We Talked to IAYD About Making Chiptune With Your Old, Unused Game Boys
That tiny piece of hardware does so much more than play Kirby's Dream Land.
Photo by Sam Knight
Alexander Luna is I Am Your Destruction, or IAYD, an Austin-based musician known for crafting lo-fi rattlers that swell and burst with the best of them. At a cursory listen of IAYD's soundscape, you probably won't recognize the manipulated pings of a Game Boy or the controlled static of an out-of-date video game console, but they're there. Trust us, they're there.
As IAYD, Luna is hailed as one of the leading talents in a niche style of electronic music called chiptune. Chiptune, also called chipmusic, is made by using vintage sound chips and synthesizers, most of which were once used by video game composers in the 80s and 90s. The sound is lo-fi and limited but is sharp and identifiable if used effectively. Luna's particular strain invokes aggressive bass and EDM-inspired structures to fashion together a one-off breed of the chiptune medium.
He released his debut self-titled full-length album last year, called I Am Your Destruction. Following several well-received EPs for netlabels such as 8bitpeoples, this album was a subtle break from his established sound. His approach on I Am Your Destruction leans more toward a full-bodied trap music without sacrificing his sense of melodicism or his use of vintage hardware.
"The self-titled [record] is definitely a dance record," says the 22-year old. "The material I put out as a teenager didn't make a lot of sense for live performances or clubs; it was too fast, too aggressive. It made more sense at the DIY shows and scenes that I used to be a part of. But as I got older, I chilled out a lot and ended up making music that was less angsty. I wanted to make music that was more conducive to a dancefloor rather than a mosh pit."
Luna happened upon chiptune when he discovered FamiTracker, a software used to create sounds on the original NES/Famicom video game systems. Before long, he discovered communities online dedicated to chipmusic and began posting songs on his MySpace account.
Chiptune is often referred to as "8-bit music" but that's a misnomer term at best. The soundscape in chiptune isn't defined by the number of bits present, but rather the hardware that can be used to shape it. Typically, that hardware are Game Boys, vintage video game console hardware, and Commodores.
That being said, it's hard to settle chiptune as an indefinite genre. Bands like Anamanaguchi and Crying are renowned for blending chiptune with live instrumentation, yet both sound worlds apart in their songwriting and stylistic approach. On the flipside, there are musicians like Bit Shifter or Nullsleep, who favour a four-on-the-floor approach. For every hobbyist wringing pulse waves out of their Game Boys, there are musicians actively manipulating the powers of the hardware as a way of self-expression. But after a while, many producers move on from chiptune and some even go on to compose film soundtracks.
Luna is slowly drifting away from chiptune too, as he finds himself drawn to bigger production tones. He says it's been a long time since he's made anything predominantly featuring LittleSoundDJ (LSDJ), the Game Boy tracker of choice for many involved in chiptune. "These days I'm mostly making software-based music," he says. "Sampling LSDJ as an instrument rather than using it to present my entire body of work."
Early IAYD releases feature material that meshes hyper melodic leads with breakneck tempos to create a sonically punishing chiptune style. The material found on his following debut album takes that aggression and melodicism and decelerates it so it's dancefloor compatible. There's very little about the album that makes the use of a Game Boy obvious, and for Luna, that's something he's comfortable with. "I've come across people who have listened to my record for the first time—not associating anything with chiptune or 8-bit music—and they're like, 'hey what did you make this on?' They don't even know it was on a Game Boy until I explain it afterwards."
Chiptune musicians are often compared to the background sounds of Super Mario World or Pokemon. It's a ubiquitous pairing. Even on an otherwise positive review of I Am Your Destruction on The Needle Drop, Anthony Fantano, a music reviewer on the website, can't resist referring to the music as "8-bit EDM." The problem with these remarks, Luna says, is that it pigeonholes the music with unrealistic expectations and preconceptions. Worse of all, it bogs it down with unnecessary nostalgia.
"I want the music to speak for itself rather than the hardware used to make it," he says. "The first thing they think of Game Boys is video games, Pokemon, and Nintendo. But, no, this is a tiny piece of hardware with an incredible synthesizer that does so much more than what you've heard from soundtracks like Kirby's Dream Land."
"It is lo-fi dance music," he adds. "It is making art with tiny fucking machines. So what if it's with a Game Boy?"
Luna has detached from the chiptune community in recent years but stresses that it was this community that gave him ample room to develop as a musician. He believes that chiptune producers should strive to create something that doesn't sound like a Game Boy or a Commodore. But it's a goal that some fans don't agree with, as backlash occurred when chiptune band Anamanaguchi announced they would be releasing a new album without chip. Some fans on Twitter claim that due to this, they won't be buying it.
"With chiptune, there's not a lot of room to grow," he continues. "I've seen a lot of LSDJ music popping up on SoundCloud and there's not a lot of risks being taken. I think those who move on from chipmusic are frustrated with that, which is why I've moved towards a fuller production."
Luna says he's sitting on mountains of material, but he has no clue what he wants it to look like yet. And despite a spike in maturity, he says he's not quite finished with chiptune. This fall, he'll be playing several festival gigs in Europe. Compared to the hundreds of shows he's played in past years, the next gigs are a smaller undertaking—but they're still chiptune gigs.
"I still think chipmusic has a lot of heart," says Luna. "It's so incredible to hear what some musicians are able to get out of this vintage hardware."
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