Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Interview| Alex Mauer

Around the end of August I began racking my brain for a new interview 'column' following the enjoyment I'd been having conducting them for the WeeklyTreats project. The problem with those interviews, however, is the incredibly tight time-frame which they must be conducted over, and as such it's hard to get a real, in-depth appreciation for the artist as a whole. So, with the aim towards conducting longer interviews, I began searching for the right type of artist or 'personality' which would thrive under such scrutiny. Enter Alex Mauer.

Following a chance e-meet, it became quickly apparent the legend has as much to say as his career is prolific. With 'Nin-Nin Hall', a track from his "first real release", 'Eat People', being one of if not the first pieces of chiptune I heard that really catapulted the medium beyond novelty aesthetic and into "genuine artistic capabilities", I can't think of a more fitting opener to this column than the long revered (by me at least) personal introducer and inspirer. Without further ado: Alex Mauer!

TWG: First off, when did you begin writing music in general, at what age and what was the catalyst for it?

Alex Mauer: When I was young, my mum played piano, my dad played guitar, and my uncle was a radio DJ. Surrounded by all of that, music seemed important all along. I wanted to make music since... always. I started by tape recording myself attempting to play as many instruments as I could simultaneously, which sounded like a bunch of noise. I was too young to realize I needed a 4-track recorder. I'd say I didn't start making decent music until my cousin introduced me to the demo scene in the 90's. When I saw what was possible with trackers, I asked him to build me a computer. In 1996 I officially started tracking.

TWG: Has the demoscene been a big influence on your musical output? Also, your music is often described as ‘soundtracks for non-existent games’. Considering this, and coupled with the existence of the ‘Blast’ series, has video game music and culture had an equally important influence on your work?

AM: The 90's chiptune scene was a sub division of the demoscene. The term itself "chiptune" was coined by guys who were tracking Amiga MODs with single cycle wave samples sounding like C64 and Atari etc. I started mimicking guys like 4mat and h0llyw00d... copying their techniques... even using their samples. I have wanted to make game music forever. The "kid recordings" in Blast are real. MODs always sounded similar to SNES music to me, and chiptunes like NES etc, that's the direction I took with trackers. I always thought the most impressive thing you can do with chiptunes is make music that sounds good enough to have been in classic games, to the extreme that someone hearing one of my songs might try to figure out what game it was from.

TWG: So, even though you aim for that ‘video game soundtrack’ feel, are there any non-game or even non-electronic artists that directly affect your chiptune output?

AM: Yeah, definitely. I have a handful of favourite artists who influence my style: Depeche Mode, Cocteau Twins, Blonde Redhead, Jam and Lewis, Jan Hammer just to name a few. I also love 80s music in general.

TWG: Do you have any particular ‘formal education’ in composition or did it start and continue as a pleasure hobby?

AM: When I was 5, I tried piano lessons. I got so nervous going to my first lesson that I had a terrible headache and stomach ache during it. I never went back again! Regardless of the lack of "formal training" I take music very seriously. I've never been great at playing instruments, but I can easily get music in my head onto the computer with trackers.

TWG: As you’ve brought trackers up, what was the first thing you created with them, what prompted their use, and what was the first, what you’d consider to be, release you used them for?

AM: The first thing I created with a tracker was a song called "Broken Clavicle" I composed on Scream Tracker 3 in 1996. It's basically a "hello, world" or "my first tune". My first official release was Eat People 1 (EP length) which came out in 2005. I used Nerd Tracker 2 and a homemade flash cart to record from my NES hardware.

TWG: Could you talk us through some more of your prominent works, how they came about and what had inspired them?

AM: Eat People came first in 2005. It was NES music, EP length, and it is what would have been my first 8bitpeoples release, but they rejected me. I named the release "Eat People" to mock them in sort of a vague way. Before Eat People I had never recorded any chip music from "game hardware", and I consider it my first real release.

In 2006, I started playing live shows in Philly with guys I met online: Joey Mariano (Animal Style), Dino Lionetti (Cheap Dinosaurs), and Don Miller (No-Carrier). The day I met Don is the day "Vegavox" started coming together. He knew I was doing NES music with Famitracker and he said we could put the music on an NES cartridge as an album. I had this idea before but shrugged it off as impossible. I'm sure many others have as well. So Don and I were able to complete the first Vegavox cart by 2007, and I made 170 of them by hand and sold them all. The whole reason I was able to start a soundtrack career is a guy at E.A. Mobile read about Vegavox and asked if I wanted to make MIDI files for cell phone games.

By late 2007 I realized I was not going to be able to make a living off of building NES carts so I decided to try making a CD. I asked myself, "How could a chiptune CD possibly be better than a cart?" The answer was: a cart can only play back on 1 console, a CD can contain recordings from MANY consoles. So I learned how to use 9 different trackers and consoles to make "9999" as my last big effort before getting sucked into the world of normal full time employment. My output has slowed down significantly since, other than soundtrack releases.

TWG: How do you handle that balance between full time employment and creative work? Was there ever a time where the duopoly was an equilibrium?

AM: My day job is 40 hours a week and sometimes overtime hours. My freelance job doing soundtracks is pretty inconsistent. Sometimes I have long stretches of nothing and other times I have to do multiple soundtracks at once. I use vacation days at my day job when it gets out of hand. I have a role model, Virt. He is known for doing a ridiculous amount of soundtrack work, pulling all nighters, etc, and he's married like me.

Typically with games and commercials, every other step of the project is complete before the composer does the music. This means most soundtrack work is "rush" work. There is usually a tight deadline, sometimes over night. I learned how to handle this kind of situation from how I spent my weekends and summers in high school. I stayed up late nights doing OHC's (one hour tracking comps) on IRC. The rules are you have an hour to make a song with a sample pack which is provided when you start. I learned how to stay up late working on music and finishing as much as possible in the smallest amount of time.

I have accepted the idea that I can't spend much time on personal projects until I don't need the day job anymore. I have a lot of ideas for new albums but I have barely started any of them. This is a major reason I don't play a lot of shows.

TWG: Talking of playing live, what is your usual set-up when you do play a show? Also, could you name some of your notable appearances please?

AM: Notable appearances: Blip Fest 2007, 8static #6, and coming up @ 8staticfest 2013. My typical set-up is to have tracks loaded on a laptop or iPod and a keyboard. I play the background tracks off the iPod and play leads or rhythms on keyboard. Other people say you need to have game hardware on stage, I don't think it's necessary. Maybe it gives them street cred but I've already used hardware to record my songs in the first place. My favourite keyboards for live are the Yamaha DX-21 (sounds identical to a Sega Genesis) and the Alesis Micron (small but full sized keys).

TWG: You raise an interesting point about the debate between hardware and software. As it’s been done to death, I suppose this only needs to be brief, but where do you personally stand on the fakebit vs true chip, hardware vs emulator fronts?

AM: I started doing chip when the norm was to use samples of basic waveforms. I don't care how people arrive at the sound. As long as it sounds good. YMCK for example uses software emulation and they sound great. Hardware is cool but not necessary to me. That being said, I have never been satisfied with software emulation of the DX7 FM synthesizer and for that sound I insist on using real hardware.

TWG: Could we go back and discuss your OST work? How do they usually come about and what are some of the notable projects you’ve worked on?

AM: My most notable with E.A. Mobile are Marble Madness (mobile version) and a couple of Simpsons cell games. I also worked with Penny Arcade on their PATV series, and their game "Rain-slick 3". My favourite project I've done so far is scoring a horror movie for Imagos Films called: "Motivational Growth" which is still in it's festival run. It's the first feature length film with a chiptune soundtrack.

The way people find out about me is mostly from previous soundtrack jobs. I usually get streaks of repeat business from companies who liked working with me. It all started with simply releasing a lot of my own music, people picked up on it like 2 Player Productions who used it for Penny Arcade TV. My cart releases got the attention of E.A. and Imagos Films found me from all my internet exposure.

TWG: Could you tell us about 'Motivational Growth', the release, and how it all came about please?

AM: The film is called "Motivational Growth". It takes place in 1991 in this depressed dude Ian's apartment. The place, and his life, are a mess. He discovers a talking piece of mould growing in his bathroom that becomes his life coach. It's a very twisted, dark comedy... It includes animation by Jeremie Perin, the pixel animator responsible for "Trucker's Delight", Jeff Combs (from Star Trek) as the voice of The Mould, which is a real bad-ass puppet and not CGI.

The writer/director, Don Thacker, is a huge sci-fi, horror, computer nerd. He wanted to have a chiptune score for the film to reflect the world Ian lives in. So he ended up contacting me because he had heard of Vegavox and my having worked with Penny Arcade. We started on the score in late 2011... using the highly recognizable NES and the highly versitile C64 as our instruments. The film premiered at the 2013 Boston Sci-fi Fest and won the coveted "Gort Award" aka "best of fest". It's been on a festival run all year and won many awards, too many to name.

We are anticipating getting a distribution deal sometime soon, but for now the only way to see it is at festivals. We are calling on our fans and friends to come to the NYC Horrorfest on November 17th at noon to see the film. It will probably sell out, so buy a ticket before travelling.

TWG: Have you got any specific rituals when it come to soundtrack composition to maybe help aspiring soundtrackers? Also, are the influences and focus of the soundtracks the same as those of the chiptune albums you release?

AM: There's not really a ritual... but there are steps that I have to take with every soundtrack: 1) Understand the project. If it's a game, play the game, look at screenshots or anything else that's relevant.
2) Determine what the client wants/expects from me, do they want typical Mauer style? They usually give me examples or I ask for them. Then I make sketches and get feedback to find a direction.
3) Work like crazy. Get feedback along the way. I keep notes on paper for stuff like time codes for video, if it's really complex I'll make a spreadsheet and send a PDF with the music. Another good tip is to keep your hours logged just to know how much time you spent on stuff, no one ever asked me for timelogs.
4) Keep the project deadline in mind. If you only have 5 hours left, figure out what the most essential parts remain instead of getting stuck tweaking minor things.
5) Once everything is done be in stand-by mode for possible tweaks, there are always tweaks!

That's the basics of it.Most of my influences are the same as when I do my own music but I have been asked to fake Danny Elfman on multiple occasions, also Mark Mothersbaugh, and even though I don't like NIN I have done the Trent Reznor thing too. I like a lot of soundtrack guys, same w/ game soundtracks. Interesting note: Vegavox 2 style is a combination of David Wise, David Wise (Solar Jetman), Depeche Mode, and Bobby Brown... it all makes sense now doesn't it?

TWG: Have you got any immediate plans for the future regarding your music that you can tell us?

AM: I have plenty of ideas for new albums, but I've been struggling with getting time to work on them. I'm planning on doing a Gameboy cart similar to my Vegavox NES carts, as well as bringing back some old material which has been in the vault for a few years. I have some more soundtrack jobs lined up and it looks like I'll be scoring another film sometime in 2014. Other than that... there are secrets I won't reveal!
For more music and information be sure to check out Alex's Bandcamp!