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.
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.
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?
Cuthbert: Very different. I’m not sure how many other companies have a band that jams every lunchtime, but I kind of feel we are unique…especially as the president of the company — me — jams too. We also rope in guests from time to time. For example, Sagar Patel, who is interning with us, has been having fun on Indian tablas drums, which you can hear in “Albatross Aligned.” And another artist here, Andy, sometimes steps up for some acoustic guitar.
Mielke: I can tell you with certainty that I never got to play music with the president of any company I worked at prior to this. Ever. So it’s very awesome to be able to have fun like this.
GamesBeat: What’s it typically like when you meet to practice? You said you normally hold these “PixelJam” sessions at lunchtime, right?
Cuthbert: Yes, at Q we have a system where lunch can be freely taken between 12 and 2, and in order to jam, we take a couple of hours [to] start practicing and setting up at about 12:45, after we’ve grabbed some food. Stragglers come along a little later, giving us about an hour to play about with the full ensemble. Quite often members are indisposed, so we just jam without them. In fact, it is fairly rare for us to jam with the full set of members: Milky, Jaymin, Eddie, Kalin, Paul, and Dylan.
Cuthbert: Most definitely. It also teaches us a lot about how audio works, an area none of us were experts in. But now we are beginning to understand how these things work at a professional level. It’s been a great learning experience and a hell of a lot of fun. Maybe we’ll do the soundtrack for a future PixelJunk title.
GamesBeat: What have your inspirations been for the kind of music you’re creating? Your members share a love of prog-rock, synth-pop, and New Wave bands….
Cuthbert: In no particular order, The Beatles — especially their experimental and jammy stuff, such as Tomorrow Never Knows and “Helter Skelter” — Pink Floyd, of course; New Order — “.chroma” is heavily influenced [by them] — Depeche Mode; David Bowie; Coldplay; and Radiohead. There are others, but those are the main ones.
Mielke: Jaymin never stops talking about the Cocteau Twins. It’s like he’s obsessed with them, so I reckon that’s an influence. Eddie shreds on guitar like he’s got something of a blues-metal thing going on, and Paul plays like he wants to open an acid house nightclub in the early ’90s. So there’s that.
GamesBeat: How do you visualize your music in your head — how do you respond to it? What kind of sensations does the music evoke for you?
Cuthbert: We “feel” everything on the fly, and it really depends on the general mood of the band. If our moods are all over the place, we produce bad jams — and I don’t upload those ones! However, if our moods are just in the right place, we all contribute our own peculiar harmonies. And because we are all so different, we find these combine really well — almost spontaneously — to create some beautiful sound. We surprise ourselves all the time. For example, “Enter the Unknown” came out of absolutely nowhere, and it is one of our favorite tracks. It was actually the wind down of the end of a lesser jam.
GamesBeat: Do you listen to your music when playing video games at all, either your own or others?
Cuthbert: I don’t think we’ve tried that, but it would definitely be interesting!
GamesBeat: What video game music has had the biggest impact on you throughout your life?
Cuthbert: Too many to count, I think! Some of the first tracks I remember that impressed me are from 8-bit games, but the first game where I just left it on to listen to the title music loop was Speedball 2 on the Amiga…. Oh, and then there was Hybris with its astounding synth track. You can find YouTube videos of both.
Mielke: I’m a big fan of the Sega Saturn era of game music because the CD format allowed for some beautiful orchestral scores. Panzer Dragoon, Nights into Dreams, and Grandia all have amazing soundtracks, and Saturn Bomberman has some of the most nuanced drum and bass ever. It still sounds contemporary [even] now.