#Synthfam Album Release Interview: Scars by Watch Out For Snakes
Matt Baum describes his music as chipwave and says that he creates "darkly energetic tracks that pay homage to old video games and '80s films." On his latest album Scars he uses, "body horror and intergalactic warfare narrative as a backdrop to explore themes around life transitions."
I talked to him about the ideas behind the album, how he went about producing it and how he creates his distinctive chipwave sound.
Karl Magi: Talk about how you were inspired to write this album and how you went about producing it?
Matt Baum: When I write, I'm generally just writing song by song and find inspiration in the things going on around me for whatever song I'm currently working on. Most of the time, because I'm writing songs for an album pretty close together in time, there does tend to be an unintentional emotional arc across them, but that arc doesn't typically become apparent to me until I actually have all the songs finished and laid out in front of me. Most of this album was written as I negotiated the break-up of a ten-year relationship so many of the songs on this album focus on the themes of conflict, transition, and nostalgia. I definitely used music as a form of therapeutic release for everything I was going through in my personal life at the time.
KM: What are the musical ideas you worked with on Scars and what was your overall approach to creating the tunes themselves?
MB: Coming out of UPGRADE, I wanted to experiment by going a bit "spacier,” adding heavier reverb and delays and a more present chip bass sound to give things a more foreboding feel. The idea kickstarted when I wrote Stranded for the Chiptunes=WIN compilation album "Spacetunes=WIN." I enjoyed producing in that style so much that I decided to keep it going for all the tracks that followed, conceptualizing each track as a different way of experiencing space...threatening, lonely, but also strangely beautiful.
KM: How did the limitations inherent in having a three voice 8-bit chip influence how you wrote the songs on the album?
MB: Other artists may eschew this approach, but I really only set chip limitations when it comes to the sound design of individual patches, not layering and arranging the track as a whole. As a result, even though the majority of my sound is crafted from the 2A03 Nintendo chip, I don’t restrict myself to the standard four channel + DPCM setup. That allows me to layer chip sounds in different ways, creating fuller sounding arrangements than would have been actually achievable on the NES.
Sticking to that one chipset though and challenging myself to stay within boundaries when doing the actual sound synthesis helps me maintain a signature sound while providing enough freedom within that framework to do some fun things. I did experiment a bit more this time with my mixes, using more reverb and stereo delays to help give additional depth and breadth to the tracks on Scars.
KM: Where does the balance between catharsis and making songs that would draw in listeners lie for you on Scars?
MB: I write for myself first and foremost and focus on creating music that I want to hear. If other people happen to also like it, all the better, but I don’t go out of my way to write with a specific audience in mind. I think it just so happens that most of what's always influenced me - video games, film, and soundtracks from the '80s and early '90s - are pretty foundational experiences to a lot of people that grew up in that same time period, so there's a natural connection between the music I write and what people enjoy listening to. A lot of the themes I'm dealing with on a therapeutic level when songwriting are also pretty universal.
KM: Talk about the people with whom you collaborated and what they brought to the project?
MB: When I wrote the track Scars, the emotional weight of the song and the narrative structure of the arrangement felt like it needed vocals to me and I'd been looking for an opportunity to collaborate with a vocalist in the scene. When I teased the opportunity on social media and polled people for ideas on who they'd want to hear sing on a Watch Out For Snakes track, multiple people put forward Megan and she herself even responded to express interest. I sent a rough mix of the instrumental to her and she replied with an amazing vocal line that sold me immediately. From there, I shared some of what I'd been feeling when I wrote the instrumental, she crafted lyrics based on that, and then sent the finished vocals over for the final mix. She was amazing to work with and I love how the finished track came out.
With Rip 'Em Up!, I'll admit I was a bit stuck. I felt like I had a great start to a song, but was out of ideas on how to finish it. Gregorio is another Atlanta artist who I've partnered with on a ton of shows and whose songwriting and mixes I've always respected, so when I hit that wall, I reached out to him to see what he thought of the in-progress track. He dug it and responded within 24 hours with an amazing finish to the song. It's crazy how quickly he was able to come up something so badass. From there, it was just a matter of adding a chip solo of my own to complement Greg's part and get the mix between our parts right. I'm proud of the end result because it's such a perfect marriage of our styles and a great representation of Atlanta's synth scene.
KM: What do you hope that listeners will get from this album?
MB: Pretty simple really - I just hope that people enjoy listening to the album as much as I enjoyed making it! Everyone's life experience is different so hopefully everyone interprets the tracks on the album in a way that's meaningful to them.