Niamh Houston (Chipzel): “Listen to the blips and blops and fill in the gaps with your head.” Interview by Jason Richardson

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Niamh Houston makes music under the name Chipzel and will be performing in Melbourne as part of the Square Sounds Festival, which is dedicated to chiptune music. “I was looking at the line-up last year for Square Sounds and thinking ‘I really hope they invite me’ and they did. Yes!” she enthuses and it’s easy to imagine that she’s punching the air.

When asked what audiences can expect, Houston outlines her nerves before the show and the relief of getting on the stage. “I always have the same nervousness beforehand. So when I get onstage I’m happy to be there and ready to go. So I’m like jumping around and stuff. I like to think the direction of my show is to not worry about what people think and to just dance because nobody will be dancing worse than me. So if people are dancing then I’m happy.”

Like many on the Square Sounds line-up she’s a musician who is involved in producing music for video games as well as albums. “I’m working on a soundtrack at the moment. It’s a video game called Interstellaria, it’s going to be released on Steam and then hopefully iPad and mobile.”

“The reason this came about is because I did the soundtrack for a game called Super Hexagon about two years ago. It was a really big success because it’s a fast-paced rhythm-based game and very addictive. It was all music I’d already written and they asked to licence it. So it was pretty cool and since then I’ve had a few requests to do video game soundtracks.”

From the outside it looks like scoring video games was a likely career path for Houston but she’s quick to explain the trail was less than obvious at the time. “Super Hexagon came out of the blue because I write music on a Gameboy. Well, everything I’ve released to date has been written on a Gameboy. I had my stuff on Soundcloud and was playing shows like the Blip Festival in New York. The game developer read an interview I’d done and started listening to my stuff while he was coding the game. Then he sent me a link to the Flash version and asked “What do you think? Could I use your music?” At that time I was only 21 and had only a couple of hundred followers on Soundcloud and was playing shows when invited and it opened up the possibility of making a career. So it’s pretty cool.”

“The game did really well. It was nominated for a BAFTA and was also nominated for the Independent Games Festival, which takes place at GDC in San Francisco. So I was invited to go to GDC and met a lot of developers and made friends and they complimented me on my work, which felt weird as these were people I looked up to. Then I decided to try and make a career writing music for video games.”

“All I knew was how to write music on a Gameboy. So once I started gettng these requests I thought I should try to do something that fits the style of the game more. But I still perform with a Gameboy because I think it’s really fun to plug this piece of hardware from your childhood into a big PA system and play your music and people go nuts for it. It’s crazy.”

Despite her relatively youthful age, Houston has been producing music for around a decade. “I’d always been writing chiptune music, since I was 15 and performing since I was 16. So the video game music came about and I thought ‘well, this makes sense’. I think it’s really cool. Y’know there’s a lot of chiptune artists getting attention because of the indie game developer scene. Indie developers are doing a full-circle on games, going back to the early experience of video games rather than the realistic first-person shooters. Because they’re indie they reach out to indie musicians, so the two scenes are starting to make sense of each other.”

“I originally started writing on the original Gameboy but since then I’ve had all sorts of modified hardware, like backlights and professional-style audio outputs. I use to two modified Gameboys when I perform, with two copies of the LSDJ software. It’s a really cool way of making music. It was sort of a musical diary when I was growing up, I’d just jot down my ideas — as terrible as they were when I first started.”

Chiptune is a surprisingly rich style of music. Rather than following one genre it accommodates many styles of electronic music. “It’s like the simplest form of music. The thing I like about chiptune is you listen to the music and you kind of imagine what it could sound like. So you listen to the blips and blops and fill in the gaps with your head, if that makes sense.”

Houston agrees that the Square Sounds line-up reflects the diversity of music being produced in chiptune style. “Oh yeah definitely. So Henry Homesweet is on the line-up and he makes deep house style tunes using a Gameboy Advance running Nanaloop. Check out his Outhouse stuff on Youtube and you’ll hear how much depth to the sound have while still sounding chippy. Tori Anna is another artist who’ll be playing and she plays happy hardcore style chiptunes. I’m not sure where my stuff fits in but I think it’s like halfway towards the craziness of Tori Anna’s stuff.”

Does the aged hardware impose a constraint that encourages creativity? “Our generation is just recycling ideas, so I think chiptune stood out to me because it was the first out-there thing I’d heard in years. I think the 8-bit sound has a lot of nostalgia but it’s like when we first got mobile phones and everyone was trying to make polyphonic ringtones.”

“I think [the 8-bit sounds are]the point with the whole community, we have a love for the sounds. There are hundreds of people using LSDJ and they’re all influenced by different things. It’s great hearing new work and thinking ‘there’s no way this way written with LSDJ’ and being amazed by the possibilities.”

So the challenge to produce modern sounds on old gear becomes a hurdle that chiptune artists enjoy leaping over. “The thing I really like is you’re given a blank slate. It’s different to software because there are so many possibilities like using samples and virtual instruments and so on. When I learned how to make a kick in LSDJ I thought ‘this is bad arse!’ I always start with the basics like kick and snare and see where the song wants to go. It sort of writes itself. I just go with it, whatever you’re feeling at the time. There are no rules when you’re writing chiptune. You can just do whatever you want because it will always make sense to itself because it’s relative to it’s self, if that makes sense.”

“When I started writing, I had my first gig within six months. It was all very hype because I was writing stuff that would go down well at a show. As I got older I started to slow down more, as I was listening to ambient and trance. I’ve had a break from Gameboy for the last year or so and it’s helped me to get a fresh perspective but I’m ready to get back to 160BPM now and to go nuts. I’m hoping to have a few more new tunes for the visit to Australia.”

You can see Houston at Square Sounds in Melbourne this March. Just look for Chipzel on the line-up and join her in dancing to the chip tunes.

Square Sounds Melbourne March 20 – 21 Evelyn Hotel
Atomsmasha (WA) Galaxy Wolf (UK) MEN64 (NSW) Eyeliner (NZ) Alex Lane (NSW) xyce (NL) GN (AKA Green Nose) (QLD) Henry Homesweet (UK) Chrism & Fenris (MEL/PER) chipzel (IE) Bubbletown Babe Crew (MEL) Goto80 (SE) DF0:BAD (SYD) Toriena (JP) NNNNNNNNNN (JP) Chip Tanaka (JP)

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About Author

Living in regional Australia led Jason Richardson to sample landscapes instead of records.