Synth wizard Jon Schoepke didn't start out rocking a vocoder or tickling the electronic ivories. He wanted to be a guitar god, spending days at a time attached to an amp, experimenting with picks and pedals. He became so engrossed with hard and gloomy rock that his parents began to worry.
"In high school, I drove them nuts playing AC/DC and Nirvana," recalls the cofounder of local electro-rock quartet Ridley. "It wasn't until I moved to Madison that I got interested in the tech side of things: keyboards, sequencing, drum-like samples."
Ridley's seeds were sown long before Schoepke made Mad City his home. They began germinating in a small paper-mill town near Wausau, where he and schoolmate Billy Morehouse formed a punk band that became a metal band, then broke up around 2003. Schoepke enrolled at Madison Media Institute while Morehouse packed up his guitar and headed to Minneapolis. When they reunited in 2007, both musicians' tastes had been transformed.
Schoepke and Morehouse still owned plenty of punk and metal albums, but both were surfing the electronica wave that had crashed onto rock 'n' roll's shores in the late 1990s. Plus, they'd both delved into visual art during their separation. Morehouse earned a graphic design degree, and Schoepke discovered his filmmaking talents, introducing new sensory possibilities for their live act.
At shows, the band began pairing moving images with moving moments in the music. For example, Schoepke used black-and-white footage of exploding bomber planes to infuse the song "Heavenfire" with the violence and anxiety of a World War II air raid.
"Every time there was a crash in the song, a plane would explode. It added a whole new dimension," he explains. "You don't just have a reaction to a sound; you see the video reacting, too."
This tune also appears on Ridley's debut digital LP, Planets, which fans can also download from the group's website, on Jan. 28.
"We had this concept of each song being like a new place or planet," Schoepke explains. "You get this ambient feel, then this cold, relaxing feel, then more of an in-your-face, abrasive feel, like you're traveling into a different environment with each track."
Each track on Planets comes with a short story about how it came to be. Those who explore the entire package will also find a collection of astral artwork by Morehouse and three of Schoepke's video creations.
As for that cold, relaxing sensation, it may have to do with the wintry aspects of how the album was created -- and paid for. Schoepke, Morehouse, bassist Bob Schmitz and drummer Brandon Allen were dead set on recording it at now-shuttered Smart Studios, but when they saw the price tag, their hearts sank. Just when they thought they'd have to go through another round of home recording and noise complaints from the neighbors, Schoepke and head engineer Mike Zirkel struck a deal.
"He said, 'You could come do some stuff we don't want to do, like shovel the snow, and we'll record you.' I realized I'd be paying for [recording] by helping this place I look up to," Schoepke says. "So every time there was a snowstorm in the winter of 2009, I'd go shovel them out."
Schoepke's elbow grease earned the band almost three days of recording with Zirkel and fellow engineer Beau Sorensen. It was enough time to finish some topnotch drum tracks, and the band was able to finish the rest on their own.
"It was cool to think about all those other artists who've been through Smart," Schoepke says. "And having the best equipment at your fingertips feels really different than recording at home."
Strangely enough, looking toward the futuristic frontier of space has shuttled Ridley's sound back in time. Lately, fans have been comparing them to 1980s industrial bands rather than turn-of-the-century electro-rockers.
"They've been saying we have a Nine Inch Nails vibe, but with a pop twist," Schoepke says. "But there's a synthpop sound that definitely shines through in Planets, too."
As the band orbits town with its new tunes, the members hope to raise enough money to give Planets one more retro trait. They want to press it into the format that's the ultimate relic of 1990s electro-rock: the compact disc.