Shawn Ward is in Vancouver, British Columbia, again — only this time it’s not just for the summer. It used to be that he and his family would spend most of their time in the breezy beachside town of Mazatlan, Mexico — their home base for 8 years. Sometimes they’d be in Ireland, where Ward’s mother is from.
Ward’s full-time return to his native Vancouver comes as he celebrates the release of a new FM Attack album, New World, which is a fitting name considering the circumstances.
New World honors his past while branching out his sound with collaborations with Mecha Maiko and Vandal Moon, the latter an artist on Ward’s Starfield Music record label. As he celebrates the new album’s release, the easygoing and amiable pioneer of what came to be called “synthwave” faces a major career milestone: his popular and influential debut album, Dreamatic, turns 10 years old this year. (For a dive into Ward’s background and the early years of FM Attack, check out this interview he did with Vehlinggo in September 2017).
In essence, this summer will see him remembering his past while celebrating his present and future in two distinct releases. Although, really, Dreamatic isn’t that much in the past. It still resonates today, with one of its cuts most recently soundtracking a Chanel campaign.
But the question that arises after 10 years is one that most synthwave pioneers face in a musical landscape that barely resembles what was there when they started: Where do they fit in?
“I’m not quite sure where my place will be now, as things have changed so much over the last 10 years, but I hope to reconnect with people who have heard my previous albums, and maybe listeners new to the genre will discover New World,” Ward told Vehlinggo in an email exchange recently.
For what it’s worth, when Ward played the Human Music Festival in New Jersey last year, the entire crowd hung on every note he played from selections across his entire catalogue. When the classic “Dreamer” came on, there was a room filled with bliss. People still flock to purchase that album and subsequent releases in digital, vinyl, and cassette forms. And, as mentioned, above, he’s still licensing cuts. Chances are they’ll connect pretty well with the exquisite New World.
Making New World
Before Ward made his three-country drive up the Pacific Coast, and before his wife and daughter subsequently joined him, he spent a significant amount of time crafting a followup to 2017’s Stellar. That album, which saw Ward drawing heavily on early 1980s new wave and synth-pop influences and taking a bit of a darker turn, was his first since Deja Vu in 2014. The turnaround was a bit quicker this time and the result a sunnier, more upbeat collection.
“I think it was a natural progression with the FM Attack sound that pushes towards dance/disco vibes with some heavy synth-pop influence,” Ward says. “Hopefully the album will take the listener on an uplifting journey that will spark some nostalgia, while being futuristic at the same time.”
Ward recorded virtually all of New World in his home studio in Mazatlan. He used a host of go-to, classic synths, including several by Roland: Jupiter 4, Jupiter 8, Juno 60, SH-101, and D-550.
“It was a bit of an homage to Roland,” Ward said. “I couldn’t have been inspired the same way or gotten my sound without them.”
Blake Voss of Vandal Moon contributed vocals to the album’s three closing cuts — the title track, “Believe,” and “Mixed Emotions” — while on a visit to Mazatlan last year. Voss sang into a Shure SM58 mic run through an LA610 preamp, augmenting his vocals with a Roland Space Echo tape delay.
“Blake is an amazing guy and a very unique talent,” Ward said. “We became very close friends after I helped him produce his album, Wild Insane, that came out last year.”
“His sound is so genuine and powerful but dark and dreamy,” Ward continued. “He definitely gave me a lot of inspiration and influenced me as an artist. He wrote all the lyrics and performed everything on the fly — incredible.”
For Voss, it was a life-changing experience. He describes Ward’s studio as a space that was “on the cliffs, overlooking the ocean,” and the time he spent there as a period in which he made a true lifelong friend.
“I can’t describe how special an experience it was working with Shawn in Mazatlan,” Voss told Vehlinggo. “We’d spend a few hours each day writing and recording. Shawn would work up something on his LinnDrum, then get some chords together on a Jupiter 4 or whatever. Of course, whatever he made up would sound perfect and inspiring.”
“From there I’d pick up a microphone and just start singing whatever came from my subconscious,” he continued. “Slowly, we’d carve out a proper song. What you hear on this record really is an expression of us connecting as friends and as artists. I’ll never forget it.”
Mecha Maiko’s Hayley Stewart recorded her vocals in Toronto, where she lives. (Both she and Ward will be performing sets on July 6 at Mod Club Theatre for the Outland Toronto synthwave festival, which will also feature fellow Canada natives and/or residents Parallels, Dana Jean Phoenix, and Michael Oakley, along with Dutch synthwave superstar Timecop1983 and British synthwaver Kalax.
“I discovered [Hayley] through her album Mad but Soft and also loved her Okiya EP,” Ward said. “I reached out to her about guest vocals on one of the songs for New World and she just nailed it. I love her voice and style.”
Stewart told Vehlinggo that as she was listening to the music, she instantly got an idea of what she wanted to do.
“I had recently had conversations with people who were really quite baffled when I mentioned that I didn’t feel the need to get married or have kids,” she said. “I’m a pretty non-confrontational person, so this song is what I wished I could say, since it was clear I wasn’t going to be given a chance to articulate my reasons.”
“[Ward] came back with further vocal suggestions and I ended up giving him a bunch of options to choose from, so he could piece together the final arrangement,” Stewart continued. “In the end, we added more spoken-word elements, which I think helped make it a bit more tough but playful at the same time. I’m actually a bit self-conscious about my speaking voice — argh! those sharp esses! — but I figured if there was a song to not be afraid to have a woman’s voice, it should be this one.”
Making music (and the occasional tour) are a full-time gig for Ward — it has been for years. When he wasn’t writing his own material, he was creating official remixes for artists such as Tegan & Sara, Sally Shapiro, the enigmatic Visitor, French Horn Rebellion, and a Koishii & Hush collaboration with Gillian Gilbert of New Order, among others.
After four albums plus 2010 EP Astrowave, and all of that remix experience, Ward can attest to a few key truths about what is easiest and most challenging about his creative process.
“It can be different for each song, as some ideas come easier than others,” Ward said. “I would say usually the easiest for me are the melodies and arrangement, [and] the hardest is almost always lyrics and singing!”
A Review of FM Attack’s New World
Like previous FM Attack records, New World has a balance of songs: some vocal cuts feature Ward on vox, others have guest pipes, and others are instrumental. The aforementioned Stewart and Voss handle guest vox this time, where before them came the likes of Kristine and MNYNMS. Another thing you can trust from an FM Attack album: You’re not going to be saddled with filler. This is a lean album that maximizes every second it has.
Kicking off the album is the lead single, “Dark Blue Sky,” a mid-tempo groover overlayed with hypnotic guitar and synth arps drenched in synthetic choral colors. Through his vocals, Ward genuflects to the majesty of the heavens in a song that feels laced with the kind of contented resolve of an artist comfortable with his craft. It’s a love song to both a person and a reality.
Next up is the supremely catchy dance-floor eruption “Let You Go,” which has a heartbeat that recalls Dreamatic. Over a bouncy, rhythmic strut, celestial synth hooks, and bluesy lead electric piano sound, Ward’s vocoded vox chant a mantra about the challenges of trying to get a romantic interest off his mind. It’s one of the catchiest tracks on the album and likely one that fans will be including on their mixes for years to come.
The aforementioned Ward-Stewart collaboration, “Stranger,” is an exuberant disco/synth-pop cut featuring Stewart’s enchanting vocal chops and the magical quality of FM Attack’s beautifully layered synths. The cut absolutely kills. It’s a bit like if FM Attack were the music-maker for early Madonna.
As she mentioned earlier, Stewart alternates between spoken-word verses and engagingly sung choruses and calls out “all the unsolicited conversations I’ve had.” She brushes off people telling her she could get married, have a baby, and all that fun stuff. She sings that she stays quiet in reply, because she figures these opinionated folk won’t listen to her anyway. Why bother, basically? Over one of the catchiest cuts on the record, Stewart sings in the chorus, “I don’t need a stranger/To tell me how to live my life/I don’t need a stranger/To help me to the light.”
“My Life” sees Ward take over vocals on a Vince Clarke-informed yet classic FM Attack track that flows like nostalgia for nostalgia — the arrangement recalls the Dreamatic or Astrowave days, augmented with the wisdom he’s gleaned since then. In those days, he helped to lay the groundwork for what would come. He’s a contemporary of acts like College, Electric Youth, Desire, Anoraak (an inspiration for FM Attack), and Glass Candy. And back in 2011 Ward experienced the glorious affirmation of Ryan Gosling uttering the words “FM Attack” in an interview about the music that Gosling, director Nicolas Winding Refn, and editor Mat Newman listened to while working on Drive. In a practical sense, the lyrics suggest a breakup and that the narrator won’t cry for the loss, because “it’s just another day in my life.” However, the composition’s music is just the right cultivation of the FM Attack style to suggest Ward’s been thinking about his 10-year-old journey at the vanguard of modern nostalgic tunes.
After that, Ward brings on a two-fer of almost psychedelic numbers. One a colorful trip and another a turn of Kosmische.
“Ultraviolet” splashes Italo Disco synth-pop all over the synthwave, creating a minor-chord-heavy arp-fest over which a vocoder inflects Ward’s singing with a disembodied transcendence. He sings “Colors shine on me from miles above/Ultraviolet love” as a richly layered cascade of beautiful synths blanket him. It’s easy for you to join the fray — just sit back and take it all in.
On a foundation of a hi-hat-free promenade of kick and snare beneath a rapid-fire synth-bass — like a cousin to Glass Candy’s “Digital Versicolor” — we find “Cosmic Dance.” Flying over that bedrock is a cinematic interplay of enchanting synths engaged in a repetition redolent of Tangerine Dream’s Steve Reichian score for Risky Business. Synths fly like excited cherubs before taking a backseat to expressions of arpeggiated minimalism. This beautiful cut gives way to the intricately woven and massively fat-bottomed outrun track “Shadows,” which feels like a palate cleanser of sorts. It serves as a transition between the house- and disco-infused synth-pop and the Voss-led post-punk trifecta that closes out the record.
The Vandal Moon-led cuts represent a shift into the ‘80s more purely, tapping into the DIY, analogue aesthetic that acts like The Cure and New Order exercised in the early to middle years of that era.
“New World,” referenced earlier in this piece, finds Voss diving into deep octaves to bellow out gothic incantations akin to Peter Murphy of Bauhaus over an early Depeche Mode-style darkwave arrangement with guitar expressions that sound straight from Robert Smith’s finger tips. As Voss declares, “It’s a brave new world,” it’s easy to forget he and Ward recorded this song in 2018 and not 1980. Voss brings a strong Vandal Moon influence to the cut.
Voss takes on a more Smith vocal styling for “Believe,” singing about devotion and love over a wistful arrangement that sounds like what would have come out of the recording sessions for The Head on the Door had Ward been in the band. The chorused guitar cries out with fragile beauty before a progressively heart-wrenching array of synthesizers enters the mix and sticks with Voss as they fly over a galloping rhythm section filled with regret.
The album closes with a fast-paced new-wave gem entitled “Mixed Emotions,” sounding like a pure fusion of the best elements of Ward’s and Voss’ respective musical projects. You can tell these two click at a deep level, especially with their love of the music of the early ‘80s.
The final three cuts also underscore a key quality of FM Attack in general: The project is never just the same old synthwave. It wasn’t in 2009 and it isn’t in 2019. Ward seamlessly moves between influences from the past — house, disco, new wave, synth-pop, and darkwave — while maintaining a tight and engaging cohesion of fresh, modern music across releases. It’s what has attracted fans for a decade. It’s why Gosling uttered the FM Attack name in an interview, why Ward has gotten remix opportunities and licensed his music to media like ads and television, and why he is one of the artists to have inspired the creation of Vehlinggo. New World, specifically, is the full realization of Ward’s creative spirit.
What’s Next for FM Attack?
First of all, he’ll be busy promoting New World. As mentioned earlier, he’ll be in Toronto for Outland. On the home front, he’ll be diving deeply back into the “rich underground and independent music scene” in Vancouver, he says. He’s going to be doing a remix and collaboration with his friend Jason Corbett and his Van-based band Actors.
“I’m very excited about this!” he says.
So are we, Shawn. So are we.
Buy New World and other FM Attack gems on his Bandcamp page. You can get it in digital, vinyl, and even cassette forms.