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An Interview with U.K. Retrowave Artist Mistaken for Robots

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Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!

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Mistaken for Robots (Nicky Cotter) is a U.K. based retro/chillwave artist who is drawn to the warmth of analogue synth-based music. He seeks to evoke feelings of nostalgia and create emotional connections to music through that nostalgia. I talked to him about his musical background, his creative process and how he recharges his creative batteries.

Karl Magi: How and why did you first get interested in making music?

Nicky Cotter: Music has always been a massive part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of pouring over my parents record collection and listening to certain songs over and over again. I was always fascinated by the sounds of certain records, the instruments involved and what could be done in a recording studio.

I’ve been writing and recording music since my mid teens. I started playing guitar at age 12 and became obsessed with the instrument. I spent almost all of my spare time in my teens practicing guitar. As well as that, l would record my playing on my parent’s hi-fi and eventually, in my mid-teens gained access to a four track tape machine and it blew my mind. The possibilities of combining tracks and bouncing tracks together fascinated me. In my late teens, with the help of a student loan, I managed to get my own 8 track (still tape) and from that point I’ve always had some studio of sorts at my disposal to create music. Over the years I’ve developed it and added gear to it.

KM: What drew you towards making retro/synth type music?

NC: Whilst my main instrument has always been guitar, my earliest experience of buying and listening to music is with the largely non-guitar synth pop of the 1980s. On my 7th birthday, I was given albums by Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw to accompany my new personal stereo. My love of synthesizers began at that point. My teenage years were dominated by rock music with the ‘90s grunge and metal scenes being my main focus.

However, in my early 20’s I began to drift towards electronic music and began to take a very keen interest in the music of WARP Records. I also began to enjoy more mainstream dance music. This brought me back in touch with synthesizers and reminded me of the fond memories I had of ‘80s music. Around the same time my cousin loaned me his Roland XP-50. This was the first time I’d had my hands on a ‘real’ synthesizer. I was amazed at the power of the sounds, pads and textures it could create and the emotive effect it had on me. I was hooked from that point.

The singer and keyboard player of the band I was in at that time had a number of vintage analogue synths and he leant me his MultiMoog for a few months. This made me appreciate the warmth of analogue equipment and the ‘retro’ vibe you can get from it.

The emotions and feelings of nostalgia that I was getting from these synths and also from regularly listening to retro style electronic artists and even the original synth pioneers of the ‘70s and ‘80s drove me to make the music that I do. I seek always to make music that evokes the strong emotions associated with nostalgia and, for me, connects in a way that other music can’t.

KM: Who are some of the musical artists who've inspired you and why have they done so?

NC: Boards of Canada have been a huge inspiration. I have been a fan for years. They were the first artists that really showed me how far you could take the retro/analogue sound and how deep its impact could be. They are all about subtlety and their music resonates very powerfully with me. Their ability to evoke wistful feelings of nostalgia and connect deeply through music is unparalleled. I’m inspired by Aphex Twin for his atmospheres, ambient sensibilities and creative use of equipment. The Cocteau Twins music has always been around me in my adult life. They created amazing atmospheres and beautiful sounds which are full of ‘80s flavour. Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Jan Hammer , Keith Emerson and Gary Numan all inspired me with their pioneering synth work. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno are also a huge source of inspiration on the technical side of things.

KM: Tell me more about your approach to creating new tracks from the initial idea to the finished piece.

NC: It often starts with a sound that will create a chain reaction of ideas that may or may not become a finished piece. Occasionally it might be an image that evokes a feeling or triggers a memory that I then try to describe with music. For every track I finish, there were probably about ten hat were started but aborted at some point. I get bored of tracks very easily and if I lose interest I tend the bin them. I hope it means that those tracks which reach completion will have something undeniable about them, something special that inspired me at the start and that persists and still remains at the end of the process.

One key part of the process, at the end, is knowing when to stop. Knowing when something is ‘done’. In the creation of a piece of music, or any art for that matter, there will be distinct high points. It’s very important to stop on a high. The temptation to keep going to continue adding tracks, more detail, more sounds is always strong but that can often dilute the energy or clarity. The key is identifying the point where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and stopping there.

KM: What are some of the projects on which you're currently working?

NC: A few tracks are currently reaching completion that I will hopefully be releasing in the next few months.

Where would you like to take your music in the future?

NC: I would love to score music for T.V. or a movie. I think that would be huge fun. I’m also curious about performing my material live. I would really enjoy that challenge.

How do you recharge your creative batteries?

NC: Enforced abstinence from playing music or being in the studio. With a busy life away from music, it can be hard to get time to create. I find that coming back to my studio after a long break makes everything feels fresh. Nothing is stale and I’m hungrier than ever to make music.This mental state has always yielded good results.

I think forcing yourself to create, forcing yourself to be in the studio every spare minute, and flogging the whole process to death only results in writer's block, numb ears, frustration and confused work. Know when to walk away! Know when to take a break. I believe the most important part of any artistic endeavour is the creative process and the place you go to mentally when you’re making something. That’s the part that heals and nourishes the soul. That’s the really fun bit. The end result is much less important. However, if others enjoy the results of your process that’s a fantastic bonus!