In which Highway Superstar (AKA Alex Karlinsky) talks about his new album maybe coming out this year, how he knows when a song is finished, and the meaning of Taylor Swift’s sabbatical in retroland, among other things. Also, I finally learned how to spell “Rosso Corsa Records.”
It’s no surprise to readers of Vehlinggo that I enjoy Highway Superstar’s particular brand of genius retrosynth.
His 2013 debut album, Take My Time, on Michael Glover’s Rosso Corsa Records, is more 80s than the 80s were but at the same time has a distinctively modern approach.
Like all of his best work, including recent offerings such as the R&B-tinged “Skylines,” the best song on NewRetroWave’s recent compilation, that album is some is filled with well-produced cuts that pack a lot of soul, color and are just plain catchy. The instrumentals create comforting, challenging, and brilliant moodscapes, and the songs with vocalists such as Dana Jean Phoenix are worthy of the top accolades in music.
In the three years since he’s been on the retro scene, Highway Superstar has already scored some major recognition and has had a huge impact on the genre. In addition to his record, he’s also collaborated with the likes of legends Futurecop! on their latest album, Fairy Tales, and put out a solid laid-back disco number with Amazing Police.
I recently caught up with Karlinsky to find out what’s going on in his world right now. It turns out, he has been plenty busy: He’s been working on a new album to probably come out this year, has been writing for others, and is managing his highly popular Synthwave Producers Facebook group, among other things.
(Aaron’s Note: The Q&A is based on an email exchange between me in New York — where it has been snowing — and Karlinsky in Tel Aviv — where it’s a balmy 64 degrees on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. Only one of us will be driving around listening to “Skylines” with the top-down on a convertible. I’ve edited the interview for formatting and style, but tried to retain the original exchange as much as possible).
You know, 2014 seemed like a pretty great year for you. There were some great collaborations (Futurecop! and Amazing Police come to mind) and it was the first full year since your full-length was released on Rosso Corsa Records. What was a highlight for you? What are your plans for 2015? Any new collaborations or a new album underway?
Definitely. That was a pretty amazing year. My album was released on a label that hosts artists I revere, I collaborated with many wonderful musicians and my music got out to more people that I ever expected.
I’m hard at work on my second album, which I aim to release in 2015. I can’t spill any info about collaborations, but I assure you there will be a lot of interesting ones. Stay tuned for that! Besides that I’m also composing some music for a couple of awesome projects which will be available during 2015 as well.
As I’ve mentioned in reviews of your work, you are a great collaborator (whether it’s your own work with guests, or your collaborations on other people’s work).
I love collaborating mainly because it extends my musical spectrum and opens my mind. It also takes the listener to a different place than you would have taken him yourself. I’m grateful to have friends who are amazing musicians, and I’m able to work with all of them and enjoy their musical talents, as I hope they enjoy my own.
(At this point in the exchange, I turned our attention to Karlinsky’s roots.) How’d you get started as a retrowave/synthwave artist? Any tips for aspiring retrofolk?
I had been doing different styles of music for a long time before I settled on electronic music and nostalgia — Rock, heavy metal, pop, musicals… you name it.
It took me a while to decide where to route my creativity. So, my advice would probably be to “do.” Don’t wait. Start experimenting and creating. Study an instrument. Get familiar with music-making. Play in bands. Listen to a lot of musical variety. Remix other people and reconstruct your favorite tunes from scratch. Whatever gets your mojo working. Heck, watch YouTube tutorials. But don’t wait for talent to just waltz-in and sit on your lap.
It’s never easy to deem a musical piece as finished. There’s always more to change, sound to polish, notes to alter.
What are some challenges you’ve faced along the way?
Deciding to let go of my music was always a huge challenge for me, and still is in a way. It’s never easy to deem a musical piece as finished. There’s always more to change, sound to polish, notes to alter.
Letting go of an album is a very hard thing to do, but it teaches you a lot of things about what should have been done differently. All recorded music has been “let go.” Show me an artist who thinks his piece is perfect. Some musicians go as far as denouncing their early releases completely. But it’s only when you let go you can transcend with your creation to a place you’re happier with.
There are so many musicians I know who cling on to their album/EP/song and take years and years to perfect, and finally let go. Then they wake up and realize they have been wasting precious time. I would be lying if I’d tell you I wouldn’t change a thing in Take My Time. On the contrary. I’d change a million things. I’d redo entire parts. But it’s there to stay: I won’t be revisiting it. I’ll create more music instead. That, in my opinion, is a healthy attitude.
(I decided to ask Karlinsky about Synthwave Producers, a Facebook group where some of the biggest names in the scene talk shop. He said he started it because he couldn’t find a community with that level of knowledge anymore.)
There are thematic forums and groups for almost any sort of production style but retro. It was about time to open one, so that people could come in and hang around with their kindred spirits: people producing retro-styled music by methods new and old.
When I just started, I had to improvise, since I never knew anyone [in the scene]. Today, you can find some pretty big and veteran names in that group, commenting and contributing alongside less experienced or young producers under one umbrella. People are extremely friendly and helpful in that group, and I’m thankful for how it turned out to be. I allow myself to take pride in that sometimes.
How do you feel about the current “scene”? Where do you see it heading in the next few years?
That’s an interesting question. To be honest, I think 80s influenced acts aren’t going anywhere. Whether it’s rock, pop, french house — you name it — you can find these influences in music history ever since the decade itself has ended and that’s not going to change.
However, the genre named by some as “Synthwave” is very slow in getting recognition for its contribution. The most vivid example I can think of is mainstream acts like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift that have been embracing synthwave-esque techniques to their productions lately. So history repeats itself in the sense that underground genres are influencing the global music markets by feeding profit-driven producers and label owners, while the genuine acts that influenced the market have remained largely anonymous. But this is also exactly what sets this “scene” apart from other, more modern electronic music genres that stormed into the mainstream, and were just as quick to fade away within a couple of years.
Also, don’t forget there are mainstream acts which have been building on their retro-roots for quite a while now (M83, Chvrches, Kavinsky, Mark Ronson… to name a few). In this sense, I’m happy it’s more than just a passing craze unlike a couple of other genres in modern electronic music. Everybody is winning.
Even for synth manufactures, the last few years have been nothing short of a renaissance of analog synthesis. Did you check out the current NAMM? All the big hardware manufacturers are heavily investing in synthesis — more importantly, its retro aspects. But it’s the listeners who win here the most I think; there are loads of great music to enjoy.