Q&A: Parallels' Cameron Findlay Talks Songwriting and Synths

Fans taken in first by Toronto duo Parallels' sweet take on retro synth-pop might be surprised at the band's musical pedigree. Most of the original songs, in fact, were written while founder/drummer/composer Cameron Findlay was touring with electro-noise terrorists Crystal Castles. As a kid raised on punk rock, Findlay fit right in with the group's original d.i.y. ethic and gonzo energy -- but he had also long nurtured a romance with anything graced by the Korg.

While Crystal Castles toured nonstop, Findlay was, in his downtime, building up a body of New Romantic-styled post-punk, full of minor keys and arpeggiated chords. Though he meant it, initially, to be a solo project, when he started working with longtime friend Holly Dodson, the songs' fate was sealed. 

Not only did she bring an arresting Kate Bush-style soprano to Findlay's work, but Dodson was a gifted keyboardist and composer as well. Thus, Parallels as a band proper was born, and in a make-it-or-break-it decision, Findlay left Crystal Castles.

Parallels released its debut full-length, Visionaries, last year, and is currently touring strong behind it on the group's most extensive outing to date. That includes two South Florida stops this weekend, first on Thursday at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach, and then on Saturday at the Vagabond in Miami. 

County Grind caught up with Findlay recently to talk songwriting and synths. Here's what he had to say.

County Grind: You were previously the drummer for Crystal Castles, but now you're an all-around songwriter and keyboard player for Parallels. Were you always a drummer by temperament, or was that something you just focused on for Crystal Castles?

Cameron Findlay: I've been playing drums since I was like 10 years old, so it was a go-to instrument when I would play in bands growing up. I got into electronic stuff a little bit later, in high school, but up until that point I would just play drums, pretty much.

When you got into the electronic stuff, what were you into at the beginning, and were you always into the more analog-sounding synth stuff like you're playing now?

Definitely. I got into Kraftwerk and stuff like that pretty early on, and Tangerine Dream, and sort of avant-garde German stuff. That was the first electronic stuff I got into, and that's all analog synth stuff from the mid-'70s. Later I got into more pop-related synth music like Eurythmics and O.M.D. 

Even before Crystal Castles, what kinds of bands were you playing in?

Only punk bands. I played in jazz band at school, but I started playing in punk bands because that's what me and my buddies who would skateboard would listen to. Stuff like Cock Sparrer -- pretty much the opposite of what I'm playing now, but that's how I learned to drum at a fast pace and aggressively. 

I find that people who grew up listening to that kind of music kind of stick with it in whatever kind of music they end up doing. I find that a lot of my buddies I grew up with all play different music now, but they've all stuck with it and kept playing over time. 

Like you said, there's a huge leap between, say, Cock Sparrer and your music now. Do you think any of that early punk stuff translates to anything you're doing now? Is it more of an attitude thing?

It definitely doesn't translate into the music. I don't know, the inspiration for this band really took off when I was getting into electronic music and getting bored with playing punk. Not many of my friends were into electronic music, so I figured I had just better start a band on my own instead of picking up drums in another band. 

Mainly, though, I just wanted to see how it would work out working in an electronic group, playing electronics live. And at least I'd get to do all the writing on a keyboard, which is a different approach from what I grew up playing.

Had you gotten to do much songwriting with your previous bands?

Not really, no. I've been writing electronic stuff since I was 17 or 18 without a name behind it, so I've always been writing music on my own. But when I wanted to start this band, it wasn't until late 2008 when Holly joined the band. So that whole period before was just me writing on my own and trying to come up with as much stuff as possible, and go in a more pop-oriented direction. Holly obviously fit the part for vocals.

The stuff I had written before was not song-structured at all, it was just experimenting with sounds. I think when people get into electronic music, the most exciting thing is to experiment that way, to see what they can come up with, with whatever keyboard they buy. That was how it was for me, and I got into structuring songs from there. 

When you first started writing, what was your first keyboard, then, and what was the biggest challenge in switching to writing that way?

There wasn't a challenge in switching to songwriting, I just figured I'd try it now and make my music more accessible. So I did all of the first recordings on a Korg MS-2000. That was the first synth I bought; I think I got that for about $400. You can still find it for about the same on Craigslist, but they don't make them any more. It has some amazing sounds on it. It's not a vintage or analog keyboard, but it has a great engine in it. 

Then shortly after that I got a Juno 106, which is an analog synth from the mid-'80s by Roland. A lot of guys use that; I think it's a fairly accessible synthesizer for people who want to buy an analog keyboard. It's probably about in the same price range. So I bought that and really started toying around with it because it's got great sounds, too. So those two keyboards formed the basis of the band.

What's your dream synth if you could get any one you could?

I always wanted to get a Yamaha CS-80. I think those are pretty hard to find. It's the synthesizer Vangelis used on a lot of recordings, like on the Blade Runner soundtrack. I think they're pretty expensive and hard to find, and I'm not sure where I would even start looking. I think people who have that stuff tend to hold onto it forever. A Jupiter 8 would be nice, too. I don't know, there's a lot! But those two mainly stick out. 

When you were playing with the other band, at what point did you know you wanted to quit and just focus on Parallels? And was it called Parallels already at that point?

It was. I had the project going before I started playing for Crystal Castles, I just didn't really have a name for it. Eventually I came up with a name while on tour with them, and I was writing on tour with them. The reason why I left was I just wanted to pursue this, and figured I should try to get it out at that point. 

Drumming for that band is really time-consuming. They've been pretty much touring nonstop for four years or something like that. So when you go on tour with them you're committed to it for the next however many years of your life. So eventually I thought if I wanted to pursue something else, I'd better get out of it and focus on my own thing. 

I think people want to find, like, stories of reasons why I quit. I've read a few stupid comments in places, but it was mutual understanding and they were totally cool with it.

Had you already met Holly at that point, or were you still looking for a vocalist?

I've known Holly for a while. We had been friends for a few years before, but we didn't start working together until I quit Crystal Castles. That's when she started putting some vocals over tracks I had, at about the end of 2008. 

The sort of blog lore, as you were saying, was that you were going to make this a solo project until you decided to start working with her. Is that true, or did you always have it in your mind that this was going to be a proper band?

I always wanted it to be a band, and always wanted to be able to play the tracks live. It's not like it's one or the other. I figured if I could do this as a solo project, it wouldn't be as exciting live and would be more technically involved and less synth-based. At the time, I didn't really want that. I wanted a proper band onstage performing with a vocalist and keyboards and live drums and everything. 

On that note, what's your setup like live, then? How much of what you play is actually generated live, and how much is a backing track?

We tour with an MS-2000, which is where a lot of the sounds are from, and a Nord Wave, which we've loaded some samples into from keyboards we can't really bring with us. We also use the MS-2000 for Vocoder. For backing tracks, yeah, quite a few of the patches that would be hard to play live, like arpeggiated stuff or stuff that's really locked into a tempo, we track. 

But Holly's a really skilled keyboardist; she can sing and play with no problem. So there's a lot of stuff that we keep live, it's just that we're trying to play in a band with two of us, when it would really require three or four other people to actually make it fully live. We'd like to eventually add new people to the band, keyboardists and people who are really into the tech side of things. But for now it's just the two of us, so we track a couple things -- like most bands!

Your sound is so clearly influenced by a specific period of music. How do you think you update the sound and put your own contemporary spin on it?

I don't know. I don't really think about stuff like that. I just write music that I think sounds good. We don't use contemporary instruments for our writing process. We use older instruments, so it's going to sound a little bit vintage. We would rather just write songs we really like, and songs we think will be catchy and memorable. 

Parallels. With Great Deceivers and the Band in Heaven. 9 p.m. Thursday, May 19
Respectable Street, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Age 21+; no cover.  561-832-9999; respectablestreet.com

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