Electron Odyssey is Jeff Spoonhower, an independent musician and producer living in Northern Indiana (USA). Jeff has worked in the video game and animation industries since 2002. His debut album of electronic music ‘Your Future Awaits’ was inspired by 80s synth-driven pop, progressive rock, synthwave, and film/game scores. The album won the award for ‘Best Electro Act of 2021’ at the Radio Wigwam awards. I spoke to Jeff about the music and films that inspired him.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
“I’ve been working in the video game industry for 20 years as a creative artist on lots of awesome projects. For the past nine years, I’ve also been teaching film and animation courses as a professor at the University of Notre Dame. I’ve lived all over the country thanks to my career in video games, and have been blessed with the opportunity to meet and work with amazing people and experience life on all coasts, and in-between. I grew up in a suburb of Rochester, NY and was fortunate to have excellent art and music programs in my schools. My teachers and my parents always encouraged me to follow my passions, practice hard, and shoot for the moon.”
What’s your musical background?
“I started playing the trombone when I was in 4th grade and spent my youth through college playing brass instruments in a variety of bands and ensembles, including concert band, wind ensemble, orchestra, drum and bugle corps, and jazz band. I particularly loved playing jazz trombone, and was pretty good at soloing and playing by ear. I was never great at playing my scales, although as a composer, now, I wish I had practiced them more!”
When did you first become interested in music?
“My dad used to play vinyl records for my brothers and I at home, as far back into my youth as my memories take me. I grew up listening to bands like Genesis, Rush, The Beatles, Steve Winwood, Billy Joel, and Peter Gabriel all throughout the 80s. I received a pretty good education in pop and prog rock music when I was a kid, even though I didn’t really know what I was listening to. Once I started playing an instrument in grade school, and through high school and college, my musical world really opened up and I fell in love with all types of film scores and symphonic music.”
Who are some of your main influences?
“On the pop/rock front – Rush, Pink Floyd, Genesis/Phil Collins, The Police/Sting, Billy Joel, Carly Rae Jepsen, Alan Parsons Project, Space Art, Depeche Mode, The Doors, and Van Halen, to name a few. On the jazz front – Count Basie, Chick Corea, Stan Kenton, and Roy Hargrove.”
“I also listen to a lot of 20th century orchestral music by John Adams, Bela Bartok, Claude Debussy, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein.”
What’s one album you could listen to over and over from start to finish?
“Rush – ‘Signals’. I’ve been listening to this album since I was five years old, and it just keeps on giving. A more semi-recent album would be Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ based on the sheer variety of styles and emotions present. Each track is so different, yet beautifully written and performed.”
Let’s talk about your debut album ‘Your Future Awaits’. What was your goal with the album?
“It’s is partly an homage to the various types of music I’ve loved listening to over the course of my life, and also a vehicle for me to explore the making-music process, as it was my first album.”
“I began experimenting with electronic music composition and production in 2014, and really enjoyed the process. After improving my skills over the course of a few years, I became serious about committing to the production of a full-length album in 2019. The songs that ended up on the album were the result of a great deal of experimentation, trial and error, and musical exploration over the course of 2+ years.”
“I wasn’t interested in telling a literal story with the album, rather, I wanted to create music that I really like listening to – 80s progressive rock, synth-driven pop, and cinematic score music. Each song on the album has a different feel, but my goal was to make an album that felt stylistically unified – something that takes the listener on a journey of sorts.”
Your album is inspired by 80s synth-driven pop. What is it about the 80s that inspires you?
“Music made in the 80s had strong melodic hooks and well-written harmonies. The musicians and vocalists could really play back then and they had actual talent! No auto-tuning or any other technological enhancements were available, for the most part. 80s music is just fun to listen to and makes me feel good. I wanted to capture some of that in my own music.”
Most songwriters name their songs after one of the lyrics. Since most of your songs are instrumental, is it hard for you to come up with song titles? How did you come up with effective titles?
“Correct. And for the songs that do feature lyrics on my album, I chose titles based on a prominent word, or words, from the songs’ choruses. I approach naming purely instrumental tracks from an emotional, or narrative standpoint. How does the song make me feel? What emotion am I trying to convey to the listener? What is the story being told through the music? I let my heart and my imagination come up with evocative titles that just feel right. I let the instrumental songs simmer for a while and usually choose titles late in the production process.”
What’s your favourite song on the album and why?
“That’s a tough one. I like to think of each song I create as a child of mine – I love them all equally! If I had to choose one, I’d probably have to say ‘Show Me The Way’ because it has a unique emotional feel to it. I wanted to lean on my background in jazz, and also incorporate elements of 70s space funk and synthwave. The song also suggests a sort of strange story, if you pay attention to the lyrics, as told by the vocalist.”
We spoke about the fact your album is inspired by sounds from the 80s, but your music is also very cinematic. What films have inspired you to make music?
“One from my childhood, in particular, is ‘Tron’ (1982). Wendy Carlos’ monumental score to that film is an absolute masterpiece. Carlos was a pioneer in the field of electronic music in the 60s and 70s, and her ‘Tron’ score was one of the first to successfully fuse a large-scale orchestra and synthesizers in a way that tightly integrated with the film’s narrative themes and visual style. Of course, almost all of John Williams’ scores have influenced me and my love of music in general, along with Stanley Kubrick’s unusual use of music and score in each of his films.”
What’s your favourite film soundtrack or score?
“OK, now you’re really killing me with this question. I have too many favorites! If I had to pick one, I’d choose Jerry Goldsmith’s score to ‘Total Recall’ (1990). All of my John Williams CDs are screaming at me right now.”
You get the chance to rewrite the soundtrack or score for an existing film. What film would you pick?
“There was this awesomely corny movie that came out in the 80s called ‘Iron Eagle’. If someone decides to remake it, I would be the person to score it, for sure.”
You have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Computer Animation. You’ve worked in the video game industry as an art director, animator and sound engineer. Can we expect any animated videos to your music?
“I would love to make a music video for my next album, if I can find the time. I’ve got a few ideas already that I’m kicking around. Animation is a lot of fun to produce, but it’s incredibly difficult and time-intensive to do well. Between my game development career, family, and actually working on new music, the animation/video stuff always gets put on the back-burner.”
What’s your favourite gear?
“I do most of my writing on a computer using Ableton and software instruments. I love the instruments made by Cherry Audio, TAL, Arturia, UVI, Korg, IK Multimedia, and Synapse Audio, to name a few. Some of my favorite hardware instruments in my collection are the Moog Minimoog Model D, Sequential Pro-3, Novation Summit, and a few of the excellent Roland boutique units (JU-06A, SE-02, SH-01A, D-05). I really like the Rode NT1 mic for vocals – it sounds amazing and is very affordable.”
If you could collaborate with any artist who would you pick and why?
“The electro artist, Droid Bishop. I love how his music fuses together synthwave, 80s-style pop, rock, and funk into something new and exciting.“
“I’m currently working on my next LP, which I plan to release this fall. I started working on it shortly after the release of my debut LP ‘Your Future Awaits’ in August of 2021. I’m very excited about the new album and I’m looking forward to sharing more details about it, and a few singles, this spring and summer. It’s got some connective tissue, or shared DNA, with my first album, but it also goes in some fun, new directions.”
Compact disc, audio cassette or digital?
“CDs all the way! I understand the popular opinion that compact discs are dead/lame/unhip/ancient technology, and that vinyl is the greatest format of all time, but I think CDs really do present music in the best light possible. You can’t beat listening to a CD on a good deck through a quality pair of headphones. I have a Teac CD player on my nightstand, along with a pair of Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pros. There’s also something to be said for listening to an album from start to finish, as a singular listening experience (as intended by the artist), rather than consuming a wide selection of songs through the digital “mix tape” playlist format via MP3, streaming services, etc. I like listening to entire albums and going on musical journeys.”
What’s your favourite song from the Cool Top 20 and why?
“Every single track on the Top 20 playlist right now is fantastic, but I really love ‘Dive’ by Dawn Coulshed. The very simple descending piano melody at the start of the track drew me right in and held me through to the end of the song. Dawn’s got such a gorgeous, smooth voice, and the song has a very dark, noir-ish emotional tone which is beautiful. Lovely solo trumpet and cello work on the track as well.”
What song would you like to add as a bonus track and why?
“Droid Bishop – ‘The Light’. Droid is pretty well known in the synth/electro community, but I just love his retro aesthetic and melodic, groovy approach to writing. He performs all instruments and sings on his tracks, which is very impressive.