Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing.
Dark Smoke Signal (Alex Pope) is a producer of synth-based music that he describes thusly, "If The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett sported an afro and only had the budget for a stuttering ten year old laptop, this might be his vibe." In an email, we talk about how he got started, his approach to the music he creates and where he wants to take his music in the future.
Karl Magi: How'd you first get a start in making music?
Alex Pope: I was obsessive about the guitar when I was younger and used to practice for hours learning all my favourite metal songs from tab books I'd bought, begged and borrowed before the days of the internet! I was in a few bands at school and decided to do a degree in music production (mainly inspired by watching the Metallica 'Year and a Half parts 1 & 2' VHS videos on repeat!) I had an old Tascam four-track tape recorder and a Boss drum machine and made a few terrible Nu-metal tracks.
I also crossed over into Indie music as well so recorded a few tracks with friends over the years but it's really in the last few years I've started creating and releasing my music in earnest. I got into the retro electro side of things after starting to take an interest in synthesis and farting about with some Arturia VSTs. I think it was the first time a played an arpeggiator that something clicked! At the same time I started getting into Gunship, Carpenter Brut, Dance with the Dead, The Midnight to name a few - the slightly over the top melodic nature of a lot of synthwave really floats my boat and re-ignited the fire.
KM: Tell me about the elements and ideas that draw you to synth-based music.
AP: I guess I've touched on this above - but one thing that isn't mentioned much by artists is the relative ease of synth-based music recording. The fact that MIDI is basically still the standard for electronic music is a testament to how good it is. Having so many parameters at your fingertips makes post processing so much easier than recording a live instrument. The fact that I can create and record so many different sounds from my spare bedroom is a huge appeal! (Although my wife probably doesn't think so :) I love the old synth recreations from the likes of Arturia and new takes on them by U-HE. Messing about with them is so inspiring to me.
KM: Who are your biggest artistic influences and inspirations?
AP: Beats/Sounds; The Prodigy, Rage against the Machine, Vangelis, Daft Punk, Geoff Barrow (Portishead/Beak>) Quixotic, Absolute Valentine.
Melody and song writing; Metallica, Arcade Fire, Carpenter Brut, The Midnight, Future Islands, Starcadian, Pearl Jam, Skid Row. That's off the top of my head, there's loads of others.
KM: Talk to me about how you approach creating new music.
AP: It's a bit painstaking (hence the low output this year!) as I'm a bit of a perfectionist, but I hope this comes across in the production quality of my tracks. I'm always learning new skills and techniques.
Most of the time I start with a synth patch and just mess around with it on top of a basic beat until I settle on a nice groove (if it's a bass line) or it might be a pad sound that gives me an idea that I'll hum out over an acoustic guitar to get a melody before transposing to synth. It then all just blooms out from that initial seed, but I probably fiddle about with the mix too much in all honesty - a painter should know when to stop painting (to use a bit of a clichéd analogy).
My stuff is a mix of vocals and instrumental and the vocals/lyrics always take a lot more time to get them where I want them to be.
KM: What are some of the current projects for you about which you're the most excited?
AP: I'm just putting the finishing touches to the lead single from my EP that'll be coming out end of the year through Retro Reverb Records. It will be a vocal track that I believe is different from anything out there currently. I'm really excited for people to hear the EP and find out the theme of it. I also have a big night here in Bristol on 23rd November (put on by Space Jams Radio) supporting Lazerpunk and Absolute Valentine where I'll be performing some of the new tracks live. Tickets still available - it's gonna go off!
KM: Where do you want to take your music into the future?
AP: I'm going dark. Mwah ha haaa! I think listeners might be a bit shocked with the upcoming material I have when comparing it to my track December Rose for example I think it's important to stay true to your own ideas and stamp your mark on your own sound. I try not to be too swayed by palm trees, flamingos and red Ferraris. I'm also looking to do some more live shows next year and perhaps add a live drummer to the DSS arsenal!
KM: Give me your thoughts on the Twitter #synthfam and what it means to you.
AP: Oh it's fantastic isn't it? It really is the only reason I'm on Twitter, the support all the artists, fans, DJs, bloggers, playlist curators show each other is so great. In a way, I don't want the scene to blow up any bigger as it could burst the cozy bubble! It amazes me how some people manage to be so active on social media and also be so creative at the same time.
KM: How do you recharge yourself creatively?
AP: About 8 pints of cider and a bottle of rum! I play bass in an indie rock band as well which is a completely different dynamic to music creation and performance which I enjoy. We do a handful of gigs throughout the year so I good change of scene sometimes. Also, some of the recent releases from artists such as Isidor, Megadrive, Meteor really inspire me to try and push the synth envelope a bit if I can.