An Interview with U.K. Synthwave Producer Nathaniel Wyvern
Nathaniel Wyvern is a synthwave producer based in Aberdeen, Scotland. He explores his fascination with space and the cosmos through atmospheric, textured synthwave soundscapes. I talked to him about how his passion for music started, how he creates new music and his views on the current state of synthwave music.
Karl Magi: How did you first get passionate about making music?
Nathaniel Wyvern: When I was in school as a kid, we used to run school musicals. At the time, I was enthused about being involved in that sort of thing. I ended up singing in musicals like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat that we performed in front of the local community. As I decided that I wanted to do architecture as a career, I started gearing up for that and I got bored with music. It wasn’t until I got the first laptop of my own, when I was about 17, that I started thinking, “Hmm…what can I do with this?”
At the time, I was listening to a lot of synthpop and my only experience with DAWs and software was Garageband from school. I obviously didn’t know how it worked, other than sticking loops together, but that was my only reference point. I asked my parents for Magix Music Maker because it ran on Windows and it all spiraled out from there.
KM: How did you first become interested in creating synthwave music?
NW: Getting into synthwave was accidental for me. I’ve spent a lot of time with freeware and a lot of the best free plugins are emulations of old synthesizers, so the ingredients themselves added up to something retrowavey/synthwavey, rather than me being involved in the community in any way. While there is a growing U.K. synthwave movement, it’s still more focused in England and especially in London. Where I am in Aberdeen, there isn’t much of a scene or many other producers, so anything related to synthwave that has developed for me has been purely from the Internet.
KM: What is your approach to creating new music?
NW: My primary input method is keys. I have a little Korg microKEY 37 MIDI keyboard and before that I had a Korg nanoKEY which was kind of rubbish, but it did the job at the time. I generally start by either playing chords and humming along to sketch out an idea in my head or playing loops until I get something that sounds fun.
Some producers are very sound-design oriented. They’ll start from a bass sound or a lead and work from there. For me, it’s all about the little melodies and arpeggios. The hook-y elements are what keeps me coming back to the music. I can’t stand drum programming, but as long as I have a track where I can get the hook right, then I can stand spending hours working on drums.
Most of my process is MIDI and VST-oriented. I have tried messing around with samples and sometimes I’ll re-sample myself, but I’ve found that MIDI object workflow tends to be fastest for me.
KM: I’ve noticed that your work has a strong space theme. What is it about space that fascinates you?
NW: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve watched things like Star Trek and Dr. Who. A lot of the books that I’ve read have been sci fi. Obviously NASA continues to innovate and explore the universe from our planet which is pretty cool. I find space both beautiful and inspiring. Spacey music allows you to can explore the darkness it too. By having space as a focal point, it isn’t limiting because you can explore lots of different tones and atmospheres. I do have a few other themes in the background, but I haven’t developed them yet. I’ll push them forward when I’ve got enough material finished.
KM: Who are some of the musical artists that have influenced how you approach music?
NW: The most obvious one for me is M83. In his last couple of albums, he’s really managed to come into his own. Hurry Up We’re Dreaming is an amazing double LP. I love that everything about it flows together. If you miss a track, it doesn’t lessen the experience, but it’s best when you play it all the way through. Over the last couple of years, I’ve become obsessed by the idea that standalone tracks that benefit from gapless playback. I’m slowly starting to bring that into my own work. On my last EP Spacewalk, every track kind of resolves itself but it isn’t until you listen all the way through that the whole album comes together.
Otherwise I listen to a lot of indie rock with bands like Speak. I really love their big but layered sound. They’re also willing to go weird places in a fun way. They don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a lot of elements of older rock music that I’m trying to incorporate into my work now. The other influence that I mention on my bio is CHRVCHES. While I’m not as happy with their third album, I feel their first two albums are quite influential to how I approach pop music.
Currently I’m trying to work on a follow up to the Spacewalk EP heading in a more orchestral, darksynth direction. I’m struggling to tie that one together right now, but I’ll get there eventually. I’m also looking into exploring more traditional synthwave sounds, so hopefully that’ll keep things busy in the next couple of months. While I’m definitely synthwave, I have a habit of not necessarily following the rules, so that means there’s a whole lot of unexplored territory for me in the genre.
KM: How do you think the synthwave scene is doing overall?
NW: There’s a lot of cinematic synthwave going on right now and you’ve also got the popwave stuff. It’s odd because right now, I think The Midnight are probably the biggest synthwave act, but you look at their stats on Spotify and they’re getting 600-700,000 monthly listeners. It’s a tiny number when you compare it to the upper echelons of pop, so there’s a hell of a lot of room to grow there. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what people bring to the table. With the growth of original content programming in sci fi, it’s having its own rebirth. While the current quality isn’t super high, as people keep pushing themselves to stand out, I think we’re going to get more movies with a wider variety of soundtracks including synthwave.
KM: What are the challenges that the synthwave scene is facing?
NW: There are the obvious promo channels for synthwave, but some of them are being destroyed by YouTube’s algorithm. I’m sure you’ve heard about The 80’s Guy having his channel destroyed by YouTube and all of his content wiped out. While there are enough people who support his good work and I’m sure he’ll survive, it’s not very helpful for the growth of synthwave. The only reason why NewRetroWave will survive is because they’re not just a promo channel now, they’re also a record label. There’s a hell of a lot of artists that have a smaller listener base than I do which is quite scary when you think about it! How are they going to be able to break through? People say, “if you make good music, you’ll be able to break through!” but it isn’t that simple.
KM: How do you keep yourself inspired to create new music?
NW: Right now, it’s more of an addiction than anything else. When I get writer’s block, it’s not that I just push through it, but I keep tweaking things until something pops out. Sometimes I go through periods of listening to a ton of music and then I’ll make no music while I process it. Last year, I went through a phase of being completely obsessed with Caravan Palace, for example. If you can keep exploring new musical ideas, your brain will keep thinking up new riffs on those ideas. For me, it’s about exploration and not just about staying in my own little bubble, otherwise I would end up just recycling bad ideas.
Finally I want to give a shoutout to all the curator folk on Twitter. They’re all lovely people! Neon Fawkes, Synthwave Redneck and all those folks are really good. It’s nice to have nice people essentially.