Zak Kiernan, maker of dungeon synth and comfy synth | Chicagoans of Note | Chicago Reader

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Zak Kiernan, maker of dungeon synth and comfy synth

“When someone reads you those Hans Christian Andersen stories when you’re young, this is the music that’s playing in your mind.”

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Zak Kiernan is a fan of adventure game Mice and Mystics, which inspired the name of his comfy-synth project, Derbyshire. - PHOTO BY WULFKA
  • Photo by Wulfka
  • Zak Kiernan is a fan of adventure game Mice and Mystics, which inspired the name of his comfy-synth project, Derbyshire.

Zak Kiernan, 37, moved to Chicago in 2012 and has worked for eight years as a video editor and sound designer at Leo Burnett. He makes ambient black metal as Adrasteia, which has a split with Celestial Sword coming later this year on Greek label His Wounds. His dungeon-synth project, Alkilith, will release The Shores of Evermeet this week on Chicago label Wrought Records, and will appear in April on the second volume of the Dungeon Synth Magazine cassette compilation series by Italian imprint Heimat der Katastrophe. Kiernan is also about to make his debut in the young genre of comfy synth: his project Derbyshire will appear on a split with local Redwall-themed comfy-synth act Cherry Cordial.


As told to Philip Montoro

My dad is a musician—he's a luthier—and he and my brother own a small guitar and ukulele shop in the Big Island of Hawaii. When I was young, while my brother and everyone else was picking up guitars, I was really attracted to hip-hop. My first instrument was a pair of turntables. I started mixing and scratching, and that kinda naturally made its way into making beats.

My musical taste expanded beyond hip-hop to include electronic music, metal, et cetera. I moved to New York City to become an audio engineer, and I went to school for that. I had a crappy old Casio keyboard that I found in a dumpster, an old drum machine, and a four-track that my heroin-addicted roommate gave me for rent money. I lived in this big crazy loft building. I'd set up all of my gear and welcome anyone from the building—who were all a bunch of creative young people—to just drop by the apartment and have a jam, and I'd record it to tape.

The Doom Cult was something I came up with when I moved out here to Chicago. I needed a place to take all of these old projects I had on tape and various hard drives—I wanted to put it all under one umbrella. A lot of that stuff was experimental—it ranged from electronic music to punk to black metal to just strange rantings.

Around 2016, I had taken a break from making music and was really focusing on my career. I just felt this lack, you know, of creativity. So I decided to just start a project—I called it Z.K. (you'll find it under that Doom Cult banner), and I did a sort of dark ambient album called A Sea of Stars. That's really what started the train toward dungeon synth and black metal. Then I got a guitar, and that's when Adrasteia and Alkilith began.

  • The new Alkilith album comes out this week on Wrought Records.

Dungeon synth is an offshoot of black metal. It really started in the mid-90s, when the Norwegian second wave of black metal was popular. "Dungeon synth" just meant those instrumental interludes between songs. There was one particular guy, Mortiis, who became the figurehead of the genre. He used to be in Emperor, and he started putting out demo tapes that just got really big and could be classified as metal, but it wasn't—it was all synth music.

Other artists from that time who were doing specifically dungeon-synth stuff aren't as well-known—names like Secret Stairways, Solanum, Jim Kirkwood. They had so many different variations of the sound that were so far removed from black metal but kept that ethos and aesthetic—the underground ethos, the xeroxed images, the corpsepaint. But you pop the tape in, and it's a bunch of synthesizer sounds.

The name is relatively new—it wasn't called dungeon synth at the time. Most people just thought of it as, like, "dark ambient." The name dungeon synth was more like in the 2010s. The term was really birthed out of nostalgia for Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop role-playing.

For most people, at first, dungeon synth is, like, a funny thing. The first time you hear some of those old dungeon-synth recordings, where it's just like a guy screeching over some keyboards, you might find yourself laughing—although if you ask those guys, they probably were very serious at the time. I think there's now definitely a sense of humor involved in dungeon synth—and I think that's prevalent with the rise of comfy synth.

It's evoking nostalgia in sound, so there's something kind of funny to it—you're hearing music that sounds like it could be in an old video game, inspired by those old dungeon crawlers from the 90s that you played on a PC with a floppy disk.

Zak Kiernan as Adrasteia (left) and as Alkilith - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Zak Kiernan as Adrasteia (left) and as Alkilith

I first saw comfy synth popping up really big last year, maybe a little before that. I think the first thing I heard was Grandma's Cottage. Everyone was like, "What the fuck is this." But for some reason I really latched onto it.

Comfy synth uses usually major-key melodies. In dungeon synth, a lot of that stuff is in a minor scale—that's one of the bigger differences. The songs are short, playful, whimsical, and meant to evoke a feeling or an image—these happy-ish memories. But not always happy.

Grandma's Cottage kinda blew up overnight, and I think the other big one was Tiny Mouse. The same guy who does Grandma's Cottage, he also kinda started another strange subgenre of dungeon synth called dino synth. He has a project called Diplodocus. I'd have to credit this one anonymous guy—he runs a label called Dungeons Deep—as being the creator of comfy synth.

You'll notice when it comes to black metal and dungeon synth, a lot of it's run by the same people—there'll be, like, ten projects, and you're like, "Oh, that's all one guy."

  • In January 2021, Adrasteia released a track nearly half an hour long on a split with Lehman.

When you look at, say, the Grandma's Cottage album, you're like, OK, I almost know exactly what this is supposed to sound like. So you think of old Dutch oil paintings of food, or a painting of a cottage along a road. A lot of it has to do with childhood memories. And because it's not so specific as, say, a dungeon, it's a little more broad, it can go from just an image, an aesthetic—it can encompass these mushroom-based synth projects that I keep seeing popping up. Yes, that is its own thing.

A lot of it really comes down to a sense of being comfortable around a fire with food. You're watching the snow come down around you and you're inside your house and it's warm, maybe there's a fire, there's food everywhere. It definitely has a fairy-tale feeling. When someone reads you those Hans Christian Andersen stories when you're young, this is the music that's playing in your mind.

Locally, I don't know if anyone outside of Cherry Cordial and I are doing it. Local label Wrought Records recently put out a project called Warm Smial. Other acts worth mentioning in comfy synth would be Olde Fox Den—I think Cherry Cordial also has a split with him that just came out. Goose Mother is another. I've mentioned Tiny Mouse. There's one in particular that I'm really loving right now—it's called Snowy Hill House. Another huge favorite of mine, I don't know if you can call it comfy synth—it's a Lord of the Rings-themed synth project called Hole Dweller. They have this very lo-fi approach, you know, that feeling of being at the Shire, and having your pipe-weed and your wheel of cheese. And some of the adventure.

My first comfy-synth release will be a split with Cherry Cordial, which is a Redwall-themed comfy synth project. Redwall was a series of books by Brian Jacques—anthropomorphic mice and small critters go through this beautiful, huge, mythical, epic story. I definitely read all those books when I was young. My project's called Derbyshire. Derbyshire is named after a type of cheese that's used in a tabletop game called Mice and Mystics—you're basically a bunch of mice who go on this epic quest. You use wheels of cheese as a sort of hit-point system, and the kind of cheese is called Derbyshire.

  • Derbyshire will debut on a split with Redwall-themed comfy-synth project Cherry Cordial.

I'm tailoring almost all of my thematic elements of this project around food. I love to cook. I guess "food obsessed" would be the real word, if you ask my wife.

It's about nostalgia. It's about those moments when you're knee-deep in an RPG game with your friends, and you're eating some cheese and crackers—or it could just be yourself, envisioned in the game, and your character is foraging for food.

I've had a lot of output musically since quarantine. For my day job, I was downtown every day and working 50-60 hours, so finding time to do music was really hard. It's like 11 o'clock, everyone's in bed, I'm finally in the studio making something. Since quarantine happened, I've set up my studio to be my home office.

This sense of—especially last year—having to let go of what is happening in the world, how it affects you, was a big part of it. Sometimes you just feel so powerless to see all this hatred and this ugliness brewing up, and it was important to have an outlet. And my outlet's always been music. So now I've streamlined everything, and I can basically make music whenever I want. It's a part of my routine to practice and make something once a day. Just this last year, I put out at least ten different albums.

Black metal is always this cathartic release—I'm screaming, I'm playing as fast and as hard as I possibly can, I'm evoking a sense of tragedy and dread. This is a lens in which I'm filtering all of this fucking political turmoil and terribleness through. But at the same time, there needs to be the opposite side of that.

Comfy synth was a natural. Like, "You know what, there are beautiful moments that happen in this quarantine, in this political climate, that we forget about." And sometimes those things are worth preserving in a musical way.  v

Correction: This interview has been edited post-publication to reflect the fact that the same anonymous person is behind Grandma's Cottage, Diplodocus, and the Dungeons Deep label, but a different anonymous person is behind Tiny Mouse. The original copy connected all four projects to a single founder.

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