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Nullsleep

(3 Oct 2008: Lit Lounge — New York, NY)

I’m in the basement of the Lit Lounge—which, ironically enough, is a poorly lit and generally intimidating little music venue in downtown Manhattan. Awkwardly placed couches are propped up against the walls here and there like sleeping winos, and the 360-jagged-degrees of brick wall surrounding me are a painful reminder that I forgot to bring earplugs. A lesser correspondent would probably tell you that it’s an unlikely platform for what we’re about to see, which is probably a true statement, but its undoing is the fact that there’s probably no place where Jeremiah Johnson would really be at home.


In the early 2000s, armed with a Columbia education in music and computer engineering, Johnson adopted the publishing name Nullsleep and started pumping out simple electronic compositions rooted in sounds drawn from video games, quickly turning his efforts into the seeds of the now highly influential chiptune netlabel 8bitpeoples. Now—just a stone’s throw from the Greenwich Village that took the folk song into the mainstream in the 1960’s and around the corner from the Washington Square of conventional songwriter types like Joan Baez and Steve Earle—he has to make his case for an obscure musical niche which is simultaneously bizarre and, for his most enthusiastic fans, rooted in nostalgia.


But back to the familiar part for a moment: Imagine he’s set up like a conventional DJ, with pulsating basslines reaching outward from a huge 4x12 speaker cabinet atop of which he has placed a mixer cabled to two turntables. Now scratch the turntables—instead, they’re Game Boys.


By now you might have heard the Aphex Twin remix of the Tetris theme, and thus the assumption that Johnson is mixing together sets of different video game soundtracks is a pretty common mistake. The guts of this process are actually considerably more interesting, though: Specific timbres and pitch sequences are programmed using special cartridges—some homebrew software burns on blank cartridges made with expensive proprietary writers, others imported from Europe thanks to an industrious German—and are then sent through an amplifier several hundred times larger than the carts they start on.


But it’s not quite that simple—first, the signals have to pass through Johnson himself.  Even with years of experience and a fairly rudimentary performance platform, some of the limitations of the grayscale 8-bit Pro Tools are insurmountable. That’s why Johnson wires two machines together. With the tempos locked, his fingers can dance from the D-pad on one to the A-B buttons on the other, launching the primitive puzzle pieces and intertwining them with genuine musical instinct. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like Tetris, but with square waves taking the place of those infernal L-shapes.


When he’s not doing that, he’s playing the mixer itself, throttling knobs to add and subtract channels or twist an equalizer into a dramatic filter sweep. And when he’s not doing that, he’ll have at most one free hand, which is probably either bouncing up and down with the music or reaching out for a beer, the only other thing in front of him.


There’s a minimalism in the equipment which you’d think would parallel the compositional philosophy, but in fact it seems to be the inverse. How much noise can we make with this?  How complex can the songs get with just two toys? With eight bits? Some say the absence of limitations is a mortal enemy of creativity; Johnson takes that philosophy and bites its head off as though it’s a dead bat. It can be hard to swallow some of the sounds, but there’s also a satisfying purity because there are no convoluted sonics to get in the way of the compositional intent.


See, some of these musical phrases would have sounded fantastic no matter what they came from—a video game, a keyboard, a guitar, or maybe just a bratty teen with an emo fetish. “Supernova Kiss” eases us into its frenzy via a new intro with gradually increasing tempo—probably D-pad up, tap tap tap—and once at full bore, briefly sidesteps into a quick burst of noise (also not present on the recorded version), which briefly transcends the mundane grid-based sequencing that dominates electronic music. I’m coming down from a three-week IDM binge, and at times this feels like a perfectly logical transition.


All the while, the backdrop is flashing with squares and stylized static and colored blobs that look alternately like beer-goggled 8bitpeoples logos or the blonde American ninja from Street Fighter. 8BP is about using old games to create art, not just music, and the visual elements are orchestrated by a twentysomething dude armed with what appear to be, respectively, a Nintendo Wii controller and a pair of 3D glasses. The funniest thing about this is that his equipment probably costs at least ten times as much as the stuff that’s actually on stage.


The set ends with “Dirty ROM Dance Mix”—an appropriate title, given that the memory chips on his cartridges probably contain the most dramatic perversions of the original Game Boy designers’ intentions any of us can conceive of in light of what we’ve just seen. The small crowd dissipates, and on the way out, Johnson leans past me to console a moping late arrival: “Don’t worry, I just played some Guns ‘N Roses covers.” I wish, man. Hopefully someday he’ll have the audience he deserves, and hopefully they’ll appreciate the genuine compositional underpinnings of his music as much as they do the gimmick. With just a little bit of luck, maybe that’ll happen before Chinese Democracy comes out.

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