in the question? That choosing a different cassette intro is also a nice variation on what has maybe now become an overused idea 😉
I was really into solving Rubik’s cubes at the time, and the song for me is about likening the complexities of a relationship to the world’s most famous 3D puzzle. The process of finding solutions (or learning algorithms) can be extremely frustrating and requires patience, consistency, and understanding. Sometimes it can feel like you’re taking several steps backward in gaining clarity, but perseverance, belief in yourself, and allowing yourself to see from a different perspective can carry you through.
I love the cassette intro – a sort of subtle way to set the listener up for a nice easy-going synthwave album, and then bam, the opening beat of ‘Figure Me Out’ is like a sucker punch. It lets the listener know they’re in for a fun and funky ride.
The ‘Figure Me Out’ lyric video with you doing the Rubicks Cube was such a great concept, a lesson to many as to what can be done with presenting a visual aspect to music, how did you put it together?
The director of the video, PHATT al, suggested I solve a Rubik’s cube as the lyrics of the song floated across the screen. I loved that idea and thought it would be so cool to have Powernerd Paddy and I interact too, (despite me being in Toronto, and him in Vienna). The most fun was sending Paddy a matching cube to make it look like we were sharing the same one 😉 It’s a really well directed video and a fun way to introduce the first single of the album.
What was going through your head when you wrote ‘Fight These Robots’, was this harking back to your childhood and watching ‘Transformers’ cartoons?
To me, ‘Fight These Robots’ is a metaphor for resisting complacency and questioning the status quo. It’s arguing that societal change happens when people join forces and fight for the greater good collectively – a plea for togetherness, not divisiveness.
The ‘Transformers’ cartoons are definitely cool and all – but I gotta say, that ‘Metalhead’ episode of ‘Black Mirror’ definitely shook me. I was envisioning those shoulda-been-cute, but terrifying robot dogs while I was singing “dee da deee da doo dee doo”.
Was ‘Megawave’ both you and POWERNERD channelling some of those classic Jam & Lewis productions?
Personally, Jam & Lewis are always a part of the vibe I’m channelling. My obsession with them started when I saw them in Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ music video and realized they were the producers for so many of her best songs. Then when I discovered THE TIME and realized they were in that band too – it cemented in my mind that they were the coolest dudes ever. Their music always makes me smile, and they have such an unapologetically signature sound.
How did the video concept come together? Are you a fan of ‘The Karate Kid’ and ‘Cobra Kai’?
Filip Vukcevic, the director, approached me with the idea of paying homage to ‘The Karate Kid’ and ‘Cobra Kai’, which was perfect, as I had just finished ‘Cobra Kai’ season 2 and totally loved it. It’s such a funny and well-executed spin-off of the movies. Filip is an amazing director who I also worked with on my ’Only For One Night’ video.
He has a real passion for storytelling, for going all out, and thinking outside the box. We had a great time planning, casting, and shooting.
I’m proud of how our nod to the ‘The Karate Kid’ turned out and it’s always an added bonus when a music video gives a song new context. I feel ‘Megawave’ video captures the young-love message of the song, but also makes it about finding strength in oneself.
‘Living Rent Free’ plays with some soft midnight funk?
If you’re talking sexy funk, then yes, that was mission number one with the album. ‘Living Rent Free’ was the first track Paddy and I created for the album. When he sent the instrumental, I was in the midst of rehearsals for a theatre production. On my lunch break, I remember waiting in line at a local coffee shop and listening to the instrumental for the first time on my headphones. I was very excited and couldn’t help but dance in line, as it was exactly the sound I had in mind for the album. We had talked for a few weeks about the vibe, and direction, and then Paddy delivered 1000% from the first track.
There’s a delicious dancey groove to ‘Sunrise Stance’ and some great synth solos, had it been a conscious decision to keep the ‘Megawave’ album quite lively and uptempo?
Oh yeah. Performing the songs live is always a consideration when creating an album, and it’s so fun to perform lively, up-tempo songs. Jan-Friedrich Conrad’s synth solo added such magic and captured the intensity and playfulness of the lyrics.
Saying that, ‘New Technology’ takes things down a bit and is more soulful, have you any particular influences in this area and what is the song itself about?
I was definitely feeling a Sylvia Striplin ‘You Can’t Turn Me Away’ energy, but in a falling in love with a cyborg kind of way. I was also listening to a ton of Jamiroquai’s album ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ at the time, so that was definitely an influence.
It’s about that buzz and excitement you feel when you interact with someone on a similar frequency, and how technology allows us to connect with people we never had the opportunity to do so with before. The synthwave scene in general is a great example of likeminded people coming together because of technology.
You chose to bolster the album with remixes of ‘Figure Me Out’ and ‘Fight These Robots’? Was there any particular thinking behind this?
It’s always awesome to include more talented friends on the album. STRAPLOCKED and I collab’ed on the songs ‘All Day Heat’ and ‘Iron Fist’ and performed together at NEON Retrofest in Rhode Island. I love NEW ARCADES’ music and it was so great to hang out with them in London when we played an Outland show together in 2018, and again when I played an Outland show in London in 2019. Both artists did amazing remixes.
‘Moves Moves Moves’ is back on the dancefloor and closes ‘Megawave with more electro-funk vibes, how do you look back on the making of this album?
The making of this album occurred during a time of significant personal transition for me. In hindsight, I was on the precipice of having to make some really tough but necessary decisions in my life. Songs that make me want to dance really hit me, as they can offer pure joy and a way to celebrate good times, and also offer catharsis and a way to cope through trying times.
For me, the album is about self-discovery, empowerment, and remembering to spread joy and positivity, even in times of uncertainty. It’s also a love letter to collaboration, nostalgia, and good times.
I wouldn’t be here without the help and guidance of so many key people I’ve worked with, which includes Stu and Brett of Outland Recordings. I’m quite chuffed (see what I did there?) to have the album on their label.
You recently did a song called ‘Freedom Pass’ for the ‘Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years’ compilation with DIAMOND FIELD, is he someone you would like to do more work with?
Of course! Working with DIAMOND FIELD on ‘Freedom Pass’ allowed me to explore a different sound in the retro scene. I really dig the pure beachy / summery feel but with a more pop / rock edge in that song. It was fun to sing about being independent while also embracing my super girly side. DIAMOND FIELD is a really great guy to work with, and so super talented.
Have you been back to the studio yet? Is there anything on the horizon?
There’s been so much to digest and unpack this year – some pretty heavy questions about what the future holds, and how we can best move forward with more kindness, understanding, and more time for reflection. I’ve been writing and journaling quite a lot lately and jamming on some ideas for new material. I’m really excited to hunker down in the New Year to take those ideas off the page – and hopefully, when safe to do, onto the stage.
With everything going on, what are your own hopes and fears for the future?
My hope is that we all get to experience and share music together under one roof again someday soon.
My fear is that it may take a little longer than we initially anticipated. I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of a scene that fans continue to engage and support with so much enthusiasm online.
This past year has shown me that despite difficult times, the human spirit is incredibly resilient. With that knowledge, now more than ever, I feel optimistic about the future and the day we can all come together again.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Dana Jean Phoenix
“It’s such a strange day, in such a lonely way” sang NEW ORDER on ‘Truth’ in 1981.
The coronavirus crisis of 2020 put the entire live music industry into limbo as concerts were postponed and tours rescheduled.
The situation was affecting everyone with several musicians like Bernard Sumner, Andy McCluskey, John Taylor and Sarah Nixey publicly stating that they had contracted the virus. Even when all pupils returned to schools in the Autumn, there was a ban on indoor singing in English classrooms. It was an indication that out of all professional fields, the arts was going suffer the most.
To make up for the absence of live shows, online streamed events become popular. Two of the best live online gigs were by Swedish veterans LUSTANS LAKEJER from the KB in Malmö and Sinomatic techno-rockers STOLEN with Lockdown Live From Chengdu. Not strictly a lockdown show but available for all to view on SVT was a magnificent live presentation of KITE at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm recorded in late 2019 combining synthesizers, orchestra and choir, proving again why Nicklas Stenemo and Christian Berg are the best electronic duo in Europe.
Concluding his ‘Songs: From the Lemon Tree’ series, Bon Harris of NITZER EBB presented a wonderful set of four electonic cover versions including songs made famous by Joan Armatrading, Connie Francis and Diana Ross. Meanwhile among independent musicians, Dubliner CIRCUIT3 led the way with an innovative multi-camera effected approach to his home studio presentation and Karin My performed al fresco in a forest near Gothenburg.
Taking the initiative, ERASURE did a delightful virtual album launch party for their new album ‘The Neon’ on Facebook with Vince Clarke in New York and Andy Bell in London, talking about everything from shopping to classic synthpop tunes.
Other streamed forms of entertainment came via podcasts and among the best was ‘The Album Years’ presented by Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness. Their knowledgeable and forthright views on selected years in music were both informative and amusing. It was interesting to note that at the end of the 1976 episode, the pair nominated ‘Oxygène’ by Jean-Michael Jarre as the most important album of that year while for 1979, it was ‘The Pleasure Principle’ by Gary Numan.
Many artists who had scheduled releases in 2020 went through with them, although in some cases, there were the inevitable delays to physical product. But a few notable acts couldn’t help but abuse the situation, notably a certain combo from Basildon.
There were already “quality control issues” with the lavish ‘MODE’ 18 CD boxed set, but there was uproar even among the most hardcore Devotees with the ‘Spirits In The Forest’ release. The cardboard packaging was reported to be flimsy and prone to dents, while there was continuity errors galore as Dave Gahan rather cluelessly and selfishly wore different coloured outfits over the two nights in Berlin that the live footage was filmed under the direction of Anton Corbijn.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was an Anton Corbijn official illustrated history of DEPECHE MODE entitled ‘DM AC’ in the form of a coffee table photo book published by Taschen which retailed at €750; even though it was signed by Messrs Gahan, Gore and Fletcher, the price tag was a mightily steep. The increasingly ironic words of “The grabbing hands grab all they can…” from ‘Everything Counts’ were not lost on people, who are people, after all!
But Andy Fletcher did provide the most amusing and spot-on quote of the year; during DEPECHE MODE’s acceptance speech into that dinosaur institution The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, when Dave Gahan remarked to his bandmates that “I dunno what the hell I would have been doing if I didn’t find music to be quite honest…”, the banana eating handclapper dryly retorted “YOU’D HAVE BEEN STILL STEALING CARS DAVE!”
There were lots of great albums released in 2020 and Berlin appeared to be at the creative centre of them.
There was ‘LP II’ from LINEA ASPERA who made a welcome return after eight years in hiatus and the playful debut by ULTRAFLEX, a collaborative offering from Berlin-based Nordic artists SPECIAL-K and FARAO which was “an ode to exercise, loaded with sex metaphors badly disguised as sports descriptions” .
The DDR born Jennifer Touch told her story with ‘Behind The Wall’ and resident New Yorker DISCOVERY ZONE was on ‘Remote Control’, while Lithuania’s top pop singer Alanas Chosnau made ‘Children of Nature’, his first album in English with Mark Reeder, who himself has lived in the former walled city since 1978; their collected experiences from both sides of the Iron Curtain made for a great record with the political statement of ‘Heavy Rainfall’ being one of the best songs of 2020.
Synth-builder and artist Finlay Shakespeare presented the superb angst ridden long player ‘Solemnities’ with its opener ‘Occupation’ tackling the social injustice of unemployment. A most frightening future was captured in musical form by New York-resident Zachery Allan Starkey who saw his home become a ‘Fear City’, while WRANGLER got themselves into ‘A Situation’.
SPARKS discussed ‘The Existential Threat’ and ‘One For The Ages’ while pleading ‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’ on their eclectic 25th album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’, just as NIGHT CLUB reflected what many were thinking on ‘Die Die Lullaby’ with ‘Miss Negativity’ looking to ‘Die In The Disco’ while riding the ‘Misery Go Round’.
ASSEMBLAGE 23 chose to ‘Mourn’ with one of its highlights ‘Confession’ illustrating what DEPECHE MODE could still be capable of, if they could still be bothered.
But it was not all doom and gloom musically in 2020. With the title ‘Pop Gossip’, INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP did not need to do much explaining about the ethos of their second album and drum ‘n’ synth girl GEORGIA was happily ‘Seeking Thrills’.
Veterans returned and 34 years after their debut ‘Windows’, WHITE DOOR teamed up with the comparative youngster Johan Baeckström for ‘The Great Awakening’, while CODE made a surprise return with their second album ‘Ghost Ship’ after an absence 25 years.
‘The Secret Lives’ of German duo Zeus B Held and Mani Neumeier illustrated that septuagenarians just want to have fun. Along with Gina Kikoine, Zeus B Held was also awarded with Der Holger Czukay Preis für Popmusik der Stadt Köln in recognition of their pioneering work as GINA X PERFORMANCE whose ‘No GDM’ was a staple at The Blitz Club in Rusty Egan’s DJ sets.
Incidentally, Rusty Egan announced that Zaine Griff would be joining him with Numan cohorts Chris Payne and David Brooks in a live presentation of VISAGE material, although the announced dates were postponed, pending rescheduling for 2021.
Swiss trailblazers YELLO were on ‘Point’ and continuing their occasional creative collaboration with Chinese songstress Fifi Rong, while one time YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA collaborator Hideki Matsutake returned as LOGIC SYSTEM and released a new long player ‘Technasma’, his project’s first for 18 years.
It was four decades since John Foxx’s ‘Metamatic’ and Gary Numan’s ‘Telekon’, with the man born Gary Webb publishing ‘(R)evolution’, a new autobiography to supersede 1997’s ‘Praying To The Aliens’. Meanwhile, the former Dennis Leigh teamed up with former ULTRAVOX guitarist Robin Simon plus his regular Maths collaborators Benge and Hannah Peel for the blistering art rock statement of ‘Howl’ as well as finally issuing his book of short stories ‘The Quiet Man’.
Back in 1980, it was not unusual for bands to release two albums in a calendar year as OMD did with their self-titled debut and ‘Organisation’, or JAPAN did with ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’.
It appeared to be a tradition that BLANCMANGE were adopting as Neil Arthur delivered the acclaimed ‘Mindset’ and an enjoyable outtakes collection ‘Waiting Room (Volume 1)’.
PET SHOP BOYS and CERRONE proved they still liked to dance to disco because they don’t like rock, but the year’s biggest surprise came with THE SMASHING PUMPKINS whose single ‘Cyr’ crossed the templates of classic DEPECHE MODE with DURAN DURAN.
Interestingly, Gary Daly of CHINA CRISIS and Michael Rother of NEU! used sketches recorded many moons ago to inspire their 2020 solo creations, proving that if something is a good idea, it will still make sense years later. Veteran Tonmeister Gareth Jones released his debut solo album ‘ELECTROGENETIC’ having first come to prominence as the studio engineer on ‘Metamatic’ back in 1980, but Jah Wobble was as prolific as ever, issuing his ninth album in four years, as well as a run of download singles over lockdown.
ANI GLASS had her debut long player ‘Mirores’ shortlisted for Welsh Music Prize and OMD remixed her song ‘Ynys Araul’ along the way, while SARAH P. was ‘Plotting Revolutions’. NINA and a returning ANNIE vied to be the Queen Of Synthwave with their respective albums ‘Synthian’ and ‘Dark Hearts’, although Canadian synth songstress DANA JEAN PHOENIX presented her most complete and consistent body of work yet in ‘Megawave’, a joint album with POWERNERD.
RADIO WOLF & PARALLELS contributed to the soundtrack of the film ‘Proximity’ released on Lakeshore Records and from the same label, KID MOXIE made her first contribution to the movie world with the score to ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need To Have A Serious Talk’ that also featured a stark cover of ALPHAVILLE’s ‘Big In Japan’. Meanwhile gothwavers VANDAL MOON made their most electronic album yet in ‘Black Kiss’ and POLYCHROME got in on the kissing act too with their new single ‘Starts With A Kiss’.
It would be fair to say in recent times that the most interesting and best realised electronic pop has come from outside of the UK; the likes of TWICE A MAN and COSAQUITOS EN GLOBO explored the darker side of life, although TRAIN TO SPAIN used the dancefloor as their mode of expression, 808 DOT POP developed on the robopop of parent band METROLAND and ZIMBRU preferred disco art pop.
In Scandinavia, there was the welcome return of UNIFY SEPARATE (formally US) and HILTIPOP aka Magnus Johansson of ALISON who finally released some music in his own right; once he started, he didn’t stop with 9 releases and counting in 2020! APOPTYGMA BERZERK released ‘Nein Danke!’, their self-proclaimed return to “New Wave Synthpop” and out of that set-up sprang the very promising PISTON DAMP.
Within the PAGE camp, Eddie Bengtsson continued his Numan fixation on the ‘Under Mitt Skinn’ EP although his musical partner Marina Schiptjenko teamed up with LUSTANS LAKEJER bassist Julian Brandt to ride the Synth Riviera for a delightful second helping of their electro crooner concept cheekily titled ‘For Beautiful People Only’.
Over in Germany, U96 teamed up Wolfgang Flür while RENARD, the solo vehicle of Markus Reinhardt from WOLFSHEIM teamed with Marian Gold of ALPHAVILLE and Sarah Blackwood of DUBSTAR. DUBSTAR themselves released a striking corona crisis statement entitled ‘Hygiene Strip’ which saw reconfigured duo reunited with producer Stephen Hague. Meanwhile another poignant song on the topic ‘Small World’ came from SNS SENSATION, the new project by Sebastian Muravchik of HEARTBREAK. In lockdown, TINY MAGNETIC PETS recorded an entire album which they called ‘Blue Wave’.
Of course, 2020 was not full of joy, even without the pandemic, as the music world sadly lost Florian Schneider, Gabi Delgado-Lopez, Chris Huggett, Andrew Weatherall, Matthew Seligman, Dave Greenfield, Rupert Hine, Tom Wolgers, Harold Budd and Ennio Morricone.
An introspective tone was reflected the music of female fronted acts such as and ZANIAS, PURITY RING, WE ARE REPLICA, KALEIDA, LASTLINGS, NEW SPELL, WITCH OF THE VALE, REIN, BLACK NAIL CABARET, GLÜME, GEISTE THE FRIXION, FEMMEPOP and SCINTII. However, countering this, the optimism of RIDER, ROXI DRIVE and NEW RO presented a much brighter, hopeful take on life and the future.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK celebrated 10 years as a platform and affirming the site’s intuition about synth talent in anticipation of them achieving greater things, SOFTWAVE opened for OMD on the Scandinavia leg of their ‘Souvenir’ tour. The Danish duo became the sixth act which the site had written about to have become part of a tradition that has included VILLA NAH, MIRRORS, VILE ELECTRODES, METROLAND and TINY MAGNETIC PETS.
On a more cheerful note, S.P.O.C.K beamed down to Slimelight in London before lockdown for their first British live performance in 17 years. Meanwhile on the same night, LAU NAU and VILE ELECTRODES did modular sets at Cecil Sharp House, the spiritual home of English traditional music.
At that event, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK took delight in curating a DJ set comprising of John Cage’s 4’33” in variations by DEPECHE MODE, GOLDFRAPP, ERASURE, NEW ORDER and THE NORMAL from Mute’s Stumm433 boxed set. This defiant act of silence even caused a curious Jonathan Barnbrook to raise an eyebrow, this from the man who designed the artwork with the white square on David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ 😉
The final live event that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK attended before the March lockdown was an informative lecture at Queen Mary University in London presented by noted cultural scholar Dr Uwe Schütte, in support of his book ‘KRAFTWERK Future Music From Germany’.
Also attending was Rusty Egan who held court at the reception afterwards by having a debate with another musician about the state of UK synth music. He then loudly beckoned ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK over and mentioned how the site was only interested acts that scored “9 out of 10” before admitting that a number of acts he supported only scored “6 out of 10”, with his reasoning being that if acts aren’t supported, then there will be no synth acts existing at all. After a decade in existence, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK remains proud that it is still extremely selective.
In 2020, the notion of reviews being needed to achieve a promotional profile underwent an existential crisis among media platforms. With streaming now being the main method of music consumption, why would anyone want to read a blog for an opinion about an album when they can just hit ‘play’ and hear the thing for themselves on Spotify, Amazon, Tidal or Bandcamp?
The sound of classic synthpop does live on happily in today’s mainstream via singles by THE WEEKND, DUA LIPA and even STEPS! In that respect, the trailblazing kings and queens of Synth Britannia from four decades ago did their job rather well.
From SUGABABES mashing-up ‘Are Friends Electric?’ for ‘Freak Like Me’ in 2002 to ‘Blinding Lights’ borrowing a bit of A-HA in 2020, the sound of synth is still strong.
It is up to any potential successors to live up to that high standard of Synth Britannia, which was as much down to the quality of the songwriting, as much as it was to do with the sound of the synthesizer. It is a fact that many overlook and if aspiring musicians could pay more attention to the song, instead of making the synthesizer the excuse for the song, then classic electronic pop music may still be around for a little longer and continue to evolve.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK Contributor Listings of 2020