A fixture in the Toronto synth-pop scene relocates to England to court his growing European audience.
Who: Digits is Alt Altman, a synthpop singer-songwriter with a heavy lean towards melody, melancholy and hints of R&B. His soft-voiced, introspective dance music has taken shape in the form of releases like Digits’ debut album Hold It Close (2009) and the impressive EP Lost Dream (2011). Working with vocalist and co-producer Lesley Davies, Altman is also half of über-slowed electronic R&B act Bad Passion (pictured below).
Originally from Toronto, Altman made his move to London, England, last October and has since pursued his music full-time, with great results. He has, however, remained involved in Silent Shout, the indie electronic-music blog and concert series he co-founded.
What: Although his music is frequently compared to the moody, song-driven and synth-soaked artists he cites as influences—including Junior Boys, Erlend Oye and Johnny Jewel—Altman wasn’t always hooked on electronics.
“When I was a teenager, I never listened to anything with a synthesizer—I despised the instrument,” he says. “[Radiohead’s] Kid A changed my relationship with electronic music completely; that got me into Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk. When DFA started putting out their first records, those got me into disco, and then Morgan Geist’s compilations introduced me to Italo[-disco]. There was no going back. Nowadays, my favourites are older synth-pop artists like Bruce Haack, who is Canadian, Giorgio Moroder and Telex.”
All of these influences coalesce naturally in Altman’s latest Digits album, Death and Desire, a 12-track mixtape that includes three songs by Bad Passion. Dark and minimalist while also shimmering and sensual, the album is Altman’s most nuanced and confident work to date. He even concludes with an unlikely, but beautiful chillwave cover of “Changes,” one of the most popular songs penned by 1960s folk protest singer Phil Ochs. Digits’ entire full-length can be downloaded for free.
“My sound has definitely evolved,” says Altman. “The production has become more minimal and sparse over time, and an R&B influence has gradually become very central to what I do. I also think I’ve improved a lot as a singer and producer; when I listen back to my first album, Hold It Close, it still sounds like Digits to me, but the sound has definitely become more refined.”
This growth is also obvious in the music of Bad Passion. Last October’s Doin’ It Slow EP is a gorgeous little listen, sax and all. Download it for free here.
Why: Since the early April release of Death and Desire, Digits has moved from unknown underground status to an artist regarded as one to watch in a number of countries. Sure, he’s played many stages in Toronto and opened for acts including Class Actress, Au Palais, and Dan Black, but there’s no question Altman’s audience and sources of accolades have grown.
Influential blogs and online mags including Exclaim!, Clash and Dummy all posted the full album, with positive reviews also rolling in from impressive sources ranging from British daily The Guardian to blog 20jazzfunkgreats.
“Everyone with a penchant for electronic R&B/dance made for dimly lit rooms should immediately be listening to Digits,” wrote Prefix magazine, while the Toronto Star’s Ben Rayner raved about the release, concluding that “This kid’s about to blow up.”
Altman has also begun to land some choice gigs and opportunities, from an invite to perform at Hamburg’s Dockville Festival to being the only unsigned artist featured in a collaborative project produced by Russia’s largest music magazine, Look at Me. Here, Digits is showcased alongside Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire, Nite Jewel, Maria Minerva, and others.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Nite Jewel’s remix of Digits’ “Because It’s Wrong” is red-hot, or that Altman’s first-ever video—for Bad Passion’s “Get Results”—is a campy head-turner starring Canadian actor Norman Yeung.
YYZ > LHR: Although Altman’s career has clearly received a boost from his move to London, he remains tightly connected to goings-on at home. Digits can also be most readily linked to fellow Toronto-area acts like Junior Boys, Diamond Rings, Solvent, and Trust. I ask if he has a clearer sense of just what might account for T.O.’s strong synth-based songwriting, now that he’s more removed.
“I actually think that it comes from Toronto’s incredible tradition of creative indie-pop and rock music,” offers Altman. “Almost all of those artists started making music in non-electronic genres, whether it was Maya [Postepski] from Trust playing in Galaxy and Bruce Peninsula, Diamond Rings’ start in the D’Urbervilles, or Purity Rings’ roots in Gobble Gobble. There are countless others we could talk about—Austra, Doldrums, Light Fires, and the list goes on.
“There is more amazing dark Canadian synth-pop out there than anyone realizes. We’re currently the best at it, really. I don’t mean to be overly nationalistic, but it’s definitely something to be celebrated.”
As for what he misses about this city, Altman has this to say:
“I miss the food, the people, my friends and family. I think the indie music community is more tightly knit and supportive in Toronto, and I certainly miss that, too. And the shows that happen in DIY/alternative spaces—that doesn’t happen very much here and those are always special. But I don’t miss the weather, and I don’t miss Toronto’s transit system. There’s so much room for improvement!”
When & Where: Altman is currently taking advantage of Europe’s broad-based love of electronic music and the low touring costs associated with playing cities in close proximity. He’ll play festival dates this summer, and tour European clubs come September.
“I’ve learned that London audiences move their bodies even less than the stereotypical crowd in Toronto,” shares Altman. “And it still feels bizarre how early [in the evening] shows begin here. I’ll be back to tour Canada in October, and I can’t wait for that.”
In the meantime, the next Silent Shout event—May 17 at The Boat (158 Augusta)—features the T.O. debut of Montreal’s Brusque Twins alongside live sets by Dark Ages, No Breakup, Western Walk, and selections from resident DJ Arp 2600.
What’s Next: A new Digits EP, titled Lonely Road, is set to drop in summer, with an album, tentatively titled Get Through, expected by year’s end. Bad Passion plans to record a full-length when Altman returns in October, with two singles anticipated before then.
“It’s all been a pretty gradual and continuous process so far, and I see it continuing that way,” says Altman. “The freedom of releasing music on the Internet and the support of websites and blogs means that I’m not really dependent on others. If I don’t keep growing an audience and creating new opportunities, I have nobody to blame but myself.”