This interview with Mateusz Czech, a chiptune artist well-known both in Poland and abroad, is the aftermath of GRART (where, by the way, the artist’s first concert in a long time took place). It is also another Gamers Listeners live interview. Questioned by Arek and Kasia, Mateusz tells us about his stay in Japan, the situation of chiptune in Poland and his pixel art successes (among other things).
Gamers Listeners: Welcome back in Poland. How did you find your stay in Japan? Was it more of a private trip or maybe a foreign tour of your project, I Set My Pixels On Fire?
Mateusz Czech: It was a private trip. After five years, I wanted to revisit Japan. I’d been dreaming of going there again ever since my first trip. I really love that country and its atmosphere and it’s not even because I’m interested and anime and things like that (although I am); it’s just that their lifestyle suits me so much. Besides, there was a discount on plane tickets so I persuaded my friends. I just thought we could go there and we did (laughter).
Gamers Listeners: Let’s go back to Poland. For some time, chiptune has been enjoying its renaissance in games – indie game devs use it regularly, and it even sometimes appears in bigger productions. Considering this, wouldn’t you like to become a composer?
Mateusz Czech: I think that could prove problematic for me, since I’ve never actually written any music [using musical notation – ed. note]. What I’m currently doing is created with more than a dash of spontaneity, so to speak. I just come up with a melody and develop it, trying to make it sound like the music I hear in my head – and that’s it. If I were, on the other hand, to create something specific, like a piece with a predetermined atmosphere, that would be quite a challenge for me. Unless I’d be working with somebody else. I’d like to try creating at least one track in that way someday, just to check if I’d be able to. But that would be in the more distant future, when I find some time for that.
Gamers Listeners: Okay, so what kind of game would you like to create a soundtrack for?
Mateusz Czech: I’d love to try some old school stuff. Something with a whole lot of pixels.
Mateusz Czech: Yeah, exactly, something of that kind. It definitely needs to be a dynamic game, because I try to create dynamic music.
Gamers Listeners: Is there such a thing as „Polish chiptune”? Are there any distinguishable characteristics of Polish music from the genre which are recognized abroad?
Mateusz Czech: I don’t really think so. It’s more about searching for your own sound. Everyone tries to create using their own unique style, although it’s not without significance what kind of hardware you use – Atari, Commodore or, as I do, Game Boy. We have a few Polish artists who are known abroad e.g. LukHash. He lives in Scotland and enjoys his fair share of fame. Lain „She” Trzaska is another artist with Polish roots. He lives in Sweden and is a pretty well-known figure on the electronic music and chiptune scene. He even released an album under the auspices of the Japanese Pony Canyon company.
For me, there’s no distinction between the Polish and foreign chiptune. The sound can be used to create, for instance, drum & bass, dubstep or even subtle, soundtrack pieces.
Gamers Listeners: And wouldn’t you like to experiment with those genres yourself?
Mateusz Czech: I’m currently starting collaboration with a friend from Italy [ruBRK – ed. note] and we’re going to do just that: experiment. We’re working on a new album: some of my tracks, some of his, some that we’ve made together. I’m going to present one the latter during today’s concert.
Gamers Listeners: Could you reveal the style of this new album?
Mateusz Czech: I find this question hard to answer right now. It’s definitely going to be diverse; I want to experiment, to refresh the old formula. ruBRK has a slightly different style, which is a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with something worthwhile and, hopefully, it’ll also result in some pretty solid material.
Gamers Listeners: Who except genre enthusiasts is interested in chiptune concerts? Despite the genre’s growing popularity, such events are still considered quite exotic, especially here in Poland. Is there a demand for such performances outside purely game-themed events?
Mateusz Czech: Sadly, no. In Poland it’s still underground music, and its popularity is negligible. There’s only a handful of artists that create such music, so it comes as no surprise that you won’t hear chiptune in clubs. Outside of Poland, though, there are places where such events are organized.
Gamers Listeners: And how many of such events do you attend each year?
Mateusz Czech: Last year there were quite a few of them. I’d say about eight concerts in Poland, some of which were at the clubs with other DJs. This year this number was smaller, because I had to put my project on hiatus, but rest assured – it’ll soon be reactivated.
Gamers Listeners: Do you get invitations from abroad?
Mateusz Czech: I once received an invitation from Indonesia. While their chiptune scene is quite big, it lacks financial backing – finding a sponsor who would pay for my flight proved quite problematic (laughter). A friend of mine tried to come up with some kind of solution, but no such luck. There was also an invitation from Spain, but at that time I was forced to decline for personal reasons. Still, our community is quite big, and this is why I have friends in Indonesia, Italy, England or Hungary. It’s a very nice thing when your passion lets you make friends with people from all over the world.
Gamers Listeners: Where would you like to perform abroad most of all?
Mateusz Czech: I’ve always dreamt of Blip Festival [an event organized initially in USA, then also in Europe and Japan, suspended in 2012 – ed. note] or MAGfest. Great Britain is also known for organizing such events regularly, but nowadays the country where I’d like to perform most of all is Japan. And not even at a club, just in the street (laughter). I suppose that during my next visit to Japan I might just go for it.
Gamers Listeners: People from outside the gaming industry often think that games corrupt young people or even kill their creativity, and that they’re a complete waste of time. You disprove these theories with ease – you create game-inspired music, pixel art and also you’re professionally active as a graphic designer. What do you have to say to those pessimists?
Mateusz Czech: Different people have different tastes. Pixel art isn’t used solely in video games. There’s a street art artist who uses the nickname Invader. When I was in Tokio, I saw his works, the’re really amazing. He creates game-inspired pixel mosaics on various buildings, e.g. princess Peach from Super Mario Bros. In this way, he tags various cities like New York, Berlin, Hong Kong or, in this case, Tokio. His works are pretty distinct, you can tell at a glance that it was Invader who made them. Of course, there are many other great artists who aren’t ashamed of their video game inspirations. For me, contact with such projects or works of art is an extremely positive experience. Whenever I see, for instance, an alien from Space Invaders, I immediately think of the time when I played that game. If someone doesn’t get the references, I understand they might feel alienated. But I like that kind of stuff and that’s what counts (laughter). In my opinion, video games stimulate creativity and I think I can safely say that making them is an art on its own.
Gamers Listeners: You graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice and you work as a graphic designer. Does your everyday work reflect your passion for pixels?
Mateusz Czech: Not really. Of course, whenever I think that some elements of pixel art might work for project I’m preparing for a client, then I go for it and try to include it. But there are various kinds of clients, if you know what I mean (laughter). I rarely make use of pixel art motives in my professional life.
Gamers Listeners: In 2013 and 2014 two of your illustrations appeared at My Famicase. Tell us more about this exhibition.
Mateusz Czech: My Famicase is organized by a retro shop in Tokio. The goal is to design a cartridge label for a non-existent game that we’d like to exist (laughter). You can send your works from April to the end of May. I sent them a few designs and they chose two of them. The shop organizes an exhibition of the most interesting labels in June, all of them printed on cartridges. The artists who took part in the competition receive posters with the exhibited designs, along with the non-existents games’ short descriptions.
Gamers Listeners: Did you have the opportunity to see your awarded works at the exhibition when you were in Japan?
Mateusz Czech: The exhibition was over, but the cartridges are still in the shop, you can take them, touch them and read the labels and descriptions (laughter). I think everyone has a chance to have their designs shown at such an exhibition, you just need to send an artwork.
Gamers Listeners: Let’s go back to music. How would you define “good chiptune”? Is it all about the way the composer interprets a given genre using chiptune or maybe how skilled the musician is at using the software to create new tracks “on the fly”?
Mateusz Czech: True, whenever you perform live, you patch all the elements together on the fly. Trackers have a function in which you create certain fragments and then connect them. And it’s a pretty fun thing to do. Then you can copy such a fragment, slice it, change the octaves… and you can hear the results in real time.
And good chiptune? In my opinion it’s definitely a must to know your software through and through, because it’s extremely useful. To be frank, I still have a lot to learn, because LSDj [a popular tool for creating Game Boy music – ed. note] offers you a whole lot of possibilities and I’m often shocked at what some people can do with it. Of course, it takes time, like everything. This is why I want to go back to it and learn a bit hoping that in the future I’ll be even more satisfied with the results of my work. For me, the most important thing is how the given piece sounds to me and what kind of feelings, sensations and associations it evokes. For instance, when I listen to Fighter X, I immediately see a dynamic shooter set in space. I thoroughly enjoy the kind of music that induces such vivid images, it’s almost like a virtual game. It’s hard to describe, really, for me it’s something similar to nostalgia, but it’s not exactly that.
Gamers Listeners: Do you have a favorite artist?
Mateusz Czech: There’s a lot of them, I could go on for hours (laughter). I try to find something interesting in every tune, and all kinds 8-bit sounds make me feel good.
Gamers Listeners: In one of your interviews you mentioned that you’d like to perform in a duo. Who would you like to play with?
Mateusz Czech: First of all, with someone as passionate about music as I am. I’d be honored to share the stage with someone like that.
Gamers Listeners: How would you react to an offer to perform with ten chiptuners at once? In a chiptune orchestra, if you will. Is that even doable?
Mateusz Czech: Yeah, I’d like to do that (laughter) and yes, it’s perfectly feasible. There’s even a similar Polish formation called Mikro Orchestra. Nowadays it’s a much smaller group, but it used to have a lot of members. I remember a recording of their performance, when they were active under the name Gameboyzz. They’ve recently played in Wrocław; they also appear in the talent show “Mam Talent”.
Gamers Listeners: And how would such an event look from the technical point of view?
Mateusz Czech: You could do it with every musician responsible for a different instrument, a different sound channel. I don’t really know myself how I could solve it technically, but it’s possible: Game Boys can be linked together, and their LSDj software can be synchronized. It’d also be a good idea to use nanoloop-type software, but it takes a while to get the hang of it. Personally I’ve never used it, but I know that Mikro Orchestra does.
Gamers Listeners: And last but not least – what can we wish you?
Mateusz Czech: Better songs, discovering new tricks in LSDj (laughter) and maybe more courage – concerts are quite stressful for me. It’s typical of me that I can’t even move during a show (laughter).
Interview by Arkadiusz Haratym and Katarzyna Galas (28th June 2014), given in person (audio transcription), authorized by Mateusz Czech. Special thanks to Marcin Moń and The Armory for the technical help. For more info about I Set My Pixels On Fire click here.