An Interview With Canadian Synthwave Producer moonrunner83 (Chad Williamson)
Chad Williamson is a Calgary-based electronic music artist. He’s had many projects over the years, but his synthwave project Moonrunner83 is currently the one with which he’s most active. He creates shimmering, nostalgic synthwave that combines retro synth sounds with modern production values. I talked to him about how he first became interested in electronic music, his creative process and how he views his segment of the electronic music scene.
Interview With Chad Williamson
Karl Magi: How did you first get into electronic music?
Chad Williamson: I studied piano when I was ten years old. I got my first electric guitar when I was 15, thereafter I got fairly heavily into the late 90s pop/skatepunk scene. Around 2001, I went to my first raves and immediately started really getting into the whole rave scene and electronic dance music.
At that point, I was more of a party-kid and music consumer because it was fairly prohibitive to get into DJing. You had to buy Technics turntables which were $1200 a pair and you had to buy vinyl. The scene was fairly exclusive, so it was difficult to get into.
KM: Tell me more about your progress as a musician.
CW: I had a falling out with the electronic scene and got back into acoustic pop music and played in a couple of different bands. In 2008, I met up with a couple of fairly prolific musicians in the Calgary pop-rock scene. We really vibed and I actually tried to join their group, but the singer at the time had a serious girlfriend and a bad case of tour fatigue and didn’t want to be on the road any more. Instead, the drummer and I decided to form an acoustic pop band called Moments & Monuments in 2009. We played 150 shows across western Canada that year.
In 2010, we started messing around with virtual soft-synths and MIDI tracking, and my drummer, his old vocalist, and I started a group called The Fox Island Collective. We were performing live-off-the-floor electronic music. Because we recorded our “live tracks“ ahead of time and ran them from a sequencing device while playing synthesizers and singing over top of them, the live mix was perfectly dialed every time. It really changed the way I performed live.
We were getting radio-quality recordings out of a basement studio. Computers were at the point by then that you could take a desktop computer and some software and basically produce the same type of stuff that they could produce in big studios.
We had a charting tune on Canadian contemporary hit radio called Password with Fox Island Collective. We played approximately 50 shows as Fox Island Collective before I had a falling out with the other guys in the band. We split, but I kept the name and continued to produce and perform as Fox Island Collective on my own. I continued to tour with a couple of go-go dancers and a full stage rig.
I had to take what I’d learned from the previous couple of years observing studio sessions to start producing my own tracks. Although I’d been recording in some capacity since I was 15, it wasn’t unitl 2011 that I started recording on my own in earnest. That’s when I really started to get into studio production, tracking, mixing, and mastering.
I continued to play Fox Island shows in small venues all over western Canada. The show was essentially a combination of me DJing Top 40 tunes and playing my own tracks live in a four-hour set. The reason why I was able to book these shows was because I owned my own PA and a big powered sub, so rather than showing up and plugging into a system, I’d literally show up to an empty room in somewhere like Castor, Alberta and set up a full club rig complete with lights, smoke, dancers, and a full PA and backline.
My dad died in 2011 and I changed my life radically. I quit touring and I went to law school in Cardiff, Wales. At that point, I was able to bring a computer, an audio interface, a microphone and a little MIDI keyboard with me and produce tracks anywhere. Between classes, I spent my free time studying production and mixing. I finished law school, came back to Canada and started doing the lawyer thing and now I’ve gotten really heavily into synthwave music.
KM: What has drawn you towards making synthwave music?
CW: One of the things that has really drawn me to synthwave is that it’s simple and unapologetically fun. And it is loaded with pop elements that I’ve been so fond of since I was a little kid.
Moonrunner83 is the zenith of everything that I love about being a musician and being a producer. To be quite honest, if no one listens to it but me, my cat and my girlfriend, I’m still going to keep making it. There’s a degree of irony to the fact that I’m selling more records now than when I was producing Top 40 music for the purpose of selling records.
Now that I’m in a different financial position, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to afford some really cool analog outboard gear, a couple analog synthesizers, and some really fantastic digital tools that allow me to produce the music I hear in my head.
KM: Who are some of the artists who have influenced and inspired you in synthwave music?
CW: The Midnight has really pushed synthwave. I can’t say that they brought synthwave to the mainstream, but they are becoming really well-known. Even still, synthwave is largely an underground movement of people who feel dejected about mainstream music. People are looking for something new. EDM, Top 40, rock music, hip-hop has been done as is being done by everyone. It makes it difficult for music lovers to find something unique.
I got a random message from a guy by the name of DC Motion up in Edmonton who has a very similar history to me playing in rock bands and punk bands. He discovered synthwave and has fallen in love with it. He’s producing great music! There are other similar stories in Calgary. A good friend of mine behind the synthwave act DieScumInc. was also once a gigging rocker who has now turned to producing cinematic, dark synthwave. This music has really brought artists from different persuasions and of different styles together.
KM: Let’s dig into the process for creating new music a bit now. How does that process work for you?
CW: When I was producing Top 40 music, I had to try and compete with the guys that are the best in the world with production tricks, so I really had to up my game. Mixing has really taught me to wear many hats. There’s the musician, the synth player, the vocalist, the mix engineer, the tracking engineer, and the mastering engineer.
I refined my skills so that, when I started producing synthwave, I had a really good ear for deconstructing the mixes of other musicians. It doesn’t take me long to listen to a mix and be able to identify its different elements — even the more dense mixes. Synthwave is typically pretty simple: a Linndrum pattern over a pulsing eighth note synth bass with other retro-inspired synths either playing chords, an arpeggio, or a pad. They’re usually not that dense, maybe a dozen bed tracks. And vocals go on top of that.
Everyone’s got a different vibe to their mixes because that’s what gives the music its life. The Midnight are probably my biggest inspiration and if you listen to their productions, they sound very retro, but they don’t sound like mixes from the ’80’s, they sound like modern mixes with a retro vibe. That’s really what resonated with me about them.
KM: Talk about your views on the electronic music scene both in Calgary and more generally.
CW: There are some crazy talented people doing really interesting things, but there’s a lot of them and things feel like they’ve been blended together in a way that makes it very difficult to find anything new and fresh.
Locally one of the huge struggles that venue owners have suffered through is that, even before the downturn, it was tremendously hard to get people out to shows. I think getting people out is going to take something new and something that makes people want to go out on the weekend again.
One issue with the proliferation of music technology that lowers the barrier of entry to music is that now you get a lot of crap. Don’t get me wrong, it levels the playing field. There is some great music out there, but there is also a lot of stuff that is pretty bad.
People aren’t really selling records these days. It’s mostly streaming. However, a whole bunch of synthwave artists are selling records, pressing vinyls, and cassettes and that appreciation for the retrowave movement has invigorated my desire to keep working in this genre. Selling records? C’mon! Even that concept is retro. All cool stuff.
KM: What are your plans for the immediate future with Moonrunner83?
CW: I’m almost done tracking the second Moonrunner83 record. I put a lot of effort into the first Moonrunner83 record, but it's one of the first records I’ve pressed where I produced it, put it out there, and just had fun and I’m actually selling records again. That’s what so cool about the synthwave community — these kids love music, they love retrowave, and they support the artists they like by buying their records. Services like Bandcamp have really helped in that respect. Me, for example, I’ve always been entirely independent. It helps keep the coin in a guy’s pocket.
With the second record, I really wanted to do something new. I’ve got Megan McDuffee, who just released a single today on NewRetroWave with another synthwave artist named ALEX to sing on a couple of tracks. There’s this really great dude named Vik Kapur who just has this wonderful ‘80s voice. DC Motion is coming down from Edmonton and I’m going to track him as well. I’m hoping to get my Calgarian friend Sarah Stevenson on a track as well. And I’ll lay down some vocals if I’m feeling up to it. It will be really cool to produce a record that has much a wide range of talent all working together. I’m really excited.
I’m really trying to up the production, focus on great content and great retro vibe. Production-wise, it’s quite a bit better. I’m really excited about it!
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
CW: By listening to music first and foremost. I wouldn’t be making music if I wasn’t inspired by the music of others. For me, when I was doing music full-time, it got pigeonholed in that “work” space and a lot of the joy and the passion got sucked out of it. Now that I’ve got a fulfilling career, I find that my music is more of a creative outlet for me. To be quite honest, now that I’ve discovered synthwave, I don’t think my creative batteries need recharging. I feel like I’m plugged into an outlet!