Interview with U.S. Synthwave Artist Watch Out For Snakes
Watch Out For Snakes (Matt Baum) makes 8-bit synthwave that combines the sensibilities of synthwave music with 8-bit samples from NES and Atari consoles. He aims to create music that's dark, full of energy and doesn't take itself overly seriously. I talked to him about how he got into music, his creative process and where he finds inspiration.
Karl Magi: How did you first get into making music?
Matt Baum: It actually wasn’t my choice so much. My mom pushed me into taking piano lessons as a kid. She had me going to Suzuki Method piano lessons where you have to memorize everything and I hated it, so I only took a year or two of those lessons. I came back to the piano later and studied it normally with a different teacher. I really didn’t appreciate music until middle school.
I had played around on the piano at that point and picked different things out on it. One of the first things that I picked out was the Final Fantasy VI main theme. Doing that let me know that there was more to it than just playing sheet music. When I played Final Fantasy VI, it spoke to me on such a deep level. The way that the soundtrack is set up thematically brought back the feels any time I would hear it. I sat down, picked it out at the piano and actually scored the sheet music for the main theme. It was my first realization that music could be fun.
I ended up taking some improvisation lessons to prep for jazz band audition, but didn’t end up making the cut because I wasn’t good enough forom a sight reading perspective. After that, I didn’t really come back to music until finishing up college.
One of my sister’s friends was starting a hardcore band that I ended up joining. They were looking for something more like melodic hardcore. This was the time when Underoath and some other hardcore bands like it who had synth elements were getting underway. I was with that band for a couple of years. That was when I first started playing keytar and realized I could actually thrown down. It was also my first time performing in front of people on a stage in a full band setting.
KM: How did you get into making synthwave music?
MB: I guess that I came at it from a different place than a lot of other people did. For a lot of people, their “a-ha” moment was hearing the soundtrack to the movie Drive. My stuff is more chiptune inspired. I had been in a previous band that was indie rock with synth elements - we called ourselves “synthpunk.” But it was always a challenge trying to come up with my stable of sounds from so many options, it was too overwhelming to me. Over time, I developed this philosophy that less is more, so chiptune and chip sounds in general became really attractive to me.
Following the synthpunk band, I tried to start a different project with a friend of mine. We were really influenced by gritty, minimalist indie rock like Bloc Party and a Canadian band called We Are Wolves. My whole approach was to use Nintendo-synthesized chiptunes in that vein of music. Eventually my friend dropped out because of life stuff and I was at the point where I wanted to make music, but I wanted to do it on my own with a focus on chip instrumentals.
I ended up taking this love of '80s film and video games that I already had and started crafting what, for me, was like a soundtrack to a video game that never existed. That’s where the concept for my album came from. As I was writing, I became aware of people like Kavinsky, College and Com Truise. All of those groups were inspirational to me in the sense that they let me know that what I was doing from a solo instrumental, minimal synth perspective was something which was coming up. It was something that people were interested in.
KM: Who are some of the artists that you’ve found inspirational in your work?
MB: Growing up, I was into Depeche Mode and New Order. I’ve always been into synth-inspired stuff. From a contemporary perspective, I would say that I’ve really enjoyed what Com Truise does. College was probably the biggest inspiration for me because he has more of a minimal approach like I do. I also like the idea that on Secret Diaries and some of College’s other work, some of the songs have a “rawness” and aren’t fully-fleshed out in a traditional song structure. The fact that he released these raw ideas which were still something beautiful to listen to helped me to get out of the rut of everything having to fit into traditional norms of what a “song” is.
KM: Tell me more about your creative approach to music.
MB: I find the best thing to do when I’m writing a song is to get away from the computer and from keyboards. I watch a lot of ‘80s film, I listen to a lot of ‘80s music and I play a lot of retro video games. The first step is finding my inspiration and I’ve never really felt like sitting in front of a keyboard and trying to force something was the best way to do it. If I hear something that would be cool to explore, I pull out my phone, record that little snippet and save it for later.
When I’m sitting down at my computer and trying to come up with ideas, I’ll listen back through those recordings to get inspiration. Sometimes I take inspiration from something that already exists, sometimes there’s a particular technique that I hear in a song that’s interesting and makes me wonder how I could do something similar with the instrumentation that I use, so that’s generally how I start.
From there, I just let the music take me wherever it does. I generally sit down and write the rhythm section first and then I’ll start crafting leads on top of that.
KM: What was your approach to the creation of the UPGRADE album?
MB: UPGRADE was an album that started as a therapy session for me. I’d had a really rough time the year before I started writing it. I had three different family members that passed away including my mom and then I’d also been hospitalized myself for some medical stuff that runs genetically in my family.
That whole album was just about me feeling out where I was and dealing with some of the depression that I had both from being ill and losing those family members. The album started out as a concept revolving around the story of this guy who had an illness that ended up being his strength. That was the idea that I wanted to push on.
When I started writing all these tracks and looked at them as a whole narratively. It started to turn into a slightly different story about this kid who was cybernetically enhanced, overcame his own illnesses and ended up becoming stronger as a result. That’s where the idea for the album came from.
KM: Where do you want to take your music in the future?
MB: I just write one song at a time and I don’t think too much about where I want to go sonically. I just hear something that inspires me and I start thinking about how I can incorporate aspects of that into what I’m doing. Albums organically start to come out of the individual songs that I write. The last couple of songs that I’ve written have been themed around war for whatever reason. Maybe that’ll end up being the next concept album. I’ll write four or five songs, listen to them and rearrange their order as I think about what they all mean to me as a whole.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
MB: I just play a lot of video games and watch a lot of movies. It just so happens that a lot of the media that I consume is from the ‘80s and early ‘90s timeframe. I’ll hear a portion of a soundtrack or a particular quote in a movie that gets my juices going. Getting away from the laptop and the keyboards is the best way for me to do it.