#Synthfam Interview: Swayze (Christian Vogelgesang)
Swayze is the name of Christian Vogelgesang's synthwave project. His approach to synth-based music fuses a strong respect for songwriting and his love for all things funky into a unique sound. I talked to him about his roots as a musician, his approach to music creation and his views on the future of synthwave music.
Karl Magi: How did you first start becoming interested in making music?
Christian Vogelgesang: Like many other musicians, I was put into music by my parents. My brother came home from a show and tell in kindergarten and he had seen this girl playing piano. He was like, “Mom! I want to get piano lessons!” He was older than me and so when I came of age, I didn’t have a choice. My parents put me into piano lessons. As a kid, I could not stand it and so I never practiced, but my parents never let me quit which I really appreciate.
It wasn’t until I was in my preteen years that I started to take music seriously. That time coincided with me falling in love with rock ’n roll music. I started listening to classic rock radio and that’s when I was like, “Oh my gosh! Music isn’t just these old people playing piano and organ. It can be really amazing and youthful.”
I started picking up drums, guitar and bass after playing piano. From there, I started really getting into playing jazz and that sort of thing but what I liked to listen to was rock ‘n roll. There’s a huge component of that in ‘80s music. I loved it when Geddy Lee from Rush started experimenting more with synthesizers. From there, I got into New Age music and all of the New Wave stuff which has its own synthesizers. There’s just this wild world of music out there and it’s all connected.
KM: How did you get into making synth-based/synthwave music?
CV: I have to start this with the caveat that I don’t even know if I could be considered a synthwave artist. Obviously I’m really new, so I have no room to talk. I’ve been accepted by synthwave artists and the #synthfam and I love synthwave music, but I just don’t know if my music falls into that category. I don’t feel like I have a total grasp of what synthwave is.
I had just graduated from college and I was doing my internship in Chicago. It was a really bad existence. I didn’t like living in that big of a city, what I was doing was really draining and my work/life balance was really bad. My first exposure to synthwave was through Lazerhawk and the music of the movie Kung Fury. It was an escapist thing for me because I was surrounded by this awful lifestyle and watching that movie was really empowering to me. Not only did I identify with it as this really nerdy, geeky thing but it was also bad ass!
I found Lazerhawk and started listening to it all the time. From there, I discovered that it’s not all just Outrun driving music, action hero sorta stuff. Mitch Murder’s song Breaking Waves might still be my favourite synthwave song. It was so sexy! It was just smooth and felt really good and chill. I realized that the music could encompass a ton of different emotions and evoke these images that are both escapist and very dear to my heart.
On the other side of the coin, I want to make funk music and I have an element of that in the music that I make now. I’ve played in a ten piece funk band doing covers of the classics like Earth Wind & Fire and Cool and the Gang. While I was listening to synthwave, I was getting exposed to bands like Chromeo which is still probably my biggest influence so I’m interested in melding synth funk and synthwave.
When I think of synthwave, I think of music that’s inspired by ‘80s white artists. There was also this amazing black musical culture in the ‘80s that was experimenting just as much with synthesizers. People like Rick James and Cool & The Gang were getting their synths out. If you trace that lineage, those are the artist who influenced really popular electronic acts like Justice, Daft Punk and Chromeo.
KM: Tell me more about how you create new music.
I think the best music that comes out of pretty much any musician are the songs that wake you up with a melody in your head or you’re in the shower and you think of an amazing rhythm and a bass line to go with it, so you have to run to the computer and start playing around with it.
I find that there’s no shortage of ideas, but it’s important for me to let an idea stew and let it come out organically. If I get really stuck, I’ll listen to music that I love and think, “Alright this song has the vibe of this song or that song that I really love” and look at what they did and what was unique about them. I’m not stealing it, but I’m being inspired by it.
I’ll use the example of Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder is one of the biggest pop stars of all time, but if you actually look at his music it’s really complex. There are chords that just come out of nowhere, but they fit so well. I get inspired by looking at past or current artists that I respect.
Right now, I’m very much a beginner at producing electronic music. I’m constantly learning. I’ve got a buddy, Shaun Livingston (firstname.lastname@example.org), who helps me a ton. I also like to look at the artists I enjoy and what synthesizers they’re using. Chromeo, for example, started their career 20 years ago with a Juno 106 and they pretty much created their first album with it. I like to use a lot of sounds from the Juno 106. I think it all comes down to what vibe I’m looking for. If I want something a little more Outrun or action hero-y, I try to get into that mood because music evokes so much emotion. If you want someone to swagger down the street and think “Holy shit! I’m the king of the world” than you have to embody that emotion when you’re creating the song.
The last thing I’ll say is that songwriting is really important for me. I come to this synthesizer type music from a different place than many other artists do. It doesn’t make me better, if anything it makes me a little less experienced when it comes to electronic music. I’ve had musical training and I’m more interested in the song and how the melodies, harmonies and rhythms can serve the song. The sound engineering these synth guys do is insane and I want to get to that level, but that’s not my priority. My priority is the song and the songwriting.
KM: What’s the stuff that you’re working on now?
CV: I’m going to record vocals for my next single which is called I Don’t Believe in Love. I wrote it after I went to a friend’s wedding. I hope to have that out in the next two weeks. My goal is for that to be last single that I release before my debut album which I’d like to have done in the next month or so. It’s been pretty slow going though.
I have a couple of collaborations in the works. I’ve been totally blown away by the synthfam. I think it’s such a beautiful creative microcosm. I’ve worked with Dimi Kaye, Tom Selica and Phoenix, so it’s been pretty cool for sure.
I’m in the process of moving to New Orleans and I’ll be in the same city as Power Failure which will be cool. What I really want to do is go live. I’ve played live music forever, but I’ve never done an electronic set. The reason why I started making synth music and electronic musice is that, for the last three years, I’ve been working for Outward Bound so I’ve been traveling non-stop. You can’t have a band when you do that.
I’d been listening to these synthwave artists and I was like, “Damn! I love this stuff as much as the live music. Why don’t I do this as a creative outlet? I think it’s incredible that the technology allows me to be a one man band, make music, put it out there and have people listen to it. Now if I’m going to be in New Orleans, a city that really respects art and culture and music, I want to go live with it and I want to promote other synth acts to go live.
KM: Give me your thoughts on the future of synthwave music.
CV: I say this with the caveat that I’m not super knowledgeable about the synthwave scene yet. I’ve been thinking about it and there has been a lot of movement towards live shows which I think is a step in the right direction. When I think about the history of popular music, it’s through live shows and the awe and the spectacle that can happen that really brings in new fans. If somebody’s a fan of synthwave and they go to a concert and take four friends. Those four people go and they bring in four more people. I feel that has to be a huge part of it. It brings people together. It’s how artists meet, it’s how promoters meet and it’s a big party and I think it needs to continue to go that way.
The other thing that is related to where the synthwave scene is going and something that I’ve noticed is the development of big personalities. In terms of big rock ’n roll personalities, who’s the last person you can name? It’s probably Kurt Cobain. If you go back from Kurt Cobain, there were just tons of them. They were over the top personalities that people could latch onto (for good or bad). I honestly think that synthwave needs some big personalities, people who have a charismatic front man atmosphere. I think synthwave is going that way! I know a lot of synthwave came out of film scores and stuff which is awesome, but I think what’s really bringing people in is the music melding with a real pop sensibility. There’s vocals, there’s more pop production, there’s more rhythm to it.
KM: How do you recharge yourself creatively?
CV: For me, it is taking a step back from creating. Miles Davis, the jazz musician, was really technically gifted. He could play anything on that trumpet, he was an incredible composer and he was so prolific. One could think that he just worked non-stop but I remember reading that he said he wasn’t inspired by sitting in a practice room or analyzing music. I’m inspired by having an amazing date or seeing something really horrific. You have to put your artistic side away, go and live life and come back and translate those experiences into music.
The other things that inspire me are the amazing artists in the #synthfam. I hear new music every day and it is just mind-boggling how good it is. It’s exciting and it’s scary how much of it there is.