When you listen to beautiful songs like “Losing All of You” and “It’s All Happening” from new, retro-tinged synth-pop duo Dream System 8, you’re introduced to an enchanting world of vintage synthesizers, engaging vocals, and modern sensibilities.
Infused in the compositions are the influences of producers like Vince Clarke and groups like OMD and The Human League.
It’s clear that David Klotz and Erica Elektra, whose album We Sleep Again comes out Feb. 23, have a songwriting bond that’s centered in a love for 1980s greats. (Klotz, a music editor for Netflix sci-fi thriller Stranger Things, certainly spends a lot of time in that decade.) What might not be as obvious about Dream System 8 is that the project likely would never have existed had Klotz and Elektra both not “swiped right” on each other.
“We met the old-fashioned way, on Tinder,” Elektra said in an email interview she and Klotz did with Vehlinggo recently. “… although we didn’t make a love connection.”
No worries, though, because they both learned that each other were experienced musicians, with a healthy resume of bands and solo projects behind them. They enjoyed each other’s work and a different, but fruitful, kind of partnership formed.
“… We talked about how we should get together and make music sometime, which we did,” Elektra says. “We got together one day to experiment and ended up recording ‘Losing All of You’ right then and there. And the rest is history.”
From ‘Rio’ to ‘Elephant Stone’
Before he was an Emmy-winning music editor on popular shows like Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, Glee, American Horror Story, Firefly, and on films like Iron Man and Memento, Klotz was a kid listening to The Human League, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and The Smiths. The spirit of all of those acts, except for maybe The Smiths, is omnipresent in the work of Dream System 8.
But it was The Stone Roses’ influential 1989 masterpiece, their self-titled debut, that sparked something in Klotz. He heard it for the first time in the summer of 1990. He was studying film at Emerson College in Boston at the height of the early 90s shoegaze scene and stumbled upon what is most certainly one of the best albums of all time.
“That record made me want to buy a guitar and form a band,” Klotz says. “I loved how that album sounded so new, yet so rooted 1960s pop. That was very cool at the time.”
Other shoegaze outfits would soon come into the life of the collegiate Klotz.
“I saw a lot UK bands coming through, like Lush, Ride, Swervedriver, The Darling Buds, Revolver, My Bloody Valentine, and Adorable,” Klotz said.
All of that inspired Klotz to start his first band, Fonda, when he moved to Los Angeles.
“Fonda drew on many of those guitar sounds,” Klotz said. “It would be years and years again of clicking away at many computer plug-ins before I would circle back around to finding the keyboards that were used on the first records I purchased in grade school, like [The Human League’s essential] Dare and [Duran Duran’s popular album with the Patrick Nagel cover] Rio. I am reliving my childhood now!”
“It would be years and years… before I would circle back around to finding the keyboards that were used on the first records I purchased in grade school.”
For Elektra, music came early and with aplomb. She’s been playing piano since she was three, growing up with a Russian mother who was and still is a piano teacher.
“I grew up with the sounds of classical music being played throughout the house at all times,” Elektra says. “I was constantly competing, playing in recitals, etc…”
Augmenting her classical exposure, Elektra’s mother gave a 16-year-old Elektra an old acoustic guitar that her father had given to her mother as a teenager. Her mom taught her a few chords, and the whole thing opened up a whole new paradigm.
“I began writing songs immediately,” Elektra says. “They just seemed to pour out of me.”
Then came an introduction to a Akai’s storied sampling gear.
“In my twenties, I lived with a hip-hop producer, and he taught me how to sequence on an old MPC, so I began to add to the songs I was writing by making beats/sequences, which created a more electronic sound,” Elektra said.
“Songs… just seemed to pour out of me.”
As she was growing up and getting more into music, Elektra took in some great shows that proved formative, including Bikini Kill with The Go-Go’s at The Warfield in San Francisco. Foundational albums for her included Yazoo’s/Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s, Velocity Girl’s Copacetic, and the Cocteau Twin’s Four-Calendar Cafe.
Elektra and Klotz were each forging their own, separate paths to musical discovery and self-actualization, setting things in motion to arrive at that point where they would open up a dating app and embark on their biggest adventure yet.
‘Stranger Things’ Happened
Around the time Klotz and Elektra swiped left on romance but an enthusiastic right on making electronic music together, Klotz was eyeing a shift from software synths to hardware. His inspiration was Stranger Things score composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, with whom, beginning in 2015, he was spending a fair amount of time.
“I was using a lot of computer instrument plug-ins that simulated the sounds of vintage synths from the 80s, and I was seemingly fine with that,” Klotz said. “But, then I met [Dixon and Stein] and started working with them on Season 1 of Stranger Things.”
“I loved the music they created with their vintage analog keyboards,” Klotz continued. “It was like a lightning bolt reminding me that I wasn’t a musician anymore by clicking a mouse and dialing in sounds on a computer screen.”
That kicked off a period in which Klotz bought his own synthesizers, including a Jupiter 8 from Perfect Circuit Audio in Burbank, California. After playing and recording with it for a few weeks, “I was hooked,” he said.
The songs on We Sleep Again are, in general, performed using a variety of vintage gear, ranging from various Korgs, Rolands, and Yamahas, to equipment like the rare late 70s synth Crumar Performer, the LinnDrum LM-2, and the bizarre but intriguing Omnichord System 100.
Starting Dream System 8, the duo didn’t have any huge goals for their project. One thing was clear, though: A big guiding principle was “all synths, all the time.”
“We were just getting together to have fun and make music, and enjoy the experimental process of working with all of those amazing synthesizers,” Elektra said. “It wasn’t until about six months into it when we realized that we’d amassed a bunch of songs — good songs — and that we should probably figure out what we were doing with this musical project of ours.”
“We realized that we should probably figure out what we were doing with this musical project of ours.”
They certainly contemplated live drums and guitars as part of the formula, but in the end restricting themselves to their synths and drum machines made more sense.
“It felt liberating in a way to give us those limitations, because with computers you can get any sound you want, and in the context of the track many listeners wouldn’t know if you were using a real Rhodes piano or a sample,” Klotz said.
“So,” he continued, “when we thought of an idea or a part to record, we just jumped over to one of the many synths that was plugged in and started looking for the sound we heard in our heads. And, if we didn’t find it, we’d happen upon something else by accident… like the opening arpeggio on ‘Shine a Little Light’.”
“We had to let go of a few things and the songs turned out differently than we had imagined,” he continued. “That’s part of the appeal of this project for me: the unknown, [the] adventure. I’m still figuring out how to use half the synths we own.”
How to Write a Synth-Pop Song
For Klotz and Elektra, the songwriting process often involves working on songs separately and then reconciling them at just the right time.
“Often times, we may come to the table with a mostly written song, and then one of us might suggest a different chord progression for the chorus, or whatever, so that we modify the original song that was brought to the session,” Elektra says.
They have high standards for themselves that they hope will translate to a rewarding connection for listeners.
“I like writing pop songs with a verse, chorus, and a bridge,” Klotz says. “If I don’t have a bridge, I’m hard on myself and I think I’m being lazy and doing a disservice to the listener.”
There are times when they write a song together, though.
“… One of us starts to play something on a synth, and maybe come up with a basic chord progression that the other person might start to hum on and come up with a melody, so it just sort of builds and builds,” Elektra says.
When it comes to lyrics, the two dive pretty deep.
“My life has apparently been overwhelmed by heartbreak.”
“Lyrically, it’s embarrassing when I look back at my songwriting over the last 15 years,” Klotz says. “My life has apparently been overwhelmed by heartbreak. I chose the right medium to express that, I guess.”
Like Klotz, Elektra digs deep for her words.
“I just often use my songs like a diary, writing my deepest thoughts, fears, wishes, etc.,” she said. “It’s how I communicate on a deeper level.”
Nods to the Pioneers
Dream System 8 leans into the spirit of synth-music pioneers — the pop of Duran Duran and The Human League, which Klotz mentioned earlier, along with score composer powerhouses Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, and Vangelis — but doesn’t try to be an exact copy. There’s no need for Klotz and Elektra to sacrifice themselves at such an altar.
Instead, Klotz and Elektra deftly blend the elements that made those musicians and bands great with the sum of their own life experiences, musical skill, and modern songwriting acquired over time.
“How did he get those sounds?”
Along the way, the inspirations have morphed a bit. For example, consider the creation of the song “Losing All of You.” When Klotz was writing its chorus, he thought he was ripping off “Love’s Theme” from Moroder’s soundtrack for Midnight Express.
“By the time we finished the track, it really sounds nothing like it, but that’s what was in my head during the writing process,” he said.
“And, I am consciously referencing sounds from my favorite records of that era,” he continued. “We used a Yamaha CS70m to get that Vangelis brass sound from Blade Runner. You can hear it on the bridge of “It’s All Happening’.”
Klotz also tried, but failed, to recreate the synth pads from The Human League’s “Seconds” for their track “Color the Stars.” Although was using a Jupiter 4 as the band had in 1981, it didn’t happen, he said.
“The ghost of [late The Human League producer] Martin Rushent haunts me late at night when I’m alone trying to record those synths,” Klotz says. “How did he get those sounds?”
As they plan for the Feb. 23 release of We Sleep Again, Klotz and Elektra are slowly but surely rehearsing their songs for a live show that could come down the pike in the coming months.
In the meantime, listen to and buy their Minty Fresh-released record via all the digital channels on Friday. Overall, I suspect that we’ll be hearing their work a lot this year. We’re mighty glad they took a chance on Tinder.
Feature photo credit: Polly Antonia Barrowman.