Anamanaguchi on the possibilities and limitations of chiptune music
Published: April 21, 2011
with Random Encounter, Flashlights
7:30 p.m. Monday, April 25
If you have ever considered tossing around that hoary witticism about chiptune music, please save it. Ary Warnaar’s heard it before, as have the guitarist-Game Boy performer’s bandmates in Anamanaguchi, along with pretty much everyone else who has ever repurposed old school video games and computer hardware to generate new music.
“Every artist who is making chip music will joke about going to shows and people being like, ‘Oh, it’s Mario at a rave!’” Warnaar says. “It’s like, ‘Ugh, facepalm, no.’”
Sure, the description’s an amusing visual (the mushroom jokes quickly begin to write themselves), but you can forgive Warnaar for his crankiness at hearing the simplistic depiction trotted out again. In the 20-some years that the genre’s existed in the underground, it’s managed to remain afloat, even as technology makes it seem more and more dated. To think that today’s video game consoles contain 360 bits but someone still gives a shit about the archaic 8-bit Nintendo is weirdly relieving. Chiptune keeps resuscitating outdated, near-dead technology for fresh breaths of charming electronica.
The interest in chiptune music most likely originated out of nostalgia or as a novelty, but it’s progressed beyond that. In a 2003 Wired article, Malcolm McLaren, the late Sex Pistols manager, celebrated chiptune artists as “pop-culture pirates” – creators responsible for something that was “not music as a commodity but music as an idea.” He romantically compared chiptune’s rawness to punk rock. Although it’s certainly not reached those cultural heights, the scene has prospered into something grand within its confines: Chiptune’s no more Mario at a rave then it is Mario at a funeral or Mario in a jungle. With the right ingredients, it has transcendental possibilities; consider Crystal Castles’ pairing of Robert Smith’s vocals with an 8-bit synth on last year’s “Not in Love.”
Warnaar and the rest of his Brooklyn band are doing their part to rep chiptune’s more progressive side by vocally dissociating themselves from “video game music” and identifying more with fellow chiptune artists. (This approach doesn’t entirely hold water, as they’re best known for scoring Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game on PS3 and Xbox 360.) Anamanaguchi mesh power-pop, pop-punk and a little bit of prog rock with electronica provided by a hacked Nintendo and Game Boy, valiantly attempting to balance lightheartedness and legit musicianship. This can mean some tricky maneuvering.
What Warnaar values most in chiptune is its minimalist quality and “the whole out-of-contextness of the chip scene – to see someone playing dark and heavy music, but they have a little Game Boy in front of them.”
Like McLaren, he compares it to punk, but Warnaar covers both positive aspects (using a little to make a lot) and negative (the community’s ensuing elitism).
Either way, however, the guitarist recognizes that sticking with chiptune comes with certain difficulties: If you’re not trying to eschew that insularity, you have to deal with that “Mario at a rave” bullshit again.
“You can’t just be making good music [in chiptune]. You also have to explain and prove to people that it’s not just a gimmick that you have a NES onstage,” Warnaar says. “The hardest part is that you will have other artists and bands just use hardware as a gimmick and set us back a couple of years in terms of [credibility]. It’s like, ‘No, it’s real music! Trust me!’”
> Email Reyan Ali