Thanks for “sitting down” with me! I’d like to start by asking about the history of Makeup & Vanity Set. What’s your “origin story,” so to speak?
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I started making music with computers in 1996. I started working with synthesizers in 97. I used to get down with lots of mod tracker freeware. Now it's a mixture of lots of things. The ski mask and the name and all of that happened in 2004.
Your sound seemed to undergo a major evolution between the Charles Park III and 88:88, both sonically and conceptually. What was going on at that time?
Charles Park I + II are more thematic records rather than true concepts. I didn't really conceptually tackle an album until I made Never Let Go. Charles Park III and 88:88 ended up feeling like a natural arc to me. They came from different places conceptually, but I felt like I was working to support some thing that I felt like I needed to say with the album as a whole. Every record I make, even with things I'm doing now, it always feels like I'm sort of feeling in the dark when I start producing. I don't have a set way to do things. I just feel it out. If something feels different sonically, it's probably more happenstance to progressing over time instead of some new, learned behavior.
Your latest album, Wilderness, is a conceptually ambitious double album that, to me at least, strongly evokes cyberpunk and other dystopian currents in science fiction. How would you characterize the influence of science fiction on your work?
I feel like I grew up in a weird era where the world was finally starting to realize 'the future.' Like the future that people were dreaming up in the 80s was grittier because the times were grittier. I remember the first time we logged into the internet from home; the idea that the sounds coming out of our modem represented data and information. All of those sounds meant something. As a kid I was obsessed with that. And all of my music is an extension of that. Wilderness certainly was part of that. I don't know if everyone really understood it when it came out. It's sort of like that modem. Mortality has a strange way of distorting reality. I kept thinking about how technology is woven into everything now; wherever you go, everyone is logged into something. We're to that degree where people literally struggle to survive without it. That's interesting to me.
"Turning/Sequence" strongly evokes William Gibson's classic 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer for me. That could just be me projecting, but have you read it? There's a lot of common ground--both thematic and aesthetic--between Neuromancer and Wilderness.
Joey Ciccoline told me to read Neuromancer after I laid out the concept for Wilderness to him for the first time. The first half of the original concept became the basis for his short film, Eidolon. The book certainly had an impact on me as far as the music was concerned. By the time I read it, I had already written out the narrative of the record, so it was less of a direct influence there. Neuromancer is one of those weird things that has influenced so many things, that by proxy it had likely already crept into my work long before I had actually read it. The bigger influence was probably Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically his films Solaris and Stalker. I think that films are probably the biggest influence on my work, more than anything else; even when the work is tied into my actual life experiences, as Charles Park III or Wilderness were, it is always filtered through a the lenses of films that deeply affected me.
Speaking of film, I know that 88:88 also began as the soundtrack to Ciccoline’s short film of the same name. How collaborative was that experience? Did he tell you what he wanted, or did he just give you a video file and say “do whatever you think works?”
A little of both. Joey's really smart. He knows what he wants but he also trusts me enough to let me work. 88:88 was more about us figuring that relationship out more than anything else. In the beginning, he was pretty diplomatic about things but he was definitely willing to let me know what didn't work, and that shaped how dark the score became. The album was directly influenced by the path the film was on.
I’ve got a crazy fan theory, by the way. I noticed that the opener to the album 88:88 (“A Glowing Light, A Promise”) plays over the film’s end credits, and the ending is quite ambiguous—you know it’s just the beginning of a big, untold story. At the same time, the album has a distinctly cosmic feel to it. So I’m thinking that the album is actually telling that story—the story of what comes after the credits roll. Am I crazy?
The album was what I envisioned happening to Val after the film ends, yeah.
So I'm not crazy! Okay--now, Makeup & Vanity Set is often categorized as synthwave, but 88:88 and Wilderness feel pretty different from what other artists in that scene are doing. How would you characterize your relationship to synthwave?
I'm not really sure where I land in all of that. I make music everyday. It's all over the map. In the end, I try to make dark music that means something to me. And hopefully someone else can find something meaningful in it too. Most of the time I feel like I'm the outsider.
What other groups or artists are you into these days?
Dallas Campbell. His last record, City I, was so great. I'm patiently waiting for the new Lazerhawk record. I loved the Tek album from last year--Phaserland is incredible. The Troxum record, Gaia Lesson, that was amazing. I feel like his stuff is pushing boundaries that need to be pushed. The last Gost album was really heavy. I feel like I always gravitate towards the stuff that is
How about your upcoming projects—I’ve listened to some of your works in progress on soundcloud, and have also heard that you are working on a full-length collaboration with singer Jasmin Kaset, who features on two of my favorite Makeup & Vanity set tunes. What can you tell us about this or any other upcoming projects?
I have a 12" coming out on Data Airlines soon. They reached out to me while I was working on Wilderness. It's interesting. It's really digital and harsh. It's a lot more in your face than Wilderness was. It's got a really hard edge to it. Jasmin and I are working on a full-length album together. We've to 6-8 songs for it. They're really great. I wrote a bunch of music for an ARG tied to the video game Soma--and I'm scoring a film that ties into that. And of course the ever-expanding Brigador, a game from Stellar Jockeys. That should be out in April. At this point, there's something like two hours of music in that.
Finally, I need to nerd out here….88:88 and Wilderness have this really distinct, massive sound. What kind of gear/software do you use?
Typically everything is written in Ableton Live and mixed there or in Logic. I tend to sequence albums with Logic. I think my most used software plugins are probably Native Instruments Reaktor and the Arturia V Collection- I don't really lean too hard on the common ones though. I think their ARP 2600 sounds really good. Same for the Oberheim and the Moog Modular. I like stuff that's more complex. All of my musical training was in synthesis, so I probably spend too much time engineering things as opposed to writing and arranging things- that's probably why Wilderness took as long as it did.
Hardware-wise, I use a Moog LP2 almost all of the time. I just bought a Mother-32, which has been really eye opening. I don't have any eurorack modular stuff, so the flexibility involved in that has been really nice. They compliment each other well. I use a Yamaha DX7 quite a bit, as well as a Roland HS-60, which is a consumer-model Juno 60. Mine is a bit beaten up, but it sounds great. I have a DSI Mopho, which gets used in really weird ways but is always super refreshing and really opens up tracks. I started using Elektron gear- the Octatrack and the Analog Rytm- about a year ago and they continue to blow my mind. I bought them thinking they'd be useful live, but they are like little pandora's boxes. There's so much going on inside. The Octatrack especially. I was an MPC guy for years but I don't see how I could go back after using the OT. I have some effects stuff, delays and reverbs. Reverb is a big part of what I do. I've been using a new reverb by Meris Audio called the Mercury7, which almost feels like it was built for my brain. Every synth I put through it just melts into the ether. It's pretty haunting.****
88:88 (Amazon , iTunes)
Wilderness (Amazon , iTunes)