Going Back to College

I think the most important thing here is melodies… You want to share emotions through your music.

In a new interview with Vehlinggo, retrosynth pioneer and mastermind David “College” Grellier talks about how he makes his music, points out I was wrong about what type of synthesizers he uses (Hint: None), and remembers fondly his recent American tour, which saw him visiting Electric Youth in L.A., along with various sites from his favorite films. He also said his upcoming Valerie Collective anniversary bash will be one of his few this year before he withdraws to find his muse. 

This is the first of a two-part series. The second, in which he gives advice to aspiring synth gods and talks about the impact of his music, will run next week.

Right now, David “College” Grellier, a musical auteur whose colorful, synthy sounds capture the essence of your favorite classic films, is back home in Nantes, France. The town is the birthplace of his Valerie Collective audio-visual movement that spawned one of the decade’s biggest hits, “A Real Hero,” from the Drive soundtrack.

An example of the great visuals at College's Nov. 28 show at the Highline Ballroom.
An example of the great visuals at College’s Nov. 28 show at the Highline Ballroom. Alexander Burkart designed the logo and Visionaries 777 created the reactive visuals. Photo Credit: Vehlinggo.

Behind him, by about three months, is a successful coast-to-coast North American tour — his favorite one so far, he says — during which he performed some of his most famous songs along with his most recent collection, last fall’s excellent 70s-80s stalker revival Save The Day EP.

In front of him are some significant live shows, followed by some much-needed downtime he’ll use to recharge his creative batteries.

Grellier is busy ramping up for Valerie’s huge eighth anniversary party in Hong Kong on May 30 (along with some other gigs). He and some others to-be-announced will bring their gorgeous and chic 80s pastiche to the former British colony in a grande fête we all wish we could attend.

“I’m about to rebuild my live set for the performance,” the pleasant and amiable Grellier tells me over Skype.

Before delving too much into the anniversary party, or even College’s upcoming presence in a documentary debuting at SXSW this weekend about an amateur Raiders of the Lost Ark, let’s take a closer look at Grellier’s recent experience touring this side of the Earth. You’ll also want to stick around to learn how he makes that music you play a million times a day.

College Tours North America, Reunites With Old Friends

Nola Wren
Nola Wren performs “Save The Day” along with College in November 2014 in New York. Photo Credit: Vehlinggo.

In November and December, Grellier followed up the digital release of Save The Day, which features the title track he made with Brooklyn-based Nola Wren, by taking his show on the road to 14 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

It was his second major tour in this part of the world, but his first without a tour mate.

Beginning in Washington, D.C., and New York, and moving westward across the U.S., with his Canadian detours, Grellier was almost always solo but never felt lonely.

“I never got the feeling of being alone,” he said. “I now know people in each city. It was great.”

For example, Grellier has friends in New York, with whom he played tourist on a day-off. Also in New York, Wren joined Grellier’s set at the Highline Ballroom to perform “Save The Day,” the only date in which this happened.

It wasn’t just New York that saw Grellier taking a breather, though. He made an attempt at a day off in each city to “take the time to do the things I’ve dreamed to do.”

A Valerie and Friends quasi-reunion in Los Angeles, December 2014. Photo Credit: College's Instagram account.
A Valerie and Friends quasi-reunion in Los Angeles, December 2014.
Photo Credit: College’s Instagram account.

In L.A., Grellier had a “too short” 24 hours to catch up with Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin of Electric Youth — long-time friends and collaborators whose popular “Hero” project brought them to the mainstream.

“We’re really close, but I don’t see them a lot,” he said, noting that when he does meet up with them it always feels like the first time.

Grellier’s College project is heavily influenced by American cinema, and while over here he wanted to take in whatever iconic film locations he could. When in New York, he went to the Ghostbusters fire station and Central Park. In Chicago, he took in Ferris Bueller-related sites. There were others, too, including the Space Needle in Seattle.

“Every city has references to films,” Grellier said.

If you want to know, I don’t have a synth at home.

I Was Wrong About How College Creates His Music

During his tour, he traveled without a lot of equipment. His live setup was mostly a couple laptops and some accessories, which certainly makes touring easier.

In my review of his New York show, I mentioned that I’d like to have seen the synthesizers he uses to craft his precious gems, imagining a Yamaha DX7 or a Roland in the mix.

However, during our interview, Grellier set the record straight: He’s always used the production software Fruity Loops (now known as FL Studio), which he says is “very intuitive.”

“I’m not a technical guy at all,” Grellier said. “If you want to know, I don’t have a synth at home. I’ve used only computers since the beginning.”

“Of course, I can perform with synths and things like that,” Grellier said, noting that he came of age in the techno and rave scenes, “but they’re not the roots of my creation.”

One of Grellier’s most admirable traits, aside from being an all-around decent fellow, is that he approaches music from an emotional place. His is not a robotic electronic music. Sure, his use of Fruity Loops means he has to have some sort of technical prowess, but he’s “not very into detail.”

“When I compose, I don’t spend too much time on songs,” Grellier said. “So my production may be less perfect than others, but what I’m seeking is emotion, melodies…”

He likened it to the approach Italo Disco artists used in the 1980s.

“Most of the guys are imperfect,” Grellier said. “I think the most important thing here is melodies… You want to share emotions through your music.”

Save The Day
Photo Credit: Valerie Collective.

For the four-track Save The Day EP, Grellier worked closely with Valerie’s visual artist Alexander Burkart (who, in full disclosure, designed Vehlinggo’s logo).

As is often the case with College releases, Grellier’s music and Burkart’s art influenced each other, unleashing a bouillabaisse of creativity from which they craft their final product.

The universe they created was the result of the film and music references they would share with each other.

“I really focused on what I wanted to express on this disc,” Grellier said.

The mood Grellier was going for was the villainy and paranoia of films like 1971’s Klute — which starred Jane Fonda and was directed by known paranoia addict Alan J. Pakula — and 1979’s psychological horror flick When a Stranger Calls, starring Carol Kane.

With the help of Wren’s contributions to the title track, I’d say that goal was achieved. As I mentioned in my review of the EP, listening to the songs feels like running through pitch-black alleyways; encountering only the occasional glimmer of a neon-red sign from some — probably seedy — establishment where a rageful stalker awaits.

Of course, a four-song EP isn’t enough, right? We want Grellier and Burkart to get back to distilling culture into beautiful works of retroactive splendor, probably in a full-length album. It’s not happening this year, though.

Grellier said that to-date he’s already done three albums and three EPs for College — “It’s already a big discography” — and taking time off to take in some more culture will allow him to formulate a new concept for a future album.

“It’s important to reload the battery… to stay aware of culture [by] watching movies, listening to music…,” Grellier said. “I think this will be a quiet year for me.”

They Say It’s Your Birthday…

Valerie Turns 8
Valerie turns 8 this year, and the folks are throwing a huge party in Hong Kong on May 30. Photo Credit: Valerie Collective.

Before things get too quiet, though, Grellier and friends will bring their dark and shiny synthesizer music and flashy visuals to the Fragrant Harbour for one amazing night this May.

Visionaries 777, a Hong Kong-based studio started by Frantz Lasorne and Nicolas Guyon, will host the shindig. Their work will likely be familiar: After all, not only did they do the amazing, reactive visuals for College’s recent tour, but their work with Grellier goes back to 2009 when they created the music video for the College-Electric Youth collaboration, “She Never Came Back.”

“This will be great,” Grellier said. “I’m really happy [about it].”

There’s also a May 2 performance at the Sevilla South Pop Festival in Spain. Some other opportunities are coming up that Grellier has not yet announced.

Somewhere in that mix — debuting this weekend — one song each from College and The Outrunners will appear in a documentary about three-12 year-olds who set forth to recreate Raiders of the Lost Ark shot-by-shot. Those kids are adults now, and their film, Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, is debuting at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

As he approaches these one-off events in advance of his quiet year, Grellier, and his wife, will be able to achieve solitude a bit easier now that they’re back in Nantes.

Five years in Paris was great, Grellier said, but there’s something about being where you’re from.

“It’s very important for creativity to stay close to people who really influence what you are,” he said. “I’m very happy to be back here.”

College will be back next week for part two of Vehlinggo’s College series.

(David “College” Grellier performing one of his masterful songs. Photo Credit: PJ Skyman. )

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