Finding a Path Through the Wilderness: An Interview with Makeup & Vanity Set

Makeup & Vanity Set’s Matthew Pusti discusses his new album’s origins, its accompanying short film, the legacy of the ’80s, and much more.
Makeup & Vanity Set

About two years ago, I saw a link on Facebook to the Bandcamp page for an artist I’d never heard of: the Nashville-based Makeup & Vanity Set. Intrigued by the comments, I clicked on it and was immediately entranced as the dark, cinematic synthesizer sounds of “An Infinite Horizon” began flowing out of my speakers.

As Makeup & Vanity Set, Matthew Pusti crafts music that’s both deeply nostalgic and hauntingly futuristic, and his latest album, Wilderness, is a synthwave tour de force. Pusti was gracious enough to answer some questions about the struggles involved in creating Wilderness, the short film inspired by the album, some other cool projects he’s involved in, the ongoing allure of the ’80s, and much more.

For those who may not know, when did you start recording under the Makeup & Vanity Set moniker? How did you start out? What inspired you to start making music in the first place?

MAVS started around 2004/2005. I was coming out of college and had spent the majority of my time making a lot of IDM music. I started with IDM when I was in middle school, so probably ‘94-95. We had a PC in our house and I got pretty heavily into tracker-based music. I liked how raw that stuff was. It was so carefree back then, just endlessly discovering things. In retrospect, I’m grateful that I started there because all of that fed directly into all of the synthesis stuff I got into during college. The biggest inspiration back in those days was probably Warp Records. I was so drawn into that. I loved that the Warp stuff could exist in all of these different cultures — it could be hyper-edited and digital, it could fall into rave cultures or jungle, and at the same time, it could be really dark and full of space.

I just got to a point where I wanted to do stuff that maybe hung in the air a bit more for me personally, and the darker parts of those things mattered the most in that.

When I listen to the various releases on your Bandcamp page, there’s quite a wide variety of electronic sounds. There’s darker, more somber material (e.g., 7.25.2148, the “Charles Park” trilogy), as well as more uptempo, dance music (e.g., Jambox). How would you describe your musical evolution?

The first show with a ski mask and all of that mess, was split in half — it was half IDM and half sort of ’80s-ish, dance-ier music. That was probably 2004. I was opening shows for the Protomen. There wasn’t really a goal to that beyond putting on the mask and trying not to throw up on stage. I think the early stuff really reflected that. I don’t have any regrets about that. When I hear that stuff now, it just sounds like I was trying to figure out what that sound was supposed to be. Everything was digital and sequencer based. When I started buying synths everything moved away from that and I was having to worry about arrangements and structure a lot more. Evolving out of that was really just about being influenced by people like John Carpenter and Dario Argento’s work in the ’70s and the ’80s with Goblin. I was listening to lots of Fabio Frizzi. That stuff was formative for me because it was technically film score but it still lived in a song-form and structure. It was dark. This happened almost in parallel to stuff like Kavinsky and Justice coming around and openly wearing those influences on their sleeves. The darkness in there happened naturally I guess. I never went too far into the heavier, dance side of that music — I just got to a point where I wanted to do stuff that maybe hung in the air a bit more for me personally, and the darker parts of those things mattered the most in that.

It seems like a lot of your music has been written in response to dark or difficult life experiences. Last year, you wrote that watching a loved one die from cancer served as the impetus for Wilderness. How does writing and making music help you through those experiences?

I think in the beginning I was trying to process through hard things and music seemed like the best way to do that. I think I was naïve in that. Looking at it now, having gone through this whole process of making a record, starting and stopping so many times and seeing the film and the artwork happen, I feel okay saying that the record isn’t about losing the person so much as figuring out how to pick up and carry on. Writing and creating the music wasn’t ever clear. Death sort of covered everything like a fog and the process became alienating and painful.

In your Wilderness announcement, you wrote something that really stuck with me: “I thought about how my memories will endure with me but even they start to fade over time. No matter how hard we seek that, something infinite or eternal is always just beyond our grasp and even if we caught up to it, would we truly want it? Could something artificial replace something real to satisfy our natural need for realism?” How does Wilderness wrestle with those questions? Did working on Wilderness help you come to some sort of resolution with them?

I wrote a lot of the music early on, I think in the summer and fall of 2012. I was so scattered at that point. I think there was personal pressure to do something after 88, but even more than that, I felt like I was losing grip on things. Most of the music was started before the winter. All of the process of death and grieving started around that time and at the same time I realized pretty quickly that I couldn’t work on any of that music anymore. It just sat there. I became a father right after that, and that is where a lot of the thinking began in terms of our mental and physical narrative and how that connects to other people and things. When I did start working again, everything immediately felt like there were two halves. It seems a bit simple, but it kept branching out of life and death, mental and physical, past and present. The record deals personally with the fact that all of my memories now had this little addendum attached to it, and that no matter how much time would pass or how much healing could happen, the context would be changed forever. The record lives in that. I don’t know if the resolution I was looking for in the beginning was the one I found at the end.

The record deals personally with the fact that all of my memories now had this little addendum attached to it, and that no matter how much time would pass or how much healing could happen, the context would be changed forever.

You mentioned that the Wilderness title was biblical. How so? The first thing that came to mind when I looked at the cover artwork, which depicts a young woman caught in a thorn bush, was the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, and the ram in the thorns. Was that intentional?

Early on I was thinking a lot about the woods. 7.25.2148 deliberately had an image of a wooded area on the cover. That record made a pretty deliberate left turn into darker, analog synthesis territory. The idea was that this was the entry into the place where all of these remembered versions of the sister would be left behind and discarded when they didn’t work. The title Wilderness comes from that and, maybe more so, it comes from the way the word “wilderness” is used in a biblical sense, that it’s more often than not used in a context of some type of trial — that exiting into that place was meant to be a test. Wilderness is used to portray a place that exists “away from God.” In terms of what it feels like to mourn and make sense out of something like death, it’s a very lonely place. It’s tremendously overwhelming and isolating at the same time. I had a lot of confusion and anger in the midst of that.

What is the album’s relationship to Joey Ciccoline’s Eidolon film? What’s the status of Eidolon? How did you start working Ciccoline in the first place?

Joey and I met through working together on his short film 88:88. Joey is extremely quick on his feet when it comes to visualizing things. When I started telling him about the concepts around Wilderness, he really latched onto the first half and expressed an interest in developing a film around it. Joey more or less adapted that into his own thing. Film making is pretty foreign to me; it’s not a process that I can see clearly beforehand. The film evolved through Joey and a writer named Daniel Shepherd. The film is meant to release alongside the album. Even as an adaptation, it’s still a pretty essential component to the record. It’s not like a music video — it’s a living breathing thing that he created. It comes out of the same places that the album did, so much so that scoring it and watching it continuously and working on it was pretty painful at times. It’s really unique in the way that the two are connected by exist on their own at the same time. I’m excited for people to finally get to see it.

There are several snippets of dialog on Wilderness (e.g., near the end of “Turing: Sequence”). Are they from Eidolon? I was particularly struck by the “Turing: Sequence” snippet, which talks about “everlasting darkness” but ends on a somewhat hopeful note. Why did you use that sample? For you, how does it build on the themes of Wilderness?

All of the dialogue in the record was written and recorded for the album. The voices are the two lead actors, Della Saba and Logan George, but the dialogue is unique to the record. The first half of the album centers on the role of the brother and what he’s going through. The second half is about the sister, and the dialogue is set up to follow that theme. Cycles were a big part of the theme — the idea that our memories are little recordings that we cycle through, some of them more often than others, and our ability to recall them correctly is directly influenced by that. It’s like a person in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, struggling to hang onto the memories they are making and trying to hold onto the ones that they’ve already got, all while dealing with the context of living with a degenerative disease — it’s maddening. The dialogue in “Turing” was about that — having something there beside you and trying to hold onto it as long as you can; you can feel hope while it’s there but you have to reconcile that with fact that one day it won’t be.

The thing I learned by the end of this is that there isn’t a switch that flips and I suddenly don’t have to feel the pain of this stuff anymore — the pain is always there, it’s just something that you have to learn to live with and deal with.

You’ve mentioned the “brother” and “sister” parts of the album. Could you explain the “plot” of Wilderness a bit more?

The basic component was about family and memory and the idea that those two things simultaneously shape and define us and haunt us at the same time. The two halves of the album, the first part being the brother, the second being the sister, are really like two opposite poles that need each other to survive but can never truly meet on common ground. That’s the dream, really. When you know a person through love and pain and experience, when they are taken away from you, that experience solidifies them forever in the timeline of your life; it’s traumatic to suddenly watch them become this immoveable marker. As my life moved further away from that experience, it got murkier when I would try to remember how things were. The first half of the album is about a brother who has to deal with the fact that his sister is dying and he can’t do anything about it, and the effect that plays on his ability to cope and keep moving on. The second half asks what happens if the brother recreates his sister and she survives, and now she lives as he remembers her, and, over time, everything else fades away until the brother is gone and she is the remainder, recording new memories and learning — the point being that at that stage, the pain of survival transfers to her and is inescapable. The thing I learned by the end of this is that there isn’t a switch that flips and I suddenly don’t have to feel the pain of this stuff anymore — the pain is always there, it’s just something that you have to learn to live with and deal with. It changed my life.

You’ve written several soundtracks, for both movies and video games. Do you take a different approach when working on soundtrack material versus a “normal” Makeup & Vanity Set release? Are there any other soundtrack plans on the horizon?

They’re totally different animals, every one of them. Wilderness was a long, protracted process. I’ll probably never do that again (hopefully). Before Charles Park 3, I really just made music until there was enough of it that it felt like a record. Early stuff, like Aesthetically Speaking, or even the self-titled record, those were just collections of music I’d been playing live for a while that seemed to work the best at that time. Charles Park 3 was the first personal record for me, and everything since then has some sort of personal, life anchor attached to it. I’ve never felt comfortable having to explain that away, and really, I don’t need to. Everyone that listens to these records will have their own experiences with them, so it’s out of my hands. Scoring is such a collaborative thing because I’ve already got something there to react to. I feel like half of the battle is already fought at that point. All of the films I’ve worked on are different in that there are different personalities involved and completely different narratives and motives, etc., but the process on my end is usually breaking things into scenes and trying to score them individually, then assembling all of that and layering things over that to create a better sense of continuity. Working on the game Brigador (Stellar Jockeys) was closer to working on a record, but still a really collaborative process.

I’m currently working on music for the upcoming game Starr Mazer, which is going to be amazing, and I’m scoring a feature film called Depth for the director Don Thacker, which is tied into a game called Soma, developed by Frictional Games (AmnesiaPenumbra).

What sort of equipment do you use to compose music? How much of it is digital vs. analog?

My setup now is pretty simple and predominately analog. A while ago I had to make a conscious decision to stop buying synthesizers and other things so I could just narrow it down to a few things with the idea that I could spend more time learning things inside and out. It’s really easy for me to learn something in a broad sense and not dig much beyond that, but with synthesizers, you really do need to spend a lot of time discovering everything you can about it. I think there are lots of purists who prefer only analog stuff, but I’m not really in that group. I just like things that sound good and work well and work in the context of whatever I’m doing. When I was in college I had no money and anything I was doing at that time came out of whatever I could get my hands on. I’m not terribly different now. The last major thing I picked up was the Elektron Octatrack, which is a digital sampler and a tremendously powerful sequencer. It’s almost not fair to describe it that simply. I bought it thinking it would work well for playing shows, but it’s really been a huge part of my studio. It pulls me away from the computer, which is always for the best. It’s nice to just sit and let all of these machines talk to one another. Computers take away a lot of the fear and discovery. It’s nice to work outside of my comfort zone.

It’s nice to just sit and let all of these machines talk to one another. Computers take away a lot of the fear and discovery. It’s nice to work outside of my comfort zone.

It seems like a lot of “synthwave” music is very nostalgic in nature, owing a deep debt to ’80s film, music, and culture like Blade Runner, Alien, cyberpunk, etc. The Telefuture label even talks about how their goal is to be “an audio-visual celebration of the ideas and technology born in the 1980s.” What is it about the ’80s that has such an allure? Why does it provide so much inspiration?

To me, the ’80s were an era for film and culture in America to really detach from reality. If you look at what was happening culturally, and then line it up with what was happening in the real world, they could not have been more divergent and devoted to fantasy. Things like Blade Runner and Aliens are so polarizing when you keep in mind this stuff is happening with the backdrop of the cold war and Reagan, with things like the Challenger and Chernobyl. Terrorism was becoming a pretty major reality all over the world. It was every bit as scary as it can be today. The PG-13 rating was born in the 1980s. Culture responded with a wave of fantasy that simultaneously reflected the world it was coming from and rejected it at the same time. For me, that’s the inspiration. I respond to the fact that all of that is a response to something darker underneath that.

A lot of electronic music seems like it’s first and foremost a studio entity, due to the nature of the sounds, the equipment involved, and so on. Do you enjoy performing live? What are the challenges in translating your music to a live setting, especially some of the more atmospheric and ambient material? Will there be any touring for Wilderness?

Some limited touring may happen with Wilderness, we’ll see how things go. Shows and studio are two incredibly different things. When I start to think about playing any music in front of people, I think about how to preserve the basic parts of the song and then how to make it interesting. I used to get really hung up on making it interesting for me, which I think is a mistake because in the end people aren’t going to stand there and love watching a guy interact with gear on a stage. That’s not interesting. I started playing with a live drummer a few years ago and that really opened that up for me. It made shows fun again. There’s just something really raw about it. I’ve also gotten to where I don’t fret too much about the exactness of things. Making mistakes is a good thing. At a certain point you have to let it go so you can preserve piece of mind. I typically do not like playing live. My brain isn’t there for that. It’s stressful. There’s too much to keep track of. I used to ply on alcohol and try to deal with it that way, but I got to a point where I was chasing my own tail a lot of the time. I had to stop and figure out how to move forward.

And finally, I have to ask: What’s the significance of the ski mask?

The ski mask came from a friend of mine, Norm Teale, who is an electronic musician based in Oakland, CA. He gave it to me. It was laying around my apartment and I was about to start playing shows with the Protomen and I wore it to compete with their endless barrage of theater. It was really because those early shows were half IDM, half dance jams, so I wore the ski mask for the really brutal stuff and then took it off and played the other stuff. It was a gimmick and it played off of the name, the “vanity” end of things. I didn’t really think about it with much depth because I didn’t think it would become a thing beyond a few shows. Music has always been an isolated thing for me — making it on my own, working with machines — there’s a lot of loneliness there. For a long time, it felt like I had two lives, making all of this stuff at night and then getting up in the morning and going off to work a job during the day. There’s a lot more work involved now, 10+ years later, but I think the mask part of it was like a shield; I could venture out of what felt safe to me and play shows and still be hidden somehow.

Wilderness will be released by Telefuture on April 8; click here to pre-order. For more information, follow Makeup & Vanity Set on Tumblr and Twitter. Watch the first Wilderness promo below.