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Steel City Collective | An Interview

2018 saw the birth of a new dawn in the Synth Genre with the creation of a Collective that is much revered on the scene. The concept of "if you build it, they will come" was certainly the shot in the arm the Synth Scene in the North of England needed at a time when all events seemed to have pooled their resources and some what established themselves down south.

Speaking from experience all it takes is a speck of an idea to create something magical and it's fair to say two years down the line what they've created goes far beyond magic in the best possible way! With an established label that caters for those who like their Synth with a little light and shade, phenomenal acts like Aeronexus, Contre-Attaque and Brandon and an Events Team that put on Synth Themed nights in Manchester & surrounding areas SCC has become a massive success and rightfully so...

..for this months Spotlight series I reached out to the brains and the brawn (I'll let you decide who's who ;-) of Jonny & Bones from Team SCC to divulge all, take a look...


Tell us a little about the label, where you’re from and how you got started in the genre?

BONES: It all started on that fateful snowy evening back in February 2018 (and it really was like a blizzard outside! I'd put on an event called 'Overdrive' at The Washington in Sheffield, which was a night of video games and Synthwave. Jonny had spotted it on Facebook and turned up to see what the crack was. We got talking about our love of Synthwave over a beer and rest, as they say… is history!

JONNY: I remember thinking "who the hell is this guy putting on a show on MY patch!" So I jumped in my DeLorean and headed down there to have a word with this upstart. When I got there we just hit it off immediately, it was like we'd known each other for years. We chatted

and chatted for hours whilst he manned the decks, it was just really exciting to meet someone in your own city with the same level of passion for Synthwave.

BONES: We both had a thirst to start pushing the scene and decided to set up 'Steel City Synthwave' (as it was called originally), with the initial aim of just putting on a regular Synthwave night with us DJing and maybe promoting some acts from the scene. We were both such synth nerds and were just as crazy about the music as each other, but as with many others we also had eclectic musical tastes from different genres, including Rock, Metal, Trance, House, Electro etc.. We used our backgrounds in business to put together a simple brand and website, outlined our objectives and it all seemed to snowball from there. Jonny was already making 'waves' on the scene with his epic SYNTHAID charity compilations under the SYNTHAGEDDON moniker, and as he'd already become quite well known on the Twitter scene, things seemed to move really quickly for us. We pretty much managed

to achieve all our initial goals within the first 6 months, setting up our 'Night Run' live Synthwave events, doing some cool video interviews with highly regarded artists like Nina, LAU and Absolute Valentine, whilst also establishing the label.

JONNY: Those video interviews we did in my attic room lounge, you can find them on our YouTube channel and website still if anyone wants to check them out. We wanted to have our logo playing on a screen behind us, but the only way we could do it was to have it playing on a loop on my TV, so we had to put the camera on an ironing board to get it at the right height hahaha! I can still picture Bones sat there behind his ironing board whilst trying to do a professional interview with Nina and LAU.

BONES: I'd been in few bands as a drummer throughout the 00's, and did spots of DJing in and around Sheffield for years, playing a mix of French House, Electroclash, Breaks and Indie, and I was dying to do some something Synthwave based as this was the genre that brought all of that together. Steel City Collective in its current form came about in September 2018. We shifted our outlook having collaborated with a number of really interesting artists and we felt like the "Synthwave" in our name could potentially pigeon-hole us a bit too much. And as time progressed it was becoming clear that the scene was beginning to evolve beyond the retro stuff, with heavier influences filtering in to create darker more progressive sounds. We didn't want to prevent any possible opportunity, so we decided to open things up a bit with the "Collective", and to also represent the group of collaborators we were evolving into.

How has the company’s sound developed over the years and has the current market been of any influence in that?

BONES: We're relative newcomers to the industry and not afraid to say we're still very much a bedroom business (if you can even call it that). Our stable of artists is more based on reaching out to artists we find interesting and having something enigmatic about them, rather than what we think will sell. It's very much heart over mind, although obviously we do our best to apply strategy and promote our associated acts to put them in as professional a light as possible.

JONNY: Yeah, we've never really focused on the market or looked at what other people in the scene are doing as some kind of road map for how to develop our artists. We don't want to follow crowds or trends, we want to try and create our own. There are always cool new things that you see other people doing in the scene that you might end up adding to your offering, but we take great pride in developing our artists as individuals in their own right. We're simply trying to unlock their potential and discover who they're really meant to be as artists, so that they really catch fire and stand out from the masses. We've never tried to make them fit into a mould that Synthwave fans will find generically pleasing. I think that a huge amount of artists and labels want to just become Synthwave styled with the generic aesthetic that everyone else pushes, but all you're doing if you do that is becoming another faceless producer that is locked inside a scene struggling to get noticed. Anchoring to niche genres works fairly well for labels, but not so much for the development of artists, and that’s what we're all about.

BONES: We want our artists to develop and evolve organically into their true final form, in the Bruce Lee 'Jeet Kune Do' sense of doing things. We don't want them to be water poured into a single mould and stay that way forever, we want them to try many things and develop their sound, techniques, production and image by working hard at their craft and trying new things. We want them to have confidence and be fully clued up about the music industry and how it works, so that they are protected, educated and self- sufficient. In fact, we demand all of this. We're not here to churn out albums and take huge cuts of revenue, we always put the artists first, with the view that their development and success becomes our own as time goes by.

JONNY: The artists that really become successful and something special are always pushing genre boundaries and using their broad array of personal influences to create their own unique sound and image. Perturbator and Carpenter Brut are wonderful examples of ‘being who you are’ and pushing the envelope. We can all learn a lot from them. Not by simply cloning the music they make, or the imagery they convey, but by learning from how they've sculpted themselves so passionately in their own unique style, and really made themselves stand out from everyone else.

How would you describe the music you promote and sign?

JONNY: We've always tried to work with artists whose music we love first and foremost. If we don't love it then how the hell are we ever going to convince anyone else that they should love it? We look for people with bags of potential, but they also need a steely determination to always want to improve and become successful as an artist, a musician, and a business-person. They also have to have a natural ability to write music that creates authentic emotional connections within the people who listen to it. Bones and I share a lot of common influences such as metal, dance music, 80's and 90's post-apocalyptic movies, science fiction movies, retro games and gaming in general, so we naturally gravitate towards the

darker beat-driven side of Synthwave, so we therefore have many darker Metal influenced artists like MASKED, Contre-Attaque and now DEATHWIRE (a MASKED side project).

BONES: Contre-Attaque’s new LP 'Reborn in Steel' recently dropped and it's a real step up for him in terms of production and creating his own unique blend of Metal, Dance, Trance and Chiptune. He's put so much work into his craft that he's going to start to become a more recognised name in this scene, and we hope within the larger Alternative Metal scene.

JONNY: We're also really excited to develop and execute the next phase in MASKED's development. His music and production has taken a big step forward in the last 12 months, with him getting great recognition in the scene now through working on releases with the likes of FiXT Neon, Synthspiria, Last Rendezvous Records and Synthwave Radio. With his most recent LP 'Showdown' bringing an end to the saga of releases focusing on 'The Dying Cult' and 'The Priest', we now have the opportunity to really develop his sound and image to appeal to wider audiences. He'll be aiming to walk a similar path to Synthwave heavyweights, Perturbator and Carpenter Brut, the latter being his greatest inspiration.

BONES: The first artist we signed was Aeronexus. He was still only 17 years old when we saw him play at a gig in Liverpool, and he just blew us away with his Vangelis style Spacewave compositions that were really epic live. He was just full of boundless energy and we couldn't help but vibe off his passion and enthusiasm!

JONNY: The funny thing was that we never ever intended to start a label, but when we met Harry that day it just sort of happened, and we've just ran with it ever since. So really, we have him to thank for where we are now, it was his talent and energy that inspired us to be more than we thought we wanted to be. We've really loved working with him and trying to push him to develop his confidence and production skills. He's someone to really keep an eye out for as he wants it so badly. He's matured a huge amount this last year or so, and he's really learned the importance of working damn hard and believing in himself.

BONES: We're also lovers of the more ‘pure 80s’ influenced Synthwave, rather than the modern Pop Synthwave you see a lot now in the last year or two. We've worked closely with the likes of Beckett and Video Kids at our live events, and they’re a throwback to those 80’s acts that really bring that nostalgic feel and imagery. We'd love to work with them on the label. Maybe it will happen one day, we'll have to see, but we'll continue to promote their work and give them a platform to play live at our events.

JONNY: I got to know Brandon when he took part in the SYNTHAID charity releases, and then the three of us met in person at 'Retro Future Fest' a couple of years ago and just hit it off. We spent a good part of that night hanging out with you too Ashley, I remember us taking over Robert Parker's dance floor together at 2am! Brandon is genuinely the nicest and most warm and humble guy I think we've ever met.

BONES: We love meeting up with him for drinks as often as we can as he’s pretty local to us being a Yorkshire lad. We're really excited to work with one of the most talented pure retro producers in this scene and help to unlock his potential, give him more confidence and raise his profile as an artist. His new EP Retrochrome II will be releasing via SCC on 28th August 2020, and it's also available on cassette and vinyl.

JONNY: We recently welcomed Venator to our list of artists, who was again a guy I got to know through SYNTHAID. He just appeared on Beyond Synth recently as the featured artist, which was really incredible, so a big shout out to Andy Last for having him on the show. Since the first time I heard his music I’ve been captivated by the complex narrative he has running through it surrounding protagonist Victor Moore, and the fallout from Project V.

I'm even more captivated by how talented and diverse he is as an artist and musician. Nobody is making music quite like him, I guess the closest conceptually might be someone like Ogre. Venator's music is so intricate and crammed full of deep emotional content, as well as really rocking out. During any given track you could laugh, cry, nod your head, bang your head, or lose yourself in deep reflection and emotion. He really paints a rich tapestry and you just get sucked deeply into the world he has created.

BONES: On the surface we might be more associated with Dark Synthwave, but as you can see there's light and shade in our releases. We also want escapism in our music. That, after all, is a huge part of what Synthwave is about. Our artists are all so skilled at telling stories. They have great knowledge and capacity for creating textured pieces that whisk you off to far-away lands, be it a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk future, a sun-drenched 80's Miami beach, or the far reaches of the galaxy.

The scene has really evolved and fragmented and I would say we get contacted by a variety of acts who are desperate to find their way, and that’s great, we love that! Much of our recognition is thanks to Jonny talking to so many acts and that's definitely on the back of the SYNTHAID releases, which featured a whole host of really cool lesser known acts. There are some amazing tracks on those comps, by artists who can produce as well as anyone, but just aren't getting the recognition they deserve. We feel very fortunate to be able to work with a range of styles and talents, so we seem to cover the whole spectrum; light to dark, A-Z, Aeronexus to Masked to Venator, and a lot in between.

How has your 2020 been? With the market situation how have you all managed at the label to stay reasonably sane?

JONNY: We used to meet every Wednesday night and listen to some Synthwave, have a couple of beers, work on SCC stuff and make future plans. We both have very forgiving and understanding partners who have to put up with us coming round to each other's houses and smashing out the "Synth Music" in the attic every other week! We both took a month or two to take a bit of a break when the COVID-19 lockdown first hit. I think we both needed that time to unplug from the capitalist monstrosity that is life, so it's been great to disconnect from the world and enjoy this slightly alien, but much more chilled and welcome new way of

life. As many people in this scene will know, burnout is a real thing and many of us can go through it several times every year. So, we're feeling energised and in love with all things SCC and Synthwave in general once again, it's just a real shame that we haven't been able to do any new events so far this year.

BONES: Yeah, this current lockdown has really scuppered our live plans. We had a few gigs planned in collaboration with others in the scene, with a regular slot at the Meltdown eSports bar here in Sheffield. We'd also been asked to be part of the Q&A panel for the Rise of the Synths screening in Sheffield, and we were scheduled to DJ at 'Resistanz' cyberpunk festival at Corporation Sheffield, alongside our good friend and collaborator, Max Speed. We were beginning to gather some momentum, and there was so much we were looking forward to, so it's a huge shame, but we're already planning loads of cool stuff for when things start rolling again.

From a release perspective we've purposefully been slow and steady. There' no point rushing things. We'll always push to get the best from our artists, but it's also important to give them room to breathe and time to polish their music to ensure it's just right. It also means we can be more methodical about things to try and maximise opportunity.

JONNY: We've wanted to take our time developing the label because we're still fairly new to this very complex industry, and there's such a lot to learn. We also aren't millionaires, so we have to chip away at things and learn to do everything on the job with a limited budget.

BONES: There are a lot of pressures at the moment which have weighed things down a little (brought on by lockdown), and we're all too aware of the importance of maintaining momentum. Thankfully we have plenty of new releases scheduled including Brandon's new EP, more from MASKED and new SCC signees SNTHSTR and Nextroid. We're also currently planning some live streams to further promote our artists and keep our hand in at DJing.

JONNY: Yeah since lockdown we've definitely shifted much more heavily over to working on the label, and we're getting more and more releases and content out in recent months. We've had recent releases from Aeronexus, Venator, DEATHWIRE and Contre-Attaque. It's been a pretty crazy time, but it's so rewarding getting the music out there for people to enjoy and getting to work closely with the guys and share in that joy together. When you put so much work into helping them develop their music it really feels like you're as invested in it as they are, which makes every single release really special.

That reminds me actually, the very aptly named Contre-Attaque single 'Save The World' was a recent charity-release supporting #BLM charities, and a very special one for us. He was extremely passionate about doing something to help raise awareness and support the cause, and he said he would match any sales himself to double up the donation. That track is really unique and inspirational, and a previous mix of it was released on 'SYNTHAID 2018: Armageddon', so it's also helped to raise money for the environment too. Having the opportunity to give something back during these crazy times is a wonderful thing.

BONES: As you know, it's all about consistency in producing quality content and it can be hard to keep that throughput up when you've got demanding full-time jobs, but we're confident we can keep delivering and building on our success. One thing's for certain, the appetite for well-produced, dynamic, Electro music is stronger than ever.

Who are your personal influences in music today? Who did you listen to when you were growing up?

BONES: It's gonna sound a bit narcissistic, but our artists. They never fail to surprise us with new material, trying new things, and they're always driven to push themselves and bring in new ideas and techniques. That keeps things fresh for us and means we don't worry too much about what the scene is or isn't doing. For me Metal was a big influence and Thrash Metal cassettes were on regular rotation on my Walkman throughout my teen years. Then I started exploring what Techno was all about, understanding the art of mixing breaks and having a constant rhythm or groove, this coincided with me going out clubbing in the

late 90's, when you could argue the House and Techno scenes peaked, and the foundation was laid. I s'pose that started with the likes of Daft Punk, The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers, but then I continued to delve into the French scene with artists like Alan Braxe, Fred Falke, the Ed Banger guys, and of course Justice. There was just something about the 'French Touch' sound which encapsulated all the cooler slightly kitsch elements of Pop I'd heard growing up. That inevitably led me to finding Kavinsky back in the MySpace days (remember that kids?). For the first time you had this network of cool like-minded people you could interact with and see their own likes and influences. That's where I discovered the Valerie Collective and the & Friends compilation, and it's just gone on from there.

JONNY: Yeah I totally agree when he says our own artists. You live and breathe their music, it's just part of the process of running a label. I listen to each album we release A LOT, and the better the release, the more you enjoy listening over and over. I've lost count of how many times I've listened to some of them. I've been listening to Synthwave almost exclusively over the last 3 years, I just don't have much interest in anything else. Maybe I had a short period of a few weeks during that entire time where I felt a bit washed out with it, but then working on fresh new label releases always draws you back in and that passion for the genre comes back again, sort of like a snake shedding its skin.

I tend to have certain artists or albums that go on and off my heavy rotation. Perturbator, Carpenter Brut, Dan Terminus, Mitch Murder, HUBRID, KING STEPHEN, Level -1, Master Boot Record, Peter Zimmerman, Vampire Step-Dad and Vulta, to name-drop a few of my all-time favourites. I love Dark Synthwave and Cyberpunk, but I've always got time for Mitch and Zimmerman as they're both such incredibly talented all-round musicians. There are of course many other artists that I appreciate in this scene but we'd be here all night if I mentioned them all.

In terms of growing up, my first significant memories are of late 80's Pop Music. Madonna, Bryan Adams and Whitney Houston were all superstars back then. I'd make mix-tapes by recording the UK top 40 chart off the radio. Those tapes were formatted a bit like my own personal radio show, talking stupid shit with my pals between tracks, making silly noises, goofing around and other juvenile stuff like that. As I got into my teens I was heavily into Grunge and Brit Pop, with the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Oasis and Blur. I sort of opened back up to Pop and Chart Music in my later teens until

discovering Hip Hop, Dance, Trance and Electronic Music in general towards the late 90's and beyond.

From your Roster of artists have you any best and worse gig experiences to share?

BONES: I mean watch that video of MASKED tearing it up at the Buenos Aires Costume Party, dropping 'Bad Intentions' and the crowd going fucking nuts. I'm still in awe of him. He's only 21 years old and just showing people what it's all about, and it reminds me of when I was moshing or rocking out to Daft Punk at full volume. A combination of Rock pumped adrenaline and Electro bass beats. It's tribal!

Synth Nights 2 in Liverpool was a defining moment for us where we met Neon Proxy, Aeronexus and ALEX for the first time. We got to chat and compare our musical influences, and I was so impressed with these guys who we'd never met before, who were putting themselves out there and had all the same interests as us… It was just so cool. We really connected with Harry and Aaron (Aero and Prox), and they're now part of the team.

JONNY: Yeah there haven't really been any "worst" gig moments. Sure there's the odd technical glitch every now and then, but for us it's been all about giving our artists the platform to perform live and enjoying watching them grow and develop over time. Being part of the debuts of Brandon and Contre- Attaque were special moments, and getting to see Aeronexus perform alongside Lazerpunk, Lebrock and Absolute Valentine have also been real highlights.

Speaking of Synth Nights in Liverpool, that was my first live Synthwave event I think, and that's where we met for the first time Ashley. I saw you at the bar and was like, that's Synthronicity! It was really weird but cool recognising someone you'd only ever seen online at a gig and just being able to walk over and start chewing the fat like we'd known each other for years. We got through a fair few drinks I seem to remember hahaha. I met the legend Max Speed that same night as well! There will be so many more stories to tell in the future.

Is there anything or anyone on your radar? Any new releases or someone we should watch closely?

BONES: SNTHSTR (previously known as Synthister) who’d previously been featured on SYNTHAID approached us about releasing his next EP. He's putting out this energised, almost tribal Cyberpunk and Dark Synthwave. Definitely another hidden gem. Look out for the single release 'apôtre' which deviates from the usual dance-driven form of Darksynth and introduces a cool gothic element. As mentioned, we've had releases from Aeronexus, Contre-Attaque, Venator and DEATHWIRE recently.

They're all offering their own distinct styles and escapism, so we'd encourage everyone to check them out and give them a follow. Then keep an eye on MASKED. He's just going from strength to strength, working constantly on new material, side projects, and doing some great collabs with other awesome Dark Synthwave artists.

JONNY: We've also just signed a new artist called 'Nextroid', from Buenos Aires, and a good friend of MASKED. We got hooked up with some of his music and he's really very unique and has bags of potential. We're very excited to be bringing him on board. He's a bit of a hybrid of Synthwave, video game music, Dubstep and Drum n Bass. He's definitely trying to push the boundaries and that's what we're all about. There will be a single and EP coming from him in the not too distant future. We'll also be getting a new single from Neon Proxy hopefully by the autumn. "The Aarons" (as we call them) have put a lot of hard work into developing their sound and we're excited to help them unleash it when the time comes.

As for other things bubbling away behind the scenes, we're co-hosting new events in 2021 in

conjunction with Space Jams. There are 2 amazing events in the pipeline; the first is a fresh summery Retrowave event in June called 'HOTLINE Bristol', featuring Nina, Wolfclub, Beckett, Brandon and more acts and DJs to be announced. We can't talk about the other event just yet, but it's going to be really special. It should be being announced very soon for 2021 all being well. Follow both SCC and Space Jams on our social platforms for more information on those events.

We're really excited to be working with Jack and we have a great connection and working relationship. We'e both been wanting to push forward with live events for a while and working in collaboration has enabled us both to take things to the next stage. We're all striving towards becoming one of the premier Synthwave event organisers in the UK.

If you couldn’t promote or develop the music you do today what would you be doing? Do you have any hobbies?

BONES: Definitely something creative. I'd probably pick up the drumsticks again. It's been a few years since I played properly, so it would be good to practice a bit. Maybe even a bit of guitar. I used to game a lot more than I do now. Would be good to be able to find the time to do that again. Last game I immersed myself in properly was Witcher 3. Maybe Cyberpunk 2077 might be my next one.. I love cooking, so maybe I'd go to the trouble of doing a food blog or YouTube clips of me cooking up my favourite dishes or something. Even if we hadn't set up Steel City, I think I'd still be part of the scene in some fashion.

JONNY: I remember when you interviewed Absolute Valentine we had to cut out about 45 minutes of you two food-nerds talking about your favourite recipes, hahaha! For me, I'm massively into American Football, and playing fantasy football leagues. I think I'm in 6

fantasy leagues now and I help to support the running of a few hardcore leagues with my Brother. My Dad got me and my Brothers into American sports when we were really young. Mainly Football and Basketball. I think we had the jerseys from nearly every team! We always go to watch the NFL games in London every year as well. It would be cool to start up a fantasy league website/company if I wasn't doing the Synthwave thing.

I don't get much time for anything else in my life as I'm really dedicated to both things, but I've always loved sport and music, so I'm usually doing something to do with one or the other.

I have a degree in Scriptwriting for Film and Television, so I'd like to get back to doing some writing at some point. Personally, I feel like you really need plenty of life experience before you can write engaging stories and characters, so I'm sort of waiting for when I feel like it's the right time to delve back into it. I recently edited Aeronexus; lore book which is included free when you grab his latest LP 'New Vessel' on Bandcamp. It was fun to be involved with that so maybe I'll think about something for myself again soon. I wrote a feature length movie script many years ago which is an action/sci-fi film set in a dystopian future, full of cyborgs and mutants and people with cognitive superpowers. I reckon a Synthwave soundtrack would work perfectly with it, I was clearly ahead of my time!

Who would you like to play you in a movie of your life?

BONES: Tom Cruise maybe? I've been told I look a bit like Jim Carrey, so maybe him.

JONNY: You look more like Freddy Mercury! Maybe Rami Malek could play you hahaha. I'm a big fan of Tom Cruise's films actually, my mates always give me shit for it. Absolutely love the Sci-Fi stuff he does, like Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow. People seem to think I look like Jeremy Renner (which I really don't think I do), the guy that plays Hawkeye in the Avenger movies, and sometimes Bond himself, Daniel Craig. I personally think I look a lot

like F1 driver Kimi Räikkönen, who you know all about Ashley! So maybe we'd get Rami and Kimi to play us in some kind of 80's action movie. Something like: STEEL STREETS: Two ex-cops leave their former lives behind to start up a Synthwave record label, but the grime on the streets won't let them to stay retired for long!