Music / Features
Square Sounds - Chatting with they/them & Calavera
Words by James Lynch
Interview by they/them and Calavera
Thursday 22nd February, 2018

This weekend, Australia’s only chiptune festival Square Sounds returns for its 6th instalment, before the crew call ‘game over’ and take an indefinite hiatus.

This year’s lineup hosts some of the world’s best chip musicians, many travelling from around the globe to perform for us in Melbourne. However, to avoid giving you an uneducated rundown of the show, we reached out to two of Melbourne’s best chiptune artists to fill us in. Read on to find out all things chiptune as they/them and Calavera interview each other.

they/them: How would you define chiptune?

Calavera: Chiptune is a method of making music which involves taking old video gaming machines and using their unique lo-fi characteristics to create music. It can also be music made to emulate or reference these sounds too. To me, it's about breathing new life into dead machines, discarded toys and relics from your childhood - then creating something personal and meaningful about your current state of being.

What got you into chip music? How did you find out about it?

When I was about 14 or 15 I discovered a few artists like Bit Shifter and Anamanaguchi through this videogame blog I used to read called Tiny Cartridge. For the next few years, I was listening to chiptune, Anamanaguchi especially, without really considering it as something I could do myself. I did a bit of research into how this stuff was made and I found out about this program called Little Sound DJ (LSDj for short) that ran on the Nintendo Game Boy. I had a Game Boy, so I thought I’d give it a try! For the next year or so I wrote a little bit of music here and there, but nothing very substantial. Around the same time as this, I realised that there was actually a lot of really good chiptune being made in Melbourne. I started listening to cTrix and you, Calavera! (I think I heard Gentlemen’s Swing on Tiny Cartridge.) Right after I turned 18, I went along to a chiptune gig at The Catfish in Fitzroy. There I met many of the people who have gone on to become my good friends in the scene, some of whom I already idolised for their music: Calavera, cTrix, Pselodux, CatchinAshes, the list goes on. Talking to the musicians that night was what made me decide to really properly get into chiptune composition. I’ve stayed involved in the scene since then, and now here I am.

How did you first become involved with the scene?

Inadvertently. At a young age in the early 90s, I used to love listening to the music that would play during the games on my childhood Amiga 500 home computer. Then later on in life I think I just googled '8bit music', found, listened to some records and was pretty enamoured. A year or so later I heard there was a workshop on at ACMI in Melbourne, where people would show you know to make music on a Game Boy. From that point on I was hooked, and those people went on to become close friends of mine.

What was the hardest song you’ve ever had to write, and why?

The hardest song I’ve ever written was 'Late Night Boat Ride', my successful entry for Chiptunes = WIN Volume 5 in 2016. My composition and LSDj sound design were going through rapid development at that point, and so everything I was coming up with was really new to me. Now, trying to stay focused and finish songs feels like getting blood from a stone a lot of the time, so I often go with the first thing I can manage to make myself get out of my brain and into the software. Sometimes, this works out fine, but other times I’m not really happy with it. With ‘Late Night Boat Ride’, I actually rewrote the entire song with more of an emphasis on developing a single melodic theme. I think the rewritten song is much stronger, but the process was way too long and complicated.

What’s your proudest chiptune achievement/best chiptune moment?

My proudest moment was playing to a packed venue in Tokyo last year. That was a dream come true for me. So many happy, dancing faces - it was amazing. I played another show a few days later where a fan came up and gave me a hand-drawn Ukiyo-e style illustration of me as a samurai. I was blown away. I'll keep that picture 'til the day I kick the bucket.

The best chiptune moment is actually a yearly occurrence. Basically every year at some point during Square Sounds Melbourne, I'm in the thick of the crowd, being amazed by the phenomenal performers, dancing and moving with a huge pack of very like-minded people - and it just slowly dawns on me how lucky I am to be part of all this, and these great people, just being in the moment and enjoying something like that together. It's beautiful.

Favourite chip-musician? Why?

This one isn’t hard to pick. Sorry to everyone else in the Melbourne scene, but it’s cTrix. No matter what style he’s going for or what the music superficially sounds like, there’s always this quality to it that I struggle to describe as anything other than cTrix-ness. Anyone who’s heard his music knows what I’m talking about. It’s a certain progressive treatment of melody, harmony and rhythm that combine to form one of the most singular, distinctive compositional voices I’ve ever heard in music in general, not just chiptune. His release A for Amiga was what made me aware of the Melbourne chip scene in the first place, so I’ve got a lot to thank him for. On top of all this, he’s one of the nicest guys around!
Close runners-up are and Calavera locally, and Fearofdark and Chibi-Tech internationally.

What musician, chip or otherwise, would you most like to collaborate with?

I'd love to write a really filthy banger with Monodeer, or something really delicate and bittersweet with little-scale.

What’s your favourite videogame soundtrack?

Damn, that’s actually a really tough question to answer. Of course there’s all the soundtracks by Jake Kaufman that everyone loves, like Shovel Knight, and Disasterpeace soundtracks like Fez, but my favourite soundtrack is from a game that is really important to me, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations. It’s the best out of the three original Phoenix Wright games, and I love the music out of association with how incredibly emotional the game is. I think tied for first place is the soundtrack to Mutant Mudds, a retro style platformer that I don’t think that many people played. The soundtrack was done by a guy named Troupe Gammage, he didn’t actually make in on an NES but it’s in that style and he followed the limitations very closely. I love the gameplay of that game, but the music is half of why I enjoy it so much. It takes a few motifs and develops them really effectively, so there’s this really satisfying through-line to all the levels’ music. 

Do you see yourself ever making non-chip music? Why/why not?

Yeah, probably eventually. In my early teenage years I wrote trance songs, then later moved on to guitar and ska/punk music. Now it's chip music - who knows what the future will hold? I know however, that none of these genres and styles changed my life as significantly as chiptune has, so, that's has to count for something.

What drives you to keep making music?

This is a pretty broad answer, but I’ve been a classical musician my whole life (I took up the cello at age six) and if I’m not being creative I feel that there’s something missing. It sounds really wanky, but I’m happiest when I’m performing; nothing else reaches that height. I wish I could tell you more specifically why I keep making music, but really it just feels like what I’m supposed to be doing.  

They/Them and Calavera are both appearing at this year's Square Sounds festival, which is happening on Friday February 23 and Saturday February 24 at 24 Moons. Tickets are available below.