Wave // Breaker is a new series Nikolai will be running on Heavy Blog. The idea is to present a deeper look into the synthwave community, a community often dominated by the solo project and the one man band. As such, it provides a unique and fascinating psychological palette, which Nikolai will be attempting to pars using interviews with producers, artists and labels. Hold on, it’s about to get neon.
Brian Diamond is a jack of all trades in the synthwave scene: singer, songwriter, and record label manager. However, the road between where he came from and where he is now has been quite the bumpy one, a road of self-discovery. Starting out on an electric guitar and playing in a few grunge/alternative bands, Brian found it increasingly difficult to keep a four man band together as people moved away one after the other, resulting in a hiatus of playing and writing music all together; until the day when he finally waited long enough. “It was on January 2nd, 2014,” Brian recalled to me in great detail, “I was looking at the mountain of notebooks full of songs I had written and just thought about what a waste that all was; why did I put so much energy into that just to let it die?” Intent with not letting all of that go to waste, Brian purchased a keyboard, laptop, and Shadows and Mirrors was born. “I had no idea what kind of journey I was about to embark on,” Brian admitted, “my first EP, Dangerous, came out in 2015 on Nub Music and it was mostly a one man industrial electro record. I had no real idea about tone production or how to make a great mix or any of that. Some fans still like it but I find it difficult to listen to now.”
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The turning point for Brian, and the overall direction of Shadows and Mirrors, would come soon after with his initial introduction to the synthwave scene. “The first synthwave song I ever heard was Lazerhawk‘s “King of the Streets” from his album Skull and Shark,” Brian said. “I liked that record immediately and it was an instant light bulb turning on. As an artist I’ve always liked aggressive music and I thought, well, I don’t have to do the traditional aggressive electronic thing. Maybe I could mix some of this new synthwave influence I have heard and find my sound?” This influence would become apparent in his first full length release, ARIA, which ebbs and flows like water in such a way between the lighter side of synth and the darker variety by riding that proverbial wave. Brian agreed with this assertion, stating that “ARIA is still very much an electronic record steeped in industrial, but the track “In the Dark” has exactly what you’re talking about–ebb and flow. I really like changes in songs, I feel that’s where the meat is at.” Of course, peppering said meat with killer guitar work helps too:
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Brian’s production value has gone up in comparison to his humble beginnings as he now utilizes a AKAI MPK 249, a Macbook with Logic X Pro, a Shure Microphone, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, and a Line 6 Amp which he hooks up to his Schecter Hellraiser C-1. While his usage of the guitar has gone down a bit with each subsequent release, as the vast majority of his work is now instead being made via controller, it can still be heard at times.
Of course, to really talk about Shadows and Mirrors is to talk about it’s vocals which helps it stand out thanks to Brian’s unique voice and lyrical work with help from Mali Bonavia as well. While his instrumental work may come from an influence of Nine Inch Nails, Front 242, and She Wants Revenge it is equally evident enough that his vocal work is very reminiscent of Depeche Mode and New Order. Although, as he pointed out to me, his vinyl collection is vast as it ranges from Beach Boys to Megadeth so he has a lot of different moods and influences. That all said, even though Brian does in fact comes from a vocal background, and the songs he has written so far are all vocally driven, he does not necessarily consider himself to be a vocalist. When pressed on this, as there can be a bit of divide in the synthwave scene on the presence of vocals, Brian had much to say on the topic: “I believe any talent I have lies in composition and writing a good catchy song. Not everyone can write lyrics either, so I feel that sets this project apart from a lot of other stuff. As I get more into synthwave, I find myself listening to more and more music that has no vocals, and I am fine with it. There’s plenty of room for both and some nights as a listener I don’t want vocally driven music. I’m not sure if it’s easier with vocals to tell a story, but it’s certainly a more direct way. With instrumental work you can really make it about most anything. That being said, I’ve yet to write an entirely instrumental album, but I get asked routinely to do so–maybe I should!”
Wishing for him to elaborate more on his writing process, specifically in terms of telling a story with his music and conveying a certain sense of emotion or garnering a particular reaction, Brian continued explaining that “I want it to be an experience for the listener. I want to take you from here to there. If I’m not doing that, and at the end of the track you don’t feel that, I think I’ve failed as an artist. To be clear: there are no rules to songwriting. Just write what you love and, if you can leave your mark on this world with a piece of music, then you’ve done your job. As for your last question: I have no expectations when I release music as to how it will be perceived emotionally by the listener. I try to take myself out of that equation. I obviously hope they love it, but aside from that I don’t try to manipulate their response in any way and, if I am, then it’s something I’m not aware that I’m doing.”
“I honestly get most of my inspiration for new tracks from media clips. An idea will form there, like my new track “Son of Sam” from the Video Girl EP. I was watching a documentary on Son of Sam and thought, well, that would make for an interesting piece of music. So I found these two great clips and just starting writing. I think the whole song took me about thirty minutes to write from beat and structure to lyrics and laying the vocals. Then of course it’s the mixing that takes the real time, but the creation process? That part is easy. I write very stream of consciousness style and if you read some of my lyrics you would probably see it clear as day.”
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Perhaps the best example of everything coming together in terms of vocals, lyrics, and storytelling can be found on Shadows and Mirror’s latest full-length release, entitled Summerland, which had a successful crowd-funded vinyl release through Qrates. It was through this process that Brian created his own label, Electric Dream Records, but he did not stop simply with releasing his own material as he has used it as a means to seek out and help other artists get their own work released on vinyl as well. Which is exactly what he’s done by going in on another vinyl release with his latest Video Girl EP in a split LP along with Master System as well.
“What people don’t realize is to make a record you need quality master recordings suited for the vinyl medium and you also have to either have a designer that knows how to work with templates or you have to become a designer” Brian told me. “Since I worked with my friend Dave Decastris on the Summerland artwork I asked him if he was interested in doing more and, thankfully, he was because doing artwork for a vinyl release is not easy. You can’t just throw a .jpg or a .png up there. It doesn’t work that way. Then there’s the spine and disc labels, there’s a lot to it. I had been listening to this kid Michael Schadow, who goes by Master System, and was blown away. What he could do with four minutes was, I thought, truly original and I found myself going back to it again and again. So I asked him if he would be interested in doing a record, and if he would do me the honor of taking side A while I’d take side B. And that’s how the Master System/Shadows and Mirrors Split LP happened.”
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While Brian has certainly played a number of live shows in the past, with his various grunge and alternative bands, he’s yet to do so electronically solo under the Shadows and Mirrors banner. When asked if this is something he’d like to do, he responded that “I was actually asked in the last two days in fact to play a live show about 4,000 miles from my hometown of Rockford, Illinois. That’s a bit of a trek, but yes, I’d love to get to that point. I think it’s definitely the next step. I am content just creating but there’s really nothing like the feeling of a live show. There’s no match for that feeling when you are able to really connect with an audience.” When asked what else he has in mind for the future, Brian admitted that “the next thing I work on as an artist has yet to be decided. I like to conceptualize the album prior to writing. That said, I hope to have something else out by January of 2018. Gotta set some goals, otherwise I’ll just sit around eating cheetos all winter!”
Speaking of food, as I am apt to do in any interview I conduct, I asked him what goes on his perfect pizza and in his ideal burrito to which he responded: “My perfect pizza is anything from Pequod’s in Chicago. I am pretty open to toppings, but that place is the kind of place you order a last meal from; give it a look! I don’t do many burritos, but I am a carnivore so I’ll go with a steak burrito, cheese blend, lettuce, tomato, black beans, guac, some rice, hot sauce and salsa. Maybe a little sour cream. Gotta say I wasn’t expecting the burrito question.”
No one ever does.