City-Hunter is a Costa Rica-based synthwave musician who brings his scientific background and love of ’80s nostalgia to create a gritty and fantastical sound to his music. He told me about what it’s like to live in a time warp and why more people should try their hand at composing music.
Do you find the ‘80s noir style quite appealing? Would you say that the graphics that you have are quite linked to the music and that’s quite an important element?
Yes, of course. I have full picture galleries around for when I’m trying to find the inspiration. When you see something more cyber-punky or something more synthwavey, you have each theme for making ambient music, you know?
Do you make a lot of your own graphics?
I’m not a graphic designer. As a profession, I’m studying social anthropology. But actually, I do it all myself. It’s self-taught, so to speak. When I started off, I found pictures that were kind of related to the tracks and put it on SoundCloud. But then, I started to look a little bit at others, what they were doing, and thought, “If they can do it, why can’t I?” I was doing my own thing on Paint or on PowerPoint, little programmes that are very easy to use, and some of the features aren’t necessarily well known.
What about when you started making music?
It was more like a hobby, the way it started out. I feel like when I first started out, the first track that sounded retro ‘80s, only two people listened to it: My brother and his girlfriend. They were like, “Oh, that’s very nice.” That was back between 2000 and 2005, when I was in Nice.
The thing is that there was a little piece of software made by Toshiba or something like that. There was a small sound editing programme, so I did a little two-minute thing and think it was lost forever, because I had to give up the old computer. From then on, I went to Newgrounds, started doing some real things, and experimenting, like testing sounds, changing the way they sounded, making some melodies and stuff.
Then, I discovered SoundCloud and I was like, “Okay, if other people can do it, I can do it too,” with things that I like, right? Frankly, at the beginning I did the things I did for myself. It felt more like a hobby, and it still is, right? Yes, I know it’s very hard, because here in Costa Rica, I have a couple of friends who are in this business as musicians, and it’s pretty tough, from what I’ve been told…
“Do more with less.”
Would you say that narratives are an important part of your songs? A lot of them feel like they have a story and many have sci-fi elements, for example.
The way I make them sometimes, it’s more like an ‘in the moment’ thing, you know? It’s completely from scratch, you make something. Some of the tracks were planned from the start. Some tracks, like Investigation, or La Nuit and Hypersonic Speed.
Like Terror from the Deep, that has a theme to it, being attacked by a sea monster.
That’s one, when it was made, it was made first on Newgrounds. Back then, with what I had, which was FL Studio, you know, with the regular stuff, I had to manage and do what I could. When you listen to what I do, I didn’t use many effects. I tried to blend in the sounds by themselves and tried to harmonise them, so that it does not sound, sometimes, too loud.
That’s the main complaint that I’ve had from colleagues and listeners. As an example, Terror from the Deep, when you listen to it, it may sound pretty complicated, and to a certain extent, in terms of composition, it was at the beginning, right? The thing is, what I always try to do is more minimalistic, ‘do more with less’.
When you’re making something, will it be impacted by stuff that’s going on with yourself?
Sometimes, it depends on the track. Some are linked to my personal life, some aren’t. I have 12 tracks right now that are either beginning or halfway, and I haven’t had the time to work on them, so it’s a bit of a pain in the ass in that sense. That’s the utopian side of me. I’m like, “Yes, if I had more time, I could do this, and this, and that,” you know?
I try not to make it too subjective. Sometimes I create narratives, sometimes I make something else, and sometimes it’s linked to things. Sometimes I don’t speak too much about it, I just let it out. I put the sound in, I publish it and create the little art thing for the cover, and I don’t say a thing, because it’s my life.
Many of the things I do, I don’t know why, but sometimes people kind of identify themselves with their own past experiences or things they’re going through right now. So somehow, if this helps to cope with whatever is going on with their life then that’s good, right?
“Even if you didn’t like a track, they would play it 10 times everywhere you went.”
So how did you originally get into this type of music?
I was only born in 1989, so most of the people are in their 30s, 40s, etc., right? They’re like, “How did you come to get so much into ‘80s and ‘80s-inspired music?” That’s the thing, back in the day, when I was very young, my first seven years at least, I was very much influenced by the movies, the music from the ‘80s, and the ‘90s at the same time. Back then, I used to live in Niamey, which is the capital of Niger in Africa.
The thing is that there, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but for me, it felt like everything went much slower in terms of the concept of time. Tendencies, trends and stuff, some arrived directly, and some would take time to get there. Everything that was from the ‘80s, movies from Schwarzenegger and Stallone and stuff, all the action movies, I used to watch it with my brother.
Music from the ‘80s, especially disco and Eurodance at the same time, they were all in the mix, in the local discotheques. My parents would get the cassettes. That’s the other thing, when you see the technological side, like a Walkman, or my brother bought a Mega Drive. It was the first console we had, so all this creates an environment that’s very much ‘80s.
That’s interesting, it was like a time warp place where everything was 10 or so years behind in terms of what was popular?
You say it in a poetic way. I try to think of the analytic side, the more rational side, but yes. It was what it was. Yes, it was what was available. Back then, there was no internet, there was not so much social networking. It was hard to keep contact with people sometimes.
What was trendy or was in mass media was the only thing you could hear. Even if you didn’t like a track, they would play it 10 times everywhere you went, like supermarkets, elevators and stuff. In the end, you would either like it by force or by choice.
That’s probably not the same now?
Yes, now there are so many things, that you have the option actually.
“Do what you like to do.”
Yes, we were born in the same year, so kind of had a similar experience in what was popular here at least.
Yes, so you get the general idea. So then, when I went to France between 2000 and 2005, it was more like hip hop, rap music, of course, because that was the general tendency. From then on, that’s when you get into the internet and you find stuff. I was first drawn more towards pre-industrial & industrial music than EBM, and I still dig EBM. You know, video game music of course. I don’t know, breakbeat. Then, disco and stuff.
I’ve always been a person that prefers to listen to the instrumental side of songs. I guess that contributes to what I do now, also.
What’s funny is that in each cultural setting of each country I’ve been living in, that’s the thing, when I started to listen to what I did, many of the things I did, indirectly maybe, or subconsciously, there’s something sometimes, maybe in the structure or the way it sounds that assimilates itself to musical styles, folk styles from these countries.
In Sydney I had the chance to meet a local DJ. There was someone my relatives knew, and I started to talk about technical things with him, among other subjects. He said, “Yes, just carry on with what you’re doing. Do what you like to do.” That’s the main idea he tried to tell me, and then he told me, “Try to get a piano and first see what other people do, try to copy the composition so that you can have the basics.”
The thing is I’m not a real ‘musician’, but when I told him that, he said, “No, but you are a musician because you’ve done all those things.” I was like, “Yes, to a certain extent, I am, but I don’t have this training and the same knowledge that has been passed on to real…” Let’s not call it ‘real’ or ‘not real’, but to musicians that perform in a crowd, right? On my side, it’s more like composition and sound mixing. It’s a different upbringing.
Every single experience, daily, if you enjoy the little things, each day can be very fulfilling. Wherever you are, whatever you do, if you give yourself the time to observe and to listen, you can find many things that can give you ideas, at least for me, right? It’s living in the moment without feeling too pressured or influenced by external events, especially international events.
You put up Eternal Instant very recently, can you tell me about that track?
I just recently posted it on SoundCloud, and the title and the track at the beginning, when they were made, they were thought of when I read about things in my own studies about time and space theories. It’s more linked to a concept of what I’ve seen in my work and stuff, articles and theories.
When you start to think about how you can define anthropology itself, there are so many ways to define it. One is ‘the study of the human being and everything that he touches or is influenced by him’. From there, you can choose specific areas of study. Right now I’m doing my master’s thesis on gaming culture.
The original idea was a study of virtual space. From then, it went to something completely different, focusing on the process of socialisation through multiplayer games, and analysing the nature of the exchanges and the links that are made through the practice of video games. I won’t talk too much about it because it’s still being made.
“Nothing happens by pure chance.”
Of course, yes. There’s only so much you can say, but that must be interesting.
The thing is, it was a big hassle when I started doing this, because in Costa Rica, I’m the only one doing something like this, at least in anthropology. It’s in works in psychology and other departments, but they’re focused on other interests.
So, it’s completely different from what I wanted to do. It’s for people to give their own perspectives and myself being immersed in a group of them. Your own subjectivity always affects your train of thought, the way you see things, the way you speak about things and the way you interact with others.
You know the Japanese concept of ikigai, right? It’s not exactly in the sense of destiny, but it’s more between what you like to do, between what you’re good at, between what you do as a hobby, and what you do as a job. It all centres into that thing, which is the ikigai.
What’s funny, when you start doing an introspection of yourself, in my case at least, both the gamer side of myself, and when you listen to game music also, that also influences the way I make music and what I’m doing right now. Nothing happens by pure chance. For me at least, I don’t believe things happen by chance. That sounds a little bit deterministic, but I’d say that it’s neither too deterministic, nor too random.
Are there any artists in particular you’ve been inspired by?
When I started discovering synthwave, I especially liked the more disco, funky tracks that sound very spacey. Then, I like the gritty, urban style from others. Let’s say like Hyboid, I really like all the tracks he’s done. Then, there are the more classic artists, like Lost Years. The first tracks I heard were from Lazerpunk, Noir Deco, Dynatron, Lazerhawk, Mega Drive, Power Glove and Dallas Campbell. Oh, and there’s one Australian that I’ve really liked from the beginning, WARD-IZ. Some the tracks are more like video game music, some are more like ambient or house music, set in the ‘80s, right?
What was the inspiration for Cruising, for example?
Many of the tracks I’ve done, not all of course, but some you start doing the thing at maybe 10:00pm or 12:00am, and then you end up, maybe three hours later, still not finished. Other times, in two hours, you can make one track. So, this one was one of those tracks that extends over several weeks of tweaking.
“Once you’re on it, it’s like you’re riding a bike.”
Is that frustrating or quite a fun journey to go on?
Sometimes it’s very fun, and sometimes it can be a pain in the ass. That’s the thing, it all depends on the timeline you’re set. Then, of course, everything I’ve done up to now, some are still a work in progress. I’m not feeling completely satisfied with what I made.
Others, I am. Cruising, that’s the thing, it was problematic in some ways and very fruitful in others. When you hear the introduction, that’s the thing I discovered about myself, I make introductions very well, especially when I’ve planned it in the beginning and had specific ideas in mind.
It kind of reverberates in the track. Up to half the track or two thirds, you touch several nodes, then rearrange it and it gives you something that’s more ‘potable’, more filtered. That’s the compositional side, let alone adding effects.
That’s the thing, composing, then sound mixing and doing the effects and then mastering are three completely different jobs, and it takes a lot of time, and people don’t necessarily notice it or know about it. It’s worthwhile when you do it.
Right now I have a Casio keyboard for composition and stuff, and everything else is on the computer. When you start composing and stuff, I prefer a piano keyboard.
This is really fascinating, because I don’t make music but I’m quite intrigued by how people do, so it’s quite cool to hear how you do it.
Yes, you should try. That’s another thing, the more you practice, the more you learn, and the more it’s easy to create. Well, not necessarily ‘easy’, but you do more and you produce more, and you get the incentive to do more because you want to better yourself, right?
Once you’re on it, it’s like you’re riding a bike. You never really forget about it, but there are things that remain in your memory, and others that disappear because you haven’t practiced.
Do you think it’s quite easy for someone to just get into making synthesised music? Do you think it’s quite accessible?
That’s actually funny, because I know, my own father is a natural at the piano. Sometimes, people know; like, personally, it felt natural when I first started it, and I liked what I did. I felt motivated. That’s another thing, you need to have the morale and the motivation to do things. If you don’t want to do something, just don’t.
It also depends on your own strength of will, being willing to do something that’s meaningful, or not necessarily meaningful but that’s linked to something that you like. For someone that’s just starting, personally, I say do what you want to do, right?
In terms of accessibility, it’s not very accessible, frankly. You see the prices out there, which are outrageous sometimes. For me here, it hasn’t been easy of course. Although, in terms of synthesisers, there are a lot of free ones that are very powerful. Many people don’t even use them to their full extent, myself included.
“I tend to immerse myself into things that are more science fiction or fantasy.”
It’s interesting that you’re a scientist and you’re also making music, and how they link together is a cool thing. Are you also quite into science fiction?
Yes, the science fiction side, both my father and my brother guided me a lot on it, because they were very eager readers of Asimov and other books you see in the cinema also, the way they make movies based on books. I was completely into it since I was 14 years old or so, maybe before.
Everything that’s linked to fantasy and science fiction, I’ve always been a big fan. Those are the two main genres that allow a lot of freedom, of thinking outside of the box. That’s the funny thing, when you start reading about distinct subjects in anthropology, you kind of understand the concept of black-boxing.
Science fiction is, in some of the tracks, it’s linked to the close future, like cyberpunk, rather than the distant future. It depends. When I want to make something that’s very ‘out of this world’, completely different, I tend to immerse myself into things that are more science fiction or fantasy, or into video games also.
That’s another genre that has complete freedom in virtual space. That’s where the ikigai comes in, between what you like to do, and what you’re good at, and what you must do.
It sounds like you’ve got that balance down pretty well!
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The two metallic logos featured here were made by Denovomutans as a gift.