Just how do you go from being a video game remix project to releasing a commercial CD? James Curtiss from Dwell records managed to pull it off with Power Up! In our interview James talks about how he found musicians, how the artists made the music and at the end he offers some advice to indie musicians who are trying to bring their work to the public.
You guys released Power Up last month, tell us about the project.
James Curtiss: I had been batting around the idea for years. I was an avid 8-bit gamer, but that’s pretty much where it ended for me. I love a handful of games that have been released since then, but really I was just in love with the NES and the diversity of the system. Likewise, I grew up as a total music geek. I was taken to my first concert when I was four and it’s been downhill ever since. The music and the games have always sort of been there and I’m well aware I’m not the first guy to try and integrate the two. Hell, I can remember as far back as 91, with the first Mr Bungle album, when you could start hearing the rock weirdos showcasing their affection for the pops and clicks of classic games. Then, you had these guys like The Advantage and Bad Dudes try to make a career out of playing these reworked classics. “Power Up!”, to me, was a way to showcase the love a lot of video games get from artists who don’t usually dabble in the realm of gamer music. If you listen to the record, it’s not the usual line-up one might think of when it comes to this quote-unquote particular scene.
Dwell records usually does rock stuff, why did you guys jump into the gaming scene?
Well, it is a rock record. Rock bands, IDM guys, prog nuts, and all kinds of strange people are involved with this record. More than anything I wanted to show how music that had been ignored by so many as throwaway themes have shaped the compositions and the music consciousness of future players. Plus, it was just fun and funny as hell. Some times, especially when you’re dealing with something that can be seen as so serious as heavy music, you need a little brevity to get you through the day. As these songs were coming in, people at the label couldn’t help but smile when they were first being played. That’s why you, or at least why I did, get into the music business. It’s fun goddamn it.
Where did you get the artists from?
From all over the place. With Myspace, you can get in touch with practically anybody. Initially me and my buddy Mike Armstrong (whose band Twelve-Handed Men of Mars performs the closing piece) came up with a list of people we’d want to work on this record. It was a hell of a list, filled with some very unlikely candidates. Some of them we didn’t get, but quite a few of them we did, including The Fucking Champs, Ahleuchatistas and a few others. Some of them wound up working with us because we shot blindly for people to be involved and wound up scoring a major coup. That’s how we got Doug McDiarmid from why? involved. As fans of the label, we asked anticon if any of their artists wanted to be involved, and they put us in contact with Doug. So many of these people were so cool to work with, simply because they all got it. They were all fans of the system growing up too.
What kinds of tools did the artists use?
With a wide of array of artists involved, we had a wide array of credits to jot down. Some of them, i.e. The Champs, Upsilon, etc., use the standard rock band set-up. You know, bass, guitar, drums. Others, like the agoraphobic madman known only as Defensive Mode, or the ooey-gooey genius that is Animal Style just used home programs like Reason to create a little IDM madness. Some of the other artists mixed the two. Then you’ve got Doug playing a solo piano piece, while the guys in Twelve-Handed Men of Mars play old-fashioned instruments like mandolin, lap steel and melodica. It’s all over the place.
Which tracks on Power Up really stuck with you and what’s your favorite song?
My favorite song changes from day to day, simply because of the variety of material. I think I’ll always have a soft spot for the Cripple Camp version of the Ghosts and Goblins music for two reasons. One, I love that fucking game. Two, they were the first guys to turn in their track and immediately I felt a lot more secure moving ahead with the project simply because of how much fun it was listening to that track. The other track that I really love is Ahleuchatistas’ version of Bad Dudes. The fact that those three guys are playing those parts on their instruments that fast is just mind-blowing. I also think that Doug’s track is the centerpiece of the project. It’s just so charming, kind of like Doug himself.
How have the sales been for “Power Up?”
So-so. The only problem we’ve really had is getting the right stores to take it in. The distribution has not been the best. However, where it’s gone, it does well. Borders just took in quite a few, so I’m hoping people will start picking it up there. The feedback on the record is great, people are digging it, so really it’s just the issue of getting an indie release some love.
And how much did it cost to make the project fly?
Truthfully, next to nothing, because that’s exactly what I had to work with. I really don’t like divulging numbers on any projects, since anybody can use that to boo-hoo you or anybody putting out records on an independent scale. Likewise, other may use you as a trump card to try and justify short-changing they can afford ten times over. It’s kind of like telling your co-workers how much you make. Sooner or later, someone is going to use that to their advantage and then don’t you look like the asshole.
Do you plan to publish more remix CDs like Power Up?
I might make further volumes, based around other systems, but I don’t know how much heart I’ll have going in simply because of my love of the NES and my ignorance of almost everything else. I’ve also kicked around the idea of doing similar projects based around everything from Anime to film scores and so much more. However, I think I’ll take the easy way out and do those as digital exclusive projects. Demand for physical inventory for a project like this may be pretty slim, but online this has been doing well and should continue to do so.
Do ou think retail stores will carry albums like Power Up in stores?
If you can find the stores who’d be into the idea, you can get practically anybody to take in a record. You just really have to put in the time and effort to find out who’s really going to get behind this project and that’s what we’re doing right now. Like I said, Borders just took in quite a few and we’ve had a healthy amount of indie stores get into it. It’s hard when you’re an upstart indie to get Best Buy on your side, but you have to keep pluggin away if you think it will help your album’s sales. Online is definitely the way to go if you really want to sell music, both digitally and physically and you really need to work that angle too. It’s tough all over for any indie and let’s just keep it at that.
What advice would you give for musicians that want to get their game music remixes public?
Indie stores are the way to go for anything like this. If you can, send your music to any indie store in the world, and get them to take it in on consignment. Do the same with every indie distributor you can find. Selling your work takes work, so you better be ready to put in the time on the phone, online and in person. Stay vigilant. Squeeze people and make them help you. It sounds bullish, but it doesn’t have to be. Be cool and be up front. Just keep plugging away. And of course, the whole freakin’ world is online. Start selling smarter to the people on the net. Get people talking, get people to come to your site or your profile and draw them in any way you can. It’s not impossible to hook people. In this day and age, people are starved for new input. They crave it. There will never be a time when somebody doesn’t want something and you have to find out how to get them what you’ve got. If you don’t, your stuff will never get heard.
Want to hear Power Up? Check out their MySpace page with samples of the CD.