Watching Chris Finley ready his gear before performing a gig as Kashioboy is like watching someone preparing for an '80s computer techie's yard sale. At a recent fund-raiser for The Bee's Fifth artists' collective, held at Matthew Gray's house (aka Bee's Manor), Finley spent nearly 20 minutes connecting several different Game Boys, an original two-tone gray-box Nintendo Entertainment System, a desktop PC and other hand-held gaming consoles all with yards of wires and cables.
Artists often use programs on modern computers to sample or synthesize the glitched-out 8-bit "bleep-bloop" videogame sounds. But performers like Finley actually synthesize the sounds by using the antiquated videogame or computer consoles; in his performances, Finley mixes those live chip sounds with digitally emulated chips and other samples.
For the artists making chiptunes, as the music is called, the appeal seems to fall somewhere between novelty and nostalgia—but the chips' sound and limitations prove more than early game-console sentimentalism. Finley, who has been writing music since 1998, started with circuit-bent Casio keyboards and other toys, but quickly gravitated to chiptunes. "I grew up around that hardware, and sure, it reminds me of my childhood," Finley says. "But what I really love is the simplicity of chiptunes. They're simple, yet you can make them very complex, like doing more with less. And it's fun to push the chips to their limits, making new sounds that you've never heard."
Of course, making music with outdated home gaming consoles is nothing new. Treewaves' Paul Slocum got started decades ago: "I was editing programs and making music on my Commodore in the '80s when I was a kid," he says. For him, the allure of making music with old equipment stemmed from the actual programming paired with the machines' limitations. "The way those devices make sounds, like the Atari 2600, the pitch is terrible and every note is out of tune, in a different way," Slocum says. "And you can't really find an instrument that can do that. It's not anything you could just buy at Guitar Center."
Since moving to Denton from Texarkana in fall 2007, Finley has only played two Denton gigs and just one show in Dallas. But the audiences in the metroplex—so far, at least—are much more receptive to the music, Finley says. "In Texarkana, I used to play for mostly friends, people I knew and the occasional redneck drunk."
Look for more performances by Kashioboy in the coming month as DJ Joey Leichty (aka Yeah Def), a self-described "big fan" of chiptunes, is in the process of booking an all-chiptune show in Denton.