Synth Britannia and the disconnected scene

I’ve been trying to find a music scene to stick my nose into at home in Vancouver. It seems to be that if you want anything electronic – it’s going to be dance music. If you want *songs* – well that comes along with guitars. Only.

That’s why I was excited when I came across the video from this local act called Humans. Did I just hear arpeggiated synth accents over someone singing a song? Yes I did! Drum machine? That too!

So when I saw that they had a show coming up at the Imperial to kick off their tour and brand new album I grabbed tickets.

I went to the show, made a couple of new friends, and generally had a good time. But as for the music – Humans and their 3 openers were all dance music. Beats without vocals. And the few songs that the lads from Humans did sing over didn’t make up most of the set.


Back to the drawing board in my coastal search.

A documentary called Synth Britannia gave me an unusual kind of hope. It’s a BBC thing on the explosion of synth music in the 80’s UK.

It turns out there was never any unified music scene. People were experimenting in isolated in pockets all around the country, Liverpool, Manchester, London, you name it.. but they didn’t have each other. A genre was brewing in basements, bedrooms, and garages, hundreds of miles apart.


That makes me feel a little less lonely about my lack of colleagues here on the west coast.

Martyn Ware of The Human League (“Don’t You Want Me”, “Fascination” etc.) said that they were all about punk music back then. 3 chords and the truth. They loved the songs and the attitude and the shows, but guitars and drums just felt old fashioned. They wanted to write good songs, but they also wanted to make something no one had ever heard before.

As electronic risk takers felt like they were all in their own world, a guy named Gary Numan came out of nowhere to hit number 1 on the charts. Breaking the floodgates open for everything that had been building. Uniting the network of basement synthists as a new north star to aspire to.

Numan never meant to make electronic music. He didn’t know what it was when he went into the studio to record his next punk album with songs he had written on guitar.. but fate smiled on him when he found a Moog synth keyboard sitting in the corner of the control booth from a previous session.

He had no idea what it was, but when he pressed and held one of the keys it made a swelling analogue tone that shook the building. It sounded like.. the future. His eyes went wide. Couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

Today he credits whoever left the Moog on that particular sound preset for his career, and quite possibly for the entire genre of synth pop.

Naturally, the label hated the album. They wanted loud guitars. What they got was.. strange electronic noises they wouldn’t be able to sell to the public. Through sheer determination he would finally break through with his cold and robotic future punk. In North America we probably all know him best for this one:

New Wave and Synth Pop were globally successful genres that started without a home. No scene or support system for the bands within it. Acts like Depeche Mode were laughed at by critics in the UK for not being “real music”. They would never really find an audience in England, instead they broke into the US market where fans were captivated by the “Britishness” of it all, going on to play stadiums.

What I’m saying is.. electronic music has always been a mess. Dance music has Berlin. Pop is almost exclusively electronic now, sure. But there’s a divide between that and what doesn’t want to be pop. And it can be hard to convince anyone to stand in the middle.

So when I find middle standers… I pick them up where I find them. And I may just have to accept that I’ll never find a local “scene” of people that like the same stuff I do. But I can certainly put together a show, and cram it onto bills with other bands.

Ahhh the ‘ol cram n slam. The only mullet at an afro convention. The only waffle in a pancake stack. Bring on the blueberry maple syrup.

Here are two of the artists I’ve been nerding out on lately. First would be Robert Delong, a midi device mad scientist! My hat goes off to anyone who plays an old gaming joystick like an instrument for a solo like he does in this Jam in the Van video. Plus, he’s in a van.

Second is Rachel K Collier. She’s less about bouncing around between instruments and more about triggering different sequences in Ableton and layering vocals in real time. Her earlier videos inspired me to get my own APC-40 MK II which she used to play (the light up coloured button thingy she keeps pressing, except her old version).

I loooooove me some Paper Tiger. The Mini Brute bass in the “oooooh’s” chorus gets me every time.


Destiny and her two boys
Destiny and her two boys

I intended on sitting down today to write about the song I just finished working on and to show you the equipment setup that I’ve been piecing together to play live since getting back to Vancouver.

But those words aren’t coming. And I know that’s because something really bad happened. A tragedy. I’m not sure if its my place to write about it, but for the past few days it’s been hard to think about much else. So I guess those are the things that have to be written, and I hope that these words land by illuminating rather than stepping on anyone out there who is suffering and mourning.

Brett is a friend of mine back in Winnipeg that I’ve made music with over the years. He’s got two awesome kids with his ex Destiny.

On the morning of Dec 31st, Destiny tragically passed away in a fire.

Yesterday was her funeral. The outpouring I see from her friends and family is astounding. Nobody can believe she’s gone. And they’re reeling in pain. I don’t know all the details of what happened and part of me doesn’t want to know. The point is that she’s a kind and hilarious woman of 30, in her prime.. and now she’s gone. The waves of sadness keep creeping up on me.

Everything she has ever set out to do in her life, is done. Left as it is. Wherever it stands. To be carried on without her.

Her two young boys are going to continue growing up, without a mom. She’ll never see the great things they accomplish (these kids are total weirdos and super smart) or meet the families they may end up themselves having one day. It’s just.. done. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, everyone around her is devastated, and I don’t even want to know how hard it is for Brett to be a dad right now.

For their kids to have to process something this senseless and absolute, it astounds me. Their course plotted on the map of life has now been slammed 100 degrees off course, nobody knows what it’s supposed to mean, and everyone touched is helplessly lost.

Anyone willing to put up with a houseful of musicians practicing the same 9 songs day after day, is already a saint. I remember practicing all summer long for the Forks Market busking license competition with Brett (we won an A class license!) and she never wavered in her patience while we occupied the living room.

She told me her secret strategies for flipping garage sale items on Ebay.. and how much she loved her (then) new job as a paralegal.

One night Destiny and a group of us friends and family sat around the kitchen table playing songs – Brett has always been a human jukebox and will play just about any existing song on command. Their oldest boy came downstairs right before bed and he was in a bit of a mood. Destiny said that she’d let him sing along to his favourite song if he promised to go to sleep immediately after. He was 100% into the idea. Everyone at the table went into a special rendition of Pumped Up Kicks just for him – his JAM! – he sang… er.. more like yelled the chorus at the top of his lungs. Cranky kid crisis averted and turned into the highlight of the night for everyone, thanks to her.

I didn’t know her that well but she’s always been.. around. There in periphery of my Winnipeg life. Doing things. And I thought it would always stay that way. Until eventually the Langoliers come to feast on the best and brightest of our (one day) elderly generation.

In my teen years I was out for coffee at Salisbury house with my friend Dale and his closest pals from school. Long before Destiny and Brett had ever met. She was there with another group of kids, with her bright coloured hair, being a goofball. She was cool. Dale told me that he knew her, and he felt cool.

I wish there were more meaning around this, some kind of purpose to what happened. But it reminds me of the book Slaughterhouse Five (WW2/aliens/timetravel)..

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

‘So it goes’, the narrator also says this throughout the book anytime someone dies. Which is often. And so where there might be a lack of understanding and meaning in a real life tragedy, a river of meaning can still be visited in the memories and moments that came before. Intact.

I probably shouldn’t end with this story but it makes me laugh. During a mid-practice break Brett looked into his kitchen sink and his face turned beet red. “EVERY TIME!! She leaves the dishcloth soaking wet in the bottom of the sink. Every. Time. It has stuff growing on it and smells so bad.. how am I supposed to wash my fork with this?”

I tried not to laugh, but I knew that feeling. Of a room mate, a friend, or a lover who you’ve known for so long and can make almost anything work with… but there’s always that ONE thing they do. It creeps up on you, and it shouldn’t bother you. But inside it makes you want to tear out your hair and karate chop through a brick wall.

It’s usually a little thing.. and we know it’s small. But it gets us. Maybe because they’ve been around and doing it for so long, that the assumption is – they’re going to be around and doing it FOREVER. How are we supposed to take a FOREVER of that wet dishcloth in the sink?

Only, we don’t get forever. And sometimes we don’t get tomorrow.

I can only speak for myself, but I feel like everyone who knew her would gladly keep a wet dishcloth in their sink for the rest of their days if it meant we got to say hello to her face again. Or at least, a proper goodbye.

So it goes.

Destiny’s cousin Crystal is running a “Go Fund Me” campaign for her two kids during this brutal transition because the house fire didn’t leave the boys with much. It has over 20 donations and more than $1,500 in support as of this message. Click the link if you have $50, or even $5 to pass along and help lighten the burden on two cool kids.