On a typical day in 1992, the young guy who would go on to become the chip-rockers Anamanaguchi would be hanging out in their parents' basement. Bottles of Jolt cola might be sitting next to a well-worn copy of Super Mario Brothers or Duck Hunt. A computer in the background would display a screensaver of flying toasters.
The soundtrack to this perfect evening wouldn't be provided by Kurt Cobain or Paula Abdul, but by the original Nintendo Entertainment System (or more specifically by the Ricoh 2A03 sound chip inside the game system). Capable of producing six sounds at one time, this tiny chip produced all the hits of that era: "The Moon" (Duck Tales); "Main Theme" (Mega Man 2); and "Underworld" (Super Mario Brothers).
Later, after forming their band, the members of Anamanaguchi, a self-described "8-bit boy band," would rewire an old NES to trigger the sounds via guitars and drums for 2009's Dawn Metropolis, a blend of hard rock and 8-bit music that explored new worlds for the DIY-chip-tune genre.
More than just emulating the style of old video game soundtracks, the album rocked out with vintage electronics and profound songwriting. Following the success of Dawn Metropolis, band members were asked to score the video game adaptation of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game.
"That had to be pretty video game vibe-y," drummer Luke Silas says about the soundtrack that the group recorded in 2010. "Like, we want to make this sound like a Mega Man game or an old- school beat-em-up as much as possible. It's supposed to be rock, so there's a very specific direction for that."
Working on such a large project forced band members to rethink the way they wrote music in general.
"Before that it had been mostly [guitarist] Pete [Berkman]," Silas says when asked about who writes the songs. "So that was pretty much how it was until then. But there was such a huge body of material that needed to be written, that the only way that we could get it done was divvying up songwriting for the game. So it ended up being pretty much me, Pete and [guitarist] Ary [Warnaar] working simultaneously to write stuff. So that was a big change and that really made us realize we all have a lot to offer. Everything from there on has been much more collaborative."
Endless Fantasy, their most recent record, continues to expand the capabilities of what chip-tune music can do. Even though it's probably their most accessible record to date, the album still contains their signature songwriting and is full of sparkling melodies and energetic rhythms.
Tracks like album opener "Endless Fantasy" and "Akira" carry more of a club vibe. Others like "Canal Paradise" and "John Hughes" a more pop-punk sound; but the overall composition and chip tune sounds unite the songs beautifully, giving the album a unique, otherworldly atmosphere.
While the characteristics of a classic Nintendo synth may recall old-school video games, Anamanaguchi takes completely opposite musical worlds and smashes them together with excellent results; the outcome is a modern, forward-looking record that has started to gain traction with music critics and fans.
When it was released earlier this year, it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart and charted extremely high on the dance/electronic album chart as well. But it's not like the guys were trying to tap into whatever is trendy at the moment.
To hear Silas tell it, they didn't think at all about catering to mainstream tastes or the increasingly popular electronic dance music market.
"This album to me, to all of us, feels like this is just simply where we are now," Silas says. "It doesn't feel like we're leaving anything behind; it just feels like we're making an Anamanaguchi record in 2013 as opposed to 2009. We're definitely taking some time to branch out and make anything that we think is interesting. It's given us some more freedom and, yeah, there are some dance tracks on it; it's super fun. It didn't feel like we were leaving one thing for another. It was just 'this also.'"
From 2010 to 2013, the group took a break from releasing albums to tour and write new songs. With the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack experience behind them, their efforts became more calculated and, to a greater degree, collaborative.
"It's pretty crazy but a lot of the songs on Endless Fantasy were from that time period," Silas said. "It just took a while to get them to what we would have as our personal standard. A lot of writing, a lot of thinking about what the mood should be. It was only when we realized that the only way to get this out would be to do it ourselves, that we were able to get everything to full motion. For all the possible momentum that we had, it was all towards this record but just took us a while to get this record actually ready to go."
When it came time to release the album, the guys in Anamanaguchi decided to put it out themselves. Even though it's a growing trend in the music industry today, self-releases are difficult from a business perspective, especially in terms of financing and distribution.
And so the band took to the popular crowd-sourced fundraising site Kickstarter. With the help of its fans, it was able to not only reach its $50,000 goal but also exceed it by more than five times the amount.
Within just 11 hours, the group met its goal. Ultimately, the fundraiser became the second most popular music project on the site (behind former Dresden Dolls member, Amanda Palmer, who raised $1.2 million).
"We were floored," Silas says. "I could not take my eyes off that fucking page as it was going on. It was pretty mind-blowing. It was definitely not what I was expecting, I will say that for certain."
The fundraising effort gave Anamanaguchi a chance to be heard and connect with people: something the members won't forget. Silas says the Internet played a crucial role.
"Anyone who has grown up in the time has stories about going on message boards, chat rooms or just chatting on Soul Seek, finding music and talking to people that were also on," Silas says. "There have been a lot of life-long connections made.
" And that's not to mention just the fact that this band really never had a real serious label deal," he continues. "We've never had any big promotion until this year but the Internet has shown us so many people who know us and care about what we do. So that's the power of the Internet to me; it's this astonishing connection of giving.