Two Rock Guitars and a Famicom
For the two breathing members of the Brooklyn-based band The Depreciation Guild, a love of intense rock music and the vintage video game sounds of the 1980s have melded into something powerful.
Years of button mashing and pixel blasting to the sound tracks of classic games on the Atari, NES, Sega Genesis and other gaming dinosaurs have hard-wired an instant recognition for the raw blips into the brains of millions of players over the years. Today, those sounds are being harnessed for a new purpose.
“We think the Famicom is definitely the most talented member of our band,” jokes Depreciation Guild front man Kurt Feldman about the near-mint condition original Japanese version of the Nintendo Entertainment System the band found on eBay. The device holds down triple duty as drummer, bass player, and synth player for the group, which has been described by some as “NES-shoegaze rock.” Feldman and fellow human band member Christoph Hocheim combine their proficiently swirling, fuzzed-out, guitar licks with subdued melodic vocals and the vintage sounds of the Nintendo system’s audio chip to round out their unique aural collage.
Hocheim joined the Depreciation Guild in May 2007 after founding guitarist Akira Hashizume amicably parted ways with the band to focus on grad school. “It’s been great with Christoph so far,” says Feldman of the line-up change. “He’s a great guitarist and he’s really adding a new dimension to our sound, as well as partaking more in the writing process already.”
“I met Kurt about 2 years ago when he came over to my dorm room to visit my roommate Eric, who helped him bounce his Nintendo tracks into Pro Tools,” says Hocheim. “As soon as I heard his songs I was instantly hooked, and we quickly bonded over our uncannily similar musical tastes.”
The band associates closely with other musicians in the New York City chiptune music scene, but takes an organic approach to their music. The inclusion of heavily layered guitars and vocals lend well to the band’s rock vibe, with waves of electronics easily washing through the mix. Most of the time the group shares the stage with local fellow 8-bit artists like Nullsleep, Bit Shifter, Tugboat, Anamanaguchi, Mark Denardo, and Tristan Perich. The sight of a musician wielding a Nintendo Game Boy at these performances is as commonplace as seeing someone playing a guitar at a regular rock show.
Despite the company of likeminded console musicians, according to Feldman the Depreciation Guild is first and foremost a rock band. Thematically, he says, they’re significantly more influenced by the films of Dario Argento and David Lynch than they are, for example, the in-game soundtrack to Contra. Nevertheless, they’ve joined a growing number of musicians and who are finding new ways to utilize old-school gaming hardware to create their own music.
Feldman creates the bulk of their song structures using a Windows PC tracker program which emulates the distinct sound chip of the antiquated Japanese video game system. Songs are then converted to the original Nintendo Sound File format, loaded onto a modified game cartridge, and played directly from the Famicom. On-stage, the group is essentially two guys with guitars and a Nintendo system, yet their sound is complex and enthralling.
“I wanted the name of the band to reflect my own personal existential uncertainties and self-doubts, so when paraphrased, Depreciation Guild would be like, ‘a club for things that have lost their value,’” says Feldman. “Incidentally, I think this reflects our sound too, because, after all, one-third of the band is a Nintendo, and that device exists in everyone’s mind as nostalgic, primitive, and a relic of one’s childhood.”
Our Friend Nintendo
Before forming the Depreciation Guild in 2005, Feldman and Hashizume played together in an earlier musical project called Man With Van, which lasted from 1999 until 2004. Feldman began making chiptunes for the NES to use with Man With Van before the group dissolved. He was first drawn to programming video game music by the nostalgic rawness of the sounds he encountered in games he’d played as a youth.
“Certain games from the ’80s, like Journey to Silius and A Boy and His Blob for example, really illustrated to me what the system was capable of and initiated the drive to make my own chip music,” he says. “I think this is what has propelled other chiptune musicians to do what they do as well — to be able to push the capabilities of the console to its limits.”
Feldman is also quick to point out that while video games drew him into creating chip music, the Depreciation Guild’s songs do not reflect much of the recent retro gaming trends. Even so, both band members have spent plenty of hours behind the controllers of the Atari 2600, NES, and other classic consoles. “Older videogames are the best, because they are based around high scores and skill-based game-play, which, for me, translates to bragging rights,” he says.
There are also benefits to favoring electronic accompaniment over additional band members. Not having a drum set and a bass amp to lug around is a big plus, though with guitars, a mixer, the Famicom, and a few other gizmos, they have more gear than the average 8-bit act. Being able to forgo renting a practice space and instead working out tunes at low volume in Feldman’s Brooklyn apartment has its perks as well.
In early live performances the band used a laptop that had the basic tracks for the songs arranged into MP3 playlists. Eventually, they made the switch to using a real Famicom rather than an emulation program. Feldman feels there’s something more sincere about playing on actual hardware. “With a laptop, those sounds could be coming from any number of programs which emulate the sounds of the NES, but there really is only one true NES sound, and now we’ve harnessed it,” he says. So far the device hasn’t failed them during a show, despite some occasional minor malfunctions. The Famicom can sometimes be unstable and risky to play with, even though they’ve worked all the bugs out. Of course, the same can be said for human bandmates as well.
Blips on the Radar
In early 2006, the band released Nautilus on the NYC chiptune label 8-Bit Peoples. The three-song EP contains lush rock soundscapes backed by the Famicom’s 2A03 sound chip. Originally planned as a demo, the songs were recorded by a friend in Feldman’s bedroom. The music caught the attention of 8-Bit Peoples founder Jeremiah Johnson and was subsequently released on the label’s website.
The Nautilus EP is a well-crafted work of complex arrangements with indie rock flair. Between the catchy guitar hooks and Feldman’s crooning vocals, it’s not until a minute into the first track, “Stuck Pig”, that you even notice that the Famicom is responsible for a third of the sound. The arpeggio-laden “By Sundown” serves as an instrumental bridge between the tracks, and heavily features melodic lead synth to replace vocals lines. The title track is a melancholy epic that drones with a dreamlike quality for upwards of six minutes. For such a small release, the band has an incredibly big sound.
This carries over into their song “Kickle’s Processional”, featured on the recent 8-Bit Peoples double disc 8BP050 Compilation. The track is a cover tune of sorts, and is uncharacteristically upbeat for the group. “One of my favorite games was Kickle Cubicle,” explains Hashizume. “He is the cutest little guy that fights adventures in vegetable land. I showed Kurt that game one day and towards the end of the game there was a really good song.” The compilation track is essentially a more aggressive version of that tune with some additional musical parts and lyrics that reflect what’s happening in the game, says Feldman.
Working with 8-Bit Peoples has been a great experience for the band, says Feldman, since the label hosts the most well-respected chiptune artists from around the world. Last year, the band performed at the massive Blip Festival, which featured over 30 international chiptune artists. The event, co-sponsored by 8-Bit Peoples and NYC venue the Tank, was a four-day extravaganza celebrating a wide range of musical styling all connected by use of video game sounds and hardware.
“Blip Fest was definitely the best show we’ve played thus far,” he says. “It was an excellent showcase for how much promise there is in the chip music scene, and it definitely left us inspired and hopeful.”
The band’s first full-length album, In Her Gentle Jaws, has been delayed, ironically, due to technical difficulties. The recording process originally began in spring 2006, but all of the tracks had to be scrapped when translation and coding problems popped up with the tracking software. Starting over from scratch, Feldman and Hashizume recently finished re-recording the album before the line-up change. With the album finished and Hocheim now on-board, the band hopes to release In Her Gentle Jaws later this year and is seeking a record label to work with.
Striking a balance between staying connected to similar-minded musicians and maintaining individuality is important to the band. Feldman feels that as soon as a scene emerges, and a genre-label has been implemented to categorize that particular type of music, the original intent of the artists often become diluted and degenerated. He notes that as much as they enjoy their connection with fellow artists in the NYC community, many of whom have been involved in the chiptune scene longer than they have, there is a lot of other music, especially on the Internet, lumped into the chiptune genre that is complete garbage. There are too many Game Boy-wielding non-musicians who are just seeking to cash in on something trendy.
“We’re not trying to be part of the chiptune scene so much as we’re trying to design an interesting ensemble of sound that people haven’t heard before,” says Feldman. “I’d like to think that there’s more to our music than just ‘chiptunes,’ and also more to us as a rock band than most bands that have been vaguely dubbed ‘indie.’”