Today we shine the spotlight on Rick Shithouse, who caught our attention when he launched Synthetix.FM, a blog that covers 80s-inspired Synth Wave, OutRun and Dream Wave synth music. Not to mention, Rick is a photographer, a writer, a sculptor, a garage kit builder, a curator of collections, and an 80s design enthusiast. For Rick Shithouse, the true magic of the 1980s can be found in offbeat niches and interesting details. He takes the time to explore every facet of this decade and revel in its most unique elements. Read on to learn more about Rick’s original work, as well as his knack for curating the work of others, both past and present.
Let’s start with the music, since you’re a wealth of knowledge on Synth Wave, OutRun, Dream Wave and more. When did you become aware of this modern take on ’80s synth music, and what inspired you to document its evolution through your blog Synthetix.FM?
I was going through a phase that most people get to when they reach a certain age where the new music coming out was no longer relevant to what I enjoyed. For me this was around 2006, and I just went back to listening to and rediscovering the 80s music I grew up loving from the late 70s to about 1988, but I’d pretty much been without in my life from 88 on. This was a time when I just stopped bothering trying to find new modern music but I got hooked, completely accidentally, by a track by Alan Braxe & Fred Falke called Rubicon, which brought the 80s back for me in a modern context in an instant, and a new love affair with music began.
I really got into the French house that was coming out around this time, and it was almost like it was the spiritual successor to Daft Punk’s Discovery album (which is still a musical highlight of my life). Through a further chance aligning of fates I was enlightened to the Valerie and MOTU2 compilations of the late 2000’s that essentially created the blueprint for the 80s-inspired synth music we hear today. The early pioneers of the 80s sounds in this period are still some of the greatest exponents of this music and its diversity. The early Mitch Murder, Tesla Boy, Lazerhawk, Miami Nights 1984, D/A/D, Futurecop!, College, Kavinsky, Anoraak, FM Attack and Palm Highway Chase records, amongst many others really recaptured the magic of the 80s in an incredibly exciting new way.
The fleeting popularity and crossover into other electronic music genres in 2009-10 saw that by 2011 there seemed to be less and less coverage of 80s-inspired sounds in many of the music blogs that once covered it. When the electronic dance music scenes moved on to new styles (like Dubstep and other House genres) the 80s sounds became unpopular, and a lot of producers whom I’d fallen in love with went down underground again. It was through chance meetings of people like scene auteur Neros77 that I then began to network with producers via Facebook, Soundcloud and Bandcamp. I soon realised there was a growing number of rockers out there who were dedicated to creating 80s-inspired synth music, and I figured with my background of writing that this was really an opportunity to give the music a home online with reviews and news as such, as well as creating a Facebook group that people can share ideas and network through and fans and producers can interact with each other.
With all of the Synthetix things I do, it has always been about making it easier for people to find this music instead of pawing through tons of blogs in hopes of finding some killer tunes. I know how hard it was to really find this music in those early days, and now I’m hopefully making it easier for the scene to get new fans and expand the existing audience, and that Synthetix opens up a new world of music they’ll fall in love with.
For Mirror80 readers who may be unfamiliar with this style of music, can you recommend a good place to start? Any musicians whose work would be a great intro to the genre?
The luxury the scene affords in 2014 is that there are so many denominations of 80s-themed sounds being produced that they can really investigate many, many different artists and styles. The template of 80s-inspired synth that was forged in first wave in 2009 has now split into many other styles that cover a vast ranges of sounds. The high energy night-driving OutRun synth is but one of the rockin genres you’ll find these days.
There’s ambient soundtrack pieces that summon all kinds of visions and emotions, then there are darker takes on this that add a much more malicious intent that takes the energy of OutRun and gives it a horror vibe and turns the drama up, which I call Slash Electro. Then there are the pieces that are as if cut from the final scenes of a John Hughes teenage crush from Shermer, which is pure synth romance. There are a lot of styles that are directly authentic to 80s styles too, particularly the Italo-inspired synth music and other synth pop styles that really capture the 80s top forty chart sounds. This is also true of a lot of the electro funk sounds coming out now that take cues from much of the great late 80s funk/R&B sounds as well as the early rockin breakdance music.
There are just so many inspirations from 80s sounds being created that I find the name ‘synthwave’ itself far too limiting a descriptor for the music. It’s a great time for new fans to listen to these styles and follow specific producers who do these styles so beautifully and are expanding their own musical horizons.
I’d hate to name producers directly haha, there are too many and I’d be sure to forget some! But I do a Year End Synthstravaganza on Synthetix.FM that has my personal favourite Top Tens for each of these different genres for the year (check out the 2012 edition here and the 2013 edition here). I encourage anyone new to the scene to have a browse of those, have a listen to the artists mentioned and see where that takes them. Also, I’d like to encourage people to browse the links on Synthetix.FM that go to other blogs, labels, YouTube channels and other sites that spread the love for new 80s sounds.
Many Synth Wave, OutRun and Dream Wave albums feature cover art with a distinct ’80s visual style–call it Neon Noir meets Retro Futurism. In your opinion, has the resurgence of this style of 1980s art and graphic design developed alongside the music?
I think it’s still developing to be honest, and in some ways the graphic design side of things is becoming more stereotypical than the music. There are a lot of 80s hallmarks that get over used in the artwork in the scene that I hope change and that artists dig deeper than just the ‘mainstream memories’ of 80s design. There are some great, great artists in the scene creating incredible visions that entirely match the new interpretations of 80s sounds they accompany, however, that blow me away.
With everything I’ve seen in cover art in the scene, I still believe it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of inspirations and reimaginings of 80s graphic design. The ‘mainstream memories’ of the 80s are a great starting point, but there is so much more if people really do their research and follow their passions.
Tell us about the fans of this ’80s-style music. How many of them are adults looking for a little nostalgia vs. younger listeners discovering the sound for the first time?
This is an interesting question, Kate, as my opinion on this has changed in recent times. When I got into this music it was because of the perfect blend of new and old for me. The music I loved in the 80s given new vitality and purpose and I assumed that this would be true for many people in my age group. However, I’ve come to realise that this is not going to be the case with many people. This is simply because many people who still love the original 80s sounds do so due to their personal connection with the music, either growing up or as adults. Music becomes tied to an individual and it is that familiarity that people love and connect to.
For many people in my own age group that I’ve played and shared this music with I get similar responses in that it is a hollow enjoyment for them, almost like a movie remake or something. They recognise the parts and intention but don’t have that connection, as the music doesn’t have that long term relationship with them. It is something I never really understood until recently, but for people in their 40s and over to get heavily into this new take on 80s sounds is going to be a rarity, which disappoints me greatly. Lots of people have ‘enough’ music in their lives by this stage, and new music isn’t something that is really investigated or pursued beyond their long term favourite artists and genres.
The next level down is those in their late 20s to mid 30s, and I believe this is the most dominant demographic of fans in the scene. They have an awareness of the 80s from their very early childhood and romanticise the decade a lot more. The 80s to many of this age group is seen as a golden age they only just missed out on and are often now disenchanted by modern mainstream music and see this new take on 80s sounds to be their own personal connection. This age group is easily the most dedicated and passionate about 80s-inspired synth sounds and the 80s in general. I’d wager a good 70-80% of the producers in the scene are in this age group too.
Then you have the youngest audience of the scene which goes down to at least 15. The 15 to early 20s fans and producers I think are into the new 80s sounds after being introduced to the rockin of the 80s via their parents. The generational aspect of this music means a whole new generation is able to experience the 80s anew. I think there is also a romanticising of the 80s with this age group, as many are disenchanted with their contemporaries. There’s nothing new about this phenomonon of course. I remember in the 90s, there were an entire social strata in my age group who where obsesssed with 70s music, and I’m sure the same can be said for previous decades. The idealising of certain times is just a part of our own individual personal development. Haha, but we all know the 80s were the best!
Many new players are entering the ’80s revival realm of music. How do you see Synth Wave, OutRun and Dream Wave evolving in the future?
The evolution of the scene is its most exciting aspect for me as a fan. Seeing new variations and sounds being used is really the way forward for the music. I look back at my ‘dreams for the scene’ from a few years ago, and many of them are coming true. The inclusion of guitars and guitar driven tracks, as well as incorporating saxophones and other 80s sounds along with more vocalists becoming involved are now realities in the scene, which was not the case a short time ago. The evolution of the sounds is going to be all about the individual producer’s own personal muses that drive their creativity. I think complacency is the true enemy of creativity, and if a producer wants to stand out and really create something for people to sit up and take notice of, they’ll need to worker harder and more with others. The collaborations in the scene seem to nearly always be my favourite experiences, and I think this will take the music into new realms of excitement in the coming years.
Also, I can see some genres gaining crossover appeal with existing genres and thus expanding their audience. This is already happening with the harder edge slash electro and dark synth having a very appreciative audience in the metal scene, which will surely only get stronger. The soundtrack-oriented synth music crosses over into many ambient electronic genres too, while I’m sure other electronic dance and house genres will re-embrace 80s sounds at some stage, probably sooner rather than later. Many producers are getting a lot of soundtrack work in video games, movies and TV now too, and I think this will really explode when Kung Fury is released, as more media rekindles their love of the 80s and needs the music to make it rock harder.
Let’s talk about your living room renovations. The retro-fabulousness is off the charts. Tell us about your shelving and your knack for constructing ’80s-style display areas.
It is wonderful to finally have the ‘vision’ realised! I’ve always wanted to make my living room as 80s as possible from an interior design perspective, and it was really about piecing together ideas that I could make work. Much study of the classic tomes Decoration And Design For The 80s by Pamela Ferguson and Mary Gilliatt’s The Decorating Book (both of which I discovered through the wonderful Mirror80), as well as the Memphis-Milano books I collect let me pick and choose colours and styles that would work together in the space. I have a romantic attachment to 80s store retail displays, mainly from spending a great deal of time in my local Heaven store in the late 80s and really appreciating the beauty of clear acrylic displays and neon lighting. 80s retail design is something I love replicating in my living room for the many, many different 80s items I collect.
The goal was to maximise the display areas while retaining a style that was unmistakably 80s in presence. One of the hardest parts was choosing a wall colour, and although the purple I used isn’t on its own a ‘recognised’ 80s colour, in the context of the room it provides the perfect tone for the other colours to proclaim their 80s love. Of course pastels needed to be present, and the ubiquitous hot pink and bright sky blue had to be included too. Getting the balance was always going to be difficult, especially based on the amount of things in my living room, but I’m very happy with the results. The real aspect that sets the whole room off is the black and white chequeboard ceiling, which was a bit of a nightmare to realise, but was well worth the effort.
Aside from the 80s design pieces and furniture in the room my most recent work that completes it was the acrylic displays I added. Behind them is a ‘feature wall’ of a classic 80s grid and neon geometric shapes-patterned original shelf adhesive vinyl from 87. It was sheer luck that I found these rolls of vintage Con-Tact, but they were the final piece to finish the main areas of the room.
Haha, that said, there are a lot of smaller display areas I’m in the process of working on for design objects, toys and other 80s things I collect. It’s a constant battle to fit new things in, but it’s always a rewarding victory.
You’ve created an amazing display of boomboxes, and you stage photo shoots with electronics and other retro items that truly evoke the magic of the 1980s. Can you talk about your collections and your love of rad photography?
My 80s collections are really getting out of control in the most rockin way as I find more and more aspects of design I fall in love with. The boomboxes are a great place to start though! I’ve been collecting, restoring and using boomboxes for the last 7 years or so after finally being able to fulfill this wish through numerous failed attempts in the 90s, and a lack of finances in the 80s. I’ve got about 200 or so boomboxes of different designs, descriptions and eras, but I pride my collection on its range of flagship models that exhibit the best sound and performance and also the radios that are true wonders of 80s design and excess. I’m very proud of my collection and rate it in the upper echelons of boombox collections worldwide. The boombox is such an iconic piece of 80s design and lifestyle, it just ticks all the boxes for what I love about the 80s with an unbreakable link between technology and music. The teenage years I spent fascinated with boomboxes and rockin the ones I could afford to own continues on today rampantly unabated. Of course you need cassettes for boombox ammunition, and I’ve collected about two and a half thousand late 70s and 80s albums on cassette as well as hundreds of sealed blank cassettes.
Moving into the other things I collect, much of them relate to my own childhood in the 80s. I’ve got hundreds upon hundreds of Garbage Pail Kids cards and nurmerous pieces of merchandise, although I’ve not added much to this aspect of my collecting in recent times. One thing that was a really 80s thing to collect was stickers–everyone had a sticker collection of some sort, including myself! I collect 80s sticker collections and other specific 80s design stickers. A couple of years back I began collecting FM radio station bumper stickers from the 80s, which has been lots of fun. I don’t know how many 80s stickers I’ve got now.. but I’d say it’s a reasonable amount hahah.
I do collect a lot of toys from the late 70s and 80s, but my collecting of these things is more pointed, and I’d rather just get my favourite specific items than collect entire lines. I do collect the new lines of Masterpiece Transformers however, these really are a fantastic homage to the wonderful 80s G1 designs. I’m much more selective with other toys like Mictronauts/Micromen and other action figures that pique my interest, or are being replaced from childhood. Much like my 80s Coca Cola yo-yo collection and 80s gimmick pencil cases. Although I’m up to about thirty of each, haha. There were a range of rub-on transfer pictures called Kalkitos (similar to Prest-O-Magic in the U.S). I love buying these still, but it’s a slow process–like many of my collecting passions it’s about tenacity and patience, often taking years to amass any kind of decent amount. My current passion is original late 70s to early 80s Space-themed Lego, which is proving to be a delightfully rewarding past time once again.
I collect a lot of other 80s electronics, specifically from a design perspective, such as certain models of calculators as well as telephones. So many amazing designs for telephones came out in the 80s that combined style and technology in a very specialised way. The home telephone is fast becoming a relic of antiquity, and I think the 80s designs will be revered greatly in the future. 80s ceramic are another passion. I try to focus on specific collections, such as Kato Kogei’s Carnival and Ultima pieces from Fujimori, which are stunning examples of the highest caliber 80s design you’re likely to see outside of a Memphis-Milano catalogue.
I’m a real sucker for printed material too. 80s print ads and brochures I find hard to resist. Thankfully, purchasing a copy of 80s All American Ads has fulfilled much of my passions. I find nothing more exciting, though, than browsing 80s print ads for design ideas, and this carries into the photography I do. A lot of the photography I do is about replicating 80s product photography and then creating my own fake advertisements for the items I collect. It’s lots of fun to pretend-market an item you love and accentuate its aspects of design through the camera and technology we’re afforded today. To be able to create something that people assume is a genuine piece of 80s advertising is my ultimate goal in this hobby, and I’m really pleased with the results when I get it right. Photographing the 80s things I love is all part of the collecting drive for me.
Any fun childhood memories you’d like to share from your days growing up in 1980s Australia?
Australia was really far behind the times as far as 80s design went in anything I experienced first hand. I’d see all this amazingly cool popular culture on TV, but it was never in my neighbourhood or town, haha probably like that for most of the planet! But still, I think the golden age of the early 80s passed Australia by in many respects, as it clung on to the late 70s for the early part of the decade. It wasn’t until 87 or so that Australia saw much of the classic 80s design styles filter into mainstream design.
Most of my favourite childhood memories were the 80s retail experience. Shopping at toy stores and longingly browsing hi-fi stores and buying records and tapes as well as my aforementioned love affair with Heaven. I have (and still have) an unrequited love for 80s stationery, and spending pocket money at stationery stores and news agencies was a favourite past time. Shops that don’t exist today and are just memory. The town I live in has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, and none of the places I frequented in this regard exist anymore, so finding old photos and such online is something I love doing too. Haha, I’m a born-to-spend 80s consumer at heart I guess, and I continue this journey via the internet these days!
Tell us about your favorite…
’80s (and current) music:
Man, where to begin. With 80s music I go through phases of different genres and then continuing into 80s music I may have missed along the way. For the last year or so my main 80s listening has been the Italo disco classics. There were tens of thousands of Italo releases that came out in the 80s and scant few made it out of Europe. I love finding new songs from the 80s this way, and I listen to a lot of Italo 80s online radio stations. You’ve got so many classic genres and styles of music from the 80s that I really couldn’t go through all my favourites in a reasonable amount of time or words! I will say though that I am more partial to the obscure one hit wonders of the 80s and the stuff that hasn’t had the opportunity to be run into the ground for the last 30 years. That’s where much of the 80s magic I feel still is. The 80s had, and still has, so much to offer musically beyond what the mainstream constantly regurgitates. The deeper you dig with 80s music the more you will be rewarded with, and my favourites are in a constant state of change in this regard. I must have at least a hundred ‘best songs ever’ from the 80s alone!
In regards to the 80s-inspired synth scene, I find that I’m more into specific producers at the moment than individual tracks or albums. The musical journeys of these producers are what I find the most engaging, and every new track they release seems to refine things even further. My favourite new producers for 2014 are IamManolis, Myrone and Sebastian Gampl. But so many existing producers have released incredible albums this year, to really see what I’m listening to and loving the most in the 80s-inspired synth scene, please check out my Synthetix.FM Mixtapes, which contain all my favourite tracks for the month. But if you were to push me, and get me to name my favourite producer of 80s-inspired synth music today, it would have to be LA Dreams (Sellorekt). His music is an absolute gift that I have a deep affection for and connection to.
Hmm let’s see. Got to start off with the holy pentalogy of 80s teen interest movies: The Karate Kid, Breakin’ (and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo), Thrashin, Rad, and North Shore. Night Of The Comet, They Live (and anything else John Carpenter did in the 80s), Empire Strikes Back, 80s Ninja movies that either star Sho Kosugi or are made by Godfrey Ho, Megaforce, The Hidden, The Stabilizer, The Last Dragon, Every 80s Tit City High comedy (from Revenge Of The Nerds, Fraternity Vacation, Private Lessons, Hot Dog etc), Every 80s teen science movie (Zapped, Real Genius, Weird Science etc), All the John Hughes classics, Wild Style, Beat Street, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, Dark Angel, Joysticks, etc, along with all the well regarded staples of 80s auteur cinema that have Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Van Damme, Norris or Al Leong involved. I really love anything usually deemed too cheesy by most, or that is constructed with a keen eye for exploitation. Ahh much too many to mention, the more I think about them the more I could go on!! I’m sure they’re shared by many other 80s fans reading this.
’80s television shows:
One thing I loved about 80s TV was the event Mini Series. These would be hyped for weeks and then really seemed to make a huge impact on popular culture. I guess this happens these days with regular TV series, but the Mini Series was an 80s format that really rocked hard. The V mini series being one of my favourites, along with Lace and Lace 2 (very hard to come by, but totally rockin). The sitcom was at its peak in the 80s too–I loved Alf, Married With Children, Cheers, We’ve Got It Made, It’s Your Move, Perfect Strangers, A-Team, Yes Minister, Greatest American Hero, The Young Ones, The Power Of Myth, Newhart and the eternal M*A*S*H.
’80s design motifs:
Well, we all know 80s design begins and ends with the Memphis-Milano movement–pretty much everything that makes 80s design great is derivative of Memphis-Milano. There’s so much to love from the decade from a design perspective, from the stylish geometry to the pastel explosions. The 80s was the last decade that looked as good as it sounded.
In the 80s it was all about the arcades for me, and Galaga’s been my favourite game forever. In the 90s I got heavily into console gaming and that still rings true today, although Nintendo seem to be the only game maker I enjoy playing games from these days. I have a pretty big video game collection of boxed classic consoles games and promotional items too, particularly the SEGA Dreamcast, of which I have a very big collection of Japanese consoles, games and promo items.
What’s ahead for Rick Shithouse?
Right now I’m at a very interesting point in where Synthetix.FM is going. These past few weeks I’ve decided to bring the community into the site and now have a staff of writers and contributors to help me out, as the workload was getting far too great for one person. With this new time I can now concentrate on expanding the brand and moving it in new directions. I have a lot of ideas that I’d like to enact on the site that I’ve had to have on the back burner for the last year or so, but now I can hopefully move things forward. The strength of the Synthetix Facebook community has made this all a possibility, and the support of the 80s-inspired synth scene is something I’m eternally grateful for.
The future is yet to be written, and I’m just planning to keep on rockin.