Sebastian Hübert, owner of the Berlin-based Astro Chicken label and the man behind Hyboid, is back with an interstellar new album, Strange Signals. Grounded by Hübert’s penchant for writing tight rhythms and catchy melodies, Strange Signals nevertheless reaches into deep space with an array of analogue synths telling the tale of an interstellar romance gone awry.
It’s been a couple of years since his latest release, Wired at Heart, and in the meantime Hübert has use a variety of analogue equipment to craft intergalactic numbers that burst with Italo disco, kosmische, and synth-pop. His work on Strange Signals often sounds like “Valerie in space.” Here’s a general list of his toolkit: Arp Axxe, Teisco S60F, Octave Kitten, Korg Mono/Poly, Polysix, Roland System 100 (Model 101), SH-09, SH-101, Juno-60, JX-3P, M-VS1, TR-606, Ladik D-333, Yocto 8080, Lell UDS, Oberheim DMX, and Ensoniq Mirage DSK-1.
But all of the equipment in the world can’t overcome a studio on the outs. Hübert told Vehlinggo in a recent email exchange that his analog mixing console nearly died in the middle of the mixdown phase — that stage near the end of the process in which all of the tracks are mixed together. All of a sudden the various channels went dead, but that wasn’t the worst of it, he said.
“My studio was suddenly filled with toxic fumes from the burnt components, so I was forced to evacuate to get some air,” Hübert said. “Since the mixer was still semi-operational, I managed to work my way around the dead components and finish the mixdown after a couple more weeks.”
Like some ultimately triumphant astronaut in deep space on a failing mission, Hübert turned it all around, and the result is a fantastic and engaging synth album. In this interview, which catches up on our last exchange in 2017, Hübert and I discuss Strange Signals (releasing on Sept. 20), Berlin, and the stars, among other things.
Vehlinggo: Your new album, Strange Signals, differs in scope and subject matter from your previous one, Wired at Heart. The new album aims for the stars and is longer and more in-depth, whereas the previous was an earthbound, shorter affair that had a more technology bend to it. In light of that, what was your motivation behind the new album and its grander scope, and where did you draw your inspiration from? I know you like space, because of your label name, Astro Chicken, and its branding.
Hyboid: After releasing Wired at Heart in 2017 I got bored with canonical synthwave. Too repetitive! So it was “back to the roots” again: I turned to the good old world of retro sci-fi and synth-pop and I felt right back at home. Adding another layer of innovation, I added vocals to my music. All it took was buying a microphone and a little compressor. I already had several FX units with vocoder presets, so the tools were readily available.
I draw my inspiration from silly sci-fi movies and TV shows like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series from the early ‘80s. That’s me in a nutshell! And I watch these old Italian music TV shows like Festivalbar or Vota la Voce whenever I take a break in my studio. Sometimes all it takes is seeing a movie poster from the ‘70s to get inspired!
How did you come up with your song titles, such as “Crystal of the Ancients” and “Walking the Milky Way”? Do they follow a story you wrote for this release?
Sometimes the song title comes first and I build the tune around it. Sometimes it takes me months to find a suitable song title. But most of the time, the titles come spontaneously and naturally.
Your previous two albums have featured both sequenced and hand-played parts. What did you use on Strange Signals? And why?
I still use the same workflow: Hand-play, as much as possible, [the] leads, pretty much all pads, and lots of other stuff that’s not drums or sequences. I think it’s really important for electronic music to not sound completely robotic and to retain some human feel and randomness. I also bought a rare Japanese synth from 1980 called Teisco S60F that I used a lot on the album. It begs to be hand-played! Whatever needs sequencing, I sequence with hardware. Programming these old sequencers like the Roland MSQ-700 can be such a pain, but it’s really rewarding when it comes to tightness and reliability.
“I think it’s really important for electronic music to not sound completely robotic.”
For millennia, humans have looked toward the heavens and worshipped the stars and galaxies (and pondered their importance). And in the past 50 years we’ve been able to finally explore them, even more in awe than we were when we were stuck on Earth. What is the appeal of space to you?
I guess it all traces back to my childhood. Movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Noah’s Ark Principle, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind blew my mind when I watched them in the ‘80s. I simply adore space in art and sci-fi! The colors, the sounds — there’s something eternal and unattainable there that makes it so fascinating.
I asked you this a couple years ago, and I’m curious to check in about your thoughts on this now: You live in Berlin, a place that has played a central role in electronic music for decades. What is it about the city that inspires such creativity, especially with the use of synths?
I could answer by saying, “Oh, it’s my synth-nerd friends and the local synth-head scene that inspire me the most,” but that would only be half true. The other side of the story is that making music is a pretty lonesome affair most of the time, working your ass off in the studio for endless hours, days, weeks, and months — all by yourself! Berlin can be a terribly stressful place and it draws a lot of energy. In the end, I could do without Berlin and still not run out of ideas.
How have you changed since your last release — your musical tastes, personality, outlook, etc., and how are you the same?
I have moved to a quieter part of Berlin with my girlfriend, so the pace has slowed down a bit compared to 2017. I don’t go to parties as often as before: I guess it boils down to getting older! I still love spending endless hours in my studio and I’m still the same ‘70s/’80s gear-obsessed person with way too little space for all the nice stuff I have or want to buy.
You sold a special heart-shaped synth gadget with the last album, but I don’t see anything like that this time around. Why? And what did you learn from that experience?
It took me about 15 months to record, mix, and master Strange Signals. There was simply no time to design a fancy add-on this time! Creating something like the Wired at Heart synth gadget is very rewarding, but in the end it’s simply much more important for me to concentrate on what I’m best at, and that’s making synth music!
You can pre-order Strange Signals right now! It’s available in digital and very limited vinyl formats.