The Enduring Power of Darkwave: An Interview with Dave Cantrell

The genre that never dies brings its support to Planned Parenthood via a smashing new compilation.

Songs From Under the Floorboard, Vol. 1
Various Artists
Accident Prone
6 April 2018

Festival organizer? Internationally renowned darkwave/post-punk DJ? Contractor for the Oregon state office of the Bureau of Land Management? Veteran San Francisco cab driver?

Dave Cantrell shrugs off any effort to pin down his identity. “Avowed non-careerist,” is how he describes himself.

But to fans in Portland, Oregon and around the world he’s probably best known as the host of XRAY-FM’s hit post-punk/darkwave radio program Songs From Under the Floorboard. The show, now in its sixth year, has sparked a music festival (Out From the Shadows) and now a compilation benefit album for Planned Parenthood, featuring ten contemporary darkwave/postpunk bands from the US and Europe.

When he first took to the airwaves, Cantrell had no idea that his radio show would explode as it did; no idea, either, of the scale of the contemporary postpunk/darkwave movement.

What was it like, starting up a darkwave show in 2012 Portland?

“Very lonely,” Cantrell recalls, laughing ruefully. “The [original] station wasn’t as media-savvy or ambitious or as well-run as XRAY is. XRAY is an entire organization that has a much more inspired organizational plan behind it, and a vision. At first, it was just like a trickle of people [listening]. But it was also the first [radio show] of its sort.”

The program showcases contemporary postpunk and darkwave from all over the world, but it didn’t start off that way. Cantrell’s original goal was to focus on the years 1977 to 1983, what he refers to as the “rip-it-up-and-start-again” era, referring to Simon Reynolds’ book on the period. Those years imprinted themselves on him, as he lived through them in San Francisco and then London, where he moved to in 1979.

But as the show progressed his interest in the post-’80s scene grew. He credits Oliver Sheppard, a writer for CultNation, for covering some of the essential contemporary darkwave bands. Reading Sheppard’s coverage, Cantrell discovered many of the bands were active in his city of Portland.

“And I’d never heard of them! Because they were so far underground,” he recalls. They’re now regulars on his show, but at the time he was astonished at what a flourishing underground scene existed. He cites some of his favorites: Arctic Flowers, Bellicose Minds, the Estranged. And many more.

“I describe it like the opening to San Francisco Bay, where there’s kind of a small opening, and then the hole just opens up into this massive field. I kept having my breath taken again and again by the scenes around the world and how vibrant it was.”

What’s changed most since he started out?

“Mostly my awareness,” Cantrell reflects. The show’s listenership — and repertoire of contemporary bands — has expanded exponentially since its first year. Now, he says, he’s at pains to squeeze classics into his show, because there’s simply so much new material to cover.

“The sheer volume is such now that there’s a lot of interest and momentum and a lot of young people who are very passionately taken with that aesthetic, with those years. Even those that are blind copyists in a way, pretty faithful to the template, I still find myself pretty taken by them because they’re so devoted to what they do. They’re very good at what they do, and there’s a number of bands out there, a fair percentage of them that are very much just like themselves, even though they are still very much derived from the aura of that time.”

The Genre That Will Not Die

What is it that keeps the scene alive? Thirty-five years after it exploded, it still lingers. Adherents still clad themselves in black, still drag their synthesizers on stage, still dance and sing ruefully upbeat synthwave. For a genre that was neither well understood nor easily definable to begin with, it’s had a remarkable staying power, and a remarkable ability to constantly reinvent itself for new generations while retaining a coherent identity. What’s the secret to its forever youth?

Cantrell has given that question a fair amount of thought.

“The music is fucking timeless,” he says. “It doesn’t age. We’re still worried about a culture that is overly surveilling us. We’re still paranoid. All the issues that were so often brought up haven’t gone away. And if anything, they’re more pertinent than ever. Also, the strength of that aesthetic is very attractive and has a way of being just gripping, whether you’re listening to it or whether you’re attempting to play it. It doesn’t surprise me that given where our culture is these days a raft of young people would be drawn to it and would gravitate towards it as a means of expression. It’s pretty dark shadowy times in many ways, and so dark shadowy angular riffing would probably be something that, if I were a musician in that age, I would probably be drawn to as well.”

At the same time, he notes, today’s scene is not the same as that of the late ’70s. There has been change. The best way of understanding that change, he says, is to remember that when the darkwave scene began, in the wake of punk rock, rock and roll itself was barely two decades old. The sheer youth of the broader rock and roll scene was a fact which shaped that era’s music. Today’s music — no matter its inspiration or genre — exists at a much further remove from the earliest days of rock and roll and can’t help but by inflected by all that’s happened since then.

“[Rock and roll] was only 21 years old in 1977. I mean that’s a lot to go through in that short span, and it’s 41 years later now. There’s been a lot that’s happened in the meantime. So the difference is that of course, it was a lot brasher, it was a lot more adventurous, and edgier then, because it was so new. And to have that energy of punk brandished with new tools, with suddenly very affordable synthesizers, with a lot of artists coming in that weren’t musicians per se to start with, that came in with ideas that were anchored in cinema and literature and various art theorists and Marxism, or whatever, it was bound to have [an effect]. In retrospect it all made sense. But at the time it had this kind of by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel, this sort of constant imperative was in the air.”

“There are still great bands — I wouldn’t be as interested in it if it weren’t for the fact that there’s still a tremendous amount of quality going on — but I would not expect the current generation to have the same, I mean you can’t recreate that from back then and nor should you try. So it makes sense that it doesn’t quite have the same level of tightrope-walking experimentalism. But still it’s certainly just as energized and devoted to what they’re doing, I have to say.”

Supporting Planned Parenthood

This year, Cantrell was approached by Accident Prone Records to put out a compilation in advance of the 2018 Out From the Shadows Festival. The resulting album, Songs From Under the Floorboard Volume 1, was released in April and features ten US and European bands that are at the forefront of the contemporary post-punk/darkwave/synthwave scene, from all over the world.

They include the likes of Portland’s Vice Device, Texan post-punk band Annex, Spanish post-punk outfit Perralobo, noisy post-punk rockers Bernays Propaganda from Macedonia, and more. The line-up, curated by Cantrell, offers an exciting snapshot of the burgeoning contemporary darkwave/postpunk scene. Listening to the album, you’d be hard-pressed to realize that these bands are contemporary; they’ve mastered the sound of their forebears impressively. But their energy, content and lyric themes are grounded very firmly in the present-day.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the direction they’ve chosen to funnel proceeds from the album. Cantrell’s festival serves partly as a benefit for the non-profit XRAY radio station, but he also features a different LGBTQ organization as a co-beneficiary each year. It was decided to pursue the same approach with the compilation, and Planned Parenthood was selected as the beneficiary of the first album.

“It wasn’t a very difficult decision,” Cantrell says, noting that at the time they made the decision Planned Parenthood was under particularly heavy siege across the nation. All the bands he approached were eagerly supportive of the project. But he’s quick to note that in today’s America under President Donald Trump, it’s not just institutions like Planned Parenthood that need support — the threat is a much broader one.

“The entire, the whole structure is under attack,” he warns. “The only upside is that it’s under attack by a completely incompetent wannabe authoritarian. If he weren’t so incompetent, we’d be in real trouble. As it is it’s frightening and alarming enough that there are supposedly reasonable people on that side of the aisle, just sort of cynically allowing themselves to take advantage of the chance to get policies they want across by using this fucking despot. We’re gonna survive it, there’s no doubt about that, but it is a fucking nightmare.”

And artistic fuel for a new generation of dark, shadowy musicians, no doubt.