Starpause @ GAMMA IV - restlyk9d

Based in Montreal, Quebec, Kokoromi is an experimental game collective whose latest installment in a curated event series took place at this year's Game Developers Conference. The GAMMA IV party on March 10th at the San Francisco Mezzanine brought together an assortment of one-button games created by independent developers and several musical acts inspired by retro game sound cards.

Pedal bike enthusiast and Creative Commons advocate Starpause (Jordan Gray) helped curate for the live music event. A co-organizer of the 8bitsf scene, he regularly performs chip music in the Northern California Bay Area and has given talks on contemporary low-fi music at the Data Beez micro-tour, Maker Faire, LoveTech and NoiseBridge. He was also recently interviewed by freelance journalist Gus Mastrapa for a Wired Game|Life article on chip music demakes.

In September you're scheduled to perform at the Tokyo Blip Festival, which will be featuring a set by Metroid composer Hip Tanaka. Is this a unique event for you to play?

Starpause, chip musician: Yeah, I'm super excited. There's also the social aspect of getting to see friends again like Quarta330, Coova, and Blasterhead (who I haven't seen since we played together in Stockholm). I also hope that Blip Tokyo will bridge the Pacific a bit. California and Japan are not too terribly far apart, so it would be nice to get people excited about the idea of a cross-Pacific scene and West Coast circuit for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.

Do you feel there might be an alignment of interests between the independent game and chip music communities, opening the door for further live events like GAMMA IV?

I see alignment between alternative control interfaces, the kind of stuff that Paris is doing, and independent games. He uses game consoles as controls for doing his visuals and playing around with his software is very much like playing a game. If you have fun dancing on the controls, then the visuals look cool. JYK, NOCARRIER, C-MEN and ENSO are using typical game controllers in an atypical setting, to conduct their visuals. I see another similarity in that the applications they're writing to perform their visuals are crafted in much the same way as indie games—one or two developers passionately slewing code, from scripts to assembly, to realize their dreams.

At GAMMA IV we saw much of the same: indie devs taking a single button and finding interesting contexts for people to interact with them. But the similarity doesn't end at the tools and tech—often overlooked is the social aspect. The developers and musicians at the GAMMA IV party shared a green room and I was swapping 1" pins with the Copenhagen Game Collective and nerding out on laser etching with Mikengreg. When you get like-minded people together in the same room it's no surprise that fun is had and imaginations get lit up. The interesting part is where these overlaps will lead us.


Starpause @ GAMMA IV - ingested

What would you point to as a major influence in your path toward performing chiptunes at venues around the world?

As a little bit of history, when I was growing up in Minneapolis, a guy named Benji Gross (or Radar Threat) was doing warehouse parties called Atari Parties, where you had these low-bit game systems set up for raves. There were super old TVs and maybe around ten systems in this loft. I remember the televisions being one of the only light sources, so you were kind of inherently drawn to them like a campfire. I was into games and grew up with an Amiga and Atari, so I didn't have to think much about why this was fun—it was just a cool setup. Those were pretty influential in my making music. The whole idea of games and live music going together sits well with me.

Do you see activities like 2 Player Productions' reportage and workshops to be contributing positively to the reception of this musical form?

Oh, yeah. That's been hugely useful. I don't think Blip Festival would be the party that it is without the glamorous lens 2 Player Productions lent the scene. They manage to make parties look as good as I remember them being. Having a camera around creates some exitement in it's own right, for the performers and the audience. It's a positive feedback loop that keeps snowballing.

Usually when I explain chip production to people, they have some level of an "Oh, that's rad" reaction. Some people make a social responsibility or environmental connection—the idea of recycling old hardware that would otherwise be useless and doing something creative with it. For others, it's nostalgic. Lectures, workshops and videos are prime formats for explaining the nuances of these attractions.

In addition to the the Data Beez micro tour, where have you been giving talks yourself most recently?

Last year I participated in Maker Faire, and I'm going to be doing that again. I had a booth set up explaining how chip music worked. Also I had Muddy GB on some Game Boys, and it was incredible seeing kids making sounds within a few seconds of picking them up. I enjoy sharing knowledge, and when you can enable people and give them a sense of ownership of their tools, that's pretty important. The happy story of "free as in freedom" has kept me orbiting the open source and homebrew scenes.


Starpause @ GAMMA IV - cd_buk

There are a number of independent games being released recently that feature chiptune soundtracks. Are there any indie titles that you've been keeping an eye on?

I'm a huge fan of the Bit.Trip games. For that series in particular using chip music in their games is indicative of the aesthetic. I definitely recognize a shared taste for blocky graphics and raw sounds.

If an indie developer were to contact you, would you have any interest in discussing some kind of collaboration?

Yeah, it would be an honor to hear from game developers. I'm part of the Northern Dragons demoscene group, so I'm used to working with janky internal music tools. Then again, these days it's just as easy to drop an mp3 or some loops into a game. Being a coder myself I'm hip to the whole idea of doing generative music, and working at an advertising agency I'm used to receiving artistic direction.

At PAX East there were live chiptune sets going on in the jamspace, and some of the musicians referred to low-fi music emulated on current-day laptops as "fakebit." I take it that you don't seek to stigmatize emulation?

Of course it's interesting to be authentic to systems and knowing the history of what you're emulating. It's a fun thing to nerd out on and get into. At the same time, I don't think there is any "right way" to go about making low-tech music.

Trash80 is sometimes called out for making fakebit, but by analyzing the properties of his favorite sound chips he was able to build a synthesizer called "digitek" that sounds a lot like the Little Sound DJ WAV and NOI channels but can can be tweaked beyond the original limitations. I think writing your own software is maybe worth more points, or at least deserves just as much credit, as buying LSDJ and plugging it into a Game Boy.

You've also mentioned that 4Mat's music has had an impact on your thinking and that his seminal early Amiga chiptunes were all done on updated hardware.

Yeah, his tumblr and twitter accounts are testaments to how prolific he is. As a fellow artist, I'm constantly looking up to him because of the amount of good material he puts out there. It's also really cool that he knows how to write his own tools. A lot of what I see as the spirit of chiptunes is do-it-yourself: Put it together and make it look cool.

Do-it-yourself is perhaps a mantra that closely binds the chiptune and indie game scenes.

It's a perfect correlation. I was just recalling some of the sessions I attended at the Game Developers Conference. The attitude and aesthetic that Cactus holds is actually really similar to someone like Goto80. It's another guy who writes his own software to make music that could not be made any other way.


Starpause @ GAMMA IV - gravity (airlock drop)

[For more on GAMMA IV, see the previous interview with Crashfaster. Information on the music of Starpause can be found on the artist's official website. GAMMA IV video coverage by Jeriaska.]