Although the electronic movement has become most famous these days for the fully budded EDM genre, others forms of electronic music have grown just as rapidly. Almost as long as the video game and computer era has existed, electronic musicians have been incorporating the high-pitched bleeps and bloops of the various consoles in the genre known as “chiptune.”
Today’s music scene finds chiptune going beyond the electronica genre, with bands like New York’s Anamanaguchi fusing digital sounds with punk and indie rock. The band’s guitarist, Ary Warnaar, talked to CMJ about the band’s most recent album, Endless Fantasy, their relationship to chiptune, and how they perform live with an NES [Nintendo Entertainment System] that’s older than they are.
Didn’t the songwriting for Endless Fantasy have at least 45 songs on it? Are we going to hear those any time soon?
It had probably even more than that honestly, but those will probably never go anywhere. We’ll probably revisit some of them but we write a lot of stuff, especially because three out of the four of us are writing pretty constantly so [we] make a lot of demos, a lot of stuff to go through.
What’s your opinion on the progress of chiptune over the decades?
The history of chiptune has evolved so much.l I like it, I love it. It’s a great world. It’s a really fun world to write music in. It can get insular at times. A lot people kind of impose a lot of limitations on themselves in the genre. Like they’ll only want to write music if it’s chip-music; they’ll only want to play with other artists if they’re doing chip music. They only want to play events that are related to chip music. It’s great to have a very supportive community like that, but it can end up in a weird vicious circle-type thing where you can’t grow, because all you do is support each other all day.
In terms of the actual term, or whatever falls under that category, chip comes from the NES, Gameboys, but we’re using more than that. We’re using instruments, kind of software-type stuff now, but it’s a format we really love and enjoy. The technical aspects that are driving us will always be around, like the hardware and stuff.
Back in the day, you didn’t really focus on the video game aspect of it, you wanted something more popish, i.e., Weezer or the Beach Boys, but you guys decided to include the NES and NES simulator for the video game sounds. What led to that decision?
It all kind of came to us in different ways. Pete was doing it in high school with some friends of his and they just kind of stumbled across some software and started playing with it. His good friends from high school ran 8-Bit Collective, which is the little chip music hub online. I was writing computer music for awhile until I got bored with just using a computer, and started playing with circuit bending and other formats like that. Then I discovered this whole chip music and gave it a try and I was like, “Woah this is really fun.” I really enjoy it as a writing process, it made me write differently. I like it from a technical aspect.
So what were you at NYU for?
Me, James, and Pete were all doing music technology.
So is that how it led to chiptune, through music tech?
Yeah basically. We had an awful lot of homework, but it worked well with what we liked doing. I’d have like a homework assignment where I’d customize a Gameboy, like a mini-interface for a Gameboy, which I’ll use anyway but it counted as homework. It worked out well.
So did you ever do your homework live?
I’ve used stuff that was homework. Physical stuff, like making guitar pedals or hardware for Gameboys or stuff. I didn’t write a thesis: I’d pull up some demos or something I had.
How hard is it to use an NES live?
The big issue with using an NES live is that it’s really old and super unreliable. It’s older than any of us.
Would you go to old video game store to get your equipment?
We definitely were for a second. The NES we were using live most of the time was Pete’s older brother’s NES. I think James had one that we used pretty consistently. They’re pretty good pieces of hardware. They’ll handle a lot, but then when you’re playing bigger venues like we’ve been playing recently, we’ll run into issues like they have terrible ground tone and they’ll pop when you start something, and that can destroy soundsystems. So clubs and venues will say “Yo, if you do that one more time you can’t play here anymore. You’re about to blow up our soundsystem.”
We’re kind of struggling with that right now. We’re going to try to figure out a system that lets us still use our old hardware but also is reliable and not dangerous, basically. Any system that has too nice subs, once it starts vibrating, we’ll pull the NES out of the socket and then the song will stop or restart, and we’ve reached the point where it’s kind of a problem. So we’ve been playing with a backup constantly and we’ll have all the NES parts recorded on a Macbook just in case it totally goes to shit. James is working on a system to design a more functional, live NES setup so we can take on nicer sound systems.
So have you ever been shutdown because of the NES or do you guys usually just go straight to the Macbook?
Yeah we’ve had places be like, “That’s not an option, you can’t do that. It’s popping like crazy. It’ll destroy our system.” We’ll be like, “Alright, fine, I guess we’re playing off the computer tonight.”
Do fans notice the difference?
No, not so much. It’s more for us. It’s fun to use actual hardware. At a certain point it sounds like it doesn’t really matter, whether it’s the computer or the NES. Whatever makes for the funnest show and sounds the best is what we’ll resort to, but on a personal level it’s really fun to use the hardware. Everyone who plays with a laptop is boring. There’s not much performance involved though. We’ll spend time at home writing for the NES a lot, but when it comes to performing with it we’ll definitely perform with our instruments way more.
Why did you guys decide to use Kickstarter for your new album, and was it a lot more of a success than you expected?
Yeah, it was definitely a lot more than we expected. It was an interesting decision. We have friends that have used Kickstarter, not for music. [But] in really admirable ways, and it’s a great tool in those regards. There are also many artists and bands I know that use it in the most unappealing and gross way. There are so many unsuccessful bands that are like, “Well fuck, the only way to do this is to resort to this cool, money-making thing I’ve heard of called Kickstarter that might really hook it up for me.” In general most of the time the way I’ve seen people use it, it’s been a very last resort tool which is gross and was a huge part of why we never even considered doing it.
But it definitely reached a point in this album where we were doing all the music on our own, we’re doing all the stuff we had envisioned and saved up for and set out to do, but then it reached a point where there was a lot of other stuff we wanted to do, a lot of stuff that people had expected and wanted us to do, but we didn’t have the means to do any of that. And we spoke with a couple of labels that were interested in us that would offer those sorts of things, but nothing ever clicked. People had weird views of us, like we were some super gimmicky nerd thing and they’d be like “Oh yeah, we could push that really easily, we’ll get you on Friendster,” and we’d be like “No, that’s disgusting, that’s not what we’re into here at all.” Or they’d offer really screwy deals where we’re stuck for five years and they control everything.
Our whole lighting set for the tour, James did that through the Kickstarter. We rushed to build that before our last tour and we could not have afforded the whole set up we have right now without Kickstarter. But there’s no anti-label feelings on our end. You can’t fully survive on just money. You need a lot of intelligent people to work with. But with this project, it made sense to use Kickstarter because we knew what we wanted to do, whatever it would take.
What was the thinking behind “Meow”? It’s very different from the other songs on the album.
“Meow” was the fastest song we wrote on the album actually, not in terms of BPM but the time to write the song. It was pretty late in the making the album. I was at Pete’s place, and I was like “Maybe I could imagine the song with the Beastie Boys, kinda like somewhere between rap and punk, and meowing stuff,” so I was singing the lines in a meowing sound, it’s like my go-to sound. I left Pete’s place, and by the time I got home, he sent me a version of the song with just meowing over it, he sampled his voice. Crazy crushed meow thing, pitched it up, and that was that. We were like cool, perfect, no work. It was a fun track; it was playful.
What was it like doing the Scott Pilgrim video game soundtrack?
It was fun. It was unlike anything we’ve done together. It varied so much and the kind of songs we wrote were all over the place and it was a really fast process. It felt like really fun homework, writing a bunch of things fast all over the place. It was a really fun project. It’d be cool to do a lot of more stuff like that, whether it’s in the gaming world or not.