If you somehow find yourself waist-deep in the art and/or business of making music as an adult, chances are you encountered a serious moment of clarity through music as a kid. Hugo Manuel — the sole force driving the confusingly named Chad Valley — vividly remembers experiencing one of those moments when he was 15.
In 2001, Manuel was inside a Borders bookstore in his native city of Oxford, England, when he came across Start Breaking My Heart, the first record by experimental Electronic producer Dan Snaith (aka Caribou, though he went by Manitoba then). Start Breaking My Heart’s cover art is handsomely delivered but nothing spectacular — a minimalist-minded, seemingly painted rendition of a couple of city buildings, with a McDonald’s sign conspicuously wedged into the scene — yet that visual alone was enough to reel Manuel in. The audio would soon take the reins.
“Back then, I was really into things that were really warm, these really pure sine wave tones and pure acoustic sounds that [Snaith] uses all over that album,” the London-based Manuel, now 27, says. “That album is loads of Rhodes piano, which has got that pure sine wave tone to it, and just really simple synth patterns,”
Although Manuel has used interviews to bring up a smattering of left-field Electronic musicians as crucial influences on his own output — namely, Aphex Twin, Autechre and Radiohead — that Manitoba album still seems to hold an especially exalted position.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never liked something like this before. It’s really unlike me to like this, but I like this. I definitely know that I like this,’” he says
In 2010, Manuel debuted Chad Valley — a project named after a British brand of toys and an area in Birmingham — with a self-titled EP. A year later, he issued another EP titled Equatorial Ultravox. In 2012, his first full-length, Young Hunger, landed. Young Hunger demonstrates the warmth of Manitoba/Caribou shining through in Manuel’s own material, even though that inspiration stands in the shadow of the pronounced influence of 1980s Pop. Chad Valley’s music is all about woozy, glossy, synthesized beats, a tropical beach-at-sunset color palette and sentimental vocals that oscillate between soft and touchy-feely, and heavy and almost bellowing. Specifically, Manuel has cited New Edition, Thomas Dolby, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as forebears for the Chad Valley sound.
Part of this record’s mission, too, was to strike back against the trend of Indie-friendly Electronic musicians creating recordings steeped in lo-fi, chewed-up-sounding production.
“With Young Hunger, that was definitely the idea. As I started writing, I realized that the songs I was writing needed to be very hi-fi. That was the best thing to do,” he says. “As it goes now, I’m kind of going against that again [with the forthcoming follow-up], and I’m producing everything myself this time. With Young Hunger, I worked with another producer.”
Manuel has maintained an affinity for making and consuming music for years. When his age was in the single digits, Manuel would religiously watch a VHS tape of The Magic Flute, a 1975 stage production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte opera directed by Ingmar Bergman. He studied piano throughout childhood and Classical music played a substantial role in his early life. By his tweens, he had moved onto 1970s musicians such as David Bowie and The Velvet Underground, which turned him toward Rock music.
For a spell as a teenager, he sang and played piano in a Classic Rock and Grunge group that was, in his words, “a horrible, horrible band.” His first serious music breakthrough came through his participation in synth-focused Indie Rock outfit Jonquil. It was during his downtime with Jonquil that Manuel began tinkering with shaping his solo Electronic work as Chad Valley.
As far as interviewees go, Manuel isn’t the easiest nut to crack. He speaks about his music in enthusiastic but vague terms, being careful to never permanently align too closely with one concept. He emphasizes that even though he launched this project with an aesthetic rooted in Electronic music, he can see Chad Valley’s output diverging from an Electronic-heavy instrumental palette and incorporating more guitar and “live” elements.
“I would hope that it deviates at some point,” he says. “That’ll be the only way I can really move on.”
CHAD VALLEY plays at Oakley’s 20th Century Theater Friday with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. More: the20thcenturytheatre.com