Synth Artist Interview: Serge Levin (Rain4Sale)
Serge Levin is a music producer and writer who creates unique, detailed synthscapes that fuse his love of synth sounds with his songwriter's lyrical craft to produce an intense, personal musical expression. In an interview, he told me about his roots as a musician, the process he goes through when creating new music and about his Vanishing Waves EP.
Karl Magi: How did you get started making music?
Serge Levin: As a young boy, all I wanted to do was to run around outside, play soccer, chase after girls and ultimately get into all kind of trouble, but my mom pushed me to study piano. It all stems from music school. I was very creative in finding ways to get out of going to the music school and I ditched as many classes as I could, but I had a piano teacher for whom I’m thankful because her desire to get the students to be interested was so strong. It beamed out of her and despite all of my efforts not be engaged, I’ve retained a lot of the fundamentals and also just the appreciation for the full spectrum of music.
I get very emotionally attached to certain highlights of my life and whenever we moved or whenever something was happening around me, if there was a song in the background, it would have more of a long term memory imprint on me. In the early ‘80s, my dad listened to a lot of Italian stuff, so that’s what imprinted the stylistic, thematic influences from that period on me.
Growing up in northern California in the early ‘90s, I was strongly influenced by the whole rave culture. I was always into dance. I choreographed my own dance shows. I was sponsored by Nike in high school and college, but at the core, the type of music that really touched me on a more emotional level was ‘80s stuff that mostly came from Italy but also from Germany, Sweden and Belgium.
KM: Tell me about the artists who have been most influential to your music.
SL: I have two major influences. One of them is a Swiss artist, Ueli Schmezer, who went by Jules. As far as I know, he only released one three track EP. The two tracks that I really liked are I Want To and You & Me. There’s an interesting story about how he came to write those tracks and the kind of mood that they carried.
He was an editor and moderator at Swiss Radio SRF 3 who was going through an emotional time in his life, so he used music to try and digest the whole situation. He played piano and he had studied guitar, so he just decided to channel his genuine emotions in the songs. They were picked up a notable German record label ZYX Records and he was known for those two songs that are considered to be a part of that whole Italo Disco genre.
The other is Depeche Mode. I always respected and loved their approach, their sound and vocals. They were doing a lot of experimental (at that time) sampling with synth instrument sounds that they were able to incorporate into very interesting, very catchy and melodic songs.
In 5th or 6th grade, I remember saving up quarters to buy the next Depeche Mode album that had come out, which was The Violator. I remember my mom saying, “I don’t understand what this is! How do you listen to this?” Now it's one of her favorite bands. Depeche Mode helped me get through some rough patches in middle school and high school.
Music, up to this day, also plays an important role as a consistent friend that’s always there for me that I can talk to and it talks back. It listens and I listen to it and no matter what, it’s always there for me.
KM: Talk to me about how you go about creating new music.
SL: The music naturally comes out of me. It starts with me literally humming a melody from my soul. I hum it away and I record it. With a few tracks, I literally dropped my humming into Ableton Live and basically created a MIDI foundation for the track.
If we’re talking about out debut Vanishing Waves EP, it was me thinking about the melodies first. On the first three tracks, I tried different scales and I would define the main melodic inflections and maybe some different bass progressions. After that, it would be working with Ableton as DAW, so the very first rendition of one of the tracks was just done using my keyboard and Ableton native toolset. I started using the plugins and then began reading into what else I could do to differentiate and get some of the sounds to be more authentic to the ‘80s but not as if I’m taking the instrument from the ‘80s.
Right now, I’m channeling a lot of analog synth and guitar because one of my teammates, Rob Romano, who’s both my mixer and a very talented guitar player and musician overall, adds awesome guitar accompaniment. He applies some really neat effects to his mixing work as well. It was a multi-pronged approach to producing it.
It starts with a simple melody first and I pull the lyrics from that. The melody is always at the forefront for me. I also write poetry and scripts, but for music the most important thing is melody. There are these little inflections in the melody that grab me and push my buttons in a certain way that gives me goosebumps.
KM: Tell me more about your Vanishing Waves EP.
SL: On Vanishing Waves I created a signature type of melodic gimmick within Ableton and a few plugins where I would gate not just the reverb but the actual synth instruments. After that, I would add a perpetual delay that would escape that gate and carry on the feeling of the layered sounds within that gate. It would spill over to the next note or chord and so on. For me, this gate core would vanish out into these waves in perpetuity.
I was going for a very fluid sound with a lot of overtones that’s very melancholic. All of the tracks have that somber overtone. This reflects some of the events that I’m going through in my life. I’m using real experiences and channeling that through the melodies and lyrics. I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.
KM: Where do you want to take your music in the future?
SL: I’ve been talking with my producer and possibly collaborator as well. Once this EP is completely wrapped and out, I want to start doing shows and I’ve already started writing tracks for my second EP, which is going to have a slightly different approach and mood, but it’s still going to have the same heart behind it and real life experiences that I can talk about specifically.
Ultimately I want to merge some of my music with what I’m doing on the film side of things. I’m still working in the film industry and I’m very passionate about that part of my life as well. I want to integrate some of my music workflow with my media production workflow. I’m not focused on it now but it may help me exposure wise.
I also want to perfect translating my inspirations into productions that are industry standard as far as their production value go. I want to always be perfecting and learning about new tools. I want to get feedback from various sources, good or bad. I am lucky to have found the talented people to help me with the mixing and mastering. On the mastering front, Justin Perkins of MysteryRoomMastering is a superstar in his field.
I want to work with more talented artists to do collaborations, remixes or covers. I’d also be interested in covering some of the older Italo Disco stuff.
KM: Give me your thoughts on social media and your experiences with it as a musician.
SL: Social media is still an unknown ecosystem for me because of time and resources. I know that it is an important investment time wise and sometimes it’s financial. I try my best to allocate as much time as I can, but this is something that’s completely out of my know how at the moment. After we wrap this EP, I’m definitely looking to get one person who’d be able to promote and stay on top of the social media platforms and help me work on that.
I love the tools that Twitter gives people, but the superficiality puts me off and the fact that sometimes it’s all about the frequency of the Tweets. It does work for some people, but for other artists it’s about focusing on what they’re doing. For me, I just want to focus on polishing and creating, to reach the people who enjoy our stuff.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
SL: I think it’s a battery that is fueled by life itself. The motivation and inspiration for me is just going to be driven because of how I operate as a person. I have to do something with my feelings and if it’s not through suppression, it needs to be through writing music.