Eight-bit Windy City

By Luke Wilusz

With their Game Boys, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, synthesizers and computers at the ready, a group of local artists are gearing up to kick start a musical movement in Chicago. Their genre of choice is chiptune—also called chip music or just chip—a style of electronic music created by hacking old electronic devices such as Game Boys, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, Commodore 64s, etc. to manipulate their sound cards.

Eight chiptune acts gathered at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont Ave., on Nov. 28 for “Chicago Chipmusic,” a festival that included performances by local artists Saskrotch, NOM STAR, Kkrusty and Environmental Sound Collapse. The locals were joined by Boston chip acts BR1GHT PR1MATE, Disasterpeace and Active Knowledge in addition to Australia’s Derris-Kharlan. The show—one of the largest gatherings of chiptune performers to play together in Chicago—marked the beginning of a concentrated effort by local artists to establish a more solid chip music scene in the city.

Matt Mongelia has performed as NOM STAR for two and a half years. He moved from New York City to Chicago in July to attend the School of the Art Institute. New York City’s chip scene—with its monthly shows and annual Blip Festival—is the largest and most prominent in the country. Mongelia said he wants to see Chicago’s scene grow into something similar, and he said the potential is definitely there.

“I talked to a number of people who have been making chip music, some of them said maybe for about a year, and had no outlet for it,” Mongelia said. “I immediately sensed there is this groundswell of people looking for a place to go, and I think if we could put that together, it will actually grow quite a bit.”

Kevin Gondek performs as Environmental Sound Collapse and has been making chip music since 2004. He said he believes the reason New York’s chip scene is so large today is because the artists there met and began collaborating much earlier.

“[New York] had that nice base to begin with, of [artists and bands like] Bit Shifter, minusbaby, glomag, Bubblyfish, Nullsleep,” Gondek said. “All those guys met each other pretty early, around 2002-ish, so they really were able to build that great sense of community.”

The Chicago scene, on the other hand, has been sparse.

“Chicago never had the density of artists to do large numbers of chip-only gigs,” Gondek said. “I mean, I started playing chip sets in late 2004, and it wasn’t until two years later I played again with a single chip artist.”

However, he said slower development and scarcity of artists helped Chicago chip artists develop a much more diversified sound.

“Since we didn’t have all these chip shows to go to, a lot of us ended up playing multiple gigs before we ever saw another chip artist perform,” Gondek said. “So we didn’t go in with a sort of conception of what it was, and a lot of us developed independently of each other for years before talking to each other, so it kind of resulted in, among the people who have been around for a while, a wide range of styles.”

Mike Taylor, who performs as Kkrusty, said the genre could seem intimidating to musicians who might want to try it but don’t feel comfortable enough with technology to hack video game consoles and turn them into instruments. However, he said the process was mostly a matter of learning to use the appropriate software.

“It’s actually a very simple process,” Taylor said. “There is a learning curve—you have to understand how to use the software—but once you do, it’s just like writing music in any other way. You try ideas and put them together and make a song out of it, and it’s really just software, is all it is.”

Drew Fernando, co-founder of Hemlock Records, said he first fell in love with chip music when he was invited by a friend at 2 Player Productions to go to New York in 2007 and help document the Blip Festival for the chiptune documentary, “Reformat the Planet.”

Since then, his label has produced several chiptune compilations, and Fernando recorded in a chip band called Greenleaf. He said his favorite part of the chip music scene was the close sense of community and collaboration it fostered.

“It seems like everybody wants everyone else to learn how to use the various software and programs and wants everyone to write music, start their own project and play shows,” Fernando said. “It just has a very positive family feel. It’s not very competitive. It’s like the more chip musicians, the better. It’s not chip music versus chip music, it’s chip music versus the world.”

While Fernando said he wasn’t sure if Chicago’s scene would ever grow to the size of New York’s, he said he expected it to become as exciting, energetic and influential with time.

“The movement and the crew here in Chicago are just getting started,” Fernando said. “Hopefully we’ll kind of find the fans and find the friends and find the community. We’ve got the passion, we’ve got the music and we’ve got the talent. We’re just kind of waiting for people to get on board. Until then, we’re just going to be playing more shows and handing out CDs and making more albums.”

To learn more about chip shows across the U.S., visit ChipMusic.org or 8BC.org. To listen to tracks from the artists interviewed, visit Kkrusty.com, MySpace.com/EnvironmentalSoundCollapse or find NOM STAR on Facebook.com.