Building on the success of his Kingdom Hearts inspired 2019 release Door to Darkness rising Vaporwave star Crystalpep64 talks about his upcoming album Nova Sixty-Four. A Synthwave tinged adventure back into his inspired realm of Technology, Nostalgia and Video Games.
Could you talk about some of the musical influences on Nova Sixty-Four? You mentioned there’s a Synthwave influence?
Seeing as most of my releases draw from video game soundtrack, it’s not a surprise this one kind of does too. Delving into these PC-Engine and NES role playing games often feels like rummaging through an old cardboard box in the attic and it always gives me intriguing new ideas I want to implement in my style of music. That’s when the clashing begins. The synthwavey aspect of the ep certainly stems from games like Hotline Miami or Slipstream, but there is no denying the fact that HOME played a role, too. Translating those influences into a coherent sound is difficult but also very interesting.
Conceptually the release is about a utopian society which is decaying and facing collapse. What kind of ideas are you looking to explore with this setting?
Starting with sentimental, nostalgic sounds and then slowly plunging them into a darker sphere was the first idea which culminated in the final concept of a decaying society. And while the synths build up to be the tracks they now are, my head canon build up as well. In the end there was just really a lot to work with and almost half of it fell by the wayside, but I’m confident I got the very best out of the different ideas.
Is there a particular story to the album (characters and narrative)? Or is the setting more abstract and conceptual?
There is no real story taking place in the ep. The tracks are supposed to paint a large picture in which each listener can interpret a narrative themselves. But it is no coincidence that the tracks at the beginning of the ep are still very light and are slowly becoming darker. In that way, yes, there is a story. And there is also the artwork on the cover with the lady staring at her hologram, looking for answers it probably can’t give to her.
You’re getting one of your friends to play guitar on the record right? Could you talk about the instrumentation on the album and how that might be different from past releases.
Exactly, one of my friends lend me his guitar-skills and his singing talent, which I used to make a track called “Dataquest 3000”. He’s a talented musician and gave me good feedback when working on the ep. The instrumentation heavily relies on synthesizers, the guitar part actually is an exception. But while “Door To Darkness” consisted mostly of samples, I’m really proud that this release contains almost no samples. That is an achievement for me, although I kinda miss recontextualizing already existing music and I think I will definitely work sample-based again in the future. At least for some of my music.
In our previous conversation we talked a lot about nostalgia and memory (kingdom hearts especially) are you looking to explore these ideas again with your new release, or are you trying to look more into the future then the past?
I hope that “Nova Sixty-four” delivers that certain nostalgic feel for people who crave that but it was a decision made early on to not fall back on the same themes, my last release already dealt with.
Following on from that question, how do you see nova sixty-four within your discography? Is it a culmination of all your work up until now? Are you drawing influence from past releases or is it a new departure and experiment?
I’m doing this whole music thing for a relatively short time span, I would say. And I wanted this release to be something, I could pour all my insights and learnings of the last few years into. And of course there are old influences that shape the way this ep was made. Even though it is a culmination of my old work I could have probably done Nova Sixty-Four under another alias. I know that many artists in the scene have a range of different identities to do exactly that. Trying different things and making it easier for the listener to grasp the artists respective vision. But I’m not at the point where I can pinpoint the exact road we’re gonna go with all of this and I’m super excited to explore new possibilities with my music in the future.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
There is so much output nowadays and time is always limited and new and exciting content just waits around the next corner. That’s why every minute someone spends with listening to something I made is precious to me. So thanks to every human being who gives this a chance. I appreciate you.
I’m a sucker for weird, experimental music. So when I came across Alpha Chrome Yayo I was struck. A music industry veteran blending a synthy progressive morass. Glitchy aesthetics with grungy, versatile imagery. I wanted to talk to him about his new album Choke, his musical influences and the grey, lively streets of Northern Ireland.
Mxhdroom: One of the things that attracted me to your work is the idea of it as “experimental synth”. What’s the thinking behind this label?
Alpha Chrome Yayo: Y’know, it’s a funny one. I guess first and foremost I tend not to describe my music as straight up synthwave as I don’t want to annoy anybody! Sure I’ve got tracks that are pretty much classic Outrun, like Cerberus 3000 (Killing Time), but I’d say the majority of my output is more accurately described as ‘synthwave adjacent’. It tends to land somewhere in and around synthwave, vaporwave, lofi and ambient, with some hot flashes of funk, metal and other assorted oddness.
I’m not too fussy when it comes to genre descriptors myself, and personally I love when the lines blur. But I know that’s not the case for everybody, and that’s totally cool too. So I figure ‘experimental synth’ is a good catch-all for what I do! I love exploring new territory with each release, and I often go down weird wormholes. One thing I am extremely grateful for is the warmth with which these new directions are welcomed and encouraged by synthwave and vaporwave fans and artists alike. It’s so freeing and refreshing to be able to break new ground and have whole swathes of communities interested in what I’ve got going on.
Following on from that question, are there any particular genres you like to blend into your music to give it that experimental edge? I get tinges of hip hop, industrial and maybe a bit of jazz from your work.
Oh man, just so many. So, so many. I’m musically fickle! On my most recent release, Choke, there’s a huge jazz influence going on as you mentioned, which is noticeable straight off the bat. I was listening to lots of Ryo Fukui while I was making it and, honestly, tons of Chuck Mangione. I love that guy! And of course, all the rest of the genres you mentioned too. The closing track, Facilis Descensus Averno, is overwhelmingly influenced by black metal, and I had such a great time with those vocals, and the lyrics. I absolutely have to tip my hat to the endlessly incredible Winterquilt for helping reignite my love of all things kvlt, and inspiring me to snake my musical tendrils in that direction.
Elsewhere though… ooohh where to start! A track of mine that’s a personal favourite is ‘Anchorage’, and it’s really just me doing a straight up slice of yacht rock, with some smooth grooves and soaring soft-shred, whereas Take My Advice is a whole EP dedicated to cop movie soundtracks. So lots of Lethal Weapon squealin’ sax, and sultry grooves a la Lalo Schifrin’s latter-day Dirty Harry scores. I could go on all day, and that’s not meant to be a boast or anything. I think most people have a pretty rich sonic palette when it comes to the things they enjoy listening to. I love taking a snatch of an idea and running with it, in whatever direction it takes me. An album that is a huge influence on me is Imaginary Sonicscape by Sigh. I first heard it when it came out in 2001, and it really stuck with me, not just in terms of the music itself, but its approach. Ostensibly at face value it’s a black metal album, but it’s also full of weird woozy jazz, disco and funk. So yeah, blame Sigh!
How do you pick your visuals? The promo video you made for Choke was incredible. It caught my eye immediately and had that kind of ‘experimental’ edge which drew me to you.
Hey that’s very cool of you to say! Thank you very much. Above all else, I really just want to paint pictures with my music. I’m a pretty visual person and come from a film background so, while the music does the talking, if I’m accompanying it with video, it’s hugely important to me that it’s also saying the right thing.
I spend a huge amount of time trawling through all kinds of footage, and one of my favourite promo videos I knocked together for Choke was for my track, Veins. It’s a real slow-burn of a track, no drums at all, heavy on ambient piano and strings. I wanted something on the older side of retro for it, that also captured something more ancient and primordial. What I ended up with was an edit of old ’50s – ’60s public domain educational biology videos. They’re just wonderful; really quite macabre. They remind me of old ’20s German Expressionist films, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Partly for pleasure and partly for inspiration, I spend hours watching old advertisements too, as well as late ’80s/early ’90s CGI. The kinda stuff that reminds you of bowling alley videos! And, eh, yeah, I watch a lot of bowling alley videos. I love all that Mind’s Eye kinda era animation, guys like Robert Abel, Tatso Shimamura, The Post Group… It’s just pure joy, and for me typifies an era of unbridled experimentalism. And for my Komorebi EP I found myself diving deep into some performance art videos, particularly work by the legendary Roger Shimomura. I actually got in touch with Professor Shimomura during the making of that record, and ended up using – with his permission – an incredible image of him for the artwork. That was a real highlight of 2019 for me.
What aesthetics and vibes inspire you? Choke especially is really dark and heavy. I get a really strong ’90s industrial vibe from it. Like a cyberpunk kind of landscape of grungy tech and gaudy lights.
Oh you’re so on the money! Choke is probably the darkest release I’ve ever put out, and it originally stemmed from hearing an ice cream truck rolling around my neighbourhood late at night. There’s something so fiercely unnerving about that, something innocent and sweet turned suddenly sour under sinister circumstances. I mean, I don’t know what that guy is doing, but he sure ain’t selling snowcones! The first track on there, Snuff ‘Em Out, really draws on that twisted carnival kind of sound, and that’s something that resonates throughout the whole record. I wanted it to sound like something for movie goons and henchmen to listen to; a soundtrack for those unsung denizens of the night. But there’s inspiration to be drawn from so many sources. I’d even argue that Choke is probably the direct inverse of my previous release, Twirl. In fact, talking of which…
How would you say Choke builds on or develops from Twirl?
Heyyy good timing! Twirl was brilliant fun to make, and I love it so very dearly. It’s also so, so different to Choke. The whole thing is basically my love letter to the adventure that was the early internet. That beautiful time long before trolls and YouTube comments, when it was all the Information Super Highway and abstract software art. Where Choke is black, white and every shade of grey, Twirl is hypercolour.
In terms of sound, it’s also very, very different. Both have a sort of lofi jazz sensibility, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. Where Choke is noir, Twirl draws from the jazz fusion soundtracks associated with the Sega CD, and ambient work by guys (or rather, legends) like Spencer Nilsen.
Something that I haven’t really seen mentioned by many is the distinct lack of guitars on Choke. When they are there, they’re mostly very understated. Whereas on Twirl, and most of my other records, there’s a fairly hefty amount of shred going on. This wasn’t a conscious decision, it just isn’t that sort of record. But it did made me quite happy when I realised I didn’t need to have wild widdly solos all over the place; this particular record is stronger without ’em. That being said, I’m already working on some stuff that has… SHITLOADS OF WILD WIDDLY SOLOS ALL OVER THE PLACE, so fret not, axe fans. *Fret* not. Eh, eh?
Haha, so following on from that. How do you produce your music? What instruments and programs are you using?
I’ve got a modest little home studio with a nice mix of hardware and software synths, and I’m the biggest fan of Reason. Within ten minutes of first trying it, I knew it was for me; it just makes sense to me, and that’s not meant to be a clever play on words. The fact that it’s software that plays like hardware is awesome, and I adore it.
In terms of hardware, I’ve got a few trusted synths, and one particular favourite is the Roland D-05, which is really just a D-50 in a tiny little box. It’s perfect for the late ’80s/early ’90s tones I love so dearly; it can do new age, new wave, new jack swing… it’s just wonderful. And I recently became the owner of a Moog Sub Phatty, which I’m already in love with, and future records are going to be saturated in so much hefty goodness from that box of joy.
Other treasured synths include the Roland JV-1080, the DX7, the Casio CZ family… I’ve also got such a soft spot for slightly shitty sounding organs, which I do my best to emulate as I don’t have the room or the wallet to handle collecting them.
Aside from that it’s a lovely ice-white Ibanez that I use on just about everything, and the usual assortment of cables, stomp-boxes and oddities. I love to record live instruments here and there, the odd bit of sax. Today I was sampling a bosun’s whistle, used for naval calls. I think this year I’m going to make a concerted effort to dig into more found sounds and unusual instrumentation. I mean, I say that, I’ve got at least two songs with a hurdy gurdy on them. But I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of where I want to go in terms of ancient instruments. Time to get weird.
You’re from Northern Ireland, what’s the electronic scene there like? Is it mostly online or are there fan meet-ups/shows and such?
There has always been a really rich musical heritage in Northern Ireland, and I’m proud to be part of that. You’ve got these bona fide heroes like Gary Moore, The Undertones, etc… as well as more contemporary – but equally excellent and important – acts like Ash, and Therapy? I mean, damn, Therapy? are just unreal.
And the grassroots scene is similarly impressive, with a smorgasbord of incredible artists. Punk, metal and indie rock have always been huge, and metal is the world I guess I came from originally. So the electronic scene is slightly newer to me, but holy smokes, the talent. You’ve got guys like Arvo Party, Carlton Doom, giant duo Bicep, to name but a few. And in terms of synthwave/retrowave/vaporwave, there are incredible artists like Danny Madigan, Tripp Mirror, Transpacifica, Asyne and Last Survivor. And then down south, Bart Graft. Who is, for my money, not just one of the finest musicians in the country, but in the world. Dude. Is. Incredible.
It’s a funny one, as I’ve never really thought of myself as a ‘local musician’. I mean, does anybody really like to think like that? At the very least I don’t think anybody has to think like that anymore, with the way music works today. Most of the people listening to my music are from other parts of the world, and that is just amazing to me. It makes me feel very lucky, and I’m thrilled to think of my music finding a home thousands of miles away from me.
But still, lovely support from people nearby means the world to me too. I’m honoured every time I pop a cassette in the post, whether it’s destined for ten minutes down the road, or to the other side of the planet.
Any plans for the future from here? New projects/ EPs / albums / experiments?
Ohhh yes. Haha I got a few irons in the fire. First up… and I haven’t spoken about this tooooo much anywhere else really… is a fairly ridiculous golf themed album. I’m talking Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge vibes, a little bit of PGA Tour Golf for the Sega Mega Drive… and more than a dash of Shooter McGavin from Happy Gilmore.
I would say it’s not an entirely serious album, but that wouldn’t be true, I’m deadly serious about it! But it is definitely pretty funny and very tongue in cheek. I’m loathe to say it’s a comedy record, because it isn’t, but if Frank Zappa taught me one thing, it’s that you can be completely 100% serious about silly subject matter. If anything, I’m taking longer to write and record these tracks than normal as they’re very different to anything I’ve done before. I guess that’s what keeps it interesting!
Apart from that, I’ve got a whole slew of collabs that I’m working on, and am very excited about. And one other mystery project that I can’t talk about yet. Haha I always get a bit pissed off hearing people say that in interviews, that sort of teasing vagueness. But hey, here I am doing it. It’s really cool though, completely different to anything I’ve done before, completely unique, and involves working with someone who I find truly inspirational.
So yeah, sorry for the vagueness. I know it’s assholey. But, keep your eyes on my Twitter or whatever for updates if I’ve piqued your interest!
Anything else you’d like to say?
I don’t know if this is the best place to say it, but this week I lost someone dear to me. Someone dear to a whole lot of people, an excellent musician and friend called Casey Platt, who released music under the name Shelf Black.
He passed away suddenly, and I’m still completely shook by it. So many people are. Anybody reading this who knew him, or even spoke to him once, probably realised that he was the kindest, most supportive, magnificent person, and a magnificent musician. There’s a Go Fund Me page to raise money for his family, and it is at over $10k in 24 hours. That’s a testament to the strength of character this man had, and if another two 0s are added onto it, it’s still not enough. We never met IRL, but talked online all the time. Shared photographs of our families, dorky videos of our pets, our hopes and dreams… real friend stuff, basically.
I don’t want to end this interview on a sad note… so I won’t! What I do want to say is, first up, a huge thank you to Casey. Without his effervescent enthusiasm and encouragement, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I just straight up wouldn’t. I’m so grateful, and I’ll never forget you man. And to extrapolate on that a bit further, I want to thank each and every person who supports me and my music in any shape or form. Shit, I want to thank each and every person who supports ANY music, in any shape or form. You are making real, literal magic happen and it is beautiful. You are so appreciated. And I guess that’s it. Thank you very much for talking to me!
I didn’t even understand or process what was happening story-wise. But for years after that it stuck with me, that boy called Sora and his adventures.”
Crystalpep64 is a big fan of Kingdom Hearts. So much so that his recent release, Door To Darkness is a concept album based on the series. It dropped on Seikomart this April, blending lofi beats, samples from the game and Vaporwave stylings into a unique package. It’s a brooding, haunting album and whether you’re a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series or not- a necessary listen.
Nostalgia is important to Vaporwave- but what sets Door To Darkness apart from many of its peers is how focused it is. We know Vaporwave can succeed by drawing on big, wide emotions. Taking on broad influences like retro technology, Japan, Korea, hauntology and advertising. But the idea of taking one very specific piece of artwork -in this case a video game- and basing a Vaporwave album on it, holds a special flair to it.
Door To Darkness is also notable due to being slightly more futuristic in its ambitions. Much of Vaporwave draws on the sights and sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but an album rooted in the ‘00s? That’s a cool idea. Kingdom Hearts brings back surprisingly vivid memories for me, so when I first heard Crystalpep64’s album I knew I had to speak with him.
How important is Kingdom Hearts to you? I never played the games myself, but I still have a lot of nostalgia for it. It’s quite an iconic series at this point.
My Kingdom Hearts-story really began on a PlayStation 2 that belonged to one of my friends. We used to spend entire days having fun in front of the TV. There were a bunch of games, some good, some bad, but I liked one in particular, and that was Kingdom Hearts 1. When we played it for the first time, I was only about 10 years old and I was just thrilled to experience those adventures with all these colourful Disney characters. I wasn’t always there when my friend played it so I never saw everything in the game. And I didn’t even understand or process what was happening story-wise. But for years after that it stuck with me, that boy called Sora and his adventures. When I was sixteen I finally got myself a PlayStation 2…and there was much catching up to do.
I played Kingdom Hearts 1 for the first time from the beginning until the very end. And when Ansem was finally beaten and Utada Hikaru’s Simple and Clean chimed from the TV, I knew that this was as special a game as I imagined it to be all those years.
Kingdom Hearts reminds me so strongly of that mid-00s internet era. When streaming and fan culture was just starting to bubble up through the web.
I remember when I was first getting properly into music- and I was using the internet to find new artists. I’d be searching for all these punk and emo bands on YouTube and there’d be so many videos using Kingdom Hearts as a backdrop to the songs. Still images, edited videos, fanart, the lot. It was mixed in with a lot of the really popular media at the time, like Death Note, Naruto, Final Fantasy. So even though I never played it I associate it really strongly with that time period.
That made your album connect nostalgically with me, maybe in a different way to how you might expect!
The relationship between Kingdom Hearts and that kind of emo music was the real deal back then. I thought for a long time, that Evanescence’s Bring Me To Life was part of the original KH soundtrack. AMVs were something I’d never heard of before, and it kind of introduced me to the art of mixing unrelated visuals with audio and creating something new in the process. Those edgy themes really resonated with a lot of people and I know exactly that my 14-year old self was one of them. (I’m listening to Evanescence right now, for the first time in years haha).
There’s actually one specific Kingdom Hearts AMV that my mind always goes to. Gives me goosebumps rewatching it.
It’s also interesting because Kingdom Hearts is itself kind of an exercise in Nostalgia. It’s all about reconnecting people who (at the time it was released in 2002) were teenagers with characters like Mickey, Goofy and Ariel. Characters they probably grew up through their childhood watching and loving. But it’s blending that Disney influence with a kind of cool, edgy Final Fantasy aesthetic. Which was super popular with teens at the time. To help combine who they are now- with who they were then.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts is often described as a mix of Disney and Square Enix, but to me at least, the Disney-part far exceeds the Final Fantasy elements. The Disney movies that appear in the game are childhood favourites of so many people. Aladdin, Hercules or Winnie the Pooh, these were characters who accompanied me very early on in my life through their movies, tv-shows and merchandise. So I believe their inclusion really adds to that nostalgia inherent in the games.
Can you talk about the packaging of the album? The artwork, the design, the poem card. It looks awesome. It’s got that chunky mid-00s style going on.
As the general idea of the EP was becoming clear, the big challenge was, of course, to find a name. As befits a game in which keys are featured prominently, there’s a lot of references to doors. Doors that lead to strange places and other worlds. Doors that protect something, or shut something away. Having such a strong symbol in the title and on the cover of the EP seemed appropriate for a series of games that so often worked with and through symbols. The original idea was to use the close-up of the door (the one that’s now the inlay) as a cover, to mimic opening a door when you open the case of the tape, but in the end, we decided to use the stronger of the two images as the main-visual.
Even if you have never played the game, you still might know about the game’s reputation of telling a rather complicated and convoluted story. It’s not hard to understand if you play all the games, but once time travel and doppelgängers get introduced, it’s easy to mix up all the different plot-points.
The quote I chose to be printed on the inlay highlights the twisting, layered nature of the series. But it’s also a very important part of a conversation in which one of the oldest beings of the Kingdom Hearts universe explains the principles of time travel to the hero, who is about to be swallowed up by the darkness. So that’s neat.
I’m a big fan of blending low, or popular culture (like video games or Pop Punk), with big impactful ideas. So I really love what you’ve done with Door To Darkness. Mixing a very cute, accessible video game with your really earnest impactful music. Like you’re taking something easy to dismiss as flimsy and corporate and going, “no: this stuff means a lot to me, and it has for a long time.” You really care about this. And I can super relate to that passion.
With nostalgia being a key-element of Vaporwave, tracks that come with this distinctive video game sound, like t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 – 永遠に生きる for example, really got me going when I first discovered this genre. Growing up with video games also meant growing up with video game music and I try to archive every good video game soundtrack I come across. Kingdom Hearts’ soundtrack composer Yoko Shimomura really left an impression on me, and I hope that I have enriched her compositions with my own influences.
I’d like to think that through that process I was able to create a new sound experience that can inspire the listener. No matter if they’re fans of talking ducks and big keyblades or not!
“You were able to go back in time to just before your home became a Sleeping World, only because a past version of you already existed there.
Billie Eilish has cleaned up at the Grammys. An impressive achievement no doubt. In the flurry of responses to the news one stuck out to me. A tweet by YouTube mash-up artist Triple-Q pointing out that Billie had risen from producing knock-off Love Live merch to winning a Grammy. Both a critique of Eilish and ironic comment on the state of music and internet culture in 2020. One: it was a bad decision for someone as prominent Eilish to attempt to illicitly profit off another artist’s work. Two: the absurdity of the most successful musician of the moment ripping off a cutesy school idol anime from 2013.
In this way Eilish represents a single, butpersistent, example of a trend brewing for almost a decade. The transition of anime from a niche subculture into part of the texture of the internet. From a specific style of artwork which was appreciated and enjoyed by a committed community: If you liked anime you were an ‘anime fan’ and that differentiated you from other people who didn’t like or engage with anime and thus were not ‘anime fans’. Into something which everyone swims through and responds to.
Here we have to differentiate, we’re not talking about the rise in popularity of anime per se through sites like Crunchyroll and YouTube. Though they’ve definitely grown in popularity over the decade. Not necessarily the stories, or even specific characters. But anime as a malleable visual style. Stylised anime avatars confront everyone across the internet, games the world over trade in anime styles, the use of anime designs on merch, albums, videos and single covers. In this context it doesn’t matter if Eilish knew that the character she was appropriating was Nozomi from Love Live. It doesn’t matter if she’s even watched the show or not. What matters to her, and to most of the rest of the internet, is that it is anime. Fresh, modern and cool.
Many of the most successful artists of the last decade, from the underground to the mainstream, have pulled anime images into their brand. Pharrell Williams’ kaleidoscope video for It Girl, Porter Robinson’s anime mini-epic Shelter, XXXTentacion’s watercolour SAUCE!, Grimes’ twisted Art Angels, Kanye West’s Stronger tribute to Akira, Lil Uzi Vert’s Futsal Shuffle. What makes the use of anime by these artists so smart is that it isn’t a barrier- it’s a boost. If you’re an anime fan you get the ego-pump of seeing a popular artist moving the medium you love forward. But if you’re not an anime fan it can equally work as a cool, eye catching visual style.
Or look to the entire genre of Future Funk. The sounds draw on 80s J-Pop, City Pop and retro music, and its images draw from their parallels in 80s and 90s anime. Looping clips of anime girls, either from legacy series like Urusei Yatsura , or their modern counterparts , are a cornerstone of the genre. What’s the purpose of these loops? To inject the kind of colour and vim which anime is so perfect at. A combination of cuteness and energy which is able to attract the eye and the ear. You don’t need to be an ‘anime’ fan to enjoy them, you just need to vibe with it.
I remember back in the 00s, when I was first getting into anime, the idea that a celebrity was even aware of anime, let alone liked it, was truly wild. I used to pour over esoteric images of Blink 182 members wearing anime shirts with amazement. Magazines used to draw up rumor lists of celebrities who liked anime: the Wachowskis , Keanu Reeves, Rivers Cuomo? Definitely dude.
In retrospect this was all symptom of the slowness of pre-internet culture. Cross-pollination took a long time. Anime was wrapped up in physical media: boxes,CDs and tapes. You had to work to even interact with it. Now the internet has unchained it to run wild and free in video and image format across almost every website possible. Now Kim Kardashian can post a picture of Two Zero on her twitter, declaring her, “my hair inspo”, and the most notable thing people have to say is that she should have credited the original artist.
So anime sits alongside Spongebob Memes, Lofi Hip Hop to study and relax to and Synthwave sunsets as part of the common language of the internet. It’s a paradox that as much as the internet thrives on weird, niche communities, it still cherishes shared images and familiar touchstones. There’s a kind of magnetic pull that as much as we all branch out into different sites and communities- we end up responding to and reproducing the same images. The doors that once separated our hobbies into neat little rooms have been blown wide open and now we’re all rolling around in the computer room posting Lum .gifs.
The must-watch anime of the season by almost everyone’s account. It’s rare that an anime comes along with the full package: concept, visuals and execution. We’re lucky if we get a handful a year, but so far Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! is zooming along with flying colours.
Eizouken tells the story of three school girls founding an anime-creation club. Capitalising on the popular anime trend of showing the creative processes of the anime and gaming industries. However, unlike its more realistic counterparts Eizouken focuses squarely on the imagination and passion that drives its girls to create. How they create is less important than why.
It also has a strong, highly stylised visual aesthetic. Allowing the world to crumble and rise alongside the girls’ inspiration. It’s telling that all three anime I’ve responded to this season focus on making their visuals charming and memorable, rather than just shiny. Ultimately the show is just so darn sincere. Any creative, of any stripe or type, will likely see a bit of themselves in Eizouken.
Dorohedoro is really weird. A gritty, grimy, and often frankly disgusting series tracking the adventures of an amnesiac reptile-headed hunter and his gyouza-shop owning partner. If the world of Eizouken is inviting the world of Dorohedoro is repelling. Cyberpunk horror; everything has an organic, meaty pulse, with a layer of grime smeared over it. Weird half-formed monsters and human body-horror. The kind of nightmare fuel which brings to mind the ’90s Japanese underground.
So naturally the tone of the series is a jolt of action slap-stick, with our main duo being totally loveable. Bumbling do-gooders in a world of ultraviolence. The show’s animation uses a kind of uncanny valley CGI for a lot of the action scenes, but in these murky surroundings it almost works. If you’re looking for an edgy seinen kick this season Dorohedoro is definitely going someplace strange.
Jibaku Shounen Hanako-kun
I’m a sucker for high school comedies. When done right they’ve produced some of my favourite anime ever. And Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun has proven itself to be a fizzy treat. I was always going to check out this anime due to how solid the manga is. Weaving the story of a mysterious ghost haunting the lady’s toilets, and the lonely girl who befriends him. The anime smooths out some of the manga’s jagged visual edges, while leaving the bejewelled, colourful palette. Lush backgrounds take full advantage of the Japanese-Gothic vibe of the series.
And it’s funny! And the characters are likeable! With strong designs and a nice blend of dumb anime jokes mixed with subtle personality. The series also draws on Japan’s extensive supernatural folklore for some interesting cultural elements. I’m pretty chuffed that the series is being as well received as it is, but that’s the power of a great anime adaption: building up something classic while giving it a fresh lick of paint. New fans, old fans, we’re all Hanako-kun fans.
Hatsune Miku is a singing synthesiser. Born in 2007 as a cutting-edge piece of technology, she combines a voice synthesiser program with an anime girl shell. Allowing anyone, be they a budding songwriter or a big-name producer, to collaborate with their very own virtual pop star. The strategy is genius. A character with enough edges to make her solid, but enough mystery for infinite exploration.
Since her creation Miku has gone on to become a cultural phenomenon in both her home of Japan and the world at large. Propelled through the Internet, her brand now spans a countless and constantly growing number of albums, EPs and singles. With genres ranging from Rock and Pop, to Dance, Metal and beyond. Branding endorsements, figures, anime, clothes, leeks, everything can be Miku. Her stable of collaborators has also grown, with the Vocaloid range now boasting numerous official and bootleg partners for Miku. Each one catering to a different vocal range and visual style. Evolving ever more niche, in the way that anime culture is so expert at.
Miku also performs live shows, and I was able to catch her most recent stop in the UK . The gig was part of Miku Expo, a string of New Year’s concerts throughout Europe, taking in Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the UK. I’d also been to see her during her 2019 London show, with her yearly visits becoming something of a tradition.
The Miku Expo structure, wherein Miku performs a select number of shows across the globe each year, is a great example of artful artificial scarcity. Highlighting some of the contradictions that come from her virtual pop-stardom. Miku is present on stage in hologram form- singing, dancing, switching costumes and even thanking the crowd in their native language. Backed by a well-drilled live band and a simple but effective stage rig. Which leaves it to be noted that, bar this specific lineup of live band, Miku could be performing live on an almost constant basis. She could be on tour in Japan every month, with different band members tag-teaming in and out across different cities. Then take the show on the road and have her performing in different parts of the world simultaneously, from Hong Kong to Moscow to Brazil. Do to her live show what the internet has done to her music. She’s a hologram, there’s literally nothing to stop her.
But Miku doesn’t tour like this. She tours like a traditional pop star. Yearly tours across the globe taking in the largest countries and cities, and an annual Magical Mirai event in her home country of Japan. Because the truth is that Miku, for all her virtual nature, is a an existent character to her fans. Through the endless kaleidoscope of videos, fanart and songs, her character has been built up by thousands of different creatives. The divergent visual and musical styles enhancing, rather than shattering her realness. The Miku that appears in the iconic World is Mine video is the same as the one fading away in the tragic Disappearance video, or her collab with Anamanaguchi or the meme machine Po Pi Po. In order to tie all these Mikus together, to conjure her into a single essence at a particular place and time. To pull her from the internet into the real world, her appearances have to be limited, special. They to have grandeur.
That’s reflected by the feeling in the room. This was a crowd who had waited fervently for this event, this once-a-year chance to glorify their idol.
Miku delivered in full force at Brixton. Her lightshow was excellent. The live band were beyond reproach, adding a little frisson of organic energy into the otherwise digital proceedings. Miku’s support squad of Vocaloids (Len and Rin being the most impressive consorts) added a mix of varied colours to the proceedings. Quite literally in fact, as the obligatory glowsticks wielded by the crowd can turn into their respective colours depending on the Vocaloid singing. Blended green for Miku, red for Meiko, purple for Luka and so on. Unified waving of these coloured sticks, in time to the beats and waves of the songs, allows the crowd to become part of the live show. Huge seas of synchronised light being reflected back at their hologram star. An interesting half-contrast to the moshing, dancing, singing and lighters-in-the-air seen at a rock concert. Miku crowds like to project energy as a unified whole, which both empowers each member, but also surrenders them to the group…Woe to the person waving a blue glowstick during the yellow and orange twins’ duet.
I remember once having an argument at University with some friends who claimed that synthetic Vocaloid-style musicians would one day take over the world. They claimed that within a decade all music would be made by algorithm and sung by machine. That the technology which powered Miku was going to improve exponentially, and nothing could stop it. The objective pleasure and perfection of the software was going to drive humans out of the arena. As of 2020 they were clearly overly optimistic in their predictions, but I’m sure they’ll be proven right eventually. While English-language voice synthesisers haven’t caught on massively (and indeed due to the more haphazard structure of the language, simply don’t work as well as Japanese counterparts) the clock is ticking.
Yet I don’t think it’ll ever be a rout. There’ll always be space for a Tom Waits or an Iron & Wine in music, people are too messy, and their emotions too needy to leave behind warbling human imperfection. In the same way that her fans reflect light back at Miku, sometimes we need raw human empathy reacted back to us. But while the old pillars will still stand, they’ll be buttressed by some of the most amazing light, smoke and Electro performances you’ve ever seen.
Far Side Virtual 8: The Rise and Fall of the Music Download
I remember the first time I heard about Limewire it genuinely shocked me. What was this weird computer program everyone was talking about…It could give you all the music you ever wanted, completely for free? How was that fair? Having grown up on the tail-end of the CD era (my first ever album was Good Charlotte’s The Young and Hopeless, followed by The Killer’s Hot Fuss) I’d been instilled with a sense that the physical product you bought, and the music contained within it, were linked. So to rip these two apart- and chuck musical tracks onto the internet for free- just seemed wrong. Almost disrespectful.
This was back when I was still in High School, around 2007 or so. And since then we’ve witnessed the steady rise, and cooling down, of the ‘music download’. After 20 years of being at the heart of the musical zeitgeist, it looks like the concept is fizzling out. Apple recently announced that its flagship platform for music downloads, iTunes, is to be broken up. The Music Industry’s IFPI 2019 Report confirms this trajectory. Musical downloads start tracking in 2004 at $400 Million in revenue, rising to its peak of $4.4 Billion in 2014, before shrinking to $2.3 Billion in 2018. By contrast, Streaming has ballooned from $100 Million in 2005 to a gargantuan $8.9 Billion in 2018. Streaming now makes up almost half the music industry’s revenue, nearly equalling physical sales, digital downloads and performance rights combined.
While the IFPI only tracks legal downloads, if these trends continue digital downloads will be increasingly squeezed out- while streaming continues to dominate as the most popular method of music consumption.
But while downloads may be fading – they inarguably changed the way we think about music- possibly forever.
The People vs Lars Ulrich
The story of popular music downloads starts with something decidedly guerrilla. Napster. Back in 1999, when the service launched, the idea of using the internet to fileshare was still in its infancy. Part of the reason was the clunky dial-up internet most users had access to, another was the fact that the idea simply hadn’t entered public consciousness yet. 1999 was CD Country- with bands able to shift millions upon millions of units- ironclad by the MTV Industrial Complex.
Napster demolished this paradigm incredibly quickly: giving users a simple, easy to use and (most importantly) free system to download as many songs as they wanted. The ballad of Napster, climaxing in Lars Ulrich standing outside a Californian court, waving a page of usernames he intended to sue, is the stuff of legend. But while the program lived and died in a relatively short period of time- shutting down in 2001, it set the stage both for the culture of mass downloading, and the music industry’s response to it.
Steve Jobs, a figure often able to see the wave before it hit the beach, launched iTunes in 2003, as a direct riposte to this challenge. Apple already dominated with their iPod MP3 player- and now iTunes would complete the loop, allowing Apple to both play, and provide, your music. During the iTunes launch event Jobs positioned himself as directly in combat. Starting his speech by waxing on the “phenomenon called Napster,” and admitting that despite the site being defunct, “it demonstrated that the internet was made for music delivery.” Jobs naturally condemns illegal downloads as “stealing”, but his candidness and the almost respectful, impressed tone he takes towards the internet upstarts is notable. He wants iTunes to defeat the idea of Napster and Kazaa in direct, honourable combat.
You couldn’t convince a generation of kids to buy your album for that one hit single anymore. So iTunes moved with the times. Competing on more consistent technology, guaranteed quality, song previews, album cover art and legitimacy. Jobs, being Jobs, also brings up the idea of Karma as yet another reason to support legitimate releases.
“I cannot overemphasize that because of the previews, browsing, etc. you fall in love with music again—and you find the hits you’ve heard before and the gems you’ve never heard before—and it’s really wonderful. It’s so cool.”
While the era of torrents continued with gusto, the industry’s attempts at creating an alternative system met with decent success. iTunes became the banner pilot for legal downloads. Purchases grew and the iTunes store became part of the industry landscape. The front page was the place to be seen for up-and-coming artists. Whose on top? Whose rising up?
iTunes was also able to offer suggestions to the user for new music, based on the media they previously purchased. While clunky, it held enough algorithmic input to be able to imitate a record store clerk- inviting us to try new, or slightly different, music. To be fair, as impersonal as it sounds, I did find quite a number of bands I now love through the iTunes system. And while the ‘suggested’ music algorithm has now been perfected by the likes of YouTube, there’s room to respect iTunes’ early trailblazing.
All in all, iTunes was a solid response, to a gargantuan problem.
Yet, downloads were always lacking something. The sense that you were basically paying for nothing lingered. With a CD or vinyl, you got a physical object. With Napster or Limewire you paid nothing and got a file (almost nothing). But legal downloads required a kind of pious respect for the artist to justify themselves. As Jobs remarked in his presentation, there’s an element of consciously playing by the rules involved. Yes, you can go and listen to the song you want on a grotty streaming site, okay maybe you can get it off Limewire, but think twice, and choose to play by the rules.
When viewed alongside the current popularity of streaming, music downloads start to look like a stopgap. I grew up with CDs, I still have many from my teenage years, but today’s teenagers have grown up entirely in the era of detached files. It’s all they’ve ever known. SoundCloud, YouTube, Last.fm. The jump from physical mediums to cloud-based freeform music starts to look like the real movement of consequence. That’s the historic, technological leap from the carriage to the car. Downloads being a kind of methadone to help nervous consumers, and a worried industry, manage the transition.
During the iTunes launch event Jobs derisively mentions a type of legal music service which has been lost to history now. One that, at the time, he was attempting to better with iTunes. In response to the Napster menace, PressPlay was founded jointly by Universal Music and Sony Music in 2001. It was a kind of proto-streaming service. For $15 a month PressPlay offered 500 audio streams, 50 song downloads and 10 songs burnt to CD. Rhapsody was a similar, independent service, which also started in 2001. (Rhapsody has now, incredibly weirdly, purchased the rebooted Napster- and has decided to start wearing its skin- discarding the Rhapsody name entirely.)
The rise of streaming services like Spotify, YouTube Red and Tidal almost look like a return to that early “music as a subscription service” idea. Except now, with fast free-flowing internet, the proliferation of smartphones, and the instant expectation of gratification- the industry has made it work.
The difference now is that the convenience offered by legal streaming sites is almost (almost) unbeatable. Sure it’s easy to download an album off BitTorrent, but why bother when I can just load it up on YouTube. I want to listen to music on my phone while I’m out, and have the flexibility to change my taste at a moments notice. I also want to spread my playlists across my Android, MacBook, Windows desktop, Firefox browser and BMW car, well Spotify lets me do that instantly.
Now you don’t even need to download the track you wanted to listen to. You don’t even have to wait 3 seconds for the bits to finish moving, and then deal with the file location afterwards. Press play and go. It’s already fast now, and with 5G on the horizon streaming speeds will only get faster. Just surf through, riding the internet.
Streaming also represents a counterattack by the record industry. Spotify is completely legal and above board entity. You either pay for it through a subscription or by listening to periodic adverts. Spotify is well known for paying artists a pittance per download, but from the industry perspective, this is at least a tangible revenue stream. YouTube, while awash with ad-hoc user uploads, also wields an aggressive Content ID system for taking down copyrighted material. The ultimate goal being to funnel users onto legitimate industry channels, where they can see adverts, sponsorships and merch. While these systems are imprecise and are unlikely to be able to plug the hole fully- they do represent a massive increase in industry control. It was hard for record companies to take files off Napster- or off a downloader’s computer. They can easily take your rip of Midtown’s first album off YouTube.
In the midst of this, it would be unfair not to mention some groups who still stalwartly stand by downloads: music collectors and audiophiles. Vaporwave especially trends towards fans who love to collect, categorise and organise sounds. The appeal of downloading, that you can create your own personal library of music, is still important to many hardcore fans. Arguably it’s one of the trends that keeps niche subgenres alive. With a cadre of committed collectors making sure all the important releases are catalogued for posterity. Bandcamp has done yeoman’s work in fostering a cottage industry of music creators- with paid downloads being an important part of rewarding artists for their work. Downloads may even prove to be necessary to keep underappreciated releases alive for future generations. Streaming services can falter, shut down, or delete libraries. An issue I’ve written about before in this column.
Audiophiles too appreciate the control downloads offer- allowing access to a plethora of specific (often very big) file types. If you’re listening through a $15,000 audio setup, Spotify streaming through 3G internet probably won’t cut it.
Despite streaming’s dominance, it’s unlikely downloads will ever truly disappear. Much like Vinyl’s recent revival- if there’s demand for a type of medium, the market can provide for it. I like to imagine that one day there’ll be a nostalgic revival for music downloads. For sure, it’s harder to imagine than that of Vinyl or CDs- simply because there’s no physical object to attach the emotion too. But maybe, as a reaction to the endless buffet of music the internet offers, fans might start to limit themselves to a certain number of music downloads a week. Numerical restrictions, hermetically sealing themselves off from choice. Downloading something and committing to it. Maybe slotting downloads into the rest of their lo-fi setup. Listen to vinyl at home and MP3s on their phone. Stranger things have happened. And if the internet is good at something other than music delivery, it’s creating surprises.
This piece was originally published at ae2.online, additional photo from Pixabay.com
Far Side Virtual 7: What happens when a genre forged on the Internet enters the real world?
The Vaporwave-sphere has been buzzing with excitement over two huge announcements. 100% ElectroniCON, a New York festival created by George Clanton, to be held in August, and the Groove Horizons club-night, happening in London in July. 100% ElectroniCON promises to bring together a host of artists from the 100% Electronica label; including genre titans Saint Pepsi, Vaperror and Dan Mason. Groove Horizons likewise boasts the cream of UK Future Funk , from Strawberry Station to ev.exi and beyond. Both events are proving hot hot tickets, with hype moving upwards through the roof.
Mélonade, one of the artists performing at Groove Horizons, expands on the idea,
“Groove Horizons is really the first Future Funk show in the UK (at least that we know of). We wanted to give people in both the UK and Europe the chance to see some great UK artists live, and to meet them and chat about the scene. If it’s a success we will be able to build on it and do future shows.”
“It was me and Strawberry Station’s idea, but Alexander Hall is the main organiser. We’re really grateful to him. So if you’re in Europe come along if you can make it.”
It’s booming news for the scene- a real watershed moment for Vaporwave. But what does it mean for a supposed Internet-Genre to move so decisively into the real world? Vaporwave has always been at home in the virtual, but when it gets physical…it gets complicated.
Music genres traditionally have a specific location they can be traced back to: Hip Hop and Punk were born from the grime of ’70s New York. Metal forged in the molten furnaces of ’60s Birmingham. City Pop synonymous with the glitz of ’90s Shibuya. People meet up, get together and play music. Live shows and club-nights spring naturally from that. Yet Vaporwave was created by a music file on the internet. No one was ever meeting up in the first place. Chuck Person might be American, but Vaporwave only belongs to the web. This has been genre orthodoxy since its inception: as long as you have a computer, an internet connection and speakers- you can be part of the scene.
There’s not supposed to be an ‘in’ club. All the music is free and available at the click of a mouse. Zero cost, zero profit. The only limiting factor is knowing which websites to browse.
Live shows change that. You have to be in New York, San Diego, London to be able to go to live events. They’re clustered in big, traditionally music focused cities. You need the cash to shell out for hotel rooms, travel, tickets. Some people won’t even be able to get in the door if they missed out on snagging one. Suddenly Vaporwave starts to look a lot more like a regular music genre, one with physical limitations. Where it helps to know who is who, what’s hot- what’s not, and what’s happening downtown. An evolution, or a regression?
I put this dilemma to George Clanton, author of the Vaporwave classic virtual.zip, and the man behind 100% ElectroniCON.
“Vaporwave has changed forever. And has already changed forever several times. And will change forever again. Vaporwave, in my opinion, seems like it’s more defined by the people who discover and digest it than the actual content and style. There are so many different styles that two “Vaporwave” artists may have nothing in common sonically.”
“Naturally people want to see their favourite artists in the flesh and celebrate the music they like as a group. On Vaporwave YouTube a frequent comment is “I wish I had friends who liked this too.”
“There aren’t a lot of people doing [live shows] right now, I think a big reason is so much Vaporwave is difficult to perform live, and/or un-danceable. Future Funk is popping off right now because it’s long established that you can put a bunch of people in a room, point them at the artist, and have the artist DJ their own music. Future Funk can and probably will go mainstream as a logical progression of EDM.”
The irony is that despite Vaporwave being so focused on individuals listening alone in their bedrooms, that desire for physical connection is still there. People really want to get together in one location to interact and connect. It’s very primal, and in that sense maybe Vaporwave, with its pretensions of being purely “for the Internet”, was just denying this basic impulse. Perhaps that contradiction is now breaking apart.
Which leads to ElectroniCON – and George’s ambitions for it:
“With ElectroniCON, there are a lot of strange, really vapory, really experimental artists. A lot of the artists have never performed live! And, their performance might not make sense in a typical bar or club where you are standing pointed at the artist. I think ElectroniCON is going to work so well because it’s going to have the feel of a convention, where a lot of likeminded people with a niche interest come together. Like Comic Con. And since we have 3 stages, we can showcase the diversity of Vaporwave without forcing someone who wants to dance to watch an ambient set or vice-versa.”
“I realize this article is about the recent explosion of live Vaporwave shows. But my perspective is there’s still a long way to go. Only a very small percentage of Vaporwave artists are giving it a shot, with a lot of the biggest acts only performing extremely rarely or not at all.”
“Clearly 100% ElectroniCON has shown that there is a huge demand for Vaporwave events, which we knew all along. With the music being born online, the artists are spread out diffusely. Someone might be the only established Vaporwave artist in their state for example. 100% ElectroniCON solves that by creating a destination event worthy of making a pilgrimage to. There’s no established path on how to be a Vaporwave artist live. We are going to figure it out together.”
George is pertinent with the Comic-Con comparison. It can’t be denied: Vaporwave is quite a nerdy genre. Most comfortable when speaking through Discord and Twitter. But with the rise of live shows maybe we can maintain the best of both worlds. Keeping the centre of gravity on the Internet which spawned it, with the same reach and accessibility as always. But also bringing in a more sophisticated aspect to the community. Giving people places to meet up, make friends and memories together. Memories which might inspire the next great Vaporwave album.
This piece was originally published at ae2.online, additional photo from Pixabay.com
Far Side Virtual 6: A series of abstracts examining who Steve Jobs was, how he viewed the world and how he shaped the future.
The Holy Mountain is a whirling, terrifying masterpiece. Full of flesh, magic and horror. The film was created in 1973 by Mexican auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, and- being limited by the physical medium of the time- was only shown at select film festivals and screenings. Jodorowsky’s ability to blend the obsessions of the ’60s and early ’70s: psychedelia, transgression and the occult, leave The Holy Mountain a vital achievement. In many ways, the film is the reverse of The Beatles’ legendary album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, often seen as the definitive statement of that generation. Offensive instead of populist, alienating instead of inviting. But powered by the same vigour and vision. Allen Klein, manager of the Beatles produced the film- while John Lennon and Yoko helped fund the project.
Within its disjoint, The Holy Mountain strips the logical world away. Replaced by a twist of metaphor, mocking the audience for even watching. The plot focuses on a character known as ‘The Fool’ who is sent, along with 7 planets, an alchemist and his silent assistant, to the vast Holy Mountain- on top of which the secret of immortality lies. Waxworks burn, stormtroopers march and arcane rituals are performed. Human bodies pile up bloodied and sacrifices are threatened. At the top of the mountain The Fool’s conceit fails, and the characters and audience are sent forth, “Goodbye Holy Mountain, Real Life Awaits us!”
The only consistent theme throughout the film is a burning dislike of conformity- and a willingness to offend and profane at every level. The struggle of the post-war generation to break free of their parents stifling hold leads to their most unsettling artwork.
In 1974, Steve Jobs had a similar, puzzling encounter with a holy mountain. Jobs was travelling in India, performing his international pilgrimage on the Hippie Trail. De rigueur for every child of the sixties. Finding himself in an unknown village during a festival, Jobs was befriended by a Baba holy man. Fascinated by the foreigner in their midst. Jobs was pulled away from the jubilant crowds and led alone up a mountain.
“He didn’t speak much English and I spoke a little Hindi, but he tried to carry on a conversation and he was just rolling on the ground with laughter.”
“We get to the top of this mountain half an hour later and there’s this little well and pond at the top of this mountain, and he dunks my head in the water and pulls out a razor from his pocket and starts to shave my head.”
“I’m completely stunned. I’m 19 years old, in a foreign country, up in the Himalayas, and here is this bizarre Indian Baba who has just dragged me away from the rest of the crowd, shaving my head atop this mountain peak. I’m still not sure why he did it.”
On top of the Holy Mountain, the place that promises ascension- is only confusion.
One of the legacies of World War Two was the loss of permanence across the western world. The horrors of the Nazi regime and the collapse of the old European Empires sent a sharp crack across the traditional pillars of society. Structures of nation, tradition and religion were no longer comforting- they were oppressive. Their excesses had caused the war, two wars, and they had to go.
As the generation that fought WW2 had children, and as those children grew up in the post-war ruins, they took on this transformative task. Sexual liberation rolled out, class strictures were loosened and culture turned towards the youth. Armed with a growlingly sophisticated understanding of power and how it was wielded, across race, gender and class lines; and developing their own potent culture through which to transmit their ideas, the ’60s generation closed the door on the Old World.
The United States, with its claimed ideals of liberal democracy, individual rights, and entrepreneurship was to be the nexus for their brighter New World. While the war had brittled and burned Europe, it had made America strong. Spreading its troops and culture across the planet. Only the Soviet Union, with its sclerotic planned economy, and dour Politburo, offered an alternative vision. And against Levi Jeans and Elvis Presley, it could not compete. Self-expression and individualism were to be the New World’s mantra. We were going to break the mental chains of history, and a become better, enlightened humans.
Into this tumult, Steve Jobs was born. In San Francisco, right at the heart of planet counter-culture. 1955, making him an exact Baby Boomer. His biological father Abdulfattah “John” (al-)Jandali grew up in Homs, Syria, while his birth mother Joanne Schieble was Catholic, raised on a farm in Wisconsin. Schieble’s family objected to her transgressive relationship with Jandali, and so baby Steve was put up for adoption. He was adopted and raised by Paul and Clara Jobs, who Steve considered to be his ‘real’ parents throughout his life.
His blend of immigrant family background, adoption, and the working-class nature of his foster parents make Jobs an exemplar of the opportunities and challenges his generation faced. What place did he have in the Old World of race, propriety and tradition? To Steve Jobs, the task of creating a fresh paradigm for humanity weighed heavy. To create a world where he belonged.
I’m an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honourable, and some of them are really smart. I have a very optimistic view of individuals. As individuals, people are inherently good. I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups.
And Technology was the tool Jobs would use to create this world. Using capitalism, individual grit, and the spiritual curiosity of the ’60s, he would allow each of us to belong. Wherever we were from, wherever we were going.
Jobs was as close to a true believer in capitalism as it is possible to get. As he saw it, capitalism could be used, not just as a way to generate wealth, but as a means to transmit ideas. To get products which fostered imagination into the hands of the people. And if those objects were useful, if they improved lives and made them richer- fuller, then capitalism could become a distribution system. A lifeline transmitting energy outwards.
In this sense Jobs is one of his generation. While the Baby Boomer’s attitude to social conservatism was one of flat rejection, their relationship to capitalism was complex. Nebulous even. The appeal of rival Soviet communism was muted, especially after the 1956 crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. Other systems, like communes, anarchism or “off the grid” living had a decent cultural impact but failed to shift the mechanisms of society. Rejection of ‘the system’ was certainly popular, yet capitalism weathered the sixties better than any other pillar of western society.
This was no accident. America was the force of the era, the place youth across the globe looked to for guidance. And America was capitalism. Rock’n’ Roll, Coca Cola, Blue Jeans. If you wanted to play you had to pay. If you like those Bob Dylan records, if you want that Stratocaster and those bell bottoms, you better cough up. After all, the things you buy are an expression of who you are. So the flower children repurposed capitalism. They took over the reins from their parents, dressed in their tie-dye and bangles.
They blended traditional capitalist ideals of hard work and competition, with their own explosion of self-expression and personal vitality. Capitalism didn’t just have to be about selling butter, dishes and soap. It could give us meaning. We could buy and sell ourselves into peace & love. This was capitalism as soundtracked by The Who. And Steve Jobs would be its standard bearer.
“Apple’s engineering teams had passion. They always believed that what they were doing was important and, most of all, fun. Working at Apple was never just a job; it was also a crusade, a mission, to bring better computer power to people. At its roots that attitude came from Steve Jobs. It was “Power to the People”, the slogan of the sixties, rewritten in technology for the eighties and called Macintosh.”
— Jeffrey S. Young, Steve Jobs: The Journey is the Reward (1987)
The Jobs family was rugged and blue-collar but placed their new child Steve in an extremely lucky position. Steve grew up in California, hitting his teenage years in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Right on the very cusp of ‘Silicon Valley’ as we now know it. The state was blossoming with technology companies- computer technicians and programmers. IBM, HP, Intel, the very first tech super-companies were spreading their influence steadily across society. And their workers had to live somewhere.
In the pre-internet era, the best way to connect with people was to be physically in the same location. So for Jobs to be placed in Los Altos, so close that he could reach out and touch the Valley, was remarkable. He made all the use out of the opportunity he could.
It was in these sprawling, electric suburbs that Jobs met his long-time partner Steve Wozniak. Steve was 5 years older than Jobs, and the two connected over their enthusiasm for the blossoming world of computing (and their shared love of pranks). They also famously visited the super-influential Home Brew Computer Club together. Jobs was the brains Wozniak was the (tech) brawn- Jobs the ideas and Woz the creation. Impressed by the computer designs Wozniak was producing, and convinced he could turn them into a profitable business, Jobs persuaded Wozniak to start a company with him. On 1st April 1976 Apple Computing Co. was formed.
“Basically Steve Wozniak and I invented the Apple because we wanted a personal computer. Not only couldn’t we afford the computers that were on the market, those computers were impractical for us to use. We needed a Volkswagen. The Volkswagen isn’t as fast or comfortable as other ways of travelling, but the VW owners can go where they want when they want and with whom they want. The VW owners have personal control of their car.”
Young, Jeffrey S. (1987). Steve Jobs: The Journey Is the Reward.
To take computing out of the vaults of the elite and the corporate, and into the living rooms of America, seems obvious. It’s such a blunt truism in 2019- why shouldn’t everyone have access to a computer? But in the late ’70s, the ambition of Jobs was Promethean. Everyone must have the power to self-actualise, everyone must have the tools the chart their own course. The promise of computing, dynamism and power: for everyone.
One of the most important steps towards this goal was the Macintosh personal computer line. The system by which Jobs first achieved his goal of simple, affordable computing for the masses. Building on the success of their popular Apple II model the Macintosh 128K, launched in January 1984. Macintosh was the first commercial computer to feature a graphical interface, screen and mouse combination. Giving every purchaser the power to easily interact with the system. The idea showed enormous potential, and as a consequence, the Macintosh was reiterated on intensely. Each one improving on power, form and functionality. The series stretches from its launch to the present day- from desktops to laptops– a byword for the power of personal computing.
The launch of the Macintosh was also preceded by one of Apple’s greatest, bluntest, commercials. Largely regarded as one of the best adverts of all time. Titled simply ‘1984’ the ad drew inspiration from the George Orwell book of the same name. A room full of grey, uniformed drones march through a bleak dystopia. They sit in a large theatre listening to a blaring, video of Big Brother haranguing them about the dangers they face. Imploring them to know their place for their own safety and security- this world is their only hope.
Down the aisle comes running a glamorous Olympian, brilliant blonde hair, dressed in tight white and orange- wielding a sledgehammer. As the tempo ratchets up and the speech becomes more frantic she reaches the front of the auditorium. At the climax, she triumphantly swings the hammer around her- launching it skyward with a yell. Smashing the screen in an explosion of electricity. The crowd, now bathed in light, sit amazed.
Bringing fire down from the Gods and spreading it among the people.
“I don’t know how to answer you. In the broadest context, the goal is to seek enlightenment — however you define it.”
Jobs blended his passion for technology with an equal zeal for ideas. His travels in India and his fascination with Zen Buddhism would follow him throughout his career.
He was especially good at repurposing spiritual concepts to business scenarios. Famously basing the minimalist design of Apple products on Zen principles. Jobs was equally enthusiastic about mind-altering drugs, widely quoted as having said that he regarded taking LSD as “one of the two or three most important things” he had ever done.
But in his own unique way, Jobs moulded the ideas he studied. Enlightenment was no longer achieved through letting go of attachment to the world. Of seeing beyond its veneer. Instead, Enlightenment was to be complete mastery of self- and active engagement with the universe. To not see beyond this plane- but to perfectly express oneself within it.
“I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.”
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. “
“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”
Work and personal achievement were the forces to focus on. With our “Enlightenments” being hyper-specific to each of us. Unlocked through the successful completion of our ambitions. We need to be generative, we need to “love what we do”. That’s the path. It’s why the letter “i” became Apple’s signature style. “i” for intelligence, “i” for individual and “i” for I.
In his famous Stanford commencement address Jobs shows the second half of the Janus-face. As much as he drew inspiration from adventure and discovery, he was equally powered by the presence, and knowledge, of death.
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share.”
“No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.”
You have to chase what you love, while constantly running from what can destroy you. Jobs’ Stanford Commencement speech has been referenced countless times- and is seen as an ur-text for the aspiring entrepreneur. Imagine there’s no heaven, above us only sky. Our only option is to achieve all that we can on the earth: and then face oblivion.
Jobs, like many of his generation, was deeply touched by the Beatles. Both for their creative perfectionism and eye-popping business success. His goal was for Apple to become as famous, deeply invested in and loved as the Fab Four. John Lennon especially, the brooding, idealistic soul of the Beatles struck a chord with Jobs. Both having grown up in working-class households, both of immigrant parentage. The two men even held a striking physical resemblance, tall and thin with aquiline noses. Armed with vision and flair, but abrasive personalities. Jobs even adopted similar circular glasses to John.
Lennon’s afflicted personal life and his poor treatment of his family, especially his son Julian, contrasted against his vaulting ambitions of peace and love. Likewise, Jobs with his desire to help humanity ascend was by all accounts a bully and a dictator in his personal and professional life. Showing a similar callous treatment of his first wife and child.
The struggle to square this circle is a difficult one, one that asks how much we should blend our outer and inner worlds. Lennon’s music was integral to an entire generation, and his cut-short life and idealism remain potent. Jobs succeeded in his goal of fundamentally transforming, and birthing, a new kind of system. Yet the pain they caused is also real. Whether this represents the “price of greatness”, or hints at the lackluster nature of their supposed New World remains undecided. Perhaps instead of fundamentally changing our humanity, The Beatles and Apple have simply mixed different shades into our existing flaws. And the personal lives of their architects reflect this.
They stretched a new skin over the same rusted wire frame. The distant Victorian father, in baggy pyjamas and long hair. Always away at work. Or the angry executive dad in a black polo and jeans. Denying he’s even the father.
Perhaps the most enduring image of Jobs is him standing on stage at Macworld San Francisco on January 9th 2007.
Dressed in his trademark uniform, shaven head and circular glasses. Jobs rests alone on the stage, about to announce the iPhone I. He’s more casual than you might expect. More University lecturer than Napoleon. He flubs a few lines, takes swigs of water and reads a script full of joke. But the technology that Jobs unveiled that day would be his final testament to the world. The unification of the man-machine meld.
As the audience ripples with excitement Jobs summons, “an iPod”, “a phone” and finally “a ground-breaking internet communicator” before chimer-ing them into the form of ‘iPhone’. The crowd goes absolutely wild. The reaction the audience elicits whenever Jobs mentions the word “phone” makes the event seem like prophecy being fulfilled. Of course, Apple are now putting all of their strengths together into the phone market. ‘We’ve waited for this day!’
The most important moment of the speech comes when Jobs discusses the limitations faced by the competition. A parade of stodgy- ugly looking phone keyboards and put into a police lineup. As Jobs mocks them for being confusingly hard to use, even for simple tasks. This leads into a visual gag where the rotary select of an old fashioned phone- and the circular control of the iPod are merged into a horrible looking jumble. This was a blend which Jobs was desperate to avoid during the design of the iPhone. No matter how the iPhone turned out, it absolutely could not have a retro rotary dial.
The solution then. One blank screen. A phone with no buttons. A phone whose controls can be endlessly repurposed and mixed at the whim of the creator. A piece of technology, connected to the internet- running Mac OS X. Not a tool to be used for a single task, but a canvas to be painted upon. The App-store was Jobs throwing the keys to his audience, challenging them to create for him and for themselves. So futuristic was the idea that it even shipped prepared for ideas and technologies yet far in the future. Nothing was off-limits.
Smartphones, the singular object of our age, have struggled to meaningfully iterate on the iPhone. While phones have been made, bigger, smaller, faster, stronger, they are still essentially the same design and concept that was lit up on that stage in 2007. We are now online every minute of every day. The internet is like air, and our smartphones are how we breathe it. Individuals connected to each other through technology, forever.
Steve Jobs died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 56 years old. One of the most famous men on the planet, having achieved everything he ever set out to do.
The true legacy of Steve Jobs is not found in his philosophy, or his business acumen, but in the tools he created. A torch to pass on to future generations. In the hope that they can make better sense of the world than we can.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something.”
Far Side Virtual 5: Sipping from the poisoned chalice of Vaporwave’s best-known album
Floral Shoppe has always been a catch-22 for Vaporwave. The album that defined the aesthetic of Vaporwave more than any other, is also the genre’s biggest joke. So successful was Macintosh Plus in arresting the style’s look and sound that Shoppe‘s form constricts and inspires in equal measure. As a consequence of this, it can be surprisingly difficult to voice sincere approval or interest in the album, without being met by a sea of raised eyebrows. Yes, of course the album is important, we think. But it just seems so gauche, so embarrassing, to bring up in public. Vaporwave polite society has moved on.
It’s a sad fate for an album which has earned its place in the Vaporwave hall of fame several times over. Arguably the album which brought more new converts to the style than any other. Eccojams may have written the blueprint, Birth of a New Day might have perfected it, but Floral Shoppe codified it. It took its forbear’s sketches and painted pictures. Gave rough ideas form and substance. Turning the genre’s grimy early stylings into something fun, that could be shared, spread, and memed.
Even this positive description highlights why the album is so controversial. It took the genre away from the purists and into the hands of the general public. And what the public chose to do with it wasn’t always artistic. It was rarely even tasteful. The expertly warped リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピューbecame the genre’s iconic song, and a punchline for the supposedly vapid, ironic limits of Vaporwave. Its Helios statue, pastel pink colour and New York Skyline have been warped and morphed a thousand times over. Doge, Seinfeld, MC Ride, even your own face. From playful homage to brutal parody, nothing was, and is, off limits.
In the midst of this chaos, the mixed feelings many hardcore Vaporwave fans have for the album can be understandable. While this plethora of jokes may amuse, it’s unclear what exactly is being constructed from them. Other than the internet’s love of culture jamming for jamming’s sake. Memes are supposed to be absurd, and the more irreverent or abstract the combination, the better.
To be fair, it might be possible to construct a very turgid thesis about how “Vaporwave never really existed and so people just throwing whatever together using its style is actually what the genre is supposed to be about.” But it just seems like people playing with, and re-purposing recognisable, exploitable images. Regardless of their context or origins. It could just as easily be a Kanye West or a Swans album being used. Whatever gets a laugh. Yet regardless of intent, the damage is still being done; and still eating away at the image of the genre. As someone who actively resents the “Vaporwave was always ironic, it doesn’t mean anything” shibboleth. I can understand the appeal of wanting to jettison the album that contributed most to that canard.
Yet I also don’t buy that a fanbase can ruin a work of art. That the quality of an album is somehow tied to the savviness of its fans. Or that, if an album is used in a naff way, we should put it back on the shelf – embarrassed that we ever took it out. If we waft away the heat and smoke surrounding it, Floral Shoppe is still an expertly produced, high-quality album. The artistic vision Vektroid displays on it are jaw-dropping. Managing to create something totemic, and justifying all of the hype. Has the ubiquity of Floral Shoppe’s pretenders restricted what Vaporwave could be? Maybe. Did it demarcate the genre’s limits too early? Perhaps. Yet without the album, and without Vaporwave’s boom in popularity from it, the very institutions the genre now boasts would be lacking.
From the subreddits and YouTubes to the record labels and album clubs. The genre needs passionate people. It needs punters to fund record pressings, live shows, beer and t-shirts. All of which usually sell to the most niche, committed elements of the scene. For sure, most meme-spammers are unlikely to part with their dollars in this way. But of the millions of people, Floral Shoppe has touched – maybe 0.05% will. Maybe they’ll dive deep into Bandcamp, maybe they’ll pick up FL Studio. And that’s a lot more people than the genre could hook in through being a shifty, slightly miserable, nerd fad. Even if it’s awkward, even if it’s a contradiction. Floral Shoppe did right by us.