Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!
Jacob Calta is a synthwave producer who creates layered, multi-faceted music that draws widely from a whole host of different musical genres to generate strong images in the minds of his listeners. I talked to him about how his passion for music started, how he goes about creating new music and what he thinks about the pros and cons of the synthwave scene as it stands now.
Karl Magi: How did your passion for making music first get sparked?
Jacob Calta: My passion for making music was sparked at the beginning of middle school. I had a few children's TV shows that I enjoyed throughout elementary school, and one of them was Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends. I remember the music written by the series composers Mike O'Donnell and Junior Campbell very vividly, to the point where I can tell you that they used a Roland Jupiter 6 and a Prophet 2000 for the show.
One day, I opened up my school-provided MacBook and started transcribing these tunes into GarageBand. From there, I began exploring all avenues of music; jazz, classical, rock, metal, and electronica among others. I actually had a greater interest in classical music early on. I still have an interest now, so I try to write little pieces in classical form, I would love to have a symphony that I've written performed at some point, and I have ideas for an opera that I have yet to write.
KM: When it comes to synthwave music, what are the thematic and musical elements that drew you in?
JC: Synthwave as a genre drew me in not necessarily for the culture, but for the sounds themselves. The timbres of analog synths, the grooves laid down; it all really took me away to a variety of neon-lit worlds in my head. As a composer, hearing these incredible sounds put together into earworm after earworm, it almost hypnotizes you to a point.
KM: Tell me about the musicians, artists, filmmakers and authors from whom you draw creative inspiration.
JC: My main inspirations are composers Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Stelvio Cipriani, Fabio Frizzi, Isao Tomita, John Carpenter, and Claudio Simonetti. I cite these people, as not only do I enjoy their music immensely,but their work directly influences my writing. Herrmann uses whole tones to move between chords, so do I. Schifrin plays with syncopated rhythms in a certain way, so do I. I'm never afraid to admit to having explicit influences, as I find the execution of blending different styles and ideas yields original results, even if you can pinpoint those influences down to specific motifs and chord progressions.
KM: In general, how do you go about creating new music from inception to finished track?
JC: When it comes to creating a piece, it really starts with either a chord progression or a rhythm. I've hit a point where I let inspiration come naturally, I only write when I feel compelled to, so once I get some chords and a groove going, I take off from there. I always like experimenting with different genre blends. Often times chiptune synths will find their way into my pieces. I wrote an ambient piece late last year that I feel leans more into vaporwave than anything else. A Theremin synth that I've made has become almost a staple of my work as of late. Most recently, I played with employing a synth saxophone in a project I'm working on. There is something to be said for eclecticism in regards to style, so I always like to have some shakeup between compositions, some different timbres or a new motif.
KM: Tell me about the current projects on which you're working now.
JC: At the moment, I have two projects going. The most recent is my efforts on making a proper debut LP. I was thinking of it being a summertime sort of record. When I had ByteMapper (a damn fine artist) listen through the track that I planned to be the opener, I joked that, "records like these are probably a dime a dozen." I guess what will differentiate it will be my emphasis on the nocturnal.
The opener is called Sunset and I feel what I want to do with this is sort of create impressions of night life on a beach. People making love, the odd night surfer; little character pieces that create a larger picture. I feel this might be a more sensual record than I'm used to as I want to take it in a spacier, dreamwave direction and I've always found something alluring about life by the sea. It is something I'm currently exploring to a certain point in some screenplays that I'm writing.
The second is a musical score for a film called Portals directed by Bobby Castro, an independent filmmaker out in California. Bobby and I are approaching the project in what we've termed "Italian style," meaning I write the music and he does with it as he sees fit in the editing bay. Working with him has been a blast as I've only scored school projects and my piss-poor high school filmmaking, so to have a film of this composure, leaning towards the Italian genre of cinema that I find so terribly compelling is something that I couldn't have fathomed years ago.
KM: Where do you want to take your musical career going forward?
JC: My end game is to actually become a filmmaker. I am writing several screenplays and attending college to major in cinema studies. I'm also active as a reviewer on Twitter. I kind of won't say Film Twitter if only because I have my thumb in too many pies; I chat with anyone willing to chat. People who are explicitly about cult cinema, Indies, mainstream, obscure stuff etc; are all people I will converse with and even receive feedback from and give feedback to in relation to our work.
However, music will still play a massive role as I do have a film making friend interested in having me score his upcoming project and I find that music is a great way to keep myself sane. When I couldn't make a short film, I made music. It is a creative outlet unlike any other. Although my "career" is more that of a hobbyist, I do want to release something regularly, at least once a year. Maybe its an EP, maybe its a few singles or possibly I can make a full LP once a year. I'll just have to wait and see what the future holds.
KM: Tell me your views on synthwave music as it stands right now. What are the pros and cons as you see them?
JC: Synthwave is a strange genre in that I find it exists as its own entity with its own ideas and culture, yet it also has become a massive gateway to music from the '80s. For each time I've booted up Bandcamp and took an Alpha Chrome Yayo EP for a spin and for every installment of SR Synth Weekly that I watch, I find myself equally attracted to the work of Eurythmics, Wang Chung, Jan Hammer and vocal artists like Michael Jackson and David Bowie.
The pros of a genre like this are that the nostalgia isn't an entirely vacant one. I'm only just out of high school, but I imagine a lot of producers were at least born at a time where they were getting facefuls and earfuls of MTV, and god-tier electronica by the likes of Vangelis and Jarre. Maybe not even directly in the '80s, but at a time when '80s music was still in heavy rotation. It isn't like people in my generation who watch Stranger Things and think they know the '80s like the back of their hand.
What I dig about synthwave is that it creates a sort of world that is embedded in the '80s yet there is still room for experimentation. I think fusion is the genre's future. We've got guys adding on guitars, saxophones, and melding with other genres. I myself have done so with chiptune. I wouldn't be surprised if we get guys or gals taking the timbres of '80s synthcraft and trying to write early Orbital or Aphex Twin style material.
I guess the only con is saturation. I mean, I like a big happy synthwave scene as much as the next guy, but sweet Jesus are there a lot of artists out there! It's a little easier when things are broken up into niche genres within this niche genre like dreamwave and Outrun etc; I still believe that peak synthwave will be knocking on our doors, and those who make it will be the ones who go into the genre not merely for the aesthetic or the sound, but with a clear artistic vision for each project. If you have a concept and you serve that concept to its fullest, everything else will sort itself out thereafter.
I can see that for Levinsky, especially after Electra Complex. I can see that with Byte, especially after his Winter's Veil EP. I won't knock on any of the smaller guys as not only am I one of them, but there are others who are doing phenomenal work leagues above myself. Good example was VA7, who brought an axe and a neo-Baroque composition style to his work.
A key thing for many of these smaller producers is to channel their energy into that one project where the style serves a greater substance. Whether that substance is a story or an impression is up to them. However, I don't think I have seen a musical scene where everyone rallies around everyone else in quite the same way. I try to curate synthwave alongside chiptune, vaporwave, and old school '80s music, and I've already mentioned SR Synth Weekly which I've seen some rotation on myself. If this scene continues to thrive, it is exclusively because we are a scene that will take the time to chat with each other and support one another.
KM: As far as creative burnout is concerned, what do you do to help yourself avoid it?
JC: I keep myself from burning out by either turning my attention towards cinema or by genre-hopping. On Bandcamp, I have a compilation of my synthwave efforts from high school, but I also have an EP of lo-fi hip hop I penned and a single that is explicitly chiptune. No composer should ever fence themselves in. Try new things, get adventurous. I dare any synthwave producer to write a classical composition, or a jazz number. Maybe its in sonata form, maybe it's bossa nova, but write something leagues away from your own sound. It's like a breath of fresh, and as the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life.