Retrocity Loves Those 80’s Greaties

Retrocity is an eight member a cappella group devoted to 80’s music which formed in 1998.  The group has since expanded its repertoire to cover jazz, soul and funk, yet their heart still belongs to the 1980s. They previously released their debut album ‘Totally 80s A Cappella’ in 2006 and recently released their second full-length recording ‘Mixtape’. The group also offers professional vocal workshops and performances at venues and festivals around the world, including Panamania at the 2015 PanAm Games and the 2015 Beaches International Jazz Festival in Toronto.


I recently interviewed group members (and very accomplished performers, arrangers, etc.) Aaron Jensen and Dylan Bell via email about the group and its latest release.

Thank you both for taking the time to talk about Retrocity and the release of “Mixtape.”

You have been very busy and very successful with other vocal projects in recent years. What do you get out of Retrocity that you don’t get out of some of your other projects?

  • Retrocity has always been a friends-first, business-second ensemble, a welcome relief from some of our other projects. There are so many arrangers in the group, so many business minded folks, and so many organizers. It means the wheels don’t fall off. There’s never one single person at the helm. We trust each other’s core competencies so much that ANYONE can and will push the ball forward. Whether it’s with new charts, a new direction for our staging, or a new recording project – ideas are met 99% of the time with a resounding “SOUNDS GOOD!” from everyone else, and the sentiment is meant in all sincerity. We value that a lot.

How does Retrocity decide what 80’s music to cover? How does the popularity of the original song compare with factors like adaptable elements in the music, personal preferences, etc.?

  • If someone is passionate about an artist or a piece of music, they just jump on it. No discussion. The rest of the group is always happy to give new charts a spin. This allows our repertoire to reflect the personalities of each group member, and allows us to explore a wide array of eclectic artists. Each one of us has our favourite “eras” and genres within the music of the 80s, from 1982 pop/rock, to 1987 hair-metal, to 1989 dance. When it comes to choosing tunes for concerts – and recently for the album – we talk things out at length and rank our choices in a nerdy excel spreadsheet. We take a lot of things into account (division of solos, upbeat dance tunes vs. slow jams, overall vibe, etc.).

Pop music in the 80’s often had a uniquely “period” synth sound. When Retrocity formed, did the group have a discussion about how to replicate these sounds, meaning with electronics or pedals as compared with syllables and mouth sounds?

  • Translating synth syllables onto the page for the arranger, and off of the page for the singers, is always ridiculous fun. You inevitably sound like a cross between the Swedish Chef from the Muppets and that short creepy fellow who speaks backwards in Twin Peaks. We try to imitate whenever possible, rather than relying on effects.

Despite the use of some effects to replicate sounds like guitar or synth, the album retains a clearly vocal feel. What do you guys think about the growing trend of a cappella production pushing effects processing to the point where you cannot discern if a line was ever vocal?

  • You might be surprised to learn what sounds are created by our singers with little to no help from technical wizardry. We have some very skilled instrument imitators in our ranks. This said, says Aaron Jensen, I have no qualms with using effects here and there in recording and in live performance if it enhances the song. In my mind, it always comes down to asking, ‘what serves the music?’ I don’t care about purism in a cappella, I care first and foremost about musicianship, innovation, clarity, and “good feeling”. The growing trend that I have less patience for is the use technology to mask weak singing and boring ideas. If you want to use auto-tune as an effect, because that is the specific sound that you are going for, then all the power to you! As more tricks and effects become accessible I feel that that should expand musician’s resources, that there ought to be more diversity, and more experimentation. More often than not though, it seems that auto-tune and processing gives music a homogenous sound which gets boring real fast. There’s no substitute for straight up good technical singing and a spirit of fun and experimentation. [Dylan adds] All in all, I think the trend of going all-production, all-the-time is getting played-out, and it’s nice to bring back some of the human qualities of a cappella singing.

 I suppose this isn’t surprising considering your respective backgrounds, but the album has a subtle undertone of jazzy components in some of the arrangements. Do you think there is something about 80’s pop music that lends itself to this kind of stylistic approach?

  • The subtle jazz undertones speak more to the arrangers in the group, than the 1980s. If we sang mostly music from the 2000s (which Aaron likes to call “the aughts”), the 1990s or the 1970s, many of us would still bring jazz to the table as part of our musical palette. Many of us studied jazz, and continue to play jazz music in one form or another outside of the group.

Mixtape is very well-mixed but not as sonically pristine, in terms of tuning and pitch correction, as many modern a cappella releases. Was this a conscious decision by the group to avoid that kind of artificial sound or did it just end up this way?

  • It was very much a conscious decision. We all came up as singers in the days before auto-tuning: if you wanted to sound good, then you had to sing it right. We had a shared philosophy going in, that it was always better to do another take, than to “fix it in post.” In that Retrocity members (Art and Dylan) did a good number of our mixes, saying “fix it in post” would have gotten you cuffed in the ear. All these arrangements were based on live-performance charts, so we recorded much of the album in groups (as opposed to the sterile one-singer-at-a-time method). This allowed us to respond to each other live – to listen, and shape as an ensemble. You can hear that spontaneity and life in these mixes, and we love that. As mentioned before, there is no inherent problem with effects and auto-tune if these devices are chosen to create a specific sound. So often though, we feel that a cappella mixes are tuned and compressed within an inch of their lives. The result is like sugar candy – it gives you a quick buzz, but is light on substance. Some of our favourite moments on Mixtape are the most unaffected, raw, “imperfect” moments. That’s what life’s about. That’s what music is about.

How did you guys approach the creative process for ‘Mixtape’ differently from your debut album ‘Totally 80’s a cappella’?

  • The previous album was a completely different animal. A bit of a Strange Animal, if you will. Retrocity was approached by a label to record an album of 80s hits. It was recorded in a few sessions over a couple of weeks, and it was mixed by one of the record label’s people. As a result, while the arrangements and performances were ours, we felt like we had less ownership of the album’s overall sound. Our new album ‘Mixtape’ was very much a Retrocity project from beginning to end.
  • We did all of the tracking ourselves, and the mixes were all done by either members of the group, or else members of the Retrocity “family”. We took the time that we felt necessary to get the recording that we wanted. We spent a lot of time as a group, choosing the songs, and ultimately, working through mix notes. We didn’t stop mixing until we all gave the mixes the thumbs up. As a result, this album feels especially personal, and we’re really excited to have it out in the world!


Does Retrocity have any plans to perform outside of Canada?

  • Absolutely. Retrocity has performed at venues and festivals around the world including the honour of headlining at ‘The Swingle Singers’ curated London A Cappella Festival (UK) in 2013, and we are chomping at the bit to hit the road again! Keep an eye out on our Twitter, Facebook and website for updates!

Has the group ever jumped into a song from a different decade, either to mix things up or to surprise your audience?

  • Definitely. Two tracks from the album are from the 1970s: Pink Floyd’s “Money” and Queen’s “Killer Queen.” Retrocity has sung music by Bach, Ellington, contemporary tunes and just about anything in between (the total number of charts in our repertoire is 120, give or take). We often settle in the 1980s because that’s the music we listened to when we were growing up. We don’t limit ourselves to that decade necessarily, but it holds a special place in our hearts.

Thank you guys again for answering a few questions. Best of luck with “Mixtape” and we hope to see you in the States again soon!

You can purchase Mixtape on Bandcamp or iTunes, it is streaming on Spotify, and you learn more about Retrocity from their website, and find them on Facebook and Twitter as well.

1 Comment

  1. Aaron from Acaville   •  

    Dave, thanks for doing this interview with them – we play their tunes (from both albums) on our air, too, and I think they do a very fine job. I wonder if repertoire specialization – e.g., the 1980s – helps them distinguish themselves in a really clever way. As there are more and more polished a cappella groups out there, perhaps that kind of forced niche-yness is actually a leg up in getting attention and getting gigs.

    On a side note, Aaron Jensen is sure a busy guy! He’s a credit to the first name… :-)

    Well done on the piece.

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