The Boston 8-bit collective breathes new life into old game systems
James Therrien, a classically trained musician, is gazing upon an array of old
“Game Boys. Love Game Boys,’’ he muses. “They’re so cheap and you can get so many of them. They have back lights so you can see them on stage. And they all have different sounds — some of them are almost like a bass Game Boy, some of them are almost like a treble Game Boy.
Therrien is one half of the Boston chiptune duo Br1ght Pr1mate — the duo’s other half, vocalist Lydia Marsala, is seated next to him at Great Scott, where Br1ght Pr1mate will be among the artists playing a Boston 8-Bit Chiptune Showcase next Wednesday. Also in on the conversation is Chris Mahoney, a Cape Cod-based chiptune artist who goes by the space-helmet-clad alias Active Knowledge.
Wait a minute. Chiptune? 8-Bit? Game Boys?
“That’s what we get every single time: What is it?’’ Therrien says before launching into a ready-made explanation (you get the sense he’s had to do this a lot lately) of the latest micro-genre of electronic music.
“Chiptune,’’ he says, “is essentially about using old video game hardware — Commodore 64s, Game Boys, Nintendos — to make music via their old sound chips.’’
During the past year, a small but fast-growing community of chiptune artists, devotees, and video game deconstructionists has emerged seemingly from nowhere — and everywhere. Br1ght Pr1mate and Active Knowledge are founders of a thriving online collective called Boston8bit.com, which has lured local followers of rebuilt, repurposed, and reimagined video game music. The site is, unofficially, a local offshoot of the 8bitcollective site (8bc.org), a larger hub which bills itself as “the online chiptune neighborhood’’ and boasts more than 19,000 registered users worldwide.
The three principals of Boston8bit.com are surprised by the immediate enthusiasm they’ve encountered online and, more importantly, at their shows (the last three showcases all sold out). Even more surprising, they say, is the community they’ve helped to create — almost by accident. Mahoney bought the Boston8bit.com domain name as a way of providing a space for chiptune fans to chat; but before long, he says, “it became something completely overwhelming.’’
“A lot of chiptune music came from the video game community initially — video game composers would write their own music using the same hardware they were using to write video game music, and that’s kind of how it started,’’ Therrien says. “There are people who have been making fantastic chiptune music in their basement for, like, 10, 15, 20 years. They just never assumed that people would want to listen to it.’’
But listen — and flock to dance to it — they have. The shows and house parties that members of the Boston 8-Bit collective play have the feel of old-school raves, only with DJs manning jerry-rigged consoles and customized laptops instead of turntables and samplers. Flashing lights and strobes, and frenetic music loaded with sensory synapse triggers (like the familiar sound of a leaping Mario) have been filling rooms dancing revelers and the rooms keep getting bigger.
“It’s really good that people are starting to pick up on it,’’ Mahoney, 26, says. “So it’s less of a novelty. Now people show up and they don’t care what’s on stage. They just hear something that makes them dance.’’
Besides the bumping beats and bleeping, blooping melodic sequences, it’s the overtly nostalgic component of chiptune music that’s helping carry it beyond its niche audience. “I feel like there’s a space for this nostalgic kind of music,’’ Marsala says. “For a while radio was trying to [tap into] a nostalgia for the ’90s; I feel like we’re doing that too, but we’re coming at it from a different angle.’’
Then, of course, there’s the geek element.
“You go to a house music night or a dance night and there are a lot of people trying to be cool,’’ says Therrien. “Whereas if you go to a chiptune show, you’re hanging around with a bunch of nerds. There are no barriers. You have computer-science kids that are stage-diving.’’
This is all a far cry from the music world that Therrien and Marsala, both 27, inhabited with their band Fugitive Kind. “This scene is so small that there’s a community aspect [to it],’’ Marsala says. “When we were in a band, we definitely struggled more. We also had a lot of equipment to carry around. With this, what we need fits into two backpacks.’’
Therrien echoes the sentiments of his Br1ght Pr1mate partner. “We were in the rock scene for, like five years, and to be honest, we didn’t find much of a community at all,’’ he says. “It’s impossible to enter, everything is rivalries, everyone is competing for the same audience.’’
Mahoney too had toiled in rock bands before embracing his inner geek. His epiphany came after he had bought Nintendo hardware that allowed him to create original music.
“I brought it to band practice one day and played a song, and said, ‘Hey guys, what do you think about this?’ And they just gave me this blank look,’’ Mahoney says. “I realized at that point that I’m going to have to do this by myself.’’
But even within what the Boston8bit folks claim is a close-knit community, there are divisions; different ideas when it comes to the aesthetics, approach, and execution of 8-bit music. (“Fakebit,’’ for example, refers to chiptune artists who use modern technology to emulate vintage sounds.) Ultimately, what chiptune music is and isn’t, and where it can go — its limitations and possibilities — is up to the artist and audience.
“Honestly, a lot of it is pop,’’ Therrien says. “Guitarists have been playing three chords for the past 40 years and making pop hits, so I don’t see any reason why you’d be limited by this equipment.’’ This from a guy who claims to have “hated electronic music’’ as a Boston Conservatory student studying classical music — until he began hearing his Game Boy in new registers.
“In the ’90s, a lot of electronic music was based on loops and a repetition of samples,’’ Therrien explains. “There wasn’t a lot of harmonic movement. But because of the way the hardware is set up, a lot of chiptune music is really harmonic and really melodic. That’s weird, right? I was writing string quartets and chorale and orchestra pieces. Now I’m doing this.’’
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