It’s been nearly six years since Vehlinggo last caught up with synthwave pioneer Johan “Mitch Murder” Bengtsson. Back then, he was fresh off doing most of the music for the Kung Fury soundtrack, including the memorable “True Survivor” collaboration with David Hasselhoff. It also hadn’t been much more than a year since Interceptor, his first album on Diplo’s Mad Decent label. Well, Mitch is back — both with a new (and somewhat different-sounding) Mad Decent release and a fresh interview with Vehlinggo.
This is not a story about Kung Fury, though. It’s not that it’s something to regret, of course. It’s merely one of those things that at some point needs to be put on the mantle so that one can focus on new art. Nevertheless, in that July 2015 interview, the Sweden-based Bengtsson said the Mitch Murder project will always remain 1980s retro to some degree, because it’s a decade that has inspired him. In 2021, on new Mad Decent release Then Again, Bengtsson has lived up to that prophecy, although this is no rehash. It’s laced with vapory ’90s and ’80s city pop sounds. It’s more Numero Group than Rosso Corsa this time around. And there is a hell of a lot more Japanese monorail imagery.
In our new interview, conducted over email and Facebook DMs (his preference), the enigmatic Bengtsson dives into the making of and inspirations for Then Again and sounds off on the 2021 synthwave scene, among other things.
Vehlinggo: Then Again marks a different approach for you. It’s less of the classic synthwave sound you helped pioneer and also isn’t as dark as some quasi-recent releases. Why did you go for a more late 80s/early 90s — even vapory sound? In other words, why did you change your sound?
Mitch Murder: If you go back and listen to “Refresh”, “Sunday,” or “Into the Night” on my Selection 5 compilation from 2018, those were the tracks that kinda started it. Mad Decent asked me in mid-2018 if I was working on anything new, so I sent them these tracks and told them that this is sort of what I want my next album to sound like. More jazz fusion’y/city pop-inspired and less standard synthwave. While working on the album I also self-released two “fake game OSTs” (Salary Man Simulator), which both kinda lean on a similar sound. My Hardwired EP came out in late 2018, and I guess since it was more on the darker end of the spectrum I just felt like going in the complete opposite direction after that. Is this my “new sound” though? I don’t think so. I tend to jump between various styles a lot.
Where did the album title and song titles come from? Are they supposed to be part of a concept?
The original concept for the album is a bit silly, but basically I wanted it to be a soundtrack to waking up early on a summer morning in late ’80s, small town-Japan and lazily strolling down to the corner store to get breakfast. It made a lot more sense as a vague concept in my head — as opposed to trying to put it into words — but that’s pretty much it. It’s very simple. In the end I kinda steered away from it a bit, but that was the original idea.
The album title could be interpreted as “then,” as in “back in the day” — again. For me personally, though, it felt more like “this is a bit different. Is it really such a great idea to put out an entire new album in this style? Then again, why not?”
Do you have any favorite songs on the album, and if so, which? And why?
“Twilight Marina” is my favorite, though I can’t say why exactly. It was the last track I made for the album and my most recent tracks are usually my favorite ones. “Island Line” was always my least favorite of the bunch, and almost didn’t even make it onto the album. Now that it’s out though, a lot of people seem to like it, so now I like it, too. Weird how that works.
How long did it take you to complete this album from start to finish?
A little over a year or so. I finished the album in August 2020, and originally planned to get it out before the end of that year, but it went through a few delays due to COVID and whatnot. The oldest tracks on the album are about two years old at this point, though I wasn’t actively working on a new album when I made those.
Which TV shows, films, and music were you consuming during the production of Then Again? And did that influence you on this record?
Films or TV wasn’t really part of it this time around. I’ve listened to a lot of Japanese ’80s fusion and city pop over the past few years though, which no doubt influenced parts of the album. If anything, I’ve just watched a bunch of videos on Japanese small towns and monorails, just to try and put myself in a certain mindset.
The cover art by Arseniy Chebynkin for Then Again is compelling. What kind of direction did you give as to the look and feel?
Arseniy Chebynkin is an amazingly talented environmental artist I came across on ArtStation. It was really important to me that the cover art conveyed a “light,” relaxing feeling. Like you’d look at it and want to take a deep breath of fresh air. The actual motif comes from the idea of “an early morning walk to the corner store in a small town,” and for some reason I really wanted a monorail train included. So I sent Arseniy a bunch of reference pics, all including monorails from various angles — hah. I’m super happy with how it turned out.
You’ve had the Mitch project for what must be at least a decade. What is the importance of an artist changing their sound over the years?
The MM project turns 13 in August, so it’s been going for a while now. I don’t think change is necessarily that important if you’re happy with just doing the same thing for however long. I get bored pretty easily, though, and so I tend to hop between styles somewhat frequently. I know that it annoys a lot of people. Some would prefer I stuck to a darker sound, while others like my lighter stuff more. I like doing both, so I’m going to keep doing both, even though it might not be the best idea from a “brand” perspective. Sometimes I feel like if I’d only stuck to one consistent style, or just kept making “Breeze” or “Lit” over and over again, I could’ve potentially gotten further in my career by now, but that’s no fun.
“Sometimes I feel like if I’d only stuck to one consistent style, or just kept making ‘Breeze’ or ‘Lit’ over and over again, I could’ve potentially gotten further in my career by now, but that’s no fun.”
When it comes to official album releases, though, I’ll probably stick to a lighter sound. The darker stuff is fun in short bursts, and is best suited for EPs or one-off singles.
This is your second release on Mad Decent and the first since 2014’s Interceptor. Why was there a long lag between releases for them?
No reason really. I’ve put out seven EPs (I think?), three compilation albums, three soundtracks, and a bunch of smaller contributions to other projects in between Interceptor and Then Again. I also spent a big part of 2019 completing an entire hour-long soundtrack for a video game that ended up getting cancelled, so I suppose I’ve just been busy with other things. Albums are fun to do every now and then, but in the end I prefer to just keep putting out new music somewhat consistently, no matter what the format.
“…I don’t think I ever really considered myself purely a synthwave artist… If others want to put me in the synthwave box, though, I don’t mind.”
What do you think of synthwave these days? And do you still consider yourself a synthwave artist?
To be honest I don’t listen to a lot of synthwave, so I couldn’t really say what state it’s in. I used to think I was bored of it due to lack of innovation and what not, but the reality is I don’t really know, due to not having kept up with it. There are a few acts I’ve followed throughout the years, but it’s mostly just people I know personally.
I’m sure there’s still innovative synthwave out there, though, but the vast majority of what I have listened to in recent years feels a bit samey to me. It’s what happens with every genre eventually, though. People look at the most successful acts and try to emulate their sound in hopes of finding an audience, which leads to a lot of similar sounding acts, [and] less risk taking and so on. There’s so much more to the 1980s than just the standard arpeggiated bassline with the 4/4 beat on top and the tropey synthwave-sun in the background, but from what I’ve seen recently a lot of new acts seem to be more interested in fitting into the whole “outrun” aesthetics rather than digging deeper into the various sounds of the ’80s. Which is fine, of course, but not that interesting to me.
Either way, I don’t think I ever really considered myself purely a synthwave artist — even though a lot of my music obviously could be described that way. I started out making retro ’80s tunes, and then synthwave happened, and I kept making ’80s tunes and that’s what I’m still doing. If others want to put me in the synthwave box, though, I don’t mind.
Then Again is out now on streaming platforms and physical media via Mad Decent.