By Chaz Kangas
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With primitive chirps and warbles drawn from the video games of yesteryear so tightly woven in among the distorted guitars, it's easy to feel nostalgic when listening to Anamanaguchi's eight-bit rock, which taps into the audio chips from old Game Boys and Nintendos to do to music what pixelation does to video. The three NYU youngsters and their West Coast drummer are de facto champions of an otherwise insular "chiptune" scene that usually embraces the opportunity to collect on the Peter Pan appeal of its aesthetic, but lead songwriter Peter Berkman says his interest in the platform, insofar as the geriatric consoles qualify, comes from elsewhere.
"You literally have to construct the sound from the ground up," he says. "The fun about synthesis is that you make your own sound. If you don't, it'll sound like shit."
"Presets ruined electronic music," agrees bassist James DeVito, who's equally important as soldering goon for the band's customized Frankentendos. Although they could probably find those sinusoid fundamental building blocks in more conventional places than a Tetris cartridge, he says the band actually benefits from the technological ceiling, which is probably why nearly every one of their songs seems to feature Iron Maiden–ish harmonized melodies and impossibly intricate arpeggios spiraling out laterally from beneath the power chords. "It's so old and simple. Everything's not compacted into one big digital chip that does everything."
Berkman, too, finds it inspiring: "It reminds me of car culture in the '50s, back when cars were simple enough to open up and fuck around with," he says. "That's kind of the appeal of the system in artistic ways as well: It's almost like breaking electronic music down. Who needs high-end production when you can do it yourself?"
This is not as nerd-niche-y as it may sound. Ratatat turned into one of last year's more curious indie-rock success stories by conjuring texturally comparable Fire Flower and 1-UP noises via guitars and keyboards; in 2007, Timbaland himself was caught illegitimately sampling an obscure chiptune composer for a Nelly Furtado backing track. Meanwhile, gamers have also grown more musically engaged through titles like Rock Band and Dance Dance Revolution, boosting the career of Guitar Hero–buoyed metalheads DragonForce, suggesting a massive built-in fanbase ripe for the harvesting. If chiptune does finally go mainstream, Anamanaguchi will surely lead the charge, and if they pull it off without relying on the nostalgia crutch, they could survive even after the games that inspire them are forgotten—or, in their case, never even remembered: All four band members are younger than the Nintendos they program.
"It's a great world," says guitarist Ary Warnaar. "There's no reason it should not be shared." To that end, the band's first full-length, Dawn Metropolis, steps away from pure chiptune and toward more accessible instrumental rock, no doubt a more conventional handhold for first-time listeners. Similarly, their most recent free MP3 release, a cover of Weezer's "Holiday," was also their first song with vocals. Berkman, it seems, is acutely aware that any further success Anamanaguchi enjoys will have to come from selling the game sounds to ordinary listeners as handily as they've already sold the chiptune dorks on guitar riffs. Hey, it's better than wearing raccoon suits.
Anamanaguchi play the Studio at Webster Hall August 6