Power Player #24: Sycamore Drive
Power Player #24: Sycamore Drive
When did you first start writing chiptunes? What formats do you use?
I started in early 2008. It wasn’t something that I discovered and immediately loved, it took a bit of time. My social group were heavily into Sabrepulse, but it wasn’t until I discovered Firebrand Boy that I decided it was something I wanted to explore. Hearing his track “The End” was my turning point. I contacted Philip briefly about joining Firebrand Boy as a guitarist, but that didn’t go beyond an exchange of e-mails. I picked up a Game Boy early on, but now, I’m using Renoise with Plogue Chipsounds. I’m not a big fan of ‘chip’ drum sounds, so I’m going for a retro sound with a modern approach. Chipsounds has been my software discovery of the year, and I’d strongly recommend that anyone reading checks it out.
Which artists do you admire? Chiptune and vanilla-based bands.
I don’t really listen to a great deal of chiptune, but the people that I admire most in the scene are local artists like Edward Shallow and Comptroller. They are so talented and proactive about their art. I was extremely lucky that I was surrounded by very original chiptune artists, and I feel that made me push harder with my own work.
Outside of chiptune, Bad Religion were my first love. I was the kid that knew all the local record store owners by name, and I’d spend my time flicking through the racks of used CDs looking for those Epitaph or Fat Wreck labels. I loved Bad Religion particularly because of their vocalist Greg Graffin, as he was a musician AND a scholar. He made me realise that you don’t need to choose between your passions, and that you can pursue them all at once if you work hard enough. That’s something I live by to this day.
You’ve made records on vinyl before. What’s the idea behind taking something digital and putting it on such a classic format?
I made the Sycamore Drive 7” record to sell at Ultrachip, the yearly Scottish chiptune festival in Edinburgh. I’d fallen in love with the format, and I found someone online that could lathe-cut records, which meant I could order any quantity I wanted – a huge saving over the traditional pressing plants if you only wanted a small quantity. It was purely motivated by wanting to do something that I thought was cool, and would excite people at the festival.
Speaking of formats, you seem to range from retro all the way up to digital distribution, contributing to iPhone and Xbox. Tell us a little bit about that and how you got into it. What experiences did you gain?
I got into writing for video games from seeing developers posting on chiptune forums looking for composers. I sent away a few demos, and people started putting those songs in their games. There are at least 4 iPhone games out this year featuring music I’ve written. I’ve kept doing it because I love supporting the indie games community, and the arts scene generally. I release all of my music via Creative Commons, so now it’s more about developers finding me than actively looking for projects myself. The work I’m most proud of was a soundtrack to a game that was never finished with a developer that works for Bungie. You can see a preview of the battle mode of the unreleased game here:
I am from Scotland, yeah. I think I’m one of the few people that really likes it when it rains. For composing, I find that the bad weather helps, as everyone tends to go inside and be quiet for a change, and I don’t work well in a noisy environment.
Whilst hunting you down for blackmail material I notice Sycamore Drive is a location in Scotland. Are you named so because this place holds fond memories?
Actually, when I was formulating a plan for what to do next musically after my band broke up, I looked up from my notepad and the words Sycamore and Drive flashed on the little screen that tells you what street you’re on (I was somewhere between Sycamore Crescent and Lavender Drive, hence, Sycamore Drive). I’ve always liked the name, as it didn’t (to me) give away any indication of musical style, and I hadn’t decided yet as to what kind of music I was going to do on my own. There are many non-chiptune Sycamore Drive releases that I really hope you don’t find anywhere. There are purely guitar-based records, and bad electronica records online under that name.
Is chiptune all completely about nostalgia, or is is something more?
For me, chiptune isn’t about nostalgia at all. It was about convenience, and about producing music independently of other musicians and producers. As a student, I spent about 3 hours a day on public transport, and I always wanted to find new ways to use that time effectively. Chiptune has always been a shortcut, I didn’t need to sit and think about instruments, levels, microphone placement, etc. I could just sit down and write a song. That’s exactly what I needed.
Have you been busking with your gameboy? How did that go for you?
I’ve been busking a few times, including the infamous time with Tin Foil Hat Brigade in Edinburgh when that old lady stood and shouted at him until he stopped (you can watch our very different experiences in the same location – Sycamore Drive and Tin Foil Hat Brigade. My favourite busking experience was with Edward Shallow in Glasgow, when we decided to busk in the city centre. We had those little Marshall amps hooked up in stereo, and it was pouring with rain. We noticed someone banging on the inside of a window in a bar to get our attention. He then came outside to speak to us. He asked if we could “program music on those things”, then asked if we could program the song Happy Birthday on it, and then come and play it in the bar for his mate who was celebrating his inside. So, now I’m standing in the rain getting soaked, with a Game Boy without a backlight, trying to work out all the right notes to Happy Birthday. After about 5 minutes, I’ve got it down. We go in, play it, the people in the bar all cheer and clap, and the appreciative people give us loads of food to take away with us. We gave it all to the first homeless guy we could find. It was a great experience.
You talked about writing new material after placing in the LSDJ showdown finalists. What’s new in store from you? What can we expect from Sycamore Drive?
I was really pleased to make the final in 2012 with a song I wrote in 2009. I find it to be strange though, as when I originally released those songs, no-one took any interest at all; but when I had Heikki Sillanpaa (DKSTR) create some beautiful new artwork, and I remastered those releases, it was a completely different story. That made me realise that it had been quite some time since I’d released anything more than a couple of songs, as I’m still taking credit for work from 3 years ago. I’m going to make time to work on new material, but I currently have no release plans.
If you had a tartan, what would it be?
It’d be all black, so I could wear it without anyone ever knowing.
Sycamore Drive came 7th in the LSDJ Showdown with his awesome track Untold Story.