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College’s Declaration of Independence

This is the second of a two-part series on retrosynth pioneer and Valerie Collective mastermind David “College” Grellier. In the first story, he talked about his latest EP, Save the Day, and how he makes his music, in addition to sharing his thoughts about his recent American tour and how after the huge Valerie bash in Hong Kong he wants to take a break.

This time, he talks about the influence of Drive and how to stay independent as a musician. Also, Highway Superstar makes an appearance.

“I hate the majors.”

David Grellier, the man behind College, was talking to me recently over Skype from Nantes, France, about his fierce independence in the music business, even in the face of escalating popularity after that certain moment in 2011. Grellier is a likable guy, and also a down-to-earth, straightforward one — qualities that aren’t always easy to find in the music business.

“It’s not my way of doing music,” Grellier said. “I’ve tried to stay independent.”

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

Grellier never sought to be famous when he and some friends created the Valerie Collective blog in 2007. The group just really liked the American culture of their youth, at least what they had access to in France. Today, Valerie is still doing its own thing, and College, its most famous project, hasn’t let the fame corrupt that sentiment.

Right now, he and fellow Valerie co-founder Maethelvin are preparing to perform at a huge anniversary party thrown for the highly influential label and artist network.

On May 30 in Hong Kong, people will be taking in pop culture from 1980s America, as distilled through the expert talents of European artists, just like audiences did in 2011 when Nicolas Winding Refn’s iconic neo-noir Drive premiered across the world, introducing on a large-scale songs like the College-Electric Youth collaboration  “A Real Hero.”

Photo Credit: Alexander Burkart/Visionaries 777
Photo Credit: Alexander Burkart/Visionaries 777

Although it has been more than three years since audiences worldwide got a taste of Drive, its impact endures so strongly that it still feels like a new film, and its soundtrack still feels fresh. That huge impact on cinema and music has skyrocketed the careers of the musicians involved — The Italians Do It Better family, Kavinsky, Lovefoxx, Electric Youth, Cliff Martinez, and College have all benefited from their contributions to the seminal film.

Not only did new fans crop up for all of those artists, but new artists influenced by them brought their own 80s-infused synth cuts to the fore. Even if a synthwaver or an indie-electronic group was listening to Valeries, like College or Anoraak, three years before the film’s release, or wearing out the grooves of a Chromatics 12-inch long before they saw the trailer to Drive, the film had a clarifying effect on the next generation of 80s retro artists.

Alex Karlinsky, better known as Highway Superstar, who has had his share of success with his genius brand of retrosynth, told Vehlinggo that there was definitely something about the film that inspired him.

Photo Credit: Highway Superstar.
Photo Credit: Highway Superstar.

“I didn’t know what was ‘retro’ or ‘synthwave,’ or whatever,” Karlinsky said. “All I knew is that I was always influenced by the 80s, but didn’t quite understand how to translate that to the music I was making. When I heard College and the Drive soundtrack, something clicked and I knew that I could steer my music towards a similar approach.”

Grellier said it was great to see more and more artists taking on an 80s vibe, and lauded Refn for taking a chance on the genre for his film. But because he was already two albums and as many EPs into his College project, and a scene was already emerging, the increased popularity of the movement wasn’t a total shock to Grellier.

“It’s great that the director chose to pay tribute to 80s electronic music,” Grellier said, “but it was a normal thing for Drive to happen. It was not really new for me.”

Even though Karlinsky was influenced by the movement, he didn’t set forth on a straight-up copy of the Drive artists.

“I didn’t need anybody to tell me how to make it,” he said. “I just started doing it. It was only then that people started telling me there’s a thing called ‘synthwave’ and apparently I’m doing something similar to it. I was really just trying to make a path for myself like College, Electric Youth, and Tesla Boy.”

For Grellier, an artist carving out a path without relinquishing his or her rights or identity to an amorphous blob of a corporation is among the most important of things.

“I’ve tried to stay independent,” he said, “and I think for an artist the best thing we can tell them is to stay independent.”

Even after all of the attention from Drive created a buzz for College’s rarefied and synthesizer-driven Franco-Americana, Grellier managed to keep on trucking with Valerie. He still produces his own work and collaborates with some of the same people he always has. Alexander Burkart still does the art for College releases, and Visionaries 777, which is hosting the upcoming Valerie party, still does those beautiful reactive visuals for his shows.

Up-and-coming artists have contacted Grellier, seeking advice on their work or even asking to join Valerie. Although it can be difficult to stand out nowadays — things have changed since the days of yore when MySpace was one of the few avenues for creating an internet-based label — Grellier says artists should still release their music independently.

“If you think your song is good,” Grellier said, “… If you believe in what you create… You can do it.”

(Feature Image: College performing at the Highline Ballroom in New York City in November 2014. Photo Credit: Vehlinggo.)

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