Some flashes of what I see in my head while I listen to the latest album from D/A/D, the alter ego of musician Zach Robinson:
Off-world beaches, endless highways, intergalactic Testarossas, the intro shots to a buddy cop show set on Mars in the year 2044, the sounds of futuristic youth, teenage love separated by lightyears, a seen-it-all detective a la Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon hits the snooze button from his shitty little apartment on the 578th floor of some tenement in Titan City, a gang of gene freaks pool their cash for a couple low-grade resequencers, a blogger rewords every cyberpunk trope from the 1980s.
Erm…ignore that last one.
D/A/D’s music is part of the ever-growing synthwave and outrun electro genres, and is one of the OG projects that helped define the style. Aiming to recapture the background sounds of the 80s themselves, it’s a zeitgeist movement more concerned with bringing a snapshot of that decade into the present rather than sounding like a New Order redux.
Robinson’s latest output came out last July on the consistently impressive Rosso Corsa label and, and is still winning over new fans.
What’s up, Zach? The Construct came out last year on Rosso Corsa, but you’ve been making this style of music for a minute now. When did you start, and how?
I’ve been writing as D/A/D for a little over 5 years now, but The Construct is only my second release and first full length. It all started back in my dorm room freshman year where I spent my days lurking Myspace pages of Kavinsky, College, all the Valerie Collective and Rosso Corsa dudes. I guess those are called the MySpace years in the synthwave-verse, haha. I was writing material for about a year before I released any of it. Rosso Corsa contacted me after the release of my EP Super Motives (via Myspace message, duh) and from then it took me a good 3 years to finish up a full album for them to release. Thanks for being patient, RC!
I feel that people and groups like Valerie Collective, College, and Kavisnky, while obviously having enjoyed a fanbase prior, got craaaaazy publicity when Drive came out in 2011. Do you think that boost has helped fuel the massive amounts of outrun electro and synthwave that’s been coming out in the last two years? Bringing in newcomers and the like? What was your reaction to the film when it debuted?
Dude, I fucking FREAKED when I saw Drive. My cousin saw it before me and I remember him saying, “You’re gonna love this movie, it’s SO 80s.” I get that a lot from people but I had no idea going into the theater that the artists who inspired D/A/D would be providing the soundtrack. The most amazing thing about it was that it worked so well, which I don’t think was a surprise to anyone in the synthwave community. This music is often overlooked because of it’s cheeze factor or it’s passe aesthetics and whatnot, but when it comes down to it the genre is incredibly emotional and thrives off imagery. Refn was able to see to that and he took a risk, which I think we can all agree paid off.
And yes, Drive has definitely fueled a new wave of producers, sounds, and fans in the field. Whether one thinks that’s necesarrilly a good thing is still up for debate, haha. I dig it though, I just hate prefacing the description of my music with “It’s kind of like Drive” because it mostly isn’t, it’s just relatable.
What’s your kit like? I’d imagine a lot of synthesizers, obviously. Do you do a lot of live instrumentation when you play a show? I feel like visuals are highly conducive to music like this, as well. Do you work in anything like that during a performance?
My best kept secret is that D/A/D is mostly soft synths. I use a ton of ’80s synth emulators and I spend a ton of time hybridizing, tweaking, and exploring synth sounds until it fits my style. I listen to my old EP and get pissed off because too much of it sounds like straight out of the box Logic, which bothers me a ton. Hardware wise I have a Roland JX3P which was big on the album, as well as a Korg Poly800 and of course I have all my guitar stuff. Next thing I release though (whenever that is, I don’t know) will have some more hardware on it.
When I’m playing live, I generally have a MIDI keyboard and then the Roland + my guitar and amp and I recently started using a keytar which I have no idea why it took me so long to get on that. Such a blast.
I’ve done shows with visuals a few times but I’ve never really spent the time to design a personal visual set that goes along with the show. I’ve recently started working with an insanely talented visual artist, Zara Ruckus, who did visuals for my album relase show. Here are some GIFs she made from the show. Her style worked so well, I only I could have seen it!
Aside from all that MySpace lurking back in the day, what else informed your direction? There’s some obvious tropes in the scene already. Hyper expensive exotic cars, Miami beach, LA, space, John Hughes movies, teen horror flicks. There’s that huge 80s influence, but not necessarily the big hair and shoulder pad aesthetic.
Haha they are indeed tropes for a reason, all of that stuff is definitely inspirational to me and the scene. Space is a big one for me though, science fiction in particular, retro-science in particular particular. You know, old school visions of the future and the like and I’m reaching back to ’50s stuff too. A lot of these artists’ main goal is to sound as authentically ’80s as possible, and when they succeed it’s fucking awesome. My approach is definitely to sound authentic, but I’m catering a ton of other influences from different styles and decades and aesthetics. I love metal, I love classical music, I love ambient, why not try to mix all of those together?
The production is a big part of it as well. I mean, you can’t compare ’80s production to anything, it’s a beast. Writing these tracks are hands down the greatest lessons in production for me.
You’re gonna have to forgive me for my poor memory, but I think the first time I read about you was a blurb on last.fm that went something like “Zach Robinson is a musician at X University and is studying Y. At night he performs as D/A/D.” Do you remember a description like that, or am I going crazy? Either way, it also brings up another question. Are you a classically or otherwise professionally trained musician? The way that blurb read, it made it seem like D/A/D started out as a side-project. If that’s the case, do you feel like it has transcended that status?
I just wrote a tweet a few days ago asking if it’s kosher for me to update my last.fm myself or does someone else have to do it. It’s quite outdated. I should do that now…
I know which description you’re talking about, it was written by my friend Blake who goes by Baron von Luxxury. I think it was on one of the first blog posts about D/A/D and someone adopted it to last.fm. Anyways, I’m semi-classically trained. I studied music composition at Northwestern in Chicago and that’s where I gained most of my classical chops. But leading up to those years, I was mostly a rock and roll child with overgrown long hair and a stupid amount of classic rock graphic tees.
As much as I love D/A/D and as much as it’s become a part of my identity as a person and as a musician, it’s always been somewhat of a side project in my life. I’ve known for a long time that I’ve wanted to write music for film/video games/etc, and for a long time I’ve put everything into making that happen and I’ve needed to make sacrifices. D/A/D unfortunately becomes a victim of that sacrifice sometimes. I never thought this project would get the recognition that it ended up getting, but more than anything as a composer my goal and my passion is to make people feel. If D/A/D is the vehicle that gets them there, then I’m happy and I’d want to continue writing.
Got any favorite game soundtracks? Any in particular that made you realize, “Yes, Zach Robinson will be credited at the end of Mega Man XVI one day. This will happen.”
Surprisingly some of my favorite game soundtracks are from the past few years. The ones I always reference are Garry Schyman’s Bioshock and Billy Elm and Woody Jackson’s Red Dead Redemption scores. Both are incredibly immersive, beautifully written and arranged works of music. Seriously set a new standard in my opinion. The Mass Effect scores as well.
For old school stuff the list will be too long but included would be Mighty Morphin Power Rangers The Movie: The Game, Snowboard Kids, Pokemon Red/Blue, of course Final Fantasy VII, and if you couldn’t tell from the “Orion Beach” video, Wave Race 64!
I also love some of the in-house old school video game bands like Konami’s Kukeiha Club and the Sega Sound Team Band. Amazing fusion-y stuff. There should be more in-house game bands that just have the freedom to write whatever!
Speaking of game soundtracks, how do you feel about the Amiga demoscene? I feel like that stuff is one of the best untapped resources of the weird late-80s and early-90s. In fact, the video that just dropped for your track “Orion Beach” definitely conjures up some demoscene memories. Was there any intent behind that, or just coincidence? I know if something like that would’ve dropped at a demoscene convention in 1991, minds would’ve exploded.
To be honest, I’m not as super familiar with the content from all the Amiga stuff but I do know a little about that scene. I’m speaking on behalf of the brilliant director/animator of “Orion Beach” Campbell Logan, but I’m pretty sure early Amiga material was a source of inspiration for him. This was much more of a film for Campbell than a music video for me. He was inspired by the song and I let him roll with what his imagination told him to do. I agree with you though, minds definitely would have exploded back in ’91, but I hope they’re still exploding now! Mine did at least, haha.
Most, if not all, of the synthwave albums I’ve listened to strive to tell a story. Whether it’s a space opera by Tommy, or a non-stop, high-speed chase by Lazerhawk. Do you always have a grand scheme in your head before you set out to make a track, or even an entire album? Is there a planning stage? Anything you write out?
There was no grand scheme for The Construct but I had some benchmarks for the album I wanted to accomplish. I knew I wanted the album to start out with a prelude, something classical-inspired to set the scene. I knew there should be an ambient interlude halfway through the album, and I knew the album should end with material similar in tone and could easily lead into the first track if the album was on loop. I’m a sucker for that shit. Everything in between those benchmarks I worked with placing after the songs were written. There didn’t use to be a planning stage for D/A/D writing but now I’ve begun to utilize a system. It’s the only way I get things down now. I sketch when I compose other styles, even when I’m writing music for a band I’m in, but I never sketched with D/A/D for some reason. Especially with D/A/D, it helps me to work with imaginary visuals and stories, so to answer your question, there is a somewhat of a grand scheme for each song but not necessarily for an album. I do have some big ideas for D/A/D in the future though that will take A LOT of planning…
*takes a deep breath* To me, the barrier of entry for composing a synthwave track, or an outrun track, has less to do with hardware or software, and way, way more to do with imagination. The same could be argued for most genres, but there’s such a soundtrack quality to the music coming out of this scene that strory-telling and a high degree of empathy, that ability to really capture and define an emotion, seems paramount. I messaged a kid living in Thailand who put out a killer track, and when I asked him about his setup, he told me it was just a laptop with Ableton and some tiny speakers. He also said making a track takes him about 100 hours, but he loves it. How about you?
I totally agree with you, and I think that goes with most genres of music too. Who cares how a composer/producer writes a composition, what elements, planning, gear he/she uses to get it done as long as it’s solid work. Those are the best kinds of pieces. I know people like this kid in Thailand you spoke to who just work off their laptop using a piano roll in Live and I know people whose rooms are slathered in synthesizers and that’s all they use. It’s all about your creation process as an artist and if you are happy with the end product. If you feel like hardware will step up your sound, then fuck yeah go for it, or vice versa. I know that my limitations on hardware hasn’t stopped me from creating music I love but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like or appreciate using hardware. I just work with that I have, and I always have my imagination. Jesus, that was fucking corny…play some 80s music behind that as you read it.
But yeah, also it takes me for-fucking-ever to finish a track too. I’m still working on figuring out my D/A/D writing process. You’d think after 5 years I would have somewhat put it together but I guess not!
Any advice for would-be synthwave virtuosos out there? Any canonical movies, shows or games they should be watching and playing for inspiration?
Like what you like. Don’t let the taste makers force you into a corner and be open to exploring everything. That being said, here’s the top of my must read/watch/play list:
William S. Gibson’s Neuromancer
Speaking of canonical movies that speak from that era, I gotta ask you your feelings on the new Robocop. No judgement will be passed, I just gotta know.
I’m not that pumped for it, but I’m gonna see it. I have zero expectations. Felt the same way about Dredd and that movie was dope.
Does D/A/D stand for anything? Are we allowed to make up our own meaning?
It originally didn’t stand for anything. At one point before I was Googleable, I changed it to “Day After Discovery” for a little bit but then I said fuck that. D/A/D feels right. Plus its Googleable now!! Kind of. Also, it’s pronounced DEE-AY-DEE by the way, not “dad”
A secret informant told me that you might be playing a show here in New York soon. Care to comment? Maybe a little of what to expect?
Trust me, when I can make it out there I will. My job is pretty demanding out here in LA but I’m always trying to make it out to NYC. Mishka will be the first to find out, I promise.
You can grab D/A/D’s latest album, The Construct, over at Rosso Corsa’s bandcamp page for a mere $7 (that’s less than the price of the three Red Bulls you chug to get through your day), and check out a ton of other tracks over at SoundCloud. Don’t forget to give shouts and love notes to @80sDAD over on Twitter, too.