City Paper is not for tourists
On a warm late-August evening, Peter Seckler exits the Electric Maid art space in the Takoma neighborhood of D.C. A photography show is opening this evening, and the musician, who thought he was going to be onstage demonstrating his unusual instruments about now, has been bumped. Again.
“I didn’t realize there was a show tonight,” the 35-year-old Columbia, Md., resident says, stepping into a nearby coffee shop. He pulls his instruments from his backpack to show off what the Maid crowd is missing. One is a classic Nintendo Game Boy, the boxy, off-white version that launched the handheld-video-game revolution back in 1989. The other is a slimmer, pine-green Game Boy Pocket model. Seckler switches on the classic, which emits a trademark ding!
Although his bumping tonight turns out to have been due to some simple miscommunication, Seckler says that he’s gotten used to hostile reactions to his music. Perhaps his most ignoble rejection occurred this past October.
“I was at a party thrown by a guy I used to play guitar with,” Seckler says. “I played a couple of songs, and then they just turned on the karaoke machine. People just didn’t believe it when I pulled out my Game Boys….I wasn’t crushed or anything, but it gave me the sense I should pursue this some other way.”
That was when Seckler was still a Game Boy novice. A few months before, he had purchased the classic Game Boy for $5.95 from eBay and fitted it with Nanoloop, synthesizer/sequencer software that allows the toy to produce music of surprising complexity—not to mention a decidedly retro bent. It would be another four months before Seckler would begin recording his efforts under the name Hey Kid, Nice Robot!, creating whimsical, blippy tunes that sound as if the Super Mario Brothers were throwing an all-night dance party.
“I love electronic music from before the mid-’80s,” Seckler notes, “like Devo’s stuff from before Shout or Gary Numan’s work, when electronic keyboards were very gritty-sounding and the music had a thick sound.” Of course, around the time Mark Mothersbaugh & Co. were making that 1984 LP, Seckler wasn’t quite so interested in synth pop. Instead, he was playing in a series of Texas punk bands.
The transition has taken a little getting used to. “Playing Game Boy onstage is a totally different dynamic,” Seckler says. “When you’re with a band, you’re mastering the concept of playing in an ensemble, knowing when to play and when not to play, and when changes are going to come. That’s a whole skill in itself. Bands develop telepathy. That’s all gone.
“If you’re in a band,” he adds, “you have at least two people onstage to take the blame if you don’t sound very good. But when you’re alone, you don’t have that at all. In fact, you don’t even have a very large instrument to hide behind.”
Nonetheless, from the opening blips of “A Robot Must Be Strong,” the first track on Hey Kid, Nice Robot!’s second self-produced CD, there’s something clearly punk-rock about the music. The songs are Spartanly produced, and they usually zip by in three minutes or less.
More important, though, the still-blossoming world of Game Boy–generated music grew from a frustration with how most other musicians go about their business. By unlocking the hidden potential of an otherwise abandoned technology, Game Boy composers strive to make highly personal sounds that don’t require the music industry to be heard. Last November, former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren penned a piece for Wired that described the genre in terms that will be immediately familiar to most fans of postpunk DIY: “It was intelligent dance music made using analog approaches, distinctly human and more individual than simply switching on a drum machine. The more I listened, the more contagious it became.”
Musicians began composing on Game Boys in 1999, when Nanoloop was released by German programmer Oliver Wittchow. The software allows Game Boy musicians full control over the game system’s limited sound system. “I liked the idea of programming and making music with a toy,” Wittchow explains via e-mail. “It was also meant as a [program] that illustrates the simplicity and the addictive character of looped sounds.”
For Seckler, one of perhaps five Game Boy composers in the Washington area, playing music on the small machine was both a cool idea and a natural progression. He grew up in the Houston suburb of Humble, doing what lots of folks his age did: playing video games and listening to music. “I liked the town a lot,” he says. “That’s where I had my first Atari 2600.”
Seckler started playing his own music at an early age: At 15, he recruited his two best friends to play in a punk band named, at various times, the Hungry Fishermen, the Fumes, Mutorcs, and Friends of Entropy. “I played mostly guitar,” he recalls. “I don’t think there were any albums. We made a four-track and made tapes, and they got passed around.”
After he left Humble to attend Texas Tech University, in 1986, Seckler continued playing guitar in punk bands. In 1989, he tried his hand at playing bass, too, for a funk band called Weasel MX. But his rock ’n’ roll days ended quietly in 1992, when he moved into an apartment that lacked practice space and his schoolwork, job, and girlfriend began taking up more and more of his time. “I actually got kicked out of Weasel MX for missing too many practices,” he says.
By 1996, Seckler had graduated with a degree in English, worked as a substitute teacher, and enlisted in the Army. In the summer of that year, he was stationed at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., where he studied Mandarin. In 1997, he married a classmate, Erika Rydingsword, and the couple was transferred to Fort Meade, Md., where they worked as Chinese linguists.
A year later, their first son was born—and Seckler began to get back into music-making after purchasing his first synthesizer. It was the perfect medium for the new papa, who could compose at home on headphones. “I got a Roland MC-30,” he says. “I loved it because I could sequence drums, chords, a bass line. I could do all this stuff alone, and I didn’t have to get together three, four people.”
The techniques he utilized on the synth resemble those he’d later use on the Game Boy. “It’s certainly not like playing keyboard,” says Seckler. “You program a series of layers in the machine, just like with the Game Boy. Only the Game Boy songs are more interesting than the synthesizer, because [Nanoloop] lets you see the way the songs are laid out.”
The switch from Roland to Nintendo took place in early 2003, after Seckler happened across a Web site featuring music by Swedish Game Boy band Puss. “It really knocked me out,” he recalls. “I thought it was a genius way of using familiar sound in a new way….But hearing them play live [via MP3] was key—what most amazed me about them was they played their songs live.”
Resolved to do something similar, Seckler outfitted himself with his two Game Boys—the second was also purchased on eBay, for $8.95—and two $120 Nanoloop cartridges. “My idea was to do the Game Boy thing, but to do it in person, so the audience sees that there’s no trickery,” he says. “I mean, you could sample it with a keyboard or a computer, but to actually play it live was a challenge.”
Indeed: Seckler’s first try was the karaoke incident. Next, he says, “I tried going to local open-mike nights at Ellicott City, but I only got to do one song.” And when he sent the first Hey Kid, Nice Robot! CD to area clubs in an effort to book some shows, he remembers, “They weren’t interested.” Neither Baltimore nor Washington, it seemed, was yet ready to listen to the Game Boy.
“The alternative places thought [the music] was too weird,” Seckler says, “while the avant-garde places thought it was too normal.”
“This year’s working out a lot better,” reports Seckler. After temporarily abandoning the idea of playing live, he turned to the Internet, where he offered his first CD to any interested parties for free. He sent out some 30 copies and also posted some MP3s to his Web site. Soon, he began to get some positive feedback and was even able to hook up with a few like-minded musicians, including New Yorker Chris Burke, organizer of the International Game Boy Music Match.
“His music is very energetic and fun, but it’s not mindless,” says Burke, who records his own Game Boy tunes as Glomag. “It’s dancey and infectious. He has found his own voice, which is difficult, especially on an instrument as limited as the Game Boy.”
Held in April, the Music Match linked several Game Boy musicians in New York—Burke and Seckler, as well as Bubblyfish, Bit Shifter, and Nullsleep, among others—via Internet to several composers in Vienna, Austria, where, Burke jokes, “They must have the highest rate of Game Boy musicians per capita.”
“We would play a song. Then they would play a song. It was pretty cool,” Seckler recalls. “I’d encountered nothing but difficulty getting the idea of Game Boy music across until then. It was universally accepted there.”
The event even attracted famed electronic-music composer Hans-Joachim Roedelius, a Brian Eno collaborator and member of ’70s art-rock ensemble Cluster—a group that utilized synthesizers, alarm clocks, and kitchen utensils in performances. “We talked about the evening and, oddly enough, mostly about West Side Story,” recalls Seckler. “Chris Burke had used a section from one of the songs in a piece of his own.”
For Seckler, the match was his first chance to play his Game Boys in front of a sympathetic audience. (“I remember spotting him with his eyeglasses,” says Burke. “He wears regular glasses with penlights taped to the frames.” Counters Seckler: “These screens aren’t lit. I had to do something to see up there.”) Even better, a couple of the U.S.-based players provided Seckler with some advice that has become key to continuing his public performances: Play in art galleries.
“So I’ve been doing that since,” he says. CP