An Interview With Synthwave Artist Occams Laser
Occams Laser (Tom Stuart) is an synthwave/darksynth artist based in the U.K. He's especially interested in exploring the darker side of retro-synth music. In an emailed interview, he told me about how he was first drawn to synthwave, his creative process and where he sees the synthwave scene going in the future.
Karl Magi: What first sparked your passion for making music?
Tom Stuart: I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t important in my life. From how I used to head bang to Nirvana when I was two years old (according to my mum), to jamming with my cousins as a teenager in their garage to whatever indie rock songs we could figure out on the guitar and probably annoying the neighbours in the process.
One defining moment that changed everything and turned me from being a music consumer into a music maker was when I first discovered music writing software in the form of FL Studio. I was introduced to FL Studio by a flatmate in my first year of university back in 2007 and I was amazed by how many things you could do without the need of a real band or even real instruments. From that point onwards all music felt and sounded different as now I was deconstructing each song when I heard it to figure out what snare I could hear or what kind of synth an artist might be using as I now had the means to go and recreate and learn from all the bands and artists I idolised.
KM: What are the various elements that attract you to creating synthwave music?
TS: Synthwave for me was a genre that I was inevitably drawn towards for many reasons. I was born right at the end of the ‘80s but I have always had a strong connection with a lot of music, TV and films from that era, so finding out that there was a new(ish) music genre that concentrated upon re-creating the soul of ‘80s electronic music; I felt compelled to jump head first into the rabbit hole and find out more!
Although synthwave itself has now become more of a broad range of sub-genres at its heart there is a key set of ingredients which in many ways limit what instruments etc you might use in a song (by this I mean things such as ‘80s electronic drum kits, and synths such as the Yamaha DX7 which were iconic in the ‘80s). This constraint of ‘allowed’ instruments and elements means you spend less time picking what synth or bass kick to use and instead can focus on the song writing and implementation.
Perhaps the best thing about synthwave is that it allows us to revisit a romanticised version of the 1980s through sound, I know that for me is a great aspect of it.
KM: Which artists have played a role in influencing your approach to making music and why?
TS: By far my biggest influence is Justice. When I heard the first track Genesis from their debut album Cross I was blown away. I had never heard anything like it before! This crazy, cocky, French duo may have been referencing more ‘70s elements in their music but the implementation was the same: take older instruments and techniques and combine it with modern equipment and production to create a new breed of music.
Discovering Justice also came around the same time as my journey into sound design, because of this they were one of the first artists I actively tried (and failed) to reproduce the sounds of.
KM: In general, how do you approach the creation of new music?
TS: My process is a slightly strange one, I tend to create very short minute long songs and then leave them and move on to the next song. Over an evening I will often create four or five short mini-tracks, then when I have a definite idea of what my next album/EP them might be I will then go back to these mini tracks and pick and choose any that might have the right kind of sound. The next step is to flesh out the tracks which usually doesn’t take long as the core of the tracks already exists.
I started this approach after a period of time when I would sit for many hours on one song and not really make any progress. You lose focus and energy when you have to listen to the same song over and over for hours so I actively decided to snap myself out of this kind of practice. Since then I haven’t looked back, it also means I have something close to 250 short demo songs which I have no idea what to do with. It's not the worst problem to have.
KM: Tell me more about your Occult 88 album and how it came about?
TS: I started my Occult series back in 2016 with Occult ‘86. My original idea was to have an album out each year close to Halloween with the theme of an occult-cult trying to take over the world through the use and misuse of technology. Since then, I released Occult ‘87 in 2017 and Occult ‘88 back at the end of last year.
Occult 88 may be the darkest and most aggressive of the series so far, with a heavy implementation of growling synths and distortion on everything! In my head I always try to think, "What would Hell sound like if it was an instrument?"
For me the darker side of music is always a little enthralling and it leads to more experimentation with sound, especially more along the ‘80s B-movie horror style. All of my Occult series so far have been what can be called 'darksynth’ which as a genre name I think it fits pretty well. Almost all of my music sits on the fence of being darksynth and synthwave, often dipping back more towards one way or the other but the Occult series will always be most definitely smothered in the dark. There may be a plan to have a final instalment for 2019 to neatly tie up the series, but shhh it’s a secret.
KM: Where do you want to take your music in the future?
TS: Over the years, I have created 22 albums & EP’s, and over these releases I have dabbled with different styles, themes and ideas. What comes next is still up in the air for me but what’s for certain is that I want to play more live shows, hopefully even tour the U.S. at some point, and most of all just create a heap more music and reach new eyes and ears with that music.
KM: How do you think the synthwave scene is doing lately?
TS: The scene is bigger and better than ever! There are more and more artists creating absolutely beautiful pieces of music, these might be seasoned veterans or relative newcomers to the scene, everyone seems to be very productive.
Another relative explosion in the scene is the availability and quality of the vinyl, cassettes and even mini-disc’s that are being produced by artists and labels alike.
Some might say that synthwave is becoming ‘too mainstream’ or repetitive, but for me I couldn’t care less as long as whatever is being produced is getting to a higher level of finesse and that it brightens up any listener's day.
KM: What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
TS: Despite being a full time music producer, I’m also a full time stay at home dad! Looking after my 18 month old makes sure my batteries are almost always drained but luckily for me music is the way in which I recharge. I feel pretty lucky to have a passion which accidentally turned into a profession.