The chiptune quartet gets ready to unleash its Endless Fantasy.
Peter Berkman has returned to Williamsburg Pizza for the fourth time in the past 24 hours. The shop hasn't even been open a year, but the 24-year-old New York state native already knows everybody in the tiny, delicious-smelling kitchen on a first-name basis — and they know him, certainly.
"I'm probably putting one of their kids through school right now," Berkman jokes. This time, he just grabs a soda, but he cops to eating one to two meals a day at the shop. It's a stone's throw from the constant rattle of the nearby elevated J train, which can also be heard from his own apartment a few blocks away.
Could be that he's filling up because he has a big tour on the horizon. Berkman is the founding member of Anamanaguchi, a chiptune rock band he started as a teenage solo project in which he combined guitar, bass and drums with melodies programmed directly to an Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge. Now a quartet, the band has since exploded as the world's premier Nintendo-laced musical concern. Anamanaguchi's 8-bit melodies and pop-rock bombast have stormed all corners of geek culture, from Penny Arcade Expo performances to The Nerdist Podcast's theme song to the soundtrack for the 2010 Scott Pilgrim video game.
Which leads the band to its biggest venture yet: Endless Fantasy, a double-LP album three years in the making, and the resulting world tour; Mexico City, Amsterdam, Utrecht, most of the U.S. and Canada, even South Korea. It's enough to make anybody homesick, let alone somebody who liberally imbibes New "Yawk" pizza.
But that's not really why Berkman's back at Williamsburg Pizza. Nor is it because he's a freak about the food (though his childhood friends do joke that Berkman "still eats off the kids' menu"). If you spend enough time with the guy, you'll learn the true meaning of "eternal teenager." Forget Andrew W.K. Peter Berkman is a party-loving, D&D-playing, meme-memorizing, video-game-obsessing, music-cataloging, "stoked" and "dude" and "swag" kind of guy.
He's no outcast or sore thumb compared to his bandmates, either. With pizza in one hand and an album full of catchy, gaming-inspired rock epics in the other, Berkman and his self-proclaimed "band of bros" are set to storm the world as rock's veritable Ninja Turtles. No Shredder or Krang stand in their way, however. Just that nagging feeling that they might soon have to grow out of their teenaged shells.
Human Angle: Future Nostalgia
Oil slick rainbow GIF
One day prior, Berkman isn't feeling nearly so cool. He stands in his Williamsburg apartment and stares out a window at the J train, growling while popping a giant roll of Bubble Wrap.
The lanky guitarist/programmer, dressed in purple flannel, nondescript jeans and a pair of silver Adidas Sambas, has been out of his comfort zone the whole day, thanks to the pressure of Endless Fantasy's impending launch and everything that comes with it. It has turned his apartment into a laptop farm; two longtime Anamanaguchi friends sit in the living room, burying their noses in screens and joining the un-fun.
Berkman starts to rattle off the to-do list: a nationwide tour that kicks off in mid-May, just days after the album comes out; an unfinished music video, slated to launch day-and-date with the album on May 14.
"We still need to do merch," comes a voice from couch. That's Léia Jopse, a freelance photographer who lives in Astoria, N.Y., and a longtime friend who has taken up stopgap management duties because the band's longtime manager quit managing bands altogether a few months ago. So they need to design and order merchandise from scratch — everything from shirts to MP3-loaded USB drives.
Drummer and programmer Luke Silas looks up from his laptop on the couch: "We also have a music video coming out in the summer ..."
Berkman shakes his head. "That, I'm not even thinking about. And I should be thinking about it, because the [video's] artists are accountable for me to talk to." He sighs. "It's really fucking hard. And the other problem is, we have, like, no money because we're doing all this stuff with no record out and no merch out. There's no way for people to give us money right now."
There's more to the pressure cooker — distributor dealings, contracts, international travel — yet all Berkman can focus on is a single animated GIF.
The band has uploaded a promotional image for its just-announced national tour on Tumblr, but something's wrong. It's not animating.
"It still looks cool," Jopse offers, but Berkman is visibly annoyed. The GIF is supposed to blossom with a distinctive, almost-rainbow pattern that he obsesses over; he likens it to the "oil spill rainbow" you might see in a street puddle, with lots of blues and purples but no harsh reds. (Eternal Fantasy's cover shares the same palette, and everything from the on-stage lighting to the vinyl to the MP3 drives will have the same look.) Over the next few hours, he repeatedly peeks at his Tumblr and asks friends and fans to help format the thing correctly; its file name, up until the eventual fix, is fuckyoutumblr.gif.
Rather than focus his remaining nervous energy on the band's to-do list — which Silas and Jopse chip away at while juggling day-job tasks — Berkman elects to keep adding things to it. He starts dreaming aloud about his vision for Endless Fantasy.
"We don't think the album's done," he says, and he rattles off a few ideas for a "living record." More videos. More web sites. More remixes and collaborations. More hardware — this is the point where he stops himself, plops on a couch with a wireless keyboard and furiously picks through his Gmail history on a giant high-definition TV.
"I'm gonna show you something real quick," Berkman says, finally smiling again. "This is very secret. We're going to launch a pizza into space."
DeVito and Berkman on the set of their Kickstarter video.
Like Jabba the Hutt
Berkman loads a 30-second test clip of the band's next music video, for the album's title track, in which a young woman sits in a bedroom with a giant, glowing cube — just like the one drawn on the album's cover. He plays the song over the clip; even though it's not synced up, the song's twinkling, rave-pop melodies match this iridescent cube, glowing in animated, oil-slick rainbow colors.
"All of that stuff you see in this shot right now, it didn't exist until the day that we shot it," Berkman says. The box, and all of the other otherworldly lighting in the shot, were designed from scratch by bassist James DeVito. He's not around today because of work ramping up at his day job.
A couple of days later, the 25-year-old DeVito opens up his Brooklyn apartment to show off the whole rig. The box sits in the middle of a dusty, debris-ridden basement, next to giant poles, a field hockey goal and other machinist gear. The giant box is made of radiant acrylic, he explains, and its edges are lined with programmable LED lights. Two of its sides have been treated with a "rear-projection fill," DeVito says, which means he can project images on them without the light shining straight through. Could make for a cool addition to the band's live show, he admits. (There's also a giant drone-looking device down here, equipped with a slice of pizza and a GoPro camera, but more on that later.)
Anamanaguchi's genesis story goes down a few twisting paths of childhood buddies and random encounters, but while DeVito admits he contributes the least to the band's songwriting, Anamanaguchi wouldn't be the same without him. The son of longtime Columbia Records producer Don DeVito, James grew up surrounded by music and video games — really, all of the band members did. His house had games going as far back as the original home version of Pong and a Space Invaders cocktail table.
"When you're in the music industry, you get gifted stuff by artists," DeVito says. "I don't think [my parents] ever really played them."
By 4 years old, he was playing piano, and a teenage love affair with dance-punk and ska led him to the bass guitar. Outside of rocking and gaming, however, was the weird time he spent in a friend's basement: "My friend built battlebots down there," DeVito says. "It's insane. His parents let him have a welding machine in middle school." DeVito watched and tinkered alongside that friend, and he eventually found online instructions to build his own things; he was in bands by this point, so homemade guitar pedals seemed particularly appealing. "I could buy fuzz pedals for $200 or build my own for $30," he says, and it led to the self-taught tinkering he's been doing ever since.
When Anamanaguchi eventually took shape, DeVito built the band's live NES rig, which combined two consoles, portable PlayStation 1 screens and a mixing board. This was the next step for Berkman's vision.
The world might've wound up with Peter Berkman, sports phenom, if his older brother Dan hadn't intruded. In second grade, Peter played a bunch of sports and was a shortstop for a local Little League Baseball World Series contender; by eighth, he was faking having asthma to get out of basketball practice. Dan's influence of pushing punk and rock records had done the trick. Though their dad was a basketball coach, he was also a guitarist and played at Irish folk festivals, and he's the one who bought Peter his first guitar at the age of 11.
From there, a 13-year-old Berkman joined a pop-punk band as its youngest member. (At lunch one day, Berkman fondly recalls one of the band's worst songs, "Pop Punk Sucks.") One of the band's other members, a high schooler, had a propensity for rattling off gibberish that sounded like Jabba the Hutt. "Anamanaguuuuchi," the guy would randomly say, as Berkman remembered.
Two years later, Berkman found out about a high school friend's 8-bit music project, called Approxim8. (This friend, Kurt Feldman, went on to start renowned electro-shoegaze band The Depreciation Guild.) "It sounded like [Sega Genesis game] Zombies Ate My Neighbors," Berkman says. "I was like, whoa, what's doing this?" After conducting some chiptune research, he downloaded a freeware program, Nerdtracker 2, to take his own stab at music made for the NES's sound chip.
Eventually, his love of rock bands and game soundtracks — particularly PS1 games Legend of Legaia and Vib-Ribbon — collided, and he set up a four-track in his bedroom to record rock instrumentation atop Nintendo beats, all by himself. What to call this project? Why not Anamanaguchi? "It sounded like fake Japanese, and I was doing this on a Japanese platform," Berkman says.
By this time, Berkman and DeVito had bonded through playing gigs and having mutual friends. They were a year apart at the same high school, and they started hanging out to play video games and make music. Heck, they even worked at the same pizza delivery shop. In 2006, DeVito began helping Berkman as a bassist and live rig technician to make Anamanaguchi a real-deal live outfit. (The band's other first live member, George Brower, actually lives with DeVito to this day and is half of the electronic group George & Jonathan.)
When DeVito combined his two biggest passions to enroll at New York University's music technology program, Berkman felt compelled to do the same the following year. Around this time, DeVito's other band fizzled, while Anamanaguchi's first EP, 2006's Power Supply, began picking up steam among chiptune enthusiasts. And for good reason — already at this point, nobody was approaching Berkman's style of combining guitars and 8-bit melodies to create tooth-rottingly sweet sounds. In the summer of 2007, a few of those fans wanted to fly the band out to LA for a couple of gigs, but only Berkman and Luke were on board. Could anybody else fill in?
Hey, we could ask that one cool guy at the NYU music tech program who's from LA, with the really weird hair. Maybe he could put us up, and even play.
The worst punk band ever
"Hey, there's Ary!" Berkman points at a guy whizzing past on a skateboard, heading towards a Williamsburg coffee shop, but the pointing is unnecessary. Bright, yellow hair pours out of a baseball cap. A gaudy, yellow smiley-face backpack covers a camouflage jacket. His green fish-scale tights are covered by black-and-yellow shorts and shiny, silver sneakers. A wallet made entirely of Capri Sun labels sticks out of his pants pocket.
Meet Ary Warnaar, Anamanaguchi's other primary songwriter and guitarist. The 24-year-old Los Angeles native, who lives mere blocks away from Berkman, has finally arisen from a couple of days working on Anamanaguchi CD release issues to meet for coffee, and it's hard to miss him. Funny thing, though: When he sits down with an iced latte — his favorite, the band jokes — his hair's roots show through his hat. It's been a while since he's had his hair dyed, and the perfect coif of dirty-blonde hair that is showing brings out his baby face.
Warnaar met Berkman and DeVito at NYU's music tech program, bonding in particular during "listening sessions." Students would show up to present their latest private music experiments. The Anamanaguchi guys each remember the others bringing in silly, wacky sounds, as opposed to haughty, super-serious material, and they bonded from there.
Before that, Warnaar grew up with a music-supportive family that rivaled DeVito's. His father, Brad Warnaar, has film score credits dating back to 1973. He played French horn and other instruments for orchestras such as John Williams'. Warnaar's mother, on the other hand, once played orchestral violin. "She stopped when she had me, which is still a weird thing," Warnaar says. That meant plenty of musical encouragement as a kid, and even access to his father's studio recording rig at the age of 13 — by which point he had become obsessed with dance and rave music, unlike his pop-punk bandmates at the time. He blames a babysitter for turning him on to Daft Punk at the age of 9.
Unlike the other Anamanaguchi band members, Warnaar had trouble convincing his parents that video games were worth his time; his father wasn't swayed until Warnaar outraced his dad at a high-speed go-kart track at the age of 13. To answer his father's confusion, he stated simply, "I just follow the green line." Around this time, Warnaar began experimenting with MIDI composition, then circuit-bending and other experimental electronic sounds, not to mention the hacked Game Boy music composition tool Little Sound Dj. When he shipped off to NYU's music technology program, he discovered and fell in love with the young men behind Anamanaguchi, and their friendship slowly blossomed while attending school together.
Warnaar convinced his film composer father of the value of video games by beating him at go-kart racing.
Serendipitous, then, that Warnaar was in LA when Berkman and DeVito were looking to fly out for a couple of summer concerts. He picked them up from the airport in a camouflage-green Hummer, driving them away at 90 mph.
Warnaar fondly recalls the weird reason he was leasing a Hummer: "I used to have a sick Jeep that I destroyed while chasing aliens in the desert one night. I was in high school, and it was a school night. We drove five hours into the desert in California. We definitely saw aliens, but we ended up in a sand pit. Our friend Buck was sleeping in the back."
Warnaar had one day to learn Anamanaguchi's material, and he pulled off the two-concert series with no issues. Attending both of those shows was Luke Silas, an LA native who played in Warnaar's high-school-band circle much the same way Berkman played in bands before meeting DeVito. Silas also had parents who played music for a living and encouraged him at a young age, starting with violin and cello but soon turning to the drums.
By the age of 12, Silas had started "the worst punk band ever," and soon after that, he began obsessing over video game soundtracks. "Because I paid so much attention to the music in video games — any fuckin' chiptune musician will tell you the same thing — it's gonna be something I wanna do," Silas says. "Particularly the sound palette that's embedded in my brain." From there, he began attending electronic-music classes at the Hamilton Academy of Music while training on drums, and he fell in love with an LA solo chiptune artist known as 8-Bit Weapon, who performed using a Commodore 64 as a musical instrument.
Silas soon started a band with his friend Zack Robinson called Dracula Mountain, which sounded like "18-year-olds playing Dragon Force." One day in 2007, the duo stumbled upon Anamanaguchi's debut EP. Robinson immediately wanted to fly the band out to play some shows in LA. Silas introduced himself at the two shows — his incredibly proficient drumming skills were the opening act.
"Zack probably formed Anamanaguchi," Berkman admits.
John Hughes meets Kevin Smith
Within a year, all four members of the current lineup — Berkman, Silas, DeVito and Warnaar — had relocated to New York City, and they'd racked up even more fans, including CollegeHumor co-founder Jake Lodwick, who helped the band release its 2009 follow-up EP Dawn Metropolis and book more concerts.
At this point, every member had dabbled in NES and Game Boy music composition, but only Berkman had driven the band's songwriting (with the exception of "1 1/2" songs from Warnaar on Dawn Metropolis).
A vague cold-call email Berkman received in late 2008 changed all of that: "Wanna make a video game soundtrack?"
The email didn't indicate much else; all Berkman could go with was the Ubisoft domain on the address. Berkman said yes and then heard nothing for about a year. While on tour in 2009, Berkman discovered the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels while crashing in Lexington, Ky. The next morning, the same Ubisoft rep who'd emailed in 2008 called Pete on his cell phone: "The game in question is based on Scott Pilgrim. Still interested?"
"This was the same universe I want to build in my emotion of good music," Berkman says. "It's John Hughes meets Kevin Smith meets video game culture meets music culture meets Edgar Wright style of surrealism. That's exactly where I was at with my life. This hit me on such a deep level. [I said] I'd love to do the music."
Due to a nondisclosure agreement, Anamanaguchi can't answer exactly what happened next, but after a period of waiting and limbo, the band got a late go-ahead to make the soundtrack. Members had about four months to complete a whopping 44 tracks.
"In order to get it done on time, and meet the standards each song called for, we had to split [songwriting] up between Ary, Luke and me," Berkman says. "Daft Punk-style theme? That's Ary. Weezer shit? That's me. Bossa nova shop music? That's definitely Luke."
For Anamanaguchi, work and play are often hard to tell apart.
Anamanaguchi's members admit that Berkman has sometimes floundered as a leader. In the early days, he was likely to wait until the day of a concert to tell his bandmates there would be a concert, for example. But the down-to-the-wire schedule for the soundtrack brought out the best of him — and from the sound of it, the best of every other band member. Riding the Scott Pilgrim momentum, the band pressed forward with another tight-schedule project: a series of singles throughout summer 2010. Each written and recorded within two weeks, the singles saw the band continue riding its creative high.
Other opportunities soon popped up: a request from The Nerdist Podcast to use a song as its theme song (obviously!), and an offer to compose music for Pendleton "Adventure Time" Ward's next animated series, The Bravest Warriors (Berkman and childhood friend Jon Baken contributed a few tracks, including the show's theme). All well and good, but band members had a bigger mission on their minds: to make their version of The Smashing Pumpkins' Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness — essentially, their own stuffed-to-the-gills double LP.
"I feel like an asshole every time I bring this up," Silas says before describing a recent review of the 1995 Smashing Pumpkins re-release. "People could see the album as an arrogant, pompous prog move that nobody does anymore, to release a double record. The truth of it was, it was the only way [the Pumpkins] could effectively show the amazing streak of songwriting that Billy Corgan and his band were doing for that whole stretch. That's what this is. Pete and Ary have been writing more incredible things than our band ever had."
The start bro
"'Prom Night' has 42 tracks in it," Berkman says while loading the Eternal Fantasy single's raw, multitrack audio onto his computer's Pro Tools mixing program. When I point out that the number of separate instrument tracks on the screen is larger than 42, he corrects himself: "That [number]'s not including vocals."
He demonstrates how the song sounds with its separate chunks isolated, from a disco-ready guitar lick to a sampled kick drum to an NES tone — and a weird one at that, thanks to a rare NES expansion chip called VRC6 (known for augmenting the audio on Japanese Castlevania cartridges). It's easy to lose the sense of what's 8-bit and what isn't when the song plays all at once.
The band's goofiness and seriousness do converge on one point: pizza.
Berkman smiles. "When I'm writing music, I'm trying to write what I want to hear, and arrange it in a way that's perfect. It doesn't matter what the limit is, whether it's a Nintendo or a Game Boy." Then he queues up another song, "Japan Air," to prove his point: "We're not limited by the Nintendo anymore with this record. This is 16-bit right now. We're upping the bits, basically."
Sure enough, the Warnaar-written, rave-ready "Japan Air," along with much of Eternal Fantasy, eschews the band's NES restriction of old — a fact you'd be forgiven for not noticing. Anamanaguchi's trademark blending of analog rock and digital nostalgia remains, only this time, the band employs new tricks for its old dogs. Bit-shifted vocal samples. Pedal-affected bloops that recall more recent games, like the N64 curio Snowboard Kids.
As Berkman splices and picks through the raw, unfinished tracks, his teenaged nonchalance melts away just enough to reveal a confident artist at his peak.
"[In the past], we were limiting ourselves with the Nintendo, and that was a very conscious choice," Berkman says. "We only did that so we could get good at micromanaging. Now we have the big picture, and we can micromanage huge shit. I understand every principle about this sound now. Instead of saying, 'I can't do that because it's not a Nintendo,' it's saying, 'I can't do that because I don't want to, or because it doesn't fit the style of the song.' That's a much more natural and organic way of limiting yourself. That helps me focus on the things in the song that do matter."
As if to dispel the fear that Berkman and company have gotten way too serious about their craft, pretty much every 15 minutes, someone in the band — usually Berkman — interrupts with some of the most ridiculous nonsense imaginable.
Right when the band is about to sound like creative gods about the Scott Pilgrim sessions, they tell stories about "icing a bro" — a weird ritual in which the band would hide bottles of Smirnoff Ice around the studio, which were required to be chugged upon sight. After a long day of working out merch and tour logistics, Berkman and Silas chill with childhood friends for an hours-long session of D&D, complete with goofy voices, carefully drawn character portraits and intentional mayhem (not to mention Silas loading an epic video game soundtrack playlist to rock out to during the virtual journey). There's an embarrassing story or a dubstep-laden game remix video or a cat GIF or a nostalgic tour story around every almost-serious corner.
Even when Berkman picks his songs apart to describe their emotional weight, he finds folders full of goofy teenaged experiments (including a surprisingly good chiptune cover of A-ha's "Take On Me"), not to mention the story of lead single "Meow"'s accidental genesis. Its titular meows came when Warnaar jokingly made meow sounds while describing the song. Berkman called his bluff and recorded himself meowing along; the result is an infectious, nonsensical "Louie, Louie" for the chiptune generation.
The band's goofiness and seriousness do converge on one point, however. Recall a certain slice of pizza attached to a certain piece of drone-like aircraft.
Everything about the drone is high-tech; DeVito even designed and built a safety measure that would trigger at a certain altitude during the test-run, to ensure the craft didn't run afoul of Federal Aviation Administration restrictions. The test run worked perfectly; even the GoPro camera survived.
Berkman queues the album's title song again, describing the video's forthcoming pizza scene beat-by-beat: "This is when the launch happens. Rising footage, mixed with high-frame-rate footage of [the video's star] doing last-minute checks on her shit; she has this whole apparatus. Then [the pizza's] rising up into the sky. During the fill, she's gonna text the pizza emoji and then the space emoji, to contacts: everyone. Then she'll hit send.
"Then we'll see the pizza in space, mixed with footage of the best party ever. This will be cut with footage of this falling back into earth. It's a lot more ambitious than a lot of other music videos. If we wanted to make an easy music video, this would not be it."
Anamanaguchi's dream of financing a slew of post-album content suffered a setback when a distribution deal with Yep Roc Records fell through at the last minute, leaving the band not only manager-less but also investment-less. It's led to lengthy discussions between bandmates and close friends about whether to turn to their fans by way of Kickstarter (as of press time, the band has launched such a campaign.).
All that's left is to answer the obvious question: If Anamanaguchi are living, breathing Ninja Turtles, then which turtles are they?
Berkman obviously wants to be Michelangelo. The party dude. He looks like a human cartoon — even more so with a guitar slung over his shoulder, bouncing around while his mop of curly hair swivels to and fro. But he doles out Michelangelo duty to Silas, pointing to his quickness to compliment and feel positive about anything in the band. Warnaar, reserved and sometimes a little too-cool-for-school when not in his comfort zone, is a dead ringer for Raphael, while only one Anamanaguchi member could claim the "Donatello does machines" line.
Which leaves Berkman as Leonardo. The leader. "I'm the start bro," he says with unabashed excitement. "The 'let's do this' dude."
Next up for the start bro, then: to unleash his Endless Fantasy on fans. To move beyond the artificial barrier of Nintendo-only music so as to share his vision of positive, fun tunes with everyone, gaming fans or no. And, whether by Kickstarter or surprise record deal or sheer willpower, to execute on the giant message from his pizza music video's storyboard notes, currently large and in bold type on the HDTV in his Williamsburg living room: "Party scene. I can't fucking wait for this."
Video: Tom Connors, Regina Dellea, Jimmy Shelton
Images: Polygon, Anamanaguchi
Editing: Russ Pitts, Charlie Hall
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis