YMCK takes ‘chiptune’ revolution major

by Daniel Robson

‘The music in video games is less memorable now than it was in the old days,” says Midori Kurihara, vocalist with YMCK, and she should know: Her Tokyo three-piece band emulates the sound of classic scores to games on the 8-bit Nintendo Famicom console (known in the West as the Nintendo Entertainment System) that gave “Super Mario Bros.” to the world in 1985.

“These days video-game music is more cinematic,” counters Tomoyuki Nakamura, who co-writes the band’s music and handles animation for their suitably pixelated music videos. “But it’s not as impressive as before.”

“The music from games such as ‘Mario Bros.’ or ‘Dragon Quest,’ we can still sing along to those,” agrees Takeshi Yokemura, the unit’s driving member, who writes most of the music and lyrics and also crafts the band’s sound.

Though the band’s 2004 debut, “Family Music,” shifted a highly respectable 25,000 copies, Yokemura soon grew frustrated with the substandard game sounds available on the synthesizers used on that album. So he created his own synthesizer software (called “Magical 8bit Plug” and available to download for free from the band’s Web site as a software plug-in) to create sounds indistinguishable from the game music of yore.

But that’s not the only trick up this “chiptune” trio’s sleeve. While the band’s three albums all draw from the same sonic source, musically the songs are complex and original. Fusing elements of swing jazz, Southeast Asian pop and kitsch vocal melodies, YMCK’s music is a kissing cousin of the Shibuya-kei scene that spawned Cornelius and Kahimi Karie in the ’90s, and — crucially — would probably sound great played on regular instruments too.

“The first time we heard the genre name ‘chiptune’ was after we’d uploaded some songs onto our Web site, and someone contacted us to say, ‘I like your chiptune music,” says Kurihara.

“Early on, we didn’t even play 8-bit music,” says Yokemura. “Before the band formed properly, we played one show as a regular techno band, and that was it. But about a year later, I thought I’d like to play jazzy, cute, poppy techno music, and I remembered the sound of the Famicom games I used to play years ago.”

“Eight-bit music is a small scene, but it has a huge potential,” says Kurihara.

“We weren’t really the first to do it, either,” says Yokemura. “When we started out, there were already bands playing 8-bit music in various countries. There’s chiptune music in China, Sweden, New York — all the major cities.

This network of like-minded artists has seen the band play in cities around Asia, Europe and the United States, marking them as front-runners, if not strictly pioneers, of the genre. This in turn has led them from small indie label Usagi-Chang to pop powerhouse Avex, home to Ayumi Hamasaki and Kumi Koda, through which they released their third album, “Family Genesis,” last month.

“Moving to Avex hasn’t had any effect on our music,” says Kurihara. “We’d already finished recording the new album before we signed.”

“Mind you,” laughs Yokemura, “Some people have said to us, ‘Your music’s changed now that you’ve gone major!’ But yes, it would be nice to sell as many records as Ayumi Hamasaki and play at Tokyo Dome. The bigger the better!”

While not exactly on the scale of the 45,000-seater Tokyo Dome, the band’s infrequent live shows are good fun. Although with Nintendo-esque videos synched to each song, an array of gear on the stage and synthetically layered vocal harmonies, it’s not for purists.

“It’s barely live at all!” says Yokemura. “The proportion of pre-recorded material is pretty high. We use a DVD and, well, we don’t like to give away too many of our secrets. But we don’t use actual Nintendo consoles like some chiptune bands.”

Regardless, YMCK’s live spectacle is part of a seamless allround package. At our interview, Yokemura withdraws his business card from a case shaped as a Famicom controller, and the band are even considering making — you guessed it — their own video game.

“A fighting game could be good!” he says.

“But you’d only have three characters to choose from,” points out Nakamura.

“I’d be the final boss!” adds Kurihara.

“We don’t usually argue that much or anything,” jokes Yokemura, “but sometimes we do jump on each other’s heads like Mario does.”

Despite their love for the games of yesteryear and their nerdy appearance, Yokemura, Kurihara and Nakamura insist that they are not video-game otaku (obsessive fans). (“I don’t collect figures or video games, so I can’t be an otaku,” says Yokemura.) They’re simply happy to create playful music with an air of nostalgia, and they insist that limiting themselves to a single palette of sounds actually opens many creative doors.

“Being restricted makes us think harder about how to make good music,” says Yokemura. “The sound may be the same from song to song, but it opens us up to all sorts of new ideas.”

And besides, adds Kurihara, “When I get to the end of (classic Nintendo action game) ‘Metroid’ and hear the ending theme, I always feel like I’ve really accomplished something.”

Who could argue with that?

YMCK’s “Family Genesis” is out now on Avex Trax.

Before YMCK

Chiptune, 8-bit, gamewave, bitpop, pico pico . . . YMCK has been labeled many things. Until the late 1990s, most of the best-known practitioners of video-game inspired music were from outside Japan: German Commodore 64 fanatics Welle:Erdball are considered pioneers, although Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” (1981) played with similar ideas. But what of Japan, home to the NES and Game Boy?

“Yellow Magic Orchestra,” Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978): Predating Kraftwerk’s computer-themed effort, YMO’s debut album begins with a medley of video-game sounds. The trio not only incorporated the sounds of contemporary video games into their music, but influenced the sound of video-game music for most of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. What would “Tetris” have sounded like without “Tong Poo”?

“Astro,” Aprils (2003): The Usagi-Chang label in Japan has been at the forefront of Japanese technopop since the early 2000s, with bands such as Aprils, whose debut “Astro” was notable for the way it mixed Game Boy sounds with Shibuya-kei.

“Family Racing,” YMCK (2005): Also on Usagi-Chang, YMCK took chiptune to a whole new level, not only programming the songs entirely using 8-bit sounds, but also writing their own software on which to make the music. “Family Racing” was accompanied by a series of promo videos that were animated with the requisite low resolution and gaudy color palette to complete the sense of being transported to 1989.(Ian Martin)