An Interview with U.S. Synthwave Duo Best Korea
Best Korea is a Montana-based synthwave duo made up by Ray Jimenez and Dacotah Stordahl creating music that, while rooted in the basic formula of synthwave music, seeks to branch out and create fresh music that moves beyond those formulas. I talked to them about how the band got together, their approach to crafting new music and their views on the direction and future of synthwave music.
Interview with Best Korea
Karl Magi: How did Best Korea come together?
Ray Jimenez: I was playing in a band called Sigmund with my close friend, Spencer, and another guy, Shane, who I knew through a mutual friend. The band was just the three of us. Spencer was on drums and Shane and I switched between keys, guitar and bass. Shane bailed and started another band without telling Spencer or me. He ended up using a bunch of the songs that we’d written, so I was like, “Oh this isn’t good!” I talked to my friend Charlie about finding a new band member. Charlie is just one of those guys who knows literally everybody in the music community. He’s like, “I know a guy!” I thought I’d see how it went and he introduced me to Dacotah. We ended up working together as Sigmund.
At some point, Spencer decided that he wanted to become a pastor and he took off to go to seminary. We were like, “Well we’re shit out of luck because we don’t have a drummer!” We had originally started Best Korea as a joke project, when Spencer was out of town, playing little shows and parties. We would just drag in a bunch of synths and drum machines and make a show up on the fly for an hour. We didn’t initially take it seriously, but people ended up really liking it. It just took off and that’s where we’re at.
KM: How did you both get interested in synthwave/retrowave music?
Dacotah Stordahl: I was the one that probably got Ray into it. I turned him onto Carpenter Brut and that kind of thing.
RJ: Yeah! I had always loved synth music. I was super into synth rock like Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations, Shiny Toy Guns’ Season of Poison and more indie stuff like Phoenix and White Lies. It was also a little weird because a lot of the metal stuff I was listening to started incorporating synth elements. I was also getting into random stuff that friends from Seattle would send me.
DS: It clicked with you around the time it clicked with all the metalheads, I think. For whatever reasons, metalheads seem to share a collective connection with synthwave that they don’t with other styles of electronic music.
RJ: I went from being into synth pop to listening to Gunship, Carpenter Brut and Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack. The more I got into it, the more I realized that I really liked it. I grew up listening to some classic ‘80s stuff. My dad was into Toto so I’d hear cool stuff like the CS-80 synth solos. I got into stuff like Depeche Mode and New Order in college.
KM: Who are some of the artists that have been influential to you?
DS: A huge part of my inspiration comes from the artists in the late ‘80s to early ‘90s that were taking the synthpop genre and really experimenting sonically with it. Depeche Mode is probably my favorite band, and I was also hugely inspired to get into synthesis by the works of Vince Clarke (Erasure, Yazoo, etc;). I also definitely draw a little from industrial stuff as well - stuff like KMFDM, and Front Line Assembly, and even a little bit of the sounds of early Nine Inch Nails..
RJ: A lot of my influences come from ‘80s rock. I also really got into a lot of indie rock too.
DS: I think your background is more metal, and my background is more electronic. *Laughs*
RJ: Yeah he’s more electronic, I’m more metal/indie. I got into bands like Moderat, Future Islands and Strange Talk in the mid 2010’s. Once I got into synthwave and Outrun, it was people like Carpenter Brut, Gunship, the Midnight, Ollie Wride and FM-84. A lot of people talk about writing synthwave/Outrun as doing sort of an ‘80s nostalgia thing.
DS: I dunno, I feel like it isn’t necessarily a nostalgia for the ‘80s itself, but more like a nostalgia for an ‘80s futurist vision. Nothing in the synthwave aesthetic is particularly relevant to what the actual 1980’s were like - it’s more continuing in the spiritual footsteps of Blade Runner and Miami Vice.
RJ: A lot of people draw from that nostalgia, where I think I draw more inspiration from modern synthwave.
KM: Talk me through the creative process and how it works for you both?
DS: Ray tends to write a lot of individual riffs and fiddle with synthesizers more. He’s better with music theory than I am and I’m better at sound design. Usually what I would do is write a foundational track and get the structure fleshed out. Ray would come in and suggest other parts.
RJ: I disappeared for a little bit and now that we’re back and collaborating together, it’s a better process. Our collaborative stuff is some of our strongest stuff. There’s one song on our upcoming album where we argued about a very specific drum fill.
DS: There’s a 30 second drum fill that leads up to the end of a song. I swear to God we spent like four hours sitting there and arguing about how it would work.
RJ: Once we finished it, I think it’s one of the strongest crescendos of any song we’ve written. When I’m composing, it depends on my mood and what’s happening in my life. I’ll just sit at a synth, play a riff and decide I like how dark it is or I like the melody. I’ll show it to Dac and he’ll throw a bass line and some drums under it and we’ll just build on it.
KM: Tell me more about your upcoming album release?
RJ: The album itself is done as far as composition goes. It’s titled Binary Ghosts, which is kind of a cyberpunk-esque idea even though I wouldn’t call it a cyberpunk album. We really like the title and the idea of getting lost in the digital world and how it applies to life and relationships.
DS: We’re just finishing mixdown and putting the final tweaks on the songs. We just put the first single from it out a couple weeks ago.
RJ: Iron Lung is the first single. I want to re-record some vocals for our next one and hopefully have that one out in February. If I can drop a spoiler, we might have some cool saxophone on the album. We recorded a really great sax solo for a specific song and it turned out super well.
KM: What are your plans for future projects with Best Korea?
RJ: The next album is definitely going to be darker. I try not to shy away from talking about my depression and anxiety disorder because It’s a huge part of who I am. I like to be open about that and I feel like that just takes my writing to darker places. I love dark synthwave and it would be cool to experiment with that.
DS: Binary Ghosts is reasonably upbeat musically, but lyrically it’s not.
RJ: Lyrically it’s very miserable.
DS: I think it’d be really cool to explore our darker sides though.
RJ: We have two or three outlines already. We have a couple of songs already, one that’s mostly fleshed out. It’s funny, we’re not even done the current album and I already feel like I need to write more.
KM: What do you think about the state of your local synthwave scene and more broadly about the synthwave scene in America?
RJ: Magic Sword came through and we were fortunate enough to meet them and play a show with them. It was probably the best turnout we’ve ever had. It was probably the biggest turnout Bozeman’s had for an electronic music show. It was cool to see people engaging with that music. The only electronic music scene we had here for the longest time was the more psychedelic rave scene, so it’s definitely nice to see it branching out a bit locally.
I think the (synthwave scene) in the U.S. is definitely picking up. I’m a pretty big tattoo person and there’s a couple of artists in town who I like to go to. One of them posted a picture of this girl’s tattoo on Instagram. It turns out that she loves synthwave and she’s from Bozeman. She went to New York to see the Midnight play. I realized that she was familiar and that she’d followed the Best Korea account! It’s super cool to see the scene start to take off like that.
DS: What I’m curious to see in the next few years is how it’s going to branch out. Something that kind of bothers me a bit about a lot of synthwave and outrun right now is that, outside of the bigger groups, a lot of synthwave acts tends to lean a little more towards the... formulaic? Homogenous? I don’t know. It feels like a lot of up-and-coming producers fall into a trap of all trying to sound like the guys that pioneered the sound. I understand why, but at the same time, I’d love to see more people pushing the sound forward and experimenting a little. I feel like there’s so much potential waiting right under the surface, especially since the synthwave/Outrun aesthetic is starting to break out more into the mainstream now.
We’re already seeing that starting to happen with things like the new Muse album. It’s sort of a very watered down take on the aesthetic, but I think it’s happening because the industry at large is realizing how much that era is resonating with people right now.
RJ: Actually one thing that really got me into synthwave was Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows. It isn’t a really synthwave score, but it is an amazing synth score. You’re hearing more synthwave in that stuff. There’s also the soundtrack to Stranger Things. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein did a great job with that soundtrack.
DS: I think that there’s a huge ‘80s cultural revival happening right now, especially among the younger millenials that didn’t even actually grow up in that period, which makes me wonder why so many artists are, I guess, playing it safe instead of infusing more of their own flair and life experience into the music.
RJ: I think people resist that change for some reason.
DS: It’s probably because it’s so heavily rooted in nostalgia.
RJ: The backlash to Carpenter Brut’s new album is a great example of that. We love Leather Teeth! I have it on vinyl. I’ll get on Reddit and people will comment that it’s not the old Carpenter Brut. That’s good! Artists should branch out.
KM: How do you each go about recharging your creative batteries?
DS: I think you and I have very different processes.
RJ: I don’t know if I ever need a hard recharge. Sometimes I’ll take a week away. There’s always something in my head, running through it. If I really need a break, I really started running recently. I listen to a lot of death metal, black metal and metalcore when I run, so I’ll run and think about the grooves I’m hearing to figure out how to make them work with a synthesizer. I spend time outdoors, with friends or just being a typical twenty-something and playing some video games.
DS: For me, writing isn’t ever something I feel like I need a break from to decompress or anything. We’d be writing stuff when we were relaxing anyway. *Laughs* I think the only time I really feel like I need a recharge is after sitting at the computer for too long, doing technical stuff like mixing and mastering tracks for release or preparing for live shows. That stuff takes more conscious thought and energy, and is a lot more draining. I definitely take a break from music for a week or so after a big show or after we release something.
RJ: As far as creating goes, I think it’s always happening. As artists, that kind of expression doesn’t stop.