Turning Trash into Mantras: An Interview with Vaporwave Producer Strawberry Illuminati / Ross Cole

“Do you like vaporwave?”

“No dude––it’s just 80s songs slowed down and sounds like shit.”

“You really don’t understand vaporwave, do you?”

So ends the top definition of “vaporwave” in Urban Dictionary. The term is generally agreed to have emerged at some point in 2011, either courtesy of Will Burnett aka INTERNET CLUB or an album review by Jakub Adamek. Riffing off the computer industry term vapourware (and suggesting a host of connotations from Marx’s “All that is solid” to obscure immateriality), it describes a genre of music and Internet art still very much alive, despite being declared passé. It is more than an ephemeral trend and one of the most intriguing phenomena to have emerged from Web 2.0.

The genre is traceable back to the work of electronic music maverick Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never, in particular his 2009 Memory Vague DVD-R project and the associated cassette release Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. Talking in late 2010 in an interview for Vice’s Motherboard, Lopatin defines an eccojam as “a really simple kind of practice that anybody can do” using basic home studio equipment––“grabbing a phrase from a track, slowing it down, and putting a load of echo on it.” Given their inherent simplicity, eccojams have value to the extent that they reveal something latent or new in the original track. Lopatin describes always having an ear out for “juicy” moments to sample and “strip away, pull away, deconstruct, and swath in echo” in order to achieve a “hypnotic state.” Those familiar with the history of experimental music will notice a characteristic lineage: musique concrète, John Cage, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and plunderphonics. Equally important, of course, is the vernacular history of hip-hop turntablism.

Echoing aspects of its sister genre hauntology, vaporwave looks back to a particular era for its inspiration: the 1980s and early ’90s. Sequestered in this world of obsolescent consumer technology, vaporwave revives forgotten affects of the past. A result of esoteric rummaging through the dustless back pages of the Web, it dwells in the realm of kitsch––what Adorno once described as “the precipitate of devalued forms and empty ornaments from a formal world that has become remote.” It is something “cast adrift” in time, attesting to the passage of time itself, a crucible of anonymous memory. And yet it’s more than merely an ironic or nostalgic trip through pop cultural history. By breathing new life into this derelict mediascape, vaporwave confronts the promises, imaginaries, and eviscerated junkspace of the postmodern age––its advertising, commodities, architecture, media, shopping malls, gentrification, simulation, hollowness, ubiquity, progress, dreams, seductions, failures, absurdities, and longings. It functions as a welcome escape from the highways and accelerating overabundance of the present, an elegy to perpetual innovation. These were the themes I was interested in discussing in an online dialogue with a vaporwave producer, blogger, and tape collector by the name of Strawberry Illuminati.

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RC: At one point on your blog you write “There is a large shapeless mass of pop culture and advertising in our shared collective unconsciousness. I wish to grab that floating debris and craft it into something beautiful.” This is one of the best depictions of vaporwave’s aesthetic that I’ve come across. Why this particular debris? What’s beautiful about it?

First I want to define specifically what I was referring to with the concept of pop culture debris. I’m referring to both cultural memory and parts of the past that are no longer in vogue and are tossed aside for the newest looks and thrills. Most material used in vaporwave is disposable music. Not to say that the tracks weren’t made with heart decades ago, but they were mostly for commercial purposes. They were pop songs, soundtracks to games, and royalty-free tracks used in corporate training videos.

There are a myriad of reasons why this pop culture debris is beautiful. It can be a sense of hiraeth for people, a longing for the past that once was and is no more. They wish to tap into that, whether they were born during that time, born at the cusp, or even a century apart where they feel the sound is totally alien and are fascinated by it.

Another reason is breathing new life into old records. DJ Shadow, legendary producer of the acclaimed plunderphonics and trip-hop album Endtroducing….. (1996) featured in the 2001 documentary Scratch, showcases how I feel about this. Endtroducing….. is the lush landscape of another world mostly created using forgotten records he found in a cellar in a record store (which looked similar to a crypt in my eyes). He describes this cellar, which is a cache of thousands of records, as being full of broken dreams, the one hit wonders––somewhere you will eventually end up. He describes it as a humbling experience to revisit the past and it’s honoring it in a way to use those old sounds once more. The idea of taking a part of the past and using it in creative ways to craft something unique is just damn appealing to some people, myself included.

The idea of taking the mundane and transforming it into something else is beautiful largely because of recontextualization. It’s a form of Pop art. In terms of vaporwave, artists have all these expertly crafted and carefully mastered tracks at their disposal, and with careful editing and curation can use them as readymades to craft aural collages. It’s no different than looking at a work by Richard Hamilton, who used magazine clippings and transcended these individual pieces to make something else.

One of my favorite examples of this in vaporwave, is track A3 on Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010). The sample used is the artist Jojo’s 2006 track “Too Little Too Late.” This track is a pop ballad about a teen relationship where the guy is a player. The song has long been forgotten by the public––just another pop single. But track A3 slows down and loops the phrase “Be real, it doesn’t matter anyway, you know it’s just a little too late.” It turns the track on its head and recontextualizes the mundane. The lyrics become mantric. The idea of turning trash into mantras is one of the most beautiful things to me ever, personally.

In a more analytic sense, it’s the timbre. In that specific example the vocals are repeated over and over with a dose of delay along with the guitar, strings, and claps. The result is a trance-like, ethereal chant. It allows the listener to focus on the individual elements of the loop. There’s a difficulty in finding the right loop if you’re making something like an eccojam-styled vaporwave track. An artist needs to find a sample that has enough potency to last a long period of time which otherwise might bore a listener.

‘”Evolution” and life in vaporwave flavours’ by Daniel Oliva Barbero

RC: The process of recontextualizing these forgotten sounds and signs makes me think of what Bourdieu wrote about “taste-makers”––figures “whose transgressions are not mistakes but the annunciation of a new fashion, a new mode of expression or action” who are “capable of rehabilitating the most discredited object.” In this sense, vaporwave is a kind of hip recuperation of the past. As you say, it follows in the footsteps of, on the one hand, plunderphonics and chopped and screwed music, and, on the other, Dada readymades and postwar Pop art, epitomized by pieces such as Hamilton’s collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? So is vaporwave a kind of Pop art avant-garde for the 21st century?

I want to say yes. It’s a bit different from plunderphonics and chopped and screwed because the tracks are presented as their own entities. They are not just remixes or instruments in a track mixed with drums. Vaporwave often doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s taken from elsewhere. Sometimes it does hide its origin, which makes for an aural equivalent of the uncanny valley effect, especially when it uses corporate music or recognizable pop songs. But often it’s overt and practically flaunts what it samples, yet it still identifies as its own unique piece of artwork, much like Pop art.

But it’s also a subcultural phenomenon. It was totally unique and came after hypnagogic pop and chillwave’s peak at an imagery-obsessed moment when genres like witch house existed. We’re living at a time when it feels as if the 80s never died. There always seems to be some 80s worship going on in some way and vaporwave borrows a lot from the 80s, which gave its popularity a boost. At the same time, vaporwave proved it wasn’t just a one trick pony, although it didn’t take off as easy as something like seapunk. I should note that the vaporwave I’m discussing is the earlier styles between 2010–13 such as eccojams and mallsoft, not so much future funk.

RC: As you say, vaporwave (in its many guises) is obsessed with what we might call the mediascapes of the 1980s and 1990s––cassette tapes, laserdisc players, VHS glitches, cathode-ray sets, cable TV, arcade and video games, the early Internet, virtual reality, Windows 95 operating systems, the Macintosh Plus, and so on. All that was once marketed as futuristic and hi-fi appears to us now as antiquated and forever marked by its own time. So in many ways, it appears as if this era is both alive and dead at once, a ghostly reprise. Although vaporwave is very much a phenomenon of the present-day web, many small record labels and producers still release tapes, vinyl LPs, or even floppy discs. What’s behind this infatuation with the past? And how does it intersect with vaporwave’s fixation on Japan?

You’ve really nailed a lot of what people are obsessed with spanning the genre. It even goes down to the tiniest nuances such as font choices, old html web pages, and desktop icons. Many claim that the genre is dead, thriving, or not even existing at all. I’ve been hearing all this since 2012 and there is no consensus. It’s hard to pinpoint its infatuation with the past, but I have a few theories:

  1. It was a natural evolution from hypnagogic pop and chillwave. Hypnagogic pop was pioneered by artists using 60s, 70s, and 80s sounds and imagery inspired by Krautrock, Berlin School, New Age, and pop music. Chillwave was inspired by the whole lo-fi indie movements of the 90s and appeared Dream-pop inspired. It seemed like a natural continuation that a younger upcoming generation would be more at home with 80s sounds and imagery than 70s as they’re in more recent memory. Kind of like how some people may feel more at home listening to Boards of Canada when they use 70s educational documentaries as an influence whereas a younger generation might feel too distant to become attached. Genres that hovered outside of vaporwave like synthwave and outrun’s wire-framed Tron-scapes, Pen & Pixel gaudy 90s hip-hop style art, and the Win95 low-poly environments in seapunk did help bring some of that nostalgia to the table.
  2. The 80s never died. Kind of like how the 50s were huge in the 80s (and in a way the lust for the 50s still is strong). Older generations that grew up during that era are now the ones producing fashion, movies, games, TV shows, etc. and inject parts of their past into these things. It’s such a powerful decade that 80s nights have existed for a long time. Shoot, I even think there was a Full House episode that aired in the mid 90s, where they had an 80s night. The late 90s and 2000s have been targeted in vaporwave but they never seem to catch on in the same way, maybe because they’re too recent––even if they do have their own distinct mediascapes such as the beginnings of social media and every phone being unique instead of a black slab. But it’s rare to find people enthusiastic about 90s and 2000s culture. I wonder if 90s Y2K silver jumpsuit and Oakley sunglasses fashion really only existed in some vacuum in music videos, since I hardly see it elsewhere.
  3. Infatuation with physical music formats is a universal thing. Vinyl and tapes have been growing over the years. Record and cassette store days are huge now, and people like collecting physical items––even VHS and video games. Maybe it’s the hands-on aspect, or that they like knowing they own a copy and don’t have to pay a monthly fee just to access it. More artists are releasing independently and people like supporting them directly through physical media. I like distributing my music physically as it cements the album in a tangible form and feels official. I adore the aspect of fitting extra imagery into an album: the back art and even how a cassette shell is inked is just as important as the cover art. It adds an extra dimension to the experience. For my newest release The Ultimate Rush the cassette tapes are a reflective platinum color to emulate energy drink cans. I like the ritualistic aspect of putting something on; it just feels good to pop a tape in or drop the needle.

I feel like the Japanese fixation comes from:

  1. Japanese pop culture. Japan is one of the biggest exporters of pop culture out there––music, anime, manga, video games, technology. There’s a lot to appreciate. Pokémon took the world by storm and for 90s kids that was a huge dose of Japan at a young age. Add on top of that Japanese video games and anime on global TV, and you’ve got a bunch of Japanophiles. I think it comes as no surprise that many of vaporwave’s artists are active in gamer communities on sites such as 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr. Even beyond game nostalgia, you can add folks who enjoy Japanese City Pop, and those that like the “Japan that never was” Bladerunner look.
  2. Some of it is to remain mysterious and give the music a different vibe. Some of the early artists never revealed their identities, and merely posted eerie looking albums with Japanese Unicode to give a sense of mystique.
  3. But some of it is just copycat. Many took the full width Unicode and ran with it as if it was a standard to show that you were making vaporwave. It’s a shame many focus solely on Japan, as I feel like the genre has potential to branch more and not just with 80s Japanese / US music. Recuerdo Futuro, a 2012 album by Ladatel is a great example of being distinctly vaporwave. It uses samples from Mexican television and the result is totally unique.

RC: There is a sense that vaporwave attests to a generational watershed––those of us who grew up on the cusp of the digital revolution, who made mixtapes, recorded TV on VHS machines with poor tracking, owned Gameboys, experienced the quaint comparative calm of the early web, and heard our parents’ 80s music on home stereos at dinnertime. There’s a nostalgia for this pre-social media age, an age of innocence and introversion. And you’re right: this mirrors in many ways the Reaganite nostalgia for the 50s staged during the 80s itself. What’s also intriguing is that this era was, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out in 1989, the “end of history”––the era of globalization, neoliberal doxa, and the spread of US consumerism as a universal value. In other words, the 80s as a sign is politically charged. Adam Harper wrote a notorious piece for Dummy magazine in 2012 (“Vaporwave and the Pop-Art of the Virtual Plaza”) that read the genre from the left as an equivocal critique of commodity culture. Is vaporwave political in this way? And what do you make of so-called “fashwave” and “Trumpwave”?

That sounds exactly like my childhood, although I remember playing around more with CDs than cassette tapes––I have fond memories of my consoles and watching Nick at Nite. I do think the genre is a critique of commodity culture and consumerism, but not all of it is inherently charged with this belief. Some artists like exploring themes of the past or curating a collage of sounds they enjoy. Some people just like to chop and screw. I think Daniel Lopatin said when he was making eccojams in the mid-2000s he made them simply out of boredom at work on GoldWave.

Fashwave is a miniscule thing that people make too big a deal of with alarmist articles. It’s the equivalent of seeing a swastika crudely drawn on a school desk, and instead of ignoring the teen trying to be edgy for edgy sake, bringing it to national attention. Since vaporwave appeals to those that frequent sites like 4chan and Reddit, it’s almost inevitable that something like fashwave would happen. It’s just fascist imagery haphazardly attached to synthwave and internet art. It’s uninspired; there is nothing substantial, seminal, or deconstructive about it, and there isn’t even some Boyd Rice-esque figure trying to make a statement about the imagery and music.

I feel like Trumpwave and so many other little waves are more or less just buzzwords. As if vaporwave didn’t already have enough subgenres, people try to get crazy with names like Simpsonwave, gasstationwave, craftstorewave, Seinfeldwave etc. It’s just hyperspecific nanogenres at that point and they aren’t creative most of the time. I’ve seen Clintonwave with young versions of Bill and Hillary and Bill’s slowed down saxophone. Stuff like that is just novelty and shouldn’t be taken seriously. I remember in 2012 when there was that trap album art parodying Mitt Romney called R-Money – Binder$ Fulla Women. Some of the stuff can be a little funny, but it gets old so fast and doesn’t have the replay value of something like a Weird Al song.

RC: I suppose what makes vaporwave have these conflicting affordances––critique, alt-right co-option, satire, sheer aesthetic enjoyment––is that it seems to be laced with irony. A lot of Internet subculture relies on this odd register, both ironic and serious at once. A related facet, as you mention, is anonymity. Most vaporwave releases are via proliferating aliases. How important is the Internet (and everything that goes with it, the irony, the anonymity, the piracy) for vaporwave?

The Internet adds to the nostalgia and the distance between the now and the 80s and 90s. It’s important in that regard as the Internet is the biggest difference between now and then. If in future vaporwave is still fruitful, the Internet will still be important as people will romanticize the Internet of the past. Regarding anonymity and piracy, it’s always going to be there for so much music and vaporwave is no different. It’s just that the playing field has changed from being in a crowd and dubbing the radio on tape to throwaway accounts and YouTube ripping. The same applies to pseudonyms.

But would vaporwave exist without the Internet? I believe that a movement akin to vaporwave could exist offline, evidenced by zine movements, tape trades, art schools, and experimental labels like LAFMS [Los Angeles Free Music Society]. Of course the humor and irony would be present, but I don’t think it would be nearly as staggering as the amount people dump on the web on a daily basis. I’ll say yes the Internet is important, but not as much as many others might be led to believe.

RC: How do you personally go about producing a vaporwave track? What is the process behind something like Hilton Fountains or The Ultimate Rush?

I use Virtual DJ and Ableton. All of Hilton Fountains was done on Virtual DJ, and The Ultimate Rush was done on Ableton. I use Virtual DJ first in my projects so I can quickly screw the tracks. I use the reverb and distorter built-in plugins to get a feel of how the tracks might sound. The distorter plugin has this really nice galloping delay I’m fond of. I used these effects for Hilton Fountains. For The Ultimate Rush, I had a process of throwing entire samples through a granulator, and using a VST [Virtual Studio Technology] called Echoboy which created that industrial, glacial landscape. I’d record the tracks live while jumping through the sample waveforms and hope for the best. I was inspired by Dormant Mirrors / Drum (2006) by DJ Yo-Yo Dieting.

The method I go through to find samples is deep diving on the web with whatever I have in mind. So if it was something like Hilton Fountains, I’d search old anime, visual novel OSTs, and explore YouTube pages of architects with 3D hotel tours for something sterile. The Ultimate Rush was 2000s rock and punk in porn ads, DVDs, and raunchy teen comedy trailers. I try my best to distill these vibes and to distort and satirize them.

Cover artwork for Strawberry Illuminati’s 2016 limited-edition cassette album Hilton Fountains.

RC: What’s your favourite vaporwave release, and why?

My personal favorite would have to be MediaFiredTM, The pathway through Whatever (2011). The album is just layers upon layers of delayed music debris turned into ectoplasm. I adore how it sounds somewhere between a hypnagogic journey through time and space, and (to quote a friend) “listening to TV through a wall in the dark.” Even the album cover art perfectly encapsulates this feeling––it features stars in space and at the center a screencapture of a sweaty punk group getting crazy in a Coimbra bar in the 90s. The album was originally distributed on the Portuguese label Exo Tapes, limited to 32 copies. Each cassette contained a unique piece of artwork that was actually 1/16th of two larger pictures. The large connecting artworks formed a collage of rock idols, logos, and brands.

The samples are incredibly well chosen. MediaFiredTM picked everything from Queen, Kate Bush, and the Back Street Boys and made it all gel. He transformed pop and rock anthems into cosmic chants. I would of never have believed it if I told myself 10 years ago that one of my favorite tracks ever would be a screwed remix of “I Want it That Way.” There really is no other vaporwave album like it.