As members of synth-wave duo Dance With The Dead, Irvine natives Tony Kim and Justin Pointer take inspiration from the darkness of the horror and sci-fi movies they grew up watching to generate dance beat and guitar-driven instrumentals that serve as hyper-charged versions of era-appropriate soundtracks. Both musicians had been circling around the Orange County music scene until finally joining up in 2012, initially as a one-off project. Heavy metal had been a base for the duo, but Kim had found himself more into electronic acts such as Justice, as well as a film that gained note for its ’80s synth-laden soundtrack.
“I remember hearing Kavinsky’s work on the Drive soundtrack and it was really cool and impactful,” says Kim during a recent phone conversation. “We didn’t even really know at the time that there was a whole synth-wave scene, or that other musicians existed that were doing that stuff. We didn’t really know what we were doing.”
Genre terms such as synth-wave and retro-wave have been tossed around in recent years to describe a growing movement of musicians – often solo or two-person projects – that blend dance-floor beats, the atmosphere of ’80s horror soundtracks, and a heavy metal attitude into an accessible brew. As Dance With The Dead’s 2013 debut Out of Body was released, the movement as a whole – popularized by European acts such as Perturbator and GosT – was growing as a DIY, Bandcamp-and-Soundcloud-driven scene.
With both musicians juggling guitar and synthesizer duties, Dance With The Dead’s musical aesthetic – up to and including their latest self-released record Loved To Death, released this week – could easily be transferred into either a melodic pop or heavy industrial music environment with a minor intensity adjustment in either direction. But the frenetic energy of a suspenseful horror flick remains at the heart of the music, which is no surprise given the conditions under which the duo records their music.
“We always have some horror movie on in the background on mute when we record,” Kim says. “When I come up with guitar lines or synth lines, whether it’s Evil Dead, Suspiria, or House on Haunted Hill – whether someone is getting slashed up or someone is escaping – I pretty much score to what I am seeing.”
A large number of modern synth-wave acts don’t leave their bedroom studios. It took Dance With The Dead until 2015 to begin playing live shows. After fairly inauspicious starts locally in front of tiny turnouts, the band was inexplicably booked for two shows in Russia. Noticing that a large number of their social media feedback was coming from that nation, the duo took a chance on the flight.
“Our second show was the weekend of Halloween 2015 at a warehouse in Silver Lake,” Kim says. “Our third show ever was getting on a plane to Russia and playing in front of 500 kids. We had literally just played in front of 20 people on our home base. We figured after we got back from Russia, it was time to stop fucking around.”
Where Dance With The Dead breaks away from the rest of the emerging synth-wave pack is the energy of their live performances. While many of the one-person projects performing live remain trapped behind a booth like a DJ or a wall of synths, both Kim and Pointer break out and roam the stage with guitars, shredding away at solos that can hang with heavy metal’s best. The duo’s mastery of the six-string is a big lure for metalheads that might not otherwise be seen on a dance floor.
“At our shows, there’s all these metal dudes up front moshing,” Kim says, “but in the back there are the new retro-wave and synth-wave kids having a good time dancing in the corner. It’s a trip, it’s like two completely different planets in one room.”