Neon Wolves is a recently published novella and, on a surprisingly fresh move in the scene, is accompanied by a beat-'em-up video game and a music album compiled from a number of artists' tracks! I had a virtual sitdown with Jean-Pierre Van Damme, Jon of the Shred and KFDDA to talk about this new story, the Scythe saga and their involvement in this project.
Greetings guys! Before we get into details about your new epic, let's tell our readers a bit about its background; the Scythe Saga. What is it and where does The Neon Wolves fit into this universe?
JON: The Scythe Saga is basically a never-ending concept album. The lore is built and expanded upon with each album, compilation, short story, and art piece. I've always been a huge fan of these sprawling, epic narratives in all facets of media such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Mass Effect. So my goal in starting the Scythe universe was two fold – one, to create a universe that focuses on popular horror and sci-fi elements in a unique way, where zombies and cyborgs can organically exist on the same plane, and two to have more than one musician working on the same concept album together, collaborating on a story that grows with each release. While the budget is unfortunately non-existent, I am proud of what we have all done together as a team. Primarily, the stories take place on two planets within the Scythian solar system – the planet Scythe and the planet Lleh. There is a far story arc I'm building up to – the history of the universe, the cause of the apocalyptic happenings throughout the Scythian solar system, more planets to explore, etc. The most I'll reveal here is that Paragon exists on several planets, but withholds knowledge from the general public on the existence of life on other planets. They hide their space travel technology, they keep the populations clueless as they siphon the resources of each planet.
JPVD: I came to Scythe after starting my novel for End of Days. Jon was one of the artists I wanted to work with. He liked the idea and told me about the big Scythe Universe and wanted us to tie it into the Scythe Saga.Now I have my own planet “Lleh” with it own stories and some tie-ins to the other Scythe Universe stories. “Neon Wolves” is a prequel and the story is set in the same city like in End of Days. So there are some Easter eggs and cameos of other characters from the other stories.
KALEB: Jon approached me about a year ago to help contribute to the Scythe Universe. I loved the concept and was very excited to get behind it. Although my involvement wasn't much until recently, when JPVD joined the team we sort of formed a tri-fecta of a team and the rest is history.
The Neon Wolves is set in a world of gangs, crime and corruption yet in which friendship, trust and honor exist. How did the initial idea came along?
JON: I'll let JPVD take this one, as with his compilations he starts the initial draft of the story before I go all Stephen King on it. All I'll say is Neon Wolves takes place on Lleh, same planet as the End of Days story. This is a spiritual prequel.
JPVD: I grew up inside the biker scene here in Germany. My father is a vice president of a big MC here. Also my uncle were a long year member of the well known Hells Angels. So I had some “real” inspirations for the story. I'm also a big fan of the movie “The Warriors” and wanted to combine that with a “Blade Runner” Sci-Fi setting. So that was the initial idea when I started to write the story.
You've created a collective media that consists of a novella, an album and a beat' em up game. Is the novella the main concept where the music and game revolves around it, or is it more an equal circle where all of them interlap? How was this planned on pre-production/pre-writing?
JPVD: The first and most important thing was the novella. Every chapter of the story gets its own song. I invited artists I love and who would fit for the chapter/song I wanted for the novella. The idea is, while people are reading it, they can play the album on the background to fall deeper into the story. Kaleb had the idea to make a game for the whole project to “play” some of the background story while listening to the songs too.
JON: I'd say they are all equally important to the story. The compilations and concept albums are like the soundtrack, and I know with certainty that the songs will always get the most attention. Not everyone has time to read 10,000+ word short stories, although I do hope people like what JPVD and myself have wrote. Kaleb worked very hard on the game (I helped with graphics, but he did 99% of the work, all the coding, etc) which ties in as a prequel to the Neon Wolves. (Prequel of a prequel?) The purpose of the Scythe universe, however, is to constantly build the world, so I'd say all these elements are equally important.
KALEB: I don't remember who initially came up with the idea for the game, Jon and I always throw different ideas around, most never develop into something full, we ran with the idea of the video game, all of us contributing to the development of it in different ways. JPVD and Jon always write great short stories and I wanted to honor that in an alternative format.
Reading the story I felt influences from Judge Dredd. Did it influence the setting directly? And what are your other influences?
JPVD: Yes the dirty Sci-Fi City from Judge Dredd could also describe Macropolis. The main influence was the movie “The Warriors” with some “Akira” elements. Also the main character, President Shadow, is a homage to Snake Plissken, one of my favotite anti-heroes of all time.
JON: I believe JPVD was inspired by Sons of Anarchy and Akira with this particular story.
The vivid description of action sequences is one of the strong points of the novella. Where you thinking of it visually when you where writing it? It seems that it could be a film or a comic book too.
JPVD: I watched many martial art movies the time I wrote the story like “Bloodsport”, “Mortal Kombat”, “Karate Tiger” and stuff like that. Before I write/finish a story the whole thing is complete in my mind like a B-Movie. So I write down what I see before my inner eyes.
JON: Thanks! Generally JPVD will write short drafts in German, have them translated by Ray Sattler, then send them over to me to work on. When I get the drafts, it's a perfect launching point – all I have to do to get started is just clean up the vocabulary and grammar discrepancies that are expected from the translation process. Then I get free reign to go buck wild adding tons of new content, beefing up scenes, getting a bit more descriptive. For the past year freelance writing has been my biggest means of income, and the assignments are usually quite boring. Getting to work on the Scythe stories, both my originals and the collaborations with JPVD, are much funner to work on.
Tell me a bit about the video game tie-in. Where does its plot fit in the Neon Wolves? I enjoyed the background design and did I notice some Streets of Rage references in there?
JPVD: The Game starts before the Novella starts. Like a playable Prequel for Neon Wolves. You play Thomas Shadow the Vice President and brother from Michael. Yes Streets of Rage were a big reference. We also put some Easter eggs inside the stages.
KALEB: Like JPVD said, it takes place before the novella as sort of a prequel. The idea of the beat-em-up style did indeed come from Streets of Rage. It was a huge influence to me and I thought the concept would fit perfectly within the neon wolves story-arch.
Why did you chose to have the album as an open collective effort instead of taking the whole songwriting on your shoulders? Was it easy to manage the artists' works to make sure they meet your artistic vision?
JON: The whole intent of Scythe, in a nutshell, is lore and universe building, executed through a “never ending concept album.” Sort of an open source lore-building process. Having many moving parts is essential to the fundamental idea of the group – many creative types working on building an extensive lore together through music, art, games, and stories. Solo albums are also welcome, as with Kyoto Dragon with “Kyoto Cyber Police – Return of the Undead Yokai,” which just happened to be set on it's own planet as well. That was a killer release too, Dave crushed it.
JPVD: I love working on projects like that, collaborating with other artists. Many of the artists we invited are good friends now and with some of them I worked on some recent projects too. It's not always easy to handle such a big group of artists but the most of them I know really good and the writing and working on it is real fun. We inspire and push each other towards higher levels. We share our WIP Songs and stories and ask in the group what we can do better. Before the artists begin their songwriting they get the song title and the chapter description and they compose completely free based on what they feel for that particular song/chapter. It's really inspiring to see what others have in mind when transcribing your written words into a song.
The novella is vocally anti-drug, and also emphasizes on codes of honor like trust. Is Neon Wolves making a statement here/getting messages across?
JPVD: Exactly. I don't do drugs or drink alcohol. I made some mistakes in the past while drinking too much. I also lost some friends in cases of drugs or driving under the influence. So it's my decent statement that you have a better life when you are sober.
JON: As a member of a jam band, and having been in and out of various jam bands for the past, I don't know, 6 or 7 years, I've definitely done my fair share of drugs. Generally I was drawn to hallucinogens – mushrooms, DMT, LSD. I never cared for the party drugs like MDMA. I no longer take drugs at music festivals...well, not THAT many...and I dig the anti-drug sentiment. I'm not judgmental of others choices to indulge in psychoactive substances, but when it gets to the point of them stealing TVs or lying to friends, that's when the judgment kicks in. If you aren't harming anyone else, there should be no shame...it's when others suffer from your poor choices you need to reevaluate your extracurricular activities.
KALEB: Like Jon said I really like the sober message in the story, although we've all had our fair share of that kind of stuff throughout life and it's nice to work with guys who aren't judgemental.
Are these themes aspects of your personalities that deliberately defined the story?
JPVD: Yes, some of the parts of the story happened in real life. The inspiration for the most characters was real friends or people I know. I changed the names but nearly all characters exist as does the personality I gave them.
JON: There is a character that's been around since my second solo album, “The Lone Musician,” who also appeared towards the end of Circuit Board Lunacy and the “Harvest of Insanity” compilation, totally based off myself. He's a man that wanders the apocalypse with a guitar, gunslinger type, not unlike El Mariachi. That character is how I'd envision myself in a post-apocalypse; if I even survived the initial onslaught.
What's your take on the modern uprising trend of comic books, games and other media that feature near-future dystopian societies? Why is this trend coming back from the 80's?
JPVD: The 80s were the golden age of movies and books. Stephen King wrote some of his best stories in the 80's and they created new film genres in that time like slasher movies. The whole feeling of that era is completely different to stuff from the 90's or later. I mean the ideas where fresh, new and the movie directors had the balls to make something different and strange in that time.I think because of that fact that the best movies were made in the 80's Hollywood is now making sequels and remakes, or tries to copy the whole 80's feeling into new movies.
JON: If you think about it, each period of time with global turmoil was bereft with post-apocalyptic scenarios. The 80's had the Cold War inspiring it, and nowadays there's a whole bunch of messed up shit going on globally. Be it malicious banking cartels, the corporate takeover, warring countries, terrorists, GMOs... the world is a very paranoid place, a ticking time bomb many would say. This sort of social unease is a perfect atmosphere for post-apocalyptic fiction.
KALEB: I think society tends to posterize violence in times of distress or uncertainty. With that kind of mentality comes the need to explore dystopian themes, and with the constant gripe of security and privacy concerns, it almost starts to feel too real. Art resembles life right?
Does adding literary works, video games and other forms of art in the picture take Synthwave up a notch in terms of artistry?
JPVD: Yes, and not only in the Synthwave scene. I always loved concept albums or when music comes with a nice booklet and nice artwork. New music comes out everyday, it's a flood of new stuff and it's not always easy to get attention between all those new releases and compilations. If you give the listener something more then 10 new songs, he can go deeper into the world you've created. For me it's not just music, it's more. And it's also a new idea to promote your stuff differently. Listening to new music while playing a game or while reading a story gives you a different way to enjoy the music.
JON: I wouldn't say it takes things up a notch, but I like to think we're doing something unique and memorable all the same. There's so much talent in the scene, between graphic designers, musicians, bloggers, radio hosts, Djs, promotional masterminds, animators...it's a scene full of passionate artists of many walks of life spanning across the globe. Scythe was originally intended to pull in all these creative minds so we could symbiotically create something unique, combine all these elements into something that has never been done in quite the same way. Roughly a year since the first project was started, I now realize I need a bit more of a budget to entice a lot of the creative types. In an effort to take things to the next level, I am going to focus a lot more time and energy into securing a budget, as opposed to jumping haphazardly into the next Scythe venture.
KALEB: Absolutely, if the genre wants to be successful it needs to stop sticking itself in the strictly-music type of mentality. It needs to be expanded upon all formats and get in front of as many people's faces as possible.
One last thing; the way the story ends definitely leaves possibilities for a direct sequel. Are there any plans or ideas for something like that?
JPVD: Yes, there are plans for a comeback for some of the characters. We will make a sequel to the story. It will be set after the apocalypse in End of Days. I have some ideas for it, all I can say is “Mad Max” meets “The Last of us”. But I have some other projects to finish before I begin writing the new novella. I don't want to reveal too much, but the working title for the follow-up is: “Return of the Shadow Wolf” hehe.
JON: You'll definitely see the Neon Wolves again. Scythe is all about plot progression, even if we move at a snails pace.
KALEB: I hope Jon and JPVD end up making characters cross paths again (timeline-permitting of course), it would be nice to see some story crossovers.
The Neon Wolves novella and album is available here: https://jonoftheshred.bandcamp.com/album/the-neon-wolves
Play the videogame now here: http://www.scythesaga.com/lore.html