PJ d’Atri doesn’t play guitar. He controls it, manipulates it, masters it. His fingers run up and down the fretboard in a deliberate and indefatigable manner like how you might imagine atoms intentionally flying about in their microscopic real estate. Add in some synthesizers and drum machines, and the result is an engaging affair. It’s unbridled energy.
The Vienna-based Italo-Austrian classical guitarist found synthwave a few years ago, which resulted in the fortified Ultraboss project. This is not a heavy, dark synthwave project, though. The releases under this project have seen d’Atri pair up with prog-influenced artists like Cody Carpenter (AKA Ludrium) and synthwavers like Dana Jean Phoenix and Vincenzo Salvia — among others – to create a compelling blend of synths and guitars. There is a 1980s retro spirit that shines throughout, the focus primarily on d’Atri’s Steve Vai-esque cascading. At some point, as you’re deep into the two-fer released earlier this year, Slave to the Passion 1 and Slave to the Passion 2: The Perils of Shredwave Decadence, you start to think d’Atri has more has more than five fingers on each hand.
“The role of the guitar would be to make synthwave a little more specific, and more ’80s-bound than it would be without it,” d’Atri said in a recent Skype interview. “Guitar solos, especially the ones I do, are a thing of the ’80s. If you have a guitar solo in your synthwave song these days… it enhances authenticity.”
But it’s not self-indulgent shredfests that abound on these Rosso Corsa-released albums: the songs are well-written and well-structured with as much of an emphasis on the totality of the compositions as the marquee parts. Consider d’Atri’s influences as contributing at least some of the philosophy behind that. He counts Slash of Guns N’ Roses and his mentor, the noteworthy guitarist Jason Becker, as influences and it’s clear that their creative, rather than merely technical, approach to shredding has rubbed off on Ultraboss. We tackle all of this and more in a recent interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. Read on below.
Vehlinggo: Tell us about your background. I’ve seen videos of you playing Bach on your guitar, which is fascinating in its scope.
d’Atri: I started playing at age 12 because of Slash, from Guns N’ Roses and the Appetite for Destruction record. That’s what got me into guitar in the first place at that age. I’m entirely self-taught. I grew up with hard rock music, so the main bands I listened to were Guns N’ Roses, Ozzy Osborne, and Van Halen… That’s my very initial route to guitar work.
I discovered Bach’s music when I was 12 or 13 years old, shortly after I started playing, and I’ve been fascinated by that my entire life. I started practicing and playing it, and using it for my benefit in music. After a while, I started playing it more and more.
It’s a nice thing to work on both ends of the spectrum [of Bach and Ultraboss]. There’s no bigger contrast to baroque music than synth or electronic music, and I like that. I play a lot of Bach shows, and I play a lot of that music. I have to spend a lot of time practicing and learning it, and all that. And it’s a very important part of my life.
That gave me the strength I need to be where I am in this scene.
I don’t know how you even do it. How do you play Bach on a guitar? Does it take countless hours of intense study?
Yes, that’s what it is, because Bach’s music was never written for guitar — [the instrument] didn’t exist then. You have to use your ears; and you have to transpose the melodies and the harmonies on the record, and create your own fingerings for that.
As you can see in some of my music videos — the Bach videos in church and all that — those are all my own arrangements.
I recorded my life’s work in 2016. I consider it to be my best work, and my life’s work, which is my album, Bach. I’ve never worked that hard on an album. That was a big deal, and it opened many doors, and I love it. I was very excited when I finally pulled that off.
I don’t read music. I can’t play off a sheet and stuff like that. I really have to use patience, and my ear, and what I know about the guitar and the principles; and see what can be played. That’s what I do.
How does that influence Ultraboss?
With Ultraboss, everything is free and groovy and mellow — I don’t care where it goes and what it does, and who listens to it, and all of that. It’s just like my personal baby. The concept has always been very much to be like some kind of a holiday area for me from the rest of what I do.
It sounds like with Ultraboss you’re able to kind of enjoy being in the space where guitarists who inspire you are at — you can have synths and guitars together, like Van Halen.
Yeah, exactly. I grew up with that kind of stuff: the Vince DiCola music [composer of The Transformers animated film and Staying Alive], and Van Halen, and Journey. They all had arrangements where they used a lot of synthesizers basically mixed with guitars, and distortion, and all that. That’s my favorite kind of music that I produce myself.
I write and produce everything myself with Ultraboss, so it’s obvious that it resembles what I grew up with, and what is important to me. And that is that kind of ‘80s AOR stuff. I like that.
“Right now, I feel like I’m drifting more towards ‘80s pop.”
These kind of pop arrangements are really cool, but also the instrumental world is really cool. Alan Silvestri and [DiCola] are my heroes in that sense. But so are Kraftwerk, and Daft Punk, and Moroder — stuff that was there in the ‘80s mostly that also inspired me to use certain sounds, and create certain things.
Right now, I feel like I’m drifting more towards ‘80s pop. I’ve been working with Robert Beachgrove, and he’s my favorite singer in the scene. I’m very honored that I am able to work with him, and that he is willing to work with me.
We’re creating new stuff as we speak, so that is very exciting.
Your first record, Kyrie Electron, was on NewRetroWave’s label. How did you end up getting on Rosso Corsa? How did this all come about?
My very first synthwave experience: I was sitting at a PC at my parents’ house, and I was browsing YouTube. Suddenly, one song was sent to me, and it was called “Extreme Pizza Power” from Vincenzo Salvia. That is a really great synthwave song. It’s like a great, sweaty workout — very fast and high energy. I heard that, and I was immediately fascinated with not just this guy, but also the channel, and the.. whole aesthetic and music. That was my very first connection with this genre.
With Vincenzo, we did this EP on NewRetroWave in 2016, called Follow the Power. Then I had done a couple of solos for other people, like Nightcrawler, Tokyo Rose… and other really great acts. I said to myself, “Well, if I can play for other people, I should actually do my own album, because I can write music. I can’t just do solos for other people, I want to do my own thing.”
So, I came up with the name, and with the album title and everything. And recorded this thing in like two months. I sent it to NewRetroWave, and they immediately signed it, and that’s it. That was my debut album.
I’d always wanted to join Rosso Corsa, because I realized they had all these artists that I really like — the founding fathers mostly are on that label, like Lazerhawk, Miami Nights 1984, and Mitch Murder. All of them, all of these great names that I’d been hearing since the beginning, were on Rosso Corsa Records. I just emailed them and asked, “Are you interested in releasing my second album?” They said, “Yes,” and that was the beginning of that.
Recently, on the Slave to the Passion albums, you had collaborations with folks like Cody Carpenter (who makes his own music in addition to working with his father, John) and Vincenzo Salvia, among others. What is it about collaborations that appeal to you?
I always think the more people that work on a song the better. I’m a very inclusive-thinking person in all terms of life, but especially when it comes to creating art and music. I believe that the more brains and talents united, the better the product becomes.
“I always think the more people that work on a song the better.”
Plus, the thing is, when I started out with synthwave, I was more of a hired gun for a lot of people. I was only hired to shred and play solos. And I would love that, because when I was little, and my big idol was Slash, he was found on so many different records.
[Salvia]… is basically the guy who discovered [me] and who gave me my first chance at this whole thing. He was so excited by what I do that he suggested we do an EP. I recorded some solos for his wife [synthwave artist Powder Slut] before that — and for him. Then from there… I was working with a lot of people.
The term “synthwave,” by virtue of its name, suggests an obviously synthesizer-driven music. What is the role of guitar in synthwave in 2019?
It can add a certain characteristic quality, because if you have a guitar in a song, it means that there’s somebody who’s actually playing this thing. There are some people out there that think that fabricated music is less sincere than handmade music. I don’t think like that, but I understand and know people who do.
I believe that it creates this human aspect and quality in the song. It also changes the vibe a little bit, at least during the solo. You get this rock n’ roll vibe, and you get a little more metal out of it. It enhances the emotional listening experience. I really believe it does that, because a guitar solo is always something that makes people listen up, at least those who are open to it.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
Vehlinggo, based in Brooklyn, was founded in 2014 and focuses generally on deeper interviews and reviews centered on film and television scores (real and imagined); synth-pop; synthwave; and other forms of electronic music, such as disco, Italo Disco, boogie, house, and techno.