February 25, 2008 8:00 AM |
[Jump Button is a new weekly column by Drew Taylor, written specially for GameSetWatch, that focuses on the art and substance of video game culture.]
If Stephen King, a carton load of Barbie dolls, three glam rockers and a coin-op version of Berzerk were lashed together, set on fire and subsequently fried with one kajillion volts of electricity, then Australian musical outfit Toydeath would be the mutant offspring of the smoldering, glitching, molten plastic remains.
The band's appearance is the first indication of a lo-tech experiment gone wonderfully wrong; the Sydney-based trio taking on the disturbed, future sex-doll party visages of 'Big Judy' (Melissa Hunt), 'Disco Barbie' (Chris Murphy) and 'GiJoe' (founder Nick Wishart). But it's only when the band busts out a bunch of electronic toys and sends them into a crazy, wailing, spluttering frenzy of hyperactive melody that the true extent of the band's demented genius and ridiculously brilliant choreography manifests.
'All of our music is made from children's electronic toys,' explains Nick. 'We take the toys and modify them using electronics. ”Hardware hacking” or “circuit bending”, as it's called, is a technique where you change an existing circuit so that it behaves in a different way; you're effectively making a new instrument, or “bentstrument”. '
The critically hit-and-miss result is anything but conventional. High pitched bursts of feedback blends rhythmically with the broken neighs of a horse, while Jesus stutters out passages of Scripture to the bleeping, screeching crescendos of white noise, cheap sax guitars. fairy wands and a naked George Bush doll that says, 'I come from Texas'.
'We have a new DJ toy that's chock full of great drum sounds, scratches and beats' enthuses Nick, describing just one of the hundreds of toys he's collected. 'The bending makes it a mind blowing instrument!
'The green guitar is also an awesome machine. It instantly turns you into Steve Vai on acid. While the Hulk Hands are a perennial favorite. They're just so damn visual and they say, “HULK SMASH!”'
It's hard not to get caught up in Nick's excitement. The list of the band's instruments reads like a monster toy compendium from the last 30 years, full of classics. Toys such as the Super Talk Barbie, Touch & Spell, 'Let's Jam' guitar, Crazy Frog and Alphabet Apple.
Nick acknowledges that this retrospective aspect is a large part of what makes Toydeath so appealing; nostalgia pulses from the band's every performance in giant, sonic waves, assaulting the crowd with multicolored neon memories of childhood.
For Nick, those 'big toy memories' are mostly of building things with Mechano and Lego. 'But I also had a 100-in-1 electronics kit,' he adds, 'and it's that which got me interested in electronics and gadgets.
'It's funny to think that when I was a kid there wasn't really a lot of electronic toys. Now nearly every toy is now packed with sound making electronics. Circuit benders are especially nostalgic for late 70s and early 80s toys such as the Speak & Spell because they have more open electronics; there are so many more bends in these toys for hackers.'
For a moment I forget that Nick's talking about 'music'. His choice of words highlights the potential for Toydeath's sound massacre to hold an even greater emotional significance for those who play video games.
After all, arguably, electronic toys are the midwives and nursemaids of gamers.
Electronic toys were what we played with before we even knew what video games were. In their stilted, stuttering voices they taught us to count, to spell, to recognize shapes. They sat on our bedside tables and told us the time, and with a pull of a ripcord they repeated the lines of our favorite TV show, our celebrity idol, our most beloved creature from Sesame Street, The Smurfs, The Wombles, The Muppet Show. They played music to us when no-one would pay us attention. And they let us make our own music, even when we couldn't play a tune.
They were robots, dolls, trains, fire engines, books, sea creatures, play centers. And they taught us to push buttons, the principles of cause and effect.
Before we even knew what a joypad or joystick was, electronic toys were teaching us to play simple games.
The fact that bands such as Toydeath then take these much-loved toys and 'hack' their circuits to create something else, only furthers the affinity.
Hacking code and making mods has been a vital part of gaming's creative culture, often pushing and pulling development in previously un-thought of and experimental directions. They are also an enormous part of the collective identity of gamers, the 'criminal' heritage that has formed many of the attitudes and actions of gamers over the last three decades.
This is how gamers play. Pushing boundaries, breaking down elements, exploring possibilities.
Unsurprisingly, the emotional and ideological synaesthesia hasn't been lost on Nick. The 2005 launch of Toydeath's CD, Guns Cars & Guitars, for example, was held at an Intencity video game arcade in Sydney.
'We wanted to do something special for the launch that reflected the character of the band,' says Nick. 'All the games were in free play mode, and the place just packed out! It was complete mayhem with all the noise of the games mixing with our glitchy sounds.'
Nick has also been playing with the idea of starting a new band, one that uses gaming hardware and software in the same way that Toydeath uses toys.
'My idea comes from the “hardware hacker” ethic used to produce our music,' explains Nick. 'I was originally interested in developing a musical performance using Guitar Hero, SingStar or other musical type games live on stage. However, I know now that Guitar Hero is more like a Dance Dance Revolution style game that rewards you for accuracy rather than producing music when you play it. I need to find ways to hack games that will produce an interesting live performance, similar to the way that some musicians--such as DJ Scotch Egg--use Game Boys to produce music.'
'I'm also interested in machinima and was blown away by [Rooster Teeth's] Red Vs Blue series. I love how creative it is and its subversiveness; it's accessible and it unites gamers. Ideally our first film clip would be produced using these techniques, or something similar.'
While a fully fledged 'GameDeath' might be a short while off, Nick's keen to begin incorporating some of his game-related ideas (without diluting the Toydeath paradigm), particularly in live performances, where the band's looking for new ways to increase audience participation.
'For a while we used an animal mat as an instrument in one of our songs and it worked well,' explains Nick. 'It looked and sounded great and it left your hands free to play another toy. But we'd love to get some kind of mat out on the dance floor that punters could play. We'd also love to use more visuals in the show. It would be great to have people playing games on a backdrop. Maybe,' enthuses Nick, 'they could do Dance Dance Revolution on a projection screen behind us.'
For most bands, handing controllers over to the audience for the purpose of whipping up a frenzy of electronic interaction would almost certainly spell 'awkward creative death'. But felicitating mania at live gigs is where Toydeath excels, whether that's playing in Korea or China, at a primary school for disadvantaged kids in Utrecht, Holland, or on the back of a truck for an outdoor festival in Munster, Germany.
'Our most memorable live gig,' says Nick, 'would be [our performance] at a recent Spank party in Tokyo. Spank is a funky clothes shop that puts on wikid [sic] parties. It just goes nuts! Imagine 300 colorfully dressed teenagers hanging on your every move.'
Nick's words cause me to pause, and smile. I don't even have to try to imagine: exposed to a live performance, contemporary Japanese would eat up Toydeath like it was a breakfast cereal called Super Happy Joy Joy. And if that's what Nick and his bent trio of childhood Frankensteins are able to do with toys, there's no telling what nostalgic and code-bending evil awaits when they make their fully-fledged foray into games...
Start running now, Mario. Start running now.
[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. He has nightmares about Evil Otto and is currently tormented by his 14-month-old triplets' obsession with a plastic turtle that plays calypso music and says things like, 'Uh oh. Try again. Find.The.Green circle.']
Categories: Column: Jump Button