It’s like driving off into the sunset in a bright red convertible with all the windows rolled down. Palm trees swaying in the breeze while a beautiful girl sits shotgun wearing leg-warmers. She’s smoking a cigarette kissed by lipstick, and the glitz of lights twinkling along the highway bleed into the smell of hairspray and the polish of a new sound thumping from the radio.
That new sound is the Richmond, Virginia trio Heartracer, and this cheesy scenery is exactly what I imagine while listening to the title track from their recent EP Summer Gold. The production is doused in a glimmer and sparkle that would satiate even the most critical pop-music maestros. Arpeggiating synthesizer lines dance around drums that crackle and explode with the energy of arena rock.
It’s true that Heartracer are unabashedly retro at their very essence, tapping into the ‘80s mainstream vein like true artisans of nostalgia. But it’s an homage that manages to expand beyond mere imitation of its predecessors. The five songs that comprise Summer Gold encapsulate a band that is young and hungry to push the traditional boundaries of electronic music to the limit (forgive the Paul Engemann reference, I just can’t help myself).
While the inspiration certainly springs from the founding members’ infatuation with that particular decade of glamour, brothers Chris and Chip Cosby cite today’s abysmal state of popular music as the real fire that ignited Heartracer.
“It’s pop music that isn’t just made for the purposes of marketing and reaching a mainstream audience,” says Chip. “It’s pop music with depth. We find today’s pop to be extremely vapid.”
“It all sounds the same,” adds Chris. “It’s just shat out.”
Dissatisfaction can bring genuine inspiration, and sometimes knowing what doesn’t work can help an artist find what does. Chip explains that most good songs–if they’re reduced to nothing more than an acoustic guitar and vocalist–will still hold up. It’s what comprises the core of a great song, and no matter how many layers of post-production and polish are added later, without those foundations a song simply won’t be any good.
That being said, the songwriting duo admits that if you were to subtract the vocals and guitars from their music the end result would sound a lot like songs on the radio. But the desire to assign a more natural and organic process to the writing brings the material to a class of its own.
“The guitar adds in a much-needed human element,” says Chip, who plays guitar in the band. “You don’t hear a lot of guitar in pop music these days. It’s kind of disturbing.”
“I can see why,” Chris says. “Most of the guitar players we see in popular bands these days aren’t really guitar players.”
Chip is certainly an exception to the rule. Aside from demonstrating a clear versatility of style and knowledge of chord voicings, he’s also a gear-head. Part of the band’s signature sound can be attributed to the Cage amplifier Chip uses. It’s a point-to-point wired, hand-built amp from Maryland that produces one of the cleanest sounds either brother has heard. You can hear it cut through the mix, chords that splash the ears with a sound like cold water.
Then there are the vintage pedals, like a chorus effect pedal from the early ‘80s. It’s actually the same design that Andy Summers from The Police employed to great effect on the band’s studio albums.
Everything circles back to Heartracer’s passion, which is less concerned with the notes themselves but rather the delivery.
“We’re less interested in what we’re playing and more interested in how it sounds,” says Chris. “It’s about creating a feeling and vibe. And that vibe is nostalgic.”
While he might joke that the main influence behind the creation of Summer Gold comes from his brother Chip forcing him to watch cheesy ‘80s movies on repeat (“It’s my way of trying to express that,” he laughs), the real roots of Heartracer actually stem from Chris. While Chip was away in San Francisco playing with a different band, Chris engulfed himself in songwriting.
He sent the keyboard melodies and vocal ideas to his brother, and Chip would write the guitar parts. When Chip’s band eventually collapsed, he returned home and set to work full force with his brother. Much of the songwriting that ensued found its way onto the band’s debut In Flight.
The progression between In Flight to Summer Gold is momentous (in production value alone), and fans can expect even more improvement on the next follow-up. Release dates are still tentative, but the brothers are candid about how the process has been thus far.
“Everything sounds closer to the mark of what we’re going for, and there’s even more of a retro feel,” says Chip. “A couple of the tracks are actually laid-back, and there’s a lot more space.”
“Our biggest criticism with Summer Gold was that it felt like song-after-song, without much room to move around,” says Chris. “Now that we’re more comfortable with our sound, there’s plenty of breathing room.”
To hear the rest of our interview with Heartracer, tune into this week’s episode of Discovery Corner.