Photo by Danielle Neilio Photography
After a string of successful online singles, New Jersey synthwave band Retroglyphs released their self-titled debut album in May of last year. In making the record, the founding producer duo of Frank Cervantes and Josh Dowiak teamed up with drummer Joshua Holland and keyboard player Matthew Wood.
The record blends 80s synth pop sounds with the benefit of hindsight and contemporary alternative influence. That mix is on full display on “Wild Road,” where punchy electronic drums and twinkling synth flourishes are accented by rhythmic acoustic guitar strumming. On the verses, Cervantes is a dead ringer for Chris Martin and the rougher, reverb-soaked voices of 2000s alt-pop.
On the tracks that come after, the band explores a wider range of synth possibilities. Take, for example, the panpipe melodies and darker ambience of “No Glory in The Fall,” or the bouncy string-plucked textures of “Impostor” (side question: is that live saxophone behind it?). The full band arrangements, including live guitar and bass, evoke the sonic depth of Eurythmics and other new wave forebearers.
As Retroglyphs prepares to keep making big moves in 2018, singer-guitarist Frank Cervantes spoke with The All Scene Eye about the online retrowave network and the real-world road ahead.
How’s your 2018 so far?
Great. It started with Retroglyphs playing at Mercury Lounge, which was months in the making. Being relatively close to New York and Philadelphia–New York’s not really a hub for synthwave like you think it would be, but there’s an industry there. Philadelphia does have a great music scene, but there’s a lack of resources. Hopefully if we can make New York more of a consistent destination, it’ll give us opportunities to showcase for people in the industry who might be able to further our career.
I’m just starting to dip my toes into synthwave, but it seems like more of a social-media-based scene than a physical network.
Right, but one of the major benefits of that is that people within the scene are very friendly. I’ve been surprised at the kind of artists who have responded to our outreach, which you just don’t get with indie rock. Artists like Robert Parker, Diamond Field, even The Midnight, replying to emails of their fans. It’s unheard of. I look at those guys as major players in synthwave, and there’s quite a few guys we reached out to who got back to us.
Not only that, but they verified they listened to our music, cited references and songs, and had us on playlists. It’s pretty amazing how fast that grew. We’ve gotten some good press and social media shout outs, but we’re coming into this from a place where we were relatively unfamiliar with the scene when we launched the band. And we’ve sourced fans who have come to see us in other cities from soundcloud.
Can you tell me how Retroglyphs got started?
Josh Dowiak and I were in The Once Was, an indie rock band that’s been around for a while in the Philly scene. We moved on from that, and we’re fully focused on Retroglyphs at this point. We were actually working on demos for The Once Was using drum machines, and we had a collection of songs we thought were very 80s inspired. We thought, “how cool would it be if we went all 80s rather than try to get away from it? What if we created a side project that was totally dedicated to this kind of music?”
What we didn’t know at the time was that thousands of people were already doing that, and that there was a huge scene for it online. This was a couple years ago, and we’re relatively established here in Philly, so we knew there were going to be opportunities for us to play in Philadelphia, and for us to get some good exposure. We were thinking about a band name, and we thought, “well, it’s a combination of new wave and a retro sound,” and we thought, “let’s call it Retrowave.” And we googled it to see if there were any other bands called Retrowave, and we landed smack on the NewRetroWave website and discovered dozens of acts.
I immediately became obsessed, because I’m an 80s kid, and I’m a huge fan of not only new wave, but 80s pop, darkwave, and especially 80s soundtracks. So, we’re discovering all these bands, like FM-84, Foret de Vin, Sebastian Gampl, and The Midnight, but our album was pretty much done already. All the demos had been done, and most of the songwriting was finished.
When we were ready to drop our first release, we saw you can submit your music on NewRetroWave, and we submitted “The Noose.” They accepted it and put it on their “We Rule Nation” page, and we were like, “I guess we’re being accepted as one of these acts.” That was exciting, and it was a huge launch point.
Creatively, you always want to be true to yourself. You don’t want to change things based on pressure. But we have gotten some comments like, “you guys have an 80s inspired sound but you’re not real retrowave, you’re still dabbling in indie rock.” I would say I think a lot of retrowave acts are dabbling in electronic music. So I would say that’s unfair.
A lot of those acts are maybe leaning more towards the contemporary EDM scene.
Right, because there’s a lot of that, and I respect that too. But you can recognize when it’s coming from an 80s inspired place, and I think we do that naturally. But also, we do a lot less four-on-the-floor than you hear in EDM-centric acts.
Before the interview you mentioned you’ve been compared to early Arcade Fire, and I’m interested in the way contemporary stuff influences your sound.
I think it’s relative to the fact that a lot of acts like Arcade Fire are also influenced by the Talking Heads, David Bowie, and these acts that influenced the sound of the 80s too. Part of it might be my vocal delivery. I’m an unconventional singer; I’m more stylistic. I don’t have the natural talent. I’m a songwriter, and I write to my voice, but if I tried out for the choir, I’m not going to be first chair, you know? I’m not a soloist from that perspective. I would say Win Butler from Arcade Fire, he’s got a pretty rough voice, and I think that’s where the comparison comes from.
I’m not saying I’m not a fan of Arcade Fire; I am. I wouldn’t cite them as an influence for this project, though. I love The Suburbs and Neon Bible. I love the first album too. Me and Josh, we’re music lovers. Music nuts, in a way. I’m always craving new music, which is also why it was so exciting to discover all these synthwave acts I hadn’t heard of. Obviously, there’s some that are more mainstream I had heard of, but for the most part, they’re underground.
I was really curious about the making of the album more technically. What kind of equipment did you use? What kind of synths and drum machines were at play?
Josh has an authentic Moog from the 80s, but I don’t know what model it is exactly. We have a Korg synthesizer, and we have a good amount of patches. Joshua Holland has a drum pad that he actually plays with sticks. When we play live, so far we’ve mostly been playing with a drum kit. All the guitar and bass sounds are natural. I play a Lone Star Strat with two humbuckers and a Mesa Boogie Lone Star amp, and I’m very proud of my guitar tone.
One moment that stands out to me on this record is the transition out of “Transformation” into “War Torn.” The guitar picking is really something.
I think that’s definitely something I noticed right away we could bring to the scene that there wasn’t a lot of. I do play a lot of the keyboard parts too, but I’m a big fan of Tears for Fears, the Cure, New Order, Talking Heads, and Joy Division. I love how they use the guitar, especially in synth-based music, when the guitar has more space to be used for color, not so much like in alternative music where it’s the backbone of the song. I’m having a lot of fun with that.
The acoustic guitar tones are natural too. I have a Martin acoustic. Josh uses a few different basses on the record. He does use some synth bass on the middle of “Impostor.”
There were definitely moments–maybe that’s the one I’m thinking of–where I thought I heard synth bass, or maybe I filled that in mentally because it sounds like it should be there based on the rest of the textures.
There’s a lot more synth bass on the record we’re working on right now. He uses it live on a song we’ve been playing called “Trust” that was finished, but didn’t make it onto the debut record. We’re working on about 10 tracks for the record we’re working on right now. We think 5 are definitely going to be on the record, and three of them have synth bass.
Where are you trying to take the sound for the follow-up album?
It’s definitely a mix of what we were doing with the last album, and I can think of at least two songs that still have the synthesizers, but the vibe is a little more indie rock. Other songs are very 80s-centric. We have one pop track with R2, she’s a singer from Austin, Texas. It’s somewhere between Madonna and the Talking Heads. It’s poppy, but it’s got a little call and response going on, and there’s even a snippet of an 80s-style rap verse.
We’re going to be all over the place with the next record, but that’s where it is right now. In a way, we’re diversifying our 80s influence. We’re going to be touching on everything with the new record. There’s a darkwave track that is very dissonant, but with vocals, and it’s got that darkwave feel that can also transcend into pop. And then there’s a pretty traditional retrowave pop song, so it’s a little of everything.
Speaking of vocalists, can you tell me about the spoken word vocal tracks on this album?
When we were working on the tracks, I kept hearing this dialogue. This music was like the soundtrack to a movie, and I wanted to show that’s where it was coming from. The idea that this was like a soundtrack to our lives was influencing the direction we were taking the songs. We didn’t want that to be lost on the listener, but it was also a creative idea that was totally genuine.
Once we did the first dialogue, we wanted it to be a theme throughout the album. Both me and Josh, we’re very into concept albums, and the idea of listening to a CD front to back. These days, with digital music and Spotify, people are so used to singles. A lot of the retrowave scene are bands that release singles. In our nature, we’re really into albums. We wanted to do something that tied together.
That’s where the band comes into play. After we created the album, we added Joshua Holland, who’s become a big part of the band. He’s our drummer, and he also runs our twitter account. We added Matthew Wood on keyboards, and we’ve also added Josh’s brother Jacob on keyboards. At this point, we’re playing with about nine synthesizers on stage, we’re doing it live. No backing tracks, unless we do a DJ show. Right now we’re doing it live, and that’s helped us build a fanbase. We’re getting a really good response in our hometown.
Who did those dialogue bits?
Well, I kind of want to–[laughs] friends of ours. They’re not paid actors. I don’t know if they want to be on the record.
They’re involved in various things, so it’s kind of–this is a little bit of mysticism we want to maintain, but they’re not done. They have more dialogue coming. I almost want to keep them anonymous because once you put a face on something, that’s who you see when you think of it.
At least, that’s my perception. It’s like, when you think of Batman now, you might think of Christian Bale. Once you cast Thor, that’s who you think Thor is in your head. I’m a big comic book fan, but I’m not a big comic book movie fan. I’ve been critical of the movies because I think a lot is lost in Hollywood.
In that case, I won’t ask you to divulge anyone’s secret identity.
[laughs] It’s not top-secret, but I don’t know how big we’re going to get, you know? I hope we make a mark. We’re talking to a lot of people, there are a lot of opportunities in our future. The hardest thing about being in a band is keeping it together.
Do you have a favorite concept album?
It’s gotta be Dark Side of the Moon. It’s not an 80s album, but that album’s just perfect front to back, and that’s why it’s lasted so long and been on the lips of listeners for so many years. The synthesizer work they were doing, how they were integrating into rock music, I think that’s a huge catalyst for the 80s. And because we’re music lovers, we get a lot of that, but something about that 80s pop sound–a lot of it is rooted in the drums–it’s something I just can’t get away from. I just want to hear it every time I make a song.
It seemed like in the 90s it was popular to discount the 80s. I think now people are realizing how much of a positive influence 80s music has, on the best stuff coming out right now, you know? You talked about Arcade Fire, but even with pop music, it’s funny to me that a lot of these retrowave acts are not more popular, considering it seems like pop music–these popular acts like Bruno Mars, Rhianna, etc.–are trying to make 80s-style music now. They seem to be striking a chord, and it’s like, you know there’s all these acts doing it better, right?
They’re not getting played on the radio, and it makes me wonder if, in a way, for some of these more popular acts, not ourselves included, if the association with an underground scene might actually be hurting their ability to branch into major markets. That being said, if I were them, I’d be pretty satisfied with the fact that I’m selling out all my shows in 10 minutes and playing the international scene, so I don’t know.
What’s interesting to me is the way all the hallmarks of that sound are more accessible now. You don’t need to have an 80s Moog synthesizer, you can download a pretty accurate recreation in a VST or a sample pack.
Right, and that’s interesting because I think that identifies the two kinds of synthwave fans. Gear-centric fans, they really want to hear certain gear. Then there are the fans who are more into the music and the style. With our band, I’m more of a music-head, and my partner Josh is more of a gear-head. We have a little of both worlds that I think serves us well. It makes for a really good partnership. I really look to him to bring sounds into my songwriting.
In a lot of ways, that becomes the sound of the song. That’s the partnership that’s working for us. We’re both getting something out of it that for both of us seems to be filling all of our musical needs right now.
Since you have more people involved in the live performance, has it changed your writing process? Or is it still mostly the two of you?
Joshua Holland wrote a song for our new record, and he actually sings it. He’s doing even more percussion on this record than the last one.
I’m all about collaboration. We’re not exclusive. We also work with Jay Mage, who’s a producer who does our mixing. Obviously that’s a big part of our sound. For our last record, we used Damokles, who’s an act out of Norway. He did the drums on “War Torn.”
There’s going to be a lot more collaboration. We have another track we did with Marcenby that we’re going to release, and all of our tracks on Soundcloud were remixed by various producers, including Jowie Schulner, UNITRA, and Hot Heels. We did a collaborative track with Shane Keizer, and that one already came out. We’re definitely expanding, but to me, that’s what the online community is all about. There’s a lot of that in the retrowave synthwave scene to begin with.
Mainly, it’s not that we don’t want the other guys involved in the record. My thing with music is, I’m only going to ask you to do as much as you want to do. We’re open to the other guys involved in the band, and that’s where the collaboration came in on the last record. When we incorporated the band into the music, that’s where the intros and the instrumentals came from. Those were segues we created for our live show.
Our record came out in May 2017, and we had dropped singles a year ago, October 2016. We were already getting a lot of attention online, and we had decided we wanted to try to play these songs live. In doing that, we formed the band. In working with the band, we were creating transitions for our live show, and that’s where the instrumentals came from. At that point, we had dialogues over parts of songs, and we transitioned that dialogue to be over the instrumental segues. That was kind of a collaboration that Joshua–the drummer–and Matt were involved in.
A lot of synthwave acts, they’re coming more from that EDM perspective, where there’s not a lot of bands or musical groups. For me, when you’re making a record, sometimes when you bring it into a rehearsal space and play with a band, you’ll hear parts of songs that you don’t hear in the studio. It’s a great way to generate new ideas.
Speaking from my own experience, If I play something a million times, I feel like I’ve exhausted everything I can do with it, and it’s not until I play it with other people that I start to see things I didn’t see before.
It’s true, and there’s so much of that in the 80s. The producers of the 80s are so valuable to the music that came out. When you hear things like how David A. Stewart from Eurythmics wrote and produced songs with Tom Petty, you would never think that. But that’s why we have “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and those drum sounds. There was a lot of collaboration in the 80s, or a lot of the stuff Rick James did, or a lot of the stuff that Nile Rodgers did with Michael Jackson and Madonna. Quincy Jones, you know? Bringing this musicality to pop music that, to me, is why I love the 80s so much.
Songs like “Borderline” from Madonna, yeah, it’s a pop song, but the instrumentation and the musicality is really intense. Or a lot of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The fact that Stevie Ray Vaughn and Randy Rhoads played with Michael Jackson. The instrumentation, I mean, these are legends. The 80s are full of these collaborations, kind of like the 60s. A lot of these players with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, guys like Billy Preston or Jeff Beck. These guys are the innovators, too. That’s not what you think of when you think of the 80s. You think of the artist, but there’s a lot of people behind those sounds. I think now it’s starting to get the respect it deserves.
There’s other artists that we’re very influenced by, like the Talking Heads, who you don’t typically think of as a new wave band, but they’re part of that CBGB’s thing too. One of our songs on the new record, I would say, is very Blondie/Talking Heads. Their 80s stuff.
I’m excited to release new music, but we do value this record, and we’re still promoting and pushing it. We’re not done promoting this record. We’re not at the point yet where we’re just talking about what’s next. We’re still excited about our debut.
Do you have any musical New Year’s resolutions for 2018?
I want to try to play a city we’ve never played. That’s a pretty soft resolution, but Josh and I have talked about wanting to explore new cities and new markets, maybe get out of our comfort zone a little. Retroglyphs has already played New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Philly, and DC, so we’re hoping to expand. I don’t want to say any one city in particular. We’ve thought of a few at the top of our list, like Austin, Denver, LA, San Francisco, Boston, you know. We’re trying to look for good opportunities. We’re talking to people in pretty much all of those cities about doing shows.
We’re just hoping everything lines up and we’re able to get out and do something. God be willing, it is a resolution, so it has to happen, right?