#CREATORTALK is a series of articles and interviews, with a focus on the creative industries and the talent working within them. In this edition of #CREATORTALK, we talk to Belfast based musician Peter McCaughan, aka Alpha Chrome Yayo.
PW – Hello Peter. How’s it going?
Hello! Thanks for talking to me. Y’know, it’s not going bad. It’s a rare sunny day here so I’ve been listening to Van Halen’s 1984 which, as far as I’m concerned, should be a legal requirement when the weather demands it.
PW – So, first things first: how would you sum up who you are and what you do?
In a nutshell, I’m a musician from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and I guess what I make falls largely under the synthwave umbrella. More specifically I’m a weird dude with a penchant for “sax ‘n’ axe” solos, late night video tapes and musical misadventure.
PW – What’s your background in music? Did you begin performing at a young age?
I did, yeah. Like a lot of people I had a few piano lessons at a young age. And then some sax when I was a little bit older. But it was when I turned into a troublesome teen I got my first electric guitar and it just felt like BOOM, the floodgates burst open.
I always wanted to play one. The first movie I ever saw was Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and I was obsessed with it. Shit, I’m still obsessed with it. Listening to the kickass hair metal soundtrack I knew I wanted to play guitar like that, but it seemed so otherworldly and unobtainable. It sounded like the future.
Thankfully my wonderful parents have always been incredibly supportive of my musical endeavours, and one Christmas they gifted me a starter Strat and a practice amp. I was instantly blown away by how wild this thing sounded even when I just touched the strings. Hell, even plugging the cable into the amp sounded badass. And suddenly, making cool music seemed like something I might be able to do.
PW – What attracted you to the kind of music you make now?
It’s funny, the type of music I’m making at the minute is at least somewhat en vogue – there was even a Wall Street Journal article recently about this being the year of synthwave – but really I’m just making the records I’ve always wanted to make.
I hope that doesn’t sound arse-y, I guess what I mean is that the ‘synthwave’ umbrella is an interesting (and freeing) one as it means so many different things to different people.
Obviously it leans heavily on ‘80s influences, but it’s not just nostalgia for the sake of it, or at least it shouldn’t be. For me the best thing about that era was the emphasis on experimentation and breaking new ground, which is exactly what my favourite artists (synthwave and otherwise) do. And at what I at least try to do!
PW – Who or what are your biggest inspirations?
Steve Vai is definitely up there. I think it sucks when he gets branded as ‘just’ a shredder. Like, the guy plays fast, but has also always been an extraordinarily inventive, exciting musician. I mean, when you spend so much time hanging around Frank Zappa and David Lee Roth, it’s bound to get your synapses firing in strange and unusual ways.
Like most synthwave-ish artists I’m heavily inspired by movie scores. In fact, I honestly think the genre straight up wouldn’t exist without Tangerine Dream’s beautiful soundtrack to ‘Thief’, which permanently lives in my car. Giorgio Moroder is a major one too, those swaggering Italo beats… man, it sends shivers up my spine just thinking about ‘em.
Also from that part of the world I really love Fabio Frizzi’s soundtracks to Lucio Fulci’s psychedelic splatter flicks, and just about everything by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin. All those brain-searing synths you’d hear on midnight movies.
Oh, a very specific example, but the soundtrack to The Burning by Rick Wakeman is pretty much what made me want to pick up a synth in the first place; it’s hugely underrated and really worth listening to.
It’s also worth following Rick Wakeman on Twitter. Not only is he a prog rock legend, but he spends a lot of time tweeting about shitting. It’s surreal and awful and wonderful all at once.
PW – The influence of retro cinema and television is very evident in your work. What draws you towards folding these into what you do?
I’ve always been a massive, massive movie fan. I already mentioned Bill and Ted and the profound effect that movie had on me, but there were tons more that I saw when I was young that kind of informed my whole existence.
Something I think about a lot is the excitement of my local video rental place; I remember the exact smell of it – plasticky posters and the singed-rubber scent of burnt out tape heads – and how cool it was eyeing up those big boxes with jaundiced zombies lurching out of graves, or tough dudes impossibly one-handedly brandishing .50 cals.
I guess what I’m saying is that I love the experience of movies. It can be a shared thing, or something deeply personal, but either way there’s that feeling of sitting down, pressing play, and knowing that for the next couple of hours you’re gonna go on some sort of journey.
If I can capture something even approaching that feeling with my music, that thrill of adventure, taking someone off into a different world for a little bit, then I’m definitely doing something right.
PW – Are you interested in branching out into other areas – such as providing soundtracks for movies or games?
Oh totally, this is something a few people have spoken to me about and I’m starting to look at seriously. I’ve already mentioned my love of cinema, and I’m a big fan of games too.
My particular tastes lean towards dusty old CCRPGs and simulation games, but I’d love to write a score for any type of game. I’m also thinking of releasing some ambient tracks designed for tabletop RPGs, which I also adore. It’s great that they’ve seen such a resurgence; it’s the cosiest, loveliest fun, and it’s a huge, humbling compliment when people want to muck around in silly worlds you’ve created.
But yeah, I digress. 100% yes – I’m really keen to score movies, games… anything! So if anybody is reading this and has a project they want to run past me, please don’t be shy, I’d love to hear about it. Slide into my DMs. My Doc Martins.
PW – Why do you think that retrowave and similar styles have become so popular over the last few years?
I think that, like the resurgence of roleplaying games, part of it is a widestream hankering for nostalgia, and the “mainstreamification” of stuff that was previously seen as maybe being kind of dorky. Like ‘em or loathe ‘em, shows like Stranger Things and Black Mirror definitely have a hand in it.
But beyond that – and more interestingly – I think a lot of people who weren’t even born then identify with the substance and flavour in ‘80s music, movies and culture. And for me that harks back to that sense of freedom, of being able to find joy and creativity anywhere you like.
Like, rad axe solos and boxy sports cars aren’t cool ‘cos they were big in the ‘80s. They’re cool because they’re cool!
I should stress, I’m not saying there’s no awesome, groundbreaking art being made these days, as that would be nonsense. I just think lots of people look to synthwave as it can be a genre of unbridled creativity – one which looks forward as much as it looks back – and that’s very cool indeed.
PW – There seems to be a strong sense of community and support among artists in your field. Why do you think this is?
The sense of community is honestly incredible. I’ve been involved in various other artistic scenes in a whole bunch of different guises and, without a doubt, this is one that – in my experience – offers unparalleled levels of support.
Not to sound like a broken record (or if I do, I hope it’s a good one, like Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon), but I think, again, it’s that sense of freedom and excitement.
This isn’t just a bunch of grognards going apeshit over Schwarzenegger movies and Sega games. I mean, I resolutely 100% fit that bill sometimes, but it’s much more than that. It’s breaking new ground, forging friendships, collaborating on exciting work.
Sure, every ‘scene’ is gonna have its drama and its dickheads, but the drama/dickhead quota is so, so low to the point of near-non-existence, and that’s a real blessing.
PW – Which other independent artists would you recommend people check out?
There are tons of utterly incredible artists putting out music that consistently blows me away. Bart Graft is a major one – the breadth and scope of his body of work is just insane, and exploring it was highly instrumental (no pun intended) in getting me interested in releasing my own music. His influences and output are so wide reaching, and it’s really refreshing.
Other artists I absolutely adore include Full Eclipse, Cat Temper, Dimi Kaye, Eli Raybon…I mean, there are way too many to mention, but that’s a handful of truly inspirational people making music that I consider to be, honestly, life changing. Everything being put out by those artists is so inventive, exciting, engaging…just utterly wild releases that blow me away with every listen.
It really excites me that there are tremendous artists literally on my doorstep as well, and I have some close friends releasing staggering material. There’s Danny Madigan, who I’ve collaborated with in the past, and he’s just ferociously talented. He’s got a new single out called “Hunter” and it’s a really powerful listen. He’s also my neighbour, friend, ally, confidant… we spend a lot of time hanging out in Keanu’s, which is my Reeves-themed bar, in my shed. Yeah, it’s a glamorous rock ‘n’ roll existence.
Other incredible Northern Irish artists in that oeuvre include Transpacifica, who excels at lush, dreamy synthwave and tape loops, as well as Woodvale Pass, Aysyne, Red Marker. And stylistically related is the always-outstanding Arvo Party, who wows on every conceivable level.
PW – This site focuses heavily on creativity and the real people behind the art. How does creativity affect you on a day to day basis? Does inspiration typically strike you out of nowhere; or do you have very specific ideas and goals for any project you decide to work on?
First up, I think it’s excellent that PW focuses so heavily on exactly that. I’m still astounded by your review of my last EP, Malediction Boulevard, and how you so instinctively knew what it was I was trying to do with it. It was like having a few layers of my brain peeled back and probed, in the loveliest way. That attention to what fires up the people behind the art counts for so much in my opinion. Not just as a guy making music, but as a person!
Creativity is a funny, fickle thing. Sometimes it feels like ideas are pouring out, and other times the well can be bone dry. That being said, if you really wanna get stuff done, deadlines are a great motivator – both self imposed and otherwise. But the flipside of that coin is that you have to look after your mental and physical health. There’s nothing wrong with having a fire lit under your ass to get work done, but music – even in terms of a career or sideline – is best served to soothe, rather than burn you out.
In terms of inspiration… haha I mean, it can come from anywhere. I’ve gone on a writing spree in the past after listening to Randy Edelman’s cheesed-out-but-brilliant score to Twins (which he later kind of rehashed for My Cousin Vinny), after binging on cyberpunk novels in the bath, going on bayside walks or just having whisky-flavoured conversations with friends.
Everybody works differently, but I’m a big fan of having a central concept for a release, even if it is just a single. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-on space opera; it might be a simple theme…something like a scorching day at a dayglo racetrack, or the teen-movie excitement of bunking off school. But sometimes it’s fun to do something more sprawling and grandiose too.
Above all else, I want to paint big clear pictures for listeners, which can be taxing when the lion’s share of my stuff is instrumental. But that’s what makes it fun and I relish the challenge.
PW – What are your ambitions for the future?
Although my music doesn’t always sound serious, I’m resolutely, steadfastly serious about it. I love when artists are playful with their output, but clearly mean business – it’s no bad thing at all. I mean, look at Zappa, for instance. Eternally hardworking and with an incredible, eclectic body of work, even when it is often patently absurd.
So yeah, I want to keep making music and taking it as far as I can. I’m already extremely grateful for the small fan-base that I have – I like to aim high, but it blows me away that there are a few people all over the world listening to what I’m doing. It’s beyond wonderful, what an incredible compliment. I still thrill when I get a Bandcamp email telling me someone’s bought something of mine. It’s not all about money obviously, but that little (or not so little) signifier that a person thinks something I’ve made is worth them spending actual cash that they have earned on…wow.
You mentioned movie and game scores; that’s something I’m really very interested in, and I have some exciting collaborations in the pipeline too. I’ve a pretty jam-packed release schedule lined up as it is, and I know I’ll get sidetracked and excited about other things and, I dunno, put out a concept EP about a clockwork planet or something.
Basically, I’m going to keep making music and lots of it. And I’ll always be eternally grateful for anybody listening, sharing, purchasing.
PW – In this kind of economy and industry, it can be tough to feel like you’re moving forwards sometimes. How do you battle these feelings when they come up, and do you have any advice to other people who might be struggling in a similar way?
It’s a tough industry that can be really crappy in a multitude of ways. There are always gonna be times where it feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, and – while it’s amazing that home recording tech allows so many people to get involved in making music – it can be a lonely endeavour, and a crushing one if things don’t go to plan.
I don’t think I can really offer much in the way of advice without sounding trite, but thankfully there are places to go, if you’re struggling. Help Musicians, for instance, do excellent work.
As with all endeavours, if you need help, try to work out the best way to ask for it and don’t be afraid to do exactly that.
PW – And final question. Actually it’s more of an invitation. Feel free to use the next few sentences to self-promote the hell out of what you’re up to.
GET READY FOR A WORD BLAST! Nah, I’m joking. But I do have a new release coming out very soon and I’m tremendously excited about it. I get giddy around all my releases, but this one in particular I’m reeeaaally fired up about.
It’s called Take My Advice and it’s a sax ‘n’ axe celebration of scuzzy ‘80s cop movies. You know the sort…mismatched partners, late-night stakeouts, and just one day to retirement. I love that world of tough-but-flawed cops, of vice, extortion and morality murkier than the crumbling office decor.
Stylistically it’s pretty ambitious, but I’m very happy with it. It comes out everywhere on May 24th, but you can pre-order on Bandcamp right now, and you’ll get the title track immediately. It contains some of the wildest shredding I’ve ever committed to tape. Bandcamp buyers also get a bunch of other extras too – bonus tracks, alternate artwork… a badge and a gun.
Alright, maybe not the last two. But the rest is legit.
Shit, that really was a word blast after all. Ah well. Thank you for having me, Pastel Wasteland rules. I’m gonna watch Twins now.
You can find Alpha Chrome Yayo here: