The Rise of the Synths: Ambitious Doc to Feature College, Electric Youth, Com Truise, Many More

Dec. 12 UPDATE: This particular campaign didn’t pan out, but recently the filmmakers were successful in raising $71,000 via Indiegogo. 

Director Ivan Castell has a bone to pick with those who are dismissive of synthwave/retrosynth as some kind of tongue-in-cheek 1980s bullshit.

“At least for me, it’s a reinterpretation of a retro sound that taps into somewhere in your brain and brings back memories from your childhood,” he told Vehlinggo recently. Basically, he’s saying that what these artists are doing isn’t always retro, or always 80s, but they’re using the pastiche and modern production to evoke particular moods. I tend to agree.

Today, Castell and producer Javier Moreno launch the crowdfunding effort for The Rise of the Synths, their in-the-works documentary that will feature many familiar and top-level artists who will help tell the story of synthwave — its humble past, its noble if niche present, and if the chips fall where they may, its future. Along the way, the artists will reinforce the idea that their work is not just some sort of joke.

The project from Spain-based Castell and Moreno has quite the list of artists who’ve pledged their involvement. The list, at times, reads like a Vehlinggo interview roster: College, Electric Youth, Maethelvin, Com Truise, Miami Nights 1984, Kristine, Lazerhawk, Mitch Murder, Power Glove, Futurecop!, OGRE, Dance with the Dead, Night Crawler, Vincenzo Salvia, Stellar Dreams, The Midnight, Jordan F, Betamaxx, 80s Stallone, Dynatron, Darkest, Carpenter Brut, Timecop1983, Waveshaper, and MPM Soundtracks. (You read that right. MPM still exists and even is poised for interviews.) [May 13, 2016 update: GUNSHIP has been added to the roster.]

This week, I did a brief exchange with Castell to discuss Rise. He talks about the difficulties in getting funding for the project from traditional sources, why they’re even bothering with the project at all, and why you should give them money to make it happen, among other things. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Vehlinggo: What inspired you to make this type of documentary?

Castell: What’s interesting, and what drove me into the idea of a documentary, is that [synthwave] doesn’t really have a history. It’s a grassroots music movement, for real; not something created by the media and labeled as “underground.” No, it’s a really DIY, pure, musical grassroots internet movement created by thousands of producers all over the world.

As I was trying to learn where this all came from, I was kind of shocked that even when Drive was released in 2011 — such an open window to this kind of music — no music critics had showed any real interest in the scene, and where this comes from.

But I saw a path. If you look carefully I think you can clearly draw a line that goes directly to the late 70s, towards the real roots. And that’s the whole idea of the documentary: To discover where this really comes from, where was the seed planted and who did it. But yes, it’s really challenging because there are so many windows and plots you can open and bring to the table, and there’s no real documentation about the movement, so it’s kind of an “oral story.”

One of the main reasons for the lack of media attention is because a lot of people will just label synthwave as “80s stuff,” which it is not, really. At least for me, it’s a reinterpretation of a retro sound that taps into somewhere in your brain and brings back memories from your childhood.

The whole question is, why did they do that? Why do a lot of younger people, who have not lived by any means in the 80s, go back to this sound now? It’s popping [up] all over the web as something new and fresh. There’s something beyond the underground hype that should tell us something about the way humans and collective memories work.

One of the main aspects of the film is “why synthwave started” — how and why they hide behind an avatar, an alter-ego, to remain somehow anonymous and focus on the creation itself. It’s nothing new in music to adopt a hidden-face personality, but in this scene it has been taken to a whole new level. Everyone does that, and I kind of feel it’s powered by the internet aspect of the scene. They don’t perform live, and they don’t connect directly with their fans, so they build a character with a cool/funny/catchy 80s name — that usually reflects their sound — and they attract their audience. It’s very clever.

Rise-Synths-2
Photo Credit: Castell & Moreno.

V: How long did it take you to get all of the interview subjects together? Were there any who were especially difficult to get on board?

C: Some of the artists were very open and easy to get on board, others are very reluctant when it comes to doing on-camera interviews or showing their faces. You have to build some trust, some confidence. I won’t say names, but some of them took us more than a year to finally be involved.

V: Are you going to visit the artists in their cities? For example, are you going to Nantes, France, to interview College and Maethelvin? Or will they come to you?

C: That’s the plan — to travel to as many places as we can [to film the artists in their cities]. Others, of course, depending on budget and artists’ requests, will only be audio interviews or footage that they will record themselves following some guidelines.

V: This project sounds fascinating, but I’d like to give you the chance to tell me and my readers why they should help you finance it?

C: For one: When we pitched the film, [showcasing] our vision and the story that’s behind this scene, people rolled their eyes. I’m not lying, we see their eyes. It’s amazing.

“Why are these dudes talking about electronic 80s music? Who the fuck cares?” They say. Then they see the teaser and say, “Wow, that teaser is amazing, did you do this? I want to be involved!” It’s a very passionate, immediate feeling.

[Doubters] don’t know or understand how to market this. We get that. They don’t understand this scene is niche, but also huge and passionate. It’s a worldwide movement that won’t fade, but it’s weird music for modern ears, so they pass.

We think this scene and this music, and its relationship with film, it all comes together. [It] is something deep that deserves more attention.

Artists should be labeled as artists and composers, not like 80s parodies or jokes. This music, from a filmmaking point of view, is a blessing. The world deserves to know that, and [the music’s] real history. In the late 70s some folks planted the seed that decades later [became] this sound.

If you want to make this happen, if you love this music, you should donate, because no one in the industry wants to tell this story. Literally, no one — at least right now, as far as I know, in terms of the quality and cinematic approach we’re trying to do.

Keep an eye on the Rise Facebook page for updates on the crowdfunding effort.

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