It's true: Drums, guitar, bass and a vintage NES can collide and create gorgeous music together. Pete Berkman, the 22-year-old behind the part-chiptune, part-traditional rock band Anamanaguchi says it was as simple as his own high school-age realization that what Weezer and dudes behind Mega Man 2 were doing was very much the same thing. Fueled by that realization, Berkman and his bandmates have been crafting wordless sonic gestures that drip evenly with distortion and square waves, uniting a longtime and equitable love of both music and video games.
In advance of Anamanaguchi's show with Peelander-Z at the Marquis Theatre on Friday, March 25, we spoke with Berkman about how his band has brought gamers and music fans together through the diversity of the chiptune and 8-bit community.
Westword: How do you explain chiptune or 8-bit music to someone who may have no prior knowledge of the musical capability of videogames?
Peter Berkman: 8-bit music and chiptune -- or whatever you want to call it -- is basically turning old videogame consoles and computer chips into synthesizers. Re-contextualizing the videogame system, making it something that is the centerpiece of music, which is pretty novel to most people, I guess. In our case, it is even weirder, because we play it in a rock band context. It's like making music with videogame hardware, without making actual video game music, and trying to use the limitations of that old hardware to make new sounds.
How did you discover that you could make chiptune music in combination with traditional instrumentation?
I grew up playing in bands, and I also grew up playing video games, so it made sense to me. When I found out I could make 8-bit music, it was at a time where I was in a band -- we were practicing in my basement, and when we would take breaks, we would play Mega Man 2. Listening to the soundtrack of that videogame, I thought, this is awesome. Between recording Weezer covers, we would cover Mega Man 2. We thought, these guys knew what they were doing.
When I was fifteen, I found out that I could make 8-bit music through a program I found online, made by these Swedish people. Once I started making 8-bit music, everything started to sound very video game-y and silly and not that good. But I just sort of thought, Hey, wait -- I can make the music I want to make, right here, with these video games. There is no reason I can't. So I added guitar because it made sense to the music I wanted to make. Basically, Anamanaguchi is just a vehicle for me to do whatever I want. At least it was. Now it's a band.
Listening to Ratatat back in 2006 and hearing those sounds blend was a real eye-opener. They were one of the best electronic-acoustic blend bands, where you couldn't tell what sound was what. From that, I realized how similar the sound of a distorted guitar and a dirty 8-bit square wave were. Both are extremely primitive and raw and sound really good together.
Are there any limitations to playing live?
With playing live, we are always afraid we're going to move a certain way and the (video game) system will turn off. [Laughs] That's happened a couple of times -- a show has gotten too rowdy and someone unplugs something, and the entire song just turns off. Or, literally, for no reason at all -- I mean we still haven't figured this out -- one note will ring out forever, and we'll have to turn the song off and start over.
The limitations come most from the actual arrangement, when writing songs. You have a limited amount of channels and you have to synthesize all the sounds yourself, since you're not working with samples. The sounds are so primitive that it is very easy to make something sound horrible. We don't use samples -- well, the only samples we do use are tiny one-bit drum samples that have been imported to the NES itself. You just have to work really hard to make each song sound different.
Does that make Anamanguchi 8-bit purists, in a sense?
No, I mean, there definitely are a lot of purists out there with the whole 8-bit thing, but more and more, I've been interested in making music that sounds good. [Laughs] I feel like I've done the whole limitation thing and it has definitely informed my songwriting. If a song is done, I'll think, maybe it needs a bigger kick because it's a dance-y song, and I won't be afraid to add that. I've just written a song that is a total Spice Girls jam that is going to need a bigger kick. [Laughs]
Coming from somewhere like New York where there is automatically a larger the 8-bit community, have you been come across or been surprised by other 8-bit scenes in smaller cities?
It's weird where things wind up -- the whole scene very much has its roots in the Internet. Swedish people made the programs, Japanese people mastered them, and then people in the U.S. found out about them years later. We [the 8-bit community at large] know all of the same people across the world, and have played the same meet-ups and festivals throughout the year. But we've been on the road a couple of times and found some hubs that have surprised us, like Rochester. The show Anamanaguchi played there was sold out, and we had no idea how that happened. [Laughs] We had an 8-bit artist open for us in Morgantown, Virginia, which totally rules.
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It definitely lends to the notion that the 8-bit community can exist outside of the Internet.
There are these insular electronic communities that are all about having releases online and have cool art and a good web presence. But the 8-bit music scene is very much about bringing that to a public atmosphere, and part of that is because the music is so inherently visual. We played a show at this comic book store in L.A., Meltdown Comics, and several people came up to me and were like, "I've never been to a show before." I was like, "What? Are you serious? You're in your twenties. That is insane." But it happens all the time.
It is amazing, because you have these people who have built a culture for themselves around the Internet, who know so much about the stuff that they care about -- but they have no way to embrace that community. Now they have a way to get out of their house and do that. We create a nice, even blend of both worlds.