Synthwave is a genre that has gone from a niche to mainstream, so much so that even The Weeknd has tapped into it. While much of the genre seems to focus on fun and more uplifting melodies, sometimes dipping into the cheesy side of things, there's also the more gritty, edgier new wave leaning side of things that have a more mature sound to them. Such is the case for UK artist Auto-Pilot, whose latest work, Freak Electric, blends '80s with '90s post-Summer Of Love rave, dub, and experimental for a truly enjoyable and fresh listening experience.
We invited Auto-Pilot to take us behind the scenes of the new LP for the latest installment of The Director's Cut, and below, he highlights a bit of the gear used, as well as the inspiration for the album.
How to listen: There are a couple of ways to proceed. First, you can listen to the whole album, which you will find below, and then read the notes. Or, read the notes as you listen to each track. This will completely change your perspective on the whole release itself and bring you closer to the artist and their work.
Words by Auto Pilot
1. Take a Ride
This started out as a continuous arpeggio from my Access Virus Ti2. For days I just jammed over the top developing and dropping in samples formulating a certain mood. It’s sort of a trance-inducing experience, a cleansing of the mind in preparation for what’s to come.
I listened back through a collection of my old 4 track tapes dating way back into the ’80s. Many of the voices at the beginning came from here. I found a recording of a conversation between myself and a group of friends taking a break in the studio, talking about anything but music. Cutting this up produced many interesting twists.
I knew early on that this would be the opening track of the next album. It’s basically saying “Come on, take a ride with me, it’s a journey to somewhere out there”.
2. You Are
The entire track (except the guitar) was created on an iPad while I was confined to bed with an injured back I sustained whilst running. Using Korg Gadgets I had the basics of the song thumping out in no time.
The unusual drum patterns originate from an app called Sector. It’s a sort of a looper that you can create elements of random happenings. You develop probability points along the loop where at times it can flip the section into reverse or jump across it entirely to another part of the wave and continue looping. There are two loops going on here, one is a standard drum beat and the other is my processed voice whispering words. The cut-up of this loop gives an incredible effect, almost like a military man shouting and barking (inaudible) orders.
The guitar was laid down when I got the stems onto my DAW.
3. In The Machine
Part of this song has beginnings a few years before. For a short while, I worked for a company close to home that manufactured book covers. Part of this process involved a hot glue machine that did the binding. This machine had a distinct (almost "steampunk") noise emanating from within so I decided to sneak my field recorder inside and leave it recording for a few minutes. The result is what you hear during the first half of this song. I did have to do some slicing in order to bring it into 91 BPM.
Auto-Pilot originally started for a few years from 1995 to 1997 and returned in 2007 to the present day. All those years ago, my friend Lee Harston-Southern would take all lead vocals on the live performances and he featured in the first album Ocearina. What makes this song special to me is the return of Lee on lead vocals yet due to the Corona Virus lockdown we could not be in the same location. Lee recorded his parts in his own studio and mailed them to me. I spent several days feeding the signal through various FX including the Kaoss Pad 3+. I would then return a version back to Lee and he would give me his thoughts. This process went on over a week period and in all, it was worth the wait as the results speak.
4. Sugar Pond
"Sugar Pond" sat unfinished on my hard drive for a number of years. It sounded ok but there was something amiss that I couldn’t put my finger. Freak Electric was well underway when I decided to revisit the song.
I basically scrapped half of the original tracks including vocals and centered version 2 around my Access Virus bass drone with the offbeat synth stabs giving it that Gary Numan feel. The new vocals are heavily processed to a point where I had separate tracks feeding in the reverse version of each sentence. It’s a unique quality that can sound quite demonic or even unearthly.
In my mind, I have a sugar pond that I mentally dip into for self-motivation at times when life can get a little overbearing. I’ve had many ups and downs in life and to pick myself out of the shadows the sugar pond is a mental inspiration, a self-hypnotic pool of motivation that I can dip in but careful not to empty. Sounds weird but if you have ever hit the rocks mentally and reach such low points I think you can relate to self-therapy in many ways.
5. Casio Days
How I miss those carefree days as a kid, jumpers as goalposts, making up our own fun with all the other kids in the neighborhood. The arrival of the digital watch was a real novelty and a bit of status, an era from the late 70’s through to the ’80s.
I used an old Casio MT600 for the main pads, not directly though as I preferred to sample it and integrate via a VST sampler. Also, the Waldorf Blofeld adds retro beef in the undercurrents (as always). Many years ago I owned an original Casio VL-1 synthesizer/calculator. Thankfully I had the foresight to store samples from this before it eventually died. I use the blips and bleeps that are the VL-1 percussion sounds in several parts during the song.
On strange occurrence regarding "Casio Days" is the vocal ghost track. It is the track I lay down without much preparation (or lyrics) so I don’t lose the vocal melody line. The idea is that later, once I have the full lyrics I can then re-record and delete the ghost track. I happened to send Christian (from Broque records) the wrong version and he loved the vocal texture, insisting on using this in the finished article. This presented a dilemma in so far as most of this was made up of sentences in real-time. “Cuthbert, Dibble and Gruff, they had it rough, same time every day”. This is ‘on the fly’ (as is other sections) and refers to characters from a 70’s BBC children’s show called “Trumpton”, a show I watched as a kid. To cut the story down, we compromised and for the first verse, I cut the two versions together. So at times, it makes little sense but if Bowie can do this, then it’s ok.
This started life as a fun jamming session using an array of samples I’d been developing over a few days. Just messing around with parts seeing what happens and where it will go. At some point, I brought in the big drums and they were forever not big enough. A solution was reverb on mass, so much so it did start to kill the track. I think I got the balance right in the end
7. Normal Behaviour
Influence from the early electronic music, my love of the old retro originals runs deep and comes out a few times on “Freak Electric”.
I really wanted another track to sound like it had dropped out of the late ’70s and around this time I happened to be listening to a ‘short-lived’ outfit from that era called “The Normal”. I loved their direct simplicity with synths and the odd subject matter of the lyrics. Hence the name “Normal Behaviour” is a nod to their music.
In the song, I use the Roland VP770 as a monophonic robot and heavily affect the signal post-production. It has a part human quality that I love and the lyrics reflect this as part human, part robot narrating its daily existence.
8. I Breathe Nothing
One of two tracks on this album that are recreated versions from my old 4 track collection of songs.
The original was recorded in 1987 on my 4 track cassette unit with a Dr. Rhythm drum machine and a Jen SX1000 analogue synthesizer. I used the original Jen samples on the 2020 version and I also ported over loops from the original and dropped then in at various points.
It is very true to the original only this time it is sequenced as opposed to the real-time recordings of that (none midi) 4 track session.
Another part of my music writing is purely directed at placements in TV and film via publishing. "Atoms" started out with this in mind and was never intended to find its way onto the album. For some reason it stuck with me more and more, I guess in a way it grew into the album and simultaneously my mindset. This little instrumental does sound a little different from the rest of the album though and it is also the shortest track at 2:22
10. Following Dreams
I’m lucky to live in a house with a lovely view, a mixture of farmland and woodland. The lyrics of this song reflect a simple narration of a scene during a rainy day. I also captured a field recording that is played at the beginning.
“Sunshine, grey sky, tree line, crow fly” all sang through my VP770 with a delay. “Cool breeze, bells chime, my mind, through time”. I’d opened the window, felt the breeze, and heard the church bells in the distance. “Following Dreams” is warm and lovely with classical character and the simplest of words.
11. We Will Remember
The second recreation from the original 1987 4 track tape recording, once again, close to the original although it is a much harder-hitting version. A gig favorite, “We Will Remember” is anthem-like with very few words. Lyrics are very much secondary; I’ve left this pretty much open for interpretation.
The vocals were done in one take as is the guitar; this is to capture that raw feel from those 4 track days.
I had been working on a pure ambient album (under my real name) where all the music is intended to relax and guide the listener through a journey. “Aftermath” literally popped up during this period but was too busy sounding to make it into that project.
I always felt it would make a great ending to any release so held it back until now. It could only be at the end as it is reflective, reminiscing in nature.
Grab your copy of Freak Electric here.