Review: Midwest Collective - Vol. 6

By Axel Ricks

As with every Midwest Collective release I find in my inbox I was quite excited. This gave me a much needed opportunity to discover artists of which I have not personally had the time to scout for. My time has been spread pretty thin between personal stuff, and organizing future projects which I think you guys will be quite excited for. If you haven't noticed yet, the site has been leaning more towards a chillwave feeling lately so for this release to come now and give me a whole new mess of people to listen to is a great pleasure and a much needed refresher.

A couple of the tracks that stood out to me were 'Francis Moss - Pluna' and 'hhushhushh - i never meant to be unkind' both of which were a great start to Volume 6 and a great lead up to one of my favorite artists; HOME. After that we sit around in some sort of ethereal bird sanctuary with 'GOLDEN LIVING ROOM - tune in / vibration'... I don't even know what that is about but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Having been familiar with 'APPLE ii' prior to this compilation I was curious what his contribution would bring. This 80s synthwave style he emulates is almost a copycat of Airglow in my opinion so my challenge to him would be to create his own uniquely identifiable sound that he can be know for. Here's to you bro! The next track 'WALKIE TALKIE_ - Yesterday feat. Shy WoŁVE' even touches upon this synth style as well. Although I thoroughly enjoyed both tracks I'd love to see a bit more deviation from this formula.

The next track that stands out is 'Sam Stephens - Cigar Bridge' and I am quite excited that even though the style ...guitar... doesn't quite fit with the rest of the artists it really reminds me of some gothic or darkwave tunes that bring back fond memories of being 17-20.

Another thing about this release I enjoy is the various songs that incorporating trap elements. Time to go eat some In-N-Out. Let me know if you agree, disagree, or don't even really care about my review. See ya bitches.


Interview: Von Hertzog - Sincerely Yours

By Axel Ricks

-So let's start by talking about the beginnings of your musical career. You actually began as DJ Luciano before going to college in Philly and becoming a recording engineer? What did you play? Was it a stepping stone or a true passion at that time of your life?

I have always been super into music. I remember spending summers with my finger on the pause button of the tape deck of my boombox ready to catch the radio song I had requested. You had to have a quick trigger finger to try and catch the beginning of the song! Senior year of High School I got my first set of turntables and started building my vinyl collection. My musical tastes always leaned towards synths. But, they were hard to come by in the mid ‘90s so I was really into hip-hop music. I think that was a byproduct of falling in love with the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill album in the 80s. I remember the older kids I looked up to at the playground playing it on their boomboxes and I fell in love. The Beastie Boys were my gateway drug into hip-hop.  I tended to listen for production first. If I didn’t like the beat, I didn’t like the song. Even if it was my favorite artist. The production had to be on point before I’d let the song play. So as a present for graduating High School, my parents asked me what I wanted, and what I wanted a 4-track. So my friend Bob’s dad worked with a guy who was selling one, a Tascam PortaStudio 464. We went and bought it and I started making mixtapes with it. I sold them in mixtape shops around Reading and Philly. It was kinda cool, I went to Canal St. in NYC and saw some of my mixtapes were being bootlegged. I was so excited people were buying my mixtapes in NYC and I hadn’t even taken them there. It was a good feeling. Around that time I got in with a band. Turntables were my instrument. I tried to use them in a musical manner to the best of my ability at that time. We were a garage band who played locally and just had a blast with it. It was a good start for getting in front of audiences and learning song structure. Between that and hip-hop I learned how to count bars fast. At the time it was a true passion. I was passionate about music and the only musical equipment I had were turntables, a mixer and a 4-track. So I did what I could with it.

-Please tell us where you got the name, what your influences were at the time and what your mission statement was.

Yeah, the name. Senior year of high school I was working at a pizzeria one town over. This guy Sal owned it. When he opened the shop he brought in two brothers from Napoli, Marco & Luigi Della-Ragione and myself. We ran the shop day to day. We did all the cooking etc. Marco did pizza, Luigi did sandwiches and dinners, I floated between the two handling overflow and running cash register. They gave me the name Luciano. I was trying to come up with a DJ name and was drawing a blank. I couldn’t think of anything I liked. They christened me and it stuck. Many thanks to those guys. I just saw Marco a month ago at his new restaurant he opened. I walk in and he goes, “DJ LUCIANO!!!!” It felt like I had never left.

Starting out as DJ, before I got into production, my influences came from the great Philly DJs of that era. Cosmic “Strictly Skills” Kev, Doc B, Tat Money, those guys were killing it on Power 99. And I’d listen to how they blended one song to the next with no break in the music. It was in stark contrast to the NYC style of DJing which was slamming one song in after another. I wasn’t really a fan of the NYC style. The Philly DJs could do that from time to time if it was called for, but they didn’t rely on it. Beat matching and blending was much more their style and I sought out honing that skill. I can think to a few points in my music career where constructive criticism helped greatly. One time it came from this DJ who used to work at a record shop I bought records from. The store was called Rhythm Quest. They’re long since closed, but it was opened by this DJ from Brooklyn. He was really talented and one of his mixtapes “Independent’s Day” was probably single handedly the one most influential mixtape I ever heard. It exposed me to all these great underground hip-hop artists I had never heard before. Diggin’ In The Crates, Big L, The Beatnuts, Genovese. Some of them went on to be big names but at the time they were relatively unknown. It greatly influenced the type of vinyl I was buying and what I chose to include on my own mixtapes. I took him my first mix I wanted to put out and he told me flat out it wasn’t good enough. And in retrospect he was absolutely right! At the time I was so caught up in being able to do a mixtape, I overlooked how sloppy it was. It made me far more critical and that still carries over into today.

I’m not sure if I had a mission statement, other than, “You may not have heard this music, but you should”. I wasn’t trying to make a compilation tape for your favorite radio songs. I was seeking out underground artists who deserved the recognition but weren’t getting it for whatever reasons. I just wanted the world to feel as passionate about their music as I was.

-You have a history in the hip-hop community of all things. What have you learned from those days? Could you name drop some notable pieces you've worked on?

Yeah, I attended The Art Institute of Philadelphia, I started in 1999. I met some guys who were rappers and ended up recording them in the school’s studio and including them on future mixtapes I released. That was the start of me behind the boards! I learned a lot at the Art Institute about the technical side of sound recording, mixing and mastering. I had a great teacher in Joe Kraus and I’d show him mixes after class and he’d help critique them and tell me how to improve. I ended up graduating from AIPH 10 days after 9/11. Talk about an awful job market! But, I ended up landing a job by November. I took money I had earned at that job and bought a good vocal condenser microphone from Mars Music. I used that to start recording hip-hop artists right out of my apartment. I called it “The Social Club”. I got to record some great songs there. This is also when I started producing beats for hip-hop artists. Maybe it’s ironic, but I used Fruity Loops 3.5 to start my hip-hop production odyssey. It was easy to sample into and I did beats in there since I didn’t even have a MIDI controller at that point. Given how popular FL Studio is in the synthwave scene now, I wonder if I should have stuck with it, but once I got a MIDI controller it was right back to Cubase for me. Cubase is what I started using to record as well. It was always either Cubase or Pro Tools, but I definitely preferred Cubase. I got to work with a lot of underground artists but the most notable in my apartment were Pretty Ugly and JoJo Pellegrino. Both Pretty Ugly & JoJo were on the GTA 3 soundtrack.

In fact, I recorded & mixed JoJo Pellegrino’s entire “Hitman For Hire” mixtape in my Philly apartment. According to JoJo that street CD went on to sell 18,000 copies. It received a flawless review from XXL magazine & was “Mixtape Of the Month” on MTV. All out of my little apartment in Philly. Ha! 

Also, Wu-Tang affiliate Carlton Fisk, who appeared on Method Man’s first album came through and dropped a few verses. They were his very first verses after over 8 years in prison, which is why after Method Man’s album, he dropped out of the music scene for a bit. One of the verses ended up on the mixtape. The rest I’m still holding on to! My recording vault is full of treasures. 

I started doing all original Hip-Hop beats on the Motif and it got me back to my synth loving roots. So, I moved to NYC to take a job at a recording studio at 51st & Broadway in Manhattan. I got to work with some other hip-hop heavyweights there. I recorded a lot with Wu-Tang rapper Shyheim and mastered his 2004 album “The Greatest Story Never Told”. I also did a lot of engineering on R.A. The Rugged Man’s now classic debut album Die Rugged Man, Die. I did some production on there and my wife Natalia got to do vocals on his outro. Here’s one of the tracks I did for R.A. Classic stuff in the hip-hop world. I also brought my partner in Digitally Branded Records (DJ U-Vex) to do scratches on 5 different tracks for R.A.’s album. It was a great opportunity working in that studio. I’ll always thank Thomas “Big Wiggs” Wilson for the opportunity!

Aside from that, I worked with this Bronx rapper, The Shark (Mike Pennini). His dad was a heavyweight in the NYC underworld before being tragically gunned down in the streets of The Bronx. So, Shark has all kinds of connections. But he and I were always on the same page musically, especially with samples. I did a lot of production for Shark, probably 30 songs or so and here is where I really got to dig into some great synth-based samples. I sampled two different parts of score from John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). I sampled the theme from Return Of the Living Dead. On a song with Brooklyn rapper Papoose, I sampled the Giorgio Moroder score for Midnight Express. All the lyrics were about prison, which played into the movie sample concept beautifully. You can hear that song here:  

But probably my crowning achievement was getting to work with founding Wu-Tang Clan member and legend Ghostface Killah. Here’s a photo of us in 36 Chambers studios the night we did the track together. Still one of my favorite nights. We were in the studio till 5am. It was a magical night for music! Ghostface’s verse in that song was actually about Shark’s dad, the late Tommy Pennini. Tommy was a very respected guy in the underworld and Shark was always proud of that. That song is available here complete with a nice shout out to me from Ghostface at the beginning:

-After moving back home in 2004 you started delving into the use of synthesizers and 1980s music. What got you interested in moving in this direction? What hardware did you start collecting?

Well as I mentioned before I got that Yamaha keyboard and was using it for Hip-Hop beats, but, I started detouring and moving more and more into the retro direction. At that time though, there was zero scene for it (2004). So I was still trying to figure out what exactly I was trying to do musically. It varied greatly from one song to the next. So when using the actual hardware of the Yamaha I was able to compose entirely in the keyboard because it had a 16 track sequencer built in. If not on the Motif then I was entirely in Cubase. But, I eventually started experimenting with mixing the two together. I got an AKAI MPD which was like a drum pad MIDI controller based off the AKAI MPC. And I got an AKAI MPK 25 MIDI controller for keys. So using them all together is what I did for a while. But, I got a Native Instruments Maschine Studio a year ago and that changed my production flow greatly. Everything originates on the Maschine Studio now running as a VST inside Cubase. Then I start layering in the rest of the sounds from various other hardware and software sources. All of Sincerely Yours was composed this way.

-Jumping forward a bit tell us the tragic story of which was the catalyst for you to compose Dearly Departed.

So on November 25, 2012, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I ran up to my parents house to help my dad upload a photo for Christmas cards he was going to print. He’d never printed Christmas cards before. He always hand wrote like 100 cards. But he had gotten a coupon for Vista Prints and wanted to do a nice family photo card. So I had touched up a photo in Photoshop of the family and ran up to help him place his order, so thankfully I was there. He was in a fantastic mood. My mom and sister returned home from visiting family and we were all thinking of going out to dinner. The phone rang and my dad answered. It was my sister’s then boyfriend, so he hands my sister the phone, walks back the hallway and about 10 seconds later we just hear a very loud thud. Just a single thud. My sister goes back the hallway to see what it is and my dad is laying face down on the floor. So she screams, I go running back and we roll him over. It looks like he’s seizing. My dad has no history of seizures mind you. So I take my wallet out and put it in his mouth so he doesn’t bite through his tongue. Which also seems to have opened his breathing up. And then it’s as if he fell asleep and started snoring. My mom is on the phone with 911. Ambulance arrives and they take him to the local Hospital. There he was awake, but had zero memory of what occurred. He kept asking what had happened every 30 seconds. Almost like Sammy Jankis in Memento. But the doctor comes out and informs us of what has taken place. He suffered a massive brain aneurysm and he’s bleeding onto his brain. So they airlift him to Jefferson Hospital for Neuroscience in Philadelphia. We all go home, pack up and head to the hospital unsure of what’s next. We get there about 7:30 am. The doctor comes in and tells us how dire the situation really is. My dad needs surgery to repair the aneurysm. The doctor also gave us the odds this condition carries. 50% don’t even make it to the hospital, so he was already in the good 50%. But of the 50% that make it there, they’re then broken into thirds. The first third won’t survive the surgery to repair it. The second third will have severe neurological deficit and may never walk/talk again. The third third come through it with little or no neurological deficit. Obviously we were hoping for the latter. The doctor asks if we want to see him ahead of surgery and of course we did. The doctor warned us they had to drill a hole in his skull to relieve pressure and drain out the excess blood. We walked into the room and you almost couldn't recognize him. His head was shaved and tubes were everywhere. It was the first moment where you could actually see the severity of what had happened because when he left Reading he was awake and talking. The doctor came back an hour later saying surgery was a success. We were so relieved.

After five days he still hadn’t woken up yet and we were getting nervous. On day six he awoke and it started a very long road to recovery. He was in the hospital until Dec. 31st when they shipped him to a rehab facility. The rehab ended up being his best days. Luckily the rehab was only about 15 minutes from my house too. He started walking again and shockingly had zero memory loss. He was recalling things from my childhood I couldn’t even remember! Also, he had a steady stream of visitors. My dad was a teacher for 37 years and a community leader for longer than that. The amount of lives he impacted was enormous. He received so many cards and visitors, he was really happy and appreciative. But, while his spirits were high, he was on so many different medicines, some of them were just to counteract side effects from other medicines. Finally on Jan. 26th 2013 he came home! He was so relieved to finally be back in his own house. My mom cooked his favorite meal, he sat in his recliner and got to sleep in his own bed. We all thought everything was going to go back to normal. That this was all just a big 2 ½ month long road block. But, after being home only a few days, on Jan. 29th he had a massive watershed stroke. The stroke ended up sending him back to Reading, who sent him back to Jefferson where he stayed until he ultimately passed on Feb. 8th, 2013. To say the roller coaster of emotions was too much to handle would be an understatement. The entire family’s emotions ran the gamut over that time period and just when we thought normalcy would return we ended up in a tail spin. So, as I said before, my dad was loved. We ended up having his memorial service in the High School auditorium and over 1500 people attended. It was amazing. It was unbelievably sad, but, also comforting that so many people had cared for him. He was the greatest man I had ever known and I lost him well before I was ready to. I was devastated, but, also grateful that he got a chance to see so many people check in on him during his recovery. I called it his “victory lap”. People always show up for the funeral, but, then it’s too late. My dad got to see how many people cared about him while he was still alive. That is rare and something I’m eternally grateful for even if the outcome isn’t what any of us had wanted.

-Obviously this event in your life pushed you forward musically as it was therapeutic to write this album. Has that passion stayed with you? What drives you to compose?

So, I retreated into my home studio and started writing music. My wife Natalia was great throughout the process and she let me deal with my grief via music. I’d hole up in there for days at a time and just compose. I cried through a lot of it. So musically, it ended up being a wide range of emotions. Sometimes I was trying to cheer myself up with it, other times I just let the sadness through to the music. It was all done via synth and it was all very much in the moment. Looking back I didn’t try and write a song to sound like anything or with any preconceived notion of what it should be. I just made music.

The passion has definitely stayed with me but the source of it has changed. After the whole ordeal with my dad that brought about Dearly Departed, I discovered that Synthwave is a thing! I hadn’t realized it was a genre but I feel like I secretly willed it into existence after 10 years of hoping for it. I had often said to myself “Why can't I just make 80’s music? All the equipment still exists, I can just make music that sounds like it was from the 80s!” and finally other people were on the same page. I tried it before in 1998, 2004, 2008 & 2010. And I’d show all my music friends and they’d be like, “ok… but it sounds dated.” I felt like saying “No shit! That’s the point!”. So upon finding synthwave as an emerging genre, I felt compelled and dare I say it, for the first time in many years, excited to be writing new music.

-Tell us about 'Sincerely Yours'. Your music has been a reflection of real life events so can you talk about this?

Sincerely Yours is my love letter to synthwave/retro-synth music. I still put my own personal spin on it. My music doesn’t sound exactly like Miami Nights 1984 or Sunglasses Kid who managed to create songs that sound like they were just discovered in a time capsule. I love their music, I just can’t mimic it. My stuff tends to be very strongly 80’s influenced but also includes all the influences I’ve heard throughout my life. It’s hard to push those influences out of my mind when making music. They permeate my being. My love for Depeche Mode and The Wolfgang Press and PWEI and EMF and NIN and She Wants Revenge and Alphaville and Alkaline Trio and The Killers and The Notorious B.I.G. and Army Of The Pharaohs and so many others. I can’t just turn those influences off when I sit down. They also inspire me to want to make great music. The jury is still out as to whether or not I have or ever will achieve that. But, here’s to hoping.

-Where can we get the album? Tell us about the cassettes and artwork as well...

OK! So the album is currently available via Bandcamp. So, head on over to and get it! (shameless plug #1!). But, starting May 19th, it will also be available everywhere else too. iTunes, Amazon, Google Music, Spotify, XBox, etc. Digitally Branded makes sure it ends up everywhere! For Dearly Departed I did CDs and Vinyl for physical copies (also available on Bandcamp & Amazon! Shameless plug #2!). But, for this album I wanted to just do cassettes. I thought of doing vinyl too, but it’s so cost prohibitive. The album will need a great response before Digitally Branded opens up the pocket book for vinyl production! So if you want a Sincerely Yours vinyl, start lobbying @digibranded on Twitter (shameless plug #3!). The artwork was something different for the synthwave scene. 

For the first single, Pyramids, I did the cliche synthwave artwork. I’m not going to lie, I love it, but it was also a marketing ploy because anyone looking at it knows instantly with 99% certainty that it’s going to be a synthwave song. And trying to break into the scene, I wanted people to make the association with my name and synthwave music instantly. That same style of artwork is used by everyone and it’s definitely an homage to the 80’s, but, I wanted to approach it differently for my album. 

When I think of the 80s I lived in, I was in school. I had a bitchin’ Trapper Keeper with a red Ferrari on the front. Those are real life memories for me. So I wanted to kind of pay homage to that without going over the top with grids and Transformers looking text. I feel too much of that makes the 80s almost like a caricature. There was so much more to love about that era. For me, a lot of the 80s was sitting at a school desk day dreaming. Also, it tied in with my concept of writing a love letter to synthwave. That’s really my handwriting on the cover. I really do mean it. I sincerely love this style of music.

So the artwork for the cassette I created is heavily Trapper Keeper inspired. It gave me a good concept to run with and also I got to have fun with it. I hope people appreciate it as well. It’s still an homage to the 80s, it’s just a different look and style. It doesn’t have to be super tech looking to pay homage. It's just my more personal approach to the artwork.

-Any final thoughts?

My final plug, isn't music related but does have to do with sound. I'll be doing sound design & mixing down a feature length movie! The film is American Exorcist from the genius duo Tony Trov & Johnny Zito of South Fellini. I also got to go be an extra on the movie and get some gnarly burn make up on my arms. It's currently being edited, so, to date I haven't started audio duty on it yet. But, it should be a solid flick to keep an eye out for. I previously mixed down their debut feature length film Alpha Girls which is already available for your viewing pleasure.

Finally, I’m so happy to have found this musical community and I’m still amazed at how nice and open everyone is. Coming from hip-hop it was very much clique-based and everyone was out for themselves. The NYC meetup where I met you, Axel, was fantastic. It was just a great opportunity to get together and share opinions on the music we love so much. I hope the scene continues to stay strong and grow. I also hope it stays a friendly place. I’ll cry a single tear like the Native American in the “don’t litter” PSA if it starts fracturing. Don’t make me cry.


NYC Episode 9 (Beth Wexler)

By Axel Ricks

Here we are in Manhattan with Beth Wexler of! In this episode we enjoy the views of Manhattan from the Highline which is also known as Highline Park. It is located on the West side and has get views of the Hudson and an elevated view of the city. In our chat we cover everything you'll need to know about the VJ work, music videos, projection mapping, and even graphic design work that this busy media artist had tackled.

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Tracks in order of appearance:
Dallas Campbell - Pillars

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