A Kiss on the Blips
We were walking down a desolate, darkened 7th Street in Brooklyn, the biting wind making me want to get back on the F train towards civilization. The lights in the row houses around us were all off and we were the only ones on the sidewalk. Was the Bell House just a code word for someone's basement? I was suddenly less confident that the four-day Blip Festival 2008 was, in reality, as much a festival as suggested in minusbaby's promo video -- not to mention the stirring trailer for "Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet," a recent documentary about the annual party in which chiptune musicians and video artists from all over the world converge to play their hacked Game Boys to a crowd of pixel freaks.
This was the third Blip Festival.
People who learned how to run and jump on the Nintendo Entertainment System in the '80s might hear modern-day chiptune music first as an oddity ("Um, this sounds like videogame music?"), then a charming novelty ("I didn't know people still made stuff like this, how cool and weird"), and then perhaps something else. Perhaps it's a foolproof way for them to reconnect to the fantasies of their childhood/adolescence, or a way out of the overproduced quagmire of pop music that's equally catchy and several degrees fresher.
Chiptunes, originally composed for games using the primitive sound chips on the NES, Atari systems, Commodore 64, Amiga and more (remember the Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, Final Fantasy and countless other themes), are still made with those tools, and their scratchy drum sounds and neon melodies still sound just like videogame music -- in other words, like nothing else. As Kyle Orland said in our feature on the Game Trust's favorite classic game tunes, game music once "actually had a distinctive character that was exclusive to the medium."
Vim, "Hazel, Dave, Aaron, and the Tall One"
"You've got to be really good with circuit-bending," says one kid to another in the line at the food truck. My friend and fellow Crispy-ite Matt Zerbo and I have reached the Bell House at the end of the quiet block. It's a converted industrial warehouse where a modest-sized crowd has flocked, eager to get out of the cold and into the Blip Fest. We can hear faint reverberations of bass, but we're hungry, so we think to get Salvadoran food from the conveniently placed truck across the street before heading inside.
Hacked designer Game Boys
"Sometimes they take the controller out and they play it on the controller," the kid says.
"So awesome," muses his friend. I notice that today's nerds -- I mean bona-fide nasal-voiced and pimply-faced nerds, not mere enthusiasts -- wear skinny jeans and Vans. (It could just be the nerds in Brooklyn.)
We've waited too long in the cold with no sign of placing an order, so we join the line at the door. "I'm not even gonna check my coat," Zerbo says. "It's going to be freezing in there, too." I'm still worried that the event's going to be dead. I'm already running through excuses in my head: "It really sounds a lot better on laptop speakers." "You never can tell what people are doing onstage at electronic music shows, can you?" "Well, a lot of the music is free, anyway."
Vim, "Hazel, Dave, Aaron, and the Tall One"
The merchandise tables are decked out with 8-bit paraphernalia: modified blue- and red-screen Game Boys; albums on NES cartridges and 3.5" floppy disks (plus CDs); T-shirts adorned with pixel art; flashing little devices that I can't identify but must make music.
Random, "Micawber's Moan" (© 8bitpeoples)
The performance space is dungeon-dark, and it's crowded, too. The imposing, heavyset guy onstage is just pounding the last few blips, bloops and blurps into his set. People chant his name: "Low-Gain! Low-Gain! Low-Gain!" Big red and white blocks light up the screen behind him like Mario under a microscope. I'm feeling in between worlds at this point, still thinking about the F train back home but ready to get lost in the dungeon.
"One thing about this that makes me happy is that everyone's as bad at dancing as I am," Zerbo says wryly, breaking the ice but also bringing me crashing back into reality. Am I going to dance? "If we had a competition to see who was the most clean-shaven person here, I'd definitely win." I'm very glad he is humoring me so far.
This hair goes by the name Cheap Dinosaurs.
Cheap Dinosaurs, the musician onstage next, is hidden behind thick, curly locks over a foot long. 1UP mushrooms flit across the screen at lightspeed. The 8-bit music is built from the same sounds as the last guy's, but it's fully his own. He's making the blips come out of a keyboard, like he's only playing a game on a controller made to resemble a piano. The music is complex and probably "musical," if you were to transcribe it to paper. But I suspect its structure makes a different kind of sense to many in the room: The unassuming intro, that's the title screen. When the drums come in and the room's full of bleeps, that's when you GO! When the bleeps suddenly freeze up, like they're not sure where to go next, that's when you'd normally take out the cartridge and blow on it. When they speed up double-time, that's the boss battle. The enthusiasm spreads throughout the room and I think of Contra's frenetic running and jumping, even though I don't remember its soundtrack.
Role Model, "We, The Soccer Team" (© 8bitpeoples)
After Cheap Dinosaurs is a guy named Role Model who has a bit of a cocky swagger, I think. Afterwards, I find out that he's Johan Kotlinski, the inventor of Little Sound Disk Jockey (LSDJ) -- the cartridge and now downloadable ROM that many chiptune artists use to coax effervescent protests out of their Game Boys -- and he deserves both his swagger and his alias. Role Model's music lopes and lurches about the room, more deranged and unexpected than what's come before, but it pulls us all in. He's naturally a master of his own program. A noisy, spastic bootleg of Missy Elliott's "4 My People" makes Timbaland's original sound like it was written in the Stone Age.
Role Model in one of his rare "not dancing across the stage" moments
"They said the coat check's full," Zerbo yells over Missy. "It's getting hot in here." The crowd contracts around us as we end up near the stage for a better view. Being pushed and pulled around up here, before the flashing screen, I think this is what it would've been like if every kid in my hometown could have played the same game in one room.
I realize why it matters to me that these retro-futuristic rock stars look like they're playing videogames -- essentially are playing videogames -- up there. It makes me believe that I can do it, too. I know what those buttons do -- except it's not just between me and the glowing screen anymore; here, it's bigger than that.
I find myself outside in a daze. The food truck, wizening up, has now parked itself just outside the front door. A kid in a big, yellow Pikachu shirt that looks freshly ironed walks by. Pikachu's a fitting icon, because standing in front of a club speaker blasting raw chiptune, I know now, makes you feel like a very cheerful 500-megawatt superconductor. The last concert that felt this electric to me, the Japanese psychedelic band Acid Mothers Temple playing at the back of a bar, had a beardy, transcendent, let's-camp-out-on-a-mountain-and-have-a-s?ance quality to it. The last set made me think I should just plug myself into the nearest outlet.
Glomag's a god.
Wearing a black T-shirt and with platinum-white hair, Glomag grips his Game Boy tightly with both hands like a hacker in a William Gibson novel cradling his Ono-Sendai cyberspace deck. As he twists left and right, electronic arpeggios scythe out across the room, and Zerbo and I are in the middle. The music changes tempos, key signatures, time signatures. People are crowd-surfing one after another, and I have to dodge the occasional stray boot. When it breaks out into a high-octane drum & bass frenzy, a mosh pit forms. The kid in a Pikachu shirt is going at it. So is Zerbo, who is clearly won over. A few songs later, Glomag halves the velocity and expands time like we're in a black hole. "That's some 808 shit," I remark on how the chiptunes have shape-shifted into old-school hip-hop. He agrees.
I think he took a spill later.
We meet two kids outside the venue who've trekked up here from California. "You don't have anything like this?" I ask. "California's dead, man," one of them says, forlorn. "People listen to Nickelback out there."
I ask them what games they're playing. They look at each other, uncomfortable. They don't really play games these days, except for some stuff on the Wii. It's a standard non-gamer response that reminds me of another guy we met in the line to get in: "I'm not any kind of gamer, but I spent all day playing Mega Man 2 just to get pumped about this." They aren't gamers; they're just addicted to the sound. I ask them if they've tried the new KORG DS-10 music program on the Nintendo DS, and they ask skeptically, "Is that even chiptune?" Now it's my turn to look uncomfortable. "No ? it's more like a real synthesizer," I say, already losing interest as well.
It seems a safe assumption that the majority of the chiptune scene isn't made up of hardcore gamers screaming into headsets late at night in, say, a meticulously reconstructed World War II. Not only the music, but also the graphics and gameplay, of the 8- and 16-bit classics occupy a different dimension -- literally -- than today's blockbuster games. Chiptune seems to bring forth our shared memories of a simpler, flatter era of gaming.
I was sad to miss Bubblyfish. Curse that F train.
The next day, Saturday, as I'm waiting for the train to the venue and lamenting the fact that I'm missing Bubblyfish's set this very minute, I sneak a glance at the kid standing on the other side of the column. We must be thinking the same thing because he's holding a Game Boy -- not the Game Boy Color or the Game Boy Advance, but the clunky original -- and playing Tetris. The shifting blocks on its little green screen look ghostly. The original Game Boy, thick and rough and gray, doesn't even look like a "portable device" today. You couldn't even lose it through one of the grates on a New York City sidewalk. Instead, it looks like a powerful radio beacon for calling a spaceship, or at least something with which you could defend yourself.
Cow'p, "Bass and Organ"
I'm a little more discerning at the show this day, and start hearing things that aren't exciting to me. Sulumi from Beijing plays relentless, pounding dance music for over-caffeinated 15-year-olds. Nullsleep, one of chiptune's best-known names, fashions himself some kind of emo cyborg genius -- rudely flicking off the moshers and ravers while riding high on their enthusiasm. For me, the highlight of Saturday night is Tokyo's Cow'p, who looks like an otaku shaman as he channels squeals from his Pikachu doll. There's a cable coming out of the doll's belly; its right eye is a dial. As Cow'p twists and turns the Pikachu, the blips and bloops above the heaving bass waves twist and turn as well.
Cow'p tag-teamed with Pikachu.
But the night's disappointments actually make me feel good. I know now that I don't have to like it all. There's plenty of room in this scene for failed experiments and bursting egos, and even more for leftfield turns, unforeseen uses of outdated hardware and unexpected flashes of the past. It's like they hit a global reset button on the history of popular music, deciding to remake it in their own image -- bright, flat and furiously addictive.