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Into the Neon Darkness: An Interview with Synthwave Artist Red Marker

Mark Millen

Mark Millen


An Interview with Synthwave Artist Red Marker

by Nicholas Diak


A veteran of the trance scene, Red Marker is a newly transitioned act to the burgeoning retrowave genre, joining the ranks of Perturbator and Carpenter Brut creating eighties-inspired cinematic electronic music. Based out of Belfast, this synthwave act has just released its debut, Accelerator, via digital and (soon) cassette formats by the Karate King Records label. Red Marker was gracious enough to talk about his debut in personable detail.


Heathen Harvest: What’s the story behind your moniker “Red Marker”?

Mark Millen: The Red Marker moniker came about through my love of space and video games, and is an homage to one of my favorite gaming franchises, Dead Space. In the second and third games, the Red Marker artifacts are a man-made version, based on the original Black Marker from the first game. Since my music is man-made and draws some inspiration from eighties music, I felt it was a nice connection for me personally.

HH: Prior to Red Marker, what other projects did you spearhead? What other outfits had you collaborated with?

MM: Previously I produced mostly trance, progressive trance, and house under my Neon Tetra and Spectral Shift monikers, but without any real significance or success so to speak. It was only when I found the retro scene did things begin to gather pace. But with the retro scene, personas and graphic artwork tend to be just as important as the music itself, so I had to reinvent my brand under the Red Marker guise.

HH: Expound a bit more about the visual element of the synthwave scene, the art, and the personas. You mention this is just as important as the music: Can you elaborate?

MM: It is a brand. The vast majority of us have a certain style of artwork, fonts for our text, and designed logos, that are all part of our artistic branding. The eighties as an era had a certain style to it, as most decades do, but having a certain aesthetic and styling helps to reinforce that nostalgia that we hold dear and that draws us to the more retro side of things. So, having that artwork in combination with the music goes as a package. Music needs to be heard to get a vibe or feeling from it, but having the artwork can instantly give you an eighties vibe before you even press play.

HH: You’re from Belfast: Is there an active retrowave scene in that city, and, if so, what is it like?

MM: I am from Belfast, but there is little to no scene here at all, or if there is one, I am not aware of it. Belfast tends to be a city of more commercial-focused clubs and live music.

HH: Since Belfast is without the synthwave scene, that means you are finding your success or audience more internationally, yes? Where has been the greatest feedback to your music been coming from?

MM: Yes, a large portion of my fanbase is from the United States, by quite a large margin, followed by the United Kingdom and Russia. My music is spread across the globe, from North and South America, Europe, Australia, Asia, India, even in the Middle East and Africa, which is astounding and quite overwhelming. I am incredibly grateful to anyone who has taken the time to listen to my work.

HH: How were you able to gain momentum in the retro scene? Is it a more accepting and open scene, or is it something else?

MM: I think my track ‘DMC 12 Gauge’ being on NewRetroWave‘s YouTube channel suddenly thrust me forwards, and has been and continues to be incredibly well-received, especially for an unknown newcomer. To date, it is still my most popular track, and there will be followups to that track—possibly an EP. I have found it to be mostly a welcoming and friendly community, and I think everybody just wants good music, though it does tend to be mostly other artists supporting each other for what we love.



HH: What do you think makes Red Marker different than other synthwave outfits currently out there?

MM: That is a good question, and one that I am not entirely sure of the answer for. I do feel that I have a sound or style of my own, for better or worse. That said, my music is inspired by the sounds of the eighties but also heavily inspired by my twenty-year love affair with uplifting and melodic trance. I love to combine them both to hopefully evoke thought, feeling, and emotion in others as it does in me.

HH: What sort of elements or characteristics from your background as a trance musician were you able to incorporate into Red Marker? How compatible are the two genres?

MM: Personally, I think that they are very compatible and do share certain similarities. What drew me to trance was the atmosphere and melodic content, those big pads and chords, dreamy arpeggios, etc. It’s music that you can get lost in that evokes feeling and magic moments on a dance floor. This is something I have tried to carry over into my retro work. I try to build an atmosphere into my tracks, to convey emotion, and hopefully capture the listener’s imagination—or try to, at least.

HH: What are you hoping to accomplish with Accelerator?

MM: I would like Accelerator to make people feel, to draw emotion. All music needs emotion. I turned to making music as a way to help me cope with long-term physical and mental illness, and this album has all of me in it. All track names have a reason behind them, and each track was created through different thoughts and emotions during tough times. If my music can help just one person through some hardship in their personal life, then for me it will have been worth every moment I spent creating it.

HH: What songs in Accelerator would you feel comfortable talking about in regards to their meaning and relationship to you?

MM: I feel comfortable discussing all of them and my illness in general. I began producing music as a way to try and cope with long-term illness, as a way to fill my time of being trapped, not only in a house but trapped inside my own mind, and to give myself a sense of purpose again. I had to face up to the illness, to try and better understand what my problems are and how best to overcome them, and the album is my own path and experience of a twelve-year battle, that is sadly far from over yet.

‘Lonely Path’ is the start of my own personal journey, and although I have the support of my family, it is a road that I must travel, and often that path can be incredibly lonely and you often feel isolated. Even with the company of others you can often feel alone. Mental illness is an internal battle that doesn’t always show itself to others, so the music I felt had to be something somber and melancholic to reflect the ‘Lonely Path’.

‘Fading Lights’ is that descent into darkness, as things gradually get worse, all the while you hope that it will all quickly change and turn around, and you can overcome things quickly. You have two sides: You have your former self, and you have this new side of illness that is gradually consuming all that you used to be which gradually fades and extinguishes the light of that former self. So, I tried to have a combination of darker progressive elements in the track but also lighter melodic elements that represent both sides.

‘Distant Horizon’ is that moment when I plateaued and stopped falling deeper into illness, when I could still see my former self that was off in the distance. That sparked the hope that I could still turn this around and began to move towards that distant horizon, where better times lay beyond. I wanted this track to have more upbeat, energetic elements and feeling of movement and purpose.

‘Into the Void’  is after so much hard work and slowly making progress, gaining ground and winning my battle, suddenly came a massive relapse. I dropped into a free fall, gaining pace as I fell deeper and deeper into a vast nothingness. I was completely consumed by illness, both mental and physical, and swallowed by darkness, by that void. So, the track had to have dark elements, dark droning sub pads, cascading arpeggios, a feeling of moving downwards.

‘The Dark Within’ is that sheer raw anger, after falling so far and hitting rock bottom. Being lost in despair, broken, and empty, something awoke internally: a deep-seeded rage—but a rage against myself for falling so far, for not acting, for allowing myself to be consumed and knocked down. That rage drove me to fight back, to pick myself up, to take every hit that may knock me back but will never again knock me down, and never make me quit. I wanted the track to be dark but also aggressive and energetic. The intro has the dark drone pads, the haunting scream FX, the bass stabs that are chilling and menacing. Then you have the arpeggio that is the spark, followed by the driving bass that builds into the track picking up, that is representative of that moment I picked myself up and decided to fight.

‘Accelerator’ is the hope returning, the moving forward again, to have purpose and belief back but also a desire to achieve something, even if I had lost so much—to find a way to progress. I wanted this track to be uplifting and energetic, to be hopeful and to move forward, but to be not too light as it is very much a precarious path that is easy to stumble upon.

‘Daylight Comes’ is that somber realization and acceptance that after twelve years, this is a battle for the rest of my life. I will be fighting this illness every day; there will be no quick fix, no switch nor pill that will make everything better—just sheer grit, determination, and never giving up. This is the long haul, so I wanted a track that was very somber to reflect that realization but also that contained some energy. Acceptance is not giving up; it is a continual move forward.

HH: There’s a lack of vocals and sampling from films and video games on Accelerator. Will Red Marker remain instrumental only, or will these be aspects to explore later on?

MM: Actually, my track ‘Mercy Is for the Weak’ for the Bulletmoon: Music of the Ninja compilation out on Deep Web Music has a well-known movie sample as part of the track. I felt with Accelerator it was more about saying something via instrumentation, and no track needed vocals, though vocal tracks are something that I would like to produce in the future when the project is right.

HH: There’s something very eighties Italian giallo about the cover art of Accelerator. Was this piece selected or designed by you or Karate King?  How do you feel it ties in with the contents of your album proper?

MM: That artwork was created by the wonderful Karate King, though you would need to ask him on his design choices for this piece, though personally I feel it ties in well with the emotion in the music, but also to me as a person and artist. The female figurehead has a somber, melancholic, distant expression all while retaining a certain spark of something deeper in her eye, which suggests that there is so much more that we do not get to see. That translates incredibly well to my own life; few people know what I have gone through and continue to go through in my daily struggle with illness, but then I would say that is true of everyone. We rarely see beneath the surface.

HH: Many synthwave bands draw heavy inspiration from eighties pop culture. What specific films, television shows, comics, games, other bands, etc., would you say that you actively culled inspiration from and leveraged in Accelerator?

MM: I’m a huge fan of science-fiction, with James Cameron‘s 1986 Aliens film being my favorite movie of all time. I am a huge A Flock of Seagulls fan, but I don’t think I drew inspiration from anything other than my own emotions and how I was feeling at the time. With this album, it was more my own personal emotional journey to this point in time, so I feel I drew much more from my own personal experiences over the last twelve years battling illness.

Red Marker

Red Marker

HH: As a film and video game fan, what movies or games would you say pair well with your music?

MM: I’m not so sure my music would fit a specific movie or game per se. I think I have different tracks that could fit many different movies or games. My music, I feel, tends to be more pliable and less focused on a specific role. I think that would be different if I was writing a piece of music for a specific project or scene; then I would get a direction and flavor from the movie or game that would then dictate the direction the music would go. But my tracks all come from just my own feelings and my own direction, so they tend to be of a broader scope and quite a bit more unpredictable than other artists.

HH: What is your impression of the synthwave genre as it finds outlet in other mediums, such as appearing video games like Hotline Miami to television shows like Stranger Things?

MM: There has been an explosion in the number of Stranger Things inspired projects springing up of late, both graphical and musical in nature, both in the scene and in mainstream media, though I am not so sure that it is going to increase interest in the genre as a whole. I very much feel that when something gains sudden popularity, in this case Stranger Things, it is only the series and music from the series that people are talking about, not synthwave or the retro scene as a whole. I am all for anything that gets great music to more people’s ears, however.

HH: After Accelerator, what are your next plans with Red Marker?

MM: A much-needed break! [laughs] I do have quite a few ideas of projects to come, album and EP ideas, as well as wanting to improve as an artist, both in terms of melodic content but also in production values as well. Though, for the immediate future, I am just taking a much-needed rest to recharge the batteries and to make some changes both personally and professionally. That hopefully will allow me to be not only better physically and mentally, but also to be able to create better, more polished music, and to be able to be more productive and consistent.

HH: Thank you for the interview!  Do you have any final words or thoughts?

MM: Yes, I would like to thank my son, Sam, for being the reason I keep fighting. I would like to thank my mum for her unyielding support that I can never hope to repay, and I would be lost without her. I would like to thank Kirsty Fielding for all her help getting the music off the ground. I would like to thank the wonderful Karate King Records for their support, help, and belief in me. I would like to also thank everybody that has taken the time to listen to my music. I appreciate your support and can’t express just what that means to me. Lastly, I would like to thank Louise Downey for being there and supporting me through thick and very thin.

Red Marker | Karate King Records