James Mann, whom you know as synth artist Syntax, has very recently released his new album, The Space Tapes, on Rosso Corsa Records. It’s an elaboration of his approach in composition and scope, taking his mind-expanding mix of ambient, synthwave, and deep, minimal house to newer, vaster, and more complex places.
Here, in an interview with Vehlinggo, the California-based Mann discusses his new album and his method for creating it; his joining a label that has been branching out lately and which counts his friends and heroes on its roster; his support system; and many other wonderful things.
(Note: The following has been edited merely for clarity and to match house style.)
Vehlinggo: Let’s just start from the start. How’d you get into making music? And why synths?
James “Syntax” Mann: I’d always had my hands on some sort of instrument growing up. I remember my parents bought me a clarinet when I was 9, and I absolutely loved the sounds it created.
As I grew older and realized the clarinet wasn’t the coolest instrument to have in band class, I started playing drums — which really became my focus and complete passion.
“Synthesizers have such a broad range of feeling and emotive capabilities.”
Navigating through my lame middle school punk rock band phase had me eventually exploring more in high school, subsequently graduating to the piano and in turn synthesizer. Once I heard that first beautiful arp delay on a Juno 106, I believe, I never looked back.
I started listening to some synth heavy artists like Lazerhawk and [future collaborator] Droid Bishop, and was astounded at what they were creating. I thought, well I have all these ideas in my head, I just need to figure out a way to get them down. There was something so nostalgic, emotive, and energizing about their music, I realized I should make an effort to document some sounds at home just as these artists had.
Synthesizers have such a broad range of feeling and emotive capabilities. The sounds that can be created through them are vast and endless. Of course I found some ones I remain partial to and find them as go-to synths for tracks, but these days I’m really trying to break that and switch the sounds up even more.
What was it like when you decided to start making music as Syntax? How did it feel when you completed your first song? And how did it feel once you finally released your first album?
Mann: At first the Syntax project was just a hobby, a form of expression and outlet I could release into without any accountability or expectations. Honestly, the earliest stuff I released was perhaps the most liberating.
Sunrise was such a novice attempt, yet earnest expression of the sounds I was trying to capture, although listening back is a bit cringeworthy. I mixed and mastered the EP and had so many engineering mistakes in there, but some listeners seemed to enjoy the production. There are so many things different I would do, but at the time it’s what came out.
After the first track I ever did — “Gamma” — there was a sense of completion and happiness I hadn’t experienced before. Not as in “Oh check this out, it’s the best thing you’ll hear all day,” but more rather an expression of my feelings at the time, and documenting them through my first attempt and recording that seemed to feel complete.
Pressing “publish” on the Bandcamp page felt good. I was releasing it to the internet with zero expectations, and at the time I was pleased with the brevity and punctuality of the EP. Going back though, there are quite a few unmistakable sounds that are Syntax-geared.
How do you typically approach creating a song? And why?
Mann: Typically, something inspires me to lay down a melody. It could be an event in my life or just a certain mood I’m feeling, but some of the tracks I most enjoyed producing came when I was inspired by something and I created a melody in my head.
When I was at work or away from home, I would voice record a melody so I didn’t forget it. Looking back, I’m such a horrible singer it was tough to decipher by the time I got home.
Also, playing around with different synths can inspire a particular feeling or train of thought. I get into space travel and exploration, along with nature, big time. So the sound of a pad or synth lead can put my mind inside of a scenario that is bigger than I am.
Visually my mind tends to race, so catching colors and detail in imagery has me consequently putting out more “lush” or “roomy” synthesizers. I love delay and reverb, that’s no secret to any listener — haha. It’s that kind of escape and feeling I attempt to convey and share with a listener for each particular track. I really try and vary tempos and arrangements throughout each piece, but ultimately it seems to fall under one umbrella of sound.
For The Space Tapes: How was your approach to this album different, and how was it the same, as with your previous records?
Mann: The Space Tapes took roughly a year and a half to complete. After Transmissions, I felt a bit tapped for ideas, and finding new inspirations and influences seem to take some time.
I am a huge fan of ambient music, but I went through a period where I was listening to Aphex Twin and his harder stuff (Drukqs era) along with bands like Underworld and deep minimal house from Europe. So, there were some different approaches and executions. Again, I felt like space was such a relevant inspiration and leader for my music that I wanted to revisit the emotion I had in [debut LP] Island Universe.
That album is still my favorite, though a lot of listeners know my work solely through Transmissions.
There was an unbridled and honest take on the world and everything above and beyond with that release, which I genuinely appreciated, and wanted to delve into those depths with The Space Tapes.
Needless to say, a lot of the tracks were demos I had started and came back to. I ditched a lot of more ambient style tracks, as ultimately the need for energy was there. The end result is really an array of moods, tempos, and melodies that I hopefully managed to pair under the one theme which inspires me so much: space.
You’re releasing this album on Rosso Corsa Records, which is a pioneering synthwave collective — absolute quality people and quality musicians. How does that feel? How did that come about?
Mann: I’m not going to lie: jumping on board with Rosso Corsa felt amazing. The artists on that roster I have actually been listening to for years, and having them as friends on Facebook was enough to make me giddy and fanboy out. (Although I refrained from doing so, except for Lazerhawk, but that’s another story.) There’s something about the music of Lazerhawk that transports me to another dimension, and I would say without hesitation that he’s one of my biggest inspirations out there! But really, all of those guys are amazing.
I have known Ross “Phaserland” Trinkaus for quite some time — since before Syntax even started — and I got to know Michael “Miami Nights 1984” Glover as a really genuine and down to earth, funny guy. He actually seemed to appreciate my music and how it was different from the synthwave which is out there in large quantities.
I didn’t put two and two together, realizing eventually he was the owner of Rosso Corsa along with Lazerhawk. We were chatting about something and I mentioned a future release. He asked me where I was thinking about [releasing] it and nervously I told him I didn’t know. He asked me to then send a demo of five or so tracks, so I did — all from The Space Tapes. Gosh, I waited two months for him to say he was down and then, hahaha, he told me Lazerhawk had to approve the roster addition.
“It really does feel like an extended family… everyone has each other’s back.”
I was sweating a bit, but knew that those tracks were among my most thought-out and produced pieces, so if I didn’t get the green light I wouldn’t have been too disappointed. Sure enough they were. So that, I guess, made it official and not too creepy.
The other guys on the label — Zach “D/A/D” Robinson, who I coincidentally met and hung with several years back; Alex “Highway Superstar” Karlinsky; Eric Sferro; and Magnus “Lost Years” Larsson are super awesome people. They really treat you with respect and have nothing but love. It really does feel like an extended family where everyone has each other’s back. You don’t find that too often these days, so it just felt way right.
You’re working on music for a virtual reality platform. How’d that come about and how does it feel to be getting more licensing opportunities?
Mann: Oh, the VR world is taking off in ways I never thought possible. My good friend Evan (AKA Bluetech) is pioneering a VR platform called Microdose, which premiered at Coachella this year as its own dome. I was mesmerized and blown away. Hearing his music corresponding with the virtual reality was pure heaven, and I immediately saw the opportunity for expansion in terms of sounds, moods, and projects.
He happens to be a synthwave fan, ran across my music, and asked me to jump on board for a segment. I am incredibly excited, as I feel that the Syntax music will finally fit effortlessly into something that pairs well with those cliche delayed arps I overuse — haha. I will try and switch up a few things, but scoring something like this is a dream come true. The project is doing so well, Bassnectar just used it for a massive show.
It’s surreal to think my music will be paired with something reaching such a large number of people who appreciate electronic music — not just the music, but the experience, because isn’t that what it’s really about?
“Being commissioned for a full soundtrack would be the dream of a lifetime.”
What are your hopes for The Space Tapes — how people react to it, what it does for you, etc.?
I genuinely hope that people appreciate the hard work and effort I gave trying to evolve the sound and turn it into something more mature, while retaining the elements which had them listening to Syntax in the first place.
I never want my music to be front and center on someone’s stereo, but rather a backdrop as music for reading, cleaning, or just [hanging out]. I know how valuable time and ears can be, so every time I get a letter or comment from a listener expressing gratitude or appreciation I am over the moon.
Heck, my music collection has the same rotating 10 artists, so I know what it means to make a playlist or have someone get stoked on your song. The sheer amount of talent out there is overwhelming and I’m not going to lie when I say intimidating, too. There are young guys making gorgeous music and giving older folks like me a run for the money.
At the end of the day I hope the listener hears the evolution in sound, since… there have been a lot of tracks in the pipeline. Editing them down and/or coming up with new ones is daunting. I want [listeners] to have an experience of effortless and easy, so starting with an ambient track is really what I love and I did it. A friend said, “Oh, start strong with synthwave,” but I had to say no, that just isn’t the Syntax sound.
What is your dream for the Syntax project?
I feel like the project is generating a lot in terms of live performance and opportunities right now. I would be OK if everything capped off and didn’t get busier, but I do have some ambitions I’ve yet to achieve with the project. Being commissioned for a full soundtrack would be the dream of a lifetime. I can’t tell you how many scenes I see in movies — or in real life — where I hear and envision a particular synth or sound to accompany that visual. I have faith one day it could happen; until then I will just keep visualizing.
Who is your support system? Creating something — especially something as massive as the 19-track The Space Tapes — requires an extraordinary emotional, psychological, and spiritual investment of the self. Who’s there for you during these times?
Oh man, this is a tough one! You put me on the spot. I have to thank my good friend Evan, who has given me all of his musical prowess and advice for getting through tough times.
Live shows can be rough for me, as the crowds are varied and aren’t always there to see you — or even appreciate you. I’ve spilled more than my fair share of problems and demos to Evan and my partner Mark, who I am incredibly grateful for tolerating my “Hey can you hear this?” “What do you think of this? “How about this part, does it work….yeah? No?” Ugh — I’m giving myself a headache with these.
It was trying times and I felt emotionally and physically exhausted after a long day at work and then behind the workstation. I proudly say, though, I have a stress ball by my workstation that sits there and I haven’t squeezed it once. Maybe after this interview I’ll give it a go.
The Space Tapes is out now on Rosso Corsa. It’ll be released soon on cassette by Kill All Music.