Playing With Power

Portland's chiptune scene has grown up, but it still plays Game Boy.

My Game Boy sucks. Manufactured in 1992, it is a dirty, yellowing gray. The "select" button is clogged with a mysterious black goop, the batteries are held in with gaffer tape and only half of the screen still works. When you turn it on, the trademark Nintendo "ping" sounds drunk. But Matt Hunter's Game Boy, circa 1990, is a spotless, gleaming yellow. The buttons have been replaced with superior concave versions from an NES controller. A neon red backlight makes the screen glow in the dark. The audio output has been modified to plug into a PA system. It sounds like a four-piece rock band is playing inside of it.

For Hunter, stage name Mechlo, the Game Boy isn't just for playing Metroid II: Return of Samus; it's also an instrument. With a home-brewed cartridge in the back, he plays the internal four-channel sound chip like a synthesizer. Onstage, he plugs two Game Boys into a DJ mixer, tapping away at the buttons with one hand, pumping his other fist in the air, floppy hair bouncing against his black-rimmed glasses. For a bigger show, he might also play his NES with a midi keyboard (and he's currently experimenting with adding a Sega Genesis).

"When [people] see me get out my Game Boy and mixer, they look at me like 'What the hell?'" Hunter says. "And then I hit my first song...and it hits with this dirty wave-channel assault on the ears, and that's where I tell them: 'Guess what? I'm not writing video-game music, guys.'"

Chiptune, or chip music, can be difficult to take seriously at first encounter. Its adherents make music using the sound boards from 8-bit video game consoles—not just Nintendos, but Segas, Commodore 64s and Ataris. Despite the genre's roots, they're not just aping classic video-game soundtracks anymore. Although anyone over the age of 25 will probably feel sentimental over the sounds, the music made by chiptune artists runs the gamut from familiarly bouncy, bloopy pop tracks to rich, slow, multilayered soundscapes.

"People haven't been making this music for a decade out of nostalgia," says Hunter, who organizes most of Portland's chiptune shows and regularly promotes local artists on his popular video-game podcast, A Jumps B Shoots. "They really, truly love the sounds they're making. And people haven't been fans of this for a decade out of nostalgia, they're fans of people who are making really amazing music...we're all talented songwriters and musicians."

Take Ray Rude, he says. By day, Rude is the drummer for folk-rock band the Builders and the Butchers, WW's Best New Band of 2008. But armed with his Game Boys, a Roland Juno-106 synth and delay pedals, Rude moonlights as Operation Mission.

"It's not about trying to do songs that sound like video games," says Rude. "I'm a huge synthesizer guy, so when I realized the Game Boy was an analog circuit you can manipulate, I was like, 'Cool, I'm going to use that as a sound.'" Operation Mission's brand of chip music is a spacey, droning electronica where the pixelated melodies seem to possess a particularly menacing air.

Hunter and Rude are two of about six guys—as with gaming and programming, chiptune is a male-dominated community—who make up the core of Portland's small but devout chiptune scene. Unlike bigger cities, which Hunter says have cohesive, identifiable "sounds," Portland's scene is characterized by its eclecticism—from the wonky bloops and beats of circuit bender Andreas to the schizophrenic IDM stylings of wunderkind Plain Flavored. Also unlike the Seattles or New Yorks of the scene (New York's annual Blip Festival, the largest chiptune festival in the country, now lasts three days and this year hosted 30 artists from around the world), artists in Portland have struggled to capture even a slither of the recognition their counterparts in bigger cities enjoy.

It's ironic, says Hunter, because Portland's own festival, Micropalooza, started by video-game arcade Ground Kontrol in 2003, predates those in most of the country by several years. "Chip music was introduced into the United States in 2001," he says. "Blip Festival didn't even start until 2006. It's incredible how initially [people at Ground Kontrol] were able to think of something like this."

But in the nine years since the local festival began, Portland's chiptune scene has not grown with the same gusto. Each year, a similar lineup of chip musicians gather at Ground Kontrol to play to a crowd of about 60 to 80 people.

It boggles the mind a little: although electronic music has always been second fiddle to Portland's rock scene, a genre where one earns as much respect for hacking a ZX Spectrum as writing a good melody, it seems a perfect fit for a city that values open-source and DIY culture. The music being made in Portland is on par with bigger-name acts in other cities, and most in the local chiptune community seem to keep the faith that the audience is here—they just haven't discovered chiptune yet.

"It hasn't found the right exposure in Portland," says Paul Owens, a co-founder of local video production company 2 Player Productions, which captured the growth of the chip scene nationally in its 2008 documentary, Reformat the Planet. Owens' company has brought some of the country's biggest names in chip music to play Portland in recent years. "The shows were amazing," Owens says. "But there were only 75 people there."

What's missing, he says, is a dedicated venue where people don't just discover chiptune, they learn how to make it themselves.

"In New York there was a place called the Tank, that every month would have a chip night," Owens says. "Seattle has the same thing. Portland hasn't found the right home, a DIY space people can come in and explore...'cause part of the important thing is just getting people to make it."

Hunter believes seeing chiptune artists play live will convert the geeky young masses. While most of the genre's artists do make albums—and sharing them free online is the norm—hearing songs blasting straight from the original chips, watching 8-bit video projections and witnessing lots of uninhibited "shitty dancing" is the ticket.

"People need to hear it," he says. "If you ask anyone in the programming scene or indie game development, or even open-source, all of them know about it—they just don't leave the house, so they don't go to shows! I love them dearly, though, they're my people.... I just wish they would come out to see me and dance with me terribly."

SEE IT: Micropalooza is Sunday, Aug. 19. It begins at Backspace, 115 NW 5th Ave., with McFiredrill, Daddy Long Legs, Electric Children and Plain Flavored. 5 pm. $5. All ages. It continues at Ground Kontrol, 511 NW Couch St., with Mechlo, Operation Mission, Andreas and Producer Snafu. 7 pm. $5. 21+

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