[AltWire Interview] Bret Autrey of Blue Stahli and Sunset Neon

bret autrey

Known for a wonderfully eclectic approach musically, dabbling heavily in horror media, and having been an active member of the FiXT family for some time now, Blue Stahli and Sunset Neon are the brainchildren of Detroit electronic rock musician Bret Autrey.

Having garnered a widely dedicated following with Blue Stahli’s Blue Stahli, Antisleep series and The Devil, Bret Autrey expanded his repertoire even further by creating Sunset Neon, a synth-infused love letter to the 80s, debuting with 2017’s Starlight.

While in the process of gathering remixes for the highly-anticipated The Devil Remixes, Bret kindly spent some time chatting with us here at AltWire about his music and what lies in store for the Detroit producer/musician. Read more below!

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Hi Bret! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions! To kick things off, would you mind first introducing yourself to our readers and tell us a little about Blue Stahli and Sunset Neon?

Bret Autrey: Absolutely. I’m Bret who is both Blue Stahli and Sunset Neon. Each project, though wildly different, is just me. With Blue Stahli I do a multi-genre mix of electronic rock, sound designy cinematic weirdness, and full on electronic funkness (and yes, I know how cheesy I just made that sound. I embrace the hell out of being a living b-movie). Sunset Neon is more pop-oriented and is a mix of lo-fi chill 80s VHS beachy vibes, neon-tinted nu disco, and tongue in cheek bombastic power anthems.

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews the many tales of how you first came into learning and playing music, from the neighbouring cruise ship pianist to learning B.B King guitar licks, to eventually playing for a burlesque troupe (and your infamous hatred for the early VOXiS project). After so much exposure to such wonderfully diverse influences, would you say this has been a key factor at all in the eclectic nature of much of the Blue Stahli material?

Bret Autrey: 100%. And my hate of the VOXiS stuff is that age old artist thing of thinking everything you’ve made that’s more than two weeks old sucks sour frog ass. MOST of that is true, though some is exaggerated a smidge for comedic effect (like, maybe it doesn’t suck an entire sour frog ass…just 75% of one). Hell, I pulled up the old Darkeworld VOXiS stuff at one point and remembered how much I loved putting it all together in such a different way than I had been doing for previous Blue Stahli stuff. I missed that approach of just doing weirdo tracker stuff and dove headfirst into returning to my original musical creation methods! So even past stumbles (stumbles off a cliff, even) can inspire new exciting directions.

And also 100% to the fact that exposure to such wildly different experiences is a key factor to the multi-genre nature of Blue Stahli (and now Sunset Neon). I credit my mom for fostering that, because when I was a kid, she would introduce me to as much different cultural, musical, and artistic experiences as she was able to.

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Also on the subject of influences, you’ve been delightfully notorious at times for your love and inclusion of horror themes in your works, a particular favorite of mine being seeing you playing massive distortion-heavy guitar riffs while you stood in a paddling pool of blood in the ‘ULTRAnumb’ video. Would you mind talking about some of the horror media that plays its part in your creativity and style?

Bret Autrey: Horror, sci-fi, and comedy have always had a hold on me because I value escapism as a way to process bigger, uglier events. My draw to horror stuff is rooted in the fact that elements of those movies and media are freakishly cathartic when times are tough.  Something about matching the unpredictable chaos of what life can throw at you, with things that are artistically dark, or even just over the top fun in an almost-parody of those feelings, winds up being extremely therapeutic. Horror, like any other main genre of fiction, has so many different approaches and little sub-categories of how people interpret things.  I love that even with that, there’s something for everyone, and a lot of it can be varying approaches to dealing with life, all the way from being filtered through a comedic lens to surrealist or fully bleak. I’d say it’s definitely been some of the most healing stuff for me lately.

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: With so much experimentation and so many instruments that play their part in the Blue Stahli/Sunset Neon repertoire, is there a specific point in the writing process (or particular instrument) that you especially love working on?

Bret Autrey: I guess my favorite point is when I’m finding things to warp around and turn into synth-like things or alternate sonic material. There’s so many different textures and sources for sound and I’m mesmerized by what artists can do with just a cheap sampler and abusing fx. For me, it’s been simplifying the approach to make a more complex whole.  Reintroducing the humanity and chaos, while still having moments of precision. Making basic synthy things out of single-cycle waveforms or chopped up audio, filling a track with noisy chaos, and just generally not caring if it’s impressive to other producers or not. All I care about is making things that resonate with people emotionally while I’m still here.

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: On the flipside, you explained in a recent ‘Ask Blue Stahli’ the dreaded “Car Test”; was there a particular song that you found exceptionally frustrating during the writing process, resulting in numerous dreaded car tests?

Bret Autrey: The car test is absolutely when it’s key to not be driving in a region filled with the aforementioned cliffs that are easy to careen off of. Weirdly, the song that needed the most car test action was ‘Starlight’ from the debut Sunset Neon album of the same name.  That track is one that’s lo-fi on purpose, using sounds recorded on a cassette, dirtying things up, the whole nine. Thing is, there was definitely a specific feel of that lo-fi that I wanted to hit that I kept missing by a millimeter. That track wound up having 10 different mix versions before I finally nailed what I was after.

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Having had the chance to contribute many remixes for Celldweller and beyond, from the very first Remorse Code ‘Own Little World’ remix, is there one in particular that you hold especially dear for having worked on, and if so – why?

Bret Autrey: ‘Bed of Nails’, because that song had long been a part of my meditative long night drives, and I was trying to remake the feel of how those nights felt.  And ‘Humanarchy’ because I put that remix together in a time of personal chaos and it still somehow turned out exactly as I aimed.  Still like that one at the moment!

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Also on the subject of remixes, the recent announcement for The Devil Remixes is, indeed, the remix album we have been waiting for! Would you mind telling us a little about the journey that has led to this new spin on the album since the initial 2015 release?

Bret Autrey: It really began with just getting a few remixers to tackle some of these tracks.  Then as it went on, the label said “You know…if we just kept going a *little* bit farther, this could turn into an actual full remix album for The Devil.” I had always wanted to have that happen, and the timing worked out amazingly, as I was really not able to record or even be in the studio as much during the time it was coming together. So it fulfilled a dual role of getting some awesome reinterpretations by some really talented people, and help out with the fact that I was only able to be in the studio in sporadic chunks, finishing remixes for other people and getting the next Blue Stahli track done.

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: In the wake of The Devil Remixes announcement, and teasing fans with snippets of guitar riffs etc. for new Blue Stahli material, you had previously mentioned aiming for “heavy music” and “melodies that get stuck in your head” as a key sound for The Devil. Would you mind offering a sneak peek into the mindset that has perhaps played into what comes next for Blue Stahli?

Bret Autrey: When I began even thinking about the new Blue Stahli record, there were already enough demos that the entire thing was laid out musically. So those demos were sitting there waiting to be addressed and turned into whatever new mutation. Then I took a few months and made the Sunset Neon album. Immediately after finishing the last Sunset Neon song, I got word that my mother had been taken to the ER and life completely changed from that point on. Rushed to grab the next standby flight, and she began her fight against an aggressive terminal cancer that currently has no cure. Just fighting for a little extra time, and “a little” is what we got. I was taking care of her a lot of the time, and interfacing with the multitude of docs and potential treatments/providers/solutions in any other waking minute. I’d be able to hit a remix or record bits of a track here or there (which had to be done, since it’s the only way I make a living and keep a roof up), but most of my time was in caregiver mode trying to give her the best possible remaining time against an impossible foe. A lot of traveling back and forth across the desert from the state I live in to the state she resided in. Long drives with empty stretches and mountainous expanse gave a lot of time to have vocal lines and lyric shards bounce around in my head. Same for the times that things were so chaotic with zero sleep, that oftentimes, bits of song ideas would float in during the absolute worst of it. Lyrics and vocal melodies for the first new song from this upcoming record were definitely made in the thick of it. Just by the nature of how some of these ideas hit, pushed them forward past the already-made demos and now they’re all swirling around together, so who knows what kind of weird blend this is all going to make.  During the long bout of her final fight with this, I’d get back from the hospital late at night and write via the beat up old piano at her house, and an acoustic guitar that a friend loaned me, so I’m sure all of that will wind up represented. Right now, there’s a mix of tracks that are big heavy guitar riffs and glitchy chaotic noisescapes, and strange tracks whose heaviness isn’t in the walls of distortion, but rather the atmosphere and subtle dread.  All of this with melodic vocals because there’s a million bands who just scream, and I’m more fascinated by the juxtaposition of melody and noise. This past road through the end of my mother’s life has had some additional tragedies along the way with not a lot of time to process any of it, so I think being able to make some noise with guitars and drum machines is long overdue.

[Editorial Note: We here at AltWire would like to just take a moment to thank Bret for such a beautifully personal response, and offer him our deepest condolences.]

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Your collaboration with Klayton throughout the Celldweller live shows was definitely an easy highlight for a lot of long-time fans, have you thought at all about taking Blue Stahli/Sunset Neon on the road? Perhaps trading places and Klayton playing additional instrumental work while you tackle vocals?

Bret Autrey: That was definitely a highlight for me as well! Playing the songs and putting the work into the production of the show was one thing, but the most amazing is meeting everyone after the show and getting to thank people personally for supporting each of us. It truly means a lot and its heaven for me to be able to perform for the people who dig it. I do have some ideas about taking Blue Stahli live (still working out what Sunset Neon would look like), and would love to. The issue is time to work out and fund the actual show. Especially since I’m now getting back into the studio to work on new Blue Stahli material (and there will be some new Sunset Neon tracks coming along as well). It’s basically that age-old answer of “someday” and I’m looking forward to when that eventually happens in whatever capacity.

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: The FiXT family seems to have an amazing time working together – just for fun, are there any particularly fond or entertaining memories that come to mind, having been part of the family for some time now?

Bret Autrey: Truth. The people who work at FiXT are all fantastic and share a common love of giving a shot to music that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else. It’s been a while since we’ve been in the same place, but I would have to say that a simple thing like gathering around for a foul-mouthed BBQ was always a fave. Just breaking out of the day to day for good food and rough jokes is awesome.

AltWire [Mark Stoneman]: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us here at AltWire! On a final note was there anything else you would like to add, either to fans of your music or to our readers? 

Bret Autrey: And thanks very much for the opportunity!  I guess I mainly want to just thank people for being supportive and for being patient while I get some other stuff taken care of and am starting to get back into the studio on the regular. I can’t wait to make more Blue Stahli for your long night drives and more Sunset Neon for your hazy VHS action.

Check out Blue Stahli’s ‘ULTRAnumb’ video here!:

Missed Bret’s newest project? Check out the official lyric video for Sunset Neon’s ‘Got You’ here!:

About the author

M. Stoneman

"If you combine horror movies, rock music and Silent Hill, I'm the result: a British writer who will likely gush over guitar solos and ambient horror game soundtracks.”
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