The recent rise of the 8-bit/Chiptune movement within the Indie Pop scene presents a fascinating dichotomy. Electronic game sonics are blended with live instrumentation and assembled and performed by inventive artists who are simultaneously utilizing cutting-edge hardware/software and obsolete technology that dates back to (and in some cases pre-dates) the earliest periods of their childhoods.
In a field crowded with basement/bedroom Laptop Pop experimentalists, New York City quartet Anamanaguchi stands as one of the leading lights at the forefront of the Chiptune genre. Starting as a duo nearly a decade ago, Anamanaguchi has become a dominant Chiptune force with an enviably high profile, composing music for the video game adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and hitting the top spot on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart with the recent release of sophomore album Endless Fantasy.
Although the four members — guitarists Peter Berkman and Ary Warnaar, bassist James DeVito and drummer Luke Silas — hail from wildly different musical roots, they converge under the Anamanaguchi banner to create tracks that are deceptively simple yet nuanced, sophisticated and sometimes epic.
“We all come from pretty distinct backgrounds, not just with this hardware or software, but with music in general,” Silas says via phone from his New York City home. “The stuff that ends up being released as Anamanaguchi is the product of what we all agree on. It’s the center of the Venn diagram. I think we all collectively have this enjoyment for well crafted Pop songs. People will talk shit on (Swedish Pop producer/songwriter) Max Martin all day, but let’s face it, there’s something about that that is just so right.”
One of the most amazing aspects of Anamanaguchi’s process is the novel use of the 8-bit technology used in Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) consoles in the mid-’80s and, later, Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy systems. While modern logic would indicate that the limitations of 30-year-old technology would outweigh its advantages, Anamanaguchi avoids such black-and-white thinking.
“What’s funny is the only difference between us using this and someone hunting down an old synth is that this is not what (8-bit technology) was meant to be doing,” Silas says.
“Granted, there are obvious technical limitations to this, like you only get so many monophonic channels that you can work with at a time. But for all intents and purposes, it is just another piece of hardware. My day job is writing for a commercial music library and it would probably surprise you to know how much I end up using a Game Boy as a synth in tracks I submit for commercial work.”
The big difference for Anamanaguchi on Endless Fantasy — as opposed to its 2006 debut EP, Power Supply, and first full-length, 2009’s Dawn Metropolis — is a significantly broader production palette. With more sophisticated weaponry at their disposal in the studio, the band took the opportunity to flesh out its sound exponentially.
“In the past few years, we’ve started to work with different hardware and software that limits us less, and with this album there’s just more software production work than our last few releases,” Silas says. “We’re opening ourselves up a lot more.”
Anamanaguchi’s repurposing of electronic games for musical pursuits is reminiscent of the work of Cincinnatian Reed Ghazala, widely acknowledged as the earliest proponent of circuit-bending, the art of making weirdly appealing sonic art by short-circuiting and rerouting sounds made by thrift store toys and other electronic devices and then channeling them through various components. Discovering the technique in the ’60s, Ghazala went on to create circuit-bending instruments for Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits and a host of others.
“The circuit-bending scene and the Chip scene have always gone hand in hand,” Silas notes. “Like here in New York, there was a festival called the Blip Festival — it ended last year — and it was all Chip music. And the people who organized that were also organizing the Bent Festival, which was all homemade circuit bending or homemade electronics, and there was sometimes some overlap. This one incredible artist, Tristan Perich, would play both of them and create these contemporary Classical pieces with solo sound chips, or a sound chip and a harpsichord, and it was just fucking breathtaking. The tradition runs so far and so deep.”
Anamanaguchi’s more expansive sound on Endless Fantasy came as all four members stepped up their contributions to the creative process. Early on, Berkman handled the bulk of the songwriting duties, while Warnaar occasionally contributed ideas. At that point, the band’s lineup was still in a state of flux, but with the arrival of DeVito and Silas and their compositional talents, Anamanaguchi has achieved a new breadth and depth.
“We approached this from a collaborative standpoint that we really weren’t before,” Silas says. “Until 2010, it was really just Pete (Berkman) writing songs, and Ary (Warnaar) had written one. Around that time, our whole process opened up and we were all contributing way more. It is, for the first time, a real record that we all have our hands on and all have this strong connection to. It’s different. Very different.”
It’s equally true that Anamanaguchi’s bigger sonic presence on Endless Fantasy was made possible by the unwavering support of an extremely loyal fan base. The quartet launched a Kickstarter campaign for the album with a stated goal of $50,000, a mark reached in less than half a day. They ultimately collected over a quarter of a million dollars to make the album, making it the third highest-pledged Kickstarter music project of all time.
“Before we put (the crowdfunding campaign) up, we were still having meetings amongst ourselves, asking, ‘If we don’t make it to our $50,000 goal, what are we going to do?’ ” Silas says. “There is no way I could have predicted how well it would go or the amount of overwhelming positive support that would come through for this record. It was nothing short of mind-blowing. There’s no way I can talk about it that will do it justice, frankly. It was really humbling.”
ANAMANAGUCHI plays the Ballroom at the Taft Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 17. Click here for details and more info.