An Interview With Canadian Synthwave Artist XYLE
XYLE (pronounced exile) is a Canadian synthwave artist who creates music that draws its influences from '80s films and video games as well as bands ranging from Metallica to C&C Music Factory. XYLE likes to explore themes of society and people's place within it. In an email, he told me more about how he began creating music, his creative process and how he recharges himself creatively.
Interview with XYLE
Karl Magi: What first sparked your passion for making music?
XYLE: Many things, I would say. I saw Metallica play live in 1994 at Molson Park in Barrie, Ontario with my dad, my uncle and my cousin. It was Metallica’s “Summer Shit ‘94” tour and Suicidal Tendencies and Danzig opened. It was an awesome show and it really introduced me to the all-encompassing power of live music. There were scantily clad women, people drinking beer and people smoking pot all around me. I was a 13 year old kid surrounded by debauchery and I fell in love with it.
When I was around 14 or so, I went over to my friend Brian’s house and he had a sunburst Fender Telecaster and a DOD Death Metal pedal plugged into a little Marshall trainer amp. He started playing the opening riff of Raining Blood by Slayer and then he hit the distortion pedal. That changed my life. After hearing that I said to myself, “I have to get an electric guitar.”
Before I got into metal I was into old '80s rap and house music. Ya Kid K, 2 Unlimited, Snap, C&C Music Factory, stuff like that. The simple melodies and hooks in that stuff really had a huge impact on me. You can still hear that influence in my XYLE music today.
As far as actual song writing, my parents enrolled me in piano lessons when I was around seven or eight. I hated them and quit soon after, but I remember learning middle C and three chords: C, F and G7. I remember writing a short song, some combination of those three chords, I played it for my mom or showed her the sheet music maybe. She didn’t seem to care at all.
Before that or around the same time, I remember going to visit my grandparents and they had my uncle’s trombone hidden away in a case. I think he played trombone in high school. I use to dig it out and play it. I thought it was so cool. I was absolutely fascinated by musical instruments as a child.
I actually consider myself a guitar player first and foremost, more so than a piano player. My first guitar was an Ibanez Cimar with a Peavey Blazer 158, 40 watt solid state amp. I think my mom bought me those for my 15th birthday in 1996 as I recall. Later on, my dad gave me both his electric and acoustic guitars when I was living with him in the U.S. a year later. The electric was a Roland (they make guitars too) and I can’t remember the brand of the acoustic. My dad taught me the basic pentatonic scale and some chords like C, G, D and A. He also taught me some songs by Neil Young like Old Man. Knowing these basics was absolutely key in who I am as a musician today.
My dad also sent me down to a local acoustic jam circle down at The Filling Station Restaurant in Canisteo, New York when I was around the same age. I remember driving my dad’s truck down there by myself in the winter with my acoustic guitar and sitting there in a circle with a bunch of full grown men playing old folk songs. The Filling Station was also where I got my first job as a busboy.
KM: How did you get into making synthwave music?
X: Well, I’ve been making electronic music for 20 years now. I’ve been making albums since about 1998. I’ve always done everything on my own with no label support. The electronic stuff was always kinda more on the side. I come from mainly a punk and metal background. I’ve played guitar in a couple bands and sang lead in one of them. I’ve played shows around different places in Ontario.
In the '90s, when I was a teenager, it seemed like good music was everywhere. inspiration was everywhere and artists were influencing other artists. Everybody was feeding off one another. There were all these songs and albums about psychological chaos and youth angst. Then, as illegal downloading took off, the quality of music seemed to disintegrate or maybe there was easy access to more music and the good music got drowned out. I don’t know. Either way, I found it harder and harder to find those real gem albums and really anything that resembled a new, fresh, exciting musical movement post 2000.
Then I discovered synthwave.
Synthwave is special. There’s something special about it. Maybe it's the nostalgia or maybe the fact that it’s “feel good” music in a time where perhaps, as a society, we’re not feeling very good.
I’ve always been into Daft Punk and I loved the French electro house of the last decade (Justice, Kavinsky, etc;). Back in about maybe 2011 or 2012 I got into chillwave. I heard artists like Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, and So Far Away by Lazerhawk and loved all of them. I suppose this was the precursor to vaporwave.
Then somewhere along the line, I heard of this genre called synthwave. I can’t even remember how it happened. Initially I thought synthwave was hilarious. I thought it was a big joke. I made “Stargazer” basically as a joke. I wanted to make an over-the-top 80s sci-fi album that sounded like Alan Silvestri’s Flight of the Navigator soundtrack, so I made the album and then I Googled “synthwave radio stations.” A bunch of stuff popped up like NewRetroWave, Beyond Synth, Synthetix Sundays and Power 85. I sent my music everywhere, and lo and behold NewRetroWave put my two songs Stargazer and Escape Pod into one video on their YouTube channel and those two songs became big hits, putting me on the map in the synthwave scene. This video now has 118,553 views as I’m writing this. Thank you NewRetroWave!
After that, I dug deeper and I found out that there was some real talent going on here and some incredible music being made within this genre. Now it’s completely consumed my life.
KM: Who are the artists that have influenced you and why did they have that influence?
X: Well, all the artists that I listed above for sure. Also Tool, Pink Floyd and Nine Inch Nails to name a few. To be honest, I grew up hating most '80s music except Metallica, Slayer and the rap and house artists I listed above. I grew up during the whole grunge/alternative movement. Everything was about rawness and anti-glam. The '80s music that I heard and liked was in movies and video games from that era like Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, the first two Terminators and Robocop. Also many NES and SNES games like the Final Fantasy series, the early Zelda games, Rad Racer, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Megaman, the early TMNT games, Metroid, Castlevania, Actraiser 2, Doom 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Chrono Trigger, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter 2 and many more. Later I got into Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Maybe that’s where I started to open up to '80s music more. I liked the “I Ran” song by A Flock of Seagulls after playing that game I remember.
Nowadays it’s mostly synthwave. I love the new Gunship album and the new Midnight album. I just saw The Midnight live in Toronto. They were fantastic. Some of the other synthwave artists that I like are Mega Drive, Duett, Lazerhawk, Absolute Valentine, Tommy ‘86, Com Truise, Mono Memory, Paladin, Jordan F, Betamaxx, HOME, FM-84. One album that had a massive influence on me was Themes For An Imaginary Film by Symmetry. There are many, many more but those are some of the main ones.
As far as why these artists have had a big influence on me, it's because of a whole myriad of different reasons. I like originality, depth, good production, a message and a vision. I like cutting edge stuff. I like stuff that really says something about the current times we live in, whatever that time may be. I don’t really gravitate towards the popular stuff, I gravitate towards the stuff that influences the popular stuff. Does that make sense? The artistic weird stuff that later becomes popular. I like it when it’s still in it’s pure, untainted artistic form before it’s exploited and devoured by the masses.
Films are also a great source of inspiration for me. I’m a big Stanley Kubrick fan. 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange are absolute masterpieces I also like John Carpenter. My two favourites by him are They Live and Big Trouble in Little China. I also love the old film noir classics like Detour and Double Indemnity as well. Old kung fu movies are great. Old sci-fi movies are great. The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, Stranger Things and the original three Star Wars films are all awesome too.
Other miscellaneous influential artists just off the top of my head: Moebius, H.R .Giger, Ray Harryhausen, Saul Bass, Beethoven, Bach, Ennio Morricone, Larry Clarke, Nobuo Uematsu, Mike Paradinas, Richard D. James, Burial, Giorgio Moroder, Alex Grey, Grandmaster Flash, Mike Oldfield, Kraftwerk, King Crimson, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Jim Henson, Hitchcock, Lynch, Picasso, Van Gogh, etc;
I could go on and list possibly hundreds of different influential artists here, but I’ll leave that for another time.
KM: Walk me through the creative process that you use when coming up with new tunes.
X: Some of my songs are reincarnated versions of older songs, songs from years back that never went anywhere and that nobody’s heard. I’ll take those old songs and rework them and give them a synthwave sound. I don’t do this out of laziness. I do this because they’re great songs that need to be heard. Sometimes I just make a song up from scratch. It depends on how much creative energy I have at that particular moment and what I’m in the mood for. The first Filmless Soundtrack album I wrote and recorded in two weeks. It just came out of me like a bat out of hell. Some of the other ones like Stargazer took months. A lot of it has to do with having the TIME to do it too. If I didn’t have to eat or sleep or work I’d be a human synthwave factory, pumping out albums by the dozen for y'all. Making an album requires a tremendous amount of energy, usually stretched out over a long period of time and I’m a perfectionist so every single little detail matters.
As far as getting into the nitty gritty of starting a song, it would go something like this: Let me preface this by saying I use Ableton Live. I’ll start with usually just a kick pattern most of the time, build a cool drum beat with snares and hats and whatnot and then establish a nice tempo and time signature (sometimes I write in weird time signatures).
Then I add either a synth line or a bass line, but it takes time because I have to figure out what sound I want. I have hundreds of different sounds. After that, I have to figure out what effects I want on those sounds. Once I’m done one part, like a verse or a chorus, then I have to come up with a second and third part (usually) and then arrange the song. So, in a nutshell, I start from the bottom and build one part of the song up and then write at least two more parts and then arrange the whole thing into a song. I also do all of this blindfolded while hanging upside down.
KM: What's your view on the state of Canada's synthwave scene?
X: Canada’s synthwave scene is small, but at the same time it's influential and significant. As is the case with Canada a lot! The scene also seems to be growing here as well. Toronto’s scene in particular is actually totally killin’ it right now. Currently Toronto is home to awesome artists like Dana Jean Phoenix, Mecha Maiko, Mellow Fields, Andy Last, Zayaz, Parallels, Michael Oakley and myself to name a few. The scenes in both Toronto and Canada will most definitely continue to grow in the coming years. Some of the other Canadian synthwave artists that I like are Miami Nights 1984, Stilz and Nerex.
KM: Where do you want to take your music in the future?
Well, currently I make albums and sell my music on Bandcamp. My music is featured on several prominent YouTube channels including NewRetroWave which has now grown into an absolutely massive channel with over a half a million subscribers. I also now have three of my albums on Spotify and the iTunes store.
I’m currently working on my next album called SAGA. Originally I wanted to finish and release it this year but it’s looking more and more like it’s going to be a 2019 release. It’s an absolutely epic album and very reflective of the times we’re living in, both collectively as a society and individually in our own life struggles. It’s a story, a metaphor, a commentary and a statement. It’s the story of “the hero’s journey” popularized by the late, great mythologist Joseph Campbell. It’s about a hero who feels the call to adventure. The hero is met with challenges along the way. He makes new friends and meets teachers who help him on his journey. Then finally he winds up facing his ultimate fear, the ultimate enemy. He then defeats the enemy and transcends to higher realms and becomes the hero he was destined to be. Everybody can relate to this story. This is one of the oldest stories in human history. My new album is a concept album about this story.
I also DJ every month at Synthwave Arcade at Tilt Arcade Bar here in Toronto. Tilt is home to several classic arcade games and pinball machines all set to free play all night long. There’s also drinks and snacks along with synthwave music and '80s hits rockin’ in the background courtesy of The Advantage, Neon Fawkes and myself. Tilt and Synthwave Arcade are also important parts of the Canadian synthwave scene currently.
In the future, I hope to continue growing as a producer, DJ and performer. I want to continue making albums and expanding my social network within the scene and beyond. I’d also like to develop and enhance my live performances with more gear, more lights and more screens and eventually play alongside more great artists and take it on the road!
KM: How do you reinvigorate yourself creatively?
X: My creative urges ebb and flow. Sometimes I’m super creative, sometimes nothing comes. Sometimes I have to get away from song writing for a while and not think about it and wait for the urge to re-emerge (that rhymes). Sometimes I need inspiration like listening to some fantastic music or watching a captivating film. If you focus too hard on trying to write a great song, you’ll end up getting frustrated and then your creativity diminishes. You have to be very cognizant of the movement of your moods and emotions because they determine your level of creative horsepower. If you’re not feeling it then don’t force it, just take a break. Then when you come back it’ll be fresh and exciting again.