Retrowave and synthwave are still rather under-the-radar sub-genres of electronica. They often involve a strong link to pop culture and 80’s-inspired musical themes. Last week, I got the chance to speak with ALEX, a U.K based producer and thought leader in the retrowave and synthwave genres.
ALEX’s most recent album, Simulations, is a 10-track stream-of-consciousness thesis on futurism and cyberpunk themes, blending retrowave aesthetics and hard chiptune fizz. It’s an album about living in a simulation. We spoke via email about the genre, its emergence and its numerous adherents.
With the retrowave genre, what’s the appeal to you? What attracted you to make music like Simulations and your releases before?
I was a producer of house before that – it was a scene that is still very niche right now, but it’s getting more popular. I sort of just jumped on the bandwagon, I guess, kind of late though. There weren’t much avenues to get into a lot of labels when I was just starting out because a lot of my stuff wasn’t great. So I started producing – I think the first track I did was Mainframe, which was what got me into Newretrowave, after like a year of Powerglove, a year in Australia actually, on my next project. What kind of lures me in is the whole simplicity of it, and it can be quite easy to make that sort of sound if you can get a routine right – you get a formula. It’s really all about finding the right sound. I never really went to music school or college… … they weren’t really satisfied with my portfolio, so I never really got in, I think that was the last straw was mainframe… (Newretrowave) quite liked it. Daft punk, and justice, and Power glove was a major inspiration, I kind of, once I knew that kind of stuff was profitable, I was interested in it, a collective, and I thought that I could take some of that kick.
It seems to me like your new release has its own distinct theme, as do the rest of your collections. What were the inspirations and the though processes that went into Simulations?
I did a lot of de-gen before that, I kind of stopped to focus on my music production a lot more so I kind of decided to put another album after Hero, which is kind of a “Fantasy sort of pop” kind of thing, and I thought “Well okay, let’s try another synth-pop album”, with more of a collective of vocalists and a cyberpunk theme, cause I’ve always wanted to do something kind of like, wacky, like that… … Each track would be kind of different, each track would be like a simulation in itself, so that’s kind of where the name came from, cause each song is like a program you bring up, like that’s kind of the idea, cause its kind of like a compilation album of different styles – there are similar styles on a few tracks but that was kind of the whole inspiration for it. I wanted to use new singers, so I used that as an opportunity.
Visually, we sort of went for the whole “Ghost in the shell” kind of vibe, and the kind of “Life of Pablo” sort of cover like Kanye West – a hybrid, so, I used the same designer as well which was really good.
You were talking a bit about the artists you’ve collaborated with for simulations, not a lot of retro-wave artists go and feature vocalists – do you think this is an important element to make the music in your own way?
It gives more of an edge of individuality to the sound and it’s just really a lot of practice, it’s like a challenge I guess… … I feel it sort of enhances a lot of the tracks just cause I write specifically for vocals in mind. There are some that are best just left as instrumentals. I think for me, I always like to have vocals on an album – even just for one track. I think I’ll probably go back to having more instrumentals in the future because I want to try a couple of different genres, a couple of different sounds, experiment with more sound design. Vocals, for me, lighten up certain tracks.
About artists within the scene, and artists outside of the scene, who do you take inspiration from?
Mainly, I think the reason I started making it was due to Daft Punk, which was like… … nothing really caught my eye, or my ear, as much as they did because it was just something that was just really odd, cause.. … it was really jaded… … you had these two guys appear with Robot suits and unique sounds…
It kind of stemmed from there. I used to binge on YouTube through all these certain artists, like Danger… I guess deadmau5 was another big one. Skrillex too, I guess, his early stuff, Aphex Twin was another one as well, but even before that it was like I used to listen to a lot of Drum and Bass and Techno and stuff like that, hard-style… … I kind of, I guess, stemmed from there I guess. I guess my biggest influenced would be Daft Punk and Justice. Danger as well. There’s so many.
We’re seeing retro-wave themes represented on a world scale with big, pop-culture releases. What do you think of the scene getting more public traction, like Cyberpunk 2077, Blade Runner 2049, Ghost in the Shell, Ready Player One – as a musician in the scene, what do you think of the recent spike in popularity of these themes?
It’s kind of, in general, the culture right now, it’s sort of edging towards that aesthetic style – yeah I think it’s pretty cool, I think it’s pretty fresh too cause I prefer the – It’s not really about nostalgia, more doing something new with it. Cause I’m not really from the 80’s, I’m 22, so I don’t know what it was like to sort of be in that sort of era. I like the idea of sort of the more fringe aspects of VR coming back in a much more innovative kind of way, and then you’ve got the whole thing about Cyberpunk which is kind of a more 90’s thing I guess.
But at the same time, it’s sort of a revamp. I think it’s something we totally needed as well cause I think there’s a lot of reboots right now as well… … that may be best left alone… … I do like the whole sort of “Retro” thing coming back.
There’s some parallels between a lot of things in the gaming scene, and the sounds of retro-wave and synth-wave and outrun. Do you think gaming and retro-wave run hand in hand?
Definitely, Definitely – there’s like a story producing in that dark-synth sound. One of the games I played was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, that had a very sort-of Terminator-esque crazy sort-of sinister sort of synth kind of vibe. So definitely, yeah.
I think a lot of games kind of utilise a sort-of synth soundtrack – even not retro-synth or outrun, especially with Indie games, they’re going in a much more retro-synth direction… … You get a lot of titles that a more orchestral oriented, but I guess… … games like Cyberpunk, and games like GTA, which use like contemporary-like callbacks like Heists, and movies, things like that. Jazzy-sort of synthy score. I don’t know, it’s like a melting pot now.
There’s room for much more. Video Games are just a massive industry now – I actually just got contacted by Ubisoft for the use of one of my tracks. They actually contacted New Retro Wave cause they thought the track was signed to them but it wasn’t, it was actually the track that got me in in the first place, that was mainframe. I don’t know what that could be for, maybe for another Watch_Dogs game or something, I don’t know, they didn’t really say anything else. They kind of went off the mainframe for a bit.
I contacted Powerglove as well… … they’ve sort of had similar situations where game companies just haven’t gotten back to them for right or reason so, it could happen to anyone I guess.
Big thanks to ALEX for the interview.
SIMULATIONS is available to stream on Apple Music and Spotify, and is available for purchase via the artist’s Bandcamp page.