Karl is a longtime freelancer who's passionate about music, art, and writing.
ᴘoʟʏɢʟoᴛ is a synthwave/vaporwave producer who is captivated by the Outrun imagery and the sounds and sensations of "looking out onto a cityscape or highway at night coupled with a slightly muffled sound world that comes from a wonky faded VHS tape" along with an interest in vintage synthesizers. In an email, he told me about how he got started making music, his approach to creation and his passion for exploring new and interesting sounds.
KM: When and how was the spark of musical creativity lit for you?
Polyglot: I've been playing music since the age of six and must have crudely bashed around around on the recorder and piano during this time. Neither of my parents are musical but my Dad was an art teacher at a boarding school and I spent the first seven years of my life living on the school grounds where I had access to an upright piano. Before I could even play any instruments my parents were very keen to nurture my interest in listening to a lot of music at the time and I had amassed a small collection of cassettes by the '90s.
A close friend who took teacher training with my Dad at university used to visit us and brought back a number of cheap tapes from his work abroad. One day he decided to give me a copy of Discovery by Electric Light Orchestra. I then went on to collect the rest of ELO's back catalogue. While my Dad was more into folk and classical music, he also had a recording of Emerson Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery on the back of a C120 tape along with many other unrelated things. It was these two bands that must have been an early spark in my interest for electronic music and general experimentation.
In a tangible recorded form, I still have access to the first music I wrote electronically as early as 1995. I had an Amiga 1200 and one of the free magazine cover floppy disks was the tracker software OctaMED 5. I remember trying to recreate Chicane's Offshore which, in the days before any access to the record that we take for granted today, I tried to do by ear and using only the basic instrument samples that I had available to me. This eventually led to creating my own original jungly-style music that other people at the time were writing. I remember listening to a school friend's tape of Prodigy's Music For The Jilted Generation.
Even on a basic tinny portable stereo, the opening song Break and Enter blew my mind how something like that could have been created and that gave me a real interest in wanting to write electronic music. Eventually when I was 12 I had access to my own CD player with headphones and things branched out from there. While I think most people my age were listening to the Spice Girls for the catchiness of their songs, I was more interested in the production and listening closely to what the drums and bass were doing in the back of the mix. All the while, I was classically studying music performance and composition at music school which later led to a degree in music. Over the years I had a thorough grounding in various theory and techniques along the way.
KM: Tell me about the musical elements and ideas that drew you to making synthwave music?
P: I cannot pinpoint any one song that I first heard in the last decade and thought, "I want to listen to more synthwave music." Maybe it was a natural progression from an interest growing up around '80s music. I was lucky enough to be given Les Rythmes Digitales' Darkdanceralbum which can be considered a very early proto-synthwave album of sorts - no one seems to talk about this but it predates the Valerie Collective by about 10 years.
However, my only thought listening to it in the summer of 2000 was that this sounds a bit dated and out of place. The FM synths and old drum machines weren't cool to me compared to the drum loop-driven big beat songs of Fatboy Slim! In recent years my last music interest as a composer was perhaps the polar opposite to electronic music as a solo acoustic guitar player. A lot of my compositions were inspired by calm pastoral scenes and the brightness of day. I guess I got tired of that world around 2014 and wanted a change.
I first rekindled my interest in making electronic music by discovering vaporwave in 2017. It was namely the mobile indie game DATAWING that got me properly into vaporwave and wanting to create it. The soundtrack for the game was a selection of early vaporwave tracks picked out by the developer rather than being written specially for it much like with the soundtrack to the popular indie game Braid. The vaporwave tracks in DATAWING were generally sample-heavy using traditional band instruments and very atypical of game music giving an unusual effect. This piqued my interest to find out more.
Delving into the back catalogues of 18 Carat Affair and Luxury Elite I discovered the sub-genre described on a Bandcamp article as late night lo-fi. The imagery of looking out onto a cityscape or highway at night coupled with a slightly muffled sound world that comes from a wonky faded VHS tape was a sharp enough contrast to inspire something in me. Also spending nearly all of my life in the remote countryside away from any kind of high-rise buildings added to the so-called 'hiraeth' effect of a nostalgia for something foreign that you never experienced. Nostalgia would be the most important element that ties my interest in vaporwave and synthwave together and what the two genres share more than anything. My first two vaporwave albums under the ᴘₒʟʏɢʟᵒᴛ name used very minimal instrumentation around samples - what most of the synthwave community would call lazy writing and production.
When I felt like I had the confidence to introduce more and more VST instrumentation into my sample-based tracks, this naturally lent itself to discovering vintage synthesizers and getting into that world. Eventually my interest in Outrun imagery which you can hear in the Beachside Breeze vaporwave album helped develop into the collaborative split album 'PARTNERS' with Soul▲Craft. This was the album that focused on virtually all original synth-based music.
KM: Who are your creative inspirations?
P: In recent years for vaporwave, the artists who have influenced me the most are Luxury Elite, Nmesh, t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者, haircuts for men and Miraicult. The earliest 2010's synthwave music that I would have listened to was by Com Truise and HOME, synthwave artists whose marketing bled over to the vaporwave world in the early days maybe before the genres were less clearly defined.
Initially when I made my first synthwave music I knew very little about the scene and would take my inspiration from original '80s music itself. I'm glad that when I returned to music production I started with a sample-based approach as this helped broaden my musical knowledge of '80s songs into the lesser well known artists. Sample-hunting for more obscure sources on YouTube led me to discover the instrumental synth-based library music of Trevor and Geoff Bastow for the KPM and Bruton libraries as well as Laszlo Bencker whose early records Robot Couture and Lady Robot have been probably the biggest influence of all for my synthwave music.
In more commercial circles, I admire the late '80s albums by Scritti Politti with the level of intricacy the producers went to and also the US R&B production around this period from LA Reid and Babyface which would later become the new jack swing genre. Now that I am listening to and discovering more synthwave music made today I can say the biggest inspiration comes from FM-84, Duett, Sunglasses Kid, Mitch Murder, Lifelike, OSC and L'Avenue. While I admire the top darksynth producers for their production skills and taking synthwave in a different direction, as an '80s kid I'm more inclined to like the brighter retrowave artists.
KM: Talk to me about how you create new music.
P: For original synthwave, my last four or five tracks have started with me trying new VST presets playing the first thing that comes to mind and thinking that would sound good on this instrument. It's a bit of a costly technique as one day I'm going to run out of presets to try! At the time of this interview, I am working on a project that takes more from the mid '90s style than the '80s and have been especially gravitating towards the distinct rhythmic wave sequence patches on the Korg Wavestation building up the track from those pre-set sounds.
KM: What's the story behind the PARTNERS album? How did you go about creating it?
P: Prior to the album's conception my time as a solo acoustic guitarist was disappointing. I lacked the personality required to promote myself while meanwhile it seemed other guitarists in that scene were all achieving their dreams (according to the rose-tinted boasting on their Facebook pages). I felt I had to try a different approach if the solo route wasn't achieving much and had the mindset to try and collaborate in music more. It was actually Soul▲Craft who approached me and was interested in writing a track together. Our most recent albums at the time were both sample-based vaporwave with strong beach themes and the word 'Beach' in their titles. I could already tell that we both spoke the same language!
With nothing more than a brief of writing original vaporwave with a dark foreboding feel to it, I naturally moved to synthwave. We ended up agreeing to write an entire album in this style and make it a split album on two sides of a cassette after a number of previous vaporwave titles had this format. We technically didn't work first-hand on any tracks together as a traditional collaboration. Rather, we shared our respective tracks during the writing process and commented on each others' work. We agreed on the tracks that would make the album and those that didn't as well as any particular production or mixing ideas that could be implemented, such as the unbroken transition between the first two tracks.
The album hopefully manages to show our different styles while still following the same theme. Being able to feed of each others' creativity I feel the album was stronger for it than if I had tried creating it on my own. We developed an effective formula and in the process he's become one of my closest friends on Twitter. I would definitely like to work with Soul▲Craft again possibly on a follow-up along the same buddy cop theme.
KM: Where do you want to take your music in the future?
P: The next step I'd like to go in would be to include vocals in my instrumental synthwave music. While I've never seen the importance of music having lyrics and have never written a single song to this day, I do enjoy synthpop and producing in that style. The aim would eventually be to find my stylistic place in synthwave. Outside of the genre, I have no intention of moving away from vaporwave.
Some people say synthwave is running out of steam and new ideas in much the same way that people have said vaporwave is dead for the last seven years! (though I think that's more referring to the initial trend of the vaporwave aesthetic as a popular meme than the music itself). The key to the longevity of these closely related genres is the ability to diversify and reinvent itself into more sub-genres and different areas.
Vaporwave continues to develop new ideas particularly now with the success of the 100% ElectroniCON festival which exposed vaporwave artists to a physical live audience. This could inspire a new wave of live vaporwave performances with more emphasis on originality in a similar way to contemporary synth pop. There are many more sub-genres adjacent to vaporwave I'd like to write in including French house and future funk which I admire for its curatorial depth so I think I will be writing more under a general umbrella of scenes and areas rather than any one particular genre.
KM: Tell me your thoughts on the Twitter #synthfam and what it means to you?
P: It's great how the majority of both the vaporwave and synthwave scene has congregated at Twitter. It's not easy to hide behind an alias on Facebook which people for various reasons may want to do. I have found the 'UK Synthwave' Facebook group maintained by synthwave enthusiast Glenn Jones to be a good resource for knowing when the next live synthwave shows will be in this country. However, I have maybe found Facebook artist pages tend to have a top down approach of the one artist posting important announcements to their private followers and maybe less of the trivial topics that can make the fun side of engagement and interaction. On Twitter, there is a greater sense of everyone from the premier artists, the newcomers to the scene and the fans who don't write music all treated equally.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
P: I admire the artists who can write quickly and prolifically. I feel like I'm one of the slowest writers but I'm at the stage where I most certainly value quality over quantity even if it means I have little to show for myself. As well as maybe not as much time as I'd like to write music I can also have periods of reduced creativity.
Listening to other types of music beyond synthwave can help in order to bring in more influences outside of the immediate circle but perhaps the best thing to do is not to get too stressed about having to come up with something in my free time. It's always transpired that in a couple of weeks or more I'm back to my creative self again. Fortunately I haven't had any very long dry periods.