donderdag 14 januari 2021

Interview met The Neon Syndicate

Voor de Italiaanse producer The Neon Syndicate staat 2021 volledig in het jaar van muziek. Met meerdere singles die we dit jaar kunnen verwachten legt The Neon Syndicate de creatieve lat steeds hoger voor hem zelf. Hopelijk kan hij ook dit jaar weer live optredens geven, maar voor nu is het vanuit huis online de wereld verblijden met zijn muziek. Tijd voor een interview!

For Italian producer The Neon Syndicate, 2021 is completely the year of making music. With several singles that we can expect this year, The Neon Syndicate continues to raise the creative bar for itself. Hopefully he will be able to give live performances again this year, but for now it is making the world happy with his music from home online. Time for an interview!

The Neon Syndicate

Gabriele, can you please introduce yourself?
Sure thing! I’m a 30 year old synth nerd from Udine, in the extreme north-east of Italy. The music bug bit me when I was 7, that’s when I started taking piano lessons. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely thankful for those as they helped me a lot both in terms of understanding a bit about music theory and in reaching a somewhat decent level of technical skill, but classical music wasn’t my favorite genre necessarily, so in my early 20s I stopped and focused on synths and computer music production. Now that’s when the real fun started!

I discovered synthwave at the beginning of 2018 and it was love at first sight. That’s when the idea for The Neon Syndicate came about and I started working on my own tracks in my free time. Which wasn’t much, though, so I downgraded my day job to a part-time one, and after about one and a half years of that, I felt crazy enough to give that one up as well and fully embark on this music thing.

How do you look back at 2020?
Well, gonna be frank here, I deem myself very lucky. When I quit my part-time job towards the end of 2019 to fully focus on music, I had to make sure I had enough savings to live off of until I’d (hopefully) get to the point of being able to put food on the table and pay my bills with this music thing alone, so in hindsight I was lucky enough to be able to plan ahead and factor in that I wouldn’t probably have (almost) any income in 2020, a privilege most people didn’t have when the pandemic hit and they suddenly lost their job or had to close their business.

That being said, this was my first year as a full time producer, and I’m enjoying it from the depth of my heart! Putting my music out there, having people listen to it and getting some positive feedback is the best of feelings. Sure, my audience is pretty damn small so far, no point denying that, but hey, it’s a start and something to build upon this year!

In 2020 you released your single ¨Horizon¨. It´s a very lovely chill synthwave track. Where did you get the idea for this track?
A very basic demo of that track had been sitting on my hard drive for about 5 years, way before I even knew synthwave existed, let alone chillwave! Guess that’s precisely why I had originally lost interest in it: there was just no way of making it sound like the kind of music I thought I wanted to be making at the time (btw, to this day I still don’t know what kind of music that would be lol but who cares).

Fast forward 5 years, I’ve come across acts like Tonebox and Fractal man and I absolutely love what I’m hearing, so I wanna make something with a bit of that kind of vibe, too - time to start working on that track again! Of course, I didn’t keep anything of that original demo, everything was re-recorded, several new parts were added and almost all of the old ones I did change quite a bit.

There were 2 main things I had in mind. Number one, I wanted to break free from the more standard chord forms and progressions I had been using up until that moment, so you’ll hear quite a bit of weird notes added on top of or in place of those (though I couldn’t tell you exactly what’s happening there, I’m not a jazzist or anything!). Wanted to spice things up and explore new sonic territory, it’s out of my comfort zone for sure and it’s something I’m just learning by doing, so it sometimes takes a lot before I get something that’s weird enough to be interesting but still sounds good, you know, but hey, the more you work on it, the better and faster you get, right?

The second thing is, I didn’t want for this track to check all the boxes of your typical chillwave track, in particular I felt that instead of the more orthodox muffled, warm sounding drums, this one would benefit greatly from a very fresh and crisp sounding kit. Another thing that maybe sets it apart a bit is that I’ve used a couple “real” instruments (well… samples) alongside my synths, in particular an electric bass, an e-piano and even a clavi! Just a small part though.

Can you share some of your plans for this year with us?
The main thing is gonna be working on new music constantly. Instead of thinking just in terms of albums, I wanna put out singles, maybe once every 2-3 months or so. That’s a big change for me, as I used to think of an album like a book, the songs being the chapters, so you can imagine singles didn’t make much sense to me at all. But with that kind of mindset I’ve only been able to release one album so far, and if it weren’t for “Horizon”, I wouldn’t have released anything in 2020! Which is not good. Need to be working on new music constantly, and the “single” format helps with that. So once I’ve released another 2 or 3 of them, which should be by the spring/summer, I wanna include them in an EP, which means getting another additional 2-3 songs ready, so that it can all be released by the end of the year.

Another thing I would love to do is live shows, as soon as and if it becomes possible again this year. I had just started with those when this pandemic broke out, so I feel like a kid who just had a taste of ice cream before spilling it! In the meantime though I’m publishing videos of me playing live (at home) on YouTube, not exactly the same thing, I know, but that’s a lot of fun, too, honestly, plus it helps keep me focused and ready for the real deal, so I wanna keep that up this year as well for sure!

What do you think about the current state of synthwave and where do you think it will be going?
There’s a lot of talk about synthwave having changed quite a bit as a genre over these last few years, and some within the community don’t seem to like it. Me personally, I only discovered the genre about 3 years ago, and I must say I much prefer today’s releases to the older ones! Incorporating elements from different genres, experimenting with new sounds and mixing them together with the ones we’re more used to I think is a great approach. I mean, so long as there’s at least a bit of that overall ´80s nostalgic vibe, whatever is fine with me, really!

That doesn’t mean of course that “new” automatically means “good”. I still have mixed feelings about the new The Midnight album for instance. But that being said, I think in this new kind of approach lies the future prosperity of the genre as a whole: the moment we stop innovating and start just repeating the same old patterns and sounds over and over again, that’s the moment the curtain starts going down on synthwave. So long as we push things forward and find new and original ways of blending together the old and the new, the future looks bright!

If you can name one record you can always listen to, what will it be?
I listen to new music all the time, and the more new artists and subgenres you discover, the more your own taste shifts, too. One may start with some space wave à la Dynatron, for instance, then discover Carpenter Brut and all of the sudden Propulsion Overdrive just doesn’t sound as powerful and energy-packed as it used to... Or, on the contrary, one may get hypnotized by Emil Rottmeyer and dig deeper into chillwave, to the point that Endless Summer by The Midnight suddenly sounds too aggressive and bright! Since I fell into the synthwave rabbit hole about 3 years ago, my “favorite band” has changed quite a bit of times.

That being said, if there was one album that, no matter which phase I was going through, I’d still enjoy listening to all the same, that would have to be Lazerhawk’s Dreamrider. Interestingly enough, another one of those records the “purist” will complain about, saying it’s too far a stretch from Lazerhawk’s earlier work, but you know what? Just put on “Somnus” any time and you’ll see tears running down my face. So it sounds different from Redline, so what? It’s synthwave, it moves me, and that’s all I care about at the end of the day!

What equipment are you using in your studio?
I’m a firm believer in limiting your options quite severely, and only giving in to the temptation of new gear as you hone your craft to the point of outgrowing your current setup. So all I have right now is the bare essentials: a pc, a midi controller, and an old, cheap consumer-grade hi-fi I found at my parent’s which I’m using as reference monitors. And that’s already an upgrade: my first album was mixed on just a pair of cheap headphones (which I wouldn’t recommend, by the way: even just a cheap set of monitors will help making much better mix decisions!).

In terms of software, I rely on what shipped with the controller, so we’re talking lite versions here. Not very sexy, I know, but here’s the thing: limitations spark creativity, unlimited choices kill it. At least, that’s how I roll!

Once I’ve squeezed all the juice out of this setup, once I’ve reached the point where I can honestly and objectively say “look, there’s some special techniques I’ve learnt I want to apply here because I know they will improve my mix, but I can’t do that with the gear I have now (be it hardware and software)”, I’ll be happy to dig into my pocket and get what I need to get the sound I’m after.

Which cartoons, movies and games from the ´80s are an inspiration to you?
Big Japan enthusiast here, and anime binge-watcher, too - give me any good old City Hunter, Urusei Yatsura or Ghibli movie and I’m a happy camper! There’s something about those old anime, idk, they really seem to capture the spirit of those years well: music, fashion, all those things that are no longer part of our daily lives (walkmen, telephone boots, vhs recorders)... It all just adds an extra layer of enjoyment for me besides the story, I love it! And I’m not the only one apparently, judging by the sheer amount of fan made videos you find on YouTube mixing synthwave music with old anime clips. A perfect match!

And finally, any last words to the synthwave community?
I’m just a small producer, lightyears away from being able to put food on the table and pay my bills with this, so take my advice for what it’s worth, but here’s my 2 cents. Number one, try to be unique. Number two, don’t try to be unique! Here’s what I mean. With all the tools available to producers nowadays, it’s all too easy to just get some premade loops, midi-sequences, presets etc., to that point that basically all you’re doing is just rearranging someone else’s work, which can lead to all new releases sounding the same, more or less. So in this regard, I say: try and add something new and possibly unique to set your material apart (and also save the genre as a whole in the long run - see question 5!).

At the same time, learn from those who are better than you, and be inspired by them. Listen to their tracks, zoom in to the details that make them special, try and reproduce their overall frequency balance and dynamics, in one word: learn from the pros! Don’t be one of those self-concerned narcissists who think they’re so unique and their tracks so special, they don’t need to bother studying someone else’s work. Those people usually have poorly arranged, amateur sounding tracks with no sense of flow whatsoever, and what’s even worse, they won’t ever go past that level. If I listen to the original demo for “Horizon” now, it’s embarrassing how bad it sounds tbh: muddy overall, yet with some very harsh sounds here and there as well, and in general very quiet in spite of heavy limiting, which also caused some disturbing pumping as an unwanted side effect! But the new single I released, I’m quite proud of frankly. Maybe if I listen back to it 5 years from now I’ll find all sorts of problems with it lol, but the important thing is I’m moving forward because I’m constantly referencing the works of those who are better at this than me, trying to get my material up there on that same level.

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