An Interview with Synthwave Producer Shikimo
Shikimo (Ryan Unash) is an Iowa-based synthwave producer. His music is informed by a combination of a love for all things '80s, a fascination with science fiction and space and an interest in video games. In a Skype interview, I talked to him about his creative process, his upcoming Umbra Complex album and how he recharges his creative batteries.
KM: What first sparked your interest in making music?
Ryan Unash: Way back in third grade, my mom signed me up for piano lessons. I was always into music or at least as much as you can be as an elementary school student. I thought that was really cool! That experience initially sparked my interest in music as a whole. I turned to the upright bass starting in middle school and played that all the way through high school.
It was in my freshman year of high school that a buddy of mine showed me Basshunter. Basshunter was my first real exposure to electronic music and that’s when I realized that this was what I really enjoyed listening to. I had a musical background, but I’d never really composed any of my own music, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I looked into FL Studio and started experimenting in 2011-ish.
KM: What are the elements of synthwave music that interest you and draw you into it?
RU: I’ve always been a really big fan of ‘80s culture as a whole, but I find that there’s a lot of technological and video game elements in synthwave that have helped shape it and make it what it is. I’ve always been a really big video game guy and computer person, so that whole aesthetic really drew me in. When I first started, I was really into UK Wave artists like Kareful and Skeller and I just found synthwave from there by listening to similar songs on BandCamp and YouTube. I found Mitch Murder and Lazerhawk and the rest is history.
KM: Are there any artists that have been especially influential on your approach to music making?
RU: My biggest influence at the beginning was Deadmau5. I was influenced by how much atmosphere he can bring to songs while still being so simple. He almost has a minimalist style that I think is incredible. My main sources of production influence these days are Noah B. and Turbo Knight. I’m really heavily influenced by them.
KM: How do you approach the process of making new music?
RU: I’m strongly influenced by visuals, so the first thing I do is get a setting or a time of day in mind. I like to base everything around some nice pads and saturated synths. I build the core of the track first and then think about my bass, percussion and leads. Everything else just helps to fill out that core.
KM: Tell me more about some of the things you’ve been working on of which you’re especially proud?
RU: I just released a new track today alongside Fractal Man called Ghost Trigger. It was a really fun project to work on. He is unbelievably knowledgeable about production, so it was really fun to work with him. There’s a couple of other singles I’ve released - Binary Star and Invasion - the latter of the two I did alongside Turbo Knight. It was a really fun track to put together and it was more the traditional style of synthwave with eighth-note basslines, heavy synths and four-on-the-floor beats. I’d say that of all the tracks I’ve done to date, Binary Star is probably my favourite. I really, really enjoy that one.
KM: What are your plans for the future?
RU: I’m releasing a new album towards the end of May. The tentative release date is May 24th. It’s called Umbra Complex. All three of the singles I’ve released are going to be part of that album. It’s going to be 10 or 11 tracks depending on whether or not I finish the track that I’m still collaborating on with another artist. It’s going to be my biggest project to date and that’s what’s happening in the short term.
Longer term, my ultimate dream would be scoring movies. It would be so fun, but obviously it’s a very niche market to get into. I’m just having fun continuing to release music and seeing where it takes me.
KM: Tell me more about the Umbra Complex album. What are the themes and ideas you wanted to explore on it?
RU: It’s very heavily based off of planets in general. For example, the track Binary Star was inspired by Star Wars. There’s a scene where Luke Skywalker is looking at the binary suns on Tatooine. That scene itself isn’t necessarily dark, but the track has a darker tone than anything I’ve done so far and my music seems to be going in that direction, so I’m pretty excited for that. I’m finally getting to the point where I enjoy listening to my own music!
Overall the album has moments of epic power and then more ambient (but not pure ambient) dips in between. The whole album is moving in a spacewave direction with those strong science fiction influences.
KM: Where do you think the synthwave genre is at right now and where would you like to see it go in the future?
RU: I’ll be brutally honest. I think it’s oversaturated right now with people making generic synthwave. Generic synthwave doesn’t take complex melody writing or technical intricacy. You could download a LinnDrum pack and Synth1 and pump out a track in a couple of hours.
Synthwave still has so much potential - I think we’re only scratching the surface right now. We’re at the crossroads of people really making some different sounding synthwave which I think is really exciting.
I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to see synthwave divide into a lot of different subgenres. I think that a big trend right now is chillwave music - I think that more chill resonance is going to explode. I can’t believe it hasn't already. I also hope that the same thing happens for spacewave! I have my fingers crossed.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
RU: I would say that it’s easy to get into ruts and one thing that really refreshes me is hanging out with my friends. If I coop myself up night after night and work on music, it starts to get to me. It’s nice to break out every once in a while.