Exclusive Interview : Maethelvin – From Birth to Rebirth
France may fill its heart with pride, for its preponderance in the Synthwave scene can hardly be disputed. Whether or not one considers Nantes’ Valerie Collective to be pioneers of the Synthwave genre, the fact remains that its active members were precursors to what now
France may fill its heart with pride, for its preponderance in the Synthwave scene can hardly be disputed. Whether or not one considers Nantes’ Valerie Collective to be pioneers of the Synthwave genre, the fact remains that its active members were precursors to what now fuels an entire retro-savvy generation. Internet retro-media diggers, bloggers and most importantly talented musicians, the Nantes retroheads have left an indelible mark on pop-culture, thanks in no small measure to the inclusion of College’s music in Drive. The redundancy of citing Nicolas Winding Refn’s cult-classic when talking about Synthwave is only proof of how deep Valerie’s influence runs in the scene. As one of the collective’s earliest members, Maethelvin holds a special place at the core of the genre’s dedicated fandom. As we ready ourselves for his headlining set on April 4th at Retro Synth Fury 2019 in Paris, we caught up with the mysterious man behind the synths for an exclusive interview, in which he generously detailed the history behind the influential collective known as Valerie.
For those who might not yet know the story, can you tell us a few words about the origins of Maethelvin?
Maethelvin basically started in 2010, around the time David Grellier was starting the Valerie blog. The whole idea of Valerie was to dig up and share Eighties tracks for our mixing sets. Valerie really developed around “silly” mixing nights we were hosting in Nantes, which is where we all come from. It eventually turned into a blog and eventually David started developing his project as College as well as the Valerie collective as we now know it. College basically grew out of the Valerie blog. I was working on my Dance/Techno project Dach Tünner and David was playing in Sexy Sushi when he asked me to work with him. We started working together and our friends Gaël and Arnaud started The Outrunners as friendly competition. They kept at it and it turned out pretty well for them since they were a lot more focused than we were. David and I tried to work together but nothing really came of it, namely because our ways of writing were too different, so he continued College – which, at the time was called Dusty Haze – on his own.
In parallel, he would also post Eighties songs and visuals. At the time, there wasn’t nearly as much of it as you may find online today. David slowly started adding College tracks as well. I decided to pull a prank on him one day by showing him some track I had made and pretending it was by some obscure artist from the Eighties. I chose the name Maethelvin because there were no search results for that term on Google. The prank worked really well and it drove David crazy for two whole weeks before I finally admitted I had written the song. Thus Maethelvin was born, which accounts for “unbankable”, incomprehensible name. It basically comes from a bad spelling of “Maethelwine”, which is old English for “Melvin”.
So you originally tried to work together on College?
We tried to start it together, yeah. He also worked with Gaël, who played with him on College’s first live show at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes. Le Lieu Unique is somewhat of a cornerstone venue. We have a mutual friend called Frédéric Sourice – who goes by the name Phonème – who books shows there and who knows the local scene very well. He’s the one who started booking us there.
It’s fairly interesting to note that the Valerie artists are often tagged as founding members of the whole Synthwave genre, despite the fact that you don’t exactly see yourself as a part of the scene.
The thing is that we were just playing Eighties music. I’m not too big on the term “Synthwave”. To me, it just feels like a vague term that people felt the need to come up with, to group together all these artists that were starting to make Eighties music. We were just making music with Eighties gear, thus making it “Eighties music”, nothing more. We were also born in the Eighties. I was born in 1983, so I got to live through that time. I don’t think we made anything new, really. We just make music that borrows from Video Games and Nineties dance culture. What I do is nothing new. Our purpose is pretty much the same as that of pop music, which is to have fun, to party and to play gimmicky, accessible songs.
At which point did you become aware of Synthwave scene?
Pretty recently, probably no earlier than 2014, which is around the time we started getting more gigs and around the time we started meeting artists from the scene. We met Andreas (aka Robert Parker) for example when we played Helsinki. He came to see us and we had no idea who he was, despite the fact that he already had a pretty decent following. He was super friendly and we got along really well. I remember Gaël (The Outrunners, Forgotten Illusions) telling us the next day “This guy seems pretty legit!”.
That’s the time we realized we had probably missed the mark. Until then, we had no idea that a whole scene had developed with people that were regularly namedropping our projects and the collective in interviews. We had stayed in our little bubble since 2010 with our friends Anoraak and Minitel Rose. Back when Valerie started, we knew of acts like Electric Youth, Hot Pink Delorean and the whole Australian movement that was emerging from the Synth-Pop scene. It was a whole different side of things. There were also some British acts like Fear of Tigers and Russ Chimes, who worked with Valerie for a bit. They were amongst the first in the whole “Eighties Revival” movement.
Having lived through the Eighties’ is there anything that intrigues you about this “retro” aesthetic?
It really depends whether you’re talking about the Eighties from 2010 or its 2019 version. I make a clear distinction between our Synthwave fans and the audience we had back in 2010. I’m nearing my forties now, and I’m under the impression that the average Synthwave fan demographic is between 25 and 30 years of age. What I find really interesting is how Eighties culture is being re-appropriated by a whole generation that didn’t live through it. I find it really awesome.
It’s true that one must remember that this current “retro” aesthetic is the result of Eighties pop culture being filtered through the lens of people who weren’t necessarily born at the time. I assume that the streets back then weren’t paved with fluorescent neon lights…
Indeed, it was probably more of a club thing. It’s also not really what we’re drawn to in the Valerie Collective. We don’t really identify with the whole ultra-glittery neon aesthetic or Tron grids. We feel pretty distant from all of that. To us, we associate the Eighties with shows like Miami Vice. There were neon’s too, but it’s less “Retrofuturistic”, less Sci-Fi. It’s more grounded, closer to what the Eighties actually felt like. There was actually a pretty realistic feel to Miami Vice. The atmosphere and the stories weren’t too far-fetched.
What I also enjoy about the Eighties is its creative freedom. To me, the Internet came with a form of standardisation of music, everything tends to feel the same whereas this was less the case in the Eighties. The record industry was releasing heaps of crap every minute and people were making all sorts of things with the arrival of all these new machines. It’s what allowed genres like Acid to develop. We really enjoy that freedom.
It’s hard to deny the fact that the Synthwave genre also came with a saturation of gimmicky copycat projects. Would be fair to say that your affiliation with this largely “standardised” scene is what once caused you to somewhat grow tired of Maethelvin?
Absolutely, though I’m not sure if “tired” is the most fitting word. All of the songs I wrote prior to last year, including my latest EP – which is made of tracks from my first live show in 2014 – are things I don’t necessarily identify with. I’m really glad to have made them, but I wouldn’t feel too keen on playing them live again, simply because they sound like a lot of music being released today. They rely on gimmicks that are a little bit overdone. I didn’t feel like doing that anymore, so I briefly turned to Techno to change things up, to try out new gear, new songs, and return to Maethelvin with a more Italo-influenced club sound, which was the essence of what we were trying to do nine years ago. It’s got more of a Techno edge, as opposed to the «poppier » side of Synthwave. A lot of Synthwave songs tend to have the same structure, I find. I’m not pointing fingers nor do I want to pull anyone down, because it’s usually pretty well produced and done by talented people, it’s just not what I’m after. Producing for the sake of producing isn’t my thing.
Does this mean we’ll be seeing a new side of Maethelvin for your upcoming set at Retro Synth Fury Fest 2019?
Absolutely, I’m going to be switching things up for a more Italo-influenced sound: lots of drum machines, much fewer breaks and more of a « club-oriented » sound.
Has this led to a change of gear or approach to your songwriting?
Somewhat. I’m also starting to realize that I’m an Eighties kid as well as a Nineties kid, given my age and the fact that the Nineties was when I started listening to music and playing video games. I’m also growing increasingly aware of a sort of symbiosis between Dach Tünner and Maethelvin. The former is starting to sound a little more « Eighties retro », whereas Maethelvin is starting to borrow a little more from Dance music. I’ve been told that my new stuff sounds like the Soundtrack to Streets of Rage, which itself was inspired by Black Box.
If you could bring back something and banish another from the Eighties, what would you pick?
We need to bring back the moustache, I’m thinking of growing one.
Also, the Internet should have never existed. Things were better back in the day. I’m going to sound like such an old fart for saying this [laughs]. I do love the Internet, but not so much these days. A lot of great things did come back from the Eighties though: Air Max shoes, Digital watches, retro-gaming, Gameboys, analogue synths…
When I asked David the same question he said he would banish the haircuts.
[Laughs] That’s easy for him to say, he’s got no hair! [Laugh] That’s a good answer though. Those haircuts definitely shouldn’t come back.
Closing off: can you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books?
The album that left the strongest impression on me is The Man Machine by Kraftwerk. It’s one of the most modern-sounding albums I’ve heard. It’s also been sampled to death. It has this Hip-Hop edge, the band work wonders on their gear, the songs are incredible and the overall aesthetic is incredible.
Film-wise, I’m going for something pretty basic: Shining. The cinematography and the Soundtrack by Wendy Carlos left a strong impression on me. My mum had the great idea of showing it to me when I was seven years old, and I think it scarred me for life.
Book-wise, I’m going to say Ubik by Philip K. Dick. That book messed my head up. That book is insane. It’s said to be unadaptable to film, simply because the book is so out-there.
European Retroheads, be sure to catch Maethelvin and many more heavyweight Synthwave acts at Retro Synth Fury in Paris.
Retro Synth Fury
April 4th at Supersonic, featuring Réno (Fr), Grimlin (Fr) & Maethelvin (Fr)
April 5th at Le Petit Bain, featuring Yx (Fr), Christine (Fr), Starcadian (US), Morgan Willis (Fr), NINA (UK) https://www.facebook.com/events/321622565224863/