EXCLUSIVE Interview: Blue Stahli Launches New Electronic Project, Sunset Neon
Multi-instrumentalist Bret Autrey is no stranger to sharing his talents with the world. Since the late 90s, the Detroit-based mastermind has been performing as Blue Stahli. Last year, Autrey launched a new future funk project under the moniker Sunset Neon.
Starlight, Autrey's debut album as Sunset Neon, dropped last December. An explosive collection of neon tunes, the record experiments with in-your-face disco jams and more understated shoegaze tracks. Starlight begins with "Opening Title Sequence," a schizophrenic instrumental loaded with otherworldly layers and crescendos, a foray into the rest of the spacey album. Following the intro is "Got You," an addictive, fast-paced electro anthem seemingly the result of Michael Jackson trapped in an unending old-school video game sequence. Autrey's unforgettable time as Blue Stahli makes its way onto the record too, as he opts to include "Never Dance Again," a tough pop-rock track from 2013.
Starlight's halfway point slows the record down with "You Are The Sun," a hazy lo-fi love song. The smooth slow-jam is electric, bursting with synth flavor and dreamy vocals. Next, the album's title track moves through echoing dins of thick percussion and distant desperation as Autrey sings, "Stay with me / You're all I need / And in this night / We are starlight." Later, he covers Prince's iconic funk anthem, "Kiss." Autrey's falsetto and synth-treated details offer a delicious tribute to His Royal Badness. On "After Hours," the tone is forlorn, mimicked by slaps of intense percussion and frenzied, brooding vocal riffs, together creating the most beautiful and emotive piece on the album.
With his latest project, Bret Autrey proves that his work as a multi-instrumentalist transcends time. On Starlight, he is an expert curator of a museum of deliberate soundscapes and themes. His songs are electrifying, swells of the disco spirit merging with fantastical sequences, all masterfully produced.
We've got the scoop below on Sunset Neon's latest album, his new musical goals, and rescuing kittens (yes, you read that right).
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourself and your music?
Sunset Neon: Absolutely! My name is Bret and I’m the sole member of Sunset Neon, which is a brand new project for me, as I’m also the sole member of Blue Stahli, which swings around from dark-yet-catchy electronic rock, big cinematic electronic weirdness, and wild multi-genre flailing for more film, TV, and video game stuff!
TMM: What is the music scene like in Detroit and how has it influenced your music at all?
SN: Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what the Detroit music scene is like -- I rarely leave the studio. I’ve never really been connected to any scene before. I’m really just some weirdo outsider guy who’s happiest being in a studio and seeing how many new fun ways I can destroy sound and blend a bunch of genres together. What really does influence this approach is the fact that we’re all so connected now, that when I release new music as either one of my projects, there’s people all over the world who can have it and interact immediately. That’s not to discount the importance and camaraderie of local and regional scenes (those are awesome and vital especially for people with a killer live show), it’s just never factored into how I approach stuff. I always picture people in different countries and cultures blasting my music (thereby annoying their neighbors).
TMM: How has your own work evolved since moving from Blue Stahli to your latest Sunset Neon project?
SN: Even though Blue Stahli is a multi-genre project, it’s the instrumental stuff made for film and TV that tends to have the wildest genre shifts and more upbeat feel. My main vocal records that Blue Stahli is most known for have a much darker, heavier atmosphere and approach to them. I had started writing more upbeat pop tracks, but they never really fit in the context of a regular Blue Stahli vocal record, so Sunset Neon became my place to go nuts making hazy indie-pop and glitchy VHS nu-disco stuff. The biggest thing is that doing this album was also a fun experiment in returning to the old-school ways I used to make music.
TMM: What was the production process like for Starlight?
SN: When I first started making music years ago, I used DOS-based programs called trackers that function very differently than what people are used to seeing in something like Ableton or Pro Tools. Most of the Blue Stahli stuff I had done was firmly in the realm of Pro Tools and Cubase, the “traditional DAW” approach, but I kept feeling the call of returning to the tracker world of weirdo programming tricks and glitches in hexadecimal. So I started doing a few Blue Stahli tracks and remixes solely in this badass tracker called Renoise, and when the idea of doing a full Sunset Neon record popped up, I figured this would be an excellent opportunity to do the lion’s share of the production in Renoise. I would cut and edit vocals in Cubase, then dump it all into Renoise as chopped up samples.
There are tracks where synths were made by stacking up single-cycle waveforms in the sampler to do kind of a ground-up synthesis. Lots of taking one shot samples from old drum machines and just compressing the holy merciful hell out of them, pulling up something like a synth loop and cutting a single note out of it (that still has the harmonic tail of the previous note) and running it through fun fx. Just a bunch of absolutely gleeful nerd shit (which is pretty much a motto at this point).
TMM: What is the songwriting process like for you? What are some central themes you tend to employ?
SN: My phone is full of archived, half put together vocal line ideas that come to me at odd times, just recorded in memos. Sometimes it’ll just be experimenting with beats and seeing what happens when something like an old Fairlight sample gets stretched out and run through a bunch of fx, then fitting vocals around whatever hazy neon monstrosity I just made. As for lyrical themes, there’s a few tracks on Starlight that are purely for fun tongue-in-cheek action, like a wink to soundtracks from b-movies. Though I’ve now also made Sunset Neon a place to put dreamy love songs that sound like you’ve played them on cassette a hundred times while driving up the coast.
TMM: What is your main musical goal for Sunset Neon?
SN: Sunset Neon is all about making you feel a VHS-tinged nostalgia, and remixing some of it through a glitchy nu-disco lens. This record is meant to sound like the soundtrack to your favorite low budget 80s flick that got chopped up and put back together. Really, I just hope people have fun with the tracks and connect to the music, whether it’s the fun dance stuff or the dreamy [stuff].
TMM: Who are your biggest inspirations, both musically and personally?
SN: Late night straight-to-video VHS flicks, malfunctioning samplers, old-school demoscene .MOD/.S3M files, and the pure absolute joy of loudly singing along to guilty pleasure songs.
TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to hear ASAP?
SN: I’m super excited to see where the new ionnalee music goes. [And] VHS Head, who builds his tracks entirely out of sampling microclips of obscure video tapes. Go listen to early 90s rave mixes and miscellaneous jungle tracks, find all the fun electronic music that never gets mentioned these days.
TMM: What are some other passions or hobbies you have that our readers might not know about?
SN: 1. Challenging strangers to feats of strength, only to lose on purpose and make them feel good about themselves.
2. Rescuing kittens stuck in trees so people will clap for me, even going so far as to place kittens in those very trees beforehand to make sure there’s always a supply of danger.
3. Directing traffic during the holiday season in front of a mall until someone yells at me to “Get the hell out of the middle of the road, asshole!”
4. Printing out pictures of Grace Jones from the movie Vamp to hand to anyone outside a grocery store who wants me to take a survey.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Sunset Neon?
Sunset Neon: Now that Starlight is out, I’m doing a few remixes and making some new singles as Blue Stahli, but there are songs that I wrote for Starlight that I ran out of time to finish for the album, so I’ll be doing those and making some brand new Sunset Neon singles as well! Stay tuned, there’s a lot more where this came from!
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