Children of the ’80s terrorized their parents with the repetitive, bleating soundtracks that scored 8-bit video games, to the point of distraction. Some parents (mine included) demanded that their children turn the infernal noises off while playing the games. Now that the members of this generation have grown into nostalgia-addled adults, these synthesized tones are considered less an annoyance than an evocative reminder of youth, and the limitless imaginative worlds suggested by these primitive games. Some have gone so far as to create an entire musical subgenre — chiptune — comprised of bands that emulate the tinny bleeps and bloops of video games past. While many chiptune acts merely recreate the video game music of their youth, New York’s Anamanaguchi are more ambitious, composing original material on outdated video game audio chips.
Chiptune bands are primarily the domain of the geeky and nostalgic, but a band with Anamanaguchi’s pop smarts and songwriting skill potentially has mainstream appeal. Merging a traditional rock band setup — vocals, bass, guitars and drums — with digital tones conjured from a hacked Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Anamanaguchi draw inspiration as much from Super Mario Brothers as the Beach Boys, The Legend of Zelda as Weezer. As a result, the band has achieved what amounts to popular success for a chiptune band, appearing on the soundtrack to the film version of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, contemporary games like Bit.Trip Runner and Rock Band, and the intros for shows on comedian Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast network.
Much of the band’s crossover appeal lies in songwriter Peter Berkman’s strong grasp of infectious melodies and traditional pop songcraft. Though he writes for limited 8-bit audio chips, Berkman aims to create songs that are evocative rather than kitschy. “Having grown up with these systems, these sounds are intimately associated with ideas of fantasies and dreams — crazy narrative stuff,” Berkman says. This appreciation for the haunting quality of these tones results in songs that are as addictive as the earworms that scored ‘80s video games, but with a rich sense of pathos, showing the human heart behind those leaping 8-bit game sprites.
Instead of plucking away at a guitar or noodling on a keyboard, Berkman’s canvas is an emulator of the NES audio chip that runs on his laptop. The band then feeds these compositions into a modified game cartridge so the synthesized melodies can be “performed” by the original hardware. “I write songs on my laptop and we put them on a chip that gets put into the cartridge,” he says. “We put sounds into the old systems’ soundchips, which are just tiny synthesizers. After that, we play guitars and drums on top of it live, so live it’s a punk rock party time.” For Berkman, the limitations of the humble NES audio chip present a creative challenge. “You’ve got a limited amount of channels, so you’re working with a tiny pocket orchestra,” he says. “You have to find fun workarounds to create sounds you’d want to listen to. Electronic music gets more complex every day. It’s the simplicity of this that drives me to it.”
While many of Anamanaguchi’s peers revel in their geeky obscurantism, Berkman’s background in punk bands balances out his egghead impulses. In fact, he finds many parallels between chiptune music and punk rock, an influence which is apparent in the band’s cacophonous-yet-melodic din of pummeling drums, insistent guitars and warbling NES melodies. NES audio is comprised of “super-primitive tones,” Berkman says. “I grew up playing in punk bands, and with these sounds being as dirty and raw as they are, they’re a lot like a punk power chords to me.”