When Cam Findlay discusses the inspiration behind the aesthetic for his latest project, Kontravoid, he doesn’t talk about other electronic musicians or bands. Instead, he references horror movies and the bleak, creepy buildings that house his studio spaces. In the music video for “Silent Visions,” a track off of Kontravoid’s self-titled debut, a woman is followed by and subsequently abducted by a masked and gloved figure. Later, that figure stands over her, as the two are surrounded by gear: synth boards, recording equipment. The video has the tension and ominousness of a great horror movie, except it is entirely bloodless; all threat and yet devoid of violence
“It’s all make-believe,” says Findlay, who always performs as Kontravoid similarly masked and gloved. “I am trying to create not necessarily a horror movie, but a grim character, and to make it fun, though, too. There’s no violence or gore, but I like toying with that, where it has a bit more of an impact, no blood and guts.” The character that Findlay has created walks the line between musician and serial killer, inspired by the dark and gothic elements in the music he composes as Kontravoid. “Essentially, with this project I wanted to create a fictional character, even though it is just me performing. I liked the idea of giving a whole personality to a character that represents the band, and not just looking at it like a normal band, like ‘we play songs,’ but to actually show the weird personality behind it.” In many ways, the character of Kontravoid has become an amalgam for Findlay’s darker musical impulses.
The storyline of the “Silent Visions” video, as well as a large part of Kontravoid’s aesthetic, was formed by a horror film Findlay remembers seeing on a late-night City TV marathon as a kid. He remembers: “This guy would go out to night clubs. He was this big synth nerd, had a room full of gear, and he was obsessed with getting these natural-sounding screams from his victims. So he would capture people, men and women, and bring them back to his apartment and studio. He would sit them down on front of a Fairlight or something, one of these huge ’80s keyboard where you could sample sounds into it, and murder them. He wanted natural screams for this one composition, and he’d hired actors but it didn’t work, he was so upset with it, and he decided the only way to make it sound right was to murder people. This was long before I knew anything about music, especially electronic music.” Findlay admits that he found the film terrifying and has been haunted by it, but that it deeply inspired him as well.
(He also admits that part of his motivation in making a video that follows the storyline is so someone will recognize it and remind him of the title, which he has long forgotten. So if the image of a demented synth player killing people for screams rings any bells, let him know. “I’ve googled everything imaginable,” he laments.)
While Kontravoid certainly does not sound like anyone was murdered during its creation, there is an element of moody, restless obsession infusing the synth-pop that pushes beyond the usual goth emotiveness. Kontravoid broods, looming over the listener. It is music that follows you and causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up. The brighter, more colourful tracks, such as “Native State,” don’t lighten the album so much as they deepen the shadows, providing more contrast and texture, illuminating the depths. The vocals — human and robotic, Findlay’s reverb-drenched voice or soaring choral samples — all stand out like lurid ligature marks on the electronic body. “Certain songs are a little more upbeat and happy, and compliment the other darker tracks,” Findlay says. “I like having that contrast in music, and I don’t want to write all dark music, I want to make music that feels good, whether it is dark or sort of upbeat.” Kontravoid reminds the listener that wrapping yourself in a cheery cotton blanket or a black velvet curtain can both provide warmth and comfort.
Findlay states that he is inspired by his studio (where “Silent Visions” was filmed), which he also describes as something out of a horror movie. “It’s this old place, on Niagara, a 120-year-old building. The insides are all torn up and mangled together. It used to be a coffin factory, and it is across the street from a slaughterhouse. I moved in about two years ago, and it just timed perfectly with the beginning of Kontravoid, and that gave me a lot of inspiration for the project. It feels like a fucking serial killer would live in this neighbourhood, across from a slaughterhouse.”
Findlay performs masked and under an assumed personality not to obscure his identity but to illuminate a specific part of it. “I don’t want to be hiding in the shadows even if that is something the character portrays, I am proud of what it is so far,” he says. However, in giving a voice to his darker self, he feels he is ultimately being more true to the image he wants Kontravoid to portray. “My musical taste and influences have always been dark synth stuff and punk, a dark aesthetic, and I wanted to model my band on that.”
Kontravoid is currently wrapping up a tour with Crystal Castles, which began on October 8th and will draw to a close on Saturday at the Kool Haus. Once the touring drummer for Crystal Castles, Findlay says that he likes “doing this better, I like being on the bill with them but doing my own thing. Before I was just playing on their tracks, which was fun, but I’d much rather be doing stuff like this.” He describes his stint in Crystal Castles fondly, as an experience that allowed him to get a foot in many doors while working with friends, but also one that did not involve any real creativity on his part. Cam Findlay the person displays one aspect he may have in common with his shadow side in Kontravoid: the absolute need for creative control.
It is this desire to helm his own creative ship that also led him to depart from Parallels, his first attempt at a solo project after Crystal Castles. He had just recorded a few early demos when vocalist, producer and composer Holly Dodson joined as well. “I wanted to make it more of a darker pop project, more moody and atmospheric, and I think a couple of the early tracks are like that. But I think Holly had different ideas about the band, she wanted it to be more sparkly, glamorous pop music. As much as I like lots of different styles of music, I do like a lot of tracks that sound like that, it wasn’t really what I wanted to do creatively. We had a little bit of a dispute, and it was easier for me to just disconnect from that project and do my own thing. So it was a bit of a creative differences kind of thing.”
Now, with Kontravoid, he is truly going solo, writing and performing all of the music himself as well as handling the business side of the band as well. “I like going about it that way,” Findlay says, “where I kind of put pressure on myself to do the work. I don’t have any outside pressure: right now it is just me performing, it is me mailing the records out to people who buy them, it is a very self-sufficient project.”
With the tour wrapping up and several demos already in progress, the next step for Kontravoid is to record a new record. Findlay says he has some material already written, though the songs are still in their nascent stage, “just scraps of things that need to be pieced together.” Findlay identifies writing and recording the new record as his major project for the winter.
Once again, Findlay expects to be inspired by the creepiness of his surroundings: he recently took on a second studio space to serve as an office and storage unit. “It’s a dungeon. It’s in the cellar, it’s really creepy. There’s no light, just these stone walls, it’s awesome and its cheap.” Findlay plans to write and record the next Kontravoid record there. “It’s another creepy environment where I can shut myself off from any distractions. There’s also an S&M dungeon right beside it, so you walk through the hallways and hear people getting whipped. I think that’s a good location to work on this project.”
Kontravoid will be performing with Crystal Castles and HEALTH at the Kool Haus on Saturday, November 3. Doors are at 8 pm, and tickets are $41.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.