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PREMIERE & INTERVIEW: Makeup and Vanity Set & Sferro Dive Deep into Datawave on New LP (EXCLUSIVE)

It’s a match made in ones and zeroes that somehow bleeds with the near-corporeal sensibilities of warm, human-driven, analogue modalities. I’m talking about Makeup and Vanity Set’s and Sferro’s new collaboration album, Wavefinder, releasing Friday on Stratford Ct. and which I’m teasing here today with an exclusive premiere of track “Skin System.” Did I mention that it’s good? Well, it’s good. I’ve also got an interview with MAVS (AKA Matthew Pusti) and Sferro (AKA Eric Sferro). So yeah, good stuff is happening today.

As the album’s title seems to suggest, the record finds them riding a wave all right — although it’s not synthwave, but rather datawave. What’s datawave? We touch on it below in the interview in some depth, and they do a better job than I at explaining it, but to me it’s a whole style (or maybe a subgenre of synthwave?) that has weird rhythms, unorthodox synth compositions, and a kind of barely-controlled warble. Although as Pusti says below, it’s “more like an aesthetic” with a “certain feel,” rather than a checklist of must-haves like you might find with synthwave. I also think it feels like an entire genre spawned from the spirit, sensibilities, and discipline of Com Truise. Although the output in datawave isn’t typically paint-by-numbers Com, but rather a cadre of like-minded souls dancing in the same skittering funkfest neighborhood.

This deliciously melodic album, and the premiere and interview, find MAVS and Sferro in interesting places in their musical careers. The former, who used to churn out brilliant LPs at a Prince-like clip, has been focusing on scoring music for Payne Lindsey’s various podcasts and television shows, in addition to films and even a season of The Girlfriend Experience. (Let’s not be too conclusory here, though. MAVS still releases studio work, just at a slower pace.) Meanwhile, Sferro and pal Neil Scrivin (AKA Phono Ghosts) have been at the helm of the eminently interesting Hyperlink Dream Sync project, which Juno Award-nominated Hayley Stewart (AKA Mecha Maiko) recently joined. The two Ohio-born musicians have also found time to chat with Vehlinggo. Before you head to that, though, take a listen to this exclusive premiere.

All right. Now that you’ve been introduced to some sonic bliss, let’s dive into the Q&A with Nashville-based Pusti and Ohio-based Sferro. (Editor’s note: The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and to conform to house editorial style.)

Vehlinggo: How did this project come about? It’s pretty cool that you two came together like this.

Sferro: I sent Matt some demos and asked if he wanted to collab. While he said he would be down, I didn’t hear back from him for a little while. I’m like, “Man, either he doesn’t like me or he thinks my demos are shit.” (laughs)

Obviously Matt is a crazy busy guy. He did eventually listen to them and then sent me something he made with [my demo]. I thought it would be a single, but then he wanted stems for another. Honestly, the whole album came together so fast once he started working. I couldn’t believe it.

A lot of the demos were stuff I’d started for Hyperlink Dream Sync. There was just stuff I’d been working on through the years that I didn’t have a home for. So, I thought, Matt’s cool as hell. I love his music.

MAVS: He’s exactly right. I was super busy and I think I just had a zip folder sitting on my hard drive for a long time. And I remember he and I talked a few times just through Instagram, and he was like, you still wanna do something together? I’m like, yeah, I do, but I’ve been super busy. Anyway, I took one of the tracks and I just started messing with it one day. A lot of the tracks were very melodic.

One of the things that I really liked about it was that Eric’s brain is gonna go towards chords and things that I wouldn’t necessarily go towards. A lot of the songs are in different keys than I would use. I’m trying to remember, but I don’t think a lot of the tracks had drums. I think they were all very melodic ideas.

And so I did one track, then I got COVID and I was lying in bed with [it] for a week. He messaged me and I think it was either a last-ditch or maybe beyond last-ditch attempt. Something like, “Hey man, if you’re not going to do anything with the tracks, I’m go gonna ahead and use them.” And so I said wait and said I made something and sent it. He liked it and sent some notes. And once I had the palette, the whole thing came together quickly — in about three weeks.

Matthew Steven Pusti, AKA Makeup and Vanity Set, in his studio a couple years ago.

Right on. One thing that sticks with me is that, given each of your decade-plus careers, I wouldn’t necessarily have assumed that this is what a MAVS/Sferro collaboration would sound like. There are these weird time signatures and syncopations.

MAVS: For me — Sly Vinyl and the guys from The Paradise Arcade reached out about a remix of Demin’s “Kannot.” I really liked the original track… and didn’t want to stray too far from it. So I really leaned into the sort of datawave thing or whatever it’s called. I liked the final outcome of the track.

One of the things I’ve always liked about where I’ve lived in this community is that I often hear, “you’re synthwave, but you don’t really sound like synthwave.” I don’t tick all of the boxes all of the time. I am glad I don’t necessarily fit into that, because it gives me more leeway. To me, this [collaboration] felt like a natural progression. I enjoyed all of the stuff he was sending me. I’m a huge fan of Hyperlink Dream Sync — the stuff they’re doing with Hayley [Stewart].

The [Wavefinder] record doesn’t feel overly digital, though. It feels very analogue and has a nice warmth to it. It also has a nice, tape-like warble. It feels interesting and engaging in a way that was exciting to me.

I get that. There is this element that each track is just a few seconds or degrees shy of blowing up — as if there is this thin membrane or cellophane barely holding them together. Perhaps a controlled chaos?

MAVS: I’ve always loved music that feels like it could fly off the rails at any minute, you know? I think that’s why arpeggiation was so appealing to me: How far can you push it? How many layers can you use? How spatial [can I make it]: Can I pan this over here and this over there?

All of that is an offshoot of me in middle school listening to the Richard D. James album [by Apex Twin] on repeat while walking to school every day. Eric had a similar experience growing up.

Sferro: Oh yeah. I listened to Aphex Twin for sure, but mine was more Boards of Canada. And the amount of Boards of Canada rip-off songs that I made — that’s pretty much all I did night and day. (Laughs) They’re on a hard drive somewhere, too. I’ve gotta get those out some time. But, yeah, definitely similar.

Actually, we even named a [Wavefinder] track after where we’re from. So I’m pretty stoked about that. It’s cool to work with someone from this area.

Is it track 3? “Rubber City”?

Sferro: Yeah, that’s what they call Akron, Ohio, because of Goodyear [tires]. “Memory Screen” is an Alien Workshop [skateboard company] reference. “Zapp” is also an Ohio reference. [Editor’s Note: The exquisite funk band Zapp is from Dayton, Ohio.] People probably won’t pick up on that stuff, but maybe they will.

Anyway, everything felt like it just made sense. Nothing about the album felt forced, you know?

Eric, you were at the vanguard of synthwave, with the creation of the Sferro project and starting Girlfriend Records (which you’ve since sold) more than a decade ago. Where do you see Wavefinder fitting in, in terms of the grand scheme of your musical trajectory?

Sferro: I honestly didn’t think I would write any more Sferro material. I was dead set on Hyperlink Dream Sync. That’s my life right now. I was only going to do Sferro stuff if it was interesting and really different, and when I sent things to Matt it immediately was that.

I’m excited by the genre datawave, or whatever you want to call it. It seems like a good next step for Sferro.

“… It’s more like an aesthetic than with synthwave.”

This is probably going to sound silly coming from me, but I’m pretty new to datawave. I only really learned about it from Eric Riedel of The Paradise Arcade. To me, it’s a better description for Com Truise and his sound than synthwave ever was. Essentially, I’m wondering what you think are the hallmarks of datawave? Is it the strange time signature? Is it the choices of patches or the style of arps?

MAVS: I don’t know, honestly. I think it’s more like an aesthetic than with synthwave, where you can point to specific synths and sounds and say they’re “synthwave.” [Datawave] has its own kind of patina to it that just feels a certain way when you listen to it. One of the things that really attracted me was, tempo-wise, it actually functions a little slower than I think a lot of synthwave does. Synthwave has this driving, arpeggiated bass line.

Growing up I spent a lot of time in skate parks, listening to a lot of punk rock and hip-hop. And, growing up in Cleveland, my hero was Trent Reznor, because he came out of [the city]. He made it! That was my entry point into synths and real angsty music. The progression from there was Warp [Records] and Aphex, and Squarepusher and Autechre — all of those things.

Those early Autechre records were incredibly formative for me, and those guys came out of hip-hop and graffiti culture. When I think about this genre of music, I think that’s what it is.

I like [datawave] because I’m such a fiend for arpeggiation and syncopation and all of these polyrhythmic things. I can get away with them, because [the genre] moves at a slower tempo and it creates this really layered and nuanced thing.

Sferro: I would also describe it as “bendy.”

MAVS: It all makes sense, though. With Eric growing up with Boards of Canada — the whole hallmark of Boards of Canada is a pitch drift. I think that’s really it. It drifts; it just exists. There’s all this kind of nice surface noise that you get from a cassette tape or whatever.

makeup and vanity set sferro wavefinder interview vinyl hyperlink dream sync
Eric Sferro (AKA Sferro) eschews photography typically, and so here’s a photo of his Hyperlink Dream Sync bandmate Hayley Stewart (Mecha Maiko) wearing a Sferro shirt.

So, Eric and Matt, is there anything you want to add? Perhaps, about what you want listeners to get out of the record?

MAVS: I’ve thought a lot about this. To me, what made the era of the 1980s interesting and enduring is the fact that a lot of the art came out of strife and discord, and all the things that were happening all over the world.

And here we are, in the [fourth year] of COVID, and I think that as we look at things around us and things feel really heard and difficult, what we have as musicians is that we have an outlet to process this stuff. I think that this record — making tracks together with Eric and the way it came together the way it did — is largely because of stuff like that.

I was literally coming out of having COVID and you know, times are hard. I think that art is important, because it allows you the space to process. The best thing you could ever hope for is that the music happens in a natural way, and that it is meaningful to us making it. So my hope is that people will listen to it and it’ll be meaningful to them as well.

Excellent. And Eric? Anything you want to add?

Sferro: Yeah, I can’t top that. That was perfect. (laughs)

Wavefinder releases Friday in digital and physical formats via California-based label Stratford Ct. It was mastered by Hotel Pools.

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