Steel City Collective recently had a good chat with Darksynth and Video Game Music Producer, Primorph – AKA Gareth Lumb. We discussed his life, musical background, influences and generally found out more about what makes Primorph ‘tick’.
Born in the Steel City itself – Sheffield, Gareth has actually lived most of his life in rural South Wales, UK. Family is a big part of Gareth’s life and he lives with his partner along with his son. The obvious start then was to ask about family Primorph!
I guess I am pretty family orientated. My family are really supportive but I can honestly say that my music isn’t really anyone’s cup of tea in my house. My kid is more into the bands I played in when I was younger than the stuff I’m doing now. My partner is eternally patient but I tease her that she doesn’t know the names of any of my songs.
Pretty much as far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a musician. I was given a snare drum for my second birthday and never really looked back. I can remember drumming along to my Dad’s vinyl collection in our living room at about 6 and pretending I was in whichever band.
By night you’re Primorph, but what do you do by day? Is Primorph a form of escapism? Do you have a dream job?
Well I actually design sound and music for video games, so I kind of already have my dream job. The games industry isn’t exactly bustling in the backwater where I reside, but I’ve been working in-house for a really good indie studio and commuting there a couple of days a week so that’s been amazing.
Gaming is obviously a big part of your life, so I s’pose it’s a big influence in your music?
I game a lot. I call it “research”. Outside of that, I read, watch films and spend time with the family, which also influences my sound. Most of my “spare time” gets poured into Primorph.
With a career in music production, what has been your musical journey?
I grew up drumming and was in rock bands in my teens as a drummer. We toured a bit and got half courted by some labels, that was fun. I played guitar from about 13 too, but drumming always came first.
I think my journey in musical composition started when my younger brother and I first got a copy of the software Fruity Loops when I was about 18. We started a project called “Bad Noise” which culminated in 1 gig where we came under fire from an audience member with a bb gun and never played live again.
Despite this I had the bug for computer music and from there progressed to using Reason, and spent a long time messing about with stuff but always as a hobby. My son was born and I realised I could no longer bumble through life, so I went to uni and studied music technology and creative sound production at BSc and MA level, respectively.
That was the point where I transitioned from messing about to trying to earn a crust from music. I’m now using Logic pretty much every day and since getting into my new studio, I’ve finally been able to set up my midi drum kit and have been working on recording live drumming and guitars for my next release, so in a way, things have come full circle.
So, I think we can safely say that you’re qualified!
I am, but I’m also predominantly self-taught. I had drum lessons through my secondary school for a while and I think about three guitar lessons. I always learned by ear and I still struggle to read the dots and make sense of written music. What I know about production is largely by experimentation and research although I did refine that knowledge a lot in uni.
That’s the best way to do it! What’s your music making process and your studio setup? What instruments do you play and what software and hardware do you use?
I use Logic, with an M-Audio keystation mini to play in parts. I recently set my midi kit up and have facility to record live instruments now too so my set up is in flux a bit presently… I mainly use free plug-ins with the exception of Izotope Trash2 and an East/West membership to use their sample library. Sadly, I can lay claim to no analogue gear or outboard units. It’s all in the box.
Do you like to develop your tracks methodically and stick to a plan, or do you prefer to just let things happen organically depending on how you’re feeling?
That all depends. Some tracks start with a very clear idea in mind and are executed to plan, others come from odd inspiration, like accidentally enabling a delay line on a synth part and loving the sound so much that I drop what I’m working on and base a new track around just that sound. I’d love to be able to say that everything I do is from some deep underlying well of inspiration, but sometimes you just trip over a good song idea and find yourself with a new track.
Do you think there was any particular moment in your life when you realised that music was your passion? What inspired you to form your act / band?
It probably happened when I was too young to remember. I grew up in a house full of music.
I started Primorph after one of my colleagues commented that the OST I’d composed for the game we were working on sounded like Lazerhawk and that I must be into synthwave. I googled Lazerhawk and fell right into the rabbit hole. This was the genre that best fit the music I’d been making so it just seemed natural to have a go. Two of the tracks from my first EP were rejects from that OST that started it all. Waste not want not!
Describe how it feels to be a professional music producer? Is it what you imagined it would be?
Lonely, stressful, rewarding, incredible, challenging. I think, naively, I imagined things would happen quicker than they do, success-wise. I’m much happier with my lot since I accepted that it’s a long, hard grind and that I’m actually doing ok considering I’ve only been releasing for a year and a half. Rome wasn’t built in a day….. It’s not what I imagined it would be. Things never are.
Which musical acts and genres have inspired you the most throughout your life?
So many! NiN, Mike Patton (everything that guy touches is gold), John Carpenter, Lorn, Amon Tobin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, J5, Tipper, Volkor X, Brad Fiedel, The Meatpuppets, The Butthole Surfers, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pantera, Slayer, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, Britney, Justin Timberlake, Cake, The Kinks, The Doors, Dre, Snoop, Noisia, Feed Me, Loads of classical music…
Is that enough? I could probably go on all day and I will probably kick myself for missing someone important….
Hmmm, you’ve got a very eclectic taste! Wouldn’t expect an artist such as yourself to cite Kylie, Gaga and Britney as influences. Any synthwave release that’s caught your ear this year? (Apart from your own music obviously.)
Volkor X – Beam. My current favourite.
How do you define your brand? What is the aim of the act and how did you decide upon your sound, image and aesthetic?
My sound is not a premeditated thing, so much. It’s just what happens when I sit down and write. My aesthetic is pretty much the sole province of a good friend of mine, Dai Owen, (of Drawn by Dai). We go way back and when I started releasing music, in earnest, he was up for providing all the logos and album art. We talk about the vibe of the music and the inspiration behind it on each release, and then he goes away for a bit and comes back with insanely good album art.
In terms of image, the aim of Primorph and brand identity, I think this is the area that is the biggest struggle for me. The aim has always just been to share music with as many people as possible, and maybe one day be able to squeeze an honest living from doing so. It’s drilled into you as an independent musician that you need to sell the music with a strong brand identity and be able to self promote in order to find success.
I find it really hard to define a brand identity or an image, I’m a pretty boring guy. I write music, on my own for the bulk of each day and hang out with my family the rest of the time, so there’s very little leverage to be gained from my persona, and brand identity-wise I’d love it if I could just be known as “the guy whose music does all the talking”. Sadly, I spend more time doing promo tasks and worrying whether each “touch” has “hit the right note with my demographic”. I hate all that stuff. I want to just be a guy who does music that people enjoy for no other reason than because it’s good….
Nothing wrong with a music first approach. If the quality of output is there (and it sure is with yours!), then it should in theory get recognised! Has your music or direction changed since you began? Do you have any ideas for how things might evolve in the future?
My writing has improved a lot since I started out. I’m much more concise these days with my arrangements and I feel like I’m starting to really express myself. My production standards have also taken big strides and I’ve put a lot of hard hours into schooling myself to really listen to my production and be able to ascertain the issues without trial and error.
Evolution-wise, I couldn’t tell you. I have established a kind of “ballpark signature sound” but my influences and writing styles seem to naturally shift like the wind. My debut album was heavily chip tune influenced and before that it was darker synth stuff…. The new material I’m currently working on is much more synthwave, it’s the most positive music I’ve written and has a bit of a summer vibe. After that, who knows, I like to be able to stay fluid to stay interested.
Are there any synthwave sub-genres you would you classify yourself as. Is there anything you strive to be?
I only really use genre descriptions for the purposes of promoting my music. I wouldn’t really say that my stuff is synthwave or darksynth but those are the most common tags I use, and nobody has ever told me off for it so they must be close enough. I strive to be me and write the best music I possibly can, without worrying too much about genre. If I write a killer tune and it turns out to be polka then I’ll take that.
Are there any other styles of music you’d love to try on future projects?
I have a VERY slowly building side project in the pipeline. It’s influenced more by some of the insane sound designers. People like LORN, Tipper, Former, Maere etc. I’m pretty lucky, in that I write music for games as a day job which affords me lots of fun in being able to try out different genres on different projects, and quite often a hint of what I’ve done on my most recent title will creep and feedback into my Primorph writing.
Do you have any role models in the synthwave scene?
Not really. Role models, I think, are better derived from your personal experience. My role models are all people I’ve known personally. My Dad, my Grandad, some teachers and lecturers etc. That’s not to say that there aren’t people that I really admire within the scene, it’s just that I wouldn’t class them as role models.
Do you enjoy collaborating with people on your projects or do you prefer to work alone?
I love to collaborate. Music is a social thing. It speaks to us above and below the levels of communication that are otherwise available to us. Having said that, I am a perfectionist, so I do find it difficult relinquishing control over tracks.
So anyone you’d be excited to work with if you got the chance? What do you think a collaboration between you would look and sound like?
Volkor X. I just feel like I could learn SO much from him. He owns a copy of my second EP on cassette, so you never know, could happen one day. I’m always keen to work with new people though. It can be a pretty lonely furrow to plough as a solo producer, so having someone to get excited with is always a bonus.
I’ve not done any full collabs as yet though, so that would be an interesting prospect. I’ve worked on a couple of remixes for Ethereal Delusions and JJ Christie. They were a lot of fun. I do have a couple of possible collabs in the pipeline though so watch this space!
Ok, so enough about other people’s music, let’s talk some more about yours! What’s the concept or story being told by your current release, and what was the inspiration behind it? Do you think you achieved what you set out to do?
I don’t really approach music that way. Writing for me is a visceral lancing of whatever emotion I’m feeling at the time, and not a great deal of cogent thought goes into telling stories or working to concepts. I usually listen back to tracks after they are finished and retrospectively realise what they were about, or what they were inspired by.
A good example of this being “Acceptance” from my recent album. I wrote it a little way after my Dad died, as I was coming out of the kind of heavy grief period you get after losing someone important. I was just starting to be able to see positively again and I really feel that track reflects my acceptance of having lost him, but it still has that sad edge that says that I will never feel ok about it. But during the process I would never have been able to identify that thought process. It kind of just happens and then I assess it afterwards.
What was the inspiration behind the release artwork and did you work closely with the artist or give them free rein?
The inspiration behind the artwork was to let a really talented artist have his head and run with how he wanted to approach the brief. He listens to the album on repeat whilst sketching and the artwork is his response to the stimulus of the music. I like that. It feels authentic.
Is there anyone you would you like to dedicate your release to, or any people that you would like to thank for helping you through the process?
I dedicate this release to my partner and son for being so understanding of my shitty income, because I’m too bull headed to quit chasing my dreams and grow up. And by extension also to anybody else out there who is striving to be a creative professional on their own terms. Don’t give up.
What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects currently in production or planned for the near future that you would like to share with us?
An EP of new material with my first VIP mix on it. That could be surfacing in the next few months but I’m not going to commit to anything yet as I learned the hard way from releasing my debut album that giving myself deadlines is too stressful.
I’m also in negotiations with a local band to try learning some of my stuff to play out live, but that’s a medium term goal at the moment.
If you could travel to one place in the world to watch a gig or perform, where would it be and why?
I’d love to get over to Atlanta and see, firsthand, the “synthfam” that exists there. It just seems like a really awesome and supportive community that is largely extremely talented. It would also be great to play in Sheffield. My old band once played a gig in “The Mucky Duck” or the Black Swan to give it the proper name…. That was epic. Some really cool bands had passed through there before us and there was almost a rock and roll miasma in the air…..
Well when you’re ready to perform live you should definitely come and play for us in Sheffield for a home town reunion of sorts! If you could put together your perfect synthwave concert lineup of 3 acts, who would they be?
That way I’d get to meet some of my favourite artists!
If you do start playing live, what do you think a Primorph performance would be like?
I desperately miss playing live and I definitely plan to do it. I’ll continue chatting to the band that are interested in trying out learning some of my songs. Hopefully that will go well and we’ll be able to find out what one of the performances would be like… I’d hope it would be high energy and sound great, but the proof of the pudding……
What is your opinion of the current synthwave scene? What things do you love and what things do you hate about it?
I love that there is a real family vibe to the section of the scene that I most associate myself with. Lots of support and love for what everyone is doing. That is everything that music should be about. I wouldn’t really say I hate anything. Personally, I find the reliance on nostalgia and the same tired imagery a bit boring but if that’s people’s bag then they should get after it. I don’t want to piss on anybody’s parade.
I think, as with any scene, there are plenty of copycats but there are also some very cool, visionary artists who are smashing boundaries left and right. I’m loving how the darksynth scene seems to have had a meeting recently and decided to get seriously weird and heavy for example….
Are you signed to a record label? Does being signed bring anything to the table?
Not at the moment. Unless a label is offering you real value (and the definition of real value will change from person to person) then I think stay indie. I feel really strongly that music has been wrestled out of the hands of musicians with middlemen everywhere taking a slice of the ever diminishing pie.
There are some good labels out there, I was with Timeslave Recordings for a while and they were lovely and I couldn’t fault them. I signed because, at the time, it felt as though it was the next logical step and felt like progress. But for me it was important to have ownership of the whole process and try to communicate directly with the fans as people. But again, big shout out to TSR, great bunch of people, played me straight and it was great to be alongside some fantastic artists also on their roster.
What advice would you have for other people who might be interested in making synthwave, or just music in general?
Do it. Do it every day. Grow thick skin and be stubborn, it can be a slow process and a grind. Eat well, sleep enough and don’t forget to see the sun once in a while. It can be incredibly rewarding and fun, but don’t let yourself get isolated. Learn to take gratification from the simple act of making something you are proud of and then any recognition you get is a bonus. Network, accept criticism, work hard.
What were your favourite retro movies, TV shows, cartoons and computer games? Do you think they have helped to influence the music that you make now?
So many. G1 Transformers. X-men Cartoon. TMNT (the films and the cartoons). M.A.S.K. Visionaries. Thundercats, ’80s action, horror and sci-fi movies, Golden Axe, Megaman, Final Fantasy. All Lucas Arts point and click puzzlers – particularly Monkey Island and Loom, Civilisation, Sim City, Theme Park and Hospital.
And yes, undeniably, the soundtracks for all of the above have had an enormous impact on me musically. Especially video game music as you’ll never quite get an ear-worm like the music for a level you get stuck on in a video game…. You listen to it so many times that it weaves its way into your consciousness.
Last bit of inspiration for our readers (who’ve been good enough to read to the end!)
Do you have a favourite line or catchphrase from an 80s movie or TV show? Or from any other era if not the 80s.
“Be excellent to each other.. And… Party on dudes!”
Thanks to Primorph for committing time to do this fascinating and insightful interview. Super talented, and definitely one to watch for future releases.
Interview conducted by Graham “Bones” Jones – L.A. Rock / Steel City Collective.
Edited by Jonny Farmer – SYNTHAGEDDON / Steel City Collective.