Monday, January 24, 2011
Universal Remote, Universal Control
Friday, January 21, 2011
Interview III, Starscream, Part I, 12/13/10
Starscream are an 8-bit band from New York City featuring George Stroud on drums and Damon Hardjowirogo on various and sundry electronic devices. The first time I saw them was at the Sixth Street Community Center (and the first time seeing Radiates as well, but that’s a different kettle of fish) and they probably popped my 8-bit cherry. It’s fair to say that Starscream occupied a very specific niche within the all-ages group of bands between 2007 and mid-2010. They were the first to leave New York City to tour, they were the first to have serious quantities of merchandise, they were the first to play to large crowds that were not affiliated with the Brooklyn scene.
This is part one of a two part interview with Damon and George about Starscream, what it’s like being a young touring band with a specific sound and what it means to sell out. As with the interviews with Random Child and Earth Defense Force on this blog, it’s sprawling and lightly edited and very much in their own words.
Rich Gin: So I’m here with Damon and George from Starscream – Hi guys.
Damon Hardjowirogo: Hey!
George Stroud: Hello!
RG: So, back-story part of this; you guys basically do stuff that’s completely different from anyone else that I shoot, in that you guys do 8-bit stuff – how did that come about?
DH: How did we get in to doing 8-bit stuff? My friend’s older brother, my friend Dave Feldman, who I used to skate with a lot…
RG: Related to Matt Feldman?
DH: No, a completely different Feldman family. I used to skate with him a lot – his older brother was in this band – still is – in this band called The Depreciation Guild. They do 8-bit shoegaze stuff using a Famicom and [Dave] took me – I had no idea it was 8-bit or anything; I just thought it was pretty cool and wanted to go see it -- took me to go to Blipfest ’06 and that was the first 8-bit show I ever went to.
RG: Where was Blipfest ’06?
DH: I don’t remember the venue; it was somewhere in the Wall St. area at an empty space that was being rented out before it got turned into something else and it was really awesome. But even after that I didn’t really have an idea of what 8-bit was, I just knew that I liked what was going on there. And at that show I met Peter Berkman from Anamanaguchi and I started listening to them and started putting together what [8-bit] was.
RG: Now George did you and Damon skate together?
RG: So you guys are buddies from way back.
GS: I think, actually, the first 8-bit I heard was Anamanaguchi’s “Airbase,” [Damon] sent it to me.
RG: And that was it? You just said, ‘We wanna do this too’?
DH: Yeah, before we decided we wanted to [start a band] George told me he was getting his drum kit back from his old house in New Jersey – You were how old; 14 when you moved here?
GS: Yeah, right before high school. I didn’t have my drum set for two years.
DH: And I had missed playing music; I had played in some shitty bands in middle school, I played bass and we wanted to do a Lightning Bolt rip-off or something like that and I said, ‘Y’know what, I’m garbage at bass, we’re going to a lot of 8-bit shows, maybe we should try it out.’ And George found a copy of Little Sound DJ, the program we use, on Craigslist and a couple of weeks later I found a copy and we just sort of moved on from there.
RG: The one thing I noticed about you guys, and this occurred to me a while ago, is that your organic part is the drums – usually the drummer is trying to hold everything together -- unless you’re one of those drummers that drives a show. So you have these machines and rhythms that aren’t going anywhere – they’re kind of stuck so George how does that work for you – is it basically like playing long to a click track?
GS: Oh jeez… well, of course it’s always going to be on time because of the way the tracks are in the tracker. I dunno, I guess it’s KINDA hard…
DH: Yeah people bring that up with me all the time they say, ‘I don’t know how George keeps up with that shit, I can’t play to a track ever,’ but I think that this is the first serious project that George and I have had so I think it’s all we really know, especially George who basically learned drums doing this. So it’s kind of the norm for us, whereas other people are sort of amazed about how he does it.
RG: So by falling in with Anamanaguchi and the 8-bit bands, you sort of already had a built in audience when you compare to the other bands [your peers made].
DH: It was kind of weird – the path that a lot of bands that do chip music have followed is they start within the insular chip music scene and then realize they need to go out and play with other types of musicians whereas we had our first show with Fiasco and other local punk bands and we kind of worked out way from the punk scene into the chip scene and to most people who come to chip shows we sort of come out of nowhere.
RG: Do you remember what year that was, the first show with Fiasco?
DH: That was 2007… October?
GS: Yeah, October 7, 2007. And we got Atlas DJ
DH: Yeah, you got it in August. I got it in September. We’d been a band for a month.
RG: The first time I saw you was…
RG: March ’08 over in the East Village.
DH: Yeah it was the community center on 6th st.
RG: Going back to the community thing. You have this group of 8-bit bands that you can get pulled [onto bills with]. How do you think that’s impacted your growth as a band?
DH: I think it got a lot of people to hear our music who normally wouldn’t because a lot of the people who go to [8-bit] shows aren’t concert goers but they are into chip music for one reason or another and try to support the scene, so I think that gave us a fan base. I think most of the other bands we were playing with wouldn’t have access to [those fans] and from there it [just grew].
RG: So who is your audience then if your crowds are made up of people who don’t really go to shows?
DH: I dunno… I feel like our audience is a bunch of 16-year-old girls.
GS: On ecstasy.
GS: Well they were in college.
DH: That was recent. That was weird. That was at Hampshire College.
RG: What was the show like?
DH: It was their Halloween party. And it was in a tent outdoors and it was freezing and it was a bunch of girls on ecstasy really scantily dressed and grinding on the [subwoofers] in 20-degree weather.
GS: At the first song ten of them rushed the stage…
DH: I don’t think they knew we were a band because we were playing in the DJ tent.
RG: You have also toured – what were those first tours like?
DH: The first tour was with Anamanaguchi, they wanted us to come along and support for them throughout that tour. Earlier that summer we went to England on our own and that was pretty much a failure, but it was fun. We played one show for our friend’s birthday party and that…
GS: …Kicked ass.
DH: He got an 80’s metal band back together called Witchfeind. They were great.
GS: The drummer had a 20-piece set…
DH: And they were all really old and their wives were selling their t-shirts and that was pretty unreal. And then we had two other shows in London and one in Liverpool. The one in London was OK, but everyone who worked at the venue was an asshole so things didn’t go well and then 10 people came out in Liverpool. So that was kind of a bummer.
RG: Did you ever get any feedback from those England shows?
DH: I think the [Liverpool] show was the one that had nothing come out of it. We met some great people over in [UK], some really awesome ones.
GS: The other musicians were great guys.
DH: A few of them were from Germany and the following summer they took us to Germany. That was the second time in Europe.
RG: The other thing I noticed about you guys is that you were the first band [in this group of young New York bands] to have a merch table.
DH: I think we have that advantage because our friend Eric Sherman taught me how to screen print when I was in 9th grade. And I’ve just been really big on [silk screening]; making shirts for our skate crew and then George – when did you learn?
GS: 10th grade. When I was 15 or 16.
DH: Yeah he did that whole summer program at RISD.
GS: Yeah – got a little better at printing.
DH: A big thing in the chip community was to give your recordings away online and I really like that mentality but I also wanted something physical to represent the experience and the work, so we made CDs pretty quickly.
RG: Now that brings up a good point with 8-Bit Peoples and groups like that, and this is the conflict with me as a photographer, their methods of distribution are different from other media. In my instance, the only thing I have is the picture, and that’s the only thing I have to sell. 8-Bit Peoples is very much about… free love, basically – throw your recordings out into the ether and that’s how your work gets around. That mindset has its value, if I can editorialize for a minute in that I don’t think there’s ever been money in record sales unless you hit the gold or platinum standards. I mean, you make your money by touring and licensing and merch. What are your thoughts on that? I mean, if the culture of music today were different would you still prefer to have tangible records?
DH: Yeah! We’re actually working on that now. We’re gonna get vinyl pressed for the first time as a band in March. We’re going to be in the studio in a week and a half recording that and we want to press some old stuff to vinyl too because it’s something we’ve wanted to do. There’s just so much more room for art and packaging. We work with this really great artist, Asif Siddiky, who’s done most of our actual releases – not the ones we’ve put out ourselves.
RG: Does he do your onstage graphics too – your projections?
DH: No that’s my girlfriend, Jean. But yes, I would love to have real releases, to give you a final answer.
RG: There’s something to be said for desiring the object.
DH: Yeah, I mean my record player is broken but I still like to buy vinyl if a band has it because I like to support the bands. Even CDs – they break really easily and I look through my old collection and all the cases are snapped because they’re shitty jewel cases. Vinyl, yeah it gets warped in the sun but you still have these amazing sleeves that have lasted.
RG: Yeah I hear that – part of the fun of it is trying to get your records home after a show without dropping them. I’m going to throw this open to the peanut gallery here. Jack Greenleaf, first time caller, asks, “Will they ever experiment with electronic sounds beyond 8-bit, or if they have already. I haven’t seen them in forever.” He offers parenthetically, “Also tell them Jack, Ian and Henry say, ‘Hi’.”
DH: George got a copy of Nanoloop 2.3 recently for the Game Boy Advance, which is not 8-bit, it’s FM synthesis.
RG: What’s the difference?
DH: FM Synthesis is 16-bit – it’s what you’d hear on a Genesis. It’s 16-bit so it’s a lot more developed but it’s also a lot easier to be corny, but the program interface is really fucking hard for us to learn.
GS: It’s really frustrating coming from what we use because it’s totally different.
DH: So that’s the biggest thing we’ve done in terms of trying other sounds. We’ve also messed around with a sample-based tracker called, ‘LGPT’ – it’s just called a ‘Piggy Tracker’ usually, and I had so much trouble playing with it after playing with synthesis trackers for so long because I had to find samples and then I had to control them whereas with synthesis I was just able to create sounds out of it, even if it was just limited to the one sound chip, I got to make my own instead of having to search for them. So that was really hard for me even though I liked the program.
RG: How does the creative process work for you two?
DH: I write most of the stuff, but half of the things I like best are usually half written with George, and then I pick them up and finish them.
RG: So you show up and say, “Here’s a bunch of loops I’ve come up with…”
DH: Yeah, kinda!
RG: In my mind, what Starscream “IS” is pretty set. I think, piggybacking on Jack’s question a bit, where does the growth come from? I mean you have this new tool, which sounds pretty neat – from 8-bit sound to 16-bit sound…
DH: I think a lot of the development of the new sound comes from using the Commodore 64, which is also 8-bit – It can only produce three voices, but the sound chip is a lot more heavy duty. It’s called a SID chip and you can get a lot of nice saw-wave sounds out of it and I’ve been running it through guitar pedals and a lot of the sounds coming out of it just sound like guitars instead of 8-bit stuff and I think that’s helped develop the sound.
RG: Can you give examples of things that people can hear now?
DH: The title track from out 8-Bit Peoples release, “Future and it Doesn’t Work,” opens with the Commodore 64 and the Game Boy. Both songs on “The Space Years” use it and almost everything on the next two releases [will have the Commodore/Game Boy combo].
RG: I recall making some comment to myself, which sounds idiotic now, to the effect of, ‘Those guys should run it through guitar pedals,’ as if you hadn’t thought of that. Ian Cory also asked something, and I think I asked a version of it, he asked if you’re worried about your sound being narrow based on the limitations of the medium…
DH: I’m not too worried about that yet – I keep finding the tools to be more powerful than I initially thought, especially when I listen to music made by people who have been doing it longer than us – like Bit Shifter and Nullsleep – the new songs they’re putting out, I don’t know what they’re doing with the program and I just have the belief that I have a lot more time left with [the programs] before I have to move on to something else, and I don’t think I’ll have to. I’m very happy with the programs.
RG: So recap your current setup.
DH: It’s the Commodore and two Game Boys and the Commodore goes through two or three guitar pedals.
RG: And at any given point all three are working at the same time?
DH: For the full-length we’re recording we usually have all three working together. Both “The Future and it Doesn’t Work” and “ The Space Years” have a one Game Boy setup, and maybe a few with the Commodore, but the newer stuff it a bit more full.
RG: Have you tried to work it out live yet?
DH: Yeah, it’s not so bad live, it just take a bit of practice because you have to use a fucking link cable to use two Game Boys at the same time. So it’s mostly having the right cartridges at the right time so you don’t have to stop the set.
RG: So you don’t have to give George a break.
DH: Right. He doesn’t deserve one.
RG: Right! And that takes be back to the first question about George being the drummer in a machine band – George, you can’t stop.
GS: Well we have long instrumental breaks, usually at the beginning or the end, but I’ve been doing it for a while.
RG: And you ride bikes, so you have stamina. What’s the difference between playing in an 8-bit-specific crowd, or a mathy crowd, and the other shows you play with those other [non-chip] bands?
DH: Usually the ones with the other bands are a lot more fun. But the 8-bit ones can be really, REALLY fun.
GS: But they’re generally older [crowds]…
DH: I don’t know that that’s a factor, I just like music as music, so I’m usually having a better time playing with other kinds of bands rather than 8-bit bands, even though I love a lot of them and I’m happy to have done the tours with them – I’m not saying I want to be disassociated with 8-bit, but I like going to a show with a diverse lineup, so I like playing in a show with a diverse lineup.
RG: So the 8-bit crowds, and I have a theory about that, and I’ve said it MANY times out loud, that as soon as you pay ten dollars for a beer you stop dancing because you don’t want to spill it.
DH: I dunno if it’s that as much as it is people who didn’t really go to music shows when they were younger so the don’t have the rage in them. Because it’s not a snooty thing, it’s more of a, ‘I’m not a person who really wants to dance right now,’ thing. But then there are chip shows that are complete ragers where people are going crazy, like, [dancing to] Trash80, this guy from Los Angeles who’s amazing and people go fucking nuts during sets like that. But I don’t know that there’s a way to [break down the demographics].
RG: I noticed when I was at the Santos show, Matt Feldman was the only one trying to dance and I just went and ran into him and suddenly people were like, ‘Oh! This is what’s supposed to happen!’ It’s sort of bad news when we’re the ones who have to start people dancing. What’s the largest crowd you’ve played for?
BOTH: Hampshire Halloween, probably.
DH: That was somewhere between five and eight hundred. I have no idea.
GS: It was a big tent!
DH: I don’t think they knew we were a band, I mentioned this before, We didn’t realize there were two tents – one that bands were playing in and one that DJ’s were playing in – the Alt-kid tent and the one that we were playing in. Some girl at the beginning of our set starts trying to hand me her fucking iPod, and I was like, “I’m not DJ-ing, I don’t know the song you have there… maybe if I liked it….” And then five minutes later there were 10 girls blocking George’s view of the audience; they just started dancing in front of him. That was really weird but we had a lot of fun.
GS: It was great because people were dancing all the way to the back of the tent.
RG: That’s crazy. I feel like some of the Shea shows have been up to a hundred people.
DH: The Shea shows can get pretty shit-festy.
RG: They get really rowdy. Apparently it’s gotten louder to some peoples’ ears too.
DH: Great! [Hampshire] was definitely our biggest show but I feel like Blipfest was close to that – 400 or 500 at Bell House.
RG: You guys are in college, right? You haven’t dropped out.
DH: Well, George can explain his situation…
GS: Well, I took a leave of absence, and it’s been a long one… so I guess I’m bordering on dropping out.
DH: I didn’t plan to take a leave of absence, but I had a mishap with a teacher and I made the best of it by focusing on music.
RG: You slept with her?
DH: Yeah. And it wasn’t good so she gave me an “F.” (Laughs) I won’t get into the real stories. It’s not NEARLY as interesting.
RG: You can lie to me. I don’t care.
DH: Then that’s what happened.
RG: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
DH: Yeah, someday I’ll believe it. Someone will come up to me and say, “Heard you slept with the teacher and failed out,” I’ll be like, “Yup. Fuck it. “
RG: …And I shot her husband too.
DH: But really, I only planned on taking this one semester off, but it looks like I’ll be taking the next one off as well. So a year – hopefully I’ll go back in the fall because I don’t hate school – I just want to focus on music, and also a lot of opportunities have opened up this semester that we’ve been working on and are almost done with.
RG: To that end if you and George have an indefinite period of availability are you going to try and push it and do a real tour?
DH: Hopefully! We need to learn how to drive.
RG: That’s a problem.
DH: Yeah it is a problem. I was taking permit tests in Santos today when I had nothing to do – online practice ones.
GS: Really? Was it hard?
DH: I did pretty well.
RG: So you have to learn to drive before you can tour in this country.
DH: We were able to do out first tour because we got our friend from Kentucky to drive us around, and [my friend and I] don’t get to hang out much, so that ruled. That was actually our favorite tour we’ve done.
GS: And he had his friend [come along] who’s such an awesome dude.
RG: Where did that tour go?
DH: We had our own little thing up in Canada that George’s sister brought us up for, and then we met up with Anamanaguchi and we took a Greyhound down to Richmond, VA…
RG: That sucks…
DH: It was a weird Greyhound…
RG: There’s no such thing as a not-weird Greyhound…
DH: There was a guy trying to bathe himself in the back of the bus with a sponge and he kept trying to smoke cigarettes and he almost got kicked off.
GS: It felt short to us because the day before we had driven 10 hours to Quebec City.
DH: We met our driver friend in Richmond – which was awesome, because it’s 7 hours away from Lexington, Kentucky, where he’s from. And we went from Richmond to Lexington to Dayton, Ohio, which is still probably one of the weirdest cities I’ve been to, but one of the best show’s we’ve ever had. Then we were in Chicago for a few days – it was a short little tour.
RG: Leia Jospe says, “Ask them why they sold out.”
DH: I don’t think we can talk about it yet. I actually have no idea if we’re allowed to.
GS: No idea.
DH: Well, let’s say that we were offered an opportunity to show our music off to a larger audience. We wanted more 12 year-old girls at our shows with disposable income from their parents. We wanted to make babygirl shirts.
It’s at this point I realize that they are joking, and that Leia was making fun of an opportunity offered to Damon and George that is, in plain English, “Kind of a big deal.” We all decide it’s best not to pursue the conversation too much further but I assure you that the opportunity is definitely kind of a big deal, and really, really awesome. I pick this conversation up mid-point,
DH: But seriously, we talked to the So So Glos about this – they love playing all-ages shows because you have kids who are genuinely psyched on [your band] getting inspired and there is a little bit of money out there.
RG: And what else are you going to do? Are you going to sit around under your parents’ noses or are you going to go out and experiment with marijuana cigarettes?
DH: Exactly. I was talking with Pete from Anamanaguchi the other day about how cool it is that we’re approaching a post-sellout mentality. It used to be, “Oh, you sold your song to a commercial? Drag…”and now it’s like, “You’re making money doing music? That’s awesome!” This opportunity we can’t talk about – we didn’t know if we wanted to do it – it ended up being really fun and it’s going to allow us, financially, to do things we want to do. Now we don’t have to start a Kickstarter and bother the shit out of everyone.
RG: What emotions do you want your songs to touch upon?
DH: Nothing. Space.
RG: Well… dancing. Is that a goal? Is that something that you can definitely say you want to happen at a Starscream show?
DH: I want it to be visible that people spent their money [to come to our show] and they enjoyed themselves. There was one show we played a few weeks ago in Toronto, and it ended up being a lot of fun, but the venue was a bar and had lots of seating and people went to sit down as soon as they came in and it was obvious that they were going to camp there for the whole show. And I said to myself, ‘You just paid $15.00 to come to this show – you’re no experiencing it if you’re [sitting down]!’ I know that I’ve gone to shows and been stuck in the seating area and I haven’t had a good time. But I don’t know if dancing is the goal so much as it is wanting people to feel like they were justified in paying for a ticket.
Monday, January 17, 2011
"Fun:Danger::Danger:Fun" is my first zine. It contains pictures from music shows in the Greater New York City area from 2007-2011. I will be selling them for $5.00 USD at various music shows in Brooklyn and New York City, or you can hunt me down on the internet and we can arrange a hand-delivery. Sorry, but I don't have the ability to sell out of state or internationally yet, but if there is enough demand I'll set up a web shop.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
Still More New Work (New Work pt. III)
These are more song titles for you to consider if you are listed among the people listed in the first collection of song titles.
I Learned it From Your Sons and Daughters
Black Death Rode in on a White Horse
Preview to a Eulogy
The First Day of the New Year is the Last Day of Your Life
Girls Don't Just Sit With You
The Saddest Sound I Ever Heard was the Last Train Leaving the Station*
Fight or Fuck
If I Fall in Love (Punch Me)
Last Bastion of Femininity in an Unjust World
Girl, You Can Do Better Than Her
Handball Court of Love
You're Like My Belt (My Pants Never Come Off)**
Only When I Poop am I Alone**
You Don't Love Me, You're Just Ovulating
I'll Be the Maharishi if You'll be My Sexy Sadie
Your Friend Seems Like Kind of an Asshole.
*I think Sam either claimed this one, or I told him to write it.
**Henry might have come up with this one all by himself, but you know what they say about good artists borrowing and great artists stealing.
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
Thrills and Chills
A Late Holiday Greeting For You.
If you know me you've known that I've sent out a Christmas letter to my friends and lovers every year since I left home for college. This year was slow in coming, mostly because I was down in the dumps for most of December and didn't feel terribly inspired. Here, after the Japanther show was shut down by security, is the Annual Richard Gin Holiday Letter. Away we go…
So I've always had an unhealthy awareness of my own mortality. It could come from having a glib upbringing, it could just be me and my self-diagnosed low-level autism, but it's true. I spent the better part of my youth absorbing information, going to museums, drawing, painting and generally living in my head. It's fun up there, but it's no way to live life. Recently, at least in the past few years, I've been going out more, meeting new and amazing people, having life-changing experiences, and trying to make up for lost time. This in spite of my nature of caution, preparedness, and awareness. This nature has kept me out of trouble (look at that sparking record!), and kept me safe out in the big bad, but it also has kept me from living without looking over my shoulder.
When my dad came out with his Parkinson's he wrote a letter to his friends explaining his condition, what they could do to help and closed with (paraphrased), 'When I die I want my body to be used up, broken and worthless. It's the only way to know you've lived.' So now I am 31, living alone, and using up my body. I can feel it. It's a funny time. My friend Ezra said when I was 27 or 28, 'Wait 'till you turn 30. Everything just hurts all of a sudden.' He was right, unfortunately. My right knee will probably need to be scoped in the next few years, I think my left shoulder is becoming arthritic, and I have to limit alcohol as the next day is harder to shake off, plus that asian flush thing REALLY isn't good.
Back to the beginning. The Japanther show at Lincoln Center was shut down by uppity (no racial code intended) security guards who wouldn't listen to the people who hired. them. Real GED cases, if that. A black belt or a month of crossfit does not teach you the ability to observe, or reason, or adapt (You know what they say about the wisdom of crowds? Well I've never seen anyone seriously injured at a concert in Brooklyn. A bloody nose is not an injury. You pussies). One of them even said, "Yo, I'm gonna crack that little fucker later…." He (the security guard) was probably 20, if that. The people he wanted to crack were also 20, if that.
As Ian and Matt started packing up, cursing, pleading with and then screaming at the knuckleheads to get out of the way* so their crew could help load out, I remembered that they are going to go play another show. It will be better. It might not be for a few days, or it might be later tonite in some back alley in the Bronx but they will go out again not to give it the old college try, but because there's nothing else to do. It's really all they know how to do at this point and this is how they're winning the war.
What does this mean for me and how do I reconcile the cautious me with the new, improved (if sore) reckless me? Well I guess I have to just spend every dime I have, every free second I'm awake making things. I have to use the last 31 years of learning, heartbreaks, triumph and setbacks to do what I do best -- make things. I made it into college because I could make things and I went to art school because the idea of sitting at a desk working for someone suffering from the Peter Principle would make me want to blow my brains out. Somewhere, though, I got too comfortable. I feel like I'm just learning how to make things again.
So my wish for this year, if you're still reading, is that you'll make things with me. Let's make great things. Let's make terrible things that we are ashamed of. This will be my year of moving the things I've done half-assedly for the last 4 years out into the world and I hope you let out all the things that you've made too. Let's be restless again. Let's go see the ponies backstage. Let's see how long we can push bogus authority until it falls. Let's stay up late and doodle and cuss and drink and tell fish stories and run as long as we can until our bodies are used up and we drop. Let's be enablers. Let's exploit each others gifts. Let's bring out the best of the worst and the best of the best in each other.
The holiday season is a time of singing together and talking and huddling through the dark winters with the ones we love. I hope to see you all before spring comes and we all shotgun out for the fresh air. I guess that's a backhanded, overly flowery way of explaining that we all have something to say, but sometimes it's best to say it together. And let's start by saying,
"1-2-3-4 fuck the cops."
Lets move on by telling each other how much we love each other. I'll start.
I love you all,
Bands: If you would like to use photos for Myspace or Facebook purposes, please contact me first. I don't steal your songs; please don't steal my photographs.