Peter Berkman, co-frontman of Anamanaguchi, remembers exactly how he discovered chiptune, a genre of music that derives its name from the old computer sound chips adapted or hacked to create music. "There was this Wired magazine article written by Malcolm McLaren, the guy who used to manage The Sex Pistols," Berkman remembers in a call with his bandmates. "He was like 'I'm here in Sweden and Swedish people are using Gameboys the same way Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious used microphones and guitars — just totally fucking up the place." The message was received: Anamanaguchi have subverted both the sounds of the hermetic chiptune scene and the structures of the industry itself. Ever defiant, the four-piece band shares their new album, [USA] on Friday, a record disarming in its scope and consistent in its artful pop alchemy.
Snobbishness surrounding the source of chiptune's sounds means the genre is regularly dismissed as a childish trifle. But the so-called "video game music" that inspires chiptune is carved in the modern trajectory of underground and popular music culture; 8-bit stabs and pops were regularly tapped by grime pioneers like Dizzee Rascal. Quarta330 changed dubstep with a chiptune rendition of "9 Samurai." Even Timbaland got on board with his beat for 50 Cent's and Justin Timberlake's smash "Ayo Technology." That said, chiptune's most popular music is decidedly happy to exist in the gaming culture of days gone by: songs conjuring simple platform games populated by a hero, a villain, and something that needs saving.
Anamanaguchi didn’t always escape this trap: Ary Warnaar, guitarist and other leader, describes the band’s earlier work as "sugar all the time." But something clearly resonated — a Kickstarter for Anamanaguchi's Endless Fantasy LP raised over $250,000, more than five times its original goal. For the B-sides collection Capsule Silence XXIV, the band pretended to be mistreated composers of a soundtrack for a video game with a multi-million dollar budget, complete with fake feuds and an actual game created (for much less money) by renowned indie game developer Ben Esposito. Fans eager for new music soon began examining the holes in the prank, and dove deep into its mythos.
With [USA], Anamanaguchi confidently take their seat at the table next to the most celebrated artists of "future pop" like Charli XCX, SOPHIE, and 100 gecs. The guitars and drums that have always distinguished Anamanaguchi’s sound are boosted to recall post-rock or the lush passion of Mew. Singers like HANA bring sparkly features, and Vocaloid, the vocal synthesizer software popularized by Anamanaguchi's one-time collaborator Hatsune Miku, grazes the uncanny valley in the most delightful way possible. For what feels like the first time, Anamanaguchi have made an album unbeholden to anything, whether it’s a scene or a piece of computer plastic, and have fulfilled the promise of their songwriting talents. As Berkman summarizes: "[USA] asks, 'What does an Anamanaguchi album sound like not devoted to video games?'"
Your band has been talking about a record with this specific title for years. How did you decide on the name?
PETER BERKMAN: The title was originally a kind of like part-YOLO feeling, part daring ourselves to do something that was really chasing reality as opposed to Endless Fantasy.
We had spent years looking at video games and our relationship with Japanese culture, but we passed over the other side of a line, where we were like, "Let's take a look at who we are." Turn it inward instead of outward. That title, its meaning has changed and will continue to change, but we do not know the direction that change is in. All that we know is that we're happy with it.
What did you find as you began to look inward?
BERKMAN: Questions of "How did we get these habits? How did we get these interests? How did we arrive at being chiptune musicians, really?" The album began in a process of chiptune-as-identity crisis, but that's not really where it ended.
I think a big part of what we found is the impact that digital music had on shaping our sensibilities as a band. You always hear electronic music thrown around, but chiptune is decidedly not electronic music. Everything is totally programmed. So to bring that back to [USA], for me creatively, much of it comes from taking chiptune to mean not just the chips that are in Nintendo consoles, but chips that are in Intel processors and stuff.
[We] rediscovered technology that was already there. Instead of having five sound banks of a 2A03 sound chip, we have sample libraries and stuff.
ARY WARNAAR: I think a potential read that I don't think would be correct is: "Is there a correlation between the darker tones occasionally on the album and it being called [USA]?” We wanted to create a whole-sounding album — it covers a wider range of feelings and ideas and concepts. It's definitely not a dark album by any means, but it's a more complete-sounding album.
If we were all from Canada, the album would be called [Canada], or if we were all from the UK, it would be called [UK]. It's not about the United States. It's about being from somewhere and having like a label attached to you, your personal relationship to it, and your personal relationship with any assumption. We could've called the album [Chiptune], because it's a genre that's always attached to us from the beginning.
BERKMAN: The big part about looking inward was considering the impact of being raised by video games had on us. Video games really dominated our lives and our audience's lives and have such a huge part of our culture. There's the question of, "Are video games poisoning children's minds, are they an escape that we need, or are they this super harmful thing?" It can't be either of those things. It's both of those things. The only way that you can see their effects on you is by stepping outside of it — that's what we really tried to do on this album.
“[USA] asks, ’What does an Anamanaguchi album sound like not devoted to video games?’”—Peter Berkman
I’ve been a video game fan and interested in the stuff that goes under the "nerd culture" purview since I was a kid. But the deeply reactionary sensibilities of a lot of those communities have kept me at an arm’s length for a lot of my life.
BERKMAN: We totally empathize. We were at the Penny Arcade Expo — and we love those guys, we love Jerry [Holkins], we love Gabe [Krahulik, creators of the Penny Arcade comic and fan expo] — but there the keynote speaker, Will Wheaton, who's an actor in Star Trek, was like, "We are nerds! We are the good guys! The jocks are the bad guys and it's time for us to take control!" We were just like, Dude. Dungeons & Dragons is your football. Chill the fuck out.
There is something about nerd culture as an identity that really kept us from being too excited about any of that stuff, like being involved with video games and that whole world, because you see how fragile it is — it totally fractured in 2014 with that whole Gamergate crap. You look at it five years later and it's like, What were you guys actually fighting about?
WARNAAR: I feel like a group of people stopped associating with the term [nerd culture] and just existed naturally. Everyone who would have used that term five years ago no longer cares to, and now the only ones who do are corporations.
BERKMAN: Part of this record is seeing the moment of, "Wow. I really empathize with the nerd getting swirlied, I don't empathize with the nerd being like, "Let's do this to the [bully]." But then, I might empathize with him recognizing what he's done.
We took a lot with natural patterns in this record. We were thinking about songs in terms of seasons: This one's cold and wet, this one's hot and dry. We felt it was important to give the album more of a solid presentation than we had any of the other material that we put out. Endless Fantasy, 22 songs, 77 minutes, almost nothing cut out from that project. That record was presented a bit formlessly by intention. This record is all about the form and mode of its presentation.
Even on a micro level, the quality of the songwriting is night and day between Endless Fantasy and [USA].
BERKMAN: With Endless Fantasy, we sent a pizza to space. In the culture, there’s this whole idea of wanting to blast off into outer space, and upload our minds to robots, this whole transhumanism thing. [But] so much of this is remembering what it is to actually be human and live within the limits of a human life. I'm getting older, I don't see that stopping, my parents are getting older, I don't see that stopping... things like that.
It's become a popular thing to say, "Humans are just like wet computers," or, "As soon as we make a computer that's smarter than a human, it's just going to take over," but I think that's a bit of a fantasy because they do the same thing, but in different ways.
So you don't worry about vocaloid artists like Hatsune Miku being developed to a point where they could replace human musicians?
BERKMAN: I think that whole world has already passed. It certainly replaces the performer, but it also enhances a new kind of performance and it retrieves this feeling of the syllables as letters that you write with. Like, is writing going to get rid of talking? No, it just changes the way we talk.
WARNAAR: I always find it funny when people view it as, "Do we even need a singer then?" Well, if you didn't need a singer, you wouldn't be trying to emulate singing as closely as possible. It's clear that it's not trying to transcend the human experience — it’s playing with it in an interesting way. If you wanted to get past that, you wouldn't start there.
How do you feel about how the campaign for Capsule Silence panned out?
BERKMAN: We were doing a 4chan prank with it, but we were trying to see the boundaries were of this album and the campaign itself. We made a fake leaked PDF from a fake company. This is before the QAnon stuff happened.
WARNAAR: I will just say that it’s still a living project. I think we knew when putting it out that it would be most interesting to look back at it ten years from its release. I feel like it's in a middle ground stage right now where people kind of understand a bit of it, but I feel like there's still a lot of its existence to happen.
I was wondering if people would see through it as quickly if the campaign happened today. Because with something like QAnon, the holes can be exposed, but there's a certain kind of person who doesn't care unless they’re explicitly told by Donald Trump: "I am not working with JFK Jr. to expose a global sex trafficking network."
BERKMAN: It's not even a certain type of person, it's a certain mode of understanding that is the problem in something like that. It really starts at the dawn of modernist poetry, right around when radio happened. The earliest [modernist] poets called it vorticism. You had people like James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pounds, T.S. Eliot, who saw their poetry as creating a trap for people's attention — if you can control their mode of understanding, If you're shaping their sensibilities and having them notice things that you want them to notice, it doesn't matter if they agree with you or not. Then the poet is doing his job, according to these people. It's all about having a warped attention, and QAnon works because it taps on people's fears, people's language. So Capsule was almost one of these QAnon moments for our own world.
[USA] is out 10/25.