Josh Davis is one of the most influential Chip musicians and is known for his work with The 8-Bit Peoples and The Blip Festival : he has destroyed faces worldwide playing his low-resolution high-impact music in over 200 separate performances. Performing under the name Bit Shifter, he has moved the collective hearts of thousands armed only with a gameboy (yellow). I caught up with Josh and we had ourselves a good old-fashioned internet pow-wow
So Josh– please tell us a little bit about yourself: age, favorite food,
hometown, and maybe a playful anecdote?
Hi there Internet — my name’s Joshua Davis, I live in Brooklyn, New York. Born in Chicago (in the same hospital as Peter Swimm, in fact, though not at the same time, and not from the same lady). Did most of my growing up outside of Buffalo, New York. Big on craft beer, Alan Moore, and Japanese food. Old enough to know better.
When you first started making chip music was it a deliberate choice, or something that you fell in to accidentally? Were there any direct influences that shaped your aesthetic decisions in your use of format and composition with the gameboy, or was it something that you had wanted to do deep down?
Totally accidental, but probably an accident waiting to happen. As a musician I’d always had an interest, lurking around the background, in the aesthetic of old home computing & video games. It was never a primary focus, and didn’t really manifest itself all that consciously, but it would pop up from time to time as I was experimenting with synth sounds or MIDI programming, things like that. It wasn’t until I came across the Nanoloop website (and the Little Sound DJ site soon afterwards) at some point in 2001 that everything came together — here was a way to explore that actual soundset, on the genuine hardware, and in a way that was cheap, portable, interestingly subversive, and above all, seriously cool-sounding. In fact the demo .mp3s that were available on the Nanoloop site at the time instantly blew away any preconceptions I’d had and drove home how wide-open the possibilities were. Oliver Wittchow, the program’s developer, had written these loops of minimal techno to demonstrate the capabilities of the software & hardware, and what struck me right away was how divorced it was from anything you’d expect; the music had no conventional association with the Game Boy whatsoever. This was like encountering a Game Boy that had been raised in the wild, by Autechre. I thought it was brilliant, I was floored. So of course needless to say, I ordered a Nanoloop cartridge immediately, an LSDJ cartridge a week or two after that, and I was off & running. So for me, the tools definitely inspired the project, rather than the other way around. But I think that for whatever reason, I was predisposed to liking something like this — exactly this, really — so I’m pretty thankful for whatever wrinkle in Internet Fate it was that steered me toward finding out about this stuff.
You have done immeasurable amounts of important and massively influential work with The 8-bit Peoples and Blip Festival, can you give us some insight into what it was like starting out? What was the original goal you had in mind for Blip Festival and The 8-bit Peoples when you first started, and how different/unchanged has that original goal remained/become?
Hahaha you make it all sound so legit! For my part — I wasn’t a founding member of 8bitpeoples myself, so I can’t take any credit there. My friend Jeremiah (a.k.a. Nullsleep) founded it in 1999 with Detroit musician Mesu Kasumai. I came along a few years afterwards, but I think I understood pretty much at first glance what 8bitpeoples was doing — giving a home to DIY music, visual art, and technology that adopted the aesthetic of early home computing or gaming and then took it in new directions — and I was totally behind it, I thought it was great. It was really exciting & inspiring to see what 8bitpeoples had been doing and releasing, it was all really fresh & new. Over time, Jeremiah & I found ourselves working together more often on projects — organizing live shows, planning releases, alerting each other to cool artists, musicians, graphics, hardware, and so forth, and my participation gradually blurred over into more of an official role. And at that point the two of us basically just continued to push forward with the same objectives and mission that had characterized the label/collective from the beginning.
The first Blip Festival was a pretty spontaneous development, not the product of much forethought, so the goals of that project developed as we went, mostly as we set about organizing that first one in 2006. At the time our friend Mike Rosenthal had been spearheading an annual circuit bending festival called the Bent Festival, it was seriously great, and the notion of taking something so niche-oriented and showcasing it on such a large scale was really inspiring. We knew we’d wanted to apply the same idea to chipmusic, but it wasn’t until mid-2006, when we were contacted by a group of Japanese chipmusicians planning a joint NYC visit later in the year, that we had the catalyst that set it all into motion — and by November, the first Blip Festival was happening.
On one level, our goals at the time were pretty short-term — throw a big giant party showcasing chipmusic and hopefully get some people to come check it out. But we also knew we wanted to take it seriously, to do what we could to assemble a lineup that could serve as a credible snapshot of the worldwide chipmusic community — visualists and musicians alike — showcasing its range & breadth, geographic diversity, array of styles, techniques, platforms, and so forth. Basically we wanted to do our best to present a valid cross-section of the chipmusic landscape, as comprehensively as possible within the constraints of a single event. And as we’ve continued on with the Blip event series, that’s probably been the goal that’s remained most central to the whole thing. It’s not a goal you’re ever going to reach with 100% perfection, but we always felt it was one worth trying to hit. I think we’ve done a pretty okay job of it.
There were several moments during the “Reformat the Planet” documentary that you seemed to be without proper words to describe the complex emotions that chip music has stirred within you, and what you think about the future of the ‘genre’– now that we’re a few years out from that documentary, have you been able to coerce any thoughts on that?
Oh it has nothing to do with complexity of emotions; having trouble finding proper words is just an everyday handicap for me. Happens at work, at the deli, at the grocery store. Not that the grocery store doesn’t stir complex emotions. I guess I don’t have any more of an idea about the future of chipmusic now than I did then. I’ve never been very good at seeing or forecasting the bigger picture. If I had to predict a particular scenario, as boring of an answer as this is, it’d be a continuation of what we see happening now. The chipmusic aesthetic will continue to bubble to the surface of mainstream culture, the way it has been over the last few years, integrating itself into the output of more established media decision-makers or better-positioned producers, etc., and meanwhile the core chipmusic community will continue chugging along under its own steam, devising its own outlets and dovetailing more tightly with indie game developers and things like that, and basically continuing to do as it’s always done, going about its business more or less unconcerned with what’s happening aboveground.
Speaking of ‘Reformat the Planet”– the song that the documentary is named after was written by you, and has become an anthemic ‘standard’ in the world of chip music. The song has evolved since you first composed it– is this representative of your evolution as an artist or is this more of a cognizant effort on your part to alter the context or the original song in order to change the ‘conversation’ about chip music in general?
reformat the planet, slow version via CHIPMUSIC CHRONICLE
Haha oh man – that song’s been called the “Free Bird” of chipmusic more than once, which obviously means it’s time to go home and fucking delete the thing. I’d started tinkering with the original track a while back, mainly to make it more interesting for me to perform live — adding patterns that could optionally be used during performances, giving me a little bit of leeway to change things around (or fuck them up) at shows. So the changes made in that case were the product of just continuing to explore & adjust the original song, mainly for the sake of performances.
Unrelated to that, there’s also a second, slow version that I did more recently. That one started out at the request of the 2 Player Productions guys (the filmmakers behind the Reformat the Planet documentary), who’d wanted a short, subdued cut-down of the song to use as a menu loop in the DVD edition of the film. After we hit on a final version that they liked, Paul Levering of 2 Player Productions texted me at one point to request a full version done in that style (just for kicks, having nothing to do with the DVD). I laughed it off at the time, but later found myself thinking it was a pretty neat idea, and so why not do it. It was a fun experiment, but mainly an exercise in putting an existing song into new clothes, so to speak. An alternate rendition, rather than any sort of intentional “evolution” of the track.
When it comes to sitting down and composing music using the gameboy, where does your inspiration come from? As far as emotional content is concerned, what place to you go to when you write– and where would you like to take your audience when they listen to your music?
Wanting to make something in a particular style or mood is about as close as I ever get to composing with a preconceived idea. I might be in the mood to make a drum & bass track, for instance, and I’ll use that basic stylistic framework as a guide (tempo & rhythm, etc.), and then dive in with an otherwise clean slate and see what comes out of it. I guess my process tends not to involve having a specific end result in mind, and then setting about creating it; most of my songwriting process is pretty exploratory. I’m realizing as I’m answering more and more of the questions in this interview how totally non-goal oriented I am. I feel like my strategy as a whole involves just wandering into everything I do and occasionally stumbling into a lucky result. No wonder I was never any good at gaming.
When you aren’t listening to chip music, what is a normal playlist for Josh Davis?
My listening habits are pretty messy (not to be confused with “eclectic”) — taking the chipmusic out of the “recently played” playlist reveals: The Bug, Quicksand, Milf, Worlds Collide, Bastro, Public Image Ltd., AFX, Ice-T, Sex Pistols, Cannibal Ox, David Last, Plastikman, Think Tree, Mike Patton, the Catherine Wheel. So, basically a cross section of a 2003 hipster record store’s closeout bin.
Do you have any plans for any new Bit Shifter releases any time soon?
I do, though it depends on how you define “soon” I guess. At the beginning of 2008, I told myself “This is the year I’m going to really focus and put together a full-length.” Thankfully I’m a chipmusician, so a refusal to abandon outdated ideas is basically second nature.
Can you give us any updates about the status of Blip Festival? Based on recent posts and discussions on the topic many people have said that it is very much like the ‘pause’ in 2010 and that Blip Festival is going to come back. Can you shed any light on this?
The Blip Festival event series has been a blast, probably the coolest and most exhilarating roller coaster I’ve ever gotten to ride. A lot of thrilling peaks and, somehow, not too many valleys. I love that damn roller coaster. But whether I want to ride it for six years straight — hard to say.
The pause you mention in 2010 was a conscious adjustment in the pacing of the festivals. At the time, we were planning September editions in Japan and Denmark, essentially back-to-back, and we recognized in the lead-up to those that we were leaving ourselves with no real room to operate for a New York edition in the winter (where it had traditionally fallen). So we made the call to shift it into May of 2011, as a means of giving ourselves room to regroup and to plan it properly, not to mention we figured that this way the event would be a lot less likely to get sacked with a blizzard.
That was a different call than the one we’re making now. In our announcement a few weeks back, we referred to the upcoming Tokyo edition as the last Blip Festival for the foreseeable future, and by that we mean to say it’s not a postponement, not an adjustment of the stride-length between events. However, with that said — the future is of course wide open, and we aren’t ruling anything out. We just want to regroup, refocus, start returning some of our attention to 8bitpeoples as a label, and devoting some time & energy to a handful of other projects that have been stuck on the back burner for the last several years. The roller coaster’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, but I hear the theme park has some other rides too, and we just wanted to give those a spin.
Are there any awesome projects you are working on that we should be on the lookout for? Your work on ‘bodies‘ was top notch– can we expect more like that?
Hey, thanks — I really appreciate it. That was a fun remix to do. To be honest, I don’t really have anything in my back pocket at the moment. Things have been busy enough over the last two or three years in particular that my own projects have taken a back burner. Now that we’re bringing Blip Festival to a close, I’m looking forward to clearing my head and hopefully rediscovering the impulse to make some more music, ideally some of my own as well as doing more collaborations & remixes.
How do you feel about the contemporary chip scene?
I love it, honestly. Like any movement that means anything, it’s a spectacular parade of wingnuts and geniuses, all coming to this from wildly different backgrounds and bringing with them different insights and ideas, and as a result the whole community is constantly percolating with new input and new directions, and things never get a chance to become too structured or rigid or stale. In fact it’s probably the most driven, DIY, punk rock community I’ve ever seen — probably even more so than actual punk rock. It’s constantly fun, strange, unexpected, challenging, genuine, and rewarding. Regular recurring chip event series are popping up in new places all the time, and one-off chip shows are even more prevalent than that. Now, I live in New York, where we’re fortunate enough to be totally spoiled when it comes to chip events and artists in the area, so it’s not lost on me that I might be seeing things from a perspective skewed toward the positive. But even doing my best to correct for that, it seems like empirically speaking, there really is a whole lot going on, and an enormous amount of talented people at work to make music, make visuals, hack hardware, write software, make events happen, and create new avenues to get all that great stuff out into the world. It’s fantastic. Now I want to hug everybody. Except Monodeer, he smells.
Everyone messes up on stage, or has a cartridge fail mid-song– what’s your most memorable ‘fudge-up’ ?
In late 2001 or early 2002 I started making chipmusic.
Do you have any words of advice for people just starting out making chip music?
There’s a lot that’ll seem strange or idiosyncratic or nonsensical, whether due to limitations or quirks in hardware, or the inevitable bugs in homebrew software, or the truly crazy gear acrobatics sometimes necessary in getting ROMs and song data onto and off of proprietary cartridge hardware and shit like that. Don’t get frustrated, try to push through & roll with it. Importantly, remember that A: people have been making chipmusic for 30 years, not 2 or 5 or 10; B: the Game Boy is by no means the only chipmusic platform (in fact become an Atari ST musician if you really want to get the chicks, that thing’s a beast), and C: always put the screamo in a separate file.
So when you compose with LSDJ, do you have any ‘stand-by’ things that you like to do? (I like to put E commands in my noise channel and V:F4/V:F7 on my pulse leads)
Aha — nice ideas, I’ll have to try those. I have a few tricks I return to sometimes, but nothing that I really treat as essential. Except for a WAV channel kick drum setup that Saskrotch showed me. That one shows up a lot. Thanks again Nigel.
Do you play any instruments other than the gameboy?
None well. Guitar, keys, some other odds and ends. It doesn’t count as “playing” in the same way but I also enjoy MIDI sequencing with hardware synths, drum machines and so forth.
So……Dogs or cats?
Dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs.
Any parting words you would like to leave us with? Words of wisdom? A daily affirmation?
I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers, Horse Ebooks — “You Deserve The Lawn Of Your Dreams.”
thus concludes our interview with Josh Davis, aka: Bit Shifter////
be sure to check out chiptography’s kickstarter and help her get to Blip Tokyo 2012!
LET’S HUG FOREVER//////////////////