As technology gets more advanced and pop music relies more heavily on Auto-Tune, there is, as always, a counter-culture movement that looks to previous decades for its answers. As the 8-bit, or “ genre—music written with synthesizers emulating old-school video-game-system sounds—becomes increasingly prevalent, it also gets flooded with countless me-too bands.
New York chiptune punks Anamanaguchi aren't the first and certainly won't be the last band to crank out original songs that could easily double as the soundtrack to a series of boss battles in Mega Man, but the difference is that video games aren't their sole influence. 2006's free-download EP Power Supply is a whimsical collection of instrumental hard-rocking 8-bit songs produced entirely from a hacked 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System; this year's Dawn Metropolis finds the band getting even more majestic and ambitious with its self-imposed limitations. Before their show at North Star Thursday, the members of Anamanaguchi talked to The A.V. Club about those limitations, 8-bit cover bands, and how sitcoms inform their songwriting.
The A.V. Club: Other than video games, what drives your songwriting?
Peter Berkman: Simple pop stuff, like Weezer and the Beach Boys. But conceptually, a lot of influences come from stranger stuff. For me, the kind of comedy you guys do, and Tim and Eric do, and stuff like TV Carnage, just absurd stuff. The concept of using a Game Boy or Nintendo onstage is inherently absurd. We’re trying to put that weird juxtaposition of a Nintendo in a rock band and try to make it work. We aren’t trying to be, like, “Haha, look at this! We’re doing Nintendo shit onstage!” A lot of artists in the 8-bit scene don’t really take themselves super-seriously. When you see someone holding a Game Boy onstage and treating it like this rock instrument—even though it is—to an outsider, they see that as something that is laughable, almost.
AVC: The notion of the 8-bit scene itself is a bit absurd in that it's so broad. The only criterion is that its members use a certain kind of instrument.
PB: Exactly. It’s like calling Christian music a genre when you have Christian metal and Christian rock. Yeah, it is an instrument. There are a million different ways to use it. You can make pop music with it. You can make rock music with it. You can make hip-hop with it, and people do. And that’s why it’s interesting. There’s so much variety in such a limited palette. When you’re using something like a Game Boy or Nintendo, you’re using a very, very limited sound set and the sheer variety that comes out of a bunch of different artists has always impressed me. Which is why I want to associate with the kind of other people that do this kind of thing, but also realizing that we play a different style of music than a lot of them. So we can kind of branch out and play rock party music, like Andrew W.K.
AVC: But at the same time there's this schism where some 8-bit bands look down on bands like Minibosses if all they do is play songs from Mario—they sneer and call them cover bands.
PB: Absolutely. We tend to think of ourselves as doing exactly opposite of what the Minibosses do. We’re not a cover band. But we definitely pride ourselves on writing our own music. If you’re not writing your own music, what are you doing? What annoys us is when somebody doesn’t understand the distinction and lumps us into the same group when it couldn’t be further apart.
AVC: What's the 8-bit equivalent of "Stairway To Heaven" in terms of requests?
PB: [Laughs.] Someone will always just shout out, “Play Mario Bros.!” or something and think they’re really awesome.
AVC: How does your love of Weezer and Beach Boys and Built To Spill shine through for you in your music?
PB: Here’s the analogy that I think works best: You have the Bee Gees and The Ramones, and you have these lush production techniques with crazy strings and stuff and then you have that phased down to the base level of just a distorted guitar. There's nothing dirtier than that. What we’re doing is literally taking the simplest electronic waves and trying to make them sound good. How do you make a distorted guitar sound good? You make it simple.
Ary Warnaar: Yeah, that’s a very accurate analogy. 8-bit music is definitely the punk of electronic music. You’re working with a very limited palette and you can only do so much [with] five sounds at a time.
AVC: Is that limitation constricting?
AW: In a very, very good way. Compositionally you put so much more time and effort into everything sounding as good as you can. The limiting stuff is much better compositionally, I think.
PB: The 8-bit aesthetic not associated with video games is something that I love. When you go into Photoshop and save a file as 16-bit with all this digital compression, that can look beautiful. I love the way that [computers] can change things. Even opening up Microsoft Paint and saving something as a 16-color picture, those changes that it makes are amazing artistically.
AVC: According to your web site, you're also inspired by sitcoms. You guys posted a theme for an ABC show, The Message In Your Heart?
PB: I made that. It’s in that same semi-ironic realm that Tim and Eric kind of reside in where they’ll do something and it’s funny, but it’s also awesome to look at and to experience. Like that “Dance Floor Dale” video. It’s fucking hilarious but it’s also aesthetically pleasing in a huge way. And so I made that sitcom theme, “The Message In Your Heart.” [Laughs.]
AVC: But that show isn't really happening, is it?
PB: No, it’s not. [Laughs.] If they contacted me I’d be way down. Much of it is a joke. But anything where I could employ that aesthetic, I’d be way down. Our approach is very much aesthetic as opposed to specific. We just try to create a feeling as opposed to telling a story. In our music we want to create a general feeling of adventure. We just don’t want to tell you exactly what that adventure is.
AVC: How do you give your songs titles without giving away what they're about?
PB: A lot of our melodies are "meaningful," but especially on our last release. Dawn Metropolis, I mean, it’s very difficult to put into words. Ary would probably have a much better grasp of this concept than I do.
AW: I don’t necessarily have a better grasp of it. I think that’s the whole point: It’s not supposed to be put into words.