Unleashing the Cyberpunk Beat: An EXCLUSIVE Interview with X-RL7's Creator, MIKE EVANS!
Today, we have the privilege of sitting down with the visionary artist behind the animated web-series X-RL7, Mike Evans , a fusion of cyberpunk aesthetics and the pulsating beats of electronic-rock. With its distinctive retro-gaming inspired animation and a roster of real-world musician guest stars, X-RL7 has become a cult sensation in the online and electronic-rock communities.
Each episode, ranging from 5 to 10 minutes, takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the band's struggles in the music industry, their intricate social lives, and their cyberpunk universe, all while treating us to captivating music videos. Drawing inspiration from electronic, rock, and metal legends such as Celldweller, Linkin Park, and Nine Inch Nails, the show's music has transcended its digital confines, amassing close to 14,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and earning praise from music critics at Metal Injection, Regen Mag, and the WH Times.
Indie Boulevard has a unique opportunity to meet with Mike Evans and learn more about his ambitious project.
IB: Hello MIKE:, thank you for taking the time to come to Indie Boulevard and have a chat with us. How did you come up with the idea of combining cyberpunk, electronic-rock, and retro-gaming in X-RL7, and what inspired you to create this unique blend?
MIKE: Hello! It came from a love of all these areas and naturally the project developed into an amalgamation of my various passions! Growing up, the aesthetic of cyberpunk captured my imagination ever since discovering a 90's anime called Cyber City OEDO 808. Gaming-wise, I was brought up on the classic games, particularly adventure games so pixel art has a special place in my heart. As well as having a nostalgic quality, it's a very unique art style and encourages the viewer to use their imagination filling in the scenes. And music is a very big thing in my life. There's been movies and series like Scott Pilgrim, Metalocalypse, Nana and others based on a single fictional band with original music written for them. I wanted to put my own stamp on this, writing songs for various fictional characters exploring their perspectives and styles. Throw in some comedy and cultural commentary and you have X-RL7.
IB: X-RL7 features real-world musician guest stars. Can you share some interesting anecdotes or experiences you had while working with these musicians?
MIKE: Every time working with an artist is it's own experience but one highlight which comes to mind is working with electro-rock maestro Blue Stahli. His work has truly been an inspiration and has shaped my songwriting for years so when I saw that he was newly independent, I impulsively sent an email about the series. Usually I will have a story idea or concept in mind but this time, I had nothing at all prepared. A week and a half or so went by, it had slipped my mind when I heard back that there was interest! Riding the excitement of this possibility, I sparked into action and wrote an episode script and a song demo in about 5 days and long story short, Bret now voices the eccentric character 'Ghost XD' in the X-RL7 universe and appears on one of our most popular songs "The Show". It was a super humbling experience and I can't say enough good things about Bret and his partner/manager Priya - it's great to discover one of your favourite artists is a genuinely great person as well.
Typically when I write songs, I have a featured artist in mind and write to their strengths, tailoring the song to qualities I'd like to highlight. If a vocalist has a gnarly scream, let's showcase that. If they have a particular range or technique that's interesting, let's write to that. This usually works out but there have been a couple of times where the vocalist dropped out, leaving me to find a replacement vocalist who has some of the same strengths. The song "Information" is a song I wrote without a particular vocalist in my mind.. or rather there was someone I was speaking to and after he disappeared, I just wrote the song as if I was one who I would be singing the final. Which presented the challenges of having to find a vocalist who could fit the bill and compliment the song. Somewhat synchronistically, industrial act Imperative Reaction had released a new album after some years of silence and it was my first introduction to them. I was blown away by Ted Phelp's distinctive, passionate voice and asked if he'd like to be involved and oh boy, he absolutely killed it on the song and voice acting as the character. I'm very blessed to work with many amazing people in this project.
IB: X-RL7 explores themes such as the impact of social media and the battle between censorship and free speech. How do you balance these thought-provoking themes with the show's entertaining and cyberpunk elements?
MIKE: Unlike much modern media, I operate from the idea that the entertainment should come first. Whatever themes are expressed in the piece, it needs to be enjoyable overall. I also try to keep things somewhat allegorical and not too on the nose. A trait of the cyberpunk genre is the idea of a repressive dystopia with corporations at the helm so themes of freedom of speech go hand in hand. Whilst more technologically advanced than our own reality, I view X-RL7 as almost a parallel reality to our own - not too far removed from things happening today, which makes it easy to insert the commentary. It helps that the lead character Omega is all about freedom of speech and critical thinking right from episode 1 so it's baked into the series without having to be pointed at all the time.
IB: Could you tell us more about the creative process of transitioning X-RL7 from a point-and-click adventure game concept to a web series? What challenges did you face during this transformation?
MIKE: The original idea of X-RL7 was a point and click adventure in homage to those classic games of the 80's and 90's - thus the pixel art visual style! When the decision was made to make it an animated series instead, there was a learning curve. One challenge was the art itself! Typically with animation, the various drawings are done inside the animation program itself - however the software I use (Toonboom Harmony) does not lend itself kindly to pixel art. This meant all the art needs to be produced separately outside of Toonboom and imported in. There were a few more technical kinks to work along the way but fortunately it's all in a good place now. It feels better to me as a webseries though one constant challenge is animation does take a lot of work. Just a few seconds of what's on screen can take hours to produce so being able to stay motivated and productive, and balance this with other life responsibilities, is a whole thing on it's own.
IB: X-RL7 seems to have built a strong community of viewers and musicians. How has this community contributed to the development and success of the series, and what does it mean to you as a creator?
MIKE: Absolutely, we have an amazing community and it's extremely humbling. When I take a step back to reflect, it really is moving how many fantastic musicians have lent their time and voices to be a part of the X-RL7 universe and the incredible viewership and Patreon supporters. I am very grateful that so many people are invested in our pixelated world and it definitely helps keep me motivated.
IB: X-RL7 reflects upon the current industry landscape and society. Can you share some specific instances from the series where these reflections are evident, and what message do you hope viewers take away from them?
MIKE: Ultimately a big message is to think for yourself and not just accept reality as it is presented, even if you believe it is from a trusted source. Taking a step back, assessing the information independently and making up your own mind. Critical thinking. There are a lot of things going on in the world today where various forms of a greater good are used as a smoke screen for things which are definitely NOT so good, often the antithesis of the good they claim to be seeking. On that note, if the cultural narrative is that you shouldn't question something... then that's the thing you should be questioning most of all. If someone is labelled with a stigmatic slur because they are questioning something, that usually means the person throwing this label has thin ground to support their position and is resorting to attacking an individual's character rather than facts. There's echoes of things like this in the first episode of the series where X-RL7 singer Omega challenges some information and is targeted for cancellation.
IB: With the show's popularity in the online and electronic-rock spaces, do you have plans to expand the X-RL7 universe beyond the web series, such as merchandise or live events?
MIKE: Funnily enough, I've spoken to Mikey AlterRed who plays the lead baddie of the show - The Duke, a Bowie-esque industry mogul - a few times about the potential of a live outing. With featured artists all over the globe, shy of a big spectacle where we try them getting them together all in one place, the most practical possibility is a live band version of the project. It's not in my immediate priorities right now but it's definitely something we have our eye on. And merchandise? Absolutely, I've been a bit slow off the mark on arranging that one!
IB: Can you give us a sneak peek or tease any upcoming developments, episodes, or collaborations we can look forward to in the world of X-RL7?
MIKE: The X-RL7 Youtube channel has many side series to keep content flowing in between main releases and to provide different insights into the world of the show. One recent side series is called X-RL7 Bits which leans more in to the cultural commentary in which I've started expanding the cast to include social commentators as well as musicians. The most recent instalment recently dropped featuring commentators Gothix, Michelle of Force Of Light, Comix Division and more exploring the modern manifestation of the "strong female character" in cinema. I can say that the next main episode has a pretty riff-heavy track but I'll keep the features as a surprise for now :)
IB: X-RL7 explores the blurred lines between reality and fabricated personas, especially in the age of social media. How do you think the series encourages viewers to reflect on their own online identities and the personas they project in the digital world?
MIKE: Tying into the idea of not taking things at face value, we all present our online brand - carefully curating a specific image of ourselves of cherry picked moments, usually to create the impressions that our lives are much more colourful and eventful then they are. It's very easy to compete and compare ourselves to others and think they have it better or are superior in some way but it's not a fair comparison. For years models have been photoshopped, now it's instagram models filtering and touching up their assets, musicians heavily editing their music, influencers perpetuating their brand image. I would hope the show might encourage viewers to take the pressure off themselves with their own online avatars and have a healthy amount of skepticism with how others present themselves. We live in a world of illusion, you could say!
IB: And the last question. X-RL7's cyberpunk setting is known for its neon-lit, futuristic cityscapes. If you had to design a neon billboard to promote the show, what outrageous and eye-catching slogan or image would you put on it?
MIKE: I'd probably use one of my favourite quotes from the series from the X-RL7 band manager character Alfie regarding his former lover and rival band manager - "Razor spread lies about me through the industry.. Just like he spreads his legs!"