GAME RECOGNITION Playing Mega-Man in ninth grade, Peter Berkman (center) realized: 'Oh shit, the music in this Bubble Man level is totally, like, the first emo song.'"
What do you get when you cross NYU music-technology majors just out of their teens, vintage Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy gear, traditional rock-and-roll instruments, a mysterious, robot-building fellow named José with half a middle finger on one hand, and a shadowy underground network of info-spreading Swedes? No, not a Coen Brothers film — it's the instrumental 8-bit/art-punk quartet Anamanaguchi.
For the uninitiated, 8-bit music (or "chiptune," or "bitpop") involves hacking into old video-game consoles, cartridges, and chips and turning them into tone generators and sequencers — which allows you to compose new melodies and textures with those classic squelchy sounds. Many 8-bit pioneers and practitioners are purists, crafting everything from dance pop to industrial to avant-garde noise with only modified Game Boys and crude homebrew software. Anamanaguchi are a bit different. Two guitars, bass, and drums share stage space with their modded NES; the band's propulsive power pop merges with pre-sequenced square waves they've written in Nintendo assembly language. The result is a hyperkinetic sensory overload that's at once nostalgic and forward-thinking. You can even dance to it. Sometimes.
Anamanaguchi go back to 2003, when founding guitarist and programmer Peter Berkman was in the ninth grade in Westchester. In between recording Weezer covers on a four-track, he and his "songwriting bro" at the time, George, "would get some snacks, like some plain doughnuts, and play Mega Man, and we realized, 'Oh shit, the music in this Bubble Man level is totally, like, the first emo song.' We were listening to Sunny Day Real Estate all the time and we were like, 'It's the same thing, check it out!' "
Eventually, Berkman's pal Kurt Feldman (of the Brooklyn 8-bit/shoegaze band Depreciation Guild) hipped him to a program called Nerdtracker II that makes composing 8-bit music considerably easier, and an early incarnation of Anamanaguchi was born. "By that time I was listening to, like, At the Drive-In," explains Berkman, "so both influences went into the stuff I was writing, and it made sense to throw in guitars and make it a whole band kind of thing."
Still, mastering the technical aspects of 8-bit isn't easy, and Berkman considered himself more of a musician than a tech head. Which is where José comes into the picture.
"He was a friend of mine in high school. He has since had jobs building robots for NASA, and when he was in high school he cut off the top of his middle finger building a BattleBot, and when he called 911 they didn't believe him. So I told him about this whole 8-bit-music world and he was already semi into it. He helped me get the more technical aspect of it. We opened up a bunch of cartridges together and we'd solder stuff. José is the man."
A couple of disastrous shows and malfunctioning units later, Anamanaguchi consolidated their line-up (guitarist/Game Boy programmer Ary Warnaar, bassist James DeVito, and drummer Luke Silas), honed their live presentation, and released a full-length album — Power Supply, available for free download via on-line label/8-bit collective 8bitpeople — and the new Dawn Metropolis EP.
Berkman may confess that playing Game Boys on stage is "inherently absurd," but he's deeply gratified that Anamanaguchi have earned respect and admiration within the 8-bit community, even as they've diverged from the purists. "I feel like it's not like the Good Charlotte situation in punk where we're, like, ruining it. It's definitely more accessible than other 8-bit music, but I don't think it sacrifices the core values of it. I think it's more of, like, a Rancid than a Good Charlotte situation."
ANAMANAGUCHI + HARRY AND THE POTTERS + PREVIOUSLY ON LOST | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass. Ave, Cambridge | June 9 at 8 pm | $10 advance/$12 doors | All ages | 617.864.EAST or www.mideastclub.com
ANAMANAGUCHI | AS220, 115 Empire St., Providence | June 11 @ 9 pm | $7 | All ages | 401.831.9327 | as220.org