Interview: Perturbator’s James Kent on “The Uncanny Valley,” the synthwave / metal overlap and more

perturbator james kent
James Kent of Perturbator (Image courtesy of the artist)

It’s been a little less than three months since James Kent — better known under the pseudonym Perturbator — released his newest album, The Uncanny Valley. In that time, the album’s staked its claim as one of the synthwave maestro’s best releases to date — not that it needed that long to do so, though. Underneath the neon-drenched cyberpunk facade, there’s a darkness to the album — to all Perturbator releases, really — that keeps earning Kent new fans within the metal community. We sent him some questions about his crossover appeal, The Uncanny Valley and the growth of synthwave in general. Here’s what he had to say:

First off, congratulations on The Uncanny Valley! It’s a terrific listen, and a great follow-up to Dangerous Days. Now that we’re a bit further removed from its release, and it’s had its time to permeate the market a bit, how does it feel to you? Any reflections on the work that went into it?

Thank you! Well I’m just mostly really glad that people enjoy the album. To be honest, my mind already shifted to something else now. I’ve been working on this album for almost two years and when it got released, I felt some kind of relief; it’s as if a door opened and I was allowed to move towards other goals. Not necessarily Perturbator related — I’m still unsure about how I can top myself with this one — but also other projects and ideas I had at the time.

Can you walk me through your writing process a bit? How do your songs typically come together? Did the album’s concept – started in Dangerous Days and continued here – influence the musical composition at all?

Well I start with basically a rough idea of what’s the album going to be about, and I try to make a rough idea of a “setlist” — deciding how to start the album, how to end it, what little clues and details I should put in there, how to tell a story, how to make it not too repetitive or boring to listen to….this sort of stuff. Making one single track can take up to a month or so. I’m very careful regarding each sound and each little detail. As for the writing itself, it’s quite basic: I take inspiration from different places and try to craft tracks with software or hardware synths that all feel different, but still seem logical considering the album’s theme.

I was thrilled to find out you’d worked with Hayley Stewart and your new label-mates, Astronoid, on the album. How did these collaborations come about? Did they affect your songwriting process at all, or had the tunes already been assembled?

The tracks were already made really. I made them with a certain singer idea in my head, and then simply sent them to the vocalists. I gave them a rough idea about the album’s concept and then we just worked back and forth, with them sending melodies and lines and me mixing it and changing the track according to the vocals.

Who are some of your biggest influences around the synthwave genre? Are there any artists you’ll drop everything and listen to, when they release new material?

I don’t listen to a lot of synthwave, actually. I only know my “classics” — basically the first people I listened to in that scene: Mitch Murder, Noir Deco, Power Glove, Miami Nights 1984, Chrome Canyon. These guys could be considered my  “mentors.”

Synthwave’s built up a following in different niches of pop culture – it featured heavily in the Far Cry: Blood Dragon video game; in the Comedy Central show, Moonbeam City; etc. How do you feel about this continued exposure for the genre?

To be quite honest with you, it mostly worries me. We are talking about musicians that have an immense passion for this type of music and who are doing it since 2005. Now, ten years later, we have big shows, movies and video game making machines that started to see the “market value” in this type of music, and while it does look pretty cool for the most part, I’m still unsure about the “hype” effect. If it’s a fad, then it will die sooner or later, and thats something I want to avoid.

You’ve got a bit of a metal background, and your music’s enormously popular in the metal community. To what do you attribute this crossover appeal?

I don’t know, really. It probably comes from the “metal” influences in my music. Probably some of the imagery and the “retro” factor. I think they just see the sincerity in what I do and it makes them more accepting to the fact it’s electronic music. I also believe that there is not a single all-encompassing metal community, but rather a lot of different little ones. So it also depends on which community we talk about. I just come from a place where debating about genres and having arguments over which music is better is ridiculous and childish. I listen to all music with an open mind, and I always assumed that Perturbator listeners ended up being that for the same reasons.

Perturbator shares a kind of element of darkness with most metal genres; there’s something kind of sinister to both. But aside from that, are there any other similarities or overlaps you’ve found between the genres? (Whether from a writing or performing standpoint)

There’s a lot of similarities actually. I can give you, for example: the occult references, the cult horror inspirations, the song structures, the aggressivity [sic] of the tracks and the overall nihilism, from the top of my head.

Who are some of your favorite contemporary metal bands? Are there any new / recent albums you’d recommend in particular?

Cult of Luna, Electric Wizard, Mr Bungle, Ulver and Deathspell Omega are probably in my top 5 favorite bands of all time. But right now I want to suggest anybody who’s reading this to listen to The Black Heart Rebellion — it’s one of the best stuff [sic] I’ve listened to in a while.

You closed out Nidrosian Black Mass last December in Brussels – a festival that featured the likes of Blasphemy, Aosoth and Archgoat, among others. Can you describe that experience for me? Did you go strictly to play, or were you able to check out some of the other performances while you were there, too?

It was quite daunting to play my type of music in front of such a crowd, and for that reason I think I will never forget about this show. I think it went very well overall, and most people seemed very pleased, so it’s all that matters. I got the chance to talk to other musicians that I have a lot of respect for, from bands like Cult of Fire, Svartidaudi and Negative Plane. That was great.

And finally, now that The Uncanny Valley has come out, what’s next on the horizon for Perturbator? Any live shows lined up to support the album?

Yes, we’re currently working on getting gigs in the US, and as of now I’m working on upgrading the live show and add more elements to it! As for what’s next, I’m still unsure.

Many thanks to James for his time.

The Uncanny Valley is available now on Blood Music. For more information on Perturbator, visit his Facebook page.

Keep it heavy,
Dan

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