Synthesizer Music : Jake Schrock Talks ‘Tropical Depression’ And Writing For The Instrument

Musician Jake Schrock creates music in the world of synthesizers, and he’s a classicist in that regards. Meaning, he works in the realm of analog and vintage gear, building his musical worlds from circuits, tubes, and all the warmth that came with classic synth records from the 70s. There’s a depth in his work that suggests something lurking below the surface noise and tasteful melodies.

Sure, lots of musicians are going the route of synthesizer music, right? That’s nothing new. But when you listen to Jake’s debut album with Holodeck Records called Tropical Depression(out July 27th), you will know this isn’t just another synth album. His sound lives in darker terrain. It’s not the caffeinated 80s synth, all neon-lit and futuristic. The music on Tropical Depression is exquisite, precise, and swirls around your feet. It has the age of 70s Berlin and early 80s Euro pop, but still retains a modern cool. There’s a deliberate use of rhythm that feels as if the music and melody are following some groove creeping out of the ether.

Schrock writes for the instrument in front of him. He prefers single takes, which adds a bit of an improvisational tightrope for when it’s time to hit record. That element comes out in his records.

Ahead of the release of Tropical Depression, Jake sat down with me and answered a few questions about his music, influences, and love of vintage gear.

J. Hubner: So tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? Were you more of a sports kid or comic books kid?

Jake Schrock: I grew up in Dallas. I actually never played a sport or owned a comic book, so I guess neither?

J. Hubner: When did your fascination with synthesizers and analog instruments begin?

Jake Schrock: Probably around 2003 I remember playing on a microkorg at Guitar Center and then buying one, kind of learned the basics on that. Then within the next few years my music taste was evolving to more 70’s and 80’s synthpop and new wave and that got me interested in digging into what gear was used on those albums. Luckily at the time vintage stuff was still semi-affordable so I bought most everything I own back then.

J. Hubner:  What is it about analog instruments that grabs you?

Jake Schrock: I like the sound and feel of the old analog gear and how most everything from back then has trigger ins and outs… I spend a lot of time connecting various pieces of gear together and coming up with ideas to make one piece of gear do something to another.

J. Hubner: Was the keyboard your first instrument? A lot of guys I talk to that gravitated towards synthesizer seem to have started in the hardcore scene.

Jake Schrock: I did piano lessons as a kid and then bought a keyboard when I was 15 and started reteaching myself how to play. That was the first time I wrote my own compositions and kind of came up with my own style of playing that was comfortable for me. I definitely remember the hardcore scene in high school but I was never really into it.

Photo courtesy of Dallas Ambient Music Nights

J. Hubner: Who or what were some of your early musical influences? 

Jake Schrock: I started with the basics like Depeche Mode, Human League, Eurythmics, etc. and then started branching off to more obscure stuff from that era from listening to Minimal Wave radio every Sunday. That stuff was a huge influence on me, still is actually.

J. Hubner: Do you remember the first album you bought with your own money?

Jake Schrock: The first LP I bought was Tom Tom Club’s “Close To The Bone”. I couldn’t find it on CD so I ordered the record and had it converted to CD at the mall, haha.

J. Hubner: At what age did you seriously get into writing and performing music? Were you in any bands before beginning to work on your own stuff?

Jake Schrock: I started composing and recording my own stuff at 16. The first band I was in was called //TENSE//. I joined them when I was 22. Around the same time I started a band with some friends in Dallas called George Quartz and played in that off and on for years. I played my own music out solo for the first time in 2016.

J. Hubner: You’ve got quite an extensive collection of vintage gear. Who were some electronic and synth artists that really rewired your brain and pushed you into that direction?

Jake Schrock: John Foxx, Bill Nelson, Thomas Leer, Jean-Michel Jarre, early Human League, Telex, Martin Dupont, YMO, Moebius, Gina X Performance, Visage, Kraftwerk, Magazine, OMD, Yello … there’s so many but thats a handful of stuff I was listening to a lot when first getting into synths.

J. Hubner: So let’s talk about your debut with Holodeck Records called ‘Tropical Depression’. It’s absolutely brilliant stuff. What I love is that it doesn’t resemble anything currently being mined in the electronic music pantheon. It’s dark, warm, and feels like some lost German record from the late 70s. A lost score to some European art house flick. Very organic. You can feel these songs.

What was the concept behind the album. 

Jake Schrock: Thanks! That’s a huge compliment, I’m glad it comes off that way. When Adam from Holodeck asked me to do a record I initially imagined releasing a lot of my back catalog from the last 10+ years but at some point he said he’d prefer all new material. It took me quite a while to narrow it down to the final selections.

For a little over a year I played one show a month and wrote a new set for each show. That was sort of my way of trying out tracks in front of people and seeing which sets people responded to most. I eventually narrowed it down to a handful of tracks and arranged them in a way that flowed and started playing that as a set and decided that would be the album.

J. Hubner: What influenced the sound? There’s a strange, mechanical island feel. Is that where “Tropical Depression” comes from?

Jake Schrock: My sound is always most influenced by the gear itself, and whatever I am using at the time. When I brought the CR-68 into the mix I loved using the samba and bossa-nova beats, the tone of that machine always sounds tropical to me. I liked the title “Tropical Depression” since the songs are tropical yet moody. I also took the title a little more literal and had the songs tell the story of a tropical storm building and destroying, ending with “Cerebral Shelter” being the soundtrack to the aftermath.

J. Hubner: So how did you get involved with the guys over at Holodeck Records? I thought your track on Holodeck Vision One, “Levitation Station” was absolutely brilliant. A real highlight for me.

Jake Schrock: Thanks! I met Adam years ago through my friend Michael who plays with him in S U R V I V E. We used to play shows together and hang out whenever I was in Austin. Same with Amber and Justin, I met all them through the Austin synth world back in the day. There used to be an annual synth party down in Austin and that’s probably where I met a lot of that crowd.

J. Hubner: Maybe it’s because I’m older, but when I hear your music described as synthwave I get a little curmudgeonly. I don’t hear that in your songs. I don’t think of neon-lit 80s clubs and neo-futuristic visions. I see more grey Berlin skies and underground clubs. Kraftwerk, Neu!, Tubeway Army and the like. Even back to 2015s ‘Frame of Mind’ you were really digging into some classic heady synth sounds. Maybe I don’t completely understand what the term synthwave encompasses musically. How would you describe your sound? Your style?

Jake Schrock: Yeah, I’m not a fan of that name either and definitely wouldn’t categorize myself under it. I like calling what I do “synthesizer music” since it really relies so much around the gear itself. I start with the hardware and dive into it and try new experiments and build songs around whatever ends up happening. But as far as common genres go I move everywhere between ambient, synthpop, new wave, minimal synth, and even italo. It just depends on what gear I’m using and what mood I’m in. I’ve heard a few people referring to this album as sounding like a 70’s library record and would say that’s a pretty good description as well.

J. Hubner: Back to the album. Where did you record Tropical Depression? How long was the writing and recording process?

Jake Schrock: I recorded half of the album at home in my bedroom studio and half at a studio in Dallas called Klearlight. The writing process was about a year and recording/ mixing was much quicker. Maybe a month or two.

J. Hubner: What is your songwriting process like? How does a project start and how do you know if you’re done?

Jake Schrock: I start with some gear and connect it all together and usually start with a bassline and drum beat. From there I like to get some sort of arpeggio going on the Prophet 600 and then just start playing leads over that until something clicks. Then I try to usually throw in some variation. I think I know when I’m done whenever it doesn’t feel monotonous anymore.

J. Hubner: Has your writing style/process changed much since 2015 and ‘Frame of Mind’? Do you feel conveying an idea or getting a musical thought out has become an easier process?

Jake Schrock: It hasn’t changed too much since that album but definitely has from 10 years ago. I used to build songs in Pro Tools and move parts around allowing for more complex songs with more parts.. more of a verse/ chorus/ bridge structure. But around the time of “Frame Of Mind” I started just hitting record and doing one take recordings as is. I might go back and do an overdub but I really just like to capture a live performance now and have more improvisation with the tracks. In a way the compositions are a little simpler now but I think they have more of a genuine feel to them because of the live element.

J. Hubner: Do you ever take your tracks out on the road? Are you playing any shows in support of the album release?

Jake Schrock: I do, I usually play about one show a month. I’m throwing two album release shows, one in Dallas and one in Austin. Dallas will be this coming Friday, July 27th at Josey Records. Austin will be on August 2nd at Cheer Up Charlies.

J. Hubner: What does the rest of 2018 look like for you? Do you already have any new tracks written for the next release?

Jake Schrock: I plan on playing some more shows and definitely ready to start working on the next record. I’ve got lots of material recorded already and may use some of that but may just do something from scratch as well.

Jake Schrock’s Tropical Depression is out this Friday July 27th. Head over to Holodeck Records and preorder the limited edition cassette version(200 made total), or digital only if that’s your thing. And if you’re in the Dallas area on July 27th check out Jake’s release show at Josey Records. You can also catch him in Austin on August 2nd at Cheer Up Charlies.

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