Chrome Canyon on Retro-Futurism and the Nerdiness of Analog Synths

Categories: Hey, DJ!, Q&A

Chrome Canyon.jpg
Noah Kalina
After trading in his keyboard as member of now-defunct New York cult band Apes & Androids, Morgan Z, aka Chrome Canyon, has spent the past couple of years creating music fit for a sci-fi disco party. Using a mix of rare analog synths like the Korg PE-1000 and Theremin, and inspired by dystopian daydreams, his original productions could very well be the B-sides to the Tron soundtrack, or the score of a Lars von Trier film. We recently spoke with Chrome Canyon about his days as a classically trained pianist, movie soundtracks, and his recent signing to Stones Throw Records. He headlines Mezzanine this Friday with support from Peanut Butter Wolf, Jonas Reinhardt, and Shock.

How has being a classically trained pianist helped your endeavors in Apes & Androids and Chrome Canyon?
The classical training has served my interests well, because I like music that is complex and full and has various sections and emotions running through. I think that knowing about music theory and technique has allowed me to create some of the more intricate parts of my tracks. But it's a constant battle between using the theory to support ideas, but also trying things that ignore the traditional logic of harmony and counterpoint. I find some of the more interesting things I've composed are actually mistakes that don't make sense in a "classical" sense.

Are there any same production habits you keep from Apes & Androids to Chrome Canyon?
I didn't write any of the Apes & Androids material, save for a keyboard solo here or there -- but there are definitely mixing cues that I take from that record. I think we were all on the same page with the fullness and body of the record, although I think obviously my tracks have a different feel. I learned a lot from being in that band though, and I think things definitely shine through that are carried over.

Moving onto Chrome Canyon, is it strange that what would have been considered "nerdy" music back then is now considered cool-kid music, like music made by analog synths?
Analog synths are having a huge surge in popularity right now -- and I think people are discovering just how powerful they are as sound creation devices. Personally I love them, because they naturally have imperfections that make them sound full and big -- in the same way an orchestra sounds full because every instrument is slightly out of tune and just a hair off-timing. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say people think my music is "cool kids" music -- I think a lot of people still take it to be nerdy, and maybe a joke -- so in some ways that stigma still exists. But I do think that a lot of the interest in synth music comes from people, like me, who grew up listening to it on soundtracks and whatnot, and genuinely think it's interesting and beautiful music.

It's seems like your music is inspired by the '80s but is labeled as futuristic. Where do you think you fall in that spectrum?
People refer to me a lot as a retro-futurist, which I don't really mind -- I like the idea of revisiting our ideas of what the future would be like, the utopian and dystopian dreams, the technology that never came to fruition, etc. I think in some ways we don't realize just how crazy it is that 100 years ago we didn't even have highways, or planes, or antibiotics. In one lifespan we've come so far -- I think it's just fascinating to imagine what a hundred years from now will look like, or a thousand. Those questions seemed to be a fundamental part of synthesizer music -- and may very well have been the reason people thought of it as nerdy. But I love that kind of of human inquiry and that's probably why I'm so influenced by that type of music.

Speaking of which, what's your favorite piece of equipment to work with lately?
You brought up the '80s, and a lot of what I use are synths from the '80s. But I also have some older ones, for instance the Korg PE-1000, which is all over my record. That keyboard is an absolute favorite of mine, and was produced mid-'70s. I also have an old Boss pitch-shifting digital delay box that I've been using like crazy lately. There's tons of character in it.

What's been the best part of having the Stones Throw label behind your music?
It's a badge of honor being on such a well-respected label. It's completely humbling for me. I don't feel worthy ... they can open so many doors because of who they are, and that's something that has been invaluable. I just played Bowery Ballroom here in N.Y. with Geoff Barrow -- Peanut Butter Wolf introduced us. It was magical; he's an incredible guy and I've admired his music for so long. Something like that is just awesome, and wouldn't happen without Stones Throw.

Because all your accompanying music videos seem to be mini-movies, how inspired is your music by cinema?
Very inspired. I don't consider myself a movie buff, and don't actually go to the movies as much as you might think. But I'm an instantly visual person, and more over, I have a natural knack for narrative; just something I was born with. I think soundtracks have been so inspiring to me because I connect them to visual memories, and they become these all powerful forces of sensory stimulation. I want my music to connect you to an experience -- and even though there are no vocals, I want there to be emotion. For me videos are an opportunity to create those strong visuals. Hence why I edit a lot of my own videos and really participate in shooting them as well.

What's a movie you wish you composed music for?
I have to say I was not that impressed with the new Tron soundtrack. I'm a huge Daft Punk fan -- but I have a hunch Disney didn't let them go all the way with that, and I just thought it was way too watered-down. But I'd go a step farther and say I wish I just got to do that entire movie over, because -- well, it sucked.

What's the story behind your newest video for "Generations"? Can you walk us through the story a bit?
The story was written and directed by Ace Norton, and I think the general idea was that couple that you see (it's ambiguous as to their relationship) is in a serious crisis. I imagined this was post-dance performance (the girl is a dancer) -- and something has happened, perhaps the man is her teacher and was disappointed with her, maybe he fired her from the company. Maybe he's her lover and missed the show. Whatever it is, they are both at some breaking point in their respective lives, and their relationship. This is a vignette of that moment. The girl who stars is a good friend, and actually is a professional dancer who dances for L.A Dance Project (Benjamin Millepied's group). She said she could really identify with the character -- I think because of the stress you get put under in that world, where your body becomes this object and tool, means your actual feelings are suppressed and a lot of times go unacknowledged. It's a tough line of work, but I have to say, she is stunning in both the video and her performances.

You're also very prolific at remixes, with the latest being a creative take for Tame Impala. What inspired this remix?
I was sitting around bored one day, and just wanted to experiment. That song was floating around in my head, cause let's face it, it's been in everyone's head. So I just grabbed it, started to mess with it (just a stereo file, mind you -- I don't really consider this a remix) and put it up on SoundCloud just as a little nothing track. Next thing I know it just spread.Glad people like it!

What's next for you in this coming year?
Well, I'll have my first ever show in S.F. this weekend! And then L.A. Really looking forward to being on the West Coast. I'll be in Europe in March doing some DJ stuff. After that I'm going to start working on my new record, which God knows what the hell that's going to sound like (laughs). But we have this amazing remix album we're releasing of tracks from my last record. It's got some incredible people on it, like Mike Simonetti, Gavin Russom, Peaking Lights, Tomas Barfod, and so many others. Really can't wait for that to get out to people.

Will Apes & Androids ever resurrect?
Sorry to say -- no, it's very unlikely. But that makes it all the more special, right?

-- @ChrisxtinaLi



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