The makers of the popular PixelJunk games series aren’t your normal bunch of developers.
A typical day at their office in downtown Kyoto includes impromptu audio jams at lunchtime, in between making games like PixelJunk 4 am and PixelJunk SideScroller. They don’t see themselves just as developers — now they’re experimenters and space rockers in a band called The Electric Bends.
This can’t entirely be a surprise to lovers of the PixelJunk games, which have included music titles that have awesome use of sound.
Their first two music albums are available digitally on Bandcamp, iTunes, Soundcloud, Google Play, Spotify, and Amazon. The first, an eight-track LP titled “real.time,” released on June 5 of this year. The latest, the 9-track “.chroma,” came out on July 27.
The name of the company behind PixelJunk is Q-Games. We chatted with James “Milky” Mielke, fresh from Q Entertainment as Q-Games’ new producer on the PixelJunk series, and Dylan Cuthbert, the studio’s founder, about the band and how it’s strengthened the company creatively.
GamesBeat: First, a little background about yourselves!
Dylan Cuthbert: Hi, I’m Dylan Cuthbert, and I’ve been making video games since I was about 10 years old, beginning on a Sinclair ZX 81. From there, I’ve never looked back and was already designing logos and planning to set up a games company by age 14. It took another 15 years, but I got there eventually and founded Q-Games here in Kyoto in 2001.
James Mielke: I’m the guy everyone calls “Milky” because it’s easy, and I am the newly-relocated-to-Kyoto PixelJunk producer. I formerly worked at the similarly named but quite different Q Entertainment on Child of Eden and Lumines Electronic Symphony. Before that, I just talked about games to anyone who would listen.
GamesBeat: Tell us about your band, The Electric Bends. How would you describe it, how did it begin, and what would you like it to evolve into?
Cuthbert: Eddie [Lee] is a rather excellent guitarist, and he brought his gear into the office to play around with during lunchtime. Bit by bit, other budding musicians around the office decided they wanted to have a play-around, too — namely Jaymin [Kessler], who used to play bass and guitar in a band when he was a teenager, and then Kalin, who had never touched an instrument before in his life and decided he wanted to learn the piano. I heard them practicing Beatles tracks in the corner of the office, and around the time they were having their third session, I grabbed my iPhone with a copy of Nanostudio, a synth emulator, on it and dove in.
The quality isn’t very good because back then, all our instruments were plugged into varying cheap amps and speakers and then recorded via a laptop PC mic. However, as you can hear from our very first jam, we had a lot of potential and were having a lot of fun.
GamesBeat: What instruments or software do you use?
Cuthbert: Initially, it was a very bad audio setup, and after a few jams, I looked around and found the excellent Zoom R24 multitrack recorder, which for the price is quite remarkable. It let us record all our input separately and save them as .wav files, which I could then load up into Cubase — later Ableton Live — to balance, master, and perhaps cut out a few bum notes…although we tend to leave those in because they show we are human and still learning our craft.
At the beginning, it was Jaymin on bass, Eddie on electric guitar, and Kalin and I on synth — namely Nanostudio running on iPads. It was my birthday around that time, so I got myself a Korg Electribe SX for laying down the rhythm track. Now, about six months later, we have expanded our instruments and our band members — namely Paul [Leonard] and Milky on synth and rhythm, respectively. Along the way, we got a Novation Ultranova and also the appropriately named Waldorf Q, both of which are analog modeling synths. We are still saving for a proper electronic drum kit so we can record “real” drums rather than the live programmed Electribe stuff by Milky. That is exceptionally good, mind you, but, well…nothing beats whacking things with sticks, eh?
GamesBeat: “.Chroma” is the new follow-up album to your debut, “real.time.” Can you describe both albums and how they’re different from one another?
Cuthbert: “Real.time” is an album about us as a band playing and experimenting with sound itself, using a lot of analog synth and “shoegazing” to create an almost Pink Floyd-style at times. It’s quite ’70s and psychedelic for the most part, and there are a lot of tracks on there that paint an interstellar canvas as you listen to them — “Spacewreck on Saturn” and “Enter the Unknown,” to name just two.
The “.chroma” album’s sound is a little different and more experimental with melody itself, often using two bass guitars to generate interesting harmonics. I think the quality of the music itself is a little higher in the “.chroma” album, but the shoegazing level of “real.time” is difficult to beat, and some people love that stuff!
Going forward, we’ll be combining the two sounds and also adding in a peppering of more contemporary sound now that we have Milky programming the rhythm track dynamically live.
GamesBeat: There are a lot of references to different colors in the song names on “.chroma.” How did that become the album’s theme?
Cuthbert: We found ourselves exploring emotions more on “.chroma” probably because of the extra harmonies and melodies on that album, and I think emotions are represented by colors really well. As a result, we found we were naturally naming the tracks with colors, and then when we looked at the track listing, we realized it was full of color and emotion. From there to the album name was an easy jump.
GamesBeat: The first album, “real.time,” is more space-oriented. Again, what made you choose that theme?
Cuthbert: Because we did so much shoegazing during that period, the “spacey-ness” in the naming came about naturally. Most of the tracks apart from “Woven,” which is a very warm and emotional track, are kind of cold and science fiction-like…reflecting the nature of outer space.
GamesBeat: How have both albums grown and changed from one to the other? Did you get to improve on anything specifically with “.chroma,” and do you have goals for the next album?
Cuthbert: The goals for the next album are to mix the two sounds we created before and at the same time add something a little contemporary. You can hear hints of this in this recent track we uploaded, “Broken God,” which is starkly minimal and a lot of fun to listen to. We obviously don’t want to go “techno” as such because we want to preserve our “live” method of recording, but occasionally using modern beats and rhythms is fun, especially now that we have Milky pushing things from that side. It’s also a lot of fun finding ways to combine traditional instruments — bass, guitar, et cetera — with modern sounds.
GamesBeat: How long did it take to complete each album?
Cuthbert: We jam every single lunchtime, producing a huge amount of tracks to play with. Most of which are uploaded to Soundcloud. Surprisingly to us, we found we produced fairly listenable jams almost every lunchtime — sometimes even two or three, which means it can only take a couple of weeks to prepare an album if everything goes right. However, right now it feels like the average time is about a month per album as we like to make sure the very best tracks are on the album.
GamesBeat: How has the group changed the overall atmosphere at Q-Games? Is it similar or different from the kinds of workplace dynamics you’ve experienced before?