Interview with System Exclusive: Synth-punk, Clicks & Beats

In Conversation with System Exclusive

System Exclusive is an American music duo from Pasadena, California, comprising Ari Blaisdell and Matt Jones. Known for fusing synthpop, shoegaze, and garage rock with a post-punk sound, they have carved out a niche with their energetic mini-synth-driven sound and nostalgic yet fresh vocal style. The duo debuted with their self-titled album in 2021 via Castle Face Records and gained further recognition with their second album, “Click”, set to release in May 2024 through Mt.St.Mtn. Produced by K. Dylan Edrich, the album features smoky vocals layered over intricate synthesizer textures. System Exclusive consistently brings their studio energy to life on stage, which have solidified their standing in the indie music scene.

System Exclusive’s Bandcamp and Instagram Pages

What first drew you into making music, and why did you choose to blend pop with post-punk influences?

Well, we were a couple first. System Exclusive started with our dreams of being a backpack band – pop our gear into a backpack (or two) and play in as many places as possible together. Matt’s been a synthesizer enthusiast for the last 20+ years and has had a keen sense of pop and Ari had been playing in SF post punk bands and grew up with punk parents – so the marriage of the two happened organically.

Can you describe the moment you decided to form System Exclusive? How did you meet?

We were both in different bands, and met at a party at Engine Works in San Francisco, an art warehouse where mutual friends were living/practicing/creating/partying. Matt was touring Europe a bunch when we first started dating and we bonded over our lust for travel and it became clear we wanted the same things out of a musical life. 

How have your past musical projects influenced the sound and ethos of System Exclusive?

Matt: Ever since I was in highschool I’ve envisioned a live band that played with programmed synthesizers – my first serious band, Life in Braille, included guitars and programmed synths. I went on to be in a lot of different types of bands but the synths were never too far away. 

Ari: My first band, The Beat-offs was poppy garage rock – heavily influenced by doowop girl groups and ’77 punk bands. After that I moved onto playing in Lower Self, which was similar, but I was listening to a lot of Gang of Four and the Feelies at the time and my guitar work started to move into a more post punk direction. All of these elements are present in SysEx and I think that’s due to the timing of our beginning – the pandemic was when we wrote the majority of our first album, and that was a time for reflecting on our past and getting in touch with our musical bases.

System Exclusive, Ari Blaisdell © Chris Hogge 2
System Exclusive, Ari Blaisdell © Chris Hogge

Ari, Who are your major vocal influences, and how have they shaped your approach to singing?

Ari: Gosh, I have always been a huge admirer of classic female artists like Billie Holiday, Etta James, Brenda Lee, and Wanda Jackson. I grew up listening to The Pretenders, Blondie, 4 Non Blondes and No Doubt. I consciously am influenced by Siouxie Sioux and Russel Mael from Sparks but after touring for the last two years and hearing everyone’s feedback it’s become clear that my childhood influences weigh heavily on my voice, haha.

Matt, what first got you interested in synthesizers, and how do you choose which ones to use?

Matt: Around the time Friends of P by the Rentals came out I had just become aware of synthesizers and how they produced some of my favorite sounds on songs by The Cars, Beck, and Devo. I wanted to get a Moog like The Rentals had but they were already pretty expensive and sought after at the time. I kept coming across Juno 106s and liked how they looked and took a chance on my first EBay purchase. With that synth and a sequencer that looked like a chunky calculator (the Roland MC-500) I learned how to do MIDI programming, how to chain together multiple keyboards and drum machines together, and started writing that way. It felt like magic at the time. As synths got smaller and cheaper the idea of this band became more possible – we started with the SH-01 Roland Boutique and an Arturia Beatstep Pro and built up from there to using the Arturia Keystep Pro and 4 Roland boutique modules (SH-01, JU-06, JU-06A, JP-08)

What were some of the first challenges you faced when starting out as a band?

We put the band together to tour, had written 6 songs and were ready to play our first show in March 2020, but we all know what happened in March of 2020…

Can you talk about the atmosphere of the early scenes you were involved in? How has that influenced your music?

Matt: I  grew up in Santa Rosa in the early aughts and everyone wanted to be in an emo band or a pop punk band while all l wanted to talk about was Syd Barrett and dropping acid. I was roundly mocked, got used to being an outsider then, and it has served me well since. No one cool was talking about MIDI programming in the early 2000s, but I kept at it anyway. I’ve really come to notice how anomalous we are in most music scenes and I think I thrive on being an outsider, a bit.

Ari: I was fully dedicated to the ’77 punk scene in Santa Cruz as a young teenager. I think really I just wanted to be a part of something solid, because my home life was really emotionally draining and I wanted a way out. I looked up to older dudes’ bands and got a lot of my music from hanging around Streetlight Records. I was an enthusiastic supporter of music and always wanted to sing but punk vocalists didn’t “sing” and I didn’t play any instruments so I didn’t think about being in a band as a real option – so I got into musical theater. Weekdays I dove into old jazz standards and composers like Cole Porter and Sondheim, and on the weekends I’d go to see Lower Class Brats or listen to 999 on my Walkman.

System Exclusive © Chris Hogge 4
System Exclusive © Chris Hogge

Your recording process involves both traditional instruments and synths. How do you balance these elements in the studio?

We’ve never really known it any other way, any balance we have is just a natural progression from the tools we use. We’ll usually start with a concept or a musical motif we want to mimic and go from there. Sometimes it’s synth basslines at the nucleus, sometimes it’s guitar, sometimes it’s lyrical or melodic. Then we build around that and I carve out a song structure that works with the lyrics. The main trick to getting everything to play nice is to be aware of the frequency spectrum and not put the guitar in the same range as where synths already are…using 4 synths, that can be a little tricky but I think we manage OK.

Click features a mix of smoky vocals and textured synth layers. What inspired the sonic direction of this title track?

This song started out as a way to test out the balance of synth volumes during sound check but quickly progressed into a full song. We already had the title and concept, so when it started forming it went really fast. I think, front to back, that song took 3 days to write. People usually give us good feedback about our juxtaposition of mechanical and natural sounds, and we wanted to reflect that dynamic with more gusto, be more intentional about it – both in that song and throughout the album.

The new album explores various themes and emotions. Can you discuss some of the key messages or stories behind the songs?

Ari: All of our lyrics are reactions to our environment, which has really been utter chaos since the beginning of the band. “2 Little 2 Late” and “Lose Control” were the first two we wrote – which are responses to Me Too and the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US. “Pasadena” and “Fashion Island” are about our experience with gentrification and displacement in California, “Carry On” is about how it feels living in constant motion. “Make Me” is about navigating having a sense of fun in an increasingly doom centered world. These are all outlets for me and I think that a lot of people can relate.

Are there any memorable moments from a recording session or live show that stand out to you both? 

We played a packed show in Vilnius, Lithuania last year- thousands of miles away from anywhere than we ever thought we’d get to play. The smoke machine was stuck on so there was a ludicrous amount of smoke and the stage lights had some sort of gap in their sequence that couldn’t be remedied. It would bathe us in complete darkness for a couple seconds every three and a half minutes or so, so you’d be playing to an audience and then suddenly you were nowhere – ripped out of the scenario into the void and just as violently thrust back in when the screaming audience appeared again. Lithuania is a cool place, they’re proud to be the last pagan nation in Europe converted to Christianity, so kudos to that too.

How do you select collaborators, and what do you look for in that relationship?

Matt: Ever since I was 12 I’ve been bugging people to be in my band. You know when you meet someone whether they’d be good to collaborate with or not, to me it’s almost entirely vibes in making that call. 

Ari: I’ve always played music with my friends. Playing music can be a really vulnerable place for me, it’s important to trust the people I play music with.

System Exclusive, Ari Blaisdell © Chris Hogge
System Exclusive, Ari Blaisdell © Chris Hogge

What has been the most surreal moment of your musical career so far?

It has to be playing Sao Miguel, in the Azores. After a short flight from Portugal we found ourselves on a beautiful tropical island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. We played the reopening of a local music venue that had been closed since the pandemic, it was sold out, and the entire room was dancing and screaming along to our songs. The next few days we trekked around the island, went to a town called Furnas with a geothermally heated river running through it, soaked in the curry colored water, chatted with new friends we met from Berlin, and soaked up as much of the wild oceanic energy of Azores as we could before we had to leave!

What’s your next project?

We really really want to tour Japan. We’ve both been once separately and always wanted to go back together. Aaaand we are already plotting our next record, we’ve booked the session, now we have to find some time to write….somewhere….

Photos Courtesy of System Exclusive © Chris Hogge

Last Updated on May 14, 2024 by retrofuturista

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