What does a band do when they just want to make dark wave infused with the sound and spirit of the early 1980s, but can’t seem to find the right place for it?
Synthwave fans want their tunes to be some variant of the following: Jan Hammer with a side-chain; uplifting mid-80s synth-pop; or metal burnt over skittering rhythms. Contemporary music fans enjoy their ’80s nods in light, sometimes cynical doses. Period obsessives might balk at even slightly relaxed genre dogma.
What then could Vandal Moon do — the pair mining the gothic pastures of the early ’80s works of The Cure, Clan of Xymox, Joy Division, and, especially vocally, Sisters of Mercy?
“[FM Attack] recognized what makes us unique, and he stripped away anything that did not reinforce that vision.”
The boon came when Blake Voss, the singer, guitarist and lead songwriter of Vandal Moon, heard FM Attack’s latest album, Stellar, which largely eschews the synthwave sounds that FM Attack (AKA Shawn Ward) pioneered almost a decade ago in favor of a more post-punk and new-wave style drawn from the early 1980s. The songs sounded more like “A Forest” than anything FM Attack had produced before on releases such as Deja Vu, Dreamatic, and Astrowave.
“It’s an amazing record, and I’d never heard the words ‘post-punk’ bantered about so readily in the sphere of synthwave before,” Voss told Vehlinggo in a recent email interview. “His album, and how it was embraced, gave me a sense of hope for the future of the scene.”
Ward would go on to sign Vandal Moon to his new label, Starfield Music, and would even produce Wild Insane, Vandal Moon’s latest album that does a fantastic job of articulating the aesthetic desires of both Vandal Moon and FM Attack at this point in their juncture.
“[Ward] recognized what makes us unique, and he stripped away anything that did not reinforce that vision,” Voss said.
Even with that vision of creating music tied to the early ’80s, labeling Wild Insane is not so easy. With songs such as “Computer Love,” “The Bomb,” and “Boy Drinks Girl,” Wild Insane doesn’t really fit neatly into any genre category: it’s not exactly post-punk, nor is it exactly synthwave, dark wave, or goth-rock, or electro-pop. It’s mostly ’80s, but it’s also rinsed with modernity.
“I feel like [Wild Insane is] very unique to our time and stands on its own,” Voss says.
In this Q&A, which has been edited and condensed for style and clarity, Voss will elaborate on how he ended up befriending Ward. He’ll also address the New York- and Santa Cruz-based origins of Vandal Moon, the making of Wild Insane, and what it’s like to live with the crushing affliction of tinnitus as a musician, among other things.
Vehlinggo: How did it come to pass that you ended up working with Shawn Ward? And what did he contribute to the album?
Blake Voss: At some point I heard an audio interview with Shawn. He had a real, palpable sincerity to his voice. Somehow this struck me. I reached out to let him know how much I enjoyed the interview, and we started chatting and slowly formed a real friendship.
I never imagined he’d be interested in Vandal Moon at all. We mostly talked about other cool bands we loved — Drab Majesty, She Past Away; stuff like that. We bonded over a mutual hatred of wanker guitar solos!
“… Most labels want to dropkick your music off into the abyss and forget about you.”
Shawn knew I was on the hunt for a record label. I really wanted a label that my band could have a human relationship with, rather than being treated like a number. I wasn’t having any luck at all. I got a couple offers, but most labels want to dropkick your music off into the abyss and forget about you. I wanted to work with someone who was willing to help nurture me as an artist, and us as a band.
Luckily, the stars aligned. Shawn offered up the opportunity of a lifetime: to be the first band on his new label, Starfield Music.
Jeremy [Einsiedler, who last year made Vandal Moon a duo] and I recorded everything here in my home studio, in Santa Cruz. But from that point on, Shawn took over on production and mixing. He even added a couple of his own synth parts to the record. See if you can find ‘em! But in my eyes, his greatest contribution was his ability to hone in on what makes Vandal Moon stand out as a band. He helped refine the album into something potent and visceral.
What were the highs and lows of the writing and recording process?
We recorded this album over a period of almost two years. We recorded over 60 demos, if you can believe it. There’s so much b-side material for this record, it’s insane.
But that’s what I loved most about making it. We just let it all out: no rules [and] no expectations about what it should sound like. Jeremy and I would lock ourselves in the studio and lose our minds together. Once you put on those headphones you enter a whole new world. I’d yell and scream and shout and Jeremy would be banging away on a synthesizer. It doesn’t get any better. Those moments stick with you and reinforce your relationship as a band.
“Those moments stick with you and reinforce your relationship as a band.”
By far, the hardest part about getting this record together was dealing with my health. Around October of last year I awakened to a severe ringing in my ears. Shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed with tinnitus. The thing about tinnitus is that Western medicine doesn’t really have much to say about it. They don’t know exactly what causes it, there’s no cure, no medication, no procedure to make it go away.
I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate, and I had to stop making music because it would aggravate the ringing. It was all I could do to get through the day. I’ll never forget going to the last doctor I saw. I was extremely down and desperate. He told me that he’s had people sit in the very chair I was sitting in and tell him that they were going to kill themselves — literally commit suicide — if the ringing did not go away.
“I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate, and I had to stop making…”
[The doctor] told me to be patient. He told me that six months later he’s had those same people come back and report that they have now learned to live with their tinnitus, and are leading happy lives. I held onto those words, and they’ve helped me make as much progress as I have today. It’s a struggle, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
What sort of philosophy or methodologies to you subscribe to when writing and recording? And how have they changed over the course of your creative life?
I believe in getting out of the way of your own imagination… that the music has already compromised itself upon coming into the world through you. I believe that music is one way the Universe makes itself known.
When I start writing a song, I don’t have a concrete plan in mind. I let my hands and mind go where they may. I grew up learning to play punk songs on guitar. Playing punk music wasn’t about being a guitarist, it was about being a source of energy and sharing that with the people around you. Punks and hippies have more in common than they’d like to think. And that’s not the LSD talking. I’ve always felt this way.
What kind of equipment did you use on Wild Insane?
My main guitar is a Guild 1967 Starfire IV. I also play a Schecter Hellcat VI, which is based upon the Fender Bass VI that Robert Smith used to play. I run those through some chorus pedals, flanger, overdrive and straight into a Mackie Onyx 1220i mixing board, which has pretty nice preamps on it. My bass guitar is a Washburn I found in a thrift shop years ago. My two synths are the Juno 106 and the microKorg. I record 90 percent of my vocals on a Rode NT1-A condenser mic. Most of the drum sounds Jeremy plays are LinnDrum samples, some of which he played on a Yamaha MIDI kit.
How does where you live have an impact on your music?
Santa Cruz, California, is a funny place. We like to think we are an open-minded community, full of ideas and art and creativity, but the reality is it’s one of the most expensive places to live on Earth. And as we all know, these are not ideal conditions for the arts to flourish. People can barely pay their rent, and Silicon Valley elites are slowly pouring into our little town, buying up all the homes. But it didn’t used to be this way.
“People can barely pay their rent, and Silicon Valley elites are slowly pouring into our little town, buying up all the homes.”
When I was growing up, there was a vital punk scene in town. All kinds of local bands were putting on shows every weekend at house parties, at local venues, at the Vets Hall — it was a special time. Punk had been around for nearly 20 years at this point, but to me it was brand new. It was high energy, it was melodic and, most of all, it was a community of people creating their very own art!
I’d never even heard the term ‘DIY [do it yourself].’ All of a sudden I was seeing handmade flyers, handmade album covers, and I was watching my peers write their own songs. Seeing all those kids up on stage was like, if they can do it, I can do it too!. It was a powerful experience. That summer I bought my first guitar.
What is the origin story of Vandal Moon? Additionally, I’m curious about what compelled you to invite Jeremy Einsiedler to join the project?
The early seeds of Vandal Moon were planted when I moved to NYC. I had big dreams of putting together this huge, dramatic, instrumental post-rock band. I was living in Manhattan in Spanish Harlem. I had a drum kit in my apartment, and was recording demos on this software called N-Track — so shitty.
I put out flyers in laundromats, college dorms, ads on craigslist… I was looking for a drummer. You can’t have a post-rock band without an amazing drummer. Thing was, everyone I met with was just nuts, and couldn’t keep it together enough to actually rehearse. Plus, rehearsing in an apartment is just a dumb idea. Slowly, but surely, my dreams of having a band in Manhattan died.
“They’d built a stage on the rooftop, so we’d throw parties and charge for red cups and we’d play.”
I moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, into a place that had a recording studio. It was a converted warehouse apartment. There were at least three recording studios in the building, plus just about everyone was a musician or photographer or model. Both of my roommates were doing music, and they were older than me. Those guys taught me a lot.
They’d built a stage on the rooftop, so we’d throw parties and charge for red cups and we’d play. We started doing weekly gigs in Brooklyn, and my music slowly took on the shape of what was most convenient for traveling around on the L train, walking to gigs… which was acoustic singer/songwriter stuff.
This turned out to be really good for me. It taught me how to sing with confidence, in front of people, in an intimate setting. People were into it, but I really began to feel like I’d painted myself into a corner with that type of music. After about six years, I moved back to California. One day Jeremy recommended I check out this movie called Drive. That movie altered my reality, and helped me break out of a rut. It’s crazy what a common thread that film has become to people making synthesizer-based music today.
“It’s crazy what a common thread [‘Drive’] has become to people making synthesizer-based music today.”
Jeremy ended up joining the band just last year; but in reality we’ve been making music together forever, in a multitude of iterations. He was in my very first real band, as the drummer in our very first real show at a New Year’s Eve party in Santa Cruz — way back when. That was the first Vandal Moon show ever, and we didn’t even know it!
Here’s a playlist Blake Voss made for Vehlinggo
You do a great job of channeling ‘80s post-punk and dark wave in a rather authentic fashion. Who are the groups that inspire you the most and what sort of considerations do you take when drawing from them for Vandal Moon?
Some of the groups that inspire us most are bands like Grave Babies, Black Marble, and Trevor Something. What we take from those artists are the things I consider to be most vital to creating a great record: taste and timbre.
I value timbre above pretty much everything but songwriting. To me, timbre is what really defines a band. The texture and color of a sound is more important to me than which chord I’m playing, or which note I’m singing — it’s about making people feel something.
“I don’t trust people who pretend they don’t like pop music.”
But I’m also inspired by mainstream pop artists like Halsey and Lorde. The engineering and songwriting on those records is nothing short of miraculous. I don’t trust people who pretend they don’t like pop music. It’s like saying you don’t like fruit. Shut up and try a different fruit then.
And of course, I have a historical connection to bands like The Cure, Fad Gadget, Kraftwerk, and the like. We wouldn’t — we couldn’t — exist without those artists. When you put all these things together into the blender of life, out comes Vandal Moon.
What are your hopes for Wild Insane?
I hope this record can change people’s minds. I hope it can change the way people think of dark wave. I hope it can change the way people think of synthwave, and goth and post-punk and new wave. This record is all of these things and none of these things at the same time.
It doesn’t fit neatly into a genre bin, but we never intended for it to do that. What we did intend was for it to hold a place in people’s lives. That is our ultimate hope for this record.
What’s in your future?
We’ve got some big plans. Jeremy and I just finished shooting a music video at Sony Studios, with some extremely talented filmmakers. It’s going to look insane when it’s done. I can’t wait for people to see it.
We’re also working on another Vandal Moon project, which we have about seven demos written for. Plus, FM Attack and I have some super secret magic sauce in the works. I’m looking to fly down to his studio [in Mexico] this summer. Stay tuned kids!