Unlike a lot of kids growing up in the 1990s, Toru Koda didn’t have much hands-on experience with video games.
“My big brother always hogged the system,” the 32-year-old, who records electronic music as Quarta330, says with a chuckle at a cafe in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. “But I really liked watching games more. Even now, when I drink, I’ll watch video game speed runs on YouTube.”
Maybe he didn’t have the controller in his hands too often, but Koda absorbed those console-born bleeps and has made them a central element of Quarta330. His music — whether released via influential English label Hyperdub (he’s the only Japanese artist putting out work with them) or domestic imprints such as Maltine Records — leans heavily on notes generated by Game Boys and Commodore 64 home computers. His latest Hyperdub release, an EP titled “Pixelated” that came out last week, even nods to his 8-bit tendencies right in the title.
But Koda isn’t a chiptune artist, referring to a genre of music built around video game-sourced sounds. At least he isn’t anymore.
“That was kind of my identity as an artist. It took a bit of time to figure out if I could still express myself using consoles as instruments, in a new way,” he says.
Similar to how he has woven game noises into dub and more up-tempo fare on older Hyperdub releases, “Pixelated” finds Koda rejigging his familiar sonic palette. He conjures up off-kilter reggae on “The Fairies Homecoming” and marries cartridge-ready sounds with seasick synth on “Yatagarasu.” It’s a short but great reminder of Koda’s creative use of sound — and a necessary refresher, as “Pixelated” is the first non-single release he’s put out through Hyperdub since joining a decade ago.
“Because I’m so lazy,” Koda says when asked why it took so long, “I’m like a student cramming for a test.”
He’s being a bit hard on himself. Later, when talking about his creative process, he mentions that he can’t complete a song until he has it all planned out in his head.
Though try telling that to your boss.
“It took him ages to send the finished tracks,” Hyperdub founder Steve Goodman, aka Kode9, says via email. “But there is no rush.”
It helps that “Pixelated” impressed Goodman.
“He’s kept this amazing melodic sense, but has updated his drums so it’s not all just 8-bit anymore, and got faster,” Goodman says.
Koda first became interested in making music as a tween. His sister listened to Yellow Magic Orchestra, a group that pioneered the use of video game-sounds in pop.
“It was so different than the music that was popular at the time. I thought, ‘Wow, no vocals, I could make something like this on my own, too.’ ” He ran out and bought a Yamaha MU15 tone generator to begin fiddling around with and eventually became enamored with sounds made using a Game Boy device.
That, initially, guided Koda to chiptune, and his first recordings are undeniably of the genre. He released one fidgety album, “Dot-Bubbles,” in 2006. He also organized chiptune parties. But at the same time, he was starting to fall for a considerably darker style of dance music emerging from South London: dubstep.
“I was in college at the time, and the dubstep scene wasn’t that big,” Koda recalls. “When Kode9 first came to Japan, I went to an event he played at Nakano Heavy Sick Zero. It was so tiny! I went up to Kode9 and handed him my music.”
“I loved it, the way melodies sound through those synth chips, and he had brilliant melodies,” Goodman says. “But I also remember how powerful his tracks sounded on sound systems, competing even at the peak of dubstep in London when everyone was trying to explode the bass bins.”
The two connected over email, and Quarta330 released his first chip-centered Hyperdub single in 2007. Koda’s arrival helped expand the boundaries of the label’s sound. At that point, they were best known for the gritty, haunted tunes of Kode9 and, especially, an artist named Burial. Koda’s blippy take on dub added splashes of color, and previewed Hyperdub’s eventual shift to a more all-encompassing destination.
From this point on, many write-ups refer to Quarta330’s sound as “chiptune,” but he was drifting away from it, something that is especially clear on “Pixelated.” He says he still uses his Commodore 64, but he is also experimenting more with the software Ableton, along with a variety of unorthodox sources.
“I used a Speak & Spell on the new EP, but I played around with the circuits inside, bended them,” Koda says, referring to a popular ’80s toy that can recite letters and words. He would also just record himself tapping his fingers on a table, and blend it into the songs. Despite frequently turning to the fairly recognizable notes of video games, Koda seems fond of sneaking in warped takes on familiar sounds. (As an example, he refers to 2014 Hyperdub number “Hanabi,” saying he sliced up samples from an erotic computer game into unrecognizable bits.)
Beyond finally getting “Pixelated” out to the public, Koda has been moving in other new directions. He has long been an in-demand remixer, and was recently hired to rework rising J-pop star Daichi Miura’s latest single, a number he says boasted the theme of “games.” Also, after working at Harajuku synthesizer shop Five G for 12 years, he recently joined Swedish instrument company Elektron in their Tokyo sales and promotion team.
“The company has more holidays available, which is really nice,” he says with a laugh.
Still, don’t necessarily expect more time to equal more music from Quarta330, as he still opts to work at his own pace, constantly exploring new sounds and ideas.
“For now, I’ll just see what happens,” Koda says. “At least until Kode9 starts getting on me.”
“Pixelated” is in stores now. For more information, visit www.quarta330.com.
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