Why Indie Rock Fifty-Somethings Are Going Synthpop

Decades into their careers, rock 'n' roll journeymen from seminal bands like Guided By Voices and Pavement are discovering the subversive joys of making electronic music.

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26 March 2019, 9:25am

Image via YouTube

Listening to Groove Denied, Stephen Malkmus’ first full-length solo effort since 2001, one might think Spotify screwed up. The icy electronic blips and busted-up breakbeats of album opener “Belziger Faceplant,” coupled with his awkward, digitized croon, sounds worlds away from the indie rocker’s beloved work with Pavement or The Jicks. “I’ve decided that is my ‘Sicko Mode,’” he says of the song’s three-part structure during a phone interview. “My daughters are always fuckin’ playing ‘Sicko Mode.’”

Beyond the retrofuturist veneer of cuts like “Forget Your Place” and lead single “Viktor Borgia,” this is Malkmus alright, earnestly if nonchalantly embracing a lo-fi aesthetic using electronic gear instead of well-worn guitars. Written and recorded over the course of the last two years, Groove Denied is the product an updated basement studio setup, with the addition of instruments Malkmus already owned, including a Memorymoog polyphonic keyboard from the mid-1980s.

“I needed that instrument – otherwise it would just sound too much like a lot of Bandcamp synth music,” Malkmus says of the Memorymoog. “I thought I needed some sort of legitimacy in the instrument, where it was kinda weird.”

With Groove Denied’s release on longtime label Matador Records this month, the 52-year-old Malkmus joins a curious emerging subset of rockers in his age group approaching electronic music for the first time—and with the benefit of lived-in hindsight. Rather than mimic the likes of deadmau5 or Diplo in some post-EDM embarrassment, they’re looking back at the synthesizer-based pop experiments of the 1970s and 1980s, a period in music they lived through but didn’t participate in. As seminal synth-driven acts Erasure, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys continue to make new music or tour on the strength of their discographies, late entrants like Malkmus, Husker Du’s Bob Mould, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo are reaching for these electronic sounds later in life, revealing interests and influences fans may have been unaware of.

“On this new record, some of this stuff I can not call bullshit on, because it reminds me of these things that I liked then,” Malkmus says, citing pioneering acts of the late 1970s and early 1980s like SPK and Throbbing Gristle along with their poppier Factory Records successors, like A Certain Ratio and Section 25.

That nostalgia for the synthpop music of the past is something Malkmus shares with John Petkovic, an enduring if maddeningly underestimated rock frontman just a few years his senior with a resume that shines from his days fronting 1980s Homestead Records post-punkers Death Of Samantha onward. “The people I came up with, their favorite band was the Ramones,” he says over the phone. “Mine was Suicide.” Both projects emerged in New York City’s scuzzy 1970s downtown scene, the former as cartoonishly brash progenitors of punk rock, the latter as an inscrutable duo mixing late-night rockabilly with uncompromising noise. “I wished I could be in a band like Suicide, but you can’t, because they own what they do.”

A Cleveland mainstay who went on to play in Cobra Verde and Guided By Voices in the 1990s, Petkovic has dedicated himself to indie rock for over thirty years now, notably joining Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis in power-pop combo Sweet Apple in 2008 and, more recently, The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney in garage rock tinkerers Sad Planets, who will release their debut album next month. Yet, in spite of his extensive guitar-driven discography, the seasoned frontman says he’s been gravitating to electronic music of late – specifically, with Metrolight, a synthpop duo he formed last year with former Death Of Samantha bassist David James.

“He wanted to go to gay clubs and listen to Erasure and OMD,” he says sympathetically of his bandmate, who departed Death of Samantha in 1987, and is openly gay. “He quit the band because he found the whole thing boring.” Guitar rock’s heteronormative bias and rejection of electronic dance forms like disco and synthpop, which historically were more inclusive scenes, had a polarising effect on music. “Disco was seen as not as serious, because it was seen as gay and multi-racial,” Petkovic says, cognisant of the irony of that observation, considering the ways in which people of colour and members of the LGBTQ community shaped rock music, historically.

Chiming in via text message during our phone conversation, James adds: “I think both blacks and the gays both embraced ‘futurist’ aesthetics because the ‘good old days’ weren’t so good.”

The ex-bandmates remained friends over the years, and when James eventually approached him with some electronic instrumentals he’d been working on, the tracks appealed to Petkovic’s longtime reverence for bands like Human League and Soft Cell, new wave pop acts that had already made a name for themselves by the time he was first provoking audiences with Death Of Samantha. “There was this period in like 1983 or ‘84 when you couldn’t hear a guitar on the radio,” Petkovic recalls.

The bones of these new tunes reminded him of what he loved about those groups back in the day: the beating human hearts of the creators conjuring the whirrs and bleeps of machines. “There was a period where indie rock saw these things as too fake,” he says of the inorganic sounds emitted by old synths and drum machines. “I prefer artifice over authenticity anyway.” Still, Petkovic credits James for opening up a new avenue for him creatively. “I don’t think I could do it if he was just a guy I’d played in a band with and didn’t bring some other cultural information to the table.”

For now, apart from live shows in Cleveland and a handful of online teaser videos, much of Metrolight’s sound remains under wraps as the duo shops its completed album to labels. Having been made privy to ten unmastered tracks, I’ll just say it’s clear that the pair put the emphasis on the pop, as evidenced by the publicly previewed “Beautiful Prisons” and “Strangeland.” From James’ warm programming, to Petkovic’s emotional vocals, there’s a catchy tunefulness and a comforting weird streak to the material, qualities that evoke their influences without coming off as pure homage.

“The new adaptations of synthpop tend to adopt not only the sound but also the look, as a retro kind of thing,” Petkovic says, referring to contemporary practitioners who weren’t alive in the genre’s heyday. “The vocal approaches are often mechanical.” By contrast, he cites Buzzcocks co-founder Pete Shelley’s 1981 solo effort Homosapien and its popular title track as vital to his Metrolight vocal style, linking that record’s Beatles-esque pop sensibility with that of Human League. “A lot of their songs had 60s Motown quality hooks and cadences.”

The dangers of misinterpreting the spirit of synthpop during its commercial peak in the mid-80s proved informative for Malkmus, who says the idea for Groove Denied first took seed during the making of the 2014 Jicks outing Wig Out At Jagbags. “I made a couple of these other [songs] that were similar to [“Viktor Borgia”],” Malkmus says, adding that he even considered including that material on Wig Out. “But it kinda sounded more like Ariel Pink in the end, like this pawnshop synth music.” Unsure of how to proceed, he left the tracks unfinished, though fans of last year’s Sparkle Hard album with the Jicks may have noticed Malkmus’ Memorymoog and longtime member Mike Clark’s Roland JUNO synth in the mix, subtly heralding the arrival of the new solo project and its more overt electronic presence.

Though it utilises some of the same techniques and equipment, Groove Denied has a colder veneer than Metrolight's songs; Malkmus says he sees this industrial aesthetic as being closer to his catalog than some might give him credit for. “You think it’s just all about class misery and factories, even some sort of situationist/surrealist thing,” he says of his 1980s influences. “It’s kind of stoner music that you don’t realise it is.”

Malkmus expresses admiration for his 1990s and 2000s electronic contemporaries, such as the artists on German powerhouse techno imprint Kompakt and Warp Records’ acts like Boards Of Canada and Squarepusher, some of whom released records stateside via Matador back when Pavement did. Still, he chose not to borrow from or otherwise try and build on their accomplishments. “It’s hard to take an influence that totally concurrent to you and make it sing, sometimes,” he says. “It’s hard to go all in on it when it’s easier to go all in on some things that you connected to in a slightly more naive way when you were first a fan.”

Indeed, that youthful awe is palpable throughout Groove Denied’ and Metrolight’s forthcoming album, present in the dreamlike wooziness of the synth melody on “Viktor Borgia” and the glitterball arpeggios of “Beautiful Prisons.” With this music, they're opening themselves up a whole new world of sounds, one they'd missed out on while operating in a not-so-distant musical parallel.

There’s an argument to be made for labelling Malkmus and Petkovic interlopers – especially after decades spent working within an idiom loaded up with ultra-masculine white stereotypes. But another way of looking at it is that they’re returning to the sounds that made them the musicians they are today.

“It’s not like I was picking up an acoustic guitar to sing heartfelt songs and then suddenly decided to do this stuff,” Petkovic says, reiterating his longstanding love for electronic music. “There’s enough leeway here.”

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.