Going far and wide with star-voyager Starcadian
Whether it be as a director, VFX artist or his top-grade musical output, Starcadian aims and reaches for the top shelf with every project he takes on. Along with his trusted Co-Director Rob O’ Neill, the masked space-voyager has been dropping jaws unfolding the epic
Whether it be as a director, VFX artist or his top-grade musical output, Starcadian aims and reaches for the top shelf with every project he takes on. Along with his trusted Co-Director Rob O’ Neill, the masked space-voyager has been dropping jaws unfolding the epic saga tying each and every piece of their work together. Who is the Starcadian? What is he after? Does he come in peace? Speculation is rampant, only patience and attention will serve us in uncovering the mysteries that lie far ahead of us. Childhood wonder filled our minds upon hearing about the artists’ performance on the second night of Retro Synth Fury in Paris, prompting us to garner our best efforts in tracking him down. Having just barely landed on French soil, Starcadian met us under the most hospitable terms at his place of rest. What started off as an interview drifted off far out into an open, frank and insightful discussion across a wide range of subjects. Sit back, strap in and enjoy the ride.
How’re things? What’ve you been jamming on your way here?
It’s funny you ask that, because I was talking about that on the way here. I cannot listen to music anymore; I’ve managed to ruin music for myself [laugh]. When I listen to music, it’s “research” now. When I hear a really good song, I’m like “Goddamn it. How do I top that?”, and if I listen to a really bad song I just go “ugh, why is this popular?!”. If I listen to some of my own music I get frustrated at the production. So 99% of the time, I actually listen to podcasts now [laughs], and while doing that there’s another part of my brain that’s composing music. I start thinking about song progressions and somehow find a way to link it back to the subject I’m hearing about in the podcast. It’s like I always say: a butcher doesn’t go home to eat steak. Your vocation is rarely your hobby.
Is this a recent thing or has it somehow always been this way?
I think the more seriously I start thinking about music and where to take it into new, interesting, fresh places, the more I feel the need to compartmentalise it and keep it in a specific pocket of time in my day. It keeps it focused, it makes it a ‘craft’ rather than a hobby. Besides, we’ve all been inundated music. Everyone has a band right now and there are too many things to listen to. If I can get on Spotify, that means everyone can get on Spotify, and there’s no quality control, so you have to sift through a lot of bad music to get to the good stuff that will inspire you. I try to really curate and moderate what I listen to, and how much. Even when I find a song that’s super inspiring, I actually limit myself to limit to it once every two days, otherwise you get “numb” to what makes the song magical. When I listen to it, it just pops out more and it doesn’t get boring as quickly, because that tends to happen a lot.
The main acts you play alongside on tour and in festivals are generally labelled as Synthwave. Does this heavy exposure to this one style and aestheti c hinder your ability to find this space to develop your own distinct identity?
Sort of. But the thing is that I’m so pathologically stubborn that there’s absolutely no way that I can get “persuaded” to switch lanes. At the end of the day, I want to make the music that I want to make, and I really don’t care if it sells or not. That’s why I haven’t really dipped my toes in Synthwave. I don’t really “gel” with the sound that much. My references just seem to be on a very different trajectory from most of Synthwave. Not better, just different. So I never really feel threatened by being too much “in contact” with the scene. If anything, it just confirms in my mind that I’m just weird, that I listen to weird shit and make weird decisions in music. Most of my albums have orchestral overtures, and I had a manager for a very brief time and he wasn’t too sure about that decision, but his going against the idea made me really want to do it! [laughs] If you don’t want me to do it, I’ll do it twice over! If you tell me to make more Synthwave like ‘Pompey Pirate’, I’m going to make a polka album, just to fuck with you! It’s going to bite me in the ass eventually! [laughs] But that’s what you do to keep it adventurous. As a musician, when you’re writing, you want to be in the unknown. If you have the same basic Synthwave sounds and samples you’re going to make the same song again and again. It will sell in the circuit, but circuits all live and die. Songs are supposed to go on further than that.
Whether we were born in the eighties or not, everyone has a different perspective on what the Eighties and Nineties felt like and what aspect of pop culture left the biggest impression on them. Is there anything you’d like to see more of in this Retro and Synthwave scene?
That’s a really good question! It’s one that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I think Synthwave is verging on becoming Hair Metal at this point if you know what I mean. I really like Hair Metal, actually, but there was a point where there were too many imitators. Sure, you had Guns N’ Roses, but you also had Ratt or …
… or Stryper!
Stryper! Oh God! A shiver went down my spine when you said that! [Laugh] You had a lot knock-offs that were really bad, but they also had the same producers and the same gear. It was just a bloated mess of an industry. The only thing that killed it was Nirvana.
My problem about the Eighties resurgence – which has sort of come and gone at this point, as we’ve moved on to the Nineties resurgence – is that it made people cling on to a romanticised version of the Eighties. People keep repeating “We want the Eighties back!”, and all I’m thinking is “Alright, guys! You got the Eighties back!”. Instead of Reagan we have Trump, the economy is down the shitter except for the 1% who’s having a great time, we’re out here asking who’s the most coked out and who’s got the weirdest fashion sense… It’s the Eighties again! Music is all about decadence. Trap is no different than hair metal! It’s all about opulence. All the signifiers of late-stage capitalism are still here. It’s not only in Synthwave. We wanted to re-live the Eighties because as kids we were pandered to. We were being raised at that time and we thought the Eighties signified safety, but the decade had a big, dark undercurrent, economically and culturally. It was shit back then, except for the rich people!
So you’re saying that you want a grittier, more grounded representation of the Eighties?
I listen to a lot of stuff that has a lot of weird, edgy lyrics or album covers, but I think that at this point in time artists have a moral responsibility to put out shit that either gently guides people towards something with meaning. They shouldn’t be irresponsible with the message they’re putting out. If all you’re putting out is “my dick is three miles wide” and “everything is neon and everything is great!”, you’re pretty much feeding opium at that point.
I could’ve gone full steam with a thematic soundtrack to all of these things, but I really needed to have songs like ‘Trapped in America’, which is basically claustrophobia. It’s about being trapped in this economic system that follows you even outside of America. What is popular in the US will be popular in the rest of the world, unfortunately, or fortunately. Everything is a butterfly effect. Musicians are a cultural frontline for what you should be putting out there.
I think pandering has become a point of desperation for big brands at this point. The whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is based on pandering rather than making movies that piss you off for a good reason. The best films I’ve seen lately are Mother! And Hereditary. Those movies will give you a panic attack if you truly understand what they’re telling you. I was in pieces by the end of Mother!, I was balling my eyes out. On the other hand, movies like Infinity War are straight-up heroin.
What about the new Star Wars trilogy? On one hand, The Force Awakens was criticized for pandering too much to its audience, whilst The Last Jedi got slammed for taking too many liberties.
What’s funny is that I went to watch The Last Jedi with my best friend – we were both huge Star Wars fans back in the day – and we thought it was really fun! I thought it was a little bit weird that Luke died without us noticing too much, but other than that I thought it was great! I posted on my social media about how I thought it was a good movie when I got back, and suddenly a truck full of shit unloaded on my feed. People were like “No, no! This is why your childhood was raped. This is why this is bad and everything is ruined for everyone”. What movie did they watch? I believe that’s just a consequence of where we are with the Internet. We weren’t ready for the Internet. It’s the big tragedy. I would be nobody without the Internet, I made my name with the Internet and yet I would give it all away if it meant that people would be sane again. They just don’t know how to handle it. I grew up at age without the Internet, without cell-phones, so I learned how to live and have fun without all of that. My nephew started swiping and unlocking I-Pads when he was two years old, and it’s really impressive, but what are we going to do when we don’t have it.
It’s the most natural thing in the world if you grow up with that technology. You could even argue that phones have become an extension of our body.
The worst part is that it’s an extension of their opinion. People get their opinions online and the more people yell, the more they believe that particular opinion. Take Star Wars, for example. Maybe it’s not a bad movie. Maybe it’s just not your thing, and maybe you shouldn’t send death threats to people.
Given that there’s this catering towards instant gratification, how do you position yourself with regards to expectations when writing music?
Writing an album is a bit of a long process for me. I need to get all of the shit songs out of my system first [laugh], then I can start figuring out what every song needs to be about. I just can’t bring myself to sit down and write a song that’s just about everyone having fun and everything being great. There needs to be an undercurrent to everything. I have tons of sketches and ideas, and I have to sit on them until I find that connecting “link” as to what it’s about. Once I do that with every song, I need to figure out how to blend them together into a story that fits what’s come before all of the other albums and write a script. It’s a very articulated, intense process to tie everything in together.
Last we heard, you were about half-way done with the second part to Midnight Signals. What can we expect from this new instalment? Were both parts composed together?
Yes, that’s part of the reason why it took two years to make Midnight Signals. I basically wrote both albums together. I am one song away from finishing Midnight Signals II, but things can change. You sometimes find out that one song just doesn’t work anymore and you have to write a new one. This second part will basically be a ‘dark mirror’ to the first. Every song will have a counterpoint and will be connected narratively. It’ll basically be a ‘flipped’, darker and heavier version of the first album, more of a deep dive. There’s more influence from artists like Soundgarden.
Given that your releases follow the same narrative; do you have the entire storyline fleshed out or do you expand it as you go along? Has it evolved from what you had originally set out to make?
Yes to all of the above! Me and my co-director Rob O’Neill basically started with the narrative on Sunset Blood and when it came to Midnight Signals we wrote the entire mythology. We have a script for Sunset Blood and its prequel Midnight Signals. Everything connects and follows this pretty meta-narrative. ‘Freak Night’ is right at the end of Midnight Signals, so they connect that way. The interesting thing with that video is that it feels like a straightforward Eighties movie throwback, but it’s not. There are ways that the concept has branched off in many unexpected ways that I didn’t see coming. One of the recent things was the importance of Sigils. I’ve been researching and looking into the theory of practice of Chaos Magick. There meta-concept of a belief system. It’s definitely informed a lot of what we’re doing with the overall narrative. I’m letting it sit for a little bit though. Hopefully, we’ll get some more attention with the Freak Night video and get the opportunity to tell the full story. It’s super fun.
So you’re still pitching the film project as we speak.
We’re pitching it left and right like crazy, hoping to get some catches. We’re trying really hard. It’s all part of the process, really. You have to get to the point where people get really comfortable with the idea, especially the people that fund these things, as they want to make sure that people really want to see it. The more attention we get from our videos; the more chances we have to tell the whole story. Otherwise, we have other options to tell the story. We could go another way, whether it be with comics or with a video game … Whatever helps us tell the story. That’s what matters.
This reminds me of an interview I did with Coheed & Cambria. The singer is based in Brooklyn as well and he’s been putting out comics for the whole Sci-Fi saga he’s created with the band. They’ve been trying to get a feature film project off the ground for a few years now but it looks like they’re facing a tough road.
It’s hard to invest in new intellectual property nowadays. They want the remakes and they want the sequels. It doesn’t make any financial sense to them so I’m not going to blame them, because it’s their money. On the other hand, this goes back to what I was saying earlier. People need to push themselves to look for more adventurous things rather than get the same old placebo and stick with a genre or whatever you’re used to. It’s good to do something that will piss you off or make you feel weird. It’s a good thing.
Open access to music and film has unfortunately led to tighter budgets and thus tighter ‘risk management’ for film and music.
That’s exactly what it is. They will market things that they know will make money for them. I go out of my way to find weird Indie Horror movies and I usually have to dig through articles, podcasts or Reddit threads to find good recommendations. I’m not going to get it from what’s being advertised to me, that’s for sure. It’s the same with music, too. It’s a shame. It used to be blogs that people read daily, but now it’s just Youtube and Spotify. That’s how you get the maximum advertisement. The devaluing of all art-forms really is biting us in the ass. It’s not like we didn’t see it coming, but this is where we are now. We can’t get any original ideas off the ground. We still do it though. That’s why I had the big graffiti in the ‘Interspace’ music video that said ‘We will still be here’. I have a day job and I’m clearly not going to be Daft Punk anytime soon, but I really don’t care. I’m still going to make the music because I’ll go crazy if I don’t. I need it. If people like it, that’s amazing, but if they don’t that’s okay too. God knows there are other bands they can listen to [laugh].
So how did you meet Rob O’ Neill, and how did you know that you’d be able to pull this ambitious project together?
That’s easy, he was my teacher in School, back when I was getting my Master’s degree in VFX. He taught scripting and coding for 3D. I’ve always struggled with trying to find out what I want to do for a living. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a filmmaker or a musician or do some job that actually pays [laugh], and he was the one that made me realize that I could be all of those things. You can actually have a mathematical brain and do art. His future wife was the assistant chairperson in the department I was in at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. We really connected and I ended up helping him do a bunch of research. He gave me the time and space to sit in a corner and code and come up with cool stuff. He also ended up giving me my Green card and my first job.
I was making wildly different music to Starcadian before that. I started working on the first song while I was working at his company. Eventually, we moved on to different companies, but one day he texted me saying “Dude, I got a cockpit!”. He works at Dreamworks in L.A. now, and he got a cockpit for 200 bucks. So we started working on a video together. We came up with half of the mythology of Starcadian real fast to justify using this cockpit. This was before Sunset Blood. ‘HE^RT’ was just a single. To this day, Rob has been the star traveller guy with the helmet in every video.
I stole time in my company’s render farm to render all of the 3D I had to do for the video, overnight. I snuck in, edited it and rendered everything on their systems. It was so fun and so intuitive. Whenever one of us gets stuck on something, the other person fills in and finds a solution. It’s a very organic back-and-forth. It’s a very fertile relationship with regards to where to go, visually, how to branch things out or pivot stuff if we don’t have the money, which happens all of the time.
We were chased by cops whilst shooting ‘Chinatown’. Apparently, you need a permit to film for everything. The live show in ‘Chinatown’ happens at the back of a diner. We had no idea until we showed up. So I had to digitally add dozens of people to make it look better. We’re both pretty good at staying on our toes and flipping ideas.
Given that the visuals and the music are so closely related, is there a specific order in which you work on each, or are there any back-and-forth re-adjustments that happen?
Usually, it stems from the music. For ‘Freak Night’, Iconoclasm – who did the cover for Saturdaze and is the creative director for a lot of our stuff – had the idea for this monster prom. I thought it was really cool so we went for it. ‘Freak Night’ might have been written because of that idea that she put in my brain. We were building monsters and we were getting ready to go, but then someone sent me the video to ‘Pressure’ by Muse, which features monsters at a prom. I just remember walking through union square and just losing it. I was thinking “Oh my God, we have to cancel the pre-production!”. Luckily, Rob told me to calm down and suggested the idea of it being an underground club rather than a prom.
Usually, I do write the music with some ideas in mind, so I try to put the concept for every song in the song already, to have a starting point. When you’re DIY, one of the main things is that you make sure you film videos according to what you can afford to shoot in. If you have a cockpit, you film a spaceship. If you have a warehouse, you film a nightclub.
Alright, on to my closing question: can you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books?
Sebastian’s Total. It’s one of those things that’s so perfect and well done that I hate it. There’s no way anyone can touch that album. I think it’s a modern masterpiece. The only thing I’m annoyed by is that he didn’t include a song called ‘Threnody’ on it. It’s a 13-minute song which includes this sample from Penderecki. If he played that song in a club, no one would stick around, but on the thirteenth minute the track just drops like a classic Sebastian beat drop and it’s magical! That’s the only thing I can think about to say about Total.
Film-wise, I would say Mother. It’s one of the films that shook me the most, lately. Besides that, there’s Labyrinth [laughs].
Book-wise, I was a pretty big fan of The Thief of Always by Clive Barker. That’s a really great book. It’s a pretty glib answer though, so I will also add Condensed Chaos: An Introduction to Chaos Magic. It’s a really great book. It’s a very heavy book, it can be hard to understand sometimes [laugh]. I appreciate reading what people think about it. It helps you realize how much of an optical illusion perspective is. It makes you look and think about things a different way. At this point, I can’t even read fictional books because I’m trying to focus on my own stuff. So I mostly read non-fiction or philosophical stuff like that to keep me interested.
Special thanks to Anthony and Jet Set Trash for helping make this Interview happen. Get well soon, Zak!
Live Photos taken at Retro Synth Fury 2019.