An Interview with Finnish Synthwave Producer Levinsky
Levinsky is a Finnish synthwave producer who creates cinematic synthwave in which he explores themes that are deeply personal and emotional for him. I talked to him about his musical roots, his creative approach and his upcoming album entitled Electra Complex.
Karl Magi: How did you first get passionate about making music?
Levinsky: It all began when I was around 12 years old and I wanted to start playing guitar. Around that time, my dad bought me my first guitar and I got my first albums which were, not surprisingly, heavy metal since it was the thing, along with disco and other stuff with the ‘80s. I’d already had my first experience with synthesizers pretty early on as well, around the time I was 16 or 17. I’m pretty much self-taught but I’ve also taken formal training on the piano and singing as that can only benefit one’s approach and understanding oif music. I always had a burning interest in making music which I pretty much inherited from my dad. My brother has always been a music freak as well. He has currently two active bands and he’s toured the world.
KM: What drew you into making synthwave?
L: In the ‘80s, I loved heavy metal and hard rock, but I also dug Italo disco and Euro disco. I liked stuff like Modern Talking, Sandra and all of that cheesy stuff. Already way back then, I also got to hear people like Jean-Michel Jarre who is still one of my biggest idols in music. As for synthwave, it was a revelation for me. A friend told me about a French band called Carpenter Brut and their album Trilogy, so I went and bought the album. Trilogy was the turning point for me. I listened to it and thought, “Bloody hell! This is great music!” I hadn’t been actively making music for a few years, but after a year and a half, I decided that it was time for me to lay it all out and do my own thing. Since then, I’ve been producing music in this genre for over two years now.
KM: Who are some of the artists from whom you’ve drawn inspiration?
L: I have a long history with music and bands representing different genres. My aim, pretty early on, was to push the envelope in music, so I tended to take in lots of influences from other genres. When I was experimenting and starting off, I went through all the clichés, I guess that’s pretty much the thing everyone does when they get into producing synthwave. I wanted to recreate the things the things that I heard and thought were totally ultra cool. Of all the artists that I’d name who really had a strong impact on my music, Kate Bush is first and foremost. After that, I’d say Jean-Michel Jarre, John Carpenter, Vangelis and Goblin.
KM: How do you approach song writing and music creation?
L: Song writing is very emotional and often very personal for me. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to churn out bulk, “cookie-cutter” music. I need to be able to stand behind everything that I write, each theme, each note. It has to have something very concrete, meaningful and emotional for me to be accepted as a song of mine.
A very big thing for me over the past year has been my undertaking of piano lessons. I wanted to learn piano largely under the influence of the fabulous British goddess Kate Bush. I’ve had a long running desire to actually learn to read muscial notation properly, learn music theory and learn how to compose in the traditional sense too. I would say that my current approach to songwriting is very piano-oriented, so when starting to write a new piece, I usually pick up a synthesizer patch for a traditional grand piano. I start to find some inspiring chords that, for example, would fit the feel of an image I have in my head for a certain song title. After that, I start to play around with chords, and then come the melodies and leads. That’s how the backbone of the song is basically created.
Once I’m happy with the chord progressions, arpeggios, leads and melodies, I usually transfer them to my DAW (Logic Pro X in my case) and then I start to really experiment which is the most fun part. I experiment a lot with different sounds and I also use hardware synthesizers to come up with new ideas and inspirations. It’s a very creative process all in all. I don’t really want to use anything ready-made. I don’t use any drum or riff samples or any kind of pre-made beats. I build everything from scratch and I think that’s important when you want to make your music really personal.
KM: Tell me about your upcoming album Electra Complex?
L: As my flavour of and approach to synthwave is more cinematic, I thought about different cinematic sequences or scenes in my head when starting to write Electra Complex. There are various themes I explore on it. It’s going to be way more progressive and surprising than my EP Method To The Madness (2018). I’ve taken my rhythmical and melodic work ahead many steps (very much thanks to my piano training.)
Some of the themes the album addresses are for example psychology, sexuality (Arousal), and issues around hate (Knives Out For Everyone) in society. I basically came up with a full list of song titles first before I started to write anything. Over the past nine months, I’ve been writing these songs by going through the list of song titles and picking the title that inspired me the most at the time. This has been quite a unique approach to songwriting. I’d look at a title like Celebrity Suicides, for example. I wanted to create a song that would talk about famous, very successful people who seemingly, on the surface have everything one could want in life but obviously they still feel very alone, cornered and unable to reach out for help or resolution.
I think people should care more about each other and themselves as well, be present to each other. Also, there’s a song called Sentient Beings which is about factory farming, speciesism and the cruel treatment of animals. Musically speaking, this particular track on the album is my tribute to Jean-Michel Jarre. It nods very clearly towards his great art.
KM: Where do you want to take your music going forward?
L: In the future, I think what I’m intrigued about is creating more progressive music. Electra Complex has a lot of the familiar elements in it, but it’s definitely a very progressive step ahead as well. I want to experiment and try new things. Regarding the album artwork, there won’t be any kind of a grid, neon palms or Testarossas as you might guess. I commissioned the artwork from a super talented and rising Finnish graphic artist, Ms. Ninni Kairisalo. The artwork is going to be very beautiful, but it’s also going to be provocative in a subtle and psychological way. There are elements that you don’t necessarily expect in the synthwave genre, so to speak. The artwork is indeed beautiful but with a certain present and evident tension. If you know the Italian “giallo” films, for example, and if you think about the poster art for those films, you will have some elements from there.
KM: How do you feel about the current state of the synthwave scene?
L: The global synthwave scene has a plethora of artists now, but at the moment it’s becoming hard to even differentiate between artist names. You really have a lot of super-clichéd stuff going on and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. I see that there is always a niche for people to hook into the very basic elements of the genre. I think the genre has also reached a critical mass in the sense that it really needs to evolve. Also, it’s no secret that there are some so-called curators in the scene who are pretty hypocritical. They’re saying there needs to be more progress in the scene, but at the same time they’re pushing the scene to be very bland, uninspiring and unsurprising. I think that time will soon end and we’ll see something else coming in.
I personally think and hope that we’ll hear more crossover type of things in the near future and that can only be healthy for the scene. For example, in his own, more extreme way, someone like Gost from the USA is trying to do that. Perturbator has also released a preview track from his new album that has elements of post-punk and I think that’s very very refreshing. You want to shake some dust off and incorporate some really new elements.
KM: What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
L: I try to take care of myself. I’m pretty good at that (occasionally could be better). I try to meditate, I have done some yoga as well, reflection, exercise, writing, being in nature and I’m lucky to live in Helsinki on a small island close to the city centre called Lauttasaari. The island is very beautiful and has great fauna. These are the kinds of things that I try to balance myself with. Of course, reading and watching films also inspires me. I’m also fond of all kinds of art, so I go to art galleries and exhibitions. Meeting people is always also a great way to get inspired too.