Beats & Blips

Baltimore Musicians Are Mixing Guitar Licks And Joysticks For This Weekend's 64 Bit Gen Gamer Fest

August 20, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

Some guys play video games. Some play rock music. Tyler Merchant and his buds do both and see the two as inseparable.

"They're kind of indistinguishable from one another, really," says Merchant, 26, who plays bass for Entertainment System, one of 10 bands that will be playing at Saturday's 64 Bit Gen Gamer Fest, featuring groups whose music is taken directly or derived from video games. "It's a celebration of the [gaming] culture in general, with an emphasis on the music."

Sitting around a table at Fells Point restaurant Meli on a recent afternoon, the organizers of this year's fest, set for 5 p.m. Saturday at the Ottobar, sound passionate about two things. First, there are the 1980s- and 1990s-era video games, where you plop down in front of your Nintendo (the system of choice back then) and find yourself transformed into everything from an adventurous Italian-American plumber (Mario Brothers and Super Mario Brothers) to a kid given a magic guitar by his talking dog (Gitaroo Man). These guys play the games constantly, and the surest way to get into a debate is to ask their favorites.

"Yeah, the conversations that take place between us are always about old video games," says Merchant.

Then there's the music. Finding one's muse in a video game might sound regressive to some - that sad, wailing sound a dying Pac-Man makes? How musical is that?

You'd be surprised. "A lot of times, when people listen to the games, they think of it as the little blip-blip, bloop-bloop kind of thing," says Chris Baines, 27, who co-founded the festival four years ago with his Entertainment System bandmate John DeCampos (Merchant joined the group later). "That stuff is kind of technical, but when you start adding real instruments and working on the arrangements, you get something that is unlike any other music. A lot of bands, what they'll do is, they'll expand it. ... They'll add a ska kind of beat, or maybe a classical vibe. There's a million different types of genres that people will use to expand on the music."

All million variations might not make the bill Saturday, but plenty will. There's The Ultraball, two guys from Pittsburgh, one dressed as an 11-year-old boy, the other as Pokemon's Pikachu. There's the mysterious Nashville-based Protomen, who perform a rock opera based on Capcom's Mega Man 2 game. And there's This Place Is Haunted, a veteran of all four fests whose new album includes songs called "Pac Man," "Castlevania" and "Super Mario Brothers 2."

Video Game Music, frequently abbreviated to VGM, breaks down into three basic categories, DeCampos, 26, explains. There's music taken directly from the games (Entertainment System's specialty). There's music inspired by the games (like Protomen). And then there's the chiptune movement, where bands like Philadelphia's Cheap Dinosaurs take the sounds of the games - that blip-blip, bloop-bloop stuff that Baines was talking about - and turn it into music.

"It's amazing how prolific the chiptune movement has become," says DeCampos.

Gamer Fest began in 2006, as a chance for bands like Entertainment System and inveterate gamers like DeCampos, Baines and Schmidt to gather together in one place, rock out to the tunes they love and maybe play a few video games in the process. "Getting everyone together in one place is very, very rare," says Baines. But welcome, adds Merchant, noting that enthusiasm for the annual event is never hard to drum up. "As niche as all this is," he says, "our fan base is fairly ravenous."

The first year, what was then known as the 8 Bit Gen Gamer Fest - Gen being short for Genocide, a word Baines admits may have been "a little too intense" for mass approval - was held at the Load of Fun Studios on North Avenue. Five bands played, and about 140 paying customers showed up. In 2007, the event, renamed 16 Bit Gen (the number has been doubled every year, to reflect the ever-increasing complexity of video-game technology), was moved to the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, where 32 Bit Gen was held last year for about 250 fans.

Ten bands are scheduled to play at the Ottobar Saturday. The first six, according to DeCampos, will play 20-minute sets, with the next three scheduled for 40 minutes each. Then comes The Protomen, musicians whose anonymity is as legendary as their shows. "They get to play as long as they want," DeCampos says.

There will also be 10 consoles set up, so fans can whale away on their games while the bands wail on their guitars.

This year, organizers hope to at least double the attendance from the first fest. The goal may seem modest, but the Gen Fest organizers don't want things getting too big. "I've pushed hard not to have this be a multi-day event," says DeCampos. "Then it becomes a convention, and you start getting a lot of sitting around, waiting for things to happen. But our thing is a rock show - it's a focus beam of video-game rock."

Which is not to say, however, that the guys don't have plans. Next year, when the name will be altered to Bit Gen Game Fest 5 (" '128 Bit' was just too much," DeCampos says), they hope to take the show on a three-city tour, hitting Los Angeles and Chicago in addition to Baltimore.

The greater goal? That's easy, the guys agree. There's a certain image of video-game players they'd love to obliterate.

"We're not the stereotypical nerds," says Baines. "Women talk to us."

Proudly reclining in his chair, DeCampos agrees. "We want to quell that notion right now," he says, smiling and jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. "We get lots of action."

If you go

64 Bit Gen Gamer Fest takes place at 5 p.m. Saturday at The Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. Tickets are $17. Call 410-662-0069 or go to

Bands playing: The Protomen, Entertainment System, Year 200X, The Megas, This Place Is Haunted, Cheap Dinosaurs, The Ultraball, X Hunters, Rare Candy, Armadillo Tank

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