[5 July 2011]
Starscream is a band full of contradictions.
They’re a chiptune outfit that somehow manages to buck the standard genre rhetoric of nostalgia-based nerd culture. Their songs can sometimes run past the eight minute mark, yet they remain imminently listenable. They eschew the pop format, yet rather than descending into navel-gazing formal experimentation, their music is dramatic in heft and instantly evocative of the futuristic imagery their name suggests. They’re an instrumental band that has achieved a larger following by performing the soundtrack to an episode of an MTV-produced scripted series, yet they have somehow sacrificed none of their indie credibility in doing so. They’re a band comprised of two musicians barely out of their teens, Damon Hardjiwirogo and George Stroud. Yet after talking with Damon, their main composer/sound architect, I got the sense of someone much older and seasoned than his 20 years would suggest.
The genre in which Starscream ostensibly operates—chiptune—is characterized by its use of hardware from old gaming systems and computers, creating electronic sounds that intentionally suggest the soundtrack to classic video games. These sound effects can achieve a similar feeling as that evoked by classic science-fiction. Listening to chiptune, one feels nostalgic for a vision that looks forward to futures that never happened. But while Starscream, like their chiptune cohort, employs computer chips from outdated hardware, Damon seemed reluctant to group his band with either the chiptune scene or its easy evocation of nostalgia.
Says Damon, “The nostalgia ... it’s easy to hit on that, because we’re using these old machines. But it’s not that important to us. Nostalgia for the machines [...] is important for a lot of people in the [chiptune] scene, and I think that’s great ... but the nostalgia of the machines isn’t that huge to us. The whole idea of the future is.”
Expanding on this line, Damon comments on the strictures of the chiptune scene today, “Chip music tends to be very insular with many artists too afraid to or not knowing how to branch out and get themselves booked on shows that aren’t purely chip music lineups. There are many deserving hardworking artists arising within this scene, but they deserve more than this little niche has to offer ... because [Starscream] started in a high school music scene, we were playing with a bunch of local punk bands and rock bands who had nothing to do with chip music and had never really even heard of it. And um, then kind of worked our way into the chip scene.”
Damon didn’t specify whether these issues of insularity are self-imposed by musicians themselves or by other scenes keeping them out. Instead he moved on to his own band’s unique solutions, based in aesthetics rather than scene-centrism. According to him, the use of sound chips in Starscream music is as a means to an artistic end, to impose limitations on an electronic medium often saddled with a paradox of limitless choice. According to Damon, the palette of sound available to composers of electronic music is so diverse that choosing between them can become creatively constrictive.
Damon comments on his band’s take on the use of sound chips, “The ideology ... is that it’s about limitations and pushing the limited sound chips of this obsolete hardware to its maximum. That’s why I’m glad the scene is shifting toward the aesthetic level, because it’s pretty mundane to deal with the stereotypes of it all being like a big, nerdy scene. And we’re not devoid of that, because there’s a ton of nerds in the scene. But it’s not about being a gamer, it’s about creating.”
When I asked whether there are specific works of science underlying the band’s futuristic obsession, I half-expected Damon to reference cutting edge research culled from some peer-reviewed science journal. But instead, he offered a Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos, a chapter of which Starscream takes the title of their upcoming debut LP, Future Toward the End of Forever. Says Damon, “Obviously, [we’re very inspired by] space in general ...”
Hearing Starscream music, one instantly senses their ideology at work. They are on the vanguard of bringing chip music to new heights in the popular consciousness, expanding creatively where their one-time tour-mates Anamanaguchi are currently pushing pop accessibility. Anamanaguchi are perhaps the most famous chiptune band right now, frequently playing to packed shows and having recently composed the soundtrack to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game, released in August 2010. The two bands would seem to be innovating in opposite directions, though Damon calls the guys from Anamanaguchi “his best friends.”
Damon also cited forbears from the instrumental scene that came before him. Says Damon, “There was one show [we played] where a friend of a friend came up to me after we played, and he said, ‘You guys were like a future version of Godspeed You Black Emperor, but from the 80s.’ That was one of the best comments I’ve ever gotten about my band.” Damon also cites popular instrumental bands, Explosions In the Sky and Mono as influences.
As of this moment, Starscream are currently most associated with their recent cameo on the MTV program Skins, the American import of the classic British series of the same name. The creator of the British iteration of this show, Bryan Elsley, likewise helmed the American MTV version, and Starscream’s involvement in the project came as a direct result of Elsley’s hearing their music and personally requesting them.
Said Damon about the experience, “It ended up being a lot of fun, but I was really scared about doing that. We share a studio with [Skins US musical director Matt FX], and I actually went to elementary school with him. What happened was, Matt was showing Bryan Elsley music to use during a [Skins US] trailer, potentially. And Matt said they were there for like five hours trying to pick something, and eventually [Matt] said, ‘Well, how about my friends?’ and ended up showing him one of our songs, and apparently it just clicked with Bryan right away. And we had our song, ‘Years Five-Eight’ in one of the trailers. And then Bryan Elsley asked us to come in for a meeting about being on the show. It was really cool, especially since all my friends had been talking about Skins recently. And I [was] like, ‘I just met all of your guys’ hero.’ [Bryan Elsley] emanates a very smart presence, just a lot of intelligent creativity.”
Damon said of the experience of creating the cover of Tears For Fears’ “Shout” for the Skins US season 1 finale, “We don’t like being told what to do, but [seeing] the cover of ‘Shout’ in the script and hearing it from Bryan—all of a sudden it just made sense. I could understand why he wanted us to do it, and I wanted to work with him immediately ...
“Bryan asked us in mid-November, and I spent about three weeks in my room, just trying to cover it on my GameBoy, but make it sound like it’s a Starscream song and not a Tears for Fears cover. That was really painful for me, because it was the first real commission job I’ve done. So like having to go back and forth through the cover of ‘Shout’ for like three weeks, and then afterward going into the studio and working on it for two 13-hour days straight with Danny [Flaherty] and Britne [Oldford], the cast members of Skins [who did] vocals on it, and then mixing it with [our engineer] Gabe Liberti…
“I think I spent like two and a half months on that one song. So it was a bit painful. I love Tears For Fears ... I’m actually not sick of the original song, though I am sick of my own version of it. I couldn’t believe how long we were in that show. I think we counted it out, and we were [on screen] for a total of ten minutes. It’s really, really weird.”
As excited as Damon was to work with Bryan Elsley, he was equally relieved after the fact that the MTV machine didn’t sully his hard-earned artistic credibility. “I’m kind of excited about how things went with Skins, because we definitely got a lot of new attention. But we didn’t all of a sudden become this, like, ‘MTV featured band.’ And playing like really shitty commercial stuff. We somehow maintained out integrity but got a bunch of money from MTV and a bunch of exposure, as well. It means that the people who bothered to look for our music [did it] because they really like music, and not because it was like a trendy thing on MTV.” In addition to the huge exposure being featured on MTV, the appearance has enabled the band to make their first full-length album, Future To the End of Forever, which was released this past May.
Damon Hardjiwirogo and Starscream will likely continue to reconcile chiptune contradictions well past this year’s BlipFest set, into the mythic future he so fruitfully obsesses about. And if his melodic, atmospheric music portends that future, it will be fascinating.