Photo: Kevyn Gnartinez Band at Freq.Fest 2016, photo by Crystal Glass
Conversations about the chiptune music scene usually conjure up images of nerds with Nintendo Game Boys and dusty Commodore computers twisting retro sounds into hyper dance music. That's true to an extent, especially in a town like New York, whose scene was the subject of the documentary Reformat the Planet almost a decade ago.
What's happening in LA, though, particularly over the past five years, is something much grungier. The artists have created a scene so diverse that there appears to be no rules. The bands associated with it have a totally different aesthetic. They are punk as fuck, and use the music as an expression of their weirdness and anxiety.
Chiptune has been a part of LA's underground music culture for the better part of the past two decades, but has always struggled to stay above water. Most of the problems can be attributed to disagreements among key players, but also it was generally too insular to attract much interest outside of the core circle of people. Two groups that got some traction in the early years doing regular monthly events were Club Microwave and the Obsolete Collective. But any progress they made was short lived.
The two main folks that have revolutionized LA's current chip scene are Kevyn Martinez and Jesse Avila, or 8BitLA as they call themselves. They throw shows in DIY spaces and dingy nightclubs throughout the year. Their flagship event is the annual three-day Freq.Fest. This January will mark their sixth installment, and will be at LA's infamous club, the Smell.
Last year's Freq.Fest was packed with roughly 200 excited kids every night. The room was filled with flashing lights, and a projector playing weird videos, more often than not retro video that appeared to be glitching out. It's a fitting backdrop to the vibrant DIY energy of the performances. The audience is an amalgam of goth kids in dark clothes and nerdy gamers in multi-colored threads and dyed hair.
At any given 8BitLA show, there are still solo acts armed with old school Game Boys, making crazy dance music, but much of the acts are bands. Any style of music is readily paired with 8-bit sounds: punk, industrial, pop, ska, surf, shoegaze, indie-folk. New York may have birthed chip-bands Anamanaguchi and Infinity Shred, but LA has woven chip-fusion into the fabric of its scene. Even many of the solo acts experiment with weird rhythms and sounds, creating some bizarre music.
It's so diverse that not every band uses chip sounds. Ones that used to, but have since moved on to a new sound, are still invited to play. Something much deeper holds this tight-knit scene together.
"A lot of people that go to our shows are people who feel disenfranchised by mainstream culture, whether you're just a nerd, or transgender, or gay or lesbian," Avila explains. "In their mainstream life, they feel anxious and stressed. They come to the show, they feel part of a community. I feel that theme translates into the music, no matter what the medium is: a Game Boy or an electric guitar."
It's largely this inclusive spirit that's led 8BitLA to continue to be the voice of LA's chip scene year after year. Club Microwave had a decent run from 2003 to 2005, and made a few failed attempted to reboot years later. Even the Obsolete Collective, which got a big write-up in the LA Times, lasted less than a year before imploding. Martinez was one of the folks who were part of this collective and felt the frustration of everyone having their own idea of how things should be done.
The following year, Martinez decided to work alone and took what was left from the scene's shrapnel, booking what would be the first Freq.Fest (called Frequency that first year) at an off-the-grid art space. Attendance was in the range of 20 people. One of those people was Avila. After that, the two worked together on the next year's Freq.Fest, adopting the name 8BitLA, also booking one-off shows when and where they could. Unlike their predecessors, they haven't had a lull in the scene since starting, and have helped to inspire many new, young bands in the process. The last two years they've even taken Freq.Fest up to San Jose (2015) and San Francisco (2016), partnering up with 8BitSF, a smaller, but like-minded group of eclectic chiptune lovers.
Growth has been gradual, but consistent, which is exactly how healthy DIY scenes are supposed to be fostered.
Originally conceived in Northern California mission town San Juan Bautista by Pedro Silva, Slime Girls first took the stage as a fairly large band that played ska, punk, surf, and had 8Bit sounds running through the entirety of it. Eventually the project was whittled down to just Silva, who relocated to LA. He's gotten acclaim, and was featured on the Nerdist podcast. His album covers use an anime aesthetic doused in soft pastels. He doesn't use many chip sounds anymore. His last album, Don't Forget, sounds more like a Final Fantasy soundtrack than anything produced by a Nintendo Game Boy. Highlight for the band: They were once joined on stage by Hannibal Buress at SXSW, who sat in on keyboards.
Playing Tourist Forever
If you were to remove the chip sounds from three-piece Playing Tourist Forever, it would sound like the kind of lo-fi garage-punk band that would get a limited tape run on Burger Records. But the chip melodies are integral to the band's sound. It's the clash between the trashy, sometimes epic guitar licks, the punchy drums and chip melodies that make Playing Tourist Forever such an interesting project. Lead singer Doug Jenkins, has a snotty, almost-Strokes-esque voice that's drowning in reverb, a delightful juxtaposition to the dreamy melodies he spits out. It's surreal listening to the instrumental sections as the Game Boy dmg-01 riffs out with the crunching guitar.
Here Between You Me
Terence Calacsan doesn't just have a Game Boy, he has a Game Boy synth, which is like a mini keytar, but plugged into a Game Boy. And he plays the shit out if it. The rest of the band, Xavier Martinez (bass) and Daryle Joseph (drums), assists him in creating some serious emo-influenced pop songs. The vocals, shared by Calacsan and Martinez, are forlorn and straight out of the teen angst/dejected-by-society playbook. The emotion is intense nonetheless. The three-piece formed in 2012, and has sporadically released just singles until 2016 when they finally released their debut EP.
Vocalist/bassist/Game Boy player Jesse Avila, one half of 8bitLA, formed Paladin Shield in 2015. Before that, he rocked out in 1000 Needles, an "indietronica" chip duo. Paladin Shield has much more of a foot in the rock realm. There's some shoegaze-pop, anthemic rock, with plenty of 8-bit bloops and bleeps. The whole 80s vibe is strong, and not just with the Game Boy sounds. The band rides a line of guilty pleasure hooks, and down-and-dirty, cut-off-shirt rockin' riffage. It ends up with a spine-tingling, sweet, almost childlike naivety.
Kevyn Gnartinez Band
Kevyn Martinez, the other half of 8bitLA, has been in the scene for years (though went by WizWars), playing some chaotic, noisy chip-thrash that developed a noteworthy cult audience. WizWars' legacy remains intact. When Martinez released the entire WizWars discography on Bandcamp a few months ago, the chip scene went nuts. The Kevin Gnartinez Band reflects more of Martinez's pop punk influences. These are songs written to be rock anthems, in the vein of Jimmy Eats World, mostly. The band uses a Famitracker to produce all those nifty NES sounds.
EvilWezil is one of the elder acts in the current chip scene, and was a member of the Obsolete Collective. Actually, his time goes back almost a decade. His music is creepy, eerie, and sounds like a computer slowly disintegrating into tiny digital molecules. His beats don't thump, but gently float in space. The chip sounds sparkle and shine amongst the layers of other computer-generated sounds and noises. It's a much more intimate take on chiptune. Not rock, but definitely not dance music either. The songs twist and turn, like mini laptop prog rock, but not really at all.
One of the earliest and most well known LA chip bands is 8 Bit Weapon, which was formed in 1999 by Seth Sternberger. In 2006, he expanded it officially to a two-piece with his wife Michelle. They've gotten some national attention, even remixing music for Erasure, Kraftwerk, and Information Society. Michelle was already familiar with making chiptune. She'd been making music under the moniker ComputeHer. She still is. Her music is light, danceable, and fun. It sounds like the kind of music a computer would make for all of humanity if it was a kind, human-loving machine. Michelle has collaborated on several random projects, like video game exhibit "The Art of Video Games" for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She's also worked with the great Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo to create sound effects for a video game that ended up not getting released.
Trash-80 is a nickname for a now-mostly-forgotten late 70s computer, the Radio Shack TRS-80. Timothy Lamb took this brilliant name as his chip moniker. He is another one of the original members of the Obsolete Crew, but goes back even further than that. His music is chip-electronic dance music. It's slinky, with a devil-ish vibe to it. Lots of ambient soundscapes meshed with simple melodies. It's what I imagine what would be playing at a rave populated solely by nerdy video game programmers. And they would lose their shit to it. Lamb is a longtime lover of computer music. He's been tinkering with computers to create smooth jams since the early 90s, before diving headfirst into chiptune.
Inspired by WizWars and other chipthrash acts, Jeremy Pera, or as he's known, Viami, started his foray into the world of Nintendo Game Boy music in 2012. It's not as noisy as WizWars, though there's certainly plenty of distortion and ugliness emoting from everything he produces. Pera mixes in some EDM influences as well. It's mysterious, moody music that seems appropriate for a tense soundtrack to a scary film. He should collaborate with Austin's S U R V I V E next year and produce something really eerie.
As eclectic as chiptune can be, no one brings this point home harder than MrWimmer (a.k.a. Alex Wimmer). He's clearly a Frank Sinatra fan, and makes no attempt at hiding it. His voice has an overt flair of Rat Pack elegance. Musically, it lavishes in the world of teeny tiny sounds: electronic beats that seem to barely make a thud, intertwining twinkling 8-bit flourishes. The whole thing seems like something the Residents would've made if they had Game Boys back in the 70s. Is it schmaltzy? A little bit, but it's quite unsettling too.