Together in Electric Dreams: Same Eyes keep feeling fascination with '80s synth-pop on their debut album
There is a well-documented history of painters making music, from Miles Davis and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Gray) to Patti Smith and John Lurie (Lounge Lizards).
Less well-known is the history of house painters who make music, but Same Eyes is ready to join the story.
"Chad was painting my parent’s house right when I was graduating high school," says Alex Hughes of Chad Pratt, his partner in the Ann Arbor synth-pop duo. "He hired me and I have worked for him painting in the summers and on breaks since."
They started making music together as Same Eyes in summer 2019, with both members playing synths, Hughes on vocals and guitar, and Pratt programming the drums. The first fruits of the duo's efforts was the two-song single featuring "Cry for Us" and "Hawk," which came out March 20, 2020, a week after the world shut down for the pandemic. Those two songs plus six more are on Same Eyes' debut album, Parties to End.
There's a 23-year age difference between Hughes and Pratt, and when the former was "playing in basement bands at the Neutral Zone," the latter was a veteran of numerous Ann Arbor-area bands including Midwest Product, which released one of the first full-length releases on the Ghostly label when it was still based in town, and more recently Hydropark.
Hughes was born in 1998, a decade after synth-pop had its heyday, but Same Eyes' music is a picture-perfect continuation of the catchy, song-based electronic hits by the likes of The Human League, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, and Depeche Mode before Martin Gore decided he was a blues guitarist.
"I'm 45," Pratt says, "so in my mind some of the best music of the '80s was losing its edge by '85. I was a bit too young to fully grasp some of the good years, but I was also very aware of the feeling the music of the '80s was providing. That feeling never really went away for me. I just visited John Hughes' grave in Lake Forest, Illinois, because I'm a nerd like that, and as I was driving back to the city I realized that his movies had the biggest influence on me. His influence is more than any band of that period because his movies and the music he chose spoke directly to kids of that generation."
While Pratt introduced his bandmate to The Human League—"Dare and the track 'Seconds' in particular have had a big influence on me," says the Same Eyes singer—it was Hughes' dad who shaped his music education from mix CDs:
"They had a lot of new wave, '80s alternative like U2, Simple Minds, and The Smiths on them. Hearing The Killers on the radio circa Day & Age had a really big impact on me, too, and they’ve remained an influence. The first synth-pop I got really into was Depeche Mode. It was just something about the industrial sounds of their instruments and Dave Gahan’s voice that hooked me. From there it was just a natural progression of trying to find more and more bands that sounded like that."
Despite Same Eyes' synth-pop sound, Hughes cites indie-rock stalwarts Pavement for the vocals, The Smiths for the guitars, and New Order for the melodic bass lines. He also mentions Seekae's Alex Cameron, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, and Alvvays' Molly Rankin as influences on his singing, but on Same Eyes' Parties to End, Hughes' alternately emotional and deadpan baritone-leaning voice most recalls that of Future Islands' Samuel Herring and The Human League's Philip Oakey.
Hughes' lyrics are diaristic though sometimes impressionistic, such as "burning up in the automatic summer" on "I Work for You," and their raw sensitivity sometimes surprised Pratt when the two started making music remotely.
"I would not hear from him for a bit because he was away at school, and then he would send me amazing vocals and lyrics to an instrumental track that I had sent him first," Pratt says. "His lyrics were a peek into a very personal aspect of his life or imagination, and it was shocking and fascinating what was coming out of this young man."
"[M]ost of my lyrics are very stream of consciousness," Hughes says, mentioning New Order's Bernard Sumner, The Chameleons' Mark Burgess, and Parquet Courts' Andrew Savage as writers who "are really good at crafting both great lyrical and musical hooks. ... I always like songs that have a phrase that sticks in your head and makes you come back to it over and over again.
"I’ll generally start with a phrase or a vocal line and build out around that," Hughes says. "In terms of content, I suppose they all stem from some point or experience of my life but often end up becoming something totally their own. I like to write in a way that’s vague enough not to reveal a specific meaning but meaningful enough so that someone can find something in it and relate to it."
Backing Hughes' sung revelations are synth-soaked songs that grab your ear and won't let go. Just listen to the robotically funky bassline and stabbing keyboard melody on "Cry for Us" and you'll think you're hearing an amazing outtake from The Human League's smash Dare album—it's that good.
While Pratt and Hughes did the bulk of the music on Parties to End, they were assisted by local friends on every song, including contributions from Mike Dykehouse, Serge van der Voo, and Fred Thomas, who also did the cover-art collage.
Thomas and Pratt play together in Hydropark, a primarily instrumental quartet that grooves with a hypnotic pulse, propelled by the locked-in interplay between Pratt's drums and Jason Lymangrover's bass. They're an excellent rhythm section that ebbs and flows in real time, but with Same Eyes, Pratt programs the drums, using them more as timekeepers and letting the synth hooks and vocals do the heavy lifting.
"I'm an OK drummer, but I care very little about virtuosity," Pratt says. "I'm more into melody, the wholeness of a good song, and where that story can take you. I just came to the realization that I want to create what I love, and what I love is the sound of machines and a great melody that you can dance to. I grew up listening and witnessing musical technology change before my eyes, from the days of Midwest Product to practically everything that's currently on the radio. I also grew up near Detroit and Chicago, which has had a huge impact on what I find comforting or familiar. The short answer is that I also got sick of playing drums and I wanted to compose more. Drum machines or sampling are just other ways to create, and they're also ways to avoid waking up your family when your studio is in your basement."
Parties to End fulfills Pratt's desire to create "the wholeness of a good song" eight times over. Additionally, Same Eyes' dedication to terrific tunes is a small part of the continuing rehabilitation over the past 10 years of synth-pop being considered a legitimately artistic genre, not just a side-effect of having sweet, angular haircuts.
"I certainly think that there has been a large amount nostalgia recently surrounding the 1980s with Stranger Things and The Karate Kid remake and all," Hughes says. "There’s no market for it really now so I think that strips away the funny haircuts, but I think the artistry has always been apparent listening to those old Human League and Kraftwerk records."
"I think synth-pop has been cool for a bit now," Pratt says, "but I'm not quite sure why outside of the fact that we're all recycling everything at this point. However, I think synth-pop artists are all hoping to add a new spice here and there to make it our own. Once again, I'm following what I want to hear, basically acknowledging that this is the music for me and probably others as well."
But the shorthand description "synth-pop" is just one aspect of Same Eyes' sonic personality—the album's "Rushcutter" evokes the tropical guitar pop of Haircut 100 in the verses more than an electronic band—and especially when Pratt and Hughes compare the songs on Parties to End to what the duo is working on now.
"I would say that historically, a band's first effort is possibly their rawest form of expression, so that says something about the music on Parties to End," Pratt says. "We're already planning for our second record, and we're still not talking about where it's going. It already feels less like synth-pop and more something our own. I was listening to one of our most recent songs for the second album, and I asked Alex, 'What the hell is this?' We know that's a good question to ask. We are lucky enough to have collaborators like Fred Thomas and Mike Dykehouse on some of our songs, and they add their own touches to the mix. Their contributions also keep our music fresh and sounding less like two dudes in a basement who love the '80s."
"It has been really exciting to watch what we have stumbled upon as we find our style or whatever you want to call it," Hughes says. "It probably sounds arrogant but when my friends ask me about the record I say it's really great, but just wait for the next one."
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Same Eyes' "Parties to End" comes out January 22 and is available on vinyl and digitally from the duo's Bandcamp page.