Tommy '86's New Album 'Transhumanism' Is a Cyberpunk Nightmare

Stream the synth-heavy new album from this French synthwave upstart and read an exclusive interview with "Tommy" himself.

Oct 28 2016, 6:40pm

When one hears the term "concept album", the first reaction often can be a groan or resigned sigh. In my opinion, few of these ever materialize even remotely well, but French synthwave (or "darksynth," as he calls it) artist Tommy '86's latest effort, Transhumanism, is an exception. The album painfully yet beautifully tells the classic story of humanity shooting itself in the foot with its greed (only realizing its folly once it's too late) via a tale set in the year 2332. The world is dominated by machines, ruled by an artificial intelligence entity called The L.V.T.H.N. Project that's gone mad with power.Through aggressive, distorted synths and brooding atmospheric sounds, Tommy tells the story without words, painting a bleak future for the human race.

Tommy 86's previous work was much more a lighthearted, neon-lighted disco affair that screamed "Miami Beach" way more than "Terminator Conference". Transhumanism takes a sharp turn to the dark side, incorporating heavy distortion and a sinisterness akin to his new label mates Perturbator, Dan Terminus (both featured on this record), and GosT amongst others. We're streaming it below, so you can delve in and try to figure it all out on your own time.

The album is out October 28 via Blood Music, a label already very well known in the darksynth scene as home base for some of the genre's heaviest hitters (the aforementioned trifecta of Perturbator, GosT, and Dan Terminus, to name a few), ensuring lofty expectations from fans and critics. Tommy himself and I sat down for a Tommy-on-Tommy chat to discuss the new heaviness of his sound, as well as the rise of "darksynth" and the last days of mankind.

Noisey: Let's start with the idea of a concept album in general and the telling of a story through your music; what compelled you to make a concept album in the first place
Tommy '86: I think a good album should tell a story, it should invoke emotions in the listener. For my third album, I did not want to simply create a compilation of random tracks. That's what I did on my second album, Frequency Modulations (which I like the least, by the way). I did not want to make the same mistake on my third album.

So, I took some time to find a theme, to work on the album mood, and on what I'll talk about on this album. Then I started to compose tracks around the main theme. This is a difficult exercise, but very exciting. I think I'll continue to work on more concepts like this in the future.

The story itself, the fall of humanity and machine takeover is a dark tale yet very relevant to today; what inspired you to use this as your story arc?
I wanted to make an album around artificial intelligence, because it's something we are starting to find everywhere; actually, A.I. is already everywhere! In computers, in smartphones, in cars and even in mowers! A.I. will become omnipresent in our everyday lives, and if the technology is well used, A.I. can make life easier.

However, I'm asking questions about that. For example, cars become autonomous and are connected to the internet, but are these cars secure? Like on computers, a hacker could take control of your car and do whatever he wants. Another thing, companies like Google, Apple or Microsoft have put their own personal assistants in computers and smartphones; it's not a bad thing. But what about our privacy? I'm sure a lot of data is collected for these assistants to do their job. And what they do with this information? Based on that, I have transposed everything into something much darker, in the pure tradition of cyberpunk.

" Computer takeover" has been a tale told many different ways, but Transhumanism goes deeper and really makes the listener feel the transition. For example, "The Shutdown of Humanity" makes me imagine a lively party of robots pulling the plug on humans one by one, their joy juxtaposed with humanity's sadness. "No Man's Earth" feels so sad and bleak; it all feels over at that point. How did you want people to feel while listening to this record? 
It's exactly that! I agree, computer takeover is a recurrent theme in cyberpunk cinematographic and literary works, and this is what I chose for Transhumanism. I made it as an original soundtrack for an imaginary science fiction movie. Each track reflects a distinct and important part of that movie. While listening to the album, I want the listener to feel the same emotions as he watches any movie, to take him into the album universe. I want the listener to imagine each scene of that movie as if he is part of it.

Concept albums I feel are rare or rarely done well because of how much more difficult the process of creation is; how did you yourself go about creating the album? Did you start by writing an entire story then compose the music afterwards, or did the story evolve as you started writing the score?
Creating an album is not an easy task. Creating an album which tells a story is even more difficult. Transhumanism took me a year of hard work. When I start working on an album, I don't know anything yet about the story. I have just some vague ideas. For Transhumanism, I wanted the story of the album to take place in a futuristic city controlled by the machines. From this, I made [the album] Citymulation. I imagined a big computer who controls everything. Then I thought about a sophisticated A.I., constantly improved by transferring the minds of any human being into it. I composed new tracks and changed others as I find ideas. The story evolved at the same time of the music.

The songs and story really flow well together! It must have taken careful crafting to both create the songs and place them in the correct order; how many times did you listen to the album start to finish to ensure everything flowed how you wanted it to?
Aha yes! Transhumanism is probably the most difficult album I have ever made. I think I have listened to my tracks a hundred times. And the story evolved at least five or six times, as well as the track list! I even had to drop a couple of tracks from the album, because these did not flow with the other tracks. Some of them were remade completely.

2332 is a long time away; do you think it will really take that long for the machines to take over?
Yes, 2332 is far, very far! I don't know if it will take that long for the machines to rule the world! It could be worse! And I hope the future won't be like that. And if that were to happen, I hope Mr. Elon Musk has managed to send humans to Mars by then!

For the record, I enjoyed all your stuff up to date, but it's obviously different both musically and aesthetically. How do you feel about Transhumanism versus your older work?
I agree, the transition between Transhumanism and all my previous work may seem a bit brutal, but it's not the first time I have done darker tracks. When I release an album, I want to unveil a new side of myself. I like to mix styles, to surprise, even if that means disappointing my earliest fans. I think that will be the case with Transhumanism; I already have critics being like, 'Hey, there's too much distortion, it's not 80s enough!' but I will not take this into consideration, and I'm not worried at all about the album. I think this album is a sign of musical maturity, and it will much harder for me to do something better.

What lead to the desire to experiment with distortion? Did any particular artists or albums inspire you to go in this "heavier" direction?
First, I think an artist should evolve his style by experimenting with new sounds. Always making the same thing is boring and uninteresting! Before working on Transhumanism, I listened to a lot of darksynth tracks and other heavy music (things like Carpenter Brut's Trilogy, Justice, John Carpenter, Goblin, etc). It gave me a lot of ideas, which brought me to work on a darker album. I wanted to play with distortion. It took me a lot of time to get that heavy sound.

How did you go about the process of selecting all the new sounds and effects? Did you try new types of equipment or software?
When I start working on a new album or on a new EP, I want it to sound  differently from the previous ones. On my previous albums andEPs, I've used many software plugins that emulate the sound of some old 80s synths, like the MiniMoog and some synthesizers from Korg. I had a full range of different sounds, so it was easy for me to make something unique for each release.

Today, I'm using mostly hardware. Last year, I've acquired my first hardware synthesizer, a Novation MiniNova. It's the only synth you can hear in Transhumanism. It's really an awesome synth, despite the fact that it's not a direct descendant of an 80's synth. But it can produce 80's sounds as well as much modern stuffs. Recently, I've gotten some new hardware synths and a drum machine, which will serve as a basis for the successor of Transhumanism.

Speaking of other artists, the tracks with Perturbator and Dan Terminus are both unique and great in their own way and you can definitely hear their influence; what was it like collaborating with them?
Perturbator and Dan Terminus are really cool guys. I met them at the first edition of Synthzilla, the first French synthwave festival, and we had great times! For this album, Perturbator did not have a lot of time to work on Citymulation. I remember he worked on that track between two live shows. Anyway, he did his best to make something compelling and the result is awesome! For Night Vibes (our first collab), we spent an entire evening and it was really fun. On the other hand, it was very funny to work with Dan Terminus. When he sent me his work for Sequential Slavery, I had a big laugh when I read the filenames! I still laugh today!

This album can be mixed right into a Carpenter Brut/GosT/Perturbator/Terminus playlist. What do you think sets you apart from the rest of the darkwave/synth greats?
Good question! In fact, what distinguishes me from others is the influences. I know Perturbator mainly listens to metal music and I think it influences him a lot in his compositions. It's probably the same thing with Dan Terminus, GosT or Carpenter Brut. I don't listen to a lot of metal  and it comes out in my tracks. Even if I like Ghost or Metallica, it's not really my favorite kind of music.

How did you think the artwork and visuals turned out? Seems to fit very well with the content itself.
I think artwork and visuals are a very important part of an album. I wanted to have good artwork, something which draws the attention of the listener. And since I'm not a good designer, I asked Jim Gennisson to work on it. He's very talented and he works pixel by pixel! Dan Terminus who suggested him. When I saw his fan art for Perturbator and Carpenter Brut, I immediately thought he will be the right person for Transhumanism. I was very impressed about the artwork btw. That big skull computer, these capsules, all these cables lying here and there that city in the background. This imagery fits perfectly with the album.

Do you think this will be a permanent shift for you to the dark side or is it too early to tell?
I really don't know. It's indeed too early to talk about the future of Tommy '86, but I think I'll stay in the dark side for a long while. For the next albums, I would like to do something darker, something heavier, something different and, why not, something that sounds less 80s. But there is nothing concrete at this time. 

So who do you think wins in the end? Is humanity really forever lost?
Yes, of course! Do you know a darksynth album with a happy ending? If yes, I probably have never heard of it! Anyway, it could be interesting to write an album with an happy ending story.

Any plans to do some touring around this record?
At this time, it's too early to talk about touring. But I hope this will happen one day. Doing live sets is exciting. Touring would be even more. But first I'm focusing on the upcoming show at Helsinki. For the rest,  we'll see in the next few months...

What's your favorite part about being a Tommy? It's truly an awesome name. You must love the name if you incorporated it into your stage name! Does it feel weird being interviewed by another Tommy?
[Laughs] No, it's not really weird. But it's funny because Tommy is not my real name! I have chosen "Tommy" because of a famous game made by Rockstar!  I played it a lot when I started the Tommy '86 project in 2011. The choice was very easy!

Any guilty musical pleasures you have that you'd be willing to share? Any music you like that fans would be surprised to know you listened to?
I listen to a lot of different kinds of music: synthwave, darksynth, Italo-disco, 90s classic house, funk, pop rock, electro-rock, alternative. There are many artists I love. Many of them influence me, like  Jean-Michel Jarre or Kraftwerk. Both music are different and opposites.  Jarre's music is simple, fluid and ethereal. On the other hand, Kraftwerk's music is minimalist, cold and very industrial. I also love College and Maethelvin. They are part of the pioneers of the synthwave scene. Without them, Tommy '86 would simply not exist. There's another guy I love from this scene: Sferro. Before joining Blood Music, I was part of his own label, Girlfriend Records. There is something I love in his music, a little je ne sais quoi I can't tell. Every track he composes is just a pure gem. I also love Daft Punk and Phoenix, which are both parts of my musical roots. And, of course, I love everything from the Pert, GosT, Dan and the Brut!