Chiptune geek-rockers Fight Dragons

By Luke Wilusz

Local pop-rockers I Fight Dragons have an obvious nerdy streak to them, and they wear it with pride. The band’s first EP, “Cool is Just a Number,” is pop-rock infused with chiptune, a music genre created using the sound cards from retro video game systems like old Game Boys and Nintendo Entertainment Systems. In between recording sessions of their upcoming EP, “Welcome to the Breakdown,” lead singer and songwriter Brian Mazzaferri took a break to talk to The Chronicle about the band’s origins, influences and future major

label debut.

The Chronicle: Where did you get the idea to combine chiptune sounds with a straight pop-rock sound?

Brian Mazzaferri: It was actually something I had stumbled across. I was doing more acoustic singer/songwriter stuff, but I had always wanted to work with Bill Prokopow, who is also in the band—he and I have co-produced everything we’ve put out so far. It was the first time we were working together, and I knew I wanted to put a band together because I was sort of sick of doing the whole solo thing. So he and I sat down and I had the idea I wanted the intro to the song to sound like it was coming out of a Nintendo, so we sat down and played a bit of Mario 3—for research—and then, using the built-in synthesizers in Logic [Studio], we sort of mocked up the intro [to “Heads Up, Hearts Down”] and really, really liked it. After doing more research, I realized there was a whole community of people making chiptune, and there’s a whole lot of ways to take those sounds and actually make them from the old sound cards, which is really cool, and the further we’ve gone, the more we’ve actually incorporated actual old sound cards instead of just synthesizing them. As soon as we finished that demo, I knew we needed to put a band together to play that kind of music because it’s an exciting sound for someone who loves the sound of old video games.

The Chronicle: When did the band come together, and how did the rest of the members get involved?

BM: I started putting it together in 2008. I worked with Bill on that demo, and that was early 2008. From there, I called up some people I’d been playing with or people I knew and liked musically, and asked if they wanted to be in my Nintendo rock band. Eventually we had six people, and throughout 2008 we were recording the first EP, [“Cool Is Just a Number”], that we finally put out in early 2009 and started playing live. The lineup has changed, but it’s mostly just been people I know through the Chicago music scene.

The Chronicle: How do you incorporate all of these Nintendo sounds into a live performance?

BM: That was actually the big question I started with because the more I got into chiptune, the more I realized the bulk of live chiptune performances are more like electronic musicians’ performances, more like a DJ set, with people kind of mixing together sounds. It’s not so much, you know, instrumentalists performing.

So I was thinking about how to make chiptune into an instrument, and I randomly thought, “Why not make MIDI controllers out of old Nintendo controllers or turn them into instruments?” So when you push a button on the controller, it makes a note or plays a sequence of a couple of notes, and that way you can kind of play all the chiptune with an instrument.

Starting from there, we kept expanding all of the controllers we used, and every time we get a chance to add something new, we tend to throw it in, and that’s how we play it live. At different points we had two Nintendo Advantage controllers, two Super Nintendo controllers, a Power Glove, a Power Pad and a Guitar Hero controller, too. It’s a lot of fun.

The Chronicle: Where did the name I Fight Dragons come from?

BM: Actually, it was an idea I had in early 2008 for a T-shirt—you know, the site makes t-shirts from user-submitted designs. I was playing a solo acoustic gig down in Champaign, and while I was waiting to play, I was trying to think of ideas, and I sketched out a very, very crudely hand-drawn version of what ended up becoming the I Fight Dragons logo, which is just the words “I Fight Dragons,” pixilated, and a little guy with a sword and shield. I thought that was going to make a great T-shirt design. Then as I was driving home, the more I thought about it, the more I was like, “No, this is a statement on the kind of art I want to be making,” and it was around the same time as making that demo with Bill, so it kind of came together and it was definitely something that I realized was bigger than just a T-shirt. Although it did make me happy our first [band] t-shirts were all just, so I got to have those T-shirts, anyway.

The Chronicle: Are there any artists or games you consider a big influence on your sound?

BM: From the pop-rock side there’s a lot of Weezer influence, a lot of Fountains of Wayne, which has been my favorite band for a long time, sort of the nerdy pop-rock vein. Instrumentally, it’s kind of interesting because our players come from really different backgrounds. Our drummer and our lead guitarist are more into classic rock and are really big Wilco fans, you know, that sort of thing. Our bassist has been in a lot of metal bands before, so he plays with a pick and really likes interesting melodic bass lines. And then from the game side, definitely Nobuo Uematsu, who is the composer for all of the “Final Fantasy” music, has always been my favorite. I recently got married, and all the processional and recessional music was arrangements of music from “Final Fantasy.”

The Chronicle: You’re currently in the process of recording a new EP, “Welcome to the Breakdown.” What can you tell me about that?

BM: It’s going to be done by the end of October is our forecast right now. We’re kind of working nonstop on it. We’re about halfway into it. We were practicing in September and we started recording at the beginning of October. This is not our major label debut. We signed with Photo Finish/Atlantic [Records] in February, and since then I’ve written 40–50 songs for the album. It’s a process that takes a lot longer. It’s a lot more nitpicky and in-depth, which is really cool and I’m enjoying that as a writer, but it also means that it takes a lot longer, and we also end up with a lot of songs we like can’t possibly fit on the album. We realized the album is still tentatively slated for spring 2011, so it was like, “How can we get music out to fans to kind of tide them over?” And also just for ourselves, because we wanted to record and release music.

So it’s going to be a seven-song EP, and there might be a couple of bonus tracks depending on pre-orders or just things we send out to the mailing list. So it should hopefully be out by the end of November because it takes a few weeks to process and release the stuff, and hopefully we’ll have an EP release show in Chicago in either late November or early December.

The Chronicle: How will the songs on it be different from your first EP?

BM: I’d say the biggest difference is we’ve got a few new players in terms of instrumentalists. I played a lot of the guitar myself on our first EP, but now we have Packy Lundholm as our lead guitarist, who is just stellar. And Chad [Van Dahm], who is now playing drums for us, is an amazing drummer. There’s a little more room to feature what they do in really cool ways. Also, I think the biggest difference sonically, in terms of the chiptune, is we’re trying to bring the chiptune more into the center of what’s going on musically. I think on the first EP, there were times when it was more the seasoning, and we’re trying to make it more of the main course. There’s a lot more chiptune that was generated from my Game Boy, which is sort of the prime instrument we’re using for the physical chiptune.

The Chronicle: How has signing with Photo Finish/Atlantic affected the band?

BM: We’re thinking in a sort of longer timeline. Before we signed, because we were just on our own and we had very limited resources, we had very much of a guerilla mentality, in terms of “Record something and send it out, record something and send it out.” Now that we’ve signed, it’s got to be a little more pre-planned. There has to be a little more long-term planning because there’s more people involved. On the plus side, there are more resources, so it’s been a really cool partnership. They’ve been really cool about this EP, and we’ll likely be sending some tracks out to our e-mail list for free. And they’re cool with that, which is really to their credit. Sometimes labels can be against things that are good for the fans and good for the artists. Photo Finish/Atlantic have been really cool to work with and really supportive of all the cool stuff we want to do.

The Chronicle: What plans do I Fight Dragons have for the future?

BM: The biggest thing is still getting back to work on the album. We’re really close, we’re just about ready to start the album, so ideally we’ll be putting out this EP, heading into the studio right away to start working on the album and probably touring in spring or early 2011 to support the album. Like I said, we’ll probably be playing this EP release show in Chicago, but our biggest priority is really finishing the album and starting to get out there. And I’d say the other thing is continuing to send cool stuff to our fans. That was something we’ve done from the start, to try to send cool things and cool opportunities to our fans, who have been really supportive throughout all of this and throughout the fact things have slowed down a little bit because of our working on the album and our being on a label now. There are a couple of things in the next couple of months through the e-mail list that will be kind of giveaways and contests that I’m really excited about.

To listen to tracks from “Cool Is Just A Number” or to learn more about I Fight Dragons’ upcoming projects or shows, visit