Five Questions for The Attic Bits
The Attic Bits—Jeremy Murphy, a.k.a. Arkbit, and Mike D’Errico, a.k.a. The Attic Bat—are a New Hampshire based band known for their improvisational, experimental, 8-bit, ambient dance music. Their first album Dance of the Dragon was released in September 2010, and we caught up with them to talk about that record, how they got into chiptunes, and what’s next.
- Can you describe the first time you picked up a Gameboy and used it as a musical instrument? Did a light bulb turn on over your head when you started playing? That is, was it kind of an “A-ha!” moment where you found yourselves thinking, “This is the instrument for us”?
The Attic Bat: I have been making experimental electronic music since 2006, and it was around that time that Rudy Sims introduced me to the chiptune program Nanoloop. I was getting very interested in Steve Reich’s ideas about music as gradual process, and the Nanoloop interface was very conducive to music based on the manipulation of discrete layers. My first experience with chipmusic was thus a part of a more integrated electronic music setup. Interestingly enough, The Attic Bits began in a similar manner. It was not until a few months into our rehearsal process that we settled on a strictly chiptune setup. Based on our improvisational compositional process, the hardware surrounding 8-bit music was the most conducive to what we were doing. As a fun fact, the first track I made on Nanoloop, back in 2006, ended up as the opening track on our first album, Dance of the Dragon.
- Beyond the Gameboys, what is your musical background? How does that factor into what you do with the music of The Attic Bits? Do you think having a musical background better equips you to create these sorts of tunes in any way? If so, how so?
Arkbit: I’ve been playing every instrument I could get my hands own since I was in middle school. I’m really into ambient music, though I’ve never really made any of my own for some reason. I’m in love with music that inspires feelings without resorting to lyrics. I challenge anyone to listen to Sigur Ros and not feel something. I’m also obsessed with sounds. I can fall for a song based on a hum in the background. My ambient music and the Bat’s strong hip-hop roots have everything to do with Attic Bits music. Whenever you hear a wailing drone, that’s me. All those fresh beats are the Bat. As far as other people go, I don’t think having a strong musical background is necessary in order to make this music. To be honest, the Attic Bits is a result of many years of musical training and experimentation, but I feel like chiptune music is a great way for people who are ‘scared’ of music to kind of break into it. I look at it like chess –- easy to learn, but hard to master. There are a lot of details to juggle, and a huge amount of potential difficulty, but it’s definitely not impossible to just pick it up and bang out a melody.
The Attic Bat: Expanding on Arkbit’s comment, drum sequencing in electronic dance music (in general) has been a major influence on my chiptune work, especially in the context of the limitations of the technology we use. With LSDJ (the tracker program we use to make music on the Game Boy), most of my drum beats are made with a single, monophonic noise channel. Manipulating the synthesizer parameters for this track is key in creating drum tracks with a strong sense of energy, and becuase of this many of my tracks contain heavy fragmentation, gritty textures, and weighty grooves that take from the styles of electronic artists I have been influenced by including Nine Inch Nails, Venetian Snares, Squarepusher, and most hip-hop producers, new and old. In terms of our live show, I would definitely say we have increased our “metronome sense,” that is, our ability to sync tempos across multiple devices, as well as the ability to program sequences live. You need a very precise feel for musical timing in order to pull it off. While not necessarily a requirement for 8-bit musicians, the skill to construct tracks with distinct timbres as well as an understanding of what frequency one is taking up at any moment always impresses me. This is how chiptune artists give the impression of building tracks with so many layers when in fact there are usually only a total of four or five tracks at any time.
- A little birdie told me that there is a whole story behind your first album Dance of the Dragon. Some of that is certainly in the song titles, and there’s definitely a narrative flow to the songs and the way they’re arranged, but what’s the story (in a nutshell)? And do you feel comfortable leaving it fairly open to interpretation?
Arkbit: Yes, there is a story to Dance of the Dragon, available to view here. In a nutshell, the story is that two bored hackers find an evil computer virus of some sort and can only combat it by entering a video game world. These two wanderers save a magical forest from orcs and battle an evil enchantress. In the end, they’re confronted by the hag 4crone. After a narrow defeat, they celebrate with the townsfolk, but they know that they’ve won a battle, not the war. The next two in the trilogy will continue to deal with the struggle against 4crone and the Enchantress, and follow the same trajectory as the Star Wars trilogy. The first album is the introduction, the second is the downfall of the heroes, and the third will deal with the final battle. What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of the material in our story and our songs come directly from our lives. The Enchantress is a real woman with whom I interacted for a time, the battles reflect real struggles we’ve endured, etc. People tend to think it’s all silly, but if you take the time to sit and really talk with us, you’ll realize there’s a lot more philosophy and thought in our music than actual music.
- I had the pleasure of hearing you perform from backstage during your gig as the house band for An Evening of Robot and Steampunk Theatre. There you were playing the pre-show, between plays, and during intermission. And that got me wondering what a full-on Attic Bits live show is like. So, what’s the experience like? And do you have any gigs coming up?
The Attic Bat: Our choice of hardware changes on a show-by-show basis, but our fundamental setup includes a single MIDI controller which controls an MPC 1000: a sequencer which sends MIDI messages out to a Nintendo Entertainment Console as well as an original DMG model Game Boy. Each of us has this setup, and all of the devices run into a single DJ mixer which we can then manipulate in a live setting. As we perform, we are triggering and layering tracks on the Game Boys, sequencing and layering tracks on the Nintendo, and adding effects to the overall sound. We sync the tempos of our Game Boys together with a Game Boy link cable, and we sync the Nintendo tracks by ear, synchronizing the tempo with our Game Boy tempo and triggering the loops on the downbeat. While we initially constructed our set as a continuous flow of music, we have recently incorporated audience interaction, in which we tell the story of our songs between tracks. We have even held live video game trivia contests between songs, in which we give away Attic Bits merchandise! If you’re interested in checking out a live show, we have quite a few coming up. February 26 we are playing at Myriad Games in Manchester, NH at 6 pm. March 24 we are hosting a huge chiptune show at The Stone Church with artists from New Hampshire, Boston, and Rhode Island. March 26th and April 2 we will be at The Jam Factory in Manchester, NH, and April 10 we will be giving a lecture on how chiptune music works at the Portsmouth Public Library at 2 pm.
- In a tweet on February 17, Arkbit said, “The name for the new album is decided. The story is almost constructed.” Anything else you want to tell us about what’s coming next for you guys?
Arkbit: With all the projects we have in mind, it seems wrong to just pick a few out. Check us out at www.facebook.com/atticbits or www.theatticbits.com to keep up with the latest shows and projects. If I had to pick a few, I’d be looking out for the two music videos in the works. They go along with another exciting project—the second album in our trilogy. A little after that’s released, we’ll hopefully be releasing a pen-and-paper RPG to go along with our fantasy world. I’d love to do an actual video game, if only I could find the people with the right talents willing to volunteer the time (hint hint). I’m also going to repeat that we have a huge chiptune show at the Stone Church on March 24. Everyone should come and help us prove to the world that NH is a good place to make chiptune music. We also have full-on shows, lectures, and workshops all coming up in the next few months. Seems like we have a new project every 15 minutes or so. Stay tuned!