An Interview with U.K. Synthwave Artist Alpha Chrome Yayo
Alpha Chrome Yayo describes his music as having a cinematic synthwave sound. He says it's influenced by, "fast cars, smoke-filled arcades, noise-polluted skylines and late-night VHS tapes."
I talked to him about his creative process, how he first became drawn to synthwave music and where he thinks the scene is going.
Interview with Alpha Chrome Yayo
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in making music?
Alpha Chrome Yayo: The first movie I remember seeing was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and I was obsessed with it. Hell, I still am! I watched both it and Bogus Journey over the weekend, and they both still rule.
It made me really want to shred on the guitar. I wanted to sound just like those hair metal dudes on the soundtracks like Extreme and Power Tool. I wanted to sound like all those guys who were never in the pantheon of great bands, but they could wail. I tried going to an after school guitar club and was handed a clunky nylon-strung brute of a thing and told to strum along to Kumbaya. It sucked, I sucked and there was zero shredding whatsoever.
I went back to playing piano, and took up sax too, but then my parents got me a Strat when I was 10 or 11 and everything changed. This thing in my hands was explosive, even just touching it made the coolest sounds.
I practised hard - Steve Vai was my idol, and I read about his intense practice sessions that lasted for solid days. Mine were more like jamming to Van Halen for hours at a time, but I got pretty good and my folks actively encouraged me to crank my amp and just go to town on it (for which I am eternally grateful).
I kept up the sax and keys too, but aside from playing in a few bands when I was a teenager and having dreams of being a virtuoso rock god, I didn’t really do much with it. Until last year when, like a Terminator sent through time, Alpha Chrome Yayo was born in a flash of fork lightning. Also, like a Terminator, I was completely nude. Probably.
KM: What drew you towards making synthwave music?
ACY: I started making synthwave music in 2018, under the name Alpha Chrome Yayo. Periodically shredding the shit out of my glorious ice white Ibanez was good fun, but I really started to miss recording music. I put together a modest recording space with a view to making tracks for background music in tabletop RPGs, which I’m a huge fan of.
I really enjoyed cranking out a few dungeon synth-sounding tracks with that in mind, but it just wasn’t scratching that proverbial itch. I was listening to a lot of movie OSTs in the car at the time - Tangerine Dream’s awesome soundtrack to Michael Mann’s Thief in particular - and I loved the interplay between synth and guitar. It was so exciting, painting pictures of flawed protagonists, shady arrangements and mean streets, but also moments of hope, tenderness and romance.
Synthwave was an obvious next step. Already a fan of the genre, I barrelled head-first down that glorious neon-lit rabbit hole and never looked back. I love that it’s a handy catch-all, but can mean so many things. It’s a genre less about pigeonholing, more about painting sonic images. It could be the sound of a rain-slick street in a crime-ridden metropolis, or the stomach-twisting excitement of junior prom. Or the trigger-happy intensity of a corrupt cop with morals decaying faster than his office decor.
For me, it’s misrepresented as a genre riding only on nostalgia - more accurately it’s a genre revelling in experiences and that kicks ass.
KM: Who are some of the artists who've influenced your music and why are they influential for you?
ACY: I’ve always loved metal and that’s definitely had a huge influence over my guitar playing - Randy Rhoads is a big one, Michael Amott from Carcass is another. They’re both really expressive players who can shred with the best of ‘em, but with texture and emotion. I’m also a huge, huge fan of Van Halen, and David Lee Roth’s solo stuff with Steve Vai. I mean, I know I’ve already mentioned Vai, but he’s had such a monumental influence on me.
A lot of people unfairly have him down as ‘just’ a stunt guitar player, but he’s a lot more than that - just ‘cos he plays fast doesn’t mean he does it without feeling. He’s a really funny guy too. I mean, I don’t know him, that’s not a weird flex. I’ve just seen him live and he had me pissing myself laughing.
In terms of synthwave artists, Mitch Murder is a huge one, as is Bart Graft - both guys paint such big, almost tangible pictures with their music. More recently, I’ve been going wild for Dimi Kaye, his album Dangerous is the best thing I’ve heard in years. Honestly, check it out. Today. It’ll blow your mind.
I use a lot of chiptune elements in my tracks as well, so video game artists like the legendary Yuzo Koshiro and the SST Band are massive for me and, being that I’m ostensibly a synthwave dude, it’s probably no surprise that I’m heavily influenced by movies. Scarface is massive for me, particularly Giorgio Moroder’s score. He’s a bona fide Italo legend and I was psyched to put out a cover of his seminal track Chase from Midnight Express recently.
To be honest, it’s not just the movies and the soundtracks themselves, but the mythos surrounding them. For me, the best synthwave is about capturing how these movies feel when we play them back in our minds, rather than replicating exactly how they sound.
I try to remember how I felt when I walked into my local video rental place in the early ‘90s, and saw Zombie Flesh Eaters sitting on the rack. I remember what it was like seeing the lurid green zombie hand reaching from an already-tattered box, breathing the plasticky smell of freshly unrolled movie posters and the slightly-singed-rubber of worn out tape heads.
That’s what my track Video Nasty is about really. It’s definitely an homage to composers like Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti, but moreover it’s a love letter to the local video library and the dude who ran it, Harry. Without him I honestly think my life would have been very, very different.
KM: Tell me about how you approach the process of creating new tracks?
ACY: Have you ever played a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons? I love ‘em, and for me they’re at their most gripping when the gamesmaster really paints a clear picture with his words. I don’t just want to know there’s a castle on a hill. I want to know about the grimy moss taking over its decrepit brickwork, and the barely-faded bloodstains around the portcullis hinting at fresh hostility and sore wounds. Can I smell the comforting aroma of plums stewing and meat roasting? Or is the air thick with ammonia and sulfur?
I try to approach music the same way, starting with a really clear image in my head that I’m gonna do my best to paint with music. It sounds wanky, but it definitely helps me.
From a technical aspect, I tend to start with a basic bassline or chord progression and build up from there. I enjoy the whole process to be honest, even getting the EQ right is very satisfying in a solving-a-puzzle type way. My favourite is still ripping out solos though, whether it’s ‘live’ on the axe, or something more programmed and chiptune-ish.
I figure the more fun I have making it, the more fun people will have listening to it. It’s science, probably.
KM: Tell me about your latest single Cut Class | Hall Pass | Mall Dash and the ideas behind it?
ACY: I adore movies by John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, you know, rites de passage, coming of age stuff like The Breakfast Club, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, that sort of thing. I really wanted to capture that feeling with CCHPMD, all the nervous energy and boundless uncertainty of teenage existence.
This is the blurb I wrote for Bandcamp, "The peal of a school bell ringing. The crash of a locker slamming shut. The linoleum-and-floor-polish smell of a school gym. The saccharine aroma of mall food court cookies. The stomach-churning excitement of the teenage experience. This is what Cut Class | Hall Pass | Mall Dash is all about."
I stand by that. The films I mentioned, along with stuff like Teen Wolf and Heathers, were the biggest influence on it of course. The reason those movies resonate with us is the shared reality of the human condition, especially at such a weird time of life.
In terms of what it sounds like, it’s a simple, kind of naïve sounding chord progression with a big cool, crisp reverby melody, with some wild axe solos and whammy abuse thrown in for good measure. I really wanted it to feel comforting but explorative, with blasts of unexpected wildness, just like those movies.
KM: What are your future plans for your music?
ACY: I’ve got a bunch of collaborations in the pipeline at the minute that I’m really excited about, including some with other Belfast producers. There’s a really cool scene blossoming here, kickass artists like Transpacifica, Danny Madigan and Woodvale Pass - we’ll all be putting out material together in the near future. I’ve also got a noisier collab on the horizon that should be awesome but, in standard irritatingly-vague-answer fashion, I can’t really talk about it yet.
I’d also like to get a live show off the ground. It wasn’t something I had planned on doing when I started ACY, but I miss playing to an audience and I’m itching to shred a stage up.
Aside from that, I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing, putting out the best records I can. I get so excited when people dig the stuff I’m putting out and every listen, purchase, encouraging word, radio play or whatever, it all fires me up to keep going. Not to sound too after-school-special, but I’m continually learning all the time. I mean, who isn’t?
KM: Give me your thoughts on the U.K. synthwave scene and how you think it's doing?
ACY: In terms of musical output, I think it’s amazing. I’d love more dedicated clubs and all that, but that’s so I can live out my Terminator Tech Noir fantasies as much as anything else. The music is the main thing and it’s outrageously good.
The number of acts and the quality of the music being put out is staggering. I guess it harks back to what I touched upon earlier, that the best synthwave isn’t just nostalgia fodder - it’s music that takes the excitement and overblown pomp of that era and twists it into something fresh and vibrant.
I mean rad, soaring axe solos, fast supercars and smoky arcades aren’t cool just ‘cos they were about in the ‘80s. Like velociraptors and monster trucks, they’re cool simply because they’re cool. The takeaway shouldn’t be that cyan/magenta is an awesome colour scheme (even if it is), it should be that the era this music has its roots in was one of endless possibilities and that’s worth celebrating.
Sure there’ll be snobs who’ll think it’s childish and indulgent, but who cares? It’s a genre that looks forward as much as it looks back, and for that reason it’s a flourishing, creative scene.
KM: How do you reinvigorate yourself creatively?
ACY: Creative burnout is a pain in the ass, but I guess it’s only natural. I don’t really find it helpful to start looking places specifically for inspiration; for me that’s a quick road to having tracks sounding forced and dull. Like most synthwave-ish artists, a lot of the stuff I do for fun anyway is massively influential on my work.
Maybe I'll dig out To Live And Die In L.A. or Heat, or play a bit of Mega Drive. Fresh air is good too, I’ve had a ton of things just ‘click’ when I’m out for a walk, miles from an instrument. Maybe my favourite thing to do is go for a drive. I’ve got these bitchin’ leather driving gloves, I’ve used them in a bunch of Alpha Chrome Yayo artwork and stuff. I mean, they’re kind of ridiculous, but I love them.
I put them on and a cool leather jacket, get some great music in the car and go for a drive over the hills, or to the shore. I guess maybe it’s similar to the roleplaying game thing, but it helps me really get into the right frame of mind. I’m a badass synthwave dude, even though I might look like kind of a dickhead.
I like doing covers as well, it helps me keep momentum and it gives me a chance to dissect some of my favourite tracks, find out what makes them cool, and work out what I’m gonna do differently. I touched upon the fact that I find nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake not so thrilling, so when I’m doing covers the trick for me is to celebrate the original work and retain the heart, but also create something new and different. I guess that’s kind of the synthwave ethos as a whole.
The most important thing for me is to remind myself why I’m making music. I love it, and I’m thrilled when other people dig it too. It’s the greatest compliment to know there are people all over the world listening to my tunes and - hopefully - appreciating them. That gets me so jazzed and fires me up to make more.