Journal Entry: It’s about 1:30 a.m on Sunday, July 7, and The Mod Club Theatre in Toronto is largely empty but for a few people furtively packing up gear and taking down what was one of the most historic shows in modern synthwave history. After more than 10 hours of witnessing legendary scene acts, socializing with fans from around the world, and sweating out any alcohol imbibed, people are tired. But it’s that good kind of tired, the kind that accompanies some measure of success; however that’s defined.
Even so, there’s a certain vibe in the air — as if the energy of the hours prior was trying to cling to kinesis despite the resolute fatigue of the participants. Probably a good idea to bottle it up for next time. Or perhaps it’ll stick to us and give us a boost of reminiscence the next day, when we’ve had a proper sleep. This isn’t something we’ll want to forget any time soon. I also am not sure I’m ever going to really be able to write anything decent about it — good thing I did some interviews on-site for the podcast!
One thing keeps popping up in my head, though. I’m amazed at just how many people attending this event (a few acts and the organizers aside) aren’t from Toronto or even Canada. A handful, perhaps a dozen, people flew in from the UK and Ireland. Another contingent flew and drove in from the US — some, like me, from the Northeast but others all the way from places like Seattle.
It definitely had a similar feel to previous festivals, like NEON and, to a smaller extent, Human Music: the sensibility of a family reunion or some kind of homecoming of longtime friends. We may not have ever met each other in person, but we’ve chatted online and on Skype for years. Or maybe we do see each other in person, but it’s rare. Needless to say, we’re brought together by our interest in the music and our desire for that energy that surrounds everything.
The Outland Toronto Retrowave Festival — the first of any such audacious scope on the North American continent since last year’s NEON festival in Rhode Island — offered a stacked lineup of dreamy pop-, italo-, and house-oriented synthwave acts, a few of them classic, all popular among fans. The festival had a depth and breadth of programming that made July 6 something to behold. Organizers Stuart McLaren and Brett Simpson brought a profound level of professionalism to the table and delivered handsomely. The Mod Club, cooling issues aside, was a great venue for this event.
Vancouver’s FM Attack and local act Parallels were the veterans, pioneering various shades of synthwave a decade ago that you can hear in many acts that came afterward. Dutch dreamy synthwave maestro Timecop1983 joined them, himself a tentpole act after about six years on the scene. Also on hand was the equally emotive British artist Kalax, the ever inventive local Mecha Maiko, and preeminent stage performers in the form of Toronto’s synthwave royalty Dana Jean Phoenix and Niagara’s popular Michael Oakley. (Given her regal stature in the scene, I was shocked to learn that DJP’s face has not, in fact, replaced Queen Elizabeth II on Canada’s currency.)
Journal Entry: It happened on the appropriately named College Street. If you approached it from the east, you’d have seen evidence of something afoot in the distance. Bodies. A stainless-steel sports car. Unmitigated devotion to a good time.
First, there was the international crowd lingering outside on the plaza, adorned in a splash of flashy retro attire. Some went all out — wearing things like Sonny Crockett suit coats, cyberpunk gear designed for hot weather, or maybe just those glowing neon glasses and hats. Others went the logo-tee route, representing brands like NewRetroWave or bands like FM-84 and The Midnight (there were a fair number of shirts from those two groups). I even saw a couple Vehlinggo tees. A few people had jackets on, which was just plain masochistic in the Toronto heat.
In addition, there was the DeLorean, situated on the sidewalk and coaxing folks to come for a selfie. Although it wasn’t rigged with Doc Brown’s modifications, there was a mock hoverboard and Gray’s Sports Almanac, among other film props, on the dashboard to give a hint of Back to the Future. It proved to be a popular attraction. It was also a suitable metaphor for the style of music and the scene it inspired: An interpretation of the past and sometimes the past’s view of the future, but largely not a pound-for-pound recreation. The songs that stretch the timeline the best are the most timeless. We heard a lot of those at Outland.
The Mod Club Theatre, in Toronto’s Little Italy, holds a tad more than 600 people, and on July 6 it seemed near capacity as it filled up with those fans looking to take in a live show that featured some of the best synthwave acts out there in 2019.
The event kicked off with a screening of Turbo Kid. The Le Matos score blasting through the venue’s sound system yielded a chest-rattling and uplifting experience for an already chest-rattling and uplifting film. Even more special was the presence of Vehlinggo friend Jean-Philippe Bernier, one-half of Le Matos and the person who was the film’s director of photography. Fans of the film and of Le Matos were a bit starstruck to see the Montreal-based artist. For me, it was fulfilling to see Bernier meet people like FM Attack’s Shawn Ward for the first time. In the mind of a listener, those two have shared so much space together on our playlists, mixes, and on our record shelves, but physical space is a new thing. Could you imagine if they’d decided to collaborate?
Next up was DJ She-Ra, a vivacious supporter of the scene who also is an engaging DJ. Her energy matched the music. When the tunes got kinetic, so did she. Although for certain gigs it’s better when a DJ stands around and spins records, for this one She-Ra needed to become a performer and composer of pure energy — all of which she did with aplomb. She conjured an exuberant atmosphere that paved the way for the artists to take the stage.
It was only recently that Hayley Stewart emerged from the confines of Dead Astronauts with a new moniker and new modus operandi. Beginning in 2018, as Mecha Maiko she has constantly and consistently exceeded the boundaries of synthwave with an array of cuts that range from wildly experimental (Okiya) to vastly accessible (the 1989 New Order vibe of “Phones” and the IDIBesque “Electric Heat”). All are engaging and brilliantly crafted.
Stewart took the stage as the night’s first musical act, adorned in a suit and short hair reminiscent of Annie Lennox, playing the aforementioned songs and some others, including “Cold,” with Dana Jean Phoenix joining the stage to best recreate the cut from 2018 LP Mad But Soft.
She was a great choice to open Outland. Owning the Lennox power, Stewart unfurled her pop-leaning cuts with a power and ease that reinforced the performative nature of the event. It’s not enough to press play. You’ve gotta sweat a little.
Stewart is only going to ascend in her career, and at some point we’ll all look back on this show having known we were there when she was playing for a “mere” hundreds of concertgoers.
Parallels came on next and killed it. (I’m extremely biased, because I’ve long been a fan and find their music profoundly good.) Over the years, Parallels have had a few different members, but at the center has always been Holly Dodson and her powerful vocals and songwriting. This time, her brother Nick returned on drums for his first performance with the band in a while. Radio Wolf’s Oliver Blair, a de facto member of the band, was on hand to handle the main synth parts. Together, they were tight: Nick a master on the drums, Holly an experienced performer, and Blair a maestro behind the keys — at times a spitting image of Daniel Davies (of the John Carpenter band).
And there was also some added extemporaneous fun — the kind that comes from a live performance. At one point, Nick busted out in a rather extensive and intense drum solo that took Parallels’s pop-disco to prog heights. It was a blast. I can’t wait to see Parallels live again. The next time I’ll be able to do that is when they play with Nina, Bunny X, and Czarina on Sept. 11 at Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.
The middle of the evening saw one of the night’s biggest draws: the humble Dutchman Timecop1983, AKA Jordy Leenaerts AKA The Synth Buddha. Armed with a modest keyboard and laptop, Leenaerts can alter the entire chemistry of a room. His dreamy palette coated the venue with warm hearts and positive vibes, as people held on to every note.
It’s truly stunning just how magical Timecop’s sets can be, considering it’s largely just him and a few machines. But he makes it work: gesturing with his body and emoting with his face to each movement of the sonic paintings he splashes onto our souls. He has a knack for enrapturing a crowd, to be sure. He’s one of the nicest, most talented artists in synthwave and it’s always uplifting to be in the same room as him.
Journal Entry: I’ve written in the past about how these events can feel like family reunions — but the good kind that don’t have the weird in-fighting or baggage. But I’ve never really articulated how fast these things fly by, especially when you’re working at them. I was all over the place, taking notes and interviewing, all the while mingling with people I rarely see, have never met in person, or whom I otherwise needed to connect with at a human level. But it’s often in quick doses and we never get to dive deep into the Knowing. We are fueled by our excitement and love for the sense of community we experience and the musicians on stage, which makes it a lovely experience. But there’s never enough time. Thankfully, when it comes to people like Abigail Gordon of Bunny X and her husband, Daniel, we all live in Brooklyn and so the next hang is never too far away. I also see synthwave videographer/visual producer Brad Kinnan of DYNMC Creative more than most of my friends who live in NYC, even though he’s in LA. Not so with everyone, though.
I caught up with Garrett Quesnelle AKA London Lazers, whom I hadn’t seen since 2016 at an NYC synth meetup at a beer garden in Astoria, Queens. This was back when we’d have these synth meetups before synthwave was what it is today. Of that crew who met up in 2016 (and of some of us who’d also hang out together annually in the few years previously), there weren’t many at Outland. No Col Bennett of FM-84, nor Dave Hedin of Phantom Ride or Kent Hertzog of Von Hertzog. Other than Quesnelle and I, there were synthwave royals Marko and Jazzi Maric, and Hayley Stewart (not a bad roster, though, really — haha). I‘ve seen the rest of them around New York and New Jersey (and at NEON in Rhode Island) in subsequent years — folks like The Encounter or synthwave visual artist Ariel Zucker-Brull or mega-fan Ernie Deeb. We get around.
In that time after the initial glow of Drive faded and before Stranger Things, it felt like the scene was simpler. This doesn’t mean it was better or worse, or that there’s any regret or ill will tied to any of it. It simply means that the scene was smaller and things felt easier to manage, but at the same time there was enough momentum behind the music and its exposure that everything was downright exciting. That said, we never had an Outland or a NEON or a Human Music festival. I’ll take today over yesterday, thank you. (I didn’t even have proper shirts then!)
I should note, though, that I was able to meet in-person for the first time with some really cool people I’d been chatting with online for a while, sometimes for years. Sean Cusson of Computronic proved to be a true friend and it was great to finally meet scene cheerleader Julian Green. When I’m feeling at my most jaded and cynical about how the scene has transpired, his social-media eruptions of joy help me realize there’s still great music releasing regularly. And, of course, it was great to see Chef Tom, one of the NEON organizers who thankfully started his podcast again. Glitbiter — it was so great to see Florence Bullock. It’d been probably a year since I’d last seen her. What a kind human and a true talent. I know I’m forgetting to mention so many people.
Dana Jean Phoenix
I’ve written in the past about the expertise of Phoenix (and we talked about it on the podcast) — how she brings an entirely elevated level of live performance to the synthwave movement.
As established in a recent podcast interview, Oakley is no stranger to performance. He used to make a living playing weddings and the like back in Scotland and has generally been an active musician for much of his life. A lean fellow, adorned in a white Nagel-splashed white tee and matching jeans, sometimes clutching a keytar, Oakley performed hits off both his debut release California and his latest album, Introspect. The crowd lost their shit with each song, some fans fresh off witnessing Oakley open for FM-84 barely a week prior at the same venue. Oakley can craft a real song — a legitimately catchy number with a real structure — and knows the value in that. The crowd does, too. Expect to see him headlining before sizable crowds in no time.
The British artist is one I’ve enjoyed from afar — never feeling compelled to actually write about but nevertheless admiring his sonic approach. Over the past five years, his work has improved immensely to the point in which his lovely dreams became much more compelling. He brought those dreamscapes to Outland — when paired with Leenaerts on the same bill, the two cultivated an unstoppable palette of uplift and contemplation.
This Is Toronto
Journal Entry: Toronto is a mere 90-minute flight from New York. How have I not visited this fine city yet? It has the cosmopolitan feel of NYC, but it also appears to have more natural beauty and a calmer vibe. Surely, Lake Ontario helps neighborhoods like The Beaches feel idyllic. The city also seems more orderly. It’s basically what NYC would be had it developed in Minnesota.
I’m staying at a nice Airbnb down the street from the venue, which is great. Tilt, a Barcade-style establishment, and Meltdown, a bar where the pre-fest party is at, are all also close by. I don’t want to walk too far in this heat.
I should also note that the Airbnb rules, because it’s near commercial districts like those on College Street (where the Mod Club is) and Ossington Avenue (that’s oz not oss). These streets are loaded with delicious eateries and bars, and just fun walking pleasures. OK, enough of this lazy tour-guide writing. I’ve got some stuff to do.
By the time Shawn Ward hit the stage — standing behind his synthesizer and unleashing classic cuts that we’ve enjoyed for years — it was past midnight. The sweat-coated, marathon event that started at around 3 p.m. was at its glorious denouement. Air-conditioning was scarce, so attendees had imbibed a Great Lake’s worth of water, beer, and booze in a bid to stay, cool, hydrated, and relaxed.
Indeed, as I’ve said before, these events have a way of obliterating the petty internet bullshit that can pollute the largely online scene of synthwave, creating a family reunion scenario for people all into the same nerdy aesthetics and memorable synthwave songs.
FM Attack was a great act to close out the night. Attendees, artists (big and small), and the sound crew were comprehensively into what Ward had to offer — from classic cuts off Dreamatic to “A Million Miles Away” from Astrowave and new fare from recently released album New World. “Stranger,” the killer collaboration between Ward and Stewart, nearly stole the entire show. Stewart, emboldened, rose fully into the frontwoman role as Ward studiously conjured his bright magic. I watched the set from the balcony with Bernier (of Le Matos) and I enjoyed the performance even more through his eyes/reactions. Le Matos are by many measurements one of the most well-known and enduring acts affiliated with any aspect of synthwave, but on Saturday night, July 6, Bernier was like the rest of us: enthralled and excited to witness Ward before his well-crafted blend of Italo disco, French House, disco, house, and synth-pop.
After each of these festivals concludes, I always feel certain that something even grander and more comprehensive is right around the corner. But it felt different this time. As the scene constantly changes — as some acts grow bigger, as others disappear, and as more and more new acts come into the picture — is it possible to ever again have a synthwave show with this kind of lineup, with this level of production quality, with this mood, energy, and vibe? Perhaps! Or perhaps you can never go back to that night and we’ll just have interpretations of it that can never be a pound-for-pound recreation.
(Feature Photo: Parallels performing at Outland Toronto. Photo by Farrell Tremblay.)