He uses printers as instruments too, all while avoiding a leaking roof.
Over the past two decades, the connection between video games and music has become concrete. Early grime tracks were made on Playstations, Crystal Castles' debut was basically the sound of all your favourite SNES games put into a toaster and the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack, which stretches from the broad to the esoteric, Sophie Ellis Bextor to DJ Rashad, is more comprehensive than any film OST.
Since the 80s, there have also been those that adapt video game consoles to make music, often called chiptune or 8-bit. Video director James Houston and musician Julian Corrie have continued that lineage, creating music from Sega Megadrives, Commodore 64s, Gameboys as well as other recorded mechanical sounds.
Five years ago, they made this video of Radiohead’s “Nude” being played by a collection of printers. It helped generate James some mild internet fame and something like two million hits. But a few years later, a commercial for a printer emerged that seemed to have stolen their idea (although the company that made the ad strenuously deny this). In response, James and Julian have recorded another track.
I sat down with James and Julian to talk about the story behind the two videos, why music from a computer is kind of catchy, and why Sonic is the best Megadrive game.
YNTHT: How did the latest video come about?
James: Basically I got word that a company was making a commercial featuring printers making music, which is a pretty odd way to sell a printer.
That sounds pretty similar to your video.
James: You could say that. I wanted to be recognised as the creator of that concept and it’d been five years since the original one. I was in quite a panic, so with only a few weeks worth of prep we’re in an empty swimming pool soldering hard drives. I got Julian in to write and perform the unique piece of music on the video game equipment that I had modified.
Was it all a rush?
Julian: Yeah, it was pretty last minute. On the day of the shoot I was still writing bits of the song. There was meant to be a printer bassline but it caught fire. The lyrics were written on the day. There was no overdubs as we were going for a live feel.
What was the response to it?
James: It achieved over two million hits, a lot of blogs liked it.
What did it involve? How do you make the tracks?
James: Everything was controlled by MIDI, there was an MPC controlling the samples. The guitar was switching floppy drives. The Megadrive are custom cartridge so that directly addresses the sync chip. It can do three channels at once so it can control drums, bassline and melody. Megadrive was my favourite system, that was the one advantage they had over Nintendo, the sound.
Julian: After the video was released people were trying to ally us with the chiptune scene, which is much more complicated than what we were doing. They do stuff like coding music through a Gameboy interface.
Why was the video filmed in a swimming pool?
James: It was cheap! It had great reverb as well. The idea conceptually was to make it seem like a funeral almost saying goodbye to the video game consoles and my student video, which I had to let go of. Weirdly enough there happened to be a massive crucifix motif hanging up on the walls of the swimming pool.
Julian: Practically, if something caught fire we it’d be easier to stop it burning down everything. The roof was leaking on the equipment; we could have got electrocuted at any point.
What was it like performing the piece?
Julian: It took twenty takes and we played it different every time. I had to get a plane that night, that was something that focused me. This was definitely the most fully formed of the projects that we’ve done together.
James: Yeah, if anyone has loads of money and wants amazing music we’re about.