Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!
The Ghost Mall is a synthwave/retrowave artist based in America. He describes his music as "a musical journey back in time to when feelings were painted in neon, heartbeats kept time with drum machines, and we met at the mall." In an email interview, I asked him about how he got started with music, his creative process and his views on the synthwave scene as it stands now.
Interview with The Ghost Mall
Karl Magi: How did you first discover your passion for music?
Ghost Mall: Well, I definitely hail from a family of musicians. Both of my parents were pretty accomplished at different aspects of music. My dad was a folk singer-songwriter during the 1970s, even going semi-pro at one point. My mom had a terrific soprano voice, and did choir and musical theater, but she also dabbled in everything from drums to piano to guitar as well.
Musical instruments and singing songs were big parts of the backdrop of my childhood at home. For example, I vividly remember being about 7 years old and do you remember the soundtrack to the Karate Kid? Some of it uses a Japanese shakuhachi for the melodies. Well, my dad bought a Roland MT-32 sound module (retro-gamers and synth-nerds probably know what I’m talking about), hooked that up to our digital piano and it had a shakuhachi sound in it!
I still remember sitting there as a kid figuring out those parts from the Karate Kid soundtrack; and, thus, my love for music production was born! I didn’t start to take songwriting and production seriously until I was about 13, got my first guitar and joined my first band. Since then it has been 25 years of songwriting and music production for me! (I still have that MT-32 on a shelf in my studio, by the way.)
KM: What drew you towards making synthwave/retrowave music?
GM: I love to tell this story, because it’s really all about feeling alone in your nostalgia and then finding a whole community of like-minded weirdos! Back between about 2010 and 2014 I used to frequent this mall in my old neighborhood (the now demolished White Flint Mall in Maryland); I loved the place. Its most amazing feature was this neon-drenched, ‘80s deco food court that had literally remained untouched since then. It was so retro it was unreal! I used to sort of hang out there and reminisce about those halcyon days, being young, the music, all of that. I started to imagine what it would be like to use my music skills to make something really reminiscent of that era.
Gradually the mall started to become more and more vacant and eventually it was shuttered and torn down. You know, for me, malls were generally like the epitome of ‘80s pop culture and community life, so to see them become “ghost malls” and sort of die out really heightened my nostalgia.
So that was it for me: I started an 80s-nostalgic-retro-music project. I didn’t know what to call it, since I didn’t know about “synthwave” or “retrowave” at that point, so I named it The Ghost Mall. It wasn’t until months and months later, after thinking I was literally the only person on this planet interested in reviving the sounds of the ‘80s, that I discovered there was this whole scene of folks like me! What a great feeling that was.
KM: Who are some of the artists who've influenced your work and why have they done so?
GM: Well, for me, it always goes directly back to the artists whose tunes embedded themselves in my subconscious when I was young, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s a combination of ‘80s pop music - American acts like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Hall and Oates, as well as ‘Second British Invasion’ artists like Howard Jones, Human League, New Order etc; and retro soundtracks.
By far the biggest influence on The Ghost Mall’s sound is the duo Naked Eyes, I love their combination of danceable beats and lots of atmospheric synths, but I am also influenced by (and make music from) the early ‘90s, particularly New Jack Swing and Radio House subgenres. Producers like Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Teddy Riley were geniuses and really influenced my retro style. That said, even though when I first started The Ghost Mall I was 100% unaware of the synth/retrowave scenes, I’ve come to be really influenced by some of my peers in those scenes as well.
Sunglasses Kid, by far, has had the most impact on me; he was actually the first fellow ‘80s-nut producer that I discovered and he’s still my favorite. Phantom Ride was another early influence on me. Highway Superstar, Dana Jean Phoenix, DATAStream, JJ Mist, FM-84, Dream Fiend, Espen Kraft, Dimi Kaye, The Backlit Infinite, Bart Graft, iamManolis, Pengus and the list could go on and on! These folks and so many more really scratch my nostalgic itch and keep me pushing to make the best music I can.
KM: Talk to me a bit about video game music and why it interests you?
GM: I love talking about chiptune and VGM, thanks for asking! You know, for me, some of the most salient nostalgic memories I have revolve around the video games I played in the ‘80s and ‘90s. My twin brother and I got an NES at about age seven and from then on I was hooked and I have been a gamer for life. The NES, SNES and Genesis all had a unique sound, and some amazing composers created some of the catchiest music ever for those games, so it was kind of inevitable for me that game music would be a component of the music that I make under the broad ‘retrowave’ umbrella.
For example, I have an EP about halfway done called MegaJack! which utilizes the authentic sounds of the Sega Genesis to create jams in early ‘90s styles (like New Jack Swing, House, and Techno). It was heavily inspired by the work of game composer Yuzo Koshiro, whose soundtracks really influenced me back in the day. I also recently did a tutorial on my YouTube channel on creating SNES-style music in a modern DAW. Now I tend to keep my retro synthpop and my game-inspired stuff pretty separate, mostly to keep the sound authentic, but occasionally I let the streams cross (to use a Ghostbusters metaphor!)
KM:Talk to me about your creative process for new music?
GM: Well, it’s always some wild combination of feverish inspiration on the one hand and monotonous, detail-oriented work (to actually finish a song) on the other. The very first session of writing/producing for a new song is always me staying up way too late at night because something I was tinkering with inspired me and I can’t stop writing ‘til I have the idea recorded!
These days, I usually start with and focus on the melody and then from there lay down the drums and some kind of inventive, jazzy chord progression (which is kind of my style). I stick strictly to virtual emulations of classic retro gear from the time period I want to recreate: Yamaha DXs, Oberheims, Korgs, Roland drum machine etc; (I’m big on authenticity and I also just find the classic sounds inspiring!)
If I’ve done a decent job finding inspiring sounds and writing a good track, it usually calls up some very strong image in my head and I write lyrics based on that.
I’ve been blessed to work with some amazing vocalists, so I’ll usually cut a demo then and send that to a great singer to record. Once I’ve let the creative part of my brain run wild like that, then comes the hard part: actually getting the logical half of my brain to follow through, clean up all the parts, re-record anything sub-par, and finish up/release the song! I’m still working on those last areas!
KM: Tell me more about some of the musical projects you have on the go?
GM: I currently have two EPs in the works at the same time which was probably a mistake! Both of those EPs will be out in the first half of 2019. The first, MegaJack!, I already mentioned: it’s going to have 6 tracks of pure Sega Genesis-inspired, funky, early-‘90s jams. The other EP, which I’m even more excited for, is called In Rewind. That EP is really inspired by bright, shiny mid-80s synthpop! On its five tracks, I’ve been thrilled to work with an amazing bunch of incredible vocalists (including Carl Culley, Christina Siravo and Addie Nicole from the band Halocene) as well as awesome fellow retro producers (like Bart Graft and First Impressions), among others who I can’t mention yet.
Beyond that, I have at least 15 more songs in various stages of completion, so we’ll see how many releases I can manage this year. I also run a YouTube channel where I do lots of tutorial videos on retrowave music production and songwriting, so balancing that with finishing original music is a challenge sometimes!
KM: What are your future career plans, music-wise?
GM: You know, that’s actually a tough one to answer! The music industry is just so unpredictable and competitive that it’s hard to set specific goals. My only truly solid goal is to continue to write and produce the best songs that I can and try to touch as many hearts as I can with them. Music is all about making an emotional connection, so any time I can manage that I feel satisfied, and the more times I can do that the better.
I will say that I would love to do many more collaborations with talented folks in the synth/retrowave scene, because I love collaborating. Right now I’m working on remixes for a couple of artists that I admire. I’d love to produce for or co-write with some of the other incredible vocalists in the scene who I haven’t been able to work with yet along with continuing to share as much knowledge as I can through my YouTube channel. I guess those are the plans!
KM: What are your impressions of the synthwave music scene?
GM: A lot has really changed since I became a part of the scene in late 2014, and I’d say most of the changes are great! There is just so much talent, not just among the musicians but also folks doing incredible retro-inspired visual art, etc; It has been awesome to see things grow and expand. There are definitely more talented people than ever investing their creativity in retro stuff, which is rad.
On the other hand, I have noticed that a sort of formula has arisen for what synthwave in particular is, both sonically and visually, and that can be a bit repetitive and limiting. Truth be told, that goes for every single subgenre of music or subculture as far back as anyone can remember! When someone creates something cool and successful, it’s natural for others to pick it up as a template, and that’s fine as long as it doesn’t become a uniform that restricts creativity.
For every artist that sort of adheres to that template, I also hear another who is taking their retro inspirations in a totally original direction, so that’s great! I listen to and enjoy almost every side of synth/retrowave - from dark stuff, to funky stuff, to chill and romantic stuff - and the fact that there is so much diversity in an already niche subgenre says, to me, that it is healthy creativity-wise.
It has been interesting to see the recognition that retro themes (if not “synthwave” or “retrowave” per se) have been getting in the last couple of years in the mainstream. From Stranger Things to Muse’s last album cover to that recent Wall Street Journal article, I think there is evidence that ‘80s retro themes are back in circulation in the cultural zeitgeist. At least for this ‘80s kid, that makes my heart smile!
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
GM: Oh boy that’s a good question! I actually addressed this once in a video on my YouTube channel called “Dealing with Discouragement as a Musician,” and it can be tough. You know, I think that musicians and other artists particularly have a tendency to get drained easily. Part of that has to do with the nature of being creative and with how art is inherently emotional (or it should be).
Wearing your heart on your sleeve and putting it all out there in the form of a song - which can easily be ripped apart by total strangers on the other side of the internet - can be exhausting. At least, I know it can be for me.
Even setting the emotional stuff aside, trying to make it as an independent musician is a real grind that takes work on about a dozen different battlefronts at the same time. To keep up the energy and try to keep going, I’m a big fan of taking breaks and doing stuff that refills your reservoirs of energy and happiness.
I personally meditate every day, at least twice a day, and have for about 15 years now. I try to take a walk outside in nature - and get the hell out of my basement studio with no widows - at least once a day! I also get the most, by far, from spending time with my family and good friends. Listening to some brilliant synth or retrowave music never hurts either!