For those unfamiliar with vaporwave... well, it's difficult to pin down. Rather than follow a typical formula, the genre’s artists draw inspiration from obscure R&B, funk and soul as much as from the ripples of music that flow through glistening, soft-focus old-school television ads and the ambience of luxury spas. Vaporwave is a sort of nouveau-exotica, evocative and illustrative of dream worlds and fantasy lives; its aesthetics are coded in Japanese text, computer glitches, net art, Italian fashion and silver-spoon penthouses. In short, it takes you elsewhere. And with a wide number of prolific artists, it's never short of new experiences.
Constructing a home for vaporwave artists, Hong Kong Express’ Dream Catalogue has already put out over fifty releases in the past nine months. I had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails and Twitter messages with its founder and head, himself an anonymous producer. Why anonymous? Much vaporwave is nameless and retains its ethereality in this way; just as magicians do not reveal their tricks, neither do many artists of this few-years-old movement reveal anything about themselves. However, Dream Catalogue's boss was more than happy to provide a set of revelations other than the trivia of name and place: a history of his young label, its development and future, as well as thoughts on vaporwave and music in general.
How did Dream Catalogue get started?
I really started the label as a hobbyist thing to put out mine and some friends releases on Bandcamp, to present kind of a “collective” aesthetic, which is something I had always planned, but had never been fully inspired to do until a friend of mine introduced me to vaporwave in 2013. After it started, people really latched onto it quite quickly, and soon enough t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 contacted me about dropping a split album with Vincent Remember, which would turn out to be ｉｎｔｅｒｓｔｅｌｌａｒ ｌｏｖｅ [DREAM_4]. That was the first big turning point, as it brought a lot of new eyes to what we were doing.
There are so many releases on Dream Catalogue already! How? What’s the process? How on earth do you find the time?
I pretty much spend the majority of my free time working on the label and creating music. I’m liaising with about 20-30 people at any one time via e-mails, Soundcloud, Twitter and Skype. I’m always redeveloping things to make them better and working on new material like interviews and album write-ups for the main website, album art, music videos, mixes. I’m always trying to promote the artists and albums around social media, looking out for new producers whose sound would fit the label, listening to demos. In effect, it has almost become a full time job and I’m lucky to have a few people around me that support me and believe in what I do.
Have you ever been sent something unlistenable? I mean, The Darkest Future’s experiment on Floral Shoppe 2 was really pushing it. Is music “good” because it’s pleasant or “good” because it does something different?
To me, unlistenable music is when music is derivative, boring and uninspired, rather than being challenging. As far as vaporwave goes, if you’re just slowing down ’80s tracks and slapping pictures of Roman busts on your album cover with Japanese song titles because you saw someone else do it and thought it looked cool, that is just the worst, and is against everything I like about the genre. If you’re going to use a Roman bust, or Japanese text, do it for a reason – not just because you saw others doing it and think “that’s vaporwave.”
I think the most important thing to aim for in vaporwave as a producer, is to make something cinematic in effect.
Not every album has to be completely unique or have a heavy concept behind it, and I’m not against heavy sampling if it is done inventively, but if you’re just treating vaporwave as any other genre like house or drum & bass and trying to copy a formula because you think it has to be that way, then it shows a complete lack of inspiration, which is when the music becomes boring to me. Pyravid has spent months working on the Googleplex Bionetwork album, and it is mostly original music with little bits of sampling in, yet it is entirely vaporwave in mood and feeling.
I think the most important thing to aim for in vaporwave as a producer, is to make something cinematic in effect – make the listener feel unexplainable feelings, which is helped by the surreality of the music. Floral Shoppe 2 was vastly different in this respect, a cool experiment, but it was more of an artistic statement than a conceptual work of music such as The Darkest Future’s first album, or any of the other albums on the label. I wouldn’t release something similar to that again, but I was happy to release it. Despite the fact many people hated it, a lot of people loved it too.
What’s your favourite release so far and why?
The album I am most proud of releasing is the recent Fragmented Memories project, which is a vaporwave supergroup collaboration album, conceptualised by t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 and 猫 シ Corp. I was fortunate enough to not only be asked to release it on Dream Catalogue, but be invited to be a part of it too, working with a bunch of great artists I admire and getting to collaborate with these artists for the first time. The album was a milestone for the label as well, being the 50th release, so it gave me the opportunity to step back and look at what I have accomplished so far since the label started in January. I have only ever listened to the thing in full from end to end once, as it is over six hours in length, but once again it’s unlike any album I have ever heard before and I think all the guys who worked on it did a great job on keeping within telepath’s vision for it.
You also make music yourself, when and how did this start?
I’ve been making music for about 15 years now, since I was a young kid. I started out making cheesy ’90s house tracks, because that’s what I liked at the time, before I moved onto making IDM in my teenage years. I have tried my hand at pretty much any genre I can think of at some point. I even had a saxophone for a while some years ago, and tried making a couple of jazz tracks, even adding in fake tape hiss to give it an effect. I suppose that is pretty vaporwave in itself, in a way.
I really got serious about it around ten years ago, when I got Reason. I got into dubstep around 2005 and I made that for years, as well as a lot of drum & bass, hip hop, garage, house. I’ve made pop songs, rock songs, metal. I tried making a djent song once but failed miserably.
Vaporwave really rekindled my love for music, to the point where I enjoy it as much as I did when I was a teenager.
But I was actually sick and tired of music for many years before I discovered vaporwave. I got heavily into jazz music in my early twenties, mostly listening to jazz fusion like John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Return To Forever, Weather Report, Hiromi, etc. After that, I felt like there was nowhere left to go anymore. Even though I had loved music since I was a kid, I was entirely sick of it for a long time, and I actually went months at a time without even listening to any at all. I became really bitter about music in general which was fueled by the general depression I had, and I stupidly used to look down on other people who enjoyed it for a brief time.
Vaporwave really rekindled my love for music, to the point where I enjoy it as much as I did when I was a teenager. Before it, I spent a lot of 2013 listening to spacey drum & bass mixes while watching Hong Kong and Tokyo night driving videos on YouTube and drinking beer, just because the combination of it all created such a weird feeling I have never experienced before. Then I found vaporwave, and it was like it was already doing all that for me, without having to sync the music up to the videos or drink the alcohol. I have discussed this concept with IMMUNE//, vaporwave resonates with him on the same level. Earlier today he described vapor to me as “the end of music,” which I found quite poignant. And I think what he was getting at is this being not only the end of music, but the beginning of a new way of experiencing it.
It always seems like a throwback to the late 20th century birth of true consumerist capitalism, the renaissance for the American dream, soundtracks for fantasy nostalgia. But why do you think vaporwave exists?
I think the reason vaporwave has become so popular, and maintained its popularity (unlike something like seapunk), is because it is so open to exploration both sonically and conceptually and so it becomes impossible to get stale if there remains inspired artists working in this style. I think the whole “faux-utopian capitalist dream” image that people associate with vapor is only a small niche in such a diverse genre of music and is kind of overblown. While I think that some great stuff does project this concept, it is unfortunate that all vaporwave gets pinned down with that image a lot by people who are unfamiliar with the music, or haven’t fully explored the genre.
I would say the reason it does have this image is because of the early popularity of Vektroid, who made the New Dreams Ltd. and Macintosh Plus albums, and her music is a lot of people’s first and last foray into the genre. But even looking as far back as 2011-12 when the style was in its infancy, there were plenty of vaporwave producers that presented an entirely different concept to Vektroid in their music, such as Infinity Frequencies and 骨架的.
One of the main reasons I fell in love with vaporwave is because there really are no limits on where you can go with it, as long as your ideas resonate with the audience. The constrictions of other forms of music really bore me, and there is none with vaporwave.
With my own Hong Kong Express albums, I really try to project an image of love and loneliness in the big city.
I think the utopian and dystopian concepts are popular with producers because of the retro-futuristic themes many artists in the genre are inspired by, the past’s vision of the future, and they derive from a cyberpunk background. Then there are artists this concept doesn’t apply to much, such as the work of t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者, whose music is concerned with creating a lucid-dream like quality. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the point of ‘真の愛’ by チェスマスター, but I’m fairly certain there is no anti-capitalist stance or ideology behind it. Such artists’ work are the perfect example of how vastly different vaporwave can be from album to album.
With my own Hong Kong Express albums, I really try to project an image of love and loneliness in the big city, which is achieved via the combining of the music with the track titles, artist name and album covers. They are heavily inspired by the mood in Wong Kar Wai films such as Fallen Angels, 2046, and In the Mood for Love. There’s nothing about consumerism or capitalism in these albums, but I would like to think they are still very much vaporwave in effect, still.
It’s such a diverse genre, often getting mashed with lo-fi, chillwave, future funk, nu-disco – but what would you call it? Like, is it EVEN a genre? It’s kind of a genreless genre.
I really see it as much as a form of art than as just another a genre of music. It’s like what I touched on earlier, about how when it becomes formulaic that it becomes boring. This same genre contains the music of GOLDEN LIVING ROOM, Vincent Remember, Blank Banshee, Disconscious and Saint Pepsi, just to name a few, and none of them sound very much alike. Even the majority of the Vektroid albums on Beer On The Rug sound completely different to each other.
The myth perpetuated is that all vaporwave is just slowed down ’80s songs on Audacity by untalented producers, which is far from the case. CVLTVRΣ, for example, is a highly talented producer who can blend a mix of samples and original music in his works, while still presenting an original vaporwave aesthetic in his various projects. He is one of the most creative people I’ve ever had the privilege of speaking to, and is just as good a producer and musician as anyone else I have heard. One particular track we collabed on for Fragmented Memories, namely the track “Liquid Souls,” is entirely original music from both of us, and it worked out so smoothly. Vaperror is someone who is really making interesting future beats stuff with a vapor-infused style, and releasing his Mana Pool album on Dream Catalogue is really one of my favourite accomplishments of the label to date.
I feel what links everything in the genre together is the sense of creating a dream-like or cinematic quality with their music, projecting a vivid image into the listener’s mind. For some, that may be simple nostalgia for a past era. For others it is more heavily conceptual or evocative of a certain mood, and that is when it gets interesting for me.
Why is aesthetic particularly so important with vaporwave?
While the music has to stand alone and be good first off, I would say that aesthetic is everything in vaporwave and just as important as the music. It is the combination of both image and music that creates the weird, surrealistic and dream-like vibe that vaporwave is known for. I have never seen another style of music like it.
This is why I think producers shouldn’t divulge their real names or pictures, or anything else about them when presenting themselves. When I listen to a vaporwave album, I want to be captured in the moment that the producer has tried to create with their aesthetic choices, and not thinking about them making the music on their DAWs in their apartments or houses. When I got more into vapor and discovered who some of these artists were behind the mask, it kind of ruined the buzz for me a little bit. One of my favourites is still ECO VIRTUAL, because I have no idea who they are. To me, ECO VIRTUAL is the weird company who makes “atmospheric research” weather channel music. If I ever found out Eco Virtual was “Billy Orange” or whatever, it would ruin it a little bit for me. In that sense, gimmick is everything in vaporwave, and that’s why a lot of the artists have multiple side projects, so they can explore new concepts and ideas, instead of throwing a mishmash of styles into their music.
And where is vaporwave going?
It’s really impossible to predict where it will be a year or even six months from now.
I think it is really deviating off in a lot of different paths, but also getting bigger every day. I’ve seen the /r/vaporwave subreddit double from 2,000 to almost 4,000 followers in the space of about two months. I think as more people explore the genre and see there is a lot of interesting stuff to be heard, the bigger it will continue to get. There is an avenue I dislike, which is what I have mentioned already – emulation for the sake of it, with the Roman busts and Japanese text stuff, which is just entirely derivative and uninspired at this point. I also see a lot of the vaportrap stuff coming around now, and I think Dream Catalogue has helped usher that style on a bit with several releases from such artists. Then you have guys doing the future funk stuff which seems to be growing in popularity, but that’s not something Dream Catalogue will be too focused on going forward.
It’s really impossible to predict where it will be a year or even six months from now, however, as I feel the genre changes rapidly due to the myriad influences and ideas that are brought into it all the time. But I do think it will continue to grow, either way.
One minute everything seems super serious, the next minute everything is a joke. In this way vaporwave aligns with internet culture, wouldn’t you say?
MACROSS82-99 recently made a post about this issue on Reddit, in which he stated that vaporwave was never intended to be serious and people were forgetting to have fun with it, and we were all putting too much stock into it. I disagreed entirely and I thought what he said was a little condescending, but I do think there is room for “fun” music in the genre, as much as there is room to evoke all kinds of emotions and feelings. Primarily, I’m concerned with the more serious works that have more depth to them, but that isn’t a knock on Macross or his music, it’s just a preference I have. I don’t see why serious music that provokes thought or feeling shouldn’t be fun, either.
It’s been called “our generation’s punk scene” – how far would you agree?
There are definitely some similarities, in the sense that it’s very underground and DIY, but I would stop short of comparing the anti-capitalist sentiments of punk to that of vaporwave, which I think is minimal or non-existent. I think the whole concept of vaporwave having an ideology behind it is overblown, if not entirely misinformed and pulled out of thin air. I’ve had discussions with early forerunners in the genre (or arguably the creators of it), such as Luxury Elite and Internet Club, and both of them agree with me and have stated they never intended to project this in their music. I wouldn’t know what Vektroid’s opinion on it is, but I’m pretty sure the idea of the Macintosh Plus album took more inspiration from something like the TV show Twin Peaks than any anti-capitalist ideology.
I’ve often been suspicious that one person starts a label, makes a variety of music under a variety of pseudonyms, and basically has some good old-fashioned lols with it all. Does this actually happen?
I think the whole concept of vaporwave having an ideology behind it is overblown, if not entirely misinformed and pulled out of thin air.
If you’re insinuating that I made the label under a bunch of pseudonyms, you would be just slightly correct, as there are about three or four other releases on the label I have done under different names and styles, but I will leave that up to the listeners to try and figure out which ones they are, if they would like. Some people on the label I’m closer to know already, so it isn’t a huge secret or anything. There is also another prominent producer on the label who by the end of September will have released five different albums under five different names. I think there is nothing dishonest about it though, as with vaporwave things such as the project’s artist name are very important to projecting the overall aesthetic, and so different projects require different names.
What’s in the future for Dream Catalogue?
The next big thing I want to achieve is getting our first physical release out. While we got the GOLDEN LIVING ROOM album WELCOME HOME released on cassette, it was a joint effort between us and This Ain’t Heaven, a great cassette-based label, who did that side of the release on our behalf, while we released the digital version. But doing our own physical release, whether it be a CD or cassette, is definitely something that is going to happen in the very near future.
Generally speaking, there’s kind of an unfortunate view that for any underground stuff “going mainstream” is a terrible thing. If Dream Catalogue “went mainstream,” how would you feel?
If Dream Catalogue really grew into something huge, I would only be delighted, but I don’t think I would ever let making money cloud my vision for the label. I also don’t see why if something is big, it is necessarily a bad thing automatically. Warp Records is still a highly celebrated label, and they’re huge, and releasing what is probably the most anticipated album 2014 in Syro. I really disagree with the idea of making something for yourself in your life as being a bad thing. I think the concept of the beautiful starving artist is just a stupid hangover from a past era of thought. Why can’t you be living in a penthouse in Hong Kong with a view over the city and making cool music instead? That would be much more inspiring to me artistically than trying to find money to buy food every month.
At its best, vaporwave is anonymously made art for anonymous people.
That said, I am very much attracted to underground music, but mainly because mainstream music is just shit to me. I think the most mainstream I will go these days is the jazz fusion artists I mentioned earlier, because the music they make is just on another level. If I ever listen to non-vaporwave, I will sometimes listen to house music stations from around the world, and just listen to songs I know I will never hear again in my life. I enjoy that aspect of it a lot. Culture is so fast paced now that all this music is just passing noise, disposable almost, and I like that aspect of it a lot. I love going on Soundcloud and just listening to the stream, knowing I may never hear these songs again, and they will just disappear into the wind.
I’m also really bothered by people holding up famous musicians on pedestals. I have much more respect and admiration for Phoenix #2772, 식료품groceries or Miami Vice than David Bowie, Patti Smith or The Beatles. At its best, vaporwave is anonymously made art for anonymous people. If I ever got a sense of anyone in vaporwave acting high and mighty because they happen to be more popular than other artists, I wouldn’t bother working with them. I always participate in online discussion on /r/vaporwave and I have spoke to tonnes of people who make or are even just into vaporwave, and I don’t think I would ever stop doing that, no matter how successful Dream Catalogue may become in the future.