The first thing I thought about this morning, as I opened my eyes, was that the cat trying to rouse me from my hung-over sleep sounded like a Game Boy.
The second thing is that I had a really, really good time at the opening show night of Blip Festival 2011 last night.
This year's Blip Festival was thrown at Eyebeam on New York City's West Side by a collective of chip musicians called 8bitpeoples, with help from NYC nonprofit The Tank.
Many of those who play chiptunes—music made through the sound chips of old video game hardware-–have long resented the tight correlation between their music scene and video gamers. If that seems implausible at first, think of it this way: They're using the hardware as an instrument to create original electronic music that they hope everyone can enjoy, but the video gamey sound often leads to the misinterpretation that they're making "video game music", or that gamers are the only ones who can participate.
(Photo by Chris Person, @Papapishu)
It seemed as if the surliness has relaxed. It's similar to the same kind of diversification that's been taking place in the gaming scene—the softening of divisions between types of players as the audience broadens-–and this year's event welcomed gamers, musicians, hardware junkies interested in making new art with circuits, and music fans from the chip-savvy to the casual culturists.
So of course we went, my friend and photographer Chris ‘Papapishu' Person and I. (‘Person' really is his last name.) We underestimated the amount of time it takes to get to the edge of the West Side and worried about missing things; the first difference between the scene at Blip and that of other shows we routinely hit up all along the L train is that people are actually there when the doors open-–and not in the "handful of people milling around awkwardly waiting for the show to start" way, but in a lively, vital throng, talking and checking out merchandise and a fascinating hardware demonstration: MakerBot, which somehow prints 3D objects. It was too loud for me to really hear how it works, but its visible inner machinery shifts, glows as if it's part of the room's décor.
Not two minutes in, we spotted Samit Sarkar from Destructoid and Anthony Carboni from Bytejacker. We expected to see a lot of our friends from the video gaming space, naturally. "If you're playing video games, the soundscape the artists use is part of you," Dave Mauro, who's done album art for Anamanaguchi, told me as we caught up in the dark, spacious show room.
This year's festival immediately felt more joyful, diverse and inclusive than ever before, thanks in part to the credit of Anamanaguchi, and the success of the band's Scott Pilgrim game soundtrack. The hyper-positive alt boy-band popularized the use of instruments along with the soundchip, an evolution that helped the perception of chip music evolve from stark electronic sounds blasted out by mysterious, occasionally-alienating individual virtuosos arched over a Game Boy at the back of a stage to a diverse palette of sounds. The band is widely recognizable to gamers and music fans alike, even those who don't generally follow the chiptune scene, and becoming moreso (we totally called it, by the way).
Tonight was Anamanaguchi's night. It was the band on the evening's star-studded bill (Zen Albatross! Minusbaby!) with the most mainstream appeal. "Hey, it's the game journalists," said lead guitarist Peter Berkman, wearing a T-shirt with his own baby picture on it. He demanded a group hug and told us he's just started playing Charles Barkley's Shut Up And Jam Gaiden. The band's bassist, James DeVito – who's strung his instrument with the kind of neon string that recalls 1990s braces-elastic-–was drinking a plastic cup of 4Loko, a caffeinated beer of which the band is known to be particularly fond, and which has become increasingly hard to find since it's been banned.
"It's in our rider," said DeVito, referring to conditions bands commonly require in their appearance contracts. We weren't sure if he was kidding.
Many people traveled some distance for Blipfest. Fan SQ Sunseri had come all the way from Atlanta, a pilgrimage he tries to make annually: "It's the only place you can see this many chip artists in one place," he explained. Asked which act is his favorite, though, and he smiled and shook his head: "That's like choosing your favorite child," he said.
We spotted indie game developers Petri Purho, Ramiro Corbetta and Andy Nealen, and I meet Cassandra Khaw, soft-spoken IndieGames.com writer, up close to the stage where Chipzel was playing. Above the pounding beat, she told me that she had just moved here from Malaysia a handful of months ago; a longtime chip music fan, this was her first actual show. "It's so much more than I expected," she sighed. She danced; small, intricate movements of her hands and arms.
Enthusiastic zine writer (and Public Access Television hobbyist) Matt "Fort90" Hawkins is a ubiquitous figure on New York's game culture scene; he's been attending chip shows for as long as he can remember. "After a couple years, I wonder, ‘have I seen it all?" he asked aloud. "Have I heard it all?' Blip is the thing every year that reminds me that no, I have not!"
At events even tangentially related to gaming and other "geek culture" gatherings, the relative availability of women's restrooms is a cliché joke. But the restroom at Blipfest was full of girls; well-known local music photographer Leia Jospe was there, drinking something or other out of a Beauty and the Beast sippy-cup.
Zen Albatross performed after Chipzel. He's a slight, soft-spoken and affable young man; I knew he'd been nervous about the new music he'd written because I saw it on Facebook. Earlier that day he had ‘liked' an Ira Glass quote I posted on my wall about creative angst. But you wouldn't know it from his set—completely killer, a throbbing acid-burn that captured a crowd so dense I couldn't get close enough to see more than a glimpse of him. He was a victoriously confident hooded figure bathed in the light of the visual art projected hypnotically around him. (The art is an important component of chiptune performance; Zen's were done by an artist called vade.)
There was light beer, dark beer and smuggled flasks. When I stepped outside to try to find an ATM with my friend Emi Spicer, who was shooting pictures of Blip, the door guys marked my arms up with stamps for the hell of it.
Ralp, from Germany, was new to a lot of the attendees I chat to, but performs an excellent set. If I'm not mistaken, I think there was a tuba onstage with Minusbaby. Chris Person said he thinks he saw a clarinet; Emi told him it was an oboe.
And then it was time for Anamanaguchi; the crowd surged right up to the stage before the band even set up. I squeezed myself on the stage's edge right behind a speaker so that I could record. Someone was crowdsurfing to the band sound-checking. The crowd was already rowdy. A pair of tough-but-friendly looking concertgoers, Rafi Diaz and Cesca Santa, pressed forward and promised me and Emi that they'll keep us from being trampled. "We've been doing security all night!" Diaz joked.
Thanks, Rafi and Cesca. The crowd was insane, necessitating a sort of sweat-drenched sway if you wanted to keep at the fringes, outside of the pit. Everyone was transfixed; it's hard to describe. The boys smile when they play. Everyone smiles with them, bathed in the light of Party Time! Hexcellent!'s visuals for the band (a lot of skateboards and pizza, in keeping with Anamanaguchi's '90s-retro aesthetic).
Crowd culture at shows is a deceptively complex and capricious beast, and yet Blip has the best possible: people will get wild, hands in the air, a rocking mass of bodies, and yet, at the first opportunity, Anamanaguchi's Berkman could pause to ask people to search for a pair of glasses lost in the pit (they were found).
At Blip Festival, the people are almost as cool as the music (bar the odd super-fan who is a little too into Scott Pilgrim and follows Anamanaguchi members around the room to discuss the comics with them). Whether you're extremely into chip music or simply curious, whether you're a music fan or a gamer or both or neither in particular, it's an experience like no other. If you're in New York there's still time to check it out; Blip Festival 2011 runs through the weekend, with events throughout, and afterparties at Babycastles' new Williamsburg, Brooklyn location each night from Midnight on.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.
(Top photo by EMi Spicer, Ugly Machine)