MUNICH SYNDROME: Synthpop Obsession
Munich Syndrome have been around for years with their colourful, futuristic synthpop sound & with a fine new album ‘Robotika’ pushing all the buttons you could ever want, we felt a chat with the man behind the music, David Roundsley was long overdue. Here’s what he had to say….
Q. David, you’ve been making music as Munich Syndrome for a great many years now, would you care to formally introduce yourself & give us the lowdown on how MS came into being?
Music has always been the overriding passion in my life. The first time I encountered current music while walking through the quad in middle school, a switch flipped in my head and I never looked back. I went from being somewhat indifferent about music to suddenly becoming obsessed. I couldn’t get enough and I couldn’t find out enough about the bands and musicians I cared about.
I found I was a bit different from my friends in that I never stopped caring or being obsessed with finding something new. In my endless quest I connected primarily to music from the U.K. and Europe. At one point I owned over 25,000 albums, 12” singles, EPs and 7” singles. Everyone I knew had a smattering of top 40 in their collections, and that was about it. Once I began making decent money driving for a transit company I decided to buy a synthesizer (a Korg Poly Six). I enjoyed using it enough that I bought a second keyboard (Sequential Circuits Six-Track) and a Sequential Circuits drum machine. Aside from some piano and accordion lessons when I was 8, I hadn’t really done anything with music. With the new keyboards I really learned to play. Over time I started to write songs and experiment. The timing was perfect because that's when one of the first Porta-Studios hit the market. Using cassettes as media, it was relatively inexpensive and easy to record song ideas and then build upon them.
Munich Syndrome had a lot of starts and stops and long stretches of inactivity. While I wanted to put a band together, the people I met either didn’t have the same musical reference points, the same vision, or lacked musical inclinations.
I envisioned a vocal component to my music, but after some failed experiments with singers and my own attempts at “proper” singing, I gave up on that aspect. When the pressure was off at my preconceived idea of what Munich Syndrome should be, I was able to relax and allow things to take a more natural course.
A few external changes were taking place too. When I moved into a condominium, I had to keep the volume low. This affected my writing and inspired me to migrate into an all-digital studio. I started using soft-synths, which had a broader palette of sound. It seemed more natural to follow a more down-tempo electronica approach while I was learning the new studio environment. Sensual Ambience was really my learning a new way to create music. One of the synths in the new studio functioned as a vocoder. I viewed this as another texture to add to the down tempo experiments. As I was listening to a lot of electro clash then, I connected the dots and became comfortable putting my own voice into the mix. This is how Munich Syndrome arrived at where it is today.
Q. Why Munich Syndrome? Why not Berlin Syndrome or Frankfurt Syndrome? Or San Carlos Syndrome :)
In 1982 I went with some friends in college to see the movie “Android.” Its star, Android Max, was kind of a putz who didn’t seem to do things right. The one joy he had at the end of the day was to listen to music broadcasts from earth. Once day, Max overhears he is slated to be disassembled, his parts to be used to build a newer, better android. Listening to his last broadcast from earth, he learns that androids in Munich have risen up against their makers. They were diagnosed as having “Munich Syndrome”. I liked the context of technology and emotions.
Q. Your website intro makes it very clear (if it wasn’t already) that you are very much a child of the 80s but without resorting, for the most part, to the usual clichés that such a title implies, presumably your influences go far beyond the usual Depeche Mode, Human League inspirations, etc.
Technically, I’m a child of the 60’s, but I guess my adolescence ran longer than it should. <g> I got swept up by the bands of the late 60’s. Then as the 70’s began to unfold, I started listening to Bowie, Queen, Suzi Quatro and the Sweet (NO ONE I knew was into any of this). While Disco was breaking (and I was steadfastly ignoring it) I noticed a switch in band names showing up in the record shelves. The ornately long names from the 60’s (Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Grand Funk Railroad) were now being replaced with the groups (the Sex Pistols, the Clash, etc.). I jumped head first into these unknown quantities (I had read about them in the music papers, but NO ONE was playing them locally). It was enough to keep me hooked until the next wave: Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, OMD, Warsaw / Joy Division / New Order, etc. My “a-ha moment” (not the band) was Soft Cell. I loved their material much more than just Tainted Love. I was in heaven, and when I found out it was a duo and one person did the music, that’s when I thought, umm, maybe I could do that as well.
Q. There’s a sort of ‘urban myth’ going around that anyone in the US back in the day who liked European/New Wave music (basically, not the soft rock music their peers were into) were regarded with suspicion & even, in some cases, persecuted for their likes, did anything like this ever happen to you?
I was lucky living in the bay area, as regardless of popularity or trends nationwide, bands that might only make two or three stops in the US would generally hit San Francisco. While most of my friends were scrambling to get Springsteen or Fleetwood Mac tickets I was in heaven being able to attend Soft Cell’s Irony Tour, or catch Ultravox, Blancmange, or Erasure in very intimate settings. The club I saw Erasure on their first tour was tiny and it was not even remotely sold out. I was shocked that everyone didn’t think Vince Clarke was God and would want to see his new band. That being said, I’ve had openly hostile interactions with people during that period. I had white-blonde spiky hair and wore a requisite leather jacket and that kind of flew in the face of the hippie / stoner element that can still be found even today. I was on my way to a show and stopped to fill my car up. A woman was sitting by the side of the road and got up and just started screaming “POSER” at me over and over at the top of her voice. It was also interesting on a Saturday night in Tower Records at Bay and Columbus in San Francisco. The place would be packed and you’d see conversations and friendships started over what people noticed someone else purchasing. It was VERY social. And I’d be standing there with an armful of 12” imports ranging from Soft Cell to Gang of Four, Telex or the Human League, and never once in the thousands of times I was in there was there even a smile, glimmer of recognition or a comment about anything I was purchasing. It never seemed to be as crowded in the import or 12” single section as the rest of the store.
Q. All of your albums have been released on your own Syndrome Sounds label. Did you shop around to try & find interested parties beforehand or was this independence always a part of your game plan?
It never occurred to me that a label would be interested. I totally understand that it’s a business, and they’re looking for product to push into the pipeline and move as many quantities as possible.
While I think Munich Syndrome’s music stands on its own, I doubt I’m particularly marketable from a label standpoint. If you do a quick scan of the top sellers, and with very few exceptions, all of them could just as easily be models or actors. If we aren’t being censored here it’s almost like for music to be considered good there has to be a “fuckable” factor with the artist. I can hear the marketing meetings now “if we show more skin, then the song will sound better.”
I wanted to get my music out and the shortest distance between any two given points is a straight line, so I established Syndrome Sounds to distribute my music and also function as a publishing arm with ASCAP.
Q. Given that you’ve since made your name with a very different style of music, that your debut release was ‘Sensual Ambience’ which is, for the most part, a very relaxed album, it’s as if you were throwing out a curve ball to the listeners. Does the fact that this material was recorded between 2002-06 indicate you might originally have had a different idea as to what market MS could follow?
The one thing I had on my bucket list was have one my albums sitting on the shelf next to the many albums I’ve loved and listened to over the years. I believe it was in Lester Bang’s book on Blondie when he described drummer Clem Burke as being’ the ultimate Beatle’s fan who transcended being a fan and became it’. That was the goal for me and I wasn’t entirely sure there would be another album or if it would even be noticed or liked.
There really wasn’t a conscious bait and switch with ‘Sensual Ambience’ on into ‘Electro Pop’. You have to go back to my own listening habits and how I view other artists. A good example is Gary Numan. I discovered him through his first hits “Are Friends Electric?” and “Cars”, which I was really into, but I loved the “Dance” album equally. I was a bit surprised on my first listen, but that album gave me a deep appreciation of a very quiet approach to electronic music. It was one I loved putting the headphones on and really listening to. Another example is Siouxsie. All of the Banshee’s output varies in tone and presentation. I don’t really question it when an artist explores another avenue or style.
The only reason the ‘Electro EP’ was included was that I wasn’t sure there would even be another album and this was what I had ready by the time I was ready to pull the trigger. Had there been more money, I’d have much preferred to keep the album down to the first 9 tracks (well, maybe throw in ‘Regret’) and then release the ‘Electro’ EP, as an actual EP.
Q. Mind you, I guess there was no room for confusion as to what your next release ‘Electro Pop’ was about!
I did feel like I gave some warning with the Electro EP! <g> The new challenge I faced with Electro Pop was the learning curve with the vocoder. I liked it and wanted to embrace it, but now I was learning where that lived in the mix, EQ, etc. and was a bit tentative. A lot of the ideas were just playing and experimenting with the songs sort of coming together and happening, there was no grand design.
Q. I’ve always thought that your music would have been excellent listening for the futuristic playboy in his high-rise penthouse. Is your interpretation of your music similarly fantastic or is there a more real-life influence in there too?
Music has always been a big escape for me. Also, I grew up in southern California not too far from Disneyland. We went quite a bit and my favourite part was Tomorrow Land. They had a ‘House of the Future’ that I always thought would be a great place to live. For most of the songs on Electro Pop, I was living in a high-rise condo, so there was a bit of influence there as well.
Q. Another hallmark of your releases is that they’re all good value for money & this continued with your next release ‘Electronic Ecstasy’. Presumably this is another plus point in being independent of any labels.
Well, this is something I’m not sure works for or against me. As a music consumer, I love a fully packed album or release, the more material the better as far as I’m concerned. From a business standpoint, having more material on a release means that when it goes digital there is only one price to deal with. So this makes all the songs available as separate entities. For an indie artist (and you don’t get much more indie than this) the costs of releasing a digital single or EP isn’t that far from what it would cost to release a full album. I’m also hopeful someone who liked one or two songs would be more inclined to check out a full album, as the purchase price of the album is a way better value than buying tracks individually.
Q. Late 2012 saw the release of your most recent album ‘Robotika’. This, it seems, veers more towards traditional synthpop realms with a more powerful outlook in places as well as a greater analogue content on such tracks as ‘Just A Lonely Robot’ & ‘Perfect Day’, to name but two. Was this a deliberate move on your part to incorporate more widely familiar elements?
This is the first album I wrote from start to finish, with the exception of “Memories Drift” which was written in 2007. One of the things with the vocoder was, and I don’t hear it, but comments have been made that it gave robotic overtones or implied robotic context that really wasn’t intended when I wrote them. I felt it had become the elephant in the room stylistically. Once I did that, I really saw a journey for the protagonist. I’m still not sure if it’s a man or a machine, but technology has changed us irrevocably. If it weren’t for technology I wouldn’t be rendering my songs or doing the type of artwork I do. I see the good and the bad. So in writing this with an overall bigger picture in mind, I was less experimental with playing around with sounds and narrowed the focus on what I felt complimented the vocoder. This is the first release where there’s no piano. Also, each track has a vocal element to it.
Q. Another stand-out track is ‘(I Do) The Robot’, a track you can’t help but listen to with a smile on your face…..
Thank you. The groove and the “I Do The Robot” just fell into place. I liked it, but I did worry it might be too repetitive or annoying as it was coming together.
Q. Outside the studio, have you ever played live?
No. My set up is strictly my studio. Also, it’s seriously old (pushing 12+ years, knock on wood) and I doubt it would travel well.
Q. Has your musical set-up expanded over the years or become more modern or is it still primarily a vintage/analogue set-up?
My setup expanded about the time I started using ProTools, and then it has progressively shrunk once I migrated to using Logic. I use almost 100% soft synths at this point. Thet one consistent factor regardless of using all analogue equipment or all digital, is I always manage to max out the number of tracks and push the processing past the breaking point!
Q. So, given that you don’t have any live gigs to worry about & only ‘real life’ to distract you from Munich Syndrome what are your thoughts concerning what your next album might sound like?
Well, the past four years have involved a lot of family issues with a fair amount of people passing on. I’ve been thoroughly appalled at how health-care / social services treat the elderly and ill here in the United States. It seems like we’re not individuals any longer, but a commodity, not only up until we pass, but beyond that. While I’m still forming ideas, I think this lack of humanity towards the people who need it the most will influence the next album. In terms of sound, I have a lot of ideas, but I’ve found when it comes time to actually sit down, I start playing around with a sound or a beat and almost always go someplace entirely unplanned.
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