September 20, 2010 9:10 PM | jeriaska
For the past five years, George Michael Brower and Jonathan Baken have been making music with pxtone collage. A low-fi music editing program for Windows, pxtone was designed by Cave Story creator Pixel (Daisuke Amaya) to enable the composition of low-fi, homebrew game music. Jonathan first discovered the program on the forums for the NES Music Archive "2a03" and decided to give it a shot. He and Peter Berkman of Anamanaguchi in turn introduced the software to George. The music group George and Jonathan casually came to be, eventually resulting in the recently released album "The Best Music." We caught up with George and Jonathan to hear about the process behind the making of their album, from cave story to cave trolls.
Having created so much music on pxtone collage, were you interested in playing Cave Story to get a sense of Pixel's art style?
George Michael Brower: I've played a little Cave Story, but I haven't beaten it. The origins of pxtone were only made apparent to me maybe a year after I started using it. I do think the fact that this program just sort of floated from Japan into the hands of two kids in the suburbs of New York is sort of beautiful. I'm infinitely thankful it did.
What was it about the setup of pxtone that distinguished it from nerd tracker and other music creation tools you were trying out at the time?
Jonathan Baken: Well, for one thing you could actually use a mouse! Nerd tracker is a DOS-based program, so you have to use various commands on the keyboard to navigate the program. Pxtone was a lot easier and I really liked having seemingly unlimited tracks for making dense compositions. Also, pxtone can take any sample as long as it's a .wav file. This provides the user with endless possibilities, whereas nerd tracker just made 2a03 sounds with 5 channels: 2 squares, triangle, noise, DPCM. (Don't get me wrong: I still love composing chiptunes with trackers. I've recently been making a ton of stuff on the Game Boy with LSDJ.)
What advantages do you feel pxtone offers to musicians making indie games?
Jonathan: Well, it's certainly less complicated than most trackers and the layout is pretty straightforward and easy. After you load up your sample, you can draw notes on the piano roll, allowing you to see and hear everything in a musical context that makes sense. This was definitely helpful for me because my musical background was very minimal at the time I began using this program. It's very easy to sequence drums and percussion, as all you have to do is load in a drum sample and you can start clicking on the grid. And if you want to make simple chip music, the samples that the program comes with are more than enough to get you started.
Just prior to the release of your album, you performed several tracks in Los Angeles as part of a chiptune concert. As it so happens, the composers of independent game titles PongVaders and Darwinia played the same night. Do you see The Best Music as a good fit, when played together with chiptune music?
George: Jonathan and I have always lurked on the outskirts of the chiptune scene, not particularly sure that we had designs on 'becoming a band' or even 'releasing an album' when we started trading music. Most of these songs were written to entertain ourselves and three of our friends en route to a wing joint we frequented in high school.
In general, what interests you in low-fi music, and do you feel it has particular advantages as an art form?
Jonathan: I've always loved videogame music and the sounds used to create it, whether it was from an NES, SNES or Genesis. It's really fun and rewarding to make big melodic arrangements with really simple, old school sounds. As far as advantages go, it's not as common an art form, so it's easier to have your own unique sound, which is cool. Also, since it's a pretty small music scene compared to most, it's much easier to get involved, share your work with people and play awesome shows.
George performed your composition "Sludge Mansion" during the LA stop of Nullsleep's Collapsed Desires tour. What went into the creation of this track and what musical elements do you feel associate the sound with the image of "a mansion with sludge?"
Jonathan: Me, George and some other friends had been talking a whole bunch about a slime concept album ("Slime and Punishment") so I wanted to make a song that literally oozed with slime everywhere, all the time. This track started as a short loop, (it's the part in the very beginning that you only hear once in the song.) This was also one of my first attempts at making funk music so I was listening to a lot of Pfunk for inspiration. Pretty much every instrument in the song (besides the
drums) is slimey. But I would have to say the breakdown with just the arpeggios and chords is most evocative of the Sludge Mansion. I always imagined slime oozing from the walls during that part and a giant sludge ballroom being revealed for everyone to dance in.
How would you describe the process behind your collaboration over the years?
George: A lot of it involves trying to impress / show up / out-sass / out-slime one another, trying to inject as much of a sense of humor as one can into 'instrumental' music, trying to communicate this very dense, idealized version of a song you have in your head. On a technical level, we send a lot of .ptcop's back and forth to one another on Gmail or via FTP. A lot of it was done online as we were generally on opposite coasts throughout the course of college. When we did get together in person, on breaks and whatnot, we just sort of sing at each other, then one of us draws it into the piano roll.
Many of your tracks, like the troll songs, appear to invite the listener to imagine particular scenes and scenarios playing out. Do you feel they might work well in a narrative context like a movie or videogame?
Jonathan: Absolutely. I love trying to tell a story or evoke a theme through instrumental music, and it's always been my dream to have my music in a game or movie. The song title "Cave Trolls" actually came about before any of the song had been written, so the entire time I was writing that song I was trying to paint a picture that represented "cave trolls." I'm sure it would be a similar process if I were working on a game and they needed a song for the cave level where there were lots of troll enemies or something.
How do you feel your process might have differed were you close enough to meet in person the entire time?
Jonathan: The album probably would have been finished a lot earlier. We definitely got a lot of stuff done when we met up during school breaks. I don't think the music would be much different though.
What were the major factors that led to this album requiring five years of experimentation before seeing the light of day?
George: The Best Music represents maybe a quarter of the music we've traded in the past few years. The album title is both handsome and functional. Other factors include: distance, work, school, the nature of the program itself (pxtone is sort of a handicraft), excessive meticulousness...
Were there any events that marked a turning point, leading you to officially title and publish The Best Music?
Jonathan: Yes. There was a break around March 2010 when George and I met up in Philly (my home base) and brought a few of our old songs back to life. (I believe the songs were "Kevin," "Toy Factory," and "Cave Trolls.") At this point we had 12 tracks finished that we were really proud of and we decided the album was conceptually complete. We added "GUH" a bit later, but that was just a short interlude. After that we were just tweaking mixes and arrangements here and there until we were satisfied.
What plans do you have for the future of your music?
George: We haven't decided what's next in the world of George & Jonathan! Hoping to release our music more... incrementally. More shows, for certain, now that Jonathan and I live somewhat close to one another.
For more information about George & Jonathan, visit georgeandjonathan.com. Live video by Jeriaska.