Flanked by desert on both sides, you've got the dusty two-lane highway all to yourself. A light fog has descended, but no matter—you've had your brights on for hours, and haven't seen another car since stopping for gas back when the sun was still up. The yellow lines flash in front of you like a silent metronome; it's a brisk night, but you've got the window cracked to keep from falling asleep. You don't know where you're going, but you know you need to keep on driving.
If only life could be so cinematic.
Lucky for us, there's a new brand of music on the rise that's here to lend your everyday a dose of drama—a genre that takes its cues from the mysterious, haunting film and video game soundtracks of the '80s. Some are calling it retrowave, others synthwave, but our favorite handle? Outrun. Put on a record by any of these artists, close your eyes, and you'll be speeding down a mountain pass in an old Italian sportscar with a sultry character riding shotgun. There's something to it—maybe it's the repeating, arpeggiating chords, burrowing their way deep into your memory bank and shaking things loose—that dredges up visions of old movies, imbuing even the most humdrum of moments with a cinematic feel. For Steve Moore, a solo artist in the genre who also makes up one half of Pittsburgh duo Zombi, the drive to make filmic music was born from a childhood obsession in the late '70s.
"This was before everyone had HBO," Moore explains, "and way before the internet. You saw a movie once or twice in the theater, then it was essentially gone forever. There was really no expectation that you'd ever see it again—but you could buy the soundtracks, and through that, relive the experience." For Moore, it was his dad's purchase of the Star Wars soundtrack that sealed the deal. "It became a thing with me: if there was a movie I liked, I had to own the soundtrack. And I'd listen to them excessively, and completely internalize them."
From there, his collection grew: Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack (1980); Brad Fiedel's score for The Terminator (1984); John Carpenter's haunting compositions for the Halloween films (1978-82). And it isn't simply the sound of the early '80s that influences Moore—it's also its instruments. "I've made a conscious decision to use mostly 'period instrumentation' in my music: vintage synthesizers and string machines, drum machines, etc. I try to take those sounds in slightly new directions, though; my intent is to create something anachronistic, something that sounds like it could be from either 1981, 1991, or 2011."
Another key player in the genre is Matt Hill, better known by his stage name of Umberto—a nod to Umberto Lenzi, the Italian director behind a number of '70s horror films (or giallo, as they're known in Italy). "I'd describe my first four albums as homages to the horror and sci-fi films of the late '70s and early '80s," says Hill. "When I started the Umberto project, my main influences were Fabio Frizzi's scores for the films of Lucio Fulci—The Beyond, Zombi 2, City of the Living Dead, The Psychic and others—as well as the film scores of Goblin, Stelvio Cipriani, and Carpenter." Goblin is the beloved Italian band responsible for the music in a number of seminal horror films from Hill's era of choice—perhaps most notably Suspiria and Phenomena, by legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento. Steve Moore's band Zombi toured with them as an opening act in 2013, which led to the band asking him to join them on keyboards for a stretch of shows. And, with that, it would seem the baton was officially passed.
Beyond being influenced by soundtracks, Hill says it's what he "wanted to do all along—the Umberto project started because I didn't have any films to score, so I just made my own imaginary ones." Moore shared the lifelong dream to compose for film, tracing back to those early moviegoing experiences. "I've wanted to score movies since I was like, 5 years old," he explains. "I intentionally took a weird path, though. As a young person, I noticed most of my favorite film composers had already made a name for themselves by playing in bands: Danny Elfman, Jan Hammer, Mark Mothersbaugh. I studied music as an undergrad but didn't have the attention span to follow the course and get a master's or doctorate in composition—instead, I decided to try the other route, by making a name for myself as a musician."
The approach has worked, and Moore has already scored a number of films, including 2014 horror films The Cub, and The Guest. His scoring work shares something crucial in common with his other output: It's music you surrender yourself over to, the spacious synth sounds luring you into the unknown. Generally, the genre's offerings tend to inspire thoughts of night drives, as famously illustrated by Kavinsky's breakout song "Nightcall," featured on the soundtrack to 2012's Drive.
A movement seems to be brewing—but do the musicians themselves feel part of any concrete scene? "As a Generation X-er and lifelong malcontent, I think I naturally prickle and recoil when someone starts talking about being part of a musical scene," explains Moore. "I don't want to fit in—I never did—that's why I started doing this synthesizer music around 2000, when it was probably as unfashionable as it's ever been. But I've worked with, performed with, and gotten to know personally a lot of really great contemporary musicians who I'm happy to be grouped in with—maybe not because our music is similar, but because we are in some way similar."
To hear a mix of vintage soundtrack music put together just for us by Umberto, search Spotify for "wearesweet." Spoiler alert! You'll also find our Outrun playlist, which can help you to get to know some of the coolest artists working in the genre today.