Explaining the ways of cynics and cycles, Brian Haught speaks with ReGen about the first new Synical album in 11 years.
An InterView with Brian Haught of Synical
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
It’s been more than a decade since we’ve heard from Synical, but Brian Haught has certainly not been idle in the interim. As he explains in this InterView, the band’s methodology and approach to songwriting and production has always been a meticulous and time-consuming process, demonstrating a great sense of care and craft that seems like it should be a given in the modern musical landscape. As well, the band’s music extends beyond the trappings of genre – although falling into the general realm of darkwave, Synical’s music is as varied as the numerous players that have brought it to life, incorporating elements of industrial, alternative, gothic, post-punk, metal, and synthpop… perhaps not unusual in this day and age, but provocative and energetic nonetheless, with the release of This Will All Happen Again prophetically signaling the band’s return after 11 years. From working with the legendary John Fryer to the influence of David Lynch’s surreal and singular aesthetic, from classic influences to modern technology, Brian Haught explains the ways of cynics and cycles.
First of all, how are you? How is your health?
Haught: I am doing well and currently feel strong and healthy. Thank you very much!
It’s been more than a decade since Synical’s last release, 2012’s Quit While You’re Behind, which seems now to have been a somewhat prophetic title – same with the title for the new album, This Will All Happen Again. What were the reasons for such a long absence between albums?
What do you feel has changed most in the interim, in terms of your approach to songwriting and production; how do you feel the new album is representative of the changes you and Synical have experienced?
Haught: The biggest change in songwriting has been the instrumentation used. For example, this record uses a Moog Theremin, harmonica playing, and a trumpet performance for the first time ever on a Synical album. In addition, we acquired lots more hardware synths like the Novation Supernova, Access Virus B, Cobalt 8, Korg Radius, Waldorf Q, Emulator 4, Roland JP-8080, etc. to expand the textures of the songs. But also, we used more software synths like Arturia, Roland, Korg, Cherry Audio, Spectrasonics, etc. to have both the old and new technologies blended together in just the right way. And this album in the songwriting phase featured myself, David Black, Jimi Echo, and Eric Griffin mostly sitting/playing together live in collaboration instead of one person writing a song and then others tracking later.
The band’s lineup has shifted over the years. Tell us about how this lineup came together and what the working dynamic is like among you – how much of Synical’s music is a group effort, and in what ways do everybody’s contributions affect the sound of the band, especially on the new album?
Given the length of time and the amount of effort you put into Synical’s music, there must be instances in which the final version differs from the original idea; does this happen often? If so, and this is not to say that you’d intentionally put out something you weren’t satisfied with or that you felt was inferior to what you first conceived, were there ever any cases in which you felt what resulted was too far removed from what you intended?
Haught: I think it’s safe to say that most Synical songs are more than a bit different than the original idea. For most of the band’s songwriting, I would be inspired and be in the moment, then an entire song would just materialize. It was most often a rush to capture the ideas, melody, and lyrics while I could. I remember my piano teacher telling me at seven-years-old, the great composers used pens and paper to capture their masterworks because their hands would flow to familiar places, and they wanted a pure path. I myself have used tapes and computers to help catch my ideas. But after the song is garnered, it’s then like a piece of clay to be molded into the final version. Also, Synical has used live drums on almost every recording. Many drum machines and sequencers are used in writing, but later on, real drums are tracked and blended in to a more or less degree. In the final mixing, vocal effects like vocoders and filters are used. On this last record, I was using a Korg Kaos Pad 2 with my fingers on the touch pad and drawing the vocal effect for each word I sang.
With such a breadth of available tools and instruments, what do you find to be the most challenging aspect of production in terms of achieving the proper balance of sounds, mix, etc.?
Haught: Synical was fortunate to be recording at a time of great technological advancement for making music. We quickly went to digital tape from analog and then to computers directly. The tools to produce music have gotten easier to access, but the most challenging aspect of recording to us is that each synth, guitar, drum, bass, and vocal line have its own space and frequency without drowning out other parts. Cymbals are usually offbeat and not when I’m singing. As time has passed, Synical likes to use guitar stylings and acoustic guitar passages more than traditional guitar solos. When you use a computer, you have the ability for perfection, and we take great care to try and play all the musical parts more than just cutting and pasting. We were pleased to have Mr. John Fryer mix this record and he also basically added his drum samples to the live drums. John has a long history of making amazing sounding records with bands like Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, M/A/R/R/S, Yazoo, Love & Rockets, etc., so for the first time ever, our band didn’t mix or co-mix this album.
‘Homesick’ touches on some weighty personal themes, which seems to be mirrored by the D.I.Y. conditions behind the video. Would you tell us about how this video came about? In what ways did the final product achieve or even exceed your original conception?
How important are the visuals for you in terms of Synical’s overall presentation – or to put it another way, what is the significant of “image” vs. how the visuals complement the themes you explore in your lyrics?
Haught: The ‘Homesick’ video, although D.I.Y. looking and punk rock-ish, was actually the biggest and most ambitious video the band had ever attempted. We had a full film crew and even had a ‘pyrotechnics’ expert come in to assist with the filming. It also took a month or so in post-prodction to add all the digital effects. I think the band wanted a performance video with no frills and the Synical brand front and center. But we also wanted a darker, more mysterious look to match the grim and brutally honest lyrics. For me personally, it was a very sad time – I had just lost my father to injuries he suffered in a car wreck, and I was dealing with a tremendous sense of loss and regret. The video was shot in the Atlanta area on the coldest day of the year, and it was literally freezing during the eight-plus-hour shoot, and then icy rain ended the day. So, it wasn’t a happy time, but I do feel those emotions shine through a bit in the finished video.
The title of This Will All Happen Again makes me think of Twin Peaks… are you a David Lynch fan?
On a similar note, what artists have influenced you the most – not just in terms of favorites, but those that truly affected your perceptions of art and music?
Mentioning the younger people being uncomfortable with what they were exposed to at the WWII memorial, I’ve always been of two minds that we have a younger generation that is striving to make changes away from the mistakes of our past and taking awful behavior to task (as the youth should ideally be doing), while also fearing the sense of disconnect many of them likely feel, not having lived through it, not having experienced it, as well as them living in a post-truth society in which historical perspectives are skewed to fit an agenda. ‘Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’
With a band name like Synical (which my brain sometimes misread as ‘cyclical’), do you have hope for the future, or do you find that to be unrealistic? If you do have hope, what keeps it alive for you?
Haught: The funny thing is that we have a new song for a future EP called ‘Life In This Post-Truth World.’ We are not the judge or jury. We provide no answers or predictions on what people will or won’t do, but we are merely tellers of stories. The definition of Synical is suspicious of others motives and intentions. In the song ‘This Will All Happen Again,’ the title track of the new album, we have a lyric that says, ‘Is this a lesson that we’ll never learn? Each generation failing at its turn. No one remembers the way it has been. Just like before, this will all happen again.’ Synical is hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. The past is a playground of nightmares.
Movies and music have been relegated to arguably ‘more convenient’ means of consumption by way of streaming – Spotify, Bandcamp, YouTube, NetFlix, etc. What your thoughts are on the traditional models of releasing music and art and how they apply to you and Synical? Do you think we will still be bound to record labels?
To what degree do you feel that the changes in the technology and the means of consuming art must affect change in the institutions that distribute them? Number of units sold, number of plays/streams on Spotify, etc. will it continue to just be ‘product-by-numbers’?
In terms of the music, how would you define Synical’s music? The terms darkwave and goth/rock tend to be used, but the landscape is always changing to include new definitions, new subgenres, etc. What do you find to be the validity of genres in this day and age? Do we still need them for marketing purposes, or do they matter at all?
Haught: Synical’s music has evolved from a new wave-ish electronic style, started pushing through an industrial period due to my early involvement and obsession with samplers, and progressing to a more classic goth club/dance mix blend. Sadly, with modern music promotion, you have to call your music something close to what it is. I’ve always been drawn towards the more electronic/synth side of this kind of style, so goth or darkwave tags apply, but I’m no purist. It’s about musicianship and talent over fashion and pretense. Synical has a very down-to-earth and realistic approach with songwriting and performing. We don’t have songs about vampires and witches or wear outfits onstage with capes or animal skins; we deal in the true horror, pain, and unhappiness of reality. But I feel Synical has a great rhythm, beat, and style to help you swallow the misery that this mortal life has to offer.
You mentioned the live band earlier. During the lockdowns, many bands and artists dove deeply into livestreaming, and it seemed like more music videos were being produced. Now that it’s become part of the norm, what do you think of how livestreaming can be better utilized to advance visual presentation?
Haught: The live show has always been the endgame for every Synical song. Very few songs written cannot be performed live. A music fan can have the best home theater system and speakers, but you still can’t get that feeling of community and camaraderie being in the same room with like-minded humans that have the same style, taste, and intelligence. Until we figure out how to get that sensation, Synical will always play live as much as possible and share those special intimate live moments with others.
Outside of music, what are you most enjoying? Hiking, reading, movies, sports, gaming, etc.? What is giving you the most joy now?
Photography by Earl Freeman – provided courtesy of Synical