Two Playa Game stops chatting about Wii and baby parties long enough to let slip the secret of crafting Nintendo music
“Monkeys-flinging-poop jokes are the new pirate jokes,” Xtra Man, a.k.a. Takeshi Lewis, proclaimed amid a The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess binge. He’d been idling away for hours playing Nintendo Wii, searching for, well, a feces-hurling primate. Meanwhile Evan Schneider, code name Game Bwoy, tooled around on his HP Pavilion, sequencing a music track while fielding endless cell-phone calls.
Lewis and Schneider are Two Playa Game, local pioneers of the video-game electronica-music front. And while what they were up to in Schneider’s Curtis Park living room this particular February afternoon was no different than your average five- to 30-year-old male’s afternoon routine, there was, in fact, an agenda at hand.
This was band practice.
“We’ve been doing this for over four years,” Lewis recalled. The 30-year-old sported cargo pants and a sweatshirt, with his lengthy black curls pulled back behind his head. “I think I was just looking up Game Boy stuff on the Internet and found sound programs for it. Got deeper into it.”
Two Playa Game’s music is unique on multiple fronts. Like local alt-rockers the Advantage, Nintendo is their muse. But unlike said group, the duo uses actual video-game sounds to construct their beats. Rubber Souls, a novelty electronica act, uses Game Boy tones to cover Beatles songs, but Two Playa Game writes original music. And perhaps to the dismay of Nintendo Entertainment System recording-artist purists, Lewis and Schneider’s samples venture outside the Game Boy ilk. They use Ataris, for starters, plus Speak & Math, found sounds, TV commercials, traditional instruments, self-made beats, and even samples from Timbaland, Q-Tip and Missy Elliott.
But it’s one thing to discuss what their music sounds like. What perplexes most listeners is how they cull beats out of vintage gaming consoles.
Now you’re playing with power
It’s not easy to get the guys to come clean on their process. Schneider, 31, gave it a stab: “You just rip up old video-game tunes and slice up the tones individually.”
“Evan’s really good at explaining everything,” Lewis assured.
“You know someone is trying to invent a MIDI keyboard interface for Atari?” Schneider said, digressing.
“That’s hot,” Lewis cooed. “Don’t tease me like that.”
MIDI means Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a digital keyboard Two Playa Game and many artists use to “communicate” with electronic instruments and computers in real time. With MIDI, the duo can access, control and make music out of the sounds inside a Game Boy.
“Up until 32-bit CD-type games, all consoles had a certain type of tone generator in the sound card,” Lewis explained. They access the card using programs like Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ. Electronica artist Aphex Twin and even pop dilettantes like Beck and Björk have been caught red-handed with the latter device, which was invented by programmer Johan Kotlinski.
“I thought it would be a fun hobby project to make a music program from Game Boy Color,” Kotlinski wrote via e-mail from Stockholm, Sweden. Little Sound DJ is a music workstation that can sequence Game Boy tones with four-channel sound, has sample and drum-kit capabilities, and can interface with MIDI for live performance. “I started programming LSDJ around 2000,” Kotlinski wrote. “It took about half a year until version 1.0 was out.”
Oliver Wittchow was studying visual communications at the arts academy in his hometown of Hamburg, Germany, when he invented Nanoloop for his thesis. “In the beginning, I did not really mean it as a serious tool,” he told SN&R, “but something between a game and a sequencer.” He developed the program in 1997, impressed by how Game Boy’s interface “matches the needs for making music very well,” and debuted Nanoloop a year later. “The audience, 100 people in a crowded club, just freaked out completely,” Wittchow recalled.
Now, the possibilities for video-game music seem endless.
“Someone even actually figured out how to use the Wii ’motes with a Bluetooth adapter [for beat-making],” Lewis exclaimed as he gestured, flailing his arms like an epileptic air-drummer. “Hi-hat. Snare. Hi-hat. Snare. Hi-hat. Snare.”
Electronic-music technology has made immeasurable strides since the early days of Moogs, synths and Rhodes keyboards. “We used to do a club at Fox & Goose called Glitch,” Schneider recalled. “That was, like, back in the day.”
“That’s when we were called Dork, though,” Lewis added. They changed their name; started toying with Game Boys; put up a MySpace page; gigged all over Northern California, from Underground SF to a bowling alley in Petaluma; and toured Southern California. Today, they are booking shows in New York and even have been hit up by a Brazilian MySpacer to come play the favelas of Rio.
Although their sound is dance-friendly, à la IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music, their origins are decidedly guitar-based. “A lot of our roots are from industrial music,” Lewis said. He and Schneider play guitar, drums and bass, and both have served time in industrial and metal bands. “I think that’s how we mostly get along, because we have that groundwork where we kind of understand where we come from.”
Surprise: They’re also big-time gamers.
“OK.” Lewis paused for emphasis. “One of the reasons why me and Evan had this bonding moment is because of strategy games. We both got wet when we started playing Advance Wars, and we had these six-hour battles with each other. And we both liked the same character; we both liked Sammy.”
So, who got to be Sammy?
“We both did!” Schneider revealed. “That was like the least-popular character. But we had the angle on it.”
“But dude,” Lewis pleaded. “You can kick more ass on Advance Wars I than you can on II because—“
He stopped, then surrendered.
“Here I am, talking about video games again,” Lewis said, and smiled.
Shall we play a game?
Sudden noise from the PA immediately commanded the attention of a school of electronica connoisseurs. Requisite heads turned and a crew assumed its position in front of the Press Club stage, upon which Game Bwoy and Xtra Man were poised. Lewis shuffled side-to-side behind his Toshiba copper-top laptop; Schneider perched over his, head bobbing, right arm extended with a glitchy hitch in his elbow.
Then the beats came heavy. A contingency of PBR swillers at the far end of the bar momentarily neglected their brews and shifted interest toward Two Playa Game. Lewis and Schneider are resident performers every third Sunday at the Press, and Lewis had driven in from Sonoma County for this late-February set.
In the same way a youngin’ can be seduced for hours by Grand Theft Auto, the addiction to NES sounds is both instant and lasting. Zombifying. Maybe it’s the noises and ambience of yesteryears—those jejune video-game anthems of our youth? Perhaps for most gamers the hours of indoctrination were too much?
During their almost hour-long set, there were bones aplenty for music buffs, clubgoers and gamer nerds alike. “Action Power Up,” a gritty, NES-infused dance track with a recognizable one-four-five blues progression segued into darker, more industrial-sounding fare, like “Heavy Petting,” which samples Mario Paint and the horror game Eternal Darkness. Audience members were confused: Should they dance, spaz out, or geek out and take notes?
Two Playa Game also test-ran vintage Nintendo propaganda during their set, including a rare TV commercial that features two white nerds rapping (“Legend of Zelda is really rad …”).
Later, on the corner of P and 21st streets after their set, Lewis and Schneider chilled with a motley fan base, and even a security guard, in tow.
The nerds slowly took over the interview.
“Is it true that NASA is developing controllers for Two Playa Game?” a 20-something in a V-neck sweater asked.
Lewis played along: “That’s very true. Here’s what’s going to happen: We’re going to have MIDI-controlled diapers.”
Schneider: “We’re going to wet ourselves when we play and it’s going to control the sounds.”
Lewis: “It’s totally part of the baby-party scene.”
Someone inquired about the Zelda rap.
“Dude, you don’t know where that is from?” Lewis exclaimed, astonished. “It’s one of the first commercials Nintendo actually had. For some reason they were trying to—”
“To do the Fruity Pebbles rap!” Schneider cut in.
Someone started freestyling. “I love Fruity Pebbles in a major way …”
They got back on topic and discussed their set, which, to the untrained eye, may not have appeared to be anything more than a couple of dudes pressing “play” on their laptops.
“I make some noise. He makes some noise. About 80 percent of it up there was improvised,” Lewis said of moments interspersed with pre-sequenced songs.
“We just kind of play over each other and have volume wars,” Schneider kidded.
A friend approached. “I’ve got 50 bucks in my pocket for you guys,” she announced.
Lewis: “Oh that’s hot.”
Like most artists, Two Playa Game ain’t gettin’ rich, scraping barely enough to afford the thousands of dollars for gear (Little Sound DJ sells on eBay for up to $300). That said, there’s an unspoken currency that brings together unlikely bedfellows, video-game nerds and urban clubgoers, that is itself a unique reward.
In fact, fans sweat it when they eventually find out that they’re making songs from actual video games. “I think people get NEStalgia,” Lewis pondered. “People just get all old school about video games and Nintendo. Some of the most hardcore people come up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m such an old-school gamer!’”
Nintendo, whose consoles have been around for 25 years, has been for many the forgotten soundtrack of their lives. “Some of the hottest music is on those old-school video games,” Lewis argued.
At least one thing’s for certain: It ain’t game over.