An Interview with Canadian Synthwave Band Baldhero & Van Whelan
Baldhero & Van Whelan is a Canadian synth/retrowave duo. Their music features strong melodies, powerful basslines and infectious grooves. I talked to Baldhero about his musical awakening, the group's creative process and their Neon Desert EP.
Karl Magi: How did you first get passionate about music?
Baldhero: As a listener, I’ve been passionate about music for as long as I can remember. Having grown up in the ‘80s, there was a lot of great pop around to get excited about: Michael Jackson, The Police, Peter Gabriel, Eurythmics, Depeche Mode, U2 etc; I can remember wearing out more than a few tapes as a kid. As a musician, things really switched on in grade seven when I took up the guitar. Metallica’s ...And Justice for All was life changing and set me down a path of being really into metal for a number of years. Then, of course, grunge happened and after that my tastes really opened up.
Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to have played with a really diverse and fantastic group of musicians in various projects that have been all over the map. My tastes these days are probably about as broad as they’ve ever been - whether it’s pop, metal, rock, funk, hip hop, electronic etc; if it’s good, the genre is essentially irrelevant to me.
KM: What drew you to making retro/synthwave music?
B: As mentioned, I think growing up in the 80’s really predisposed me towards eventually veering towards this style of music. I really feel the ’80s synth pop ethos is kind of baked in at a subconscious level. While my musical journey, both as a musician as well as a fan has taken me all over the place, artists like Depeche Mode, early U2 and The Police have been a constant, so in some ways I’ve never quite left the ‘80s behind.
At some point over the past three or four years, someone forwarded the Kung Fury soundtrack along and I believe that got the ball rolling. I was amazed to discover that there was whole community of artists, both visual and musical, that were heavily into the retrowave vibe. Having been a bass player in most of the bands that I’ve played with and having favored a fairly aggressive tone like Geddy Lee or John Entwistle, I loved the predominance of bass in synthwave. The polyphonic, crystalline synth melodies and generally retro analog tones and effects, like a heavy chorus and a modulated delay, also really speak to me.
When I watched the Netflix show Stranger Things and heard the amazing analog synth vibe of the main theme and soundtrack, it was a tipping point for me with respect to experimenting with writing some synthwave. From there, I took it on as a project to learn sequencing and familiarize myself with the various soft-synths that were out there.
KM: Who are some of the artists that have inspired you and why?
B: If I look at the artists who have consistently ended up in the rotation over the years, I would have to say The Police, Nirvana, Tool, Rush, Pink Floyd, Metallica, Depeche Mode, Oasis and U2 with perhaps a few more niche bands including Killing Joke, New Order, The Misfits, Ween, Queens of the Stone Age and Tame Impala rounding out the mix.
It’s a lot easier to name who has inspired you than to explain why they did! Certainly all of these bands have an amazing sense of melody with great, often distinctive, vocal delivery - that has always resonated with me. What I also really admire about these bands is their profound originality and creativity. Each one essentially invented or at least were pivotal players in moving forward a genre or sub-genre.
Every artist has influences but these bands managed to work some sort of musical alchemy. Finally, I think the music that I dig the most promotes an immediate sense of imagery, in that it takes you some place. I know that sounds like a total cliché but I can’t think of a better way to describe it.
KM: How did the Neon Desert album come about and what was the creative process like while you were working on it?
B: Neon Desert is the follow-up EP to our first release, L.A. to Mars. L.A. to Mars was a pretty straight ahead upbeat retrowave project. On Neon Desert, I wanted to more heavily emphasize early ’80s EDM-type grooves and integrate some darker, ambient distorted tones while retaining a strong sense of melody. Basically, the goal was to hybridize Depeche Mode and Killing Joke.
The creative process for the average Baldhero & Van Whelan tune is as follows: I usually start with a bass line and will improvise over it with some kind of melody or chords. I’m very much from The Edge (of U2 fame) school of thought around melody where less is more and every note has to count. I’m most definitely not a keyboard shredder. I’ll play in various tempos with a very simple drum beat (sometimes just a kick and snare) just to get up and running to see what fits best. I’ll switch up the voice or tone for the melody to hopefully find the best fit. From there, it’s the usual songwriting process of fleshing out the verse, chorus and bridge.
One challenge I’ve found with a generally purely instrumental genre like retrowave is that you have to find a way to make every bar of music worth listening to. This can be challenging without a vocal melody over top, but I think that constraints actually increase creativity, so it has been fun working within that limitation. This is also the reason why a lot of our songs are in the three minute range.
I find if an idea is fighting me a bit too much or not coming together fairly quickly, it’s better to walk away and come back or not be afraid to delete it and move on. The ideas that I’ve been most satisfied with are generally the ones that write themselves. To my taste, the best melodies are those that somehow manage to sound both happy and sad at the same time. I’m also definitely a fan of melodies that are anthemic and triumphant without sounding cheesy or too over the top
KM: How does the collaborative process work with Van Whelan?
B: Once I have the basic ideas fleshed out, I’ll pop a demo in Dropbox and Van Whelan who lives in Dartmouth (I’m in Ottawa) will put together a drum track, usually recording a MIDI drum track live off the floor with his electronic kit.
Van Whelan is a long-time musical collaborator and a very good friend with whom I’ve played in tons of bands with over the years. He’ll often hear the song differently from me which is extremely helpful. He’s also got a great knack for cleaning up arrangements and cutting the fat out to keep it interesting. He is also, obviously, an amazing drummer. He’ll then generally send me back a MIDI file which I’ll put back in the song and make a few tweaks. I’ve programmed the drums on a handful of tunes when I had a specific vision for how I wanted things to sound - usually around keeping the same vibe as the demo.
I’ve found it quite helpful to send out these nearly finished demos to a few trusted ears to get some feedback. It’s easy to get too close to a project and lose perspective. A few final tweaks and then it’s time for mixing and mastering which I find to be a very rewarding but incredibly painful process for someone with my predisposition for obsessiveness and attention to detail. What I’ve learned is that the mix is never perfect, it just needs to be good enough. I’m trying to relax about that as time goes on.
KM: What goals do you have for your musical career going forward?
B: My main goal moving forward is to continue to have some fun making music that I’m happy to put out as a little bit of art for people to consume and hopefully enjoy. This project is also a chance for Van Whelan and I to continue our on-going musical collaboration even though life has transported us to different parts of Canada.
A Vancouver-based skateboard company, Landyachtz, reached out last year around including some of our music from L.A. to Mars in their promotional videos (which are awesome because those dudes go to some amazing locations!) Of course, we agreed to partner with them on that. Certainly, that is the type of avenue for our music that we’d love to continue to explore. To that end, it’s been really fun watching people create the odd YouTube video using our tunes as the soundtrack to a compilation of retro commercials, video game sequences or movies.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
B: For me, the biggest tool in this respect is time. Sometimes you need to step away and get perspective. It is easy to repeat yourself, especially if you don’t take a step back and get some perspective on what has worked and what hasn’t with your latest project. Aside from that, I think experimenting with different tones and effects can be helpful. I like the idea of playing with constraint as a way of enhancing creativity. I like to try to write within the scope of a project, almost like an assignment. As long as I keep changing up the assignment, I don’t think there will be any shortage of ideas to play off of.