from an interview originally done for WTF Magazine (no longer online)
First off, could you tell us a little bit about your musical upbringing as well as your background with 8-bit media?
Well I grew up in a musical household. My stepfather was a music director at our church and he would have band practice in our basement, so I grew up around musicians. I didn’t really start playing music until high school, when I started playing guitar. I went away to school for graphic design and all the while I was starting to get into writing songs on guitar and I eventually found that I was more interested in music than design so I dropped out of college and applied to music school. Around the same time, I discovered some communities online that were centered around different music projects for doing video game covers; bands like Metroid Metal (logo on the right) and Minibosses. Those communities were very active, there were a lot of people in this community who were doing arrangements of video game music and some of them were using the sound of old video game hardware to make music. I was around 18 or 19 at the time, and I had grown up playing games, I grew up playing the Nintendo, so I had some familiarity with those sounds, but it had not occurred to me that you could actually take those sounds and make music with them, so I found that really inspiring. At the same time, I was trying to make music that was recorded with guitar and drums and as a young person who was inexperienced with that stuff, I struggled with it a bit and I found that in creating chiptune type music it was a little easier to get off the ground; I didn’t have to worry about recording. Early on I felt like I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to get down and being able to do that was vital, messing with Chiptune-type sounds was helpful with that.
So do you write your music with the help of your instruments or do you compose directly on your computer?
When I started I was writing a lot of my music on the guitar and transferring that to the computer using guitar tablature software that had MIDI playback, but over time I got more interested in using keyboards and started playing the piano. These days I actually do most of my writing on the piano or on the keyboard on my computer. Every once in a while I’ll go back to my guitar, so I kind of had a shift as far as that goes.
What is it that first drew you towards 8-bit sounds as a musical medium? What is it about the sound of Chiptune that other sounds don’t bring? What does it represent for you?
Well I already had a relationship to chiptune when I started, which was interesting, there was something really satisfying about that for whatever reason. I imagine there’s a nostalgia quality to it I guess, but once that part of it subsided I still found a lot to like about it. I liked how simple the sounds were and by being very limited it allowed me to focus on certain areas of creativity and to really push those boundaries. When you have such simple waveforms it really requires you to think about the timbre and dynamic of those sounds; the melodies, the harmonies… all of that stuff stands out more because the timbre of those sounds is so limited. It requires you to dig pretty deep into those areas, and in that way I really appreciated it. Also, just the fact that you can get a piece of music off the ground very quickly with it was really good for me when I was starting to make music.
Whether it is through your work with soundtracks or even with your albums, your music always seems to carry a narrative, a descriptive dimension. Does this sound accurate to you and if so how do you account for this tendency towards narration?
Well yeah I definitely think of music in a sort of narrative way. I think with soundtrack work especially, I’ve tried to capture emotions and certain vibes that support however the music is being used, and in the attempt to do that, I think the music often becomes narrative. Beyond that reason, I’m not really sure why, I just like music that has a narrative feel to it.
Were there any raised eyebrows from your peers at the Berklee College of music when they heard you were making 8-bit music?
I think at the time when I was a Berklee College of music there weren’t a lot of people doing that kind of music, so I felt a little bit like an outsider in that regard. I think it made getting into the synthesis department where I studied a little difficult. The music, even though it was electronic, was heavily inspired by rock music and metal, so it sometimes felt like I was on the outside looking in. I’m really glad that I got to study in that program because I felt like I had so much to learn about how to work with synthesizers and how to make them do lots of different things. In the beginning when I was just doing chiptune I didn’t really know what I was doing. The sounds that I was using were very basic and there wasn’t a lot of variation in those sounds.
To mention another aspect of your work you hinted upon, how did you first get into sound designing and working as a sound artist?
I studied that a bit in school and I’ve had a couple of opportunities to explore that in various projects. I found it to be a pretty serious challenge. Based on that experience I quickly realized right away that I liked it but I wasn’t into it as much as with writing music, but I kept it open as an option. Right around the time I graduated I got an opportunity to do music and sound design for a game called Shoot Many Robots, which was an onsite project that I worked on for about 9 months. For me that was an opportunity to see if I wanted to be an in-house sound designer; I was there every day working on sound effects for one project, and I definitely felt like I had a knack for sound design and I still feel like I’m pretty okay at it, but I also found that I didn’t really like working on the same project every day and making sound effects every day. There’s a bit of a grind to it, for good reasons though, especially in games, which tend to require loads of sound effects and variations. I think for that project I made a couple of thousand sound effects. So after that I decided that I didn’t want to focus on sound design, but there’s also a part of me that likes doing it in manageable amounts; I did two short films with this animator Nicolas Ménard on which I did the music and sound design, I did the sound design for The Floor is Jelly, I did ambiances for FEZ. I like to dabble in sound design and I think it’s a really important part of music production and there’s a lot of potential there to do really interesting things.
What is your main approach when it comes to illustrating a sonic universe in a Video Game or a movie?
My approach definitely has an exploratory phase where I’m just trying to figure out what the sound of that universe is. There’s usually not a concrete, objective method to it, it’s usually very intuitive. It’s about developing a feeling about finding the essence of the project and exploring sounds and making decisions. It’s about doing little experiments and explorations and the more that I do that, the more the sonic pallet for that project starts to take shape. Sometimes there’s a starting place based off of conversations and context. Something like Monsters ate my Birthday Cake was heavily inspired by Yoshis’ Island and Wind Waker and that hit me across the face as soon as I played the game, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in. So I had a starting point to work from, and with that idea in mind I started to refine what it meant and what I wanted the music to sound like. So I’d say there’s usually an initial impulse that’s more something you’d write down, and after that it becomes more about exploration and intuition.
I can only imagine how many offers for video game and film scores you must be getting. How do you choose on which project to work on?
I’ve been fortunate enough that since FEZ came out in 2012, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work on a lot of interesting projects and a lot of projects that I maybe wasn’t so interested in. Because I’ve had that amount of choice, it’s given me some freedom to make decisions and to be discerning about the kinds of projects that I want to work on. I definitely have a strong value set about what I work on and I really try to challenge myself in new ways and to work on projects that I think have value and heart, that are going to have some kind of impact. Since It Follows came out, I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to work on horror films and thrillers and those projects don’t always feel like they have a takeaway for me, you know? Sometimes they just feel like pure entertainment, and I’m not super interested in making pure entertainment I guess. I guess I’m more interested in projects that are going to help people in some way or get them thinking about something, that’s important. I don’t entirely know what that is, I think I try to identify it when I see it and I try to work on different kinds of projects and keep challenging myself in different ways.
Do you tend to be drawn by a sense of challenge or do you need to be able to visualize the music as the project is being presented to you?
I think I definitely try to push my boundaries without jumping into things that seem way above where I am or outside the amount of resources or time that I have. There are certainly opportunities that have come along that were really interesting but I didn’t really have the focus for it or the time; stuff like doing a live-score of a movie or something like that. Those are potentially really interesting projects but I know that it would take me a long time to do and I have other projects that I’m in the middle of working on. I also want to take a sabbatical for a little while so that I can work on some solo material. So there’s definitely different kinds of factors that go into decisions about that sort of thing, but I think the driving factor tends to be whether the project is going to allow me the opportunity to do something new and to express myself in a new way, but also to create something that hopefully people are going to have a positive relationship to.
Regarding one of your most recent work with the film score to the movie It Follows, what was your first reaction as you were approached with this horror movie?
Well that was the first opportunity that came my way that I felt was “legitimate” for scoring a feature film. So in that way, right off the bat I was really interested. It felt like a good time for me to start exploring that space. David reached out to me after playing FEZ, he reached out pretty early before they even shot the film or anything and we agreed to touch base again about a year later. We had some scheduling issues, I had a lot of other projects going on, so I didn’t feel like I had enough time to make it happen, so I actually turned down the project a couple of times but David was pretty persistent and really wanted me to work on the project. I’m glad that I got to do it, I think it was a really valuable project.
How did the writing and thought process towards shaping this unique soundtrack? Considering the rather unconventional nature of this soundtrack, there certainly was a risk factor in your approach, be it through your use of chiptune-like tunes.
Well that’s something that came out inherently; it’s not something that I thought about. David liked the FEZ soundtrack a lot and he liked the aesthetic of that soundtrack so it was actually his idea to incorporate some of those tones into the film. The stuff that sounds the most chiptune-like is the result of his intentions. My vision for it was more synth-oriented, more analog and 80s’ sounding. I don’t tend to think a whole lot whether or not what I’m doing is risk-taking or anything like that. It was kind of a whirlwind of a project, we only had 3 weeks to do it and so I was just writing using my intuition to work through the project. I didn’t have a very strong sense of what horror music is before I started, I just had a couple of points. I think my idea of what horror music is was the Psycho theme, and I also listen to a lot of Goblin outside of the context of the movies so I had that idea as well. Then also David put together a temp-score for the film which had music from John Carpenter, Penderecki, John Cage, Jonny Greenwood and people like that, and that was great for me to hear peoples’ takes on how to use timbre, dynamics and harmony to create these scary landscapes. So that was really helpful to find a starting place and see what works. It gave me the motivation to be very experimental in the sense that I could probably just go crazy and throw down a bunch of wild, distorted sounds, especially for the moments that were supposed to be very intense and scary.
To get to your affiliation with 8-bit music, could you tell us a little about your relationship with the chiptune scene?
Well the chiptune scene has such a pivotal role in my development as a musician. I started writing chiptune music around 2005 and I went to my first chiptune show in 2007 I think. I went to an 8bitpeoples show in New York and I saw Anamanaguchi play with Bitshifter and Nullsleep. I found it really cool and motivating and later that year I played my first show as Disasterpeace with a guitar and backing track, which was all chiptune stuff. So that started a long period where I played quite a few Chiptune shows, from 2007 to about late 2013 in Mexico City. During that period I met a lot of people and one of the nice things about the chip scene is that people are brought together by this common utility, the types of tools and instruments that they use, but the breadth of possibilities in that space is very very large; you have people doing metal with chip sounds, people doing IDM, EDM, Pop music, people playing banjos, people doing Jazz… It was a pretty wide and varied space and I always really liked that about the chip scene. I should also say that around 2007, I started a Chiptune Netlabel (http://iimusic.net) with Phlogiston (aka Eirik Suhrke) from Norway, who did the music for Spelunky. Through that, we met a lot of people and we put out a lot of good records. We did that for about 6 or 7 years.
Have you noticed any significant changes in the scene since you were first introduced to it?
I think the demographic has definitely gotten larger as far as the age range, though it was always pretty wide. When I first got into it, there were people in their late forties and teenagers and I think that’s how it still is today, there are probably people even older now. I’ve kind of been out of the loop for the past couple of years as far as the chip scene goes, since I was focused on exploring beyond that scene. I think people associate It Follows as chiptune, but from my own personal perspective I feel like I haven’t really done much chiptune stuff in the last few years. I’ve been focused on other things. It’s a really diverse scene though and it had a really profound impact on my career as a musician, and for that I’ll always have a very strong place in my heart for it.
The chiptune scene has been described by some of its musicians as having a strong DiY ethic and free-access ethic reminiscent of punk music. What is your perspective on this philosophy, being that you are at the crossroads between your status as a musician commonly associated with Chiptune but also a music producer who’s got bills to pay?
Well I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another about what people ought to do with their music. I think that if people want to give it away for free that’s fine. I think it’s also totally valid to want to make a living from your music, and selling access to your music is definitely a way to do that. I think over time I’ve become less and less attached to selling music directly to people, I’ve actually been trying to reduce the cost of my music through patronage. I have a subscription model through my bandcamp account, and part of the intention of that was to create a sustainable source of income for myself and, as a result of that, be able to reduce the price of all of my albums. Most of my albums are already Free-priced, the intention would be that all of them would be “pay what you want” at some point in the future. Over time, it’s become clear to me that it was totally within the realm of possibility for me to make a living as a musician. I’ve been willing to sell my music. The DiY aspect of the chip scene is very strong, and I think I’ve always liked that aspect of it and have always had kind of a DiY mindset, I pretty much handle everything myself; I don’t have an agent or a manager, I do my own taxes, I maintain my website, social media, I do the music production, mixing and handle the release of the music, the contracts… I handle it on my own because there are a lot of opportunities to learn stuff and I love to learn and be aware of what’s going on.
Is there any ground that you’ve yet to cover as an artist and that you’d like to work on in the future?
Yeah I have very strong intentions of releasing a solo album with vocals. That’s something that I’ve been exploring for the last couple of years. The other thing is working with live musicians, which is something that I haven’t done a whole lot of and that I would like to do. I don’t know what form that will take; whether it’ll be working on some kind of musical or working with a small ensemble, I’d really like to do that as well.
Any future releases coming out in the near future we can look forward to?
I just finished working on this game called Mini Metro, which is in Steam Early Access. It should be releasing pretty soon. I’m also working on two other projects as well, one is called Miegakure, I’m collaborating with my friend Mateo and we’re exploring a lot of things, the intention being to make a very dynamic score for that game. The other project I’m working on is called River City Ransom Underground, which is a sequel to the River City Ransom NES game, and I’m working with a couple other chiptune artists on that project; I’m working with Alex Mauer and Cheap Dinosaurs, who are both from the Philly area.
Could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
The first album that comes to mind is Red by King Crimson.I really liked Straight outta Compton, I thought the movie was really cool.In terms of books I’d say the Hobbit, I like that book a lot.