In Conversation with Theo Vandenhoff

Making synthpop for the painfully lonely, Toronto’s Theo Vandehoff presents the moody, melodramatic debut five-track EP Heartache From an Empty Room. Off the EP, I stumbled across the track ‘What’s In A Name?’ which instantly transported me to an underground club in 80s Berlin or the The Haçienda. The EP is a must listen for any synth pop, 80s fanatic.

Leaving behind only the debris of competitive soccer, Theo turned to music as a means of expression. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Heartache From an Empty Room is a concoction of alienation, loneliness, and moving in uncertainty. Theo shares, “’Heartache’ is the transitory phase between dreams crumbling and inevitable self-actualization. It is a dark and empty room, but sometimes it feels like the whole world is watching”.

Delving deeper, we chatted about the recording and production of the tracks, Wire, gear, and Pachycephalosaurs dinosaurs.

 Please briefly tell me about yourself. Did you have a musical upbringing?

I didn’t have a musical upbring in the traditional sense, but my dad has always been a huge music nerd and raised me on a lot of music from the 70s and 80s. He was in a synth pop band in the 80s called the Invisible College and played synths for Psyche.  

You describe the EP as a highly personal journey through uncertainty, paranoia, growth and honest introspection. What is some advice you can give to readers who are going through similar feelings as you were?

The message I want to pull the most out of the songs is that most of your life is spent in uncertainty. There’s nothing fun about that, but I think it’s in those moments of uncertainty that significant growth and moments of your life happens. The songs of the EP are a celebration of that. The lyrics portray uncertainty in a way that is uncomfortable but also in a way that’s beautiful.

Did your dad help with the making of the EP?

I was sending him stuff whilst in the making of the EP, but the final product is my own instincts.

Is there a song that particularly stands out to you?

The fourth track, ‘Lift’ is a reworked version of one of an Invisible College song; I added a chorus and changed the atmosphere. It was a love letter to my dad’s influence on me.

I also have a special place in my heart for ‘Undertones.’ It’s got the simplest arrangement out of the tracks, but it was the first one I wrote. I wrote that at the end of high school. It pushed me into the direction of making synth-based music. Before this, I was in shitty high school punk bands, just doing it for fun haha! I’m really proud of it sonically. It’s abrasive and catchy at the same time.

Where did the name ‘Heartache From an Empty Room’ come from?

I’m terrible at coming up with song titles. I’ll write the song and then spend months trying to name it! I sent a song to my friend who I know well and trust and asked him which line stands out. He said ‘heartache from an empty room’ stood out to him the most. I think that also captures the sentiments of each song.

You mention you’re inspired* by artist in the 70s and 80s. If you could take one of your influences into the studio with you, who would it be?

Man…what a loaded question! One of my favourite artists of all time is Wire. They’re 80s stuff is very underrated. I would love to bring my influence on theirs.

*check out Theo’s playlist of songs that inspired the making of the EP.

What was the recording process like? How did you approach putting it together?

Jay Merrow who produced the album, was my guitar teacher when I was 13. He moved away but when he returned, we reconnected and I started going over to his place to learn about producing. I presented him these songs and ideas that I was working on as a way to polish them and teach myself more about music production. It went from me trying to learn more about producing music to making a full EP out of it. I credit him as the producer, he cleaned it up better than I ever could!

Do you have any favourite gear to record with?

Oh yeah, he’s got a Moog Sub 37 that we used on every single track. It sounds huge and fantastic. A lot of the guitar tones were from the Fender Stratocaster. The chimey, 80s guitar tone you get from the single coils is really, really nice. Also, lot of the synths were soft synths. Arturia has a fantastic synth library that emulates classic synthesizers. We were using an ARP Solina and a Jupiter 8 module. All the synths sound great, you wouldn’t be able to tell they’re not analog.

In the following section, I like to ask the artists some random, off-the-cuff Qs that have nothing to do with their music. Why, eh? Well, why not?

What are the funkiest PJs you own?

My little sister got these PJs of dinosaurs with Santa hats for Christmas. I LOVE dinosaurs.

Hahaha, do you have a favourite one?

Yeah, I like the Pachycephalosaurs! I don’t know why something had to evolve to ram into things with their hard skull.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

Probably a cliché answer, but I’d want to go back to the Haçienda and see all my favourite bands that influenced me. And also, to go back and see the dinosaurs!

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