Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!
Polemic Heart (Joe Rouiller) is a producer of synth-based music which springs from musical influences that run the gamut from trip-hop to indie music to synthpop. He also uses his music to explore his intellectual preoccupations and ideas. In an email, we discussed his musical roots, how he creates and where he wants to take his music going forward.
Karl Magi: How'd you first come to making music?
Joe Rouiller: I started learning the guitar very young, I bought an acoustic guitar with money I made from doing chores when I was about 10 or 11. I mostly started out learning grunge songs from bands like Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots but when I got to high school and discovered Jimi Hendrix, that was basically life changing. I was pretty technically efficient by that time and really just taught myself from theory books and learning how to play various songs. I ended up playing in a few live bands throughout high school and kept up playing in live acts for most of my adult life. I think always being in a live band situation really gave me a solid foundation for writing and creating music. I highly suggest to all the solo producers out there to make an attempt at playing with other people, it can do wonders for your craft!
KM: What were the elements and ideas that lead you towards making synth-based music?
JR: I was a teenager for the majority of the '90s and I grew up listening to lots of grunge, hip-hop and R&B of that era. My first experience with creating electronic music was making hip-hop beats on a Korg Trinity and a Tascam 4-track. Then I branched out with the MPC 2000 and various other drum machines continuing to make hip-hop. I started getting heavy into Bjork and Portishead. They would become two of my biggest influences and that's when my weird style of electronic music started to take form.
By the early 2000's it was becoming more reasonable to have a small PC home studio setup and in 2002 I bought my first PC. I started to experiment with Pro Tools and Propellerhead's Reason and I began to make my first real solo electronic album. This was also the time when I first started singing. I think it's fair to say I have a pretty unconventional voice and the early stuff was pretty rough. I just kept doing it until I was comfortable with my own voice and eventually it became somewhat passable. In 2005, I transitioned into Ableton Live and never looked back.
KM: Tell me who you've found inspirational in terms of other music makers, authors or filmmakers?
JR: Initially, it was the groups from the early '90s that got me into music but as I mentioned before, when I discovered Jimi Hendrix, he became massively influential to me and as a late teenager I also dove pretty heavily into The Doors and Grateful Dead, who I would say also had a big influence in my formative years. Then it was Bjork, Portishead and other trip hop like Esthero, Massive Attack and Tricky that pulled me towards electronic music.
I also had a phase of listening to some EDM, like the trance music of Paul Oakenfold and drum and bass from producers such as Aphrodite. I moved to NYC in 2004 and started getting into indie stuff like Blonde Redhead, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Knife, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Modest Mouse, Joanna Newsom, Cocorosie, Devendra Banhart and much more.
During this period, I was playing in many bands around the city and was also influenced much by my own peers and other bands I would share the bill with. In 2011, my son was born and I slowly stopped playing in live act and turned my focus back on solo electronic stuff. In the current decade, the synthwave scene and modern synthpop in general has been affecting my most recent music. I'd say Purity Ring and The Weeknd have been the major influences to me during the 2010's.
In terms of authors, I was greatly influenced by the works of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley which probably lead to much of my anti-establishment/pro-individualist lyrical content and political views. The works of Carlos Castaneda and Terrence McKenna also had an influence on my spiritual outlook and it's probably a little obvious that psychedelia has had a fairly large influence on my music in general.
As for film, I am a huge fan of the art form and watch movies of all kinds, too many to mention here but I love the indie horror scene and just indie film making in general. I love foreign stuff, especially from Korea, I dig the New French Extremity films and many things in between. Also, I love many classic epics and noir films from the past.
KM: Walk me through how you create new music.
JR: For the most part, I just open up an empty project and start to experiment until I have a vibe. I'd love to say it's more premeditated than that but most of the time when I try to make something specific it tends to just spiral off in it's own direction anyway. So mainly I just try to sit back and let the music take the wheel without getting in the way too much, if possible. Sometimes I will have a loose vibe in mind, for example, currently I have been making some R&B influenced stuff. It's going pretty well and I may have an R&B tinged EP in the making.
KM: Talk to me about Reactions. Where did the ideas behind the album come from and how did you go about producing it?
JR: Thanks for asking about that album! It doesn't get anywhere near as much traction as my debut EP and I really do love the work. It is much more experimental than my debut release but also is more diverse in its style and honestly probably more representative of my music in general. In fact, these songs were all written and recorded before my debut EP. I wasn't even going to release them to be honest but was pressured into it by my fellow producer friends. For about two years, I used to do these weekly, themed online music competitions and every song on the album is a result of these competitions. The same is true for my debut EP as well. Each week you are given a specific theme to follow and at the end all the participants would vote on the tracks and judge them in certain categories. Doing this for two years was a great way to exercise my musical muscles and really kept the creativity flowing.
For anyone interested, you can check out my profile at the Chips Compo music competition here where you can hear the original mixes and renditions of the songs from my two albums and many more other tracks. There are over 45 songs on there and you can also see all my scores from the competitions!
KM: Where do you want to take your music in the future?
JR: Honestly, I just want to create music that is rewarding to me. Music is my religion and I just want to be a part of it until I die. I'd like to continue to grow and push myself into new territory. If I can grow a community of listeners and supporters around that, it would be lovely. I'd love to find a greater audience but I know that oftentimes my sound doesn't easily fit into a neat category, and it's definitely not for everyone so it can be hard to get placed on playlists and reach the people who would resonate with it most. Either way, I will continue to bang it out, I have been consistently making and recording music for over 20 years and I have no plans to stop any time soon.
KM: What are your thoughts on the Twitter #synthfam and what it means to you.
JR: Synthfam is amazing! Easily one of the best online communities to ever exist! Twitter is more often than not a political and social minefield full of outrage, anger, finger-pointing, yelling and ugly conversations that go absolutely nowhere. The synthfam and the synthwave community on Twitter is a beautiful oasis, full of honest and genuine people who just love music and want to lift people up.
I am incredibly grateful for the synth community accepting me into the fold. I first met Straplocked and Turbo Knight in the Reddit Outrun discord and they opened up the doors for me to come in and meet so many other lovely producers and I am forever in their debt. Through them I met other fantastic producers whom I would eventually collaborate with such as Vosto, Yoru, Dimi Kaye, Gryff, and The Neon Arcadia among others.
If it weren't for these producers and lovely people like Dennis G, Neon Fawkes and the others at Nightride.FM, I would not have the humble audience I have now, and I appreciate them all for being the excellent people that they are.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
JR: Luckily, I don't often run into moments of writer's block but it does happen every now and then(recently I am just pulling myself out of one) but when I am musically frustrated I will just take some time away from it and focus on other things. I will try to find new music to listen to and new movies to watch that may have slipped through the cracks. Going out with some friends and having some new experiences always helps. Forcing yourself to make music is almost always a good thing, even if the results can be sub par, at least you are creating something. But also, as they say- absence makes the heart grow fonder and many times taking a break from making music can also yield great results. I find that being able to stay patient and not getting too frustrated is the best mindset when it comes to getting out of a creative slump.