I don't know if you've caught on to this by now, but gee-whiz I like video games. I will buy video games for systems I don't even own because I like the cover art. I lose sleep wondering how great a new 7th Guest would be. Well, golly, I love everything about entertainment's most time consuming variant, and I hope you do too. As it has long since past infiltrated our culture, it's seen in movies (poorly) written about (awkwardly) and talked about (hopelessly). But did you know there's entire genres of music that sound like Duck Tales for the NES? It's true! On top of forcing you to do a Popeye impersonation upon utterance, Anamanaguchi is one of the most popular chiptune bands there is. Coming from New York, they've enchanted music snob and game dork alike with their furiously addictive brand of chip punk. Visiting The Whippersnapper for NXNE, and recently completing the score to the Scott Pilgrim video game coming out later this summer, I had a few things to ask members Peter Berkman and Ary Warnaar when not being distracted by Little Italy's attractive pizza smells.
Alright we need to lay down some ground rules.
Peter - Ground rules?
Yeah, so first, no Portal references, none, and like a maximum of oh, say, three YouTube allusions.
Peter - No Portal references will be easy, three YouTube videos max will be difficult.
How’d this ensemble start?
Peter - The ‘assembly,’ as we pronounce it in America, actually had a couple of 'begannings.' In December of 2003, I was a ‘fefteen’ year old boy and I stumbled upon this backend ‘wabsite’ where I ‘doonloaded’ a program called NerdTracker 2. It turned out it was a DOS program where you could ‘proogram’ Nintendo stuff and write NSF, which is sweet! Man I’m doing a bad job at this. Okay, here’s the abridged version. I found this FUCKING program and then I started making music that sounded just like video game music. Then I started to make music that I was writing with my actual band on the Nintendo and it was kind of like rock music, then I added some guitars in it and said, “Woah dude, this is the exact music I want to be making.” I went to college, I met Ary, then we were FOUR GUYS IN A BAND!
Cool! I hear bands have four guys.
Peter - Bands usually have four guys, actually in the States there’s this program where you can get some tax breaks if you are a band with four guys. It’s the four-guy-band-clause. Prop 4Guy. It was introduced by Gerald Ford.
I actually just took apart my own NES. My aunt dropped off a box cause she used to have one, I think these things multiply because there were two in the box.
Peter - That happens, I have six now.
I basically Frankensteined it because some parts worked better than others. There are a lot of chips, prongs, it was very intimidating, this was outside my jurisdiction. So looking at what I somehow manage to do, looking at what you can do, where’s a good place to start in actually doing something with this box of chips?
Peter - For me, the actual challenge comes from programming and the actual software stuff. Basically, the software hacking I just do off tutorials that other people do, Swedish people who know magic and stuff, who can actually make a tutorial so you don’t fuck it up because we’re all stupid. The hardest stuff is really the software, programming new sounds, good sounds, sounds that sound new. That’s my party jam.
For chiptunes as a musical genre, how prominent is the nostalgia factor?
Peter - There’s a lot to be said about that. Anything that you grow up with is going to become art. Anything you experience is only going to be filtered through yourself, soon you are going to want to make something about it, or, with it. For me, I have fun with my friends playing video games, when I had the chance to make my own shit, I was excited about it, that was the initial draw. It’s different for everyone.
Ary - I actually wasn’t allowed video games when I grew up, but electronic music was a big part of my life. I got very sick of all the modern programs, people putting shit together in Garage Band all got really boring. I wanted to find a more primitive, more basic yet at the same time complex form of electronic music. Chiptune music allows that.
Is this, say, somehow in the same lieu of low-fi?
Ary - I think of it more like the punk side of electronic music. You sort of have stuff like trance, compare it to 80s metal, over produced. Then ask yourself if you can take it back to basics. “What’s the best song I can do with one chord?” I have one very simple chip that I have to work with.
This is something that’s been messing with my head a little bit. You guys are making the soundtrack to the Scott Pilgrim video game. That makes you a chiptune band, which is based off video game soundtracks, doing a soundtrack for a real video game. Does this retroactively cause every video game soundtrack to become chiptune music or vice versa?
Peter - Well, no, I think. There are so many, like, post-modern layers to what’s going on here, it’s scary, it’s awesome.
You’ve opened Pandora’s box.
Peter - This isn’t a Portal reference, but we’ve opened a portal.
I’ll accept that.
Ary - We’ve managed to write music for a video game without making video game music.
Peter - We all composed for this game, it was a really collaborative effort. For one song, I was like, “Hey Luke, write a Hot Water Music/Alkaline Trio song for this level.” And he did, and it’s really sweet. Basically this is just a synthesis of all our influences. What we think would work, if we were scoring a movie it would just be the same thing. There’s this part where you are fighting robots n’ shit at a party, obviously, Ary said, “I’m totally going to write a Daft Punky song.” And he did, and it’s really sweet.
You guys were sort of... How to say it... Ambushed by nerds in there. Some nice, others worse. Is this a problem, or do you just have to appreciate it? Are you concerned about this evolving?
Peter - No! I think the evolution of this will lead to something magic. I think that the world is crassly divided. People in America, and the world, and in Canada I guess, always see culture as this kind of divide, say like, nerds and hipsters.
I think that guy at the show saw the divide.
Peter - Which guy?
The one who kept insisting he was a hipster and then hammered you with Scott Pilgrim trivia.
Peter - I think that that guy is an example of how it’s the same thing. Nerds and hipsters are just the same thing.
Ary - Both are awesome and suck for the exact same reasons.
Peter - From where we’re coming from, I never viewed the kind of shit that I love, like say Tim and Eric or Scott Pilgrim to be either nerdy or hip. They lie on the same continuum. Something like Scott Pilgrim is a perfect example. The nerds go, “Oh it’s fuck-n’ hipster shit,” and hipsters go, “Oh this is fuck-n’ nerdy,” and I’m going, “Hey fuck you man.” There’s a group of people better aware of this stuff and just choose not to care. They are having the best time.
You suggest that we move on from this.
Peter - Oh, yes. Please. I think the less that we label our shit the better our lives will be.
You can play Gears of War and listen to Animal Collective!
Peter - Exactly!
Ary - I know this guy who goes to every DIY show and drinks PBR but also is a coding god, he knows every language of it. You can do both and it’s fine.
Peter - When I was a kid I would play Yoshi’s Island and listen to Minor Threat. It doesn’t get any more ridiculous than that. I never feel ambushed, but I feel like what this could lead to is something better. Ambush is just a dirty word.
Ary - If anything we’re just hyped that we’re in the same room.
Peter - Oh man, pressure’s on...
Do you guys think you’ll ever upgrade to Sega Genesis?
Peter - Actually, that’s an interesting question. If you were to make it more general, like, are we going to use different platforms, then yeah. Ary is using a new program called LSDJ, a Swedish program, I’ve already started using Game Boy sounds as well as some expansion chips on Nintendo that Konami made in Japan that gives you extra channels. The point is we’ll use whatever tools to make whatever needs to be made. The Sega Genesis is actually becoming usable, and there is some excellent music being made with it. It’s an FM Synth, like a DX7 or something. Hopefully I’ll be smart enough to finish it out, until then. Those bell sounds are really lush.
Photos by Aaron Bernstein.