Swedish producer Robert Parker is at the forefront of the electronic sub-genre synthwave, or outrun, retrowave and futuresynth as it's also known. The style emerged about a decade ago, but it finds its origins in the sounds of 1980s films, videogames and cartoons, with tracks typically instrumental with cliché elements of the past such as gated reverb, analog synthesiser sounds and electronic drums enhanced by modern production techniques. After being popularized by the 2011 film Drive and French producer Kavinsky, synthwave has began to make its way into the mainstream.
Parker’s tracks are mesmerising, danceable and perfect for an all-around good time, and his latest album Crystal City feels like it just might be an all killer, no filler kind of affair, and his growing popularity has led to him more than doubling his number of performances from last year.
With Parker set to drop his new album Awakening this February, just in time for his first live shows in China, we talked to him about how he got involved in producing synthwave, how he defines the genre and his double life as a doctor.
How did you get started making music?
I started taking piano lessons when I was six years old so, to begin with, I was basically a classically trained pianist. When I was a teenager I started making tracker music on the computer [also known as Mod music]. It wasn’t anything serious – just some techno stuff, sampling and noise. There was also a hiatus for a few years when I was studying, and then I got my hands on a good computer and got back at it again.
That was maybe seven years ago now. I've made music for maybe 20 years, but started to take it more seriously, well, seven years ago. I bought a few analog synths and really got into this passion for hardware for a while; I went out and bought all these old 80’s analog synths. The sound of them sort of leads you into that 80’s sound palette, so that’s when I started trying out my current style.
What did you study during your hiatus?
Right now, when I am not doing music I work as a doctor. I am a general practitioner – I went to med school [laughs]! I tried out a lot of things, but that is where I ended up.
So you’re a doctor by day and a synthwave master by night. That’s awesome. In a sentence how would you describe synthwave?
That’s a good question [laughs]. Synthwave is nostalgia with selective memory loss; you pick the cherries out of what exists and make it something new. Most people who categorise their music as synthwave don’t really try to imitate the sounds 100 per cent, but rather take out some of the essential parts and put it in a modern context.
If you could make a living doing music full-time would you stop being a doctor?
I already work part-time in order to have time for my music. I am a realist. I know most styles and genres go in cycles, so if the demand was big for a short while I could imagine just doing music for a time. Maybe not for my entire life, but I could definitely do it for a few years.
Do you feel limited by what fits into the synthwave genre when you make songs?
There is a lot of creativity in limitations. When I started out with synthesizers, I wasn’t really familiar with the genre. I experimented a lot blending orchestral music with the hardware synthesiser stuff and started to get more of a flow going. It might be contradictory to say it like this, but there is a lot of interesting creative freedom to be found when your options are more limited. You are forced to express yourself within limitations and that is more challenging and much more interesting than having everything available.
Do you have any plans to branch out or develop the sound in anyway?
I guess so. I have tried to do something a bit different with every release. Two years ago, I was very into this very cheesy American catalogue music from the 80’s – the sort of the background music you would hear when they are doing a show about car racing or catalogue music for advertisements, that pastiche sort of sound.
To me, it was very fresh. It was used way too much in the 80’s and I picked that up in an album I called Monotalks. It was the background music you would hear for a commercial you would hear for placing money in a fund [laughs]. Finding the microcosm in different decades and trying to apply them to my style.
So is the 80’s fashion a necessary part of the genre? Do you always dress 80’s or just for photo shoots?
[Laughs] Yeah, there is a lot of imagery that is coupled to the genre, but synthwave is still a very vibrant and growing thing. People are still defining it, but for me it was mostly some specific sounds that felt very fresh. Like in the 90’s and during the French house era, which I like very much, there was a more minimalist approach to sampling, looping and adding some very dry drum sounds.
It sounds very tight and very nice, but in the 80’s people were still discovering a lot of new techniques that weren’t available in the 70’s. It was much easier to add electronic effects. You want to throw some reverb on all the drums and you can easily go 'Yeah, let’s do it! Let’s go crazy!'. It was the dawn of modern digital production and lot of the things that were looked back at as mistakes in the 90’s are now staple sounds of the 80’s. They stand out so much in a mix.
Do you have a favourite tool you use in most of your productions?
I have a Moog Prodigy that I use a lot. It is a very stable synth you can sort of sculpt a sound that you like very fast. That is my favourite hardware synthesiser, so I use it a lot. I have a few favourite drums as well; I use my TR707 basically all the time both in recordings and live. I bring it to every live show – I just played with it in Berlin. It has very cheesy sounds, but it is very effective.
What does your live set up consist of?
I have done it in different ways. When I play in Sweden, I bring a lot of my stuff, but when I travel and have to go by plane I bring just three hardware synthesisers, two drum machines and a mixer. I mix on my computer with parts of my songs. When I play live I try to make something different and new. I add new elements and redo the tracks a bit live.
You probably don’t listen to synthwave all the time. Is there a genre you listen to the most?
Yeah, not really [laughs]. I listen mostly to the early French house era and artists like Casious Fred Falke, Buzy P and Daft Punk. That’s my go to inspirational music I love it so much. It’s something I will never get tired of.
Any new projects coming up?
I have a lot of interesting things coming up. A few things are still not official, but I can tell you I have been working a lot with Waveshaper – another Swedish musician – who is joining me in Shanghai. We will be doing a joint show. We are re-releasing our vinyls – we had no idea they were going to sell so fast! We see they are being solid for 150 dollars online, so we realised there was a demand for them. They weren’t to make money, we just wanted to break even. We did it because people wanted vinyl, but because of the demand we are going to repress it.
We also have a few new songs with some big and well-known electronic artists, but I can’t tell you the names yet! It may be announced in a month or so. It will be something very special actually, it's quite a big release. I am probably going to record a music video this spring with a filmmaker back in Stockholm and release it possibly before summer. I guess it sort of depends on my schedule.