Painted City on Making Synth Pop Interesting to Watch

Noah McKechnie (left) and Zack Smith of Painted City.
Noah McKechnie (left) and Zack Smith of Painted City. Brenda Lyons and Jennifer Campbell-Smith
Painted City is a band that morphed into a tech startup and then transitioned back into a band.

Noah McKechnie says the group, now a duo, started as a trio with a different sound and a bass player. At the time, he was working on his MBA. He and his bandmates, including current recording partner Zack Smith, started a concert subscription service and streaming platform meant to help up-and-coming acts.

“We ended up not taking it to market,” McKechnie says. “Essentially, all three of us started having kids, and it wasn’t the time to start not having an income for the next year. That worked out, because then the pandemic hit.”

McKechnie says he works in quality control, "which is as exciting as it sounds." Smith has a degree in visual art, but "shockingly, the art factory wasn't hiring," he jokes. When the tech startup didn't pan out, McKechnie and Smith took things back to the drawing board — or basement, as it were — and began working on a more synthesizer-based sound. Previously, Smith played keys, McKechnie was on guitar, and a third member played bass. The duo has mostly used hardware synthesizers to craft the synth-pop tracks with traces of post-punk on its debut album, Histories, and eschewed the software that now puts any synthesizer inside a laptop.

“Probably a solid half of the album is a Prophet Rev 2,” McKechnie says. “I just layered that on top of itself a million times. We have a Moog doing the bass, a JP 8000 and a Nord Lead filling out. … I used a software Mellotron on a few things. No way in hell am I getting my hands on a real Mellotron. Other than that, it’s all hardware.”

“A lot of how I learned to use the synth was from listening to Joy Division,” Smith adds. “So it’s like, ‘Okay, we can throw a hook here.’ I listened to a lot of Depeche Mode and shit like that, too.”

Painted City hasn’t played a live gig yet, but is trying to work on ways to make a performance interesting for people to watch — a challenge in the realm of synthesizer concerts, which too often look like people just standing around. English post-punk duo Sleaford Mods leans into the limitation, with member Andrew Fearn just pressing play on his laptop and lazily swaying as he drinks a beer on stage. New Order famously trainwrecked a performance of “Blue Monday” on BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1983 because of technical difficulties with synthesizers.

“In a lot of electronic music, you see them hit 'play,'” McKechnie says. “I think we wanted to bring something to the table. … Even if we aren’t playing something live, we're still triggering it live, even if it comes through MIDI, because we only have so many hands.”

“I’ve seen some real interesting setups to try to give the synth player something to do on stage,” Smith says. “I think it was Nine Inch Nails. They had the keyboard on an off-axis thing so they could kind of ka-chunk it back and forth. … It takes effort to make a synth interesting to watch.”

Smith says the whispers of post-punk that emerge in Painted City’s songs spring from his background as a musician in New York, playing noise rock and post-punk-influenced songs.

“A lot of early punk bands are just like, 'It’s rock and roll,' but they're doing it wrong,” Smith says. “And then all the art kids started getting inspired by the ‘Get out and do it’ ethos, but they had different ideas. That was just the genesis of so much interesting stuff.”

McKechnie says he comes from an acoustic singer-songwriter background, mentioning Jack Johnson as an influence. That style eventually transitioned into an alt-rock sound, and then he began to think more digitally.

“I even built a prototype guitar that you could plug into a synthesizer, and you could play both at the same time,” he says. “Then I hooked up with [Smith], and we came up with this sound that has evolved over the past few years. I don’t know what you call it: synth rock? Synthwave?”

Smith says he still loves the sound of a noisy guitar, but synthesizers have an enveloping quality that he finds irresistible.

“You can just make an infinitely deep sound,” he says. “You can make an infinitely modulating sound. It’s the fires of creation. You can start with nothing and build it into whatever you want. It’s amazing and daunting. There is nothing better than a sawtooth wave unfiltered. It’s pure sound.”

Painted City's Histories drops on August 30. For more information, visit Painted City online.
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