An Interview with Synthwave Producer Don
Don (Don Wilson) is a synthwave producer from Scotland. He creates atmospheric, sweeping cinematic synthwave soundscapes in his music. I talked to him about how his passion for the genre was kindled, his creative process and his future musical goals.
Karl Magi: What was it that first sparked your passion for music in general?
Don Wilson: It’s probably clichéd to say, but I’ve been into music from a young age. My parents aren’t musical but my mum did have a collection of records that I would browse through. Back then, I would listen to what I had but I was too young to seek out new stuff. Fast forward a few years, I was a pre-teen, heavy into games, moving from a PlayStation to a Dreamcast and getting addicted to Crazy Taxi. If anyone has played that you will know how good that soundtrack fits the game.
Playing countless hours of that game and having the Offspring blasting out did exactly what it was meant to do. As soon as I could, I bought some of Offspring's music, which just happened to be the album with the Crazy Taxi stuff on it and that basically started my descent into musical madness. Weirdly enough, I never stuck with punk (although still love the Offspring) but moved onto rock and metal pretty quick. Today, along with listening to pretty much every genre, I’m an avid black metal fan.
KM: What are the themes and musical elements that attracted you to making synthwave/retrowave music?
DW: I think it was the energy. I listened to a few tracks that I had heard on random videos online before I even knew what synthwave was. I had just assumed it was another genre of dance music. From there, it just kind of happened naturally, more music would pop into my discovery playlist on Spotify, random YouTube videos and indie games started to have more synthwave in them but I don’t think it was until Stranger Things aired that I really discovered the genre. As soon as that show aired, the soundtrack, mainly the theme was everywhere and the term ‘synthwave’ started to be known by a lot more people, that’s when I got hooked.
You always hear the term ‘nostalgia’ when talking about synthwave, but it’s hard to describe the musical elements around nostalgia. For me, even though I was born in '86, It probably wasn't until the '90’s when I started to watch movies from the '80’s and the nostalgic sounds of synths didn’t mean much to me until I started actually making music. Now that I have been surrounded by the genre and all the containing elements I fully understand that nostalgic feeling and I don’t know if that’s what drew me in and I just didn’t know it but when you hear it, you just get it.
KM: Which artists have informed the way in which you approach music creation?
DW: Straight up, Timecop1983 and The Midnight are the reason I started making music, I know, I know, you’re gonna say, “Wow, never heard of those guys before" but that’s just how it started. The Midnight dropped Nocturnal and when I heard it, I was blown away. It’s washed in atmosphere and emotion. The mix of that atmosphere and emotion with Timecop1983’s dreamy synths sent me over the edge, I know making music is hard, I’ve played guitar for years and I’m still terrible at it, but something made me go out and buy some gear and start making music.
Nocturnal came out in October 2017 and by December I was making music. Since then, I’ve come to love many, many different genres of synthwave and also discovered a lot of artists that may not be synthwave but are definitely rooted in that post- '80’s resurgence -- Drab Majesty being one. With the rise in synth artists hitting the road and listening to bands like Drab Majesty, my approach these days is make music you can enjoy but also throw some groove on it, make people dance, make people want to come out and see it live. That's what I hope to achieve in the future.
KM: How do you go about creating new music?
DW: I’m fairly new to producing (18 months), so when I finished my first complete song Artificial I instantly moved onto the next and quickly ditched it as I thought it sounded too similar to Artificial. At that point, I hadn’t found my sound and thought that producing another song that had Bladerunner vibes would be boring to anyone that listened . What I expected to hear was, “a synthwave song with Bladerunner vibes. How original" but It wasn't long after that I realised the whole cinematic synthwave scene is pretty large with a ton of great artists.
From there on, I just created the music I wanted to listen to. Even though I’m a big metal fan, I do listen to a ton of other stuff. One of my favourite genres is movie scores/modern classical music and I feel I take a lot of influences from those genres when creating new music. My normal routine now is keeping a tidy template so I can just load up my DAW and get to work. Originally I would load up a default template and have to muck about with everything that came with starting a fresh set, but having that tidy template has me making music in no time.
KM: What are some of the projects on which you're working lately?
DW: I really struggled to finish my EP. My session files contained a lot of tracks and my gear was over 10 years old. My PC was fine but the audio interface really struggled and it was a headache to keep a session running efficiently. I took a small break after the release. I had pretty much locked myself in my room for four months doing the EP and got back to work early December with some new gear.
The smart guy inside me thought that wiping my PC and having a tidy DAW with the only plugins I used would speed up my work. Technically I was right, but install issues meant I had undiagnosed problems for a month. It wasn't until mid-January that I had everything sorted and had a stable system, ready to record music.It took me a good month to get back in the groove but I'm working on music daily. I have a collab with my buddy Arctic Mega Defender due out soon along with work on my next full album.
KM: Where do you want to take your music going forward?
DW: I make cinematic synthwave, the kind of stuff you can put on and just chill to, but the problem is that it doesn’t transfer well to a live show and I would love to play live. Synthwave artists that perform live aren’t that rare but there are nowhere near the same number as touring rock artists. The live synthwave scene has gotten a lot larger in the last couple of years and I want to be a part of that so I’m currently trying to find a balance of producing cinematic-sounding synthwave but also upping the tempo, cutting the long intros and just making something you want to dance to.
KM: How do you see the current state of the synthwave scene?
DW: The scene at the moment is crazy good and I think the biggest it’s ever been. More and more artists are doing tours, the indie scene is packed and full of artists on the verge of breaking out and it's an all round great thing to be a part of. I feel as if so many people wrap themselves up and never venture past the top artists. The scene has so much to offer and a ton of great, undiscovered artists
KM: How do you reinvigorate yourself creatively?
DW: As soon as I put music on to listen to, all I think about is switching it off and making music. I don’t think I’ve been in the game long enough to the point that I go through spells of not being able to create. I’ve just been making music a little over a year, so by any standard, I’m as green as they come. The only thing that had stopped me producing of late was PC problems. I upgraded my system in the middle of December and nothing worked properly till mid-January. Honestly, by then, along with taking some time off after releases I felt like I had forgotten how to make music!
Now we are all good. My main priority right now is just keeping on that production grind. With a kid on the way, I need to produce as much as I can. I hope that by the time I’m changing diapers I have enough music produced that I can be a dad but also make music at a relaxed pace. Music is hard, it’s stressful and it takes over your life, finding that balance is the real goal in keeping creative.