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Outland Are Organizing Canada’s Biggest Synthwave Festival

The Outland Toronto 2019 Retrowave Festival is approaching fast. On July 6 at the Mod Club, you’ll be able to see FM Attack, Parallels, Timecop1983, Dana Jean Phoenix, Mecha Maiko, Michael Oakley, and Kalax perform live, and enjoy an entire night engineered around a synthwave/retrowave theme. People are coming from multiple continents to enjoy themselves and each other. It could be a night to remember for decades.

Stuart McLaren and Brett Simpson, the people behind the Britain-based Outland, have been working hard to get everything in order so that fans and artists alike have an eventful and seamless experience. McLaren runs his own booking, promotions, and tour management agency, and he and Simpson have made a name for themselves with their professional level of Outland offerings: from the first in 2017 all the way to their Sunset Cruise events on the River Thames in London. They don’t mess around.

Now they’ve set their sights on Toronto, which despite Canada’s role in helping to create and inspire the synthwave movement, has had a fairly small scene. The nation’s synthwave or synthwave-adjacent acts such as Miami Nights 1984 (Vancouver), FM Attack (Vancouver), Parallels (Toronto), and Le Matos (Montreal) were crafting fare essentially a decade ago that has proven to be some of the most influential and enduring music. (If we’re talking about Drive-related things, then add Ryan Gosling and soundtrack acts Electric Youth and Desire to the mix.) It only makes sense that Canada get its due. 

Dana Jean Phoenix performs at the Neon RetroFest in Warwick, Rhode Island, in August 2018. She is one of the performers at Outland Toronto on July 6 at The Mod Club. Photo by Andrew White for ‘Vehlinggo.’

“It’s astonishing then that Toronto had not yet seen a synth festival production and that’s what made it easy for us to choose this amazing and diverse city for our next annual city-series showcase,” Simpson told Vehlinggo.

For a full program and to buy tickets to Outland Toronto, go here.

In this extended email exchange with Vehlinggo, McLaren and Simpson discussed why they created Outland, some of the high- and low-points of running events in this niche scene, what they expect from Toronto, and more. (Disclosure: Vehlinggo is a co-sponsor of Outland Toronto along with Beyond Synth, but that doesn’t have an impact on the interview.)

Holly Dodson (of Parallels) is among the performers slated for Outland’s retrowave festival on July 6 in Toronto.

Vehlinggo: Stuart McLaren has mentioned that you started Outland in 2017 to address the issue of a lack of events in synthwave (not sure if Retro Future Fest started before or after you). But why synthwave at all? What is it about the genre that compels you to invest time, money, and energy into it?

Brett Simpson: There’s nothing else like it. It’s niche, but it’s so dynamic and magnetic. At the time that we had discovered Neo’s red pill, the world looked and sounded different. I was scratching to hear and feel this music live. I could not believe it — here in London, the birthplace of some of the most iconic music and bands ever, and there was nothing synthwave to be found! So we set about doing something about that. It’s amazing what a bottle of red, some synth tunes and your best mate can do. Only after we had the Clapham Gig all set up, did I happen upon a small live synth gig set up by Nightspot Cinema. That was my introduction to Timecop1983, Kalax, and Sunglasses Kid. I was sold!

“I was scratching to hear and feel this music live.

Stuart McLaren: Outland and RFF held its first events in the same year back in 2017. We conceptualized Outland in 2016, but it’s funny because at almost the same time we announced our inaugural event that April, the RFF guys (who we didn’t know existed at the time) announced theirs! Talk about being connected in the collective consciousness! Both Brett and I were hungry for live synthwave post-Drive soundtrack and GUNSHIP’s debut release, and we saw an opportunity to create a production that included lasers and projections behind the artists, which had never been done before.

I guess at the time it was more of a drive for creativity than anything else, but also rising to the challenge to produce “the biggest synth and retrowave party London had ever seen.” Mostly I think it was just so we could actually see our favorite synthwave artists perform. (We actually approached GUNSHIP as our first choice for that line-up, but that never materialized).

FM Attack - Shawn Ward - live
Shawn “FM Attack” Ward performs live at an unspecified show. He is among the performers at Outland Toronto on July 6. Photo provided by Ward.

What has been your most successful Outland event to-date and why? And how about the most challenging/disappointing one and why? And what did you learn from both?

SM: Outland London 2017, our first production, was by far the most successful in terms of attendance. It was a huge sigh of relief when we hit the 600 [attendance] mark and could call break-even on artist and venue hire costs. It was also by far the most challenging promotional and marketing-wise, since we just didn’t know how big the market was in London. We didn’t have any other synthwave events to use as a yardstick. I guess it was a bit disappointing for us then, when at the beginning of 2018, we held a smaller event and only 130 people turned up. It was also a big financial loss as Nightcrawler’s flight was cancelled and we had to reroute him via Manchester at great expense. I think we’ve learnt from both that the synth market is still very niche, but very devoted and loyal. With more promoters running synth nights, we learnt quite quickly to change things up to keep the fans interested and that’s how our idea to host a synthwave cruise on the Thames came about.

“We didn’t have any other synthwave events to use as a yardstick.”

BS: Glasgow 2018 was the most challenging work-wise: just Stu and I running two rooms, both running live acts simultaneously. We learned that there were folks out there who loved this scene as much as we did. That there was passion and talent just frothing for an opportunity to showcase itself.

Outland in Glasgow, Scotland in 2018. Photo provided.

What are the challenges in general with putting on events tied to a rather niche market and how does that compare to your past experience?

BS: First off, these events cost money. There’s no sponsorship or investors — just Stu and I — putting money and time in. We pay everyone else first. We have always made a point to make sure our artists are looked after. We also never know if we will even make break-even; if we will even have anyone rocking up. One never really knows. We work really hard in promoting the gigs and encouraging folks to come and check them out, supporting the artists and Outland. Planning these events takes a ridiculous amount of time and commitment. We both have other work commitments, and often work into the twilight hours, getting things arranged and on track. Of course, its super rewarding, experiencing this “thing” one’s created, watching an incredible talent blowing everyone away with their synthesized-sounds, and sharing the whole thing with amazing people. We love it!

SM: Yeah, the fans are an extremely devoted and loving bunch of good people, and it’s mostly thanks to them that we can continue hosting these events. We also work with a handful of artists who understand the risks we take, but some new challenges have come into play lately where some artists are now represented by agents, who we feel over-price and out-market themselves. We were one of the first to offer guarantee performance fees to synth artists in the pay-to-play climate in London where guarantees are simply unheard of, even in more established underground scenes like pub rock. So, it’s disappointing when agents demand inflated fees upfront, large guest-lists and full take on merch sales. It’s laughable actually and has potential to kill the live scene if artists don’t protect themselves from it.

FM-84 Rough Trade Brooklyn Timecop1983 The Midnight
FM-84 is joined by tour guitarist Chris Huggett, Timecop1983, and Tim from The Midnight on stage at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, NY, on Oct. 11, 2018. Timecop1983 will be among the performers at Outland Toronto on July 6. Photo by Andrew B. White for ‘Vehlinggo.’

There must be a few moments from the past few years that really made you feel like you’re on the right path with Outland. Please identify a few and why they’re important.

SM: We kind of plotted this path some time back and we do often have to remind each other how grateful we should be that it’s working out. Our last Sunset Cruise we held sold out and we were all so chuffed with that, but we never really stop trying to come up with new ways to make the Outland experience better for the fans in attendance. Starting Outland Recordings is the beginning of a second phase of Outland production and there’s plenty more to come which we hope will also be successful.

michael oakley outland toronto
Michael Oakley is among the performers at Outland’s retrowave festival on July 6 in Toronto.

BS: Guys and gals on numerous occasions have actually come up to me, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Thank you! Thank you! This has been amazing! I can’t wait for the next one!’ That’s an affirmation we’re doing something right. Then, all the submissions and emails we have received after launching WeLoveOutland.com [the website for the full-scale production, management, and record label company] — it’s been incredible. We want to do everyone justice, so please be patient, we will get back to you! Also, serendipitously meeting people on the way that have helped and supported us a great deal.

outland toronto cameron

What’s it been like so far to put Outland Toronto together? Highs and lows?

SM: It’s all been pretty easy really. Brett and I spend quite a bit of time on show concepts, which we wrestle over before announcement, but we always end up happy in the end. We’ve had some good laughs over some of the promo posts we’ve come up with and I think Cameron (the character from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) will form a part of all future show promos — lol. There are obviously extra challenges with travel and logistics, but that’s been all smooth so far. A definite high would be the phenomenal demand we’ve had on tickets: there are literally only 50 odd general advance tickets left with a few Group Discount and VIP’s tickets left. No lows yet, but we’ll see once the show has come and gone. I am never calm until the show is done and dusted and everything has run smoothly.

I am never calm until the show is done and dusted and everything has run smoothly.”

BS: Stu’s been corresponding non-stop with everyone across the pond. I have been locked in my digital-cave doing my thing and have yet to meet most of the people involved on the other side. It’s tough to follow the emails, and not really being able to chat with all the players myself. Seeing the branding finally go live, that this thing is on! — now, that was a high. So much time has been put in to line things up properly: late nights and long conversations. But, the big highs are still to come. Come to the show and see for yourself — I guarantee it!

Mecha Maiko (AKA Hayley Stewart) will be among the performers at Outland Toronto on July 6. Art by Suspiria of Toronto.

What are you most excited about with respect to the July 6 event? What worries you?

BS: Meeting all the wonderful people who will be there. We are all kindred spirits, or we wouldn’t all be drawn to this place at this time, by this music. So even though we’ve not met, we are all the same, and already friends! Further to that, we want to over-deliver. We want people to have the best night of 2019, hands down! We want people to remember it for the rest of their lives.

We want people to remember it for the rest of their lives.”

SM: I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to these big shows. It’s important to not only match, but to raise the game with what we’ve promised punters in terms of production and expectation. There’s also an aspect of custodianship and ensuring that 600-plus people enjoy themselves and have fun without being disappointed or hurting themselves. Some might worry and have sleepless nights with this role, but I relish it. There’s a saying: “It’s OK to have butterflies before a big show, just make sure they all fly in formation!”

kalax outland toronto
Kalax is among the performers at the upcoming Outland retrowave festival in Toronto on July 6.

What do you want Outland Toronto attendees to take away from the event and why?

SM: Outland is not a vanity project. Our ethos has always been to grow the live synthwave scene and overall genre as a whole. Our hopes are that someone in Toronto will pick up on what we’ve done and host and produce their own big synthwave show there — a passing of the baton so to speak. As for all the attendees, we just want them to come away feeling that they’ve seen and felt something out of this world, as all our Outland show fans have done in the past.

BS: There’s lots to be excited about. This genre, the music, and the scene are very special. It’s new and old, and is constantly evolving, and we are all a part of it. Spread the word and support your favorite artists. Enjoy a big night of epic synthwave tunes, amazing retro visuals, great vibes, and cool people. Come and meet us and have a chat. We love that! Without you guys we could not do this.

outland toronto 2019 bands

(Feature Photo: A shot of Outland London in 2017. Sunglasses Kid is performing. Photo provided.)

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