[Our latest Japanese video game-related music interview from Jeriaska chats to a chiptune video game techno duo including quad/luvtrax and Kplecraft - who actually and coincidentally released an EP on my net.label a few years back. And hey, Gradius chiptune remixes!]

Kuske of the Tokyo-based chiptune group Kplecraft and quad of the sound studio luvtrax performed together at the 2008 EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event.

Their sets involved techno arrangements of classic videogame series like Gradius, accompanied by vocal performances and 8-bit console sounds. Both musicians work in chiptunes and their songs will be appearing in the XBox 360 port of the sidescrolling shooter Otomedius G.

Luvtrax is a music production studio run by quad, who has written NES-style music along with compositions for acoustic instruments that have been featured in videogames and anime titles. An experienced sound designer, he has mastered a number of videogame soundtrack albums for 5pb Records, including the 2007 EXTRA Live album, Etrian Odyssey II Original Soundtrack, and Yuzo Koshiro Best Collection Volumes I & II.

Kuske specializes in chiptune music, employing Famicom sound cards and Game Boys, accentuating these retro sounds with saxophone accompaniment. He has collaborated with the chiptune collective 8bitpeoples and has performed at the Blip Festival in New York.

This interview, taking place the night of the EXTRA event, touches on the cultural differences between the videogame industry and the chiptune music scene. In the views of the two musicians, there may in fact be fewer cultural factors separating the music of East and West as there are barriers to the integration of videogame and chiptune music scenes, regardless of location.

Interview by Jeriaska. Translation by Ryojiro Sato. This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current.

Vocalists of the Famison 8bit [email protected] series performing at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event

GameSetWatch: Thank you for joining us for this discussion of your chiptune music and various contributions to videogame soundtracks. Could you offer us an introduction that explains a little about your chosen styles of music?

Kuske(kplecraft): My name is Kuske, I make 8-bit style music.

quad: I'm quad. Normally I write techno, trance and chiptune music, while also working as a recording engineer.

Kuske(kplecraft): In the past, quad has worked with me on mixing various songs of mine, but this concert marks the first time we have appeared onstage together.

quad: You're right. It hadn't even occurred to me. Even before we started working together we had known each others' names from appearing at chiptune events.

GSW: How long have you been involved in writing music for the [email protected] series?

Kuske(kplecraft): We have been working on the sound for the Famison 8bit [email protected] series for about six months.

GSW: For the arrangements you performed at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event, what was the source material?

Kuske(kplecraft): There were two different sets. The first one was a medley from Otomedius G (Gorgeous!).

quad: These are arrangements from the original Gradius, such as the first stage tune, called "Challenger 1985." The fourth stage music is titled "Free Flyer." There is also an arrangement from Gradius III titled "Sandstorm."

Kuske(kplecraft): I performed a song from the third stage of Gradius III called "In the Wind" and two songs from Gradius Gaiden: "Snow Field" and "Black Hole." They have been remixed in an 8-bit music style.

GSW: Not all chiptune musicians are terribly interested in videogames. As industry musicians who work with chiptunes, what are your thoughts on gaming?

Kuske(kplecraft): There have certainly been times when I have played a lot of games, but then there are times when I do not play at all. Right now I'm so busy that it's hard to find the time.

quad: I've been playing the Famicom since it first was released, so titles like the original Donkey Kong are the ones I am most familiar with. While today I am working as a musician, my original ambition was to design games, and that was primarily influenced by the Famicom.

GSW: What is it that compels you to keep returning to chiptune music?

Kuske(kplecraft): That might take some time to answer. Everybody seems to have a different interpretation of what makes chiptunes special. Most people simply remember it from their youth and value it for that reason. In my case, I find it a challenge to make this music, because there are limits to the number of sounds you can use. That forces musicians to put a great deal of care into the melody and arpeggios. Those limitations can actually open the doors to a new appreciation for musical forms. I might be alone in that contention, but I find it to be a compelling way to arrange videogame music.

Kuske of the chiptune music group kplecraft
8Bit Goa from KNMS-001 [mtk146] mp3 sample

GSW: What are your opinions of some of the chiptune festivals that take place outside of Japan?

Kuske(kplecraft): I've attended Blip Fest. To tell you the truth, music concerts like the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event and the Blip Festival, which focuses on chiptunes, belong to two entirely different cultures. While I am not too familiar with the situation in the States, in Japan videogame enthusiasts and chiptune enthusiasts mix like oil and water. I know people that frequent both events, but they belong to different crowds. In Japan it feels like there are many barriers to integrating these genres and uniting these different fanbases.

quad: I would have to agree. In Japan, videogame music has a unique history that developed largely independent of other media. When you talk about chiptunes existing outside of that context, some people find that disorienting.

Kuske(kplecraft): Chiptune events outside Japan have gotten their fare share of publicity, but not a lot of people here even know about the genre.

GSW: How would you describe the mood of the attendees of the EXTRA event? The turnout was exceptional.

Kuske(kplecraft): The audience was very excited. I would say that we don't really have a party culture here in Japan, so you don't see a lot of people dancing at this kind of event. On the other hand, when something interests us, we really focus on it intently. At today's event there were people in the front row who were totally uninhibited about their excitement. However, these are people who love videogames. They aren't the kind of folks who would go out to a club and dance. At EXTRA, the audience is made up of videogame enthusiasts, so that is a marked difference from events like the Blip Festival.

GSW: What has been your experience working with international chiptune and nerdcore collectives?

Kuske(kplecraft): I've released a song for 8bitpeoples. Two other Japanese musicians have participated, namely USK from Fukuoka and Xinon from Gunma. I'm mostly involved in videogame music, but these two specialize in chiptunes. Again, it's just a different culture. It's really difficult to explain, but hard to ignore.

quad: Japan doesn't have much interest in demoscenes like Mega Demos. I think the origin of chiptune culture emerged from that environment. In Japan, hardly anyone knows about Amiga Mega Demos. It has always been a cultural import.

Kuske(kplecraft): There is also a difference in style when you look at 8-bit in Japan and in the US.

quad: That's true. The prominence of the Commodore 64 in the States leads to different sound styles than in Japan, where the Famicom dominated. The high speed arpeggios are clearly an NES influence.

Kuske(kplecraft): 8-bit music in Japan focuses more on melody. There isn't so much concern with chords.

quad: That's true. Chords were not the central idea.

Kuske(kplecraft): When speaking of videogame music, Japanese listeners seem to appreciate the melody more than anything else. Maybe it's because deep down we are lovers of melodies.

quad: Videogame musicians have always faced steep challenges required by the 8-bit sound source and its limits on the number of simultaneous notes. Like, what the hell can you do with just three notes? There are people who managed to figure out a way on their own through the use of various techniques, and that is actually the root of VGM in Japan.

Quad of the sound recording studio luvtrax

GSW: There are dozens of gifted chiptune artists performing outside of Japan, and I imagine you have had the chance to hear any number of them, but are there any you might mention offhand as having impressed you?

Kuske(kplecraft): Anamanaguchi is up there. I was shocked to hear their age. They're still in their teens, so why would they even care about Famicom music, you know?

GSW: Outside of chiptune music, what other genres do you enjoy creating?

quad: I work in techno and pop. Some time ago I used to do some simple programming, so when everyone became excited about 8-bit music, I decided to try it for myself. I used to make games on 8-bit computers using assembly language. That was my route to the 8-bit music movement---by building a program for myself that operated like a music driver. I've done that kind of thing in the past and posted my work on the internet, though these days I have not spent much time programming. I want to work on that again, when I get the chance. I actually know Nullsleep. I was chatting with him on IRC the other day. I've sent him some software I designed and met him when he visited Japan.

Kuske(kplecraft): quad has made some really cool music outside of 8-bit tunes. I was watching anime on television the other day and heard this great ending theme. I checked the credits, and guess who was the composer? I was so surprised.

quad: Still, I have to say that videogame music is my background, and it still influences all my music projects today.

GSW: What would you want to communicate to listeners in English-language territories who enjoy your music or are interested in hearing more of it?

Kuske(kplecraft): I think you can order the 8bit [email protected] CDs through Amazon, but all the liner notes are in Japanese.

quad: The upside is, there's a lot of pixel art. 

Kuske(kplecraft): I'm certain there are people living outside Japan who are into the 8-bit tunes and techno remixes of NES themes. Those are found on the album.

quad: If you want an idea of what's currently going on in Japan, it's something to listen to.

GSW: Before we go, is there any way for your listeners in English-language territories to drop you a line?

Kuske(kplecraft): I'm on myspace, under Kplecraft.

quad: Me too, as quad.

Kuske(kplecraft): ...Oh yeah? Remind me to send you a friend request later. 

[Images courtesy of 5pb Records, kplecraft and luvtrax. [email protected] albums volume [1], [2], [3], [4], [5] can be imported from Amazon.co.jp.]

Kplecraft / Hamlin intro | 8-Bit PV