I think there're a lot of visual elements to it. More contemporary inspirations such as Nicolas Winding Refn's work or the cyberpunk aesthetic are starting points, but to be honest it's a melting point of a lot of stuff. I appreciate a lot of films and art, so when I’m producing I usually either have the art for the album done or a mood board to help give me a bit of a boost. Creating with no visual cues can actually be quite daunting at times.
It’s strange to think that synthwave, for all its neon-drenched charm and knowing nods to a glorious heyday of action, horror and sci-fi, is still in something of an awkward teenager phase. From Outrun’s post-millennium beginnings with Kavinsky and Chromatics through to crossover breakthroughs like Perturbator and Carpenter Brut, it has rapidly become a splintered and constantly evolving world that gets harder each year to pin down. Having started out in 2016, Edinburgh’s ALEX (aka Alex Davidson) has wasted little time in becoming a crucial part of the UK’s contribution to the community, releasing several solo albums and racking up collaborations with Mecha Maiko (Dead Astronauts’ Hailey Stewart) and Power Glove. Having recently released a second full-length with US-based Tokyo Rose, the grittily alluring Akuma II, Alex kindly took some time to answer a few pertinent questions and give us a peek into his unique world.
E&D: I guess a useful starting point would be to explain what got you into creating this kind of music and how long it took you to find a sound that you felt was really yours.
Alex: I got into this music kinda by chance to be honest. I didn’t see myself managing to release any music as I didn’t really study music much and was rejected from music college so it seemed very impossible. Time passed and, amongst juggling mundane temp jobs, I slowly started meddling with Ableton, using money from an apprenticeship in Music Business I was on to buy it and starting teaching myself from there in bursts. I then stupidly thought I’d be good enough for labels like Monstercat and so on and started sending a demo of a ‘Power Glove – Blood Dragon’-inspired track to a bunch of places. However, to no avail. No one was interested as the track was kinda anaemic and only really suited maybe some dark hallway section in some sci-fi horror piece. It did, however, garner interest from NRW, who then put the track up on their channel and then, when I started uploading more to that platform, a sort of snowball effect happened and I ended up releasing with them. I think ever since I saw Daft Punk’s low quality Alive 2007 performance on the early days of YouTube, that’s when I started to get really inspired by electronic music as a whole and what levels it could go to.
E&D: How are you finding the state of the synthwave scene these days? It seems to have exploded in popularity in the past 5-10 years, especially in Scotland. Is it reaching a saturation point, or has it already?
Alex: Yeah it’s pretty popular, but also still very niche in a way. Pop music is whatever sells, I guess, and it’s still not really hit that mark as the saturation levels are pretty high now, like any genre. It’ll always be there. Its presence has been in the charts before with the likes of Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, etc., but artists in its scene haven’t really broke into that realm yet, more so in film, TV, Netflix, games / trailers instead. I have noticed the top tier artists with that sound are more outside of that community and doing their own thing, which I think is probably the right thing for them to be doing. I’d like to start being more independent also and would like to broaden things artistically, as well as just to be able to grow more and evolve the whole ALEX persona / brand journey.
E&D: How do you construct your music? Is it entirely digital or there any analogue components in there to balance it out?
Alex: It’s all digital for now although people do ask me what analogue stuff I use. But yes, all laptops at the moment. I used to rent a studio to record some collaborator’s vocals but that’s closed down these days so just all an individual operation. I would like to experiment with analogue stuff in future though. I use Ableton as a DAW and then use a bunch of plugins I’ve acquired over time. I do suffer from writer’s block a lot, especially ever since production has got better. I usually start with a melody or a drop or a bass line, but a lot of it is very spontaneous, and I burn through allot of WIPs to get that one I resonate with and actually end up making into a track.
E&D: Much of this genre seems to come from a strong visual or emotional standpoint, be it pure nostalgia, dystopian sci-fi, horror flicks and so on. Do you have any images or themes in particular that guide your work, or at least that runs through it?
Alex: I think there’re a lot of visual elements to it for sure. More contemporary inspirations such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s work or the cyberpunk aesthetic are starting points, but to be honest it’s a melting point of a lot of stuff. I appreciate a lot of films and art, so when I’m producing I usually either have the art for the album done or before that a mood board of scenes, illustrations, etc. to help give me a bit of a boost. Creating with no visual cues can actually be quite daunting at times. I even watched a lot of Cyberpunk 2077‘s trailers and footage to draw inspiration from for Akuma II and am still drawing from it for the next album, and will probably keep drawing from it for the project after, to be honest, but aiming for a contemporary twist to really try to nail what I did with the single ‘Affliction’.
E&D: You just released Akuma II with Tokyo Rose, which is your second collaboration with him now. How did you end up working with someone on the other side of the world in the first place, and did you know when it started that it would be a continuing partnership?
Alex: Tokyo Rose actually contacted me in 2016, I think, after Blood Club came out. He wanted to do a single in the vein of that EP as he was super into its sound and artwork but then that collaboration ended up becoming an album which did quite well, charting billboard eventually for electronic music album sales. So NRW wanted to do a follow up album and here we are. The whole Akuma thing is basically a brand evolved from Blood Club. However, I’m going to be doing one last Blood-related release either this year or next year when it’s ready to segue into the next chapter of my music. I’m not sure if there will be an Akuma 3 right now as I’m just swamped with work but if I ever end up being signed on to do another one, it’d probably be the last one and would have to be a dream team of collaborations and a large run time to be able to go out with a bang. But I’d like to leave it at the second one for now. I will continue to collaborate with Tokyo, but expect it to be more on single tracks instead of full blown albums from now on, as I’d like to focus on putting out more solo projects. Collaborating with people overseas is easier than ever I guess, but where I’m based the internet hasn’t been great so it has been a challenge in that aspect.
E&D: Is there anything that joins Akuma II with its predecessor apart from the people involved?
Alex: I think what joins it is the label and Tokyo rose’s involvement. We wanted to change up the art style as we wanted a more comic book look this time with illustrator ‘STRNGR’ aka Andrew Tremblay. There were no singers we worked on with previously on this one as they were just too busy and taking a break, so we decided to keep it primarily instrumental, however we were in talks with brand new vocalists but they ended up having to leave the projects as they were committed to other musical endeavours.
E&D: I’m loving the Justice vibe on ‘Danger City’, and now that I think back on it they do seem to have a presence throughout a lot of the ‘darksynth’ genre. Are they a conscious influence for you? If so, what is it about them that works well with this sound as on the surface it seems an unlikely pairing?
Alex: Thanks. Yes, Justice were a major influence on the album. They definitely inspired ‘Danger City’ and a few other tracks – even when working with Power Glove, they also seemed to have that influence. Other inspirations were DANGER! (another French electronica artist) Hyper, The Weeknd, Daft Punk, and so on. We had an electronic mood board set up with a bunch of visual cues, notes and YouTube links but also, some stuff ended up coming out of nowhere and ended up writing in a couple of days whilst some stuff took over months to do. We really loved their styles and it’s just stuff we both grew up listening to so it was impossible to avoid their influences on this album.
E&D: Curious about some of your other collaborations in the past too, particularly with Megan McDuffee on Hero, and with Rachel McAlpine, whom you’ve been working with for a good few years now. How do you go about setting up these partnerships and how do they typically play out? Is working with others a natural extension of what you create anyway or does it fulfil a different need for you?
Alex: With Megan, she contacted me out of the blue looking to collaborate on something. We ended up with a lot of back & forths on a video game-inspired synthpop album as her career involved composing for said games and films / trailers so we thought that could translate well into an album. I think if we do another project, it’d be something pretty dark and with much more attention on sound design – the complete opposite to Hero. With Rachel, I met her through my music business apprenticeship back in 2014, I think, then we ended up working on an EP called Youth which we wrote in about a week or so. Again, things snowballed from there. It does all feel like a natural extension, yes. Megan is more open to co-writing lyrics, editing and producing, whereas Rachel just creates her own material for a track she likes over the top of it but is wanting to start producing more. Both are equally great to work with and are good friends.
E&D: Movie soundtrack or game soundtracks – which one do you typically go for? Any ‘hidden gem’-type recommendations?
Alex: Would honestly be down for either. I did get interest from Ubisoft on that track that got me on the NRW channel ironically but then I never heard back from them. Quite a lot of people ask me about if I’m working on anything for CDPR’s Cyberpunk 2077, but sadly not. But the guy who did the music video for Akuma II is now working for that company, and on that game… so who knows… I wish! Would love to have something licensed for Netflix or a series / AAA film of some sort. I would recommend the OSTs to The Guest, Tron Legacy, Baby Driver, Pulp Fiction, Ghost in the Shell, Beyond the Black Rainbow, etc.
E&D: You’ve been quite prolific given that ALEX has only really existed for a few years, so I was wondering what you had in the works and if we have any live performances to look forward to in the near future.
Alex: Thanks, I have another dark album in the works right now and a few other ideas / projects lined up too; a website in development and will also work on presenting more of an artist image soon too. In terms of live shows, I’d like to perform in a more professional capacity instead of doing these branded ‘synth nights / festivals’ as they have been quite lacklustre with a couple of exceptions that were better than others. I will be doing a DJ set at Tech Noir in Berlin in September, but aside from that, I’m going to be focusing on production and the brand first before I start doing well-thought-out live shows with the newer releases.