Whilst scouring Bandcamp for new music, I stumbled across The Night Wars ‘Cardiac Cats’, a fantastic piece of ambient electronic futurism (review coming soon). I was unfamiliar with the label, Hacktivism, so I did some delving. What I discovered was a solid label with a varied yet cohesive output, and a strong emphasis on low-budget 80’s and 90’s futurism aesthetics and forgotten formats. Naturally, I had to get in touch to find out more. Below is an interview with label head, Jake.
Would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about Hacktivism Records? History, ethos and anything else you feel to be relevant would be great.
Yeah, my name is Jake Mervyn and I am a really normal guy, I am 25 and recently graduated with a degree in business and film studies. I look like your average skateboarder and I’m really passionate about all of the things that I consume via the media. Constant media consumption made me want to start my own media company. I have always loved cyberpunk and was born around the era when those things were being pushed to the forefront with movies like Hackers, The Matrix, Demolition Man, The Terminators. Seeing those things when I was a little kid made me want to dig deeper into the sub-genre and find the gems.
When I decided I wanted to start a cassette and dead media label I kind of put up several ideas in my mind; I have always kind of thought it was a joke that I have a degree in business, because I hate mostly every aspect of business. With that business hatred I kind of knew that I had to make the leader of Hacktivism a corporate power and money hungry scum. Then I was browsing through my computer and realized that I had captured all of these great screenshots from these straight to video cyberpunk movies from the late 80s/early 90s and then it was settled. I wanted to take that attitude and slight cheesiness from those films and bring them to the cassette world. I had heard the term Hacktivism in an IT class I had in college and always loved the idea of a rogue hacker out to defend the greater good.
From there my friend Mike Sears designed the logo for me and I got to work creating an aesthetic with Photoshop glitches and these old pictures I had saved. That was in September of 2014, the label has been through a lot of changes in that small amount of time though.
A lot of your releases are quite forward-thinking sound-wise, yet cover a broad spectrum of styles. It’s strangely cohesive, given the wide variety of sounds on offer. When you are reviewing demo submissions, are there certain elements that you look for?
I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me something like this, thank you! I have a very broad spectrum of music that I am in love with, there are several sub-genres that come to mind; dream-pop, twee-pop, shoegaze, ambient-pop, vaporwave, ambient-electronic, emo-violence, the small, small niche where indie-pop and emo meet. Since I love so much, it was really hard for me to decide what I wanted the label to focus on, when I got submissions I would just say “do I like this” or “do I not like this” I wouldn’t really concern myself with trying to make the label fit into a single genre. I think the reason that there is a cohesiveness to it is because it is stuff I like a lot, if that makes any sense at all. I have always loved things with a “dreamy sound” so I try and find things with those elements. Since starting the label I have had some really bad experiences with “bands” and lo-fi acts so I’m no longer releasing stuff like that. Now when I search through submissions and the swampland that is bandcamp, I search for things on the dreamy side of electronic. I really think that is a good place where Hacktivism fits. I was very lucky to work with the last few artists that I have. They are exactly what I imagine when I think of the label.
Aesthetics play a bit part in Hacktivism. Whilst you employ a lot of retro imagery, it’s not necessarily the type of retro normally associated with futurism or cyberpunk. Can you tell us a bit about this?
Yeah, I would definitely say that the futurism is downplayed. I think this is because the imagery I source from is such low-budget futurism that came about in the early 90s. A lot of the imagery you see is from films I found via Cinemageddon, a private torrent site that introduced me to a lot of cool stuff. Sometimes I can’t believe the films can actually exist, but again it is cool to think how these silly films meant so much to the filmmakers. I’m sure they played a huge part in someones life at some point. A lot of them were straight to VHS or even were soft-core porn. But that low budget futurism almost seems to be more exact to me. I don’t really envision some Steven Spielberg-esque future where everything is glitzy and clean and super high tech. I kind of imagine it more like people walking around with silly VR masks and maybe the fashion trends become a bit more minimal as well as building designs. Some of the movies I source from often are Overdrawn At The Memory Bank, Cybertech P.D., Cyborg Cop Trilogy, American Cyborg: Steel Warrior, as well as a bunch of others. Some of these that actually moved me were Automatic, Death Machine, and The Tower. I would consider those three some seriously underrated gems.
A lot of times I will also search through digital back catalogs of computing magazines. There is a lot of amazing imagery in there that I feel is untapped. I’m more of a collage artist and I’m not so good at producing my own content. I do put a lot of work into making the imagery the way I want but I generally don’t start from scratch. You may not I have an affinity for lit up super buildings at night, explosions, and the way pixels blur when they are blown up too big.
There has been a definite rise in the production of cassettes and VHS in recent years. On the website you discuss and encourage obsolete formats, and have worked with cassette and floppy disk. Are there any plans to branch into other formats? I notice you’d like to do VHS, for example.
I would love to do things on VHS and have had several projects in the works that have fallen through. I tried really hard to get the floppy disk thing going but had very little interest shown in it. I have a ton of floppy disks at home in all these see-through and cool colors but can never find projects to use them. I really wanted to a minidisc release (my favorite of the obsolete formats) but people just won’t buy it, so it is hard for me to want to produce it. I plan to release my own music (ambient-pop vocaloid https://eicvirtual7inch.bandcamp.com/album/eicv7-no-106) via MD soon.
It has been really hard to get interest in the old formats. I am set up to do almost any format but I think people just see it as a gimmick because they can’t easily play it. I kind of forget that I am one of few people with a minidisc player. Cassettes are really the only thing that I have had success with.
Nostalgia appears to play a large part in the Hacktivism Records look, as we’ve discussed, but I wonder how much you feel nostalgia impacts on potential futures? For example, look at the amount of 80’s and 90’s cartoons that are being rebooted for a modern youth audience, or developments of classic sci-fi ideas that are now becoming reality (hoverboards, for one). The same could be said for genres like Vaporwave too. Is nostalgia important when we consider the future?
I absolutely think that nostalgia plays a huge part in the future. You spoke of hoverboards, what if there was no idea of hoverboards in the first place. What if every person hadn’t seen the hoverboard in Back to the Future? Nostalgia for those scenes in that movie are driving forces for people developing stuff like that today. I would be baffled to meet the developers of the current hoverboards and find that they didn’t love those scenes in back to the future, or that they at least didn’t think the idea was cool.
I personally am very nostalgic of Virtual Reality. I think the idea of it is so cool, and I loved how it was used in movies like Arcade and Johnny Mnemonic. I thought that was cool so now I am working for a company who works for a VR company in sales. If I hadn’t of thought that VR was so cool when I was a kid I probably wouldn’t be as interested in it today.
You could also consider some of the real life foreshadowing that occurs in cyberpunk films. Take the movie The 6th Day for example; we see driver-less cars, holographic VR sex machines as well as the whole general premise of cloning. All things that we seem very close to in our current environment.
As for Vaporwave, I think vaporwave is nostalgic of Momoko Kikuchi.
It looks like you have quite an interest in film, particularly cult and art films. Can I ask what your favourite cyberpunk or cyberpunk related works are, particularly if there are any that fall outside of the norm?
I am definitely a film fetishist. I am a filmmaker first and foremost. My favorite movie of all time is Terminator 2, the romance of man and machine brings me to tears nearly every time.
Some of my lesser known favorite movies include:
Automatic, Death Machine, The Tower, The films of Sogo Ishii; Crazy Thunder Road and Burst City, Macross Plus, Arcade, Liquid Sky, Vibrations, Nemesis, Heatseeker. A lot of these fall into loose categories of cyberpunk.
Here is a list on Letterboxd that I love: http://letterboxd.com/wormwould/list/sci-action-circa-90s/
I also love cyberpunk gaming a lot, my favorites are Snatcher, System Shock 1, Mirrors Edge, Rez.
The release of Opaline’s “Open Source” was a big break for us, the release after that The Night Wars “Cardiac Cats”, an insanely good electronica-ambient album has only sold a few copies, and I’m really hoping that one catches on, it is too good. There is a new release coming out Friday 4/29 by Underwater Escape From The Black Hole, it’s available for pre-order here: https://hacktivismrecords.bandcamp.com/album/precognition-2
I really love the label and plan to keep it going until I can’t anymore! It’s a big part of who I am. In the near future I hope to do more alternative vocaloid releases. I feel like that is a huge untapped area for dream pop and ambient pop. I would really like to find some artists like that. I would also like to sell some custom made USB floppy disk readers and possibly make some shirts. I’ve also toyed with the notion of starting a netlabel which would be a sister label to Hacktivism with a similar but more business-like aesthetic called Technical Jargon. I would love to hear the readers thoughts on that one!
For Hacktivism Records official website: https://hacktivismrecs.com/
For Hacktivism Records Bandcamp: https://hacktivismrecords.bandcamp.com/merch