(Editor’s Note: This is Brooklyn-based Andrew B. White’s first piece for Vehlinggo. In this he does double duty, reviewing Sunglasses Kid’s new LP and interviewing the artist himself, marking Kid’s first such appearance in this publication. The interview is toward the end of the piece.)
Over the last few years Sunglasses Kid has made a big impact in the synthwave scene with his blend of keyboard-heavy, romantic 80s-style funk-pop. Kid has released a plethora of one-off singles, an EP and a loads of remixes for other artists.
The list of SK collaborators is long and with notable names in various scenes: Dana Jean Phoenix, Miranda Carey, D/A/D, Kristine, Futurecop!, Phantom Ride, Highway Superstar, The Boy & Sister Alma, Phaserland, Diamond Field. Add to this, writing theme music for sunglasses manufacturer Tens, and writing and co-producing the single “Beyond Memory” with the legendary Richard X for UK pop act NINA and you can see how impressive his credentials are becoming.
You could say the man — known as “Ed” to his fellow classmates — has been rather busy and that he certainly has no need for wearing rose-tinted (sun)glasses.
Valentine’s Day 2017 sees the release of the debut Sunglasses Kid album Graduation. The seeds of the album go all the way back to 2014, when the title was originally intended for an EP that would feature vocalists such as Miranda Carey. The EP didn’t eventuate and the track “The Real Thing” with Carey was instead released as a single.
Graduation then became the working title for a full-length album. Throughout 2015 there were regular updates on the progress of the album and a release was slated for summer 2016. In anticipation of the summer release, on Feb. 13, 2016, Sunglasses Kid posted a preview of the album on Soundcloud. The album failed to materialize that summer.
Now, on Valentine’s Day 2017, almost one-year-to-the-day later, the album is finally available. Why the delay? When other synthwave artists such as LA Dreams drop an album every afternoon, was Sunglasses Kid simply slacking-off school and hanging out behind the gym too much? Turns out that the delay was in part due to Ed signing with a record label — London-based Aztec Records.
The fledgling label specializing in electronic and pop music is also home to NINA, SJBRAVO, Owlle, Bright Light Bright Light, Woman E. and Micky Cupid. While it could be argued that some of Aztec’s artists have 80s influences, none are particularly “retro” or have any remote connection to the synthwave scene. This may indicate that labels are taking an interest in overly retro-sounding 80s music and incorporating those artists in with their contemporary roster. Time will tell if this is a trend, but the fact that Sunglasses Kid is being released on a label that is not one of the so-called “net” labels commonplace in synthwave is both interesting and exciting.
After all, being on a label brings an added professionalism. Things like planning and setting-up an album release become important. This involves more than simply uploading some tracks to Bandcamp and tweeting about it. (!)
Be True To Your School
So has the wait been worth it? Have the kids of Graduation already moved-on to higher education or are they sticking around to relive the memories of their prom night?
You could call it a concept album. The stories are loosely centered around a fictitious high school and the colorful array of characters that inhabit the halls. There’s heartbreak, the cool kids, the prom and hanging at the beach. This is this a pseudo John Hughes world.
The album’s opening track, aptly titled “Opening Scene,” paints a you a clear picture of the high school in question, complete with authentic sound effects and a monologue from the grumpy school principal who would like nothing more than to hang that pesky Sunglasses Kid kid out to dry. What’s cool about this track is that these are not samples lifted from 80s movies but specially voiced for the album by Andy Last, host of the long-running Beyond Synth podcast. As an opener for the album, “Opening Scene” sure is fun, but probably more of a novelty track in relation to the rest of the album and might not get as quite as much play down at the roller rink.
True to Sunglasses Kid’s previous work, Graduation is a mix of vocal and instrumental tracks. Of the featured vocalists only Australian chanteuse Miranda Carey makes a repeat appearance.
You won’t find previous synthwave-scene vocal collaborators such as Dana Jean Phoenix or Kristine this time around. Instead there are new faces. Carey’s Antipodean New Zealand neighbor JJ Mist gives us the emotional low-down of love lost on the sultry and solidly catchy “Without You.”
At the time of recording this track, Mist was relatively unknown but has since appeared on several other releases in the synthwave scene for Phaserland, DATAstream, Morgan Willis, and Tape Loader, as well as releasing her own EP. It seems she’s well on her way to achieving Dana Jean Phoenix status and the Sunglasses Kid association will only help her with that.
The aforementioned Carey throws it down on “Can’t Hide,” which is suitably Bordeline-era Madonna. If you like Carey’s own music and and her previous work with Sunglasses Kid, this will keep you happy.
A fun change-of-pace comes in the shape of some old-school hip-hop courtesy of Utah-based Rhyme Time on “80s Baby.” Here, Rhyme Time name-drops and spars-off 80s and contemporary pop culture references. Speaking of pop culture, Rhyme Time evidently made an appearance with his group House of Lewis on America’s Got Talent, so I guess he’s graduating to another level here.
One telling sign this track was recorded earlier in 2016 is the lyrical reference to optimistically having “the first female president.” Uh yeah — so that didn’t quite work out. The track is rounded out with Geneva, one of the co-writers on “80s Baby” delivering some smooth R&B vocals in the choruses. “Ohh yeah, I’m an 80s baby,” she sings, making it clear who was first on the turf.
“Just Another Day” features London’s I Am Harlequin (AKA Anne Freier). Freire delivers more of a contemporary vocal approach, which aligns her closer to Christine and the Kings than Madonna. You could look at the result as being a melding of 1986 and 2016.
Aztec Records label mate SJBRAVO breaks the album of the predominately female cast of singers with “Runaway.” This heartfelt ballad probably has the most crossover potential on the album. It wears enough 80s on its sleeve while sounding contemporary enough for modern pop radio, due to SJBRAVO’s vocal delivery. In many ways “Runaway” could be at home on a Chicane album and I can hear it being picked-up by a large cross-section of listeners, much like FM-84’s collaboration with Ollie Wride “Running In The Night” was. BBC Radio 1, here comes the Kid.
Of the instrumental tracks, synthwave darling Phaserland contributes his melodic 80s guitars to “Venice Beach,” which nicely transports you to the boardwalk, and “Freshman,” with its upbeat and fresh-faced gleeful exuberance. Guitars on “Boyz Will Be Boyz” and “Sunshine” are adeptly played by two prominent LA-based synthwave shredders (Hugh) Myrone and D/A/D respectively.
“Bitter Reaction” gets the Fairlight treatment with its big drums and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production approach. “Friday Night” chugs along with a bass line that is much of a staple in synthwave music and title track “Graduation” is a slice of bright and uplifting synth-romance that would kill in an episode of Red Oaks. Much of retro-inspired synthwave aims to evoke tried-and-true 80s imagery, not all of it successfully, but these instrumental tracks manage to capture those ideas very well.
Although it may sound premature, Graduation is a “classic” Sunglasses Kid album. What that means is the album is firmly in the style that has won Kid plenty of fans over the last couple of years and will surely acquire him many more. Long-term listeners will be relieved they’ve finally made it to graduation and freshmen everywhere are about to find out about what life at “SK High” is all about.
‘I’d rather people hate my real shit than love some fake shit’
(Editor’s Note: As a special graduation present, Andrew got the low-down on the album directly from Edward “Sunglasses Kid” himself.)
ABW: Fans have been waiting for the release of Graduation for some time.
I understand the delay in releasing the album was due to you being signed to Aztec Records? You needed to fit into their release schedule and do all those “grown-up” things you do when you release an album on a label. Was that the case and how has it been working with a them?
SK: I’m very much the Judd Nelson of Breakfast Club and am excellent at putting off doing my homework. Some big shit upended my real world for a while, and I had to take time out to deal with some of that. Yes, the grown-up label stuff slowed things down, but once I got my skates on, we all kicked into gear. But yeah, a day job and good old procrastination def’ contributed to the slow-up.
ABW: How do you think the album will be received? Graduation has been one of the most anticipated albums in the synthwave scene. Do you worry that fans might have moved on in a scene that is rapidly evolving?
SK: Yikes that feels like a heads-up. So yeah, I finished most of the album in 2015 and the scene has moved on. Certainly the production standards and number of artists has increased. I would totally understand people being a bit underwhelmed, as I feel kinda responsible for the false hype. In reality it was me fucking-up on deadlines, which to the outside world it looks like some crazy two-year-long teaser trailer!
To be honest, I’ve always walked a tightrope, with pastiche on one side and cheesy shit on the other. I’m sure one day I’ll come crashing down, but I do this because I enjoy it. Once you’ve entered the world of second-guessing, people-pleasing and trying to be something you’re not, you’re no longer being you, and that somehow always leaks out in the music and people detect it. I’d rather people hate my real shit than love some fake shit.
ABW: You’ve worked with several vocalists on the album, some of whom you’ve worked with before. How did you decide who to work with and what was the process like?
SK: It’s often a gamble. I choose people who I think I’ll connect with a get what I’m trying to do. If there isn’t a passion there it usually fizzles out.
Miranda Carey has consistently understood what I’m doing — and of course her voice is amazing. Rhyme Time was a new collab and was just a consummate pro. I’ve wanted to work with a rapper from day one, and it was about finding someone who was prepared to walk a similar tight-rope, taking risks, not being afraid to be silly or have fun.
Artists like Phaserland and D/A/D have become my go-to guys for guitars and Myrone is also no exception. All three guys bring different flavours, and when working with D/A/D it’s as if I can feel the L.A sun soaking through. I always feel an emotional connection with D/A/D. Phaserland and Myrone are just powerhouse pros who don’t miss a beat. All the artists have been incredible — from JJ Mist to I Am Harlequin and SJBRAVO — they all have such characterful voices and are exceptional songwriters.
ABW: Since the album has been finished for a while, you must have a written bunch of new material in the meantime. Can fans expect new SK music sooner than later?
SK: I hope so. I’m working on new tracks and hope to have something funky out with SJBRAVO in the coming months. I hope the next album will be out toward the end of this year, early next year — but then I’m the boy who cried wolf when it comes to deadlines, so don’t trust me.
ABW: You have been starting to DJ live as Sunglasses Kid and just picked up a support slot for College in London. That must be a pretty cool opportunity for you. Will SK continue to do DJ sets or are you looking at more of a live band approach?
SK: Believe it or not, I headlined a party with College and Timecop in October last year in Amsterdam, where I played live with synths and all that jazz. So I met College on a boat and enjoyed a night of total 80s opulence with him, his wing-man Maethelvin, Timecop (AKA Jordy), and Joe, label boss for Urban Road Records.
In London I had a friend who was running Nightspot Cinema and I said, dude you need to screen Drive. I got Joe from Urban Road to hook up Nightspot with College’s guys. And so College is flying over from France to play live. Nightspot needed DJs, so I suggested Joe and myself. Essentially, I pitched our Amsterdam gig minus Timecop — there wasn’t the budget! — and I taught myself to DJ.
I’m not in the habit of DJing, but it’s a great chance to introduce a new audience to synthwave. Drive is definitely a gateway drug for the synthwave scene, so I’m really excited to see the reaction when I play tracks from artists like Miami Nights 1984, Le Cassette, Gunship, FM-84, Jordan F, and maybe a little Sunglasses Kid.
(Graduation is available via Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, and elsewhere.)