A music diary

I Fight Dragons: Behind the Scenes on NES-Rock

September 18, 2009
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For Chicago band I Fight Dragons, saving the world–and sounding great–is all in a day’s work. This week I caught up with lead singer Brian Mazzaferri, who explains the band’s mix of pop-rock and sweeping electronic melodies–those cute beeps and bloops from old video games.

“When I heard the distinctive waveforms and patterns of the NES soundcard growing up, it was always associated with adventure, with epic journeys,” he said. The band channels that energy into their songs, be they clever tributes to video games or just plain knock-your-socks-off rock. To play the NES components of the songs live, they use various modified video game controllers, and even a guitar from the game Guitar Hero.

To start, here’s a video of Brian demonstrating the practice studio:

For those who don’t know, how would you explain NES-Rock?

Well, I’d explain NES-Rock (as we define it) as Pop-Rock music plus Chiptune, which is music made using old video game soundcards (specifically Nintendo ones like the GameBoy and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)).

How did you get the idea to combine NES sounds with your music?

It sort of happened backwards. Bill Prokopow and I were making a demo of an early version of “Heads Up, Hearts Down,” and I suggested we try to make an intro that would be the chorus as if it were coming out of a Nintendo system. After making the demo and being immensely pleased with ourselves, I stumbled across the chiptune scene in earnest.

There’s tons of artists out there making original music using obsolete equipment like GameBoys, NES, Segas, Commodore 64s, etc, and as soon as I discovered that scene I started listening to TONS of it, and I knew I wanted to find a way to integrate that with Pop-Rock. So we set about to do it!

Do you have any advice for musicians who want to experiment with Chiptune?

Well, for anyone who wants to experiment, I’d say if you have some recording background check out free plugins like YMCK’s Magical 8-bit and Chip32. They work with garageband, audacity, protools, etc. and make it very easy to start hearing sounds right away.

For people without the background in DAW stuff but with a mind for tweaking, some of the easiest programs are Famitracker, Nitrotracker, or Nerdtracker, all of which let you program within the restrictions of the NES sound card, but there’s definitely a learning curve.

For the very hardcore, get a Little Sound DJ or Nanoloop cartridge and a Gameboy! It’s very fun to mess around with, and there’s great tutorials online.

Thanks Brian! More about I Fight Dragons:
on Myspace
on thesixtyone

(Note: I originally posted this piece on maxbumps.net on Aug 20.)


Posted in interview, video

Interview with Flight Crash Companion

August 8, 2009
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(Note: I posted this interview to Max Bumps on June 27. You can read the original here.)

This week I caught up with Evan Cooney, the man behind Flight Crash Companion. He released his fourth album, No New Message, on June 23rd.

So tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started with performing and recording music?

FCC: My dad always had really good taste in music, so I grew up listening to a lot of great records. But it wasn’t until probably Nevermind that I got really interested. That record was so raw and different and exciting (at least for my little sanitized world). It was the first time I remember music really making me feel something. After about the 500th spin, I got the idea that maybe I should be making my own and convinced my parents to buy me a guitar. Playing guitar was fun, but it wasn’t until I added other people into the mix that I truly fell in love. I LOVED writing songs and playing. It never got boring, it was never finished, it could always be better. And then, thanks to the home studio revolution, I was able to actually record my ideas and that was it for me. Music was all I wanted to do.

What’s behind the name “Flight Crash Companion”?

FCC: It’s a little morbid, but the name came to me while sitting on a plane. I thought about the plane going down, and having a minute or two before I die, and this person sitting next to me experiencing the same awful set of emotions and thoughts, and that maybe having someone with me would make it a little less awful. Later it sort of morphed into a metaphor for saying we’re all in a slow descent towards death, and there’s a person or thing in your life that could be your companion, and make it a little less awful. So it’s hopeful, and morbid.

What other musicians influenced you? I saw that you did a Pink Floyd cover.

FCC: My biggest influences are NIN and Elliott Smith. Between the two of them, you have every range of emotion perfectly covered. I am constantly in awe of Reznor’s work. His ability to create these incredibly intense emotional soundscapes within the confines of classically good songwriting is brilliant. So heavy, so dark, so beautiful… And Elliot Smith is so fucking next level, I can’t even begin to dissect his body of work. I hate using the term ‘genius’ to describe artists, but he really is.

What instruments do you play, and what goes into writing/recording a song?

FCC: I play drums, guitar, keys and sing. Each song is approached differently, but they always end up the same — me obsessing about every stupid detail. “Are the vocals too loud in the chorus, should the snare be 2dB hotter.” All the stupid things that no one notices and have nothing to do with good songwriting. All the FCC songs that poeple like were written in about 2 hours, and recorded over two or three weeks. If it’s a good song, it comes naturally. It’s a big red flag when you start spending 3 weeks working on the second verse lyrics.

Have you found that the more you record, the easier it gets? The response to No New Message seems to be overwhelmingly positive.

FCC: It gets easier and it gets harder. Easier in the sense that you can reuse equipment settings and techniques to achieve similar sounds, but harder in the sense that the more you know about recording, the more you obsess about the sound quality. I’ve recently decided it’s really better to leave all the technical decisions to the pros and focus on the music yourself, but when you’re a one man show, you have to be involved in every aspect of the song production. So it’s good and bad.

You’re incredibly involved on thesixtyone. Has the response from the community changed the way you promote your music?

FCC: My fans on T61 have been incredible. I owe them a lot. Everyone on that site is an avid music fan. I use the feedback from songs to help me determine things like “what should I put in a set,” “what should be the single.” T61 is the ultimate focus group: informed, brilliant, no bullshit. People on the on the T61 have incredible taste and passion. The guys who created T61 are brilliant, and the people on that site are top fucking notch. I really can’t express how much I love it.

What is the song “Mr & Mrs Fader” about?

FCC: That song is actually so all over the place, it’s hard to summarize the main message. It covers a lot of FCC topics…pining, decadence, loneliness, drugs, wanting to fit in, the absurdity of human emotion. Out of the 25 or so songs I’ve released, it’s one of the least focused (lyrically) but also one of my favorites. What does it mean to you?

I had this image of a detective investigating a married couple, while at the same time enamored with whatever it is illegal that they’re doing.

FCC: Haha, awesome. People’s interpretations are sometimes better than my own ideas.

No way, your ideas are fantastic. Thanks so much for your time.

FCC: This was a lot of fun. Your questions were great!

Posted in interview