The Good, the Bad, & the Nostalgic: Exploring the World of a Vaporwave Artist

By John Campopiano

What sorts of things inspire and propel your creative pursuits? How about neon lights? Swanky hotel lobbies? 1980s or 1990s designer clothing? Elevator soundtracks? Carefree cruising on the boulevard? What about mid-summer rooftop cocktail soirées? Or the hissing of muffled analog? Dead media, the 8-bit era of video game consoles, or TV commercials from your youth? These images, eras, and ideas – somehow simultaneously familiar and yet foreign – are some of the primary themes and creative drivers behind the electronic music genre known as vaporwave.

Since  2012 one musician in particular, Luxury Elite, has been experiencing a steady rise in exposure as well as popularity.

Luxury Elite's 2015 album, World Class.
Cover for Luxury Elite’s 2015 album, World Class.

With 16 digital releases available (via their Bandcamp webpage) in addition to several physical releases on cassette, Luxury Elite has been pumping out dreamy, nostalgia-drenched grooves and, as a result, witnessed a healthy growth in followers which has only helped further cement vaporwave’s place in an ever-growing sea of electronic music sub-genres.

Excluding their own music-making, Luxury Elite also spent time running the now defunct Fortune 500 – a music label with heavy leanings toward vaporwave artists as well as a kind of, LE stated in a 2014 interview with Hong Kong Express, “last resort label” for artists unsure of where to take their music (but who also wanted to make a larger splash than most self-releasing efforts can achieve.)

We recently sat down with Luxury Elite to talk about everything from their creative inspirations in and process for music-making to the nuts and bolts of the vaporwave genre including some of the elements LE feels define it. We also touched on how they source some of the found sounds, “muzak“, and other samples that can be heard in their music, as well as some of the legal issues they worry about encountering along the way.

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New England Media & Memory Coalition: Can you give readers a basic primer on what vaporwave is?
Luxury Elite: [Vaporwave] is sample-heavy music, usually sourced from jazz/funk/disco songs from the 70s, 80s, even some 90s material. It’s sort of like when you were a kid playing with your sister’s boombox and you had fun speeding up and slowing down her cassettes you were listening to. It sounds silly when written, but there’s just something about the genre that really makes a person feel nostalgic about your childhood, about the 80s; it’s like a rose-colored glasses sort of vibe. It really romanticizes the 80s especially.

NEMMC: Can you talk a little about what your compositional style and whether or not you’re performing on any of your albums, or if at the moment LE’s music is 100% sampled?

LE: 100% sampled for now. I cut and chop these songs myself via a WAVpad editor and then add effects from there. I used to use Audacity but now I am playing around with Audition. I’ve almost included original composition on Crystal, because I felt like it felt empty, but I felt like my composition was really bad so I didn’t include it. I would like to include them one of these days, I just need to stop being so down on myself in regards to it. It took me months to actually do Luxury Elite because of insecurities but I did it, and look what happened.

NEMMC: Since the birth of this sub-genre has it evolved in any way or has the genetic makeup of it stayed relatively unchanged?

LE: It has evolved quite a bit. In the beginning, the genre was a bit more simple. Lots of looping, very simplistic stuff going on. As it gained popularity, new artists came along and then sort of went into their own directions. It’s been going into a more ambient direction, sort of a strange cryogenic ‘chamber-y’ feel, and I think Dream Catalogue [a vaporwave/dream music label] has a lot to do with that. I’ve also been noticing the new trend of trying to make vaporwave without samples, too, which I think is really neat when pulled off effectively. With all of these new directions, though, I feel like everybody still has a parallel path to the vaporwave sound and feel.

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Cover for Luxury Elite’s 2013 album, TV Party.

NEMMC: You’ve said in past interviews that the music you create transports you to a different time – a different life. Can you talk more about the transformative outlet vaporwave music provides you?
LE: You know how certain shows can suck you in, where you feel like you’re in that show? Twin Peaks was like that for me, I felt like I got lost in that world as I watched it, and I didn’t want to leave. That’s how vaporwave has felt for me since day one. It’s like I’m stuck in this world of aerial skyscraper videos and 1980s commercials. When I work on Lux, I imagine this world where Lux is a real person, living a life of grandeur. Never runs out of money, always with a wine glass in hand and the nicest pair of earrings. I’ve noticed when I am feeling down is when I make the best Lux music, because I run away into that world and use that as my escape from the real world. Sometimes the real world is too much to take, sometimes it’s good to escape. But sometimes is key, you can’t let yourself escape from the real world forever.

NEMMC: Can you talk a bit about the found sound / samples you use in your music, and how you they’re sourced?
LE: I usually find my music through hours of searching for tracks on YouTube. Music searching puts me in a trance, but there have been many times I have gone through and have found nothing. I am extremely picky with my samples.

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Luxury Elite’s album, Fantasy, on cassette.

NEMMC: On an aesthetic level what kinds of sounds are you attracted to? Would you say Luxury Elite has a “signature sound” or characteristic — even if buried underneath a sea of other sounds?
LE: I’ve noticed a lot of my songs have claps in them, I think I have a thing for songs with claps. They really have to pack a punch for me to fully enjoy them, or be one of those types of songs that gets stuck in your head, an “earworm”. I really like songs that ignite the imagery I like to use for Lux: skylines, beautiful people, lots and lots of gold. I like the songs to sound rich.

NEMMC: Would you say that your musical inspirations and creativity is at all fueled by nostalgia? Please talk about how nostalgia and longing have impacted you personally and musically.
LE: Nostalgia has been a huge motivation throughout my life. As a kid, I was obsessed with watching television with my parents and my sister. I’d be obsessed with watching MTV (fun fact, Sinead O’Connor made me cry at four years old, I guess her tears affected me that hard) and Mary Tyler Moore and Jenny Jones. I lived in front of the television when I wasn’t playing outside, and I know people usually frown upon that kind of thing but I sort of thank my parents for it because it really shaped how I am today. I am obsessed with pop culture and nostalgia and I am so thrilled that the 90s came back into style especially; it brings back all of those old memories for me.

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Image from Luxury Elite’s video mashup, Fantasy VHS.

Another fun fact for you: I used to really hate the 80s…I thought the fashion was cheesy, the music was awful, and it was just a bad time. My feelings on that started to change in 2011, which happened thanks to Tobacco, one of my all-time favorite artists and biggest inspirations. He released two DVDs called Fucked Up Friends that were filled with ridiculous commercials/porn/exercise tapes and the Fantasy VHS thing I did a few years ago totally ripped from that. But anyways, Turntable.fm came along and my girl Liz (from SPF420) got me into hypnagogic pop, especially James Ferraro’s, Night Dolls With Hairspray, album and LA Vampires’ release with Matrix Metals. It sucked me into a vortex. Around the same time I got way into Midnight Television. I knew of vaporwave because of Vektroid, who led the way into getting me into vaporwave. I would have never heard of it had it not been for her, Laserdisc Visions, release. I didn’t really get that release at the time, nor did I fully grasp the vaporwave concept until I got into Midnight Television the same week I fell in love with LA Vampires. I lost internet [access] shortly after that; Mr. Elite and I were too broke to pay the bill. MTV-Logo.svgThe rest of the summer was spent going to the library, getting albums to fill my fix of the lo-fi, tape hiss, 80s sort of vibe. I could not quench it, it became my life. (I’ve sort of gone off subject with this.)

Following getting my internet back and getting active on Tumblr again, I started a blog called ‘familyshowcase.’ I’ve told the story tons of times before, but I’ll quickly summarize: I was inspired by my peers who were posting tons of screencaps from various 80s commercials and I decided to do a blog of my own. I am on a torrent site that hosts hours and hours of old VHS rips and I downloaded lots of those as well as a ton of commercial blocks from YouTube and went to town with capping. I got totally lost in those hours and hours of blocks, to the point that it affected my real life. I was unhappy at that point in time; I was frustrated with my job and my financial situation was awful and other personal stuff was happening and I sort of blocked all of that out and lived life through these actors in these old damn commercial blocks. I was full-on in love with the 1980s and I was all for whatever these commercials were selling to me. I felt like a kid again, channel surfing and eating up all of the commercials. I loved it, but it became sort of a strange addiction. I ended up taking a break from the internet because of depression and other personal stuff; that’s actually right around when Lux started.

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Images from LE’s Tumblr account, ‘familyshowcase’.

Nostalgia is good and bad for me. I’m one of those people who focuses more on the past or looks to it when the present is not satisfactory and the future seems daunting. But nostalgia is so fucking inspiring. When I stumbled upon a commercial in the ‘familyshowcase’ days of perfume, jewelry, electronics, and saw these beautiful ladies sporting business suits and looking absolutely elegant, I would cap them like crazy. Those would be my favorite commercials, and those commercials really shaped how I wanted Lux to be. High class, rich, no cares in the world (well, outside of superficial, materialistic things of course). I work on Lux with that in mind and I pick what I sample carefully. Like I said, I’m extremely picky. I felt like vaporwave was sort of made for me, it’s why I am so passionate about it. A genre that plays around with old songs and rehashes them into something fresh, with heavy use of screencaps to accompany the sound/provide the visuals of what your song is going for…I didn’t live in the 80s, I was only 2 by the time 1990 hit, but vaporwave made me feel like I was a kid in the 80s and seeing all of the commercials, watching television with my parents and my sister. It just felt right.

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Luxury Elite’s album, Late Night Delight, on cassette.

NEMMC: It isn’t news to musicians/music lovers that vinyl has come back in a big way. We’re now even seeing a resurgence (albeit in limited markets) in cassettes. Can you talk a little about your views on how music is released – with regards to the medium? Have you released any of your music in a format other than digitally? What drove your motivations?
LE: Originally I had no desire to release anything on cassette, mainly due to copyright fears. But when the opportunity came along with the Late Night Delight cassette, I was too starstruck by the idea of it to say no. Cassettes are cute and tiny and fairly cheap to make (compared to vinyl) and much cheaper for a vaporwave fan to buy, and with vaporwave, I feel like vinyl doesn’t work as well. I mean, it does since releases in the 80s were either on vinyl or cassette, but vaporwave and cassettes go hand in hand. They’re more personal. The labels releasing them are doing them all themselves, and you have more say in the matter on album art, how the j-card will look, the color and design of the tape shell, all of it. It’s so worth it when you are holding your physical release in your hand. I prefer cassette to vinyl anyways, I think tapes are more fun to collect and cooler than vinyl.

NEMMC: How has the copyright and ownership of the content your sampling been addressed? Have there been any logistical challenges with reincorporating other music and sounds into your LE compositions?
LE: Copyright issues are terrifying to me. I am so afraid that somebody will find that I sampled their song and get absolutely pissed off and try to sue me. I try to not focus on it really, and just comfort myself by saying that I am not big enough for people to notice such a thing but it’s always something that stays in the back of my mind. There was a close call once with one of my tapes but the label was a total lifesaver and was ready to defend me to the death. Nothing ever came of it thankfully. The fact that my music is on Spotify and other digital distributors isn’t very comforting to me but like I said, I try not to focus on it. I’ve heard of bigger artists slipping through the cracks and never getting into trouble with their samples, but I’ve also heard of smaller artists getting C&Ds [cease and desists] for their samples. I can only hope that I never get detected and targeted…

NEMMC: Finally, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on the recent news coverage of the Aurora man who digitized a few years worth of Kmart store music from cassette to the Internet. Does this kind of preservation of the seemingly ephemeral fascinate you? Might the KMart music be fodder for future Luxury Elite tracks?
LE: I had so many people link me to the Kmart rips! It’s hilarious because my mom used to work at Kmart, so it’s sort of this full circle thing for me. Props to that guy for never throwing away those tapes and holding onto them for so long. My favorite part is that all of the rips are tagged as vaporwave. He knows his target audience! I am messing around with some of those songs, but I may use them for another project. We’ll see. 😉

It’s clear to me after speaking with them that for Luxury Elite – and perhaps other vaporwave artists? – the vaporwave genre is as much an escape as it is a creative outlet. I’m fascinated by these feelings of nostalgia that one can possess for an era or lifestyle in which they’ve never actually experienced before. For Luxury Elite, seemingly forgotten or overlooked visual media (perhaps seen by some to be ephemeral or even unworthy of preserving) provide creative inspiration that so often drives everything from their sound to album artwork. Indeed, YouTube is a rabbit hole that seem to offer endless material to those waxing nostalgic for aesthetics signature of a different time and place.

Of course the very issue of repurposing content of which you are not the owner is a complicated and highly debated one – fraught with legal and ethical considerations – it is one I will not seek to unpack here. That said, I do feel it’s important to note that artists of any medium would be wise to address more directly the issue of copyright and, at the very least, possess a familiarity of the challenges that borrowing and recycling other individuals’ work can present.

Ultimately, I’m fascinated by the drivers behind what vaporwave artists create. I think there’s something to learn in this exploration into the nostalgic mind, the loss of original context, and the creation of a new context in which new realities and meanings are created, shared, and sometimes recycled all over again.

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Memory Vault: Curating Community Access Television

By Matt Spry

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Towards the end of high school, I helped produce a live call-in talk show that appeared on my local public-access television station. Given our influences and the overall lack of adult supervision — we once featured a cast member’s dramatization of a classroom finger-stapling incident — I’m not sure we would have created the same content had there been a public event that re-aired that material 20 or 25 years later. Fortunately, due to the efforts of several dedicated media professionals based in Somerville, MA, the Community Vault project does just that.

Local media makers and Somerville Community Access Television (SCATV) members, Amanda Wild, Emily Falcigno, Bryan McKeon, and Erica Jones (SCATV’s Director of Membership and Outreach) are members of the project’s program committee and were instrumental in shaping the theme of the inaugural event. The seed for this idea — the public exhibition of community media content from Massachusetts — was planted during months of casual conversation, and the group sought to create a retrospective program with an emphasis on the dynamic between past and present.

In parallel with SCATV’s own deep dive into its archives for suitable content, the station sent out a call for submissions to sister stations throughout Massachusetts (submissions were required in digital format). After reviewing anywhere from 100 to 200 hours of footage over several months, the committee chose submissions from media centers based in Cambridge, Somerville, Ashland, Northampton, Stoughton, and Easton. In any selection process driven by careful curation, plenty of worthy submissions must be excluded and that was no different here. According to Wild, the committee “didn’t start with specific criteria” for their selections, but a more intangible “fit” — in tone, context, and length — became an important aspect of the review. Falcigno described the challenge of making the program flow as “puzzle pieces all over the table, and parts of puzzle pieces fitting together and having a continuously morphing puzzle.” The result was a program that spanned over three decades of local media production, and ranged from the historically compelling to the surreal and comedic.

On a warm afternoon this past June, dozens of theatergoers packed into Somerville’s Davis Square Theater for a screening of the final product. The program began with the offscreen voice of sitting U.S. President Barack Obama as he spoke at Cambridge Public Library in 1995. In another sequence, a skeleton chatted away while wearing colonial garb. An amateur scientist earnestly guided the audience through the relationship between containers and the “invisible” force of physics. A young Tracy Chapman delivered a subdued but stirring musical performance. Through roughly two hours of programming, the audience was subjected to shifts in tone and subject matter, some subtle and others jarring, but they felt seamless and familiar — despite having no personal recollection of this content, I felt oddly nostalgic for the times and places in which they were produced. For others, however, the screening hit very close to home. Some attendees had even appeared on or helped produce the content that was shown. In a strange twist, a woman tending bar just outside the theater recalled appearing on an early 1990s show called “Somerville Dance Party,” the city’s awkward, adolescent take on the “Soul Train” format.

Falcigno noted that the theater experience “was totally different for me because watching it non-stop, editing, helping Amanda edit, and then seeing it on a large screen in a dark space without distractions — and also hearing how the audience was reacting — made me see it in a different light.” The audience howled with laughter where the curators had hoped (the aforementioned Somerville Dance Party) and grew quiet and pensive when more profound content, such as footage of couples gathered at Cambridge City Hall on the day same-sex marriage was legalized in 2004, was used to demonstrate how far our communities have come and how much further we have to go.

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The short documentary, “The Staircase” — which chronicled the community push for a staircase to provide safe passage down a hazardous hill following a teen’s death — provided such a bridge to the past. In an email exchange last month, screening attendee and Executive Director of The Welcome Project, Warren Goldstein-Gelb, shared that, “[i]t was powerful to see Mystic residents from 30 years ago working hard and paying a big price (a child’s death) in organizing for the stairs to be constructed. I felt inspired by the efforts of Mystic youth and adults so many years ago, and believe that the documentary can inspire a new generation of residents, who, despite much improvement, still struggle for better connections between home and school all these years later.” That a 25-year-old segment of the screening can still resonate so strongly with the audience speaks to the effectiveness of the Community Vault team’s curation process, and the lasting connection between communities and the media they create.
While the program committee has no publicly stated plans for the future of the project, Jones hopes that such a showcase helps viewers “to see community media as not just the Wayne’s World kind of stuff” and that it illustrates to other media stations “a way to collaborate with different groups and members, and other stations, to put together something similar.”