While the whole ‘synth pop with tinges of John Carpenter’ craze has kind of reached critical mass, there are still surprises along the way. One of those is Flatliner, a two-piece, hardware-based synth group from Austin Texas. With their debut EP Black Medicine set for release next week via Holodeck Records, Flatliner have taken a somewhat growingly stagnant genre and revitalized it. It’s not a change of formula but a reconstitution of ingredients. Instead of relying on the ready-made effects that are easily offered through virtual workstations, Flatliner define their sound through their dedication to hardware-based gear. In preparation for the release, we talked with Flatliner’s Adam Fangsrud and Jesse Strait about the difference between hardware and software in electronic music, what happened in the five years between meeting and releasing this debut EP, and the current dystopian times that inspire their sound.
NOISEY: You met at a gear collective, what exactly is that?
Adam Fangsrud: Yeah, it was through the Ableton User Group. It sort of branched out in a bunch of directions here in Austin; it’s not just Ableton specific. I’m a trainer for Ableton and I met Jesse through another one of the local trainer guys here in Austin. We just started hanging out and messing around with gear and software, going to workshops. That sort of thing.
Jesse Strait: Yea, we did like a solid year of workshops before we started with Flatliner.
What is the makeup of this collective like? Are you pretty typical of the average person in attendance?
JS: I don’t think so. Adam may have a different answer, but I definitely thought that we were different. Not a lot of those people had kids, and Adam was expecting a baby and I already had three kids. So we have a limited amount of time, being our age and being parents, and we had a goal: we wanted to make music and we wanted to make a record. So we laid it out and, since we got along real well, it just naturally came together. The first time we got together we actually wrote the first song on the EP “Blasted Highway.”
I read somewhere that it took five years to complete the record, is that true?
JS: Well, Holodeck Records is part of that. We’ve had it done for awhile.
AF: I read that too, and I think what that dude was doing was kind of like reverse engineering from the point of when we first met. We’ve had sort of a rough version of this EP done for awhile, and we did a very limited self-release. We printed like five cassettes or something like that, but that is what put us on Holodeck’s radar.
JS: I think it was also because you started following them on Twitter and like the next day they called you…
AF: [laughs] yeah, from a fucking Twitter account. It Pays Off Kids!
Have you been working on other material in that time frame?
JS: Yea, we have 18 other songs done, I think…we have a lot of other material. It’s just that this EP has taken a long time to come to fruition. Holodeck had a lot bigger of a promotional agenda than we had realized when we first got with them.
You are completely hardware based correct?
AF: Yea its all hardware.
JS: Our process is: we jam, come up with a beat using a real 808, and — I have a pretty complex synching system — we would record loops into Ableton as we were making them with hardware. So we do use some software, there are some VSTs.
AF: Yea, the only VST instrument is the GForce M-Tron that we use for our Mellotron stuff, because we don’t have an actual Mellotron. But everything else is hardware.
Is the near-exclusive use of hardware something of a philosophy for the band?
JS: I think Adam and I both agree on that matter. We use the real deal. That even came into question when we decided to play live because we do not use any computers live — other than an Octatrack which I guess is a computer but its also a piece of hardware. That was one of Holodeck’s things: they like the music but we had to pull it off live. But, I think it is philosophical. I like turning real knobs.
AF: Yea that being said, though, it’s our preference, it’s definitely not the only way to go about things. Producers should use what they like and what they get good results out of. I’ve been around long enough with electronic music to where I can remember when people first started using computers. The buzz about them, that the possibilities were limitless with a computer. You can just have a laptop and you can fucking do anything with it. The reality of it is that everybody started using the same digital audio workstations, the same effects, and the sample packs. When you go through a lot of this computer and laptop-based music, you realize that a lot of it does sound exactly the same. The irony is that, although hardware seems limiting, when you are actually doing your own sound design and patching you can come up with really a wide variety of sounds. I lose track of the amount of times I’m listening to a record and I go ‘there’s the Ableton ping pong delay; There’s the Vengeance kick drum pack.” Although, I guess computers are theoretically limitless, I think a lot of people are just using the same sounds.
Yea I imagine that people rely on what is provided for them, as opposed to really pushing the software to create something new.
AF: Yea, I don’t think people get too deep into sound design a lot of times. Especially with younger producers, they just have someone they kind of want to sound like and just download one or two sample packs that will get them there.
What is the typical live show like?
AF: The live shows have been pretty well received. We try to play as much live as possible, but obviously we can’t play every single instrument. We have the Octatrack acting like a sequencer and triggering some drum machines and stuff like that, but I guess the core of our sound is me on the Roland Juno 6 and Jesse with a Sequential Circuits Pro-One. I think that those two synths are the core of the Flatliner sound.
You have a visual component as well, correct?
AF: Yea, we got a guy, Austin Davis, that is kind of like the third member of the band as far as the live iteration is concerned. He’s just like this crazy, mad, insomniac electronics genius and he hacks CRT Televisions and does all this circuit bending and such. So we have these stacks of old cathode ray televisions all reacting to the different music.
JS: Responding to the different synths. He pulls the different signals and actually runs an oscilloscope looking thing through the TVs.
AF: Yea by hacking the actual cathode ray emitters or whatever they are.
JS: But they are not always very reliable, so some of them won’t work.
AF: Or, they will blow up in the middle of the set.
JS: He is kind of messing with them the entire time we are playing.
Your record feels essentially like synth-pop but has a darkness to it that isn’t always normal for pop music. What role do you think darkness plays in your music?
JS: I’d agree with that. We are always talking about stuff like government surveillance and all kinds of dark stuff that is incorporated into our modern society. I think that bleeds over into our music.
AF: I guess we’re doing the cyberpunk, dystopian thing. We are kind of currently living in that retro-futuristic, cyberpunk dystopia right now [laughs], so it’s a music for the times.