Retrofette founders Sean Culliton and Xavier Provencher, who met at the University of Denver's School of Music in 2011, are trying a new format for delivering their dance-friendly synthesizer music. In hopes of creating a gathering place for all synth lovers, Nightwaves will feature live performances and DJ sets from a variety of local and national synth-pop acts.
For Provencher and Culliton, synth pop is a confluence of their musical interests and musical education. While studying jazz, they were exposed to its many subgenres and connected with synthesizers and dance music.
Now more than five years into performing as Retrofette, Culliton and Provencher say they see an opportunity to further cultivate and expand the reach of dance music in their signature way.
“There wasn’t a huge scene for synthesizer music when we first started, or it didn’t feel that way,” says Culliton. “Playing Retrofette shows now, people come up to me [and say], ‘I play this kind of music!,’ ‘I want to play this kind of music.’ I think it’s encouraging and if there’s a community in place, people can talk about it and meet other people who are interested in it.”
“We feel like Denver can contribute to what dance music has to say, and we can kind of help shape it in a certain direction,” says Provencher. “There are a lot of different types of musicians here, and there are a lot of people with really great things to say. We feel like this is an opportunity for us to contribute to the direction of dance music.”
Successful recurring dance nights are not as straightforward as a mathematical equation. On top of every crowd having its own feel and every performer having his or her own taste is a lot of luck.
“It’s a combination of the right place, right vibe, right atmosphere, what’s going on... the right content, right kind of music,” says Shannon Kelly, who has been in the Denver music scene since the ’90s and was one of the founders of Syntax Physic Opera’s long-running monthly dance night Weird Touch. “A lot of it is promotions and making sure people know about it and having people show up who enjoy it and want to come back. It’s sort of the mystery of promotions in general.”
Culliton and Provencher are taking an extra gamble on Nightwaves, since synth pop still has a relatively small fan base.
“I feel like Denver’s been a bit of a fickle town in terms of what it’s into, what it likes," Kelly says. "At the same time, that was kind of a genre I was really exploring when I was first starting out deejaying publicly. That was kind of around the same time electro-clash was a big deal abroad and say, like, New York.
“It took a few years for Denver to really catch on," he adds. "I feel like what has improved over the last handful of years is that people are more receptive to different kinds of music, all kinds of music.”
Culliton and Provencher at least have a synth-pop fan in Ophelia’s talent buyer and lead sound engineer, Randall Frazier, who has already put his stamp on the city's music scene. He’s responsible for the sound booth and system at The Walnut Room, runs his own recording studio, has partnered with his wife, Elisa Canali, also a sound engineer, on Colorado Public Television's Sounds on 29th, and has booked DJ sets with well-regarded national acts like Nancy Whang and Gavin Rayna Russom of DFA Records/LCD Soundsystem fame.
“I'm stoked that it’s [at Ophelia's],” says Culliton. “I also think a big part of it is they have the capacity to be able to take a risk on something new, which is awesome, and they’re independent so they have the ability to make that choice. Also, Randall just loves synth pop. We have to work with someone who's willing to do it for the sake of the music and to bring in good music.”
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“I’m a big synthesizer fanatic,” says Frazier. “I tour-manage and sometimes sound-engineer for the Legendary Pink Dots, and my own music is synthesizer music. Retrofette kind of hit home with me stylistically, and I think they’re great.”
If Nightwaves isn't a success, Culliton says he and his friends will continue to make the music they love.
“If it doesn’t turn into the bastion of synth pop, we’re just going to keep making synth-pop music,” says Culliton. “Before we gained any of the notoriety or ability to do something like this, that’s what we were doing anyways.”