Collin Cairo Interview: “The Dub Elements Started As A Joke”

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collin cairo interview

Acid Wash  EP/LP hybrid is out now.

Often I can find music that is largely electronic to be rather soulless and vacuous. This is definitely not the case when I listen to LA based producer Collin Cairo. Combining analogue synths, oddly assembled guitar and bass, impassioned vocals, and a keen sense of how to combine noise and melody, his music is overflowing with life and experience.

He gracefully took the time to take to Overblown recently about his new EP/LP hybrid Acid Wash, his love of Prince and Blade Runner, and his reservations about Netflix sensation Stranger Things.

Overblown: Your new EP Acid Wash is quite eclectic in terms of genre. Essentially it is synth pop, but touches on reggae and industrial and other genres. Was this deliberate or unconscious?

Collin Cairo: Before moving to LA I was living in this tiny town in Northern California called Chico. It’s insanely cheap to live there, so if you have a band, you just practice in the house that you can actually afford to live in. When I moved to LA, I didn’t know anybody and I wanted to keep making music, but was faced with the reality that I was probably going to be renting a room in a house full of people I didn’t know– which meant making music quietly. The two options were, continue with guitar and make singer-songwriter music or go electronic. So I found this old German man named Peter in San Diego on Craigslist who was selling his synth collection for really cheap. He had gotten all of these pieces of gear for free in the 80’s because he worked for a German tech company. When I met up with him, he was in a cover band and was just using the synths to make the ascending noise in ‘Space Oddity’ right before the chorus, which I think is so righteous. He was selling all of his shit to get a Hammond. So once I got that, the synth pop and industrial sounds came in pretty heavy.

The dub elements started as a joke actually. I was listening to a lot of dub music while recording because I figured it was too different from what I making and thus, I wouldn’t accidentally copy it. But halfway through recording I had these songs that I felt really stuck on, so for fun, I made dub mixes of them. Those turned out being way more interesting and essentially grew into Acid Wash.

O: You use analogue synths to create the soundscapes. How does this alter your approach to songwriting and the sounds that you create?

CC: In Chico I used to be in this garage rock band. With that, it was easy, you’d flip on the overdrive and bash out chords to write a song. With synths, you are designing sound from a pure waveform, and although “pure waveform” sounds like it would sound pleasant, most of the time they’re pretty harsh. So you put a lot of love into the sounds you are making, and when they are done, you end up writing parts that fit the sound. There is some objectively ridiculous shit being played on the EP that I would never naturally play on say, a piano or guitar.

O: When describing your sound, you reference Blade Runner and Purple Rain. What do you attempt to incorporate from both these examples into your music?

CC: The song Sinking Ship is a total love letter to Blade Runner. I was just playing around on my Juno-60 one day and was like “wait, this sounds like the Blade Runner theme!!!”. So I just ran with that. If you watch the final fight scene in Blade Runner to it, it synchs up pretty well.

But the allusions to Blade Runner and Purple Rain are more in lyrical content than musical (although if anyone drew a valid musical comparison to Acid Wash and Purple Rain I might just take that as a victory and retire from music forever). The whole of Acid Wash is a narrative set in the year 2016 by way of 1984, which is a huge nod to Blade Runner. It explores the political climate of this backwards 2016 through the eyes of a seedy nightclub performer and distant love interest. So, there is Purple Rain.

It’s 2016 and we are having so many problems that seem too extreme to be reality. They’re so sci fi! California is literally running out of water while simultaneously on fire. We have he-who-shall-not-be-named-because-I-refuse-to-be-a-reason-anyone-has-to-read-his-name, the corrupt businessman, in an actual position to be the president. A.I. and drones are becoming a reality. But somehow, in a modern setting, it all seems so mundane and run of the mill. My thought was that if I put it all of these circumstances into a some dystopian future, we could explore these realities with a different and possibly more urgent lens.

O: What was the most difficult song to write on the EP? Why?

CC: ‘Replica’ was probably the most difficult. It just sat there for so long collecting dust, I just thought it was overkill. But I had a good buddy of mine/guitar wizard Michael Adams come over and play on some of the tracks. I thought the guitar would add a more human element to the whole thing, but his guitar style is so out there, that it ended up sounding less human than the actual synths and drum machines. He brought a jolt of life in to Replica and totally made the ending of the song. From there things fell into place musically and thematically. Thanks Mike!

O: Portions of the EP also kind of remind me of the theme tune from Twin Peaks. Are you a fan?

CC: I watched both seasons in high school and liked it. I’m not a huge Lynch head like some people but I definitely enjoyed the show.

O: There seems to be a bit of a revival in 80’s based synth music recently. Take S U R V I V E and their soundtrack for Stranger Things for example. What did you think of that?

CC: I’m torn. It’s pretty obvious I have a soft spot for that stuff. I think a lot of the music like that coming out is beyond pure imitation, but isn’t artistically progressive. Binge watching Stranger Things was the first thing I did after I put out Acid Wash. It was released days before the EP dropped and so many people I knew were texting me telling me I would LOVE the show. When I finally got around to watching it, I was pretty unsettled after the first episode. I absolutely adore John Carpenter and those earlier Spielberg movies, but the first episode was so so so similar that it made me feel uneasy. I felt like it wasn’t even its own thing, just a composite. But after episode one, the show definitely takes on a life of its own and is amazing, though initially I was pretty tripped out. The thing I love about the score is that, although it is definitely inspired by those early 80’s sounds, it still manages to be modern.

When I was first sending Junkyard Moondog off into the recesses of the internet, I found out about genres like “synth wave” and “outrun,” which are such strange and contrived crevices of the internet. If I wanted to listen to music that sounds exactly like it was from the 80’s, why wouldn’t I just listen to the real thing, you know? It’s like a caricature of the real thing! So that was definitely in the back of my mind during the creation of the EP. Because I was using all of this gear from the 80’s, of course making those sounds was going to be natural place to go. I kept trying to imagine what people in 1984 thought music would sound like in 2016. Sorry for the long answer, I’ve just been thinking about this a lot recently.

O: Your music is quite cinematic. Would you consider creating a visual accompaniment for the songs?

CC: The EP has a pretty focused narrative throughout. So the thought of a visual accompaniment is fairly natural one and something I would be open to.

O: Any gigs on the horizon?

CC: There are definitely some in the works. Right now it’s about how to perform these live without just doing glorified karaoke. That is what’s taking up my headspace at the moment.

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