Fusing the chilly intensity of darkwave with the melodic sensibilities of their ’80s synthpop heroes, four-piece outfit Magnetic Skies have just dropped their debut album.
We spoke to frontman Simon Kent to learn more about their sound and how they craft their retro-futuristic sonic worlds.
Could you give us a bit of background on Magnetic Skies and how the band first formed?
“It was really at the end of a solo project that I had around 2018. It kind of came to a natural conclusion. I had a festival date booked for the summer that year, and I’d already been kind of working with Jo Womar (synths/keyboard) a little bit in that period. We’d been in the studio tinkering around with more electronic-sounding stuff. So we had about four demos at that point. We had that live date, and decided to play it as a duo.
“Jo’s really studio-based, she’d only ever done stuff in the studio at that point, but we thought we’d play the show. Jo really enjoyed it. We then booked another quite low-key gig which went really cool. From there we decided to throw everything into it. We came up with the name Magnetic Skies as the first song we wrote together had that title.
“We wrote more songs, did a few more gigs and released a couple of EPs and things seemed to be going well and was being well-received. We wanted a bit more energy, so recruited Carlos Aguilar and Lenin Alegria on guitars and drums, respectively. They fitted in really well and became part of the band.”
The jolt of 2020’s lockdown must have been frustrating. How did you ride through that storm?
“We did what everyone else did, really, and wrote heaps of material and started planning our first album.”
Did the addition of Carlos and Lenin alter the band’s initial sound significantly?
“It certainly did change, although some of the songs that have made it to the album, like the title track and Into Paradise, are really pure synth-pop. But then, yeah you can certainly feel that there’s a different element and vibe with things like Darker Night and Empire Falling which have a darkwave/goth feeling.”
It seems like a shared love of synth-pop runs through your work. We’re reminded of artists like Violator-era Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure. How right are those reference points, and is injecting that quality something that you consciously do when writing?
“Well, Violator is Jo’s favourite album so that’s definitely an element. A lot of people compare our sound to Pet Shop Boys, but I’m not really a massive fan. Since people have started saying it I have dug into them and discovered a lot of stuff.
“I’ve always gone a little bit against the grain. When I was growing up my friends were into guitars and stuff which is quite a ‘default’ I think. But I’ve always been really drawn to keyboards and synthesisers. During the Britpop era I loved The Charlatans because they incorporated more instruments. I’ve always been a keyboard guy.
“I can just work my way around keys easier. I’ve always listened to synth music. As I’ve looked back and got into things like Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, Bowie’s ‘Berlin’ trilogy – those second sides especially, it became more central. It goes right back to the seventies for me. But the ’80s seemed to be an era where the songs were great, the production was great and the synths were front and centre.
“There were a lot of good songs and synths were everywhere, that element is really attractive to us. We wanted to write songs as well as create synth music. In theory I could sit down with an acoustic guitar and play any of these songs stripped down.”
How do tracks typically start for you – is it with a kind of sonic quality you’re looking for, a mood or even lyrics?
“It used to be that I always wrote on a piano and built songs up in that form first. On this project I do sit down and develop an idea of what ‘atmosphere’ and ‘feel’ I want to make, then actually the song is bolted on to the music now, which is a new way of working for me. It’s interesting to develop things in this way. I can’t remember the last time I sat down and just built something with chords. So it is definitely mood and feeling led.
“When I’ve got a bare demo of the song, it goes to Jo. She’s got her own elements in terms of sonics that she writes. Then it goes to the other guys to build out their parts.”
And which track on the upcoming debut record took the longest to get right, would you say?
“The song Empire Falling took a while as it really encompassed the whole feeling of the album. It’s not a big synth pop song, it’s got the slowest, moodiest vibe. When we were coming up toward the mastering process I realised I wasn’t happy with it, so we re-did the vocals. We took a lot of care on that on – because it’s the title track, people will probably listen to it a bit closer.”
What gear and technology is the cornerstone of your home studio?
“Everything starts off in Logic. I make first versions with the stock soft synths [ES2 and Retro Synth]. I’ve got a [hardware] Roland V-Synth in here, a Behringer DeepMind 12 – that’s my newest thing. I’ve also got a Roland Juno-106 and a Korg Poly-800. I create the basic tunes in Logic, then run the MIDI out into those synths. We then take ages tweaking and messing around. I’m really into running the MIDI out into the real synths – in reality you probably can’t tell the difference, but at least I know that we’ve done something to those basic sounds.
“Most of what you hear on this album will be the Juno, there’s a little bit of V-Synth on there. The DeepMind is a new acquisition – it’s on a couple of tracks. It’s mainly used for sequence lines. I’m really into that at the moment. I’m racking it up next to the Juno. It’s interesting lining the patches up and seeing how they compare. I tend to not use the DeepMind’s effects, I really like starting with the sound and adding everything afterwards in the mix stage. It makes things sound more analogue.”
Is there a big difference in your mind between using soft synths and hardware synths, do you feel more creative with a tactile keyboard?
“I hope that there’s an element of that. There’s possibly an element where it makes you feel like you’re being a bit more creative and that you’re actively manipulating the sounds and sonics [with hardware]. You really get granular about it.
“Like I say, we spend ages tweaking stuff that probably sounded fine half an hour before. If it’s a bass sequencer I’d put my synth in unison mode and bank up a load of sounds then play around to give it more depth. I’d never just leave it as it was.”
There are some really top-notch vocals on these tracks. Is vocal processing something that you’re particularly interested in, and how do you achieve some of these effects?
“There’s not any pitch-correction going on; what we have is three vocal lines going on at once. There’s bitcrusher-type distortions on some of them. Obviously there are reverbs and echoes and some flange-y stuff as well. It gives it a kind of robotic element. We’re always tweaking and that’s another thing that we spent ages going over near the end of the process.”
You’ve supported some impressive people, like Altered Images and Heaven 17 – how was it sharing the stage with such luminaries, and did you learn anything new from those nights?
“Clare Grogan from Altered Images was the nicest person in the industry that I’ve ever met. Heaven 17 we’ve played with three or four times now. I’ve learned a lot from Glenn [Gregory]. The first time we supported them we were still learning what we were all about on-stage. Then, you see someone who’s got 40 years experience playing live and it’s extraordinary.”
Do you prefer playing live or being in-studio?
“Before this project I’d have said it was all about in-studio, but we’ve got really good as a live band. I’ve appreciated things I didn’t appreciate before about those moments of communication and empathy with an audience. It’s all part of the package and equally important.”
What is on your ultimate synth wishlist, if money was no object?
“Definitely a Prophet-5. Through the ’80s that was so dominant and just sounded fantastic. I always think of artists like Japan who used it to great effect.”
What’s next on the agenda?
“We’ve got a few live dates coming up, and we’re also back in the studio, already writing album number two. This first album feels like a first chapter, which sums up our first few years, the second album will be a lot more sparse, a bit more like New Order. I’ve been listening to Unity by [coldwave duo] The KVB and I really like their use of sparser sounds. The album will incorporate some of these different things I’m hearing and liking in music.”