Karl is a longtime freelancer who's passionate about music, art, and writing.
Cat Temper (Mike Langlie) is a Boston-area producer of wild and wacky synth-based music. He combines a love for surprising musical contrasts with eclectic styles of electronic music. In an email, he told me about how he got started in music, how he approaches its creation and his views on the Twitter #synthfam.
Karl Magi: What first lit that fire for music creation under you?
Mike Langlie: I grew up in a town with a great free-form university radio station. It exposed me to lots of eclectic music at an early age. I loved hearing new genres and sounds and naturally wanted to create my own music with what I could scrape together. Cheap Casio keyboards, borrowed guitar pedals and tape-to-tape sampling experiments helped me learn and appreciate how sounds could be assembled into music. I eventually became a DJ there and spent countless hours digging through weird and wonderful records.
KM: Talk to me about what draws you to creating synth-y music.
ML: I'm a designer by trade and obsessed with creating beautiful things. As much as I want control over that process I also enjoy the unplanned effects when something goes askew. When it comes to songwriting I consider myself more a designer than musician, piecing the artificial noises I like to hear into structures, seeing what works together and what unintended surprises result.
I also love "manufactured" noises like the beeps of cars and appliances, 8-bit video games trying to simulate natural sounds, out of tune musical birthday cards, etc. Those quirky things inform my own sound design as much as synth masters like Vince Clarke and Giorgio Moroder.
KM: Who are the artists, be they musicians, authors, filmmakers or visual artists, who have inspired and influenced you?
ML: Prince, DEVO, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Skinny Puppy, Trevor Horn and Trent Reznor to name a few. Artists who took ingredients available to everyone else and carved out unique signature sounds and methods of working. They changed the way people think about using electronic instruments and inspire me to look beyond the manuals of my own tools.
The punk scene was big where I grew up and contributed to my outlook and approach to art. I find a lot of crossover between punk's DIY, in-your-face attitude and the aesthetics of coldwave and minimal synth artists. It taught me to find the humanity and humor in sounds that seem aggressive and off-putting on the surface.
Another thing I enjoy in art and music is the aspect of world-building. Filmmaker David Lynch and comic artist Möebius made a huge impression on me with their surreal and dreamlike invented universes.
KM: Tell me more about how you create new music.
ML: I never had much money to spend on gear and made the most of limited resources. My previous project experimented with mostly toy instruments. I've got a pretty basic setup, just a laptop running Reason and a few cheap synths including my first Casio CZ-101. I gravitate towards the simpler tools in Reason, tweaking those to get interesting sounds rather than going after the latest cool thing.
Most song ideas grow out of patch tweaking. One or two synth sounds end up informing the direction, rhythm and character of a piece. I rarely have something in mind beforehand and just see where noodling with a patch takes me. Sometimes it leads to a complete composition but more often I end up with tons of short loops that I come back to later. It's a fun challenge to work 2 or 3 of those ideas into a sensible song.
KM: What are the ideas behind Something Whiskered This Way Comes and how did you go about producing it?
ML: I like art and music that emphasizes surprising contrasts and wanted to explore that a bit more with this album. I grew up loving heavy metal and synthpop and borrowed things from both aesthetics. I also had fun mixing different styles of electronic music, sometimes 3, 4 or 5 within the same song. In words that probably sounds like a mess but I tried to keep it coherent through a somewhat consistent sound palette and tone.
I used to do overblown productions with dozens of layers and complex, schizophrenic beats. My stuff for Cat Temper is still a bit dense but comparatively stripped back to the central ideas. Especially the drums which can be as simple as a kick and snare. If I'm feeling indulgent maybe I'll throw in a hi-hat or occasional tom fill.
KM: Where do you want to take your music going forward?
ML: This project is relatively new and I'm still feeling out its personality. So far I've explored aspects of synthwave and darksynth, I did an album inspired by early 1980s sci-fi scores, and recorded my own alternate soundtrack to David Lynch's cult film Eraserhead. Musicians like Alpha Chrome Yayo, Burial Grid, C-GAK and Debby Friday push their own work in surprising boundless directions which encourages me to be open to evolution.
People keep saying they'd like to hear Cat Temper songs with vocals. That's unexplored territory for me but I'm finally making an album with interesting guest singers doing cool things with the tracks. It will be an eclectic mix of voices and sounds but it's coming together even better than expected. That and another instrumental album should be out in 2020.
KM: Give me your thoughts on the Twitter #synthfam and what it means to you.
ML: I've been involved in scenes like punk, goth, headbangers and industrial. As supportive as they were there's always been some degree of drama and self-policing of ethos and style. I'm continually surprised and grateful to the #synthfam community for how positive and accepting it is to all kinds of people and ideas, especially newcomers to the music or taking first steps in making their own. I see debates here and there over the true sound of synthwave and complaints about it splintering but I personally enjoy that the community embraces a wide spectrum of expression.
KM: How do you rekindle those creative fires when they dim?
ML: I like many genres and finding new interesting artists. Sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud provide endless rabbit holes for discovering exciting music I couldn't have imagined. I'd say it's more an issue of finding time to absorb and appreciate this constant source of inspiration and channeling that into my own work more than a lack of ideas.