To create what The Onion called his “wispy, quirky, homemade folk-pop,” Toronto musician Jim Guthrie uses sounds from everything from mimeograph machines to the elbows of evestroughs. But it’s his use of the Playstation 1 game console that has attracted the most attention. There’s not a lot of it on his most recent album, but as he’s powering up his console for a show at the Tranzac on July 24th I thought I’d ask him a few questions about it.
One of the things that struck me about Morning Noon Night (Three Gut Records, 2002) was that it wasn’t a concept album, or a gimmicky thing. It’s used fairly sparingly, on half of the tracks.
It wasn’t like Jim Guthrie plays the Playstation . At the time it just made sense with some of the songs I was doing to get that synth sound from the Playstation. A lot of the synth songs for the older videogames are really brilliant. The moogy, analog sounds. A lot of them borrowed from popular classical songs for, like, space fighting games. With the music I get from the Playstation, it’s a texture I’m going for sonically to achieve certain emotions.
How’d you come across MTV Music Generator (Codemasters, 1999)?
They had a demo disc with a magazine, it got me hooked. I watched for it and when it came out I got it and… I didn’t really go outside for a while. I could finally get my feet wet with a sound editing program. I’d never owned a computer at that point. It was really exciting–it was just so cheap, it made sense to me.
Can you describe the game a bit?
It’s basically a sequencer, synthesizer, and recording program. You have 24 tracks, and a bunch of sounds. A whole bunch of different loops. If you don’t know how to make music, you can pick from these prefab beats, kind of cut-and-paste, paint-by-numbers, and when you put it together it’s all in the same key so it all works together magically. It’s really not a game at all, it’s more of a program. You can also take a CD and sample three or four seconds, and what I do is make my own drums and burn it to CDs and put myself in the game.
So you’re not just using the sounds that come with it.
No. For instance, I’ll hit the note on an acoustic guitar and let it ring out, then I’ll burn it to CD. Once I’ve sampled it I can transpose it over six octaves, so if you write a whole melody with that one note going up and down the scale you get this amazing texture. I don’t think they intended it for what I’ve ended up using it for. If you don’t know how to make music you can make the cheesiest dance music on the face of the planet, but if you do know what you’re doing you can do a lot.
Sure, it’s like a word processor.
Yeah exactly, it’s a tool that you can do a lot with. There is a limit to what it can do, but that’s kind of what I like about it. That’s almost the fault of the $5000 editing program–you can do anything with it. But when something has a limit, you can push that limit and that’s when things begin to happen. In any art—
Yeah, it gives it more meaning in a way when there’s more of a struggle. When you take it out of context. I’ve spent a lot of time with it. You have to learn how to get around the game with the 5 or 6 buttons you have on the controller. I don’t know who wrote the game but they’re a genius.
So the interface is pretty intuitive.
It is, it’s amazing. It’s such an odd way to make music. But it’s kind of like the first time you pick up a bass. You hold it, it fits in your hand, but it doesn’t feel right. It takes a while to hold it with a certain grace. I like to think of it as an instrument in itself. You gotta spend time with it.
How do you record the audio?
The old old ones with a separate audio out, they have the cleanest sound, so I’ve bought a few when I can get them for $20 or $30. The small version of the PS1 are extra awful, cause there’s a lot of cross-talk between what’s going on inside, you can hear the CD spinning out of the sound input.
What are the live shows like?
When I first started doing live shows I’d bring up the TV up on stage, load up the song, and press play, then start playing along with my guitar. It’s my band, it’s my backup band. there’s always a bit of banter I have to come up with, cause it takes about three minutes to load up the song. I don’t prefer it—it’s really hard to get a dynamic, emotional or soundwise. When I get louder, it won’t get louder. If you screw up it doesn’t change with you, it’s really unforgiving. It’s much less interactive than a band.
I’ve noticed the effective use of gadgets like delay pedals and audio loops (most recently when Andrew Bird opened for Magnetic Fields) but with that there’s a sense that it requires physicality and timing, but I wonder if people get that same feeling from a game console.
People don’t know what it is. It is just pressing play once I’ve made the song, but it takes like 15 hours to make the song.
That’s a classic complaint about laptop rock, that it’s just pressing play.
I think that people definitely use the technology as a crutch. I fear myself that people see what I do as a crutch. Most people see that I’ve spent time on it, thought it was good and really creative but the label also an email which was a big rant about how I was just stealing loops. I got really defensive and challenged the guy to take any of the songs I’d done and recreate what I’ve done. It’s not prefab. It’s like baking a cake from a recipe. It’s a craft of the right amount of this and that. This is totally homemade, but using a totally synthetic game where millions of copies have been made. But I’ve definitely found my own sound.
But using a console within a lo-fi indie rock context… you must be conscious of the playful rule-breaking you’re doing.
Yeah but there’s a tradition of that in indie rock, that’s how we got to indie rock because people were revolting against it… but that becomes its own cliché. I know I’m breaking the rules but it doesn’t matter if it’s good in the end. I have faith that what I’m doing is good, somehow. It’s not something I consciously do…
But you don’t stop yourself from doing it if it seems like a fun thing to do.
It’s hard for people to get their heads around it, other people get it. You do it and there’s a whole bunch of different reactions. There’s only so much time to try and convince people of what it is. There are times that it aches that I can’t… they can’t sit with me for the 10 hours, discovering the things I’m discovering, and really exploring…it’s not just pressing play. It’s more of a John Cage approach.
Is there a community of people sharing music like this?
I thought it would be huge. It made a lot of sense to me, it was cheap and it was easy, but the stuff I heard was people using it for what it was. People making bad house and techno… I was hoping for a revolution or something, or an underground. But now someone was saying that kids are using it to do hip hop, to lay down beats. I don’t know anything about that.
Do you spend much time playing games?
Just on the basis of being a guy, and having some spare time, I’ve played my fair share of games. I’ve played a lot of pinball, I went on a pinball roadtrip about ten years ago we went through the states for three weeks just playing as much pinball as we possibly could. We just thought that was one of the coolest things we could do with ourselves. I had a journal with scores and descriptions of games I’d never seen before.
But not too many videogames?
Not much. I’ve got the skater games, and I have a chess game. There’s a couple other ones, they’re cheap now ‘cause no one gives a shit about the Playstation 1.But I’ve seen some pretty interesting games… in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (GT Interactive, 1997) you’re an alien and you’re the next on the food chain. You’re being hunted and you don’t have weapons, you just have buttons to laugh and fart and you have to use all these sounds to figure out the puzzles.
There’s been a couple of sequels.
Yeah, I dunno if it got any better. It sort of lost its charm for me after that. The other thing that was good was that it was a side-scroller, hardly any graphics at all, they kind of did the most with the least. And it has great themes: meat-eating, endangered species… It does get violent at times but it does a lot of things.
I don’t mind the violence, I like a lot of shooter games. I just have a problem with the lack of imagination.
Same here. Maybe it’ll be like… with rock and roll music, the kids who grew up with a certain kind of style revolted against it. So the kids growing up today with videogames might just say “Fuck war games, let’s get away from the death and explosions and blood.”
So the over-saturation in the industry inspiring the opposite, or at least different things…
Yeah. Some programmer will write the equivalent of the epic album that changes everything.