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SYNTHWAVE! - Article in today's Wall Street Journal

New Wave/Punk music, culture, genres, memories. '80s revivalism and other relevant topics.

SYNTHWAVE! - Article in today's Wall Street Journal

Postby wasproxy » Mon Jan 28, 2019 6:25 pm

Synthwave, the Sound of an ’80s Childhood, Goes
The ‘uncynical’ genre’s rise comes amid a flourishing of new entertainment inspired by the age of Madonna and ‘The Goonies’
If you grew up with “The Goonies,” “Super Mario Bros.” or Cyndi Lauper, you may hear
something familiar in synthwave.
This niche electronic-music genre, inspired by the sounds of 1980s pop, movies and
videogames, is having a moment, with some of its biggest names moving toward the pop-music
“It’s like the ‘Stranger Things’ of
music,” says Ben Umanov, music
critic and co-founder of the
website MetalSucks, who writes
a column, “Synthwave Sunday”
under the pseudonym Vince
Synthwave’s rise comes amid a
recent flourishing of popular
entertainment inspired by the
age of Madonna and MTV.
In television, “Stranger Things”
has been an unexpected success.
Its original soundtrack was
composed by members of
Survive, a synthwave group. In
gaming, story-driven adventures
reminiscent of classics like
LucasArts’s “Monkey Island”
series have returned. Pop stars
Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen and
Kim Petras use ’80s-style synths,
and synth-pop acts are a musicfestival
staple. There’s even
renewed interest in cassette
Gunship, a trio of 30-somethings from middle England, is one of the acts taking synthwave to
the next level.
The group’s latest album, “Dark All Day,” released independently in October, topped iTunes’s
Electronic charts in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. In the U.S., it hit No. 1 on Billboard’s “Heatseekers
Albums” chart, which tracks sales of developing artists.
For children of the ’80s, the decade retains a mysterious charm, says Dan Haigh, 38 years old,
who writes much of Gunship’s music. “It was an uncynical time, when most forms of [culture]
wore their heart on their sleeves.”
The ’80s were special. New technologies let filmmakers tell futuristic stories with
unprecedented verisimilitude, says Gunship’s drummer, Alex Gingell, 37. Synthesizers
opened new possibilities for pop music, and a strengthening record industry, turbocharged
by music videos, helped turn stars like Michael Jackson into icons.
There’s another reason why ’80s-flavored entertainment is appealing: It is a refuge from
today’s always-on smartphone culture, the psychological effects of social media and the
disposable nature of digital music, according to Mr. Haigh.
Synthwave gained momentum in the early 2010s, but only in recent years have its acts
reached bigger audiences.
Carpenter Brut, 41, a French sound engineer who performs under that stage name—he
prefers to stay anonymous—started making synthwave in 2011 and performing in 2015. He
has gone from playing the Brooklyn nightclub Schimanski in early 2017 to opening for the
industrial act Ministry and appearing at the Coachella music festival. Four years ago,
concert bookers didn’t know what synthwave was. “It’s easier now,” he says.
Some acts like Perturbator favor a heavy, aggressive sound and gothic visuals influenced by
metal and industrial music. Others, like Miami Nights 1984, are lighter and more easygoing
—more “Miami Vice” than “Blade Runner.”
Many synthwave musicians are former or current metal musicians, for whom the genre is
an outlet—even a kind of rebellion. GosT, a 38-year-old artist who once played in metal
bands, says synthwave was a way to write and record music alone.
Unlike many synthwave acts, which are largely instrumental, Gunship, whose name refers
to a 1986 flight-simulator
videogame, has a singer
and uses traditional song
At Mr. Haigh’s home in
Lincolnshire, U.K.,
Gunship combines analog
synthesizers and vocals
through modern studio
equipment to give its
sound—chugging Nine
Inch Nails-like rhythms,
sugary synth lines, chirpy
bloops and bleeps—a
contemporary attack.
One reason their projects
uncannily evoke the ’80s is the
involvement of vintage sources.
For “Dark All Day,” the title track
of their latest album, they
tapped Tim Cappello, a
saxophone player for Tina
Turner who appeared in the 1987
horror film, “The Lost Boys.”
For “Revel in Your Time,” an
earlier track, they released a
pixel-art video reminiscent of
old point-and-click computer
games, even recreating the
player interface of the 1990
classic game, “The Secret of
Monkey Island.”
Mr. Haigh and Gunship singer Alex Westaway first played together in the rock band
Fightstar. When they started exploring synthwave around 2013, they figured they could work
independently in their homes. “We were able to make music straight-away, without anyone
involved,” says Mr. Westaway, 35.
Gunship’s self-titled debut, released in 2015, was popular among synthwave fans. “Tech Noir,” a
single, has roughly 7 million streams on Spotify.
Today, Gunship handles its own marketing, seeks copyright permissions and churns out
music videos, using skills honed outside the music industry. Messrs. Haigh and Gingell, for
example, worked at videogame maker Electronic Arts . They own their recordings and are
considering releasing music by other artists.
Some music fans may dismiss an act so clearly tied to the ’80s, but Gunship isn’t a retro or cover
band, Mr. Haigh says. They aren’t imitating a sound, but trying to conjure a nostalgic sensation.
“You’re trying to create music that makes you feel like something in the 1980s did,” he says.
When Gunship started working on the music video for their recent single, “When You Grow Up,
Your Heart Dies”—whose refrain comes from “The Breakfast Club”—they were on a tight
The band had already asked fans to submit audio clips of themselves reciting inspirational lines
for inclusion in the song. It was a natural extension to make a second request, this time for
video re-enactments of favorite ’80s scenes—like Indiana Jones replacing a prized artifact with
a bag of sand in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—which they would make into a video.
Thousands of audio and video submissions poured in. Some were uplifting, others
downtrodden. “We took the time to listen to every single one, which was a really emotional and
weird experience,” Mr. Haigh says.
Among the contributors was actor Wil Wheaton, who starred in the 1986 coming-of-age movie
“Stand By Me” and television show “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“He went out of his way,” says Mr. Haigh. “‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Toy Soldiers’—both of those films
resonated intensely with us.”
In the song and video, you can hear Mr. Wheaton, now 46, say: “Don’t ever give up. Everything
worth doing is hard.”
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