A prominent player in the new wave electro synth genre, The New Division, alias of John Glenn Kunkel, has already released three critically acclaimed albums and four EPs. He is able to combine the themes of happy and sad into one piece of music in a way that works so well, with melodies that get stuck in your head in the best way. He answered some questions for Cliché about his writing process, interest in juxtaposition in his songs, and how working on other projects allowed him to come back to The New Division with a fresh take.
Watch The New Division’s latest music video here:
Cliché: Can you talk a bit about the instrumentation that you choose to use? What does your creative process look like when writing your music?
The New Division: 90% of everything I do is “in the box,” meaning I work almost entirely in Ableton with a wide range of synthesizers, samplers, and effect plugins. The only things I do outside the box are vocals, guitars, some drum elements, etc.
It changes but one thing that’s always remained consistent about my creative process is I write a lot of demos – and I mean a lot. For every LP or EP that I write, I usually end up with about 50 to 100 demos, out of which only 6 or 12 are selected as the ones that will make it on any given record. Some of these demos either end up as b-sides or they end up being used for other projects. Others will probably never see the light of day.
As far as how I approach writing – generally speaking, I love starting with synth lines rather than drums as I’m much more melodically driven, as opposed to being beat driven. I love trying out ideas as fast as possible. The moment I lose inspiration or get stuck on an 8 to 16 bar loop for too long, I lose interest and move on to starting another idea. It’s a bit ADD, but it keeps me excited, and I’d rather be working on something I’m in love with in the moment rather than be bored with fixing a kick or a snare for 2 hours.
Did you always know growing up that music was what you wanted to pursue, or did you ever consider any other careers?
Yeah, I always knew from a young age that music was my thing. There’s a picture of me when I was about 3 or 4 years old picking up a guitar and trying to play it. It was something that I always had an affinity with – definitely god given.
When I was in college, god, I considered everything. From being a nurse to becoming a lawyer. I did work as a political consultant for a while after college and did government relations, but neither of those things were ever going to cut it for me. I was making music on and off the job constantly.
There tends to be a juxtaposition in your music between somewhat somber lyrics, and upbeat beats. What is your motivation behind this?
I think it’s a bit reflective of my personality. I don’t know if being a Gemini has anything to do with it – I don’t really believe in that sort of thing – but I’ve always felt drawn towards music, and specifically, artists that can blend happy and somber elements into one piece. I think that’s why I was always attracted to New Order. They had these songs that felt dark but could sometimes contain an emphatic message, or they could write a happy-sounding song that was dark lyrically (Love Vigilantes). That always fascinated me and I think to some extent I’ve tried to blend those elements into my own sound.
Your video for your song, “Jealous,” just came out recently and reading the comments for it on YouTube, people are loving it! What was your inspiration for this music video?
Well, given that I didn’t write it, it’s hard to say, but I know that the director, Brad Bischoff, who by the way did an amazing job with the rest of his crew, mentioned it was really how he felt the song came to him visually. Granted, the story blends a lot of different themes but I suppose the main one he wanted to portray is best described in his own words, “the static study of isolation contrasted with a dizzying handheld series of intimacy.”
In an interview last year you discussed how you feel more pressure now writing as The New Division than when you first started and how you thought you might need to work on some new projects. Since then, you collaborated with James Meays of Missing Words on the Moonraker EP. Would you say that you still feel that pressure now or is it feeling more natural again?
That pressure has definitely been relieved. Around the time when that interview came out a lot of bad things had recently happened which were all related to the inner workings of trying to get the previous record released. I was feeling pretty discouraged by a lot of stuff that was going on which placed me in a negative state of mind for quite some time. I really needed to step away from writing as The New Division, which I did, and focused on a few other projects in the meantime. Moonraker EP, albeit not the most successful project I’ve worked on, was incredibly fun and I loved every minute of it. It helped me focus on music that wasn’t exclusively my own and it was a lot of fun to work with James on that record. Ever since then approaching music for The New Division feels like the days when I first started.
What’s been your favorite city to perform live in? Do you have a favorite venue?
I think New York’s Rough Trade was really exceptional. This last tour we played a lot of great cities but few could top that one off.
My favorite venue is the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland. It’s the right size, right sound, and after you’re done playing your hotel room is only 100 feet away.
What can listeners expect from you in the near future?
I have a new LP coming out this year which will feature 10 songs that draw inspiration from some of my earlier work but with a very distinct modern sound. As with every new record you put out, this one will be my “favorite.”
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An Interview with New Wave Electro Synth Project: The New Division: Featured Image Credit: Mora May Agency