“You can’t stop creating.”
For the past few months, Martin Ahm’s Code Elektro project has been working its way into the hearts and minds of fans of synthwave and other retro-minded, 80s-inspired music. The big, dark, and cinematic sounds of his latest album, Superstrings, call to mind composers like Vangelis or Brad Fiedel, who created the iconic original Terminator soundtrack. The nuanced, complex arrangements give people a vacation from the same-ol’ instrumental synthwave tropes.
It’s one thing to simply invoke the mood of such scores — as your average synthwaver is wont to do — but it’s another to understand the nuances of musical themes and tone and mood.
This is what Ahm does with this project, manipulating the machines with the adeptness of someone with a background in music theory and music technology. All superlatives aside, what that formula does is make his album rewarding to listen to from start to finish.
This doesn’t come off as revelation so much when you delve into Denmark-based Ahm’s background. When he’s not wearing the purple Code Elektro mask, he’s composing and doing sound design for big commercial clients like Fanta, BMW, and MTV. Wherever Ahm is, so too the music.
“I can’t stop making music,” Ahm said. “I don’t really feel like I have a choice. It’s more like music chose me — to use a cliché.”
“Composing and playing music is a big part of who I am, so I’m always working on a riff, a sound, or a melody,” he added.
Under that regimen, Ahm worked on Superstrings for three years before finally unleashing it this spring.
The moody Blade Runner vibe that Ahm mines on Superstrings and the Terminator ingredients I’m inferring he’s drawing from aren’t the only apparent sources of inspiration for him. He said that he’s just as inspired by the Silent Running movie, director-composer John Carpenter, and artists like Daft Punk and M83 (who, it should be noted, have highly capable soundtracks under their belts).
He said he also has respect for Cliff Martinez and Trent Reznor, two composers who have used synthesizers and sound design with great success when writing scores. It’s easy to remember Martinez’s icy, intimate Drive score or Reznor’s similarly atmospheric work, along with Atticus Ross, on The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
“I wish that more filmmakers would use electronic music,” Ahm said. “[Reznor and Martinez] are good examples of how great it can be. There’s just as much emotion in an electronic score, as there is in a classical score, but that’s a different discussion.”
Along those lines, when Ahm is creating his music, he’s actively thinking about emotion and atmosphere.
“New sounds and specific emotions are often a big part of how I make music,” Ahm says. “Which certainly is something I take with me from my work with music for film and commercials.”
“Working in that area, it is often quite important to be very precise with the sounds and atmosphere,” he added, “but I think it helps me to create something new, so it’s OK.”
With that philosophy in force, he often starts with some sort of feeling that he wants to recreate through music and sound, he said. However, it could also be that in his mind is a scene from a film or book that ends up giving him the desire to tickle the synthesizer keys.
“… Sometimes I start with a sound or a riff and see where it takes me,” Ahm said.
When the track is almost done, before mastering, he spends some time refining the melody, mix, and anything else.
“I listen a lot to my music before I decide that it is finished,” Ahm said. “I always try to be my own worst critic — that’s the tough part. But the track is only finished when it touches something in me — or when I feel that there is a real feeling in the music.”
With Code Elektro, Ahm’s taking his mood-making enterprise into the realm of 80s-inspired synthery, and along the way has been introduced to a lot of great people, and the music they make.
“In recent years there has been a lot of music that draws on the 80s aesthetic,” he said. “If you go to SoundCloud there is a lot of great synthwave music. People are really talented.”
He’s dipping his toes into the scene, but he doesn’t see Code Elektro as a “typical 80s synthwave act,” he says.
“I take some 80s elements and then I blend them with other influences,” he said.
Overall, Ahm had a blast recording Superstrings, and is pleased people like it. It took him three full years to finish it, a timeframe that could either foster greatness, or drive an artist crazy with a sense of misdirection. If you’re into it, though, it can be a beautiful thing.
“If you don’t think it’s fun it’s going to be three really long years, because there’s going to be times where you hate it and just want to throw everything out of the window,” Ahm said. “But if you love what you do, you don’t care. The music will come out sooner or later. You can’t stop creating.”
Superstrings is out now on everything from iTunes to Spotify to TIDAL, and even vinyl.