Peter Berkman, Anamanaguchi
"I see no point in being bored. I just don't understand the concept. So I'm always looking for things to occupy my time and get me excited," Peter Berkman, the songwriter for Anamanaguchi, told me. For fans who know the frenetic pace of their chiptune punk sound, and especially those who've heard it at their sweaty shows, this is no surprise. Anamanaguchi makes instrumental music from an unconventional source: a hacked NES system from 1985. But unlike other chiptune bands who rely solely on the sounds of the NES, Anamanaguchi uses that sound as a complement to their guitar, bass, and drums.
Berkman's personality mirrors his music: he's an excitable guy. And by that, I don't mean hyper. Instead, he finds wonderment in everything around him. He sees creativity--literally, an opportunity to create--in any object that he sees. An NES system? Let's play music! A ball on the shelf at Walmart in the middle of the midwest? Let's buy it, find a field, and play kickball! In Berkman, I heard a wide-eyed eagerness to make the most of his environment.
Oh, and for fun he reads the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Read my interview with Peter Berkman of Anamanaguchi after the video to learn more about his creative process.
Do you have other creative endeavors besides songwriting?
I've always been interested in absurd-style comedy. I spent a summer with a couple of friends in Los Angeles shooting a bunch of comedy stuff. I have a huge passion for comedy like Tim and Eric, and TV Carnage. They round up all these old VHS tapes and edit them into hilarious sequences over music. In 2001 I was friends with these punk kids from the city who were older than me, and they showed me these weird Wendy's training videos from the 80s complete with rappers. I loved taking stuff like that out of context and showing how bizarre it is. It's a fun platform for chaos in media.
How do those ideas inform your work with Anamanaguchi?
It's about taking something with context out of its context. Like the 8-bit sounds on our records. You know those sounds growing up, and you associate them with video games. When we take them out of context, from sitting at home pressing buttons to being in a sweaty room jumping over people, it's surreal. We put those sounds to music, but there are artists who just have a Game Boy onstage, and their entire show rests on a 30 year old piece of hardware that could break any minute. It's surreal and absurd. I don't want to say funny, because that camps it out a bit, and the music is a serious endeavor, but that initial decision is about surprising people, making people aware that machines are capable of that.
How did you get interested in 8 bit music, in something that made its debut before you were born?
I have an older brother and grew up with it. Once I found that you could put it to music, I didn't want to use anything else. I instantly went online and found people in Sweden and Japan and New York City who were pushing the limits of what those systems could do. It's something that was around me growing up, all those 8 bit sounds, so they had meaning to me outside of their game context. And to manipulate them to do what I want is an amazing thing.
When you first heard those sounds, you couldn't have thought they were music.
It comes less from a "liking video games" standpoint and more from a "let's see what we can do" standpoint. At the same time, I grew up playing in bands and playing video games, and when we'd take breaks from rehearsing, we'd throw on Mega Man 2. There was one point when we were recording Weezer covers and were into this band called Sunny Day Real Estate. When we were playing Mega Man 2, my friend George said that the sounds reminded him of a Sunny Day Real Estate song. And it kinda did. I researched the soundtrack a bit and discovered that the people working on the soundtrack to the game, these Japanese composers, were trying to rip off 80s metal like Iron Maiden. It really shows. And that made me think of what else I could do with those sounds.
The only other instrumental band I've interviewed is Maserati, so I'm interested the creative process of instrumental songwriters. I've found that some lyrical songwriters begin their creative process with an image. Is that the same with you?
My best songs are written when I'm about to go to sleep and there's a picture in my mind, almost like I've gotten to the dream before it happens. Then I try to get in that zone and create the mood. It's almost like creating the soundtrack to a daydream.
For instance, I just wrote a song about this image I've had in my brain of a tiny Swedish village covered in snow, with all these lightposts and a sense of quiet. Just a scene, and I don't know where it came from. So I sat down to write a song about it. And I am really happy with the results.
Video games and the 8-bit aesthetic are so rich with imagery of ships flying through space. There are all these tropes and rules and iconic images that are fun to associate with music that's not video game music. But it still creates the same epic adventurous feeling while treating the 8-bit sound card as a synthesizer, not just a tool for a video game.
Since you don't write lyrics, what can you say your songs are about? I ask because you say that your songs often start as an image.
Our songs are rich in emotion. They aren't just from a technical standpoint. I have a very romantic view of a lot of things, and I like to express myself. For instance, "Aurora" is an epic space love song. I get as excited waiting for cover art as I do when the song is being written. We've done a bunch of products when the art is totally essential. This summer we put out four singles, and for each one we had an animated album cover. And it was so exciting to discover how those visual artists interpreted our music. A year before that we released a seven track EP called Dawn Metropolis, and it was what you were talking about. Each song was a zone, and we had music videos for each one.
When are you most productive as a songwriter?
3am and onward. Whenever anyone is asleep, I'm most productive. I am completely isolated and in my own thoughts. I'm in a very reflective mood. I'm tired, so my mind makes these abstract connections.
With creative inspiration, do you seek it out or wait for it to come?
I am out there all the time looking for things to inspire me. I see no point in being bored. I just don't understand the concept. So I'm always looking for things to occupy my time and get me excited. And stuff that gets me excited usually involves music. It's not like I write songs about hanging out with my friends, but I write songs about things like places and feelings.
Which sense inspires you the most?
Probably not one sense, but an all out feeling of adventure and spontaneity. Like when we were on tour a few months ago, we had time to kill before our show. We were driving through the midwest and stopped at a Walmart to get some snacks. We bought a ball, found a huge vacant lot in this beautiful sun-drenched area, and played kickball. It's about keeping an open mind to new experiences.
Is there an emotional state in which you are most productive?
When I am trying to impress someone. Laughs. Ok, this is not to pigeonhole us into as video game freaks, but it's something I feel is essentially to my artistic process. In Mega Man, when you beat a boss, you get something that he had that makes you stronger against other bosses. So if I can write a song to impress someone, I feel like I am using their taste or their aesthetic and distorting it in my own way. And if it doesn't work for them, it'll work for someone else and allow me to keep going.
For example, my friend George writes instrumental music, where the lead lines have a lot of vocal character, humanesque traits where they sweep up and pitch down. That's a trick I learned from him. I'll put it in my music and show him. So if I imagine that I am going to write a song for someone else, I can do it pretty easily.
From an artistic standpoint, how do you know when a song is done?
When I feel like I can get myself into that picture I was imagining.
Have you read any good books lately?
Lately I've been reading a lot of Haruki Murakami. His whole dream thing is amazing. He's a literary David Lynch, and Lynch is one of my favorite artists. I've also been reading Ludwig Wittgenstein. I've been reading the two notebooks he wrote in the process of writing his book Philosophical Investigations. He talks about symbols and languages, and the concept of language games. He treats any sort of social interactions as something with rules and tropes. Whether it's writing a piece of music or buying an apple at the grocery store, there are laws in place and ways to get desired results. It's a study in subjectivity.
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*video credit: eightysixx