360°Sound had the opportunity to chat with Jonathan Horstmann, lead singer of the Austin-based synth-heavy post-punk band Urban Heat. Horstmann was in Los Angeles recording tracks for the band’s next record. One of the most buzzed-about bands in Austin, last month Urban Heat graced the cover of Austin Chronicle. The headline read, “Darkwave Sound, Bright Future.” Earlier this week, the three-piece played a show at Waterloo Records in conjunction with the vinyl release of their extended EP, Wellness, which features the viral TikTok hit, “Have You Ever.”
In 2022, Urban Heat headlined their first national tour and made their Austin City Limits Festival debut. Now, Horstmann said it’s about trying to keep the momentum going and “see how far we can take this thing.” 360°Sound is excited to catch their March 14 SXSW show at Stubb’s, which is free and open to the public. This May in Pasadena, California, Urban Heat will play the Cruel World Fest alongside goth and synth legends like Siouxsie Sioux, Gary Numan, and the Human League.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: So you’re at a studio in L.A.? What can you say about the music you’re working on?
Jonathan Horstmann: Yeah, I’ve never been this excited about something in my life. We’re in a funny place with it. Because of the delays in the vinyl industry, our last record is only just now hitting stores. But we’ve already been working on the next record for the last three months.
I don’t get to talk about the new one very much. But I will tell you that we’re trying to take our approach to the genre of gothic/synth music and trying to take that another step further with some more influences and higher production quality and a little higher energy. I’m just really excited about it. The Wellness EP felt like it was therapy for everyone else in a way, and this record feels more like it’s therapy for me. It goes way more personal. It’s sounding incredible. It’s going to be a full-length with 10 to 11 songs.
You describe yourself as a multidisciplinary artist. Expound on your background in the arts.
I’ve been either a visual artist or a musician most of my life. Right now, when I’m not playing music, I do some large form abstract paintings. That’s been a really nice way where I don’t have to communicate with words [laughs]. It’s exercising those creative muscles. Also, I have worked on larger installation projects with a friend out of Las Vegas. During the pandemic, we worked on the Museum of the Future Present, which was held at [Austin venue] Native Hostel for about a year.
Lately, I’ve been focusing mostly on music. The Urban Heat thing came about from playing in bands. I went from rock to an electro-punk band [Blxpltn]. I got to travel with them; that was fun. Once my first daughter was born, I went to synthesizers because I wanted music I could play in my headphones. I jumped into sample-based production and sound meditation type stuff, and just started experimenting with throwing drum machines over that and found a style that I really enjoyed.
My wife suggested that I try singing in my baritone voice, and it kind of worked. I wanted to do something live with it, but I didn’t want to do it as a solo act. So, I approached a couple of longtime friends and collaborators [Kevin Naquin and Paxel Foley] to see if they were interested in joining me onstage. Then the pandemic happened. So, it became mostly an online thing, doing sound experiments and putting them on Instagram and finding a following through that. Once things opened up and we were able to start doing shows, we hit the ground running.
“Have You Ever” went viral on TikTok. That platform has become the way to have hits nowadays.
It’s interesting how these different tools come about and allow connection. It’s up to you what you want to do with it. TikTok has been huge as far as getting our name out, but I think I’m able to have more intimate connections with fans through Instagram. Those relationships just feel different. We have like 42,000 followers on TikTok, but there’s only a couple of them that interact with us regularly. Because the way the algorithm shows our stuff, not all 42,000 see it, whereas with Instagram, we have 12,000 and a much larger percentage sees everything I post and interacts with it.
TikTok is tough because the algorithm is so tough to crack. A lot of artists can find themselves in this situation where they’re just slaves to the algorithm and having to post stuff that isn’t necessarily sincerely them, but it’s their best chance of getting people to see their work. That’s not really something we’re interested in. We’re focused on doing good work rather than triggering the algorithm. I think artists that do that have more longevity. TikTok’s moment is now, but there’s no telling how long that’s going to last and what the next thing will be. If your only hit is a flash-in-the-pan TikTok thing and you don’t have the catalog behind it, I don’t see that transferring into a sustainable career.
Urban Heat takes inspiration from ‘80s darkwave and synth groups. How do you synthesize your influences while also bringing something fresh to the sound?
When I’m writing, I try not to listen to a whole lot of music because I’m really bad about synthesizing what I’m listening to and mixing it up and spurting it out. I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to hear what my inner voice is saying, and I want to write original stuff. I try to isolate myself from a lot of stuff, especially while writing.
The way we’ve come around to the same sound as others is I really get inspired by the machines themselves. These classic late ‘70s and ‘80s synths like the Prophet and Minimoog have these sounds you’re able to create where it just makes so much sense when you start messing with samples from ‘80s drum machines. When you start mixing that in, they just work so well together. There’s a reason so many people were making synth music that sounds like that. It happened in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, but I feel like if you take those same sounds and you start working with them now, some things are going to be very similar. But it is now, so you’ve got all these other influences that creep in.
When I started listening to secular music, it was lot of skate punk and a lot of ‘90s alternative like Nirvana. There’s a lot of that sort of influence. I grew up with church music, so there’s a big thing about harmony, and I love just really epic shit. I feel like there’s so many more influences now. There’s like four more decades of music to seep into that synthesizer/drum machine bed.
What can we expect from your live show?
We write music with the intention of performing it live, and it takes on a whole different thing. We give out as much as we get back. Our crowds who come to see us are very high energy and very excited about it. That makes us really excited. Many people have said that our show has been one of the best shows they’ve seen, and I won’t call them liars [laughs]. We put a lot of effort into our live show.
This feels like there’s a momentum going. And I think now might be a special time to see [Urban Heat]. Maybe it will be one of those things where you get to look back and be like, “I remember seeing them in a 300-person room.” Who knows where this goes and what happens next? But we’re in an exciting time right now. Seeing it live, you might feel like you’re a part of that exciting time, too.
Urban Heat are playing 3 sets at SXSW 2023:
Tuesday 14 March, 11:05pm – 11:45 @ Stubb’s
Thursday 16 March, 11pm – 11:40 @ Valhalla
Friday 17 March, 10pm – 10:40 @ The Creek and the Cave Backyard