Feature: Why PixelJunk Studio Q-Games Is Creating Trip-Hop During Its Lunch Break
Posted by Sammy Barker
For all the satisfaction that comes alongside creating video games, there are times when it can be a gruelling occupation. Thankfully, the Kyoto-based studio behind the PixelJunk series has happened upon an innovative means of maintaining morale throughout the day. For the past six months, Q-Games has been using its lunch breaks to write and record music under the guise of The Electric Bends, an electronica band fronted by company founder Dylan Cuthbert.
According to the luminary, it all started when one of the team members brought their guitar into the office. “Programmer Eddie [Lee] brought in his electric guitar and started strumming it at lunchtime,” the former Sony and Nintendo man tells us in an exclusive chat. “One by one the musically inclined of us went over to see what was going on.”
According to Cuthbert, it was a very natural formation. “Chief Artist Paul [Leonard] joined a month or two later because I saw him wasting his time watching conspiracy theory videos on YouTube, and I knew he was into analogue synths so I told him to come and join in.”
Former 1UP and Electronic Gaming Monthly editor James Mielke completed the group following his well publicised transition from Lumines: Electronic Symphony developer Q Entertainment to Q-Games, and the band embarked on a prolific period in which it produced three full-length records in the span of a few months.
“It’s not really a ‘project’ as such,” Cuthbert continues. “It’s just what we do in our lunchtime here at Q-Games. After the first few jams turned out surprisingly well we slowly upgraded the recording equipment we were using and bought a few synths such as the Novation Ultranova and the Waldorf Q.” Up until that point, the group had been using an iPad application for its synthesised instruments named Nanostudio.
The band describes its sound as an eclectic mix of trip-hop, synth pop and New Wave. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an array of different inspirations collaborated amongst the team to help create that blend. “All the members are of different age and different cultures and I think this reflects in the music,” Cuthbert enthuses, before relaying a list of artists including Jimi Hendrix, The Cure, Massive Attack and Pink Floyd.
Former 1UP and EGM editor James Mielke likes soppy 80s love ballads
“I really like the [John] Lennon songs the Beatles made,” he explains, before noting that he enjoys Paul McCartney’s tracks too – just not in the context of music he’d like to make himself. “I also like David Bowie, Jean Michel Jarre, Human League, Depeche Mode, Chemical Brothers, and more. Basically, bands that are unique and different.”
The New Wave and 80s influences in particular have had a huge impact on the band’s style. “We do a lot of tracks with two bass lines as that is a characteristic in a lot of those kinds of bands and generates some pretty fun harmonies,” the developer turned part-time musician tells us.
But for all its inspiration from traditional artists, the group hasn’t forgotten its video game roots. “Programmer Kalin is into chip-tunes – the Castlevania and Mega Man game soundtracks being a big turn on for him,” he adds. And as for James Mielke? “He likes soppy 80s love ballads. Only kidding.”
For a studio as revered and as busy as Q-Games, we were eager to learn how it found time to produce such an incredible amount of audio in such a short period. It’s all down to the developer’s flexible lunch breaks, reckons Cuthbert.
“At Q-Games we have a flexible lunchtime that can be up to two hours, so we end up using that to the max,” he says. “We do a little warm up and then if we hear something that sounds interesting we hit record and see what happens. Almost every track is spontaneous like that – some of them such as ‘Enter the Unknown’ from our debut album came out of literally nowhere on the back-end of a completely different song. Sometimes we even go to a studio and practice for an hour or two at lunchtime too.”
Music shakes up the brain a bit, so you can make quicker innovations when you are thinking about video game design
Not everything gets done during the daytime, though. “I’ll tend to mix and balance the tracks in the evening and then if they are deemed worthy enough I’ll upload them to Sound Cloud that evening,” he adds. “Some tracks get worked on a little more to create more delicate tones but most make their way online eventually. Very few are thrown away and sometimes we even do two tracks in a single lunchtime.” Indeed, Cuthbert is particularly keen to point out that one day the band recorded three songs during the course of a single lunchtime. We’re guessing there was no time for toasted sandwiches on that occasion.
But while the group may be shedding a few pounds in the process, Cuthbert believes that spending a few hours performing is able to completely refresh the team. “Making music is a brilliant inspiration and I’ve already used a lot of the things I’ve learnt about sound and production in various demos we have made over the past six months,” he continues, before recalling his time working on the original Star Fox for the SNES. “One of the things I remember from working with [Shigeru] Miyamoto and everyone at Nintendo is how musically inclined they all were. Sometimes Miyamoto would sit behind us and strum a guitar for example. At that time I was into synths and had a Yamaha QY10 handheld sequencer/synth and would knock up little ditties and fun stuff like that. I feel that making games and music are entwined.”
That said, there hasn’t been much crossover between the studio’s musical endeavours and its currently in-development video game projects just yet. “I think music simply shakes the brain up a bit, loosens a few neurons and synapses, so you can make quicker innovations when you are thinking about game design,” he relays.
For now though, the band’s currently working towards its first live performance at a small bar approximately 100m away from its office. “We were thinking of going and knocking on their door and thrusting a demo tape into their hands,” he says.
Incredibly, a fourth LP isn’t too far away either. “We now have almost enough material for a fourth album – but it takes a little while for everyone to decide on the tracks, order and name of the album. That takes a long time,” he laughs.
In the meantime, Cuthbert’s eager to get some of the band’s music on television – or in a video game. “We had one of our tracks played on Alex Paterson’s radio show over on fnoob.com so that’s one milestone complete,” he boasts. “Perhaps our next milestone will to be use a track in a game, either one of our own or another company’s, or to get friendly with TV people and get a few tracks used in TV dramas.”
And if nothing should come from it, Q-Games is perfectly content merely making a din during its lunch breaks. “It’s all good fun,” Cuthbert beams. “We’ll just keep jamming each and every day!”
Perhaps a few more studios caught in the stress of crunch should take a leaf out of Cuthbert and his crew’s book, and turn their attention to music too.
The Electric Bends’ latest album Plastic Fantastic is available from iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp and most other digital audio retailers. You can keep up to date with the band on Twitter and Facebook, as well as learn about the latest PixelJunk news through here and here.