Story: Liz Ohanesian
Photos: Shannon Cottrell
8 Bit Weapon makes chip music. In other words, duo Seth and Michelle Sternberger use retro computer and video game gear to make modern electronic music. Their unusual instruments have afforded L.A.-area duo the opportunity to play a number of events that might elude more conventional groups. They’ve played massive video game gatherings like E3 in Los Angeles and the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas a number of times. They’re often invited to play art shows and have performed at some high profile ones, like Sanrio’s 50th anniversary event in 2010. They even played at The Smithsonian, as part of the exhibition “The Art of Video Games.”
But, for all the awesome gigs that 8 Bit Weapon, and Michelle’s solo project ComputeHer, get, they’re still an underground phenomenon. Like so many other bands experimenting in cities across the country, they play a lot of gigs where there are no stage. They often have to lug in their own sound system in addition to the instruments. They are frequently booked with other artists who may be stylistically different, but still rely on the same modified computers and consoles to make music. Electronic music is blowing up right now, but chip music is still a very much a niche approach.
In early June, 8 Bit Weapon and ComputeHer played at Amoeba Records in Hollywood to support the very limited release of Chiptopia: Best of 8 Bit Weapon + ComputeHer. They played on a good-sized stage, one that previously hosted performances from the likes of They Might Be Giants, Franz Ferdinand and Paul McCartney. They got to chill out in a green room nicer than the backstage area of a lot of L.A. clubs. More importantly, they didn’t have to bring their own sound system. “Whenever we don’t have to bring [the sound system], it feels like a luxury,” says Michelle.
Chip tunes have made a lot of strides in recent years, with more and more artists picking up vintage gear, but they remain underground and are still often misunderstood. “People don’t automatically assume that you can make music with vintage computers or game consoles,” says Seth. Two common assumptions, Seth says, are that chip music play games on stage or sampling old games. Neither is the case. 8 Bit Weapon and ComputeHer both make original music. 8 Bit Weapon’s sound relies on a good variety of gear, though the Commodore 64 is central to their sound. Meanwhile, ComputeHer began life as a Game Boy-centric project.
Seth has been experimenting with old school computer sounds since the late 1990s. It started when he downloaded the music from the Commodore 64 games that he played as a child. The computer’s Sound Interface Device gave the Commodore 64 a different sound from other computers and game consoles. Seth thought C64 music sounded like ’80s synthpop songs, minus drums and a few other pieces. “They were so close to being actual songs,” he says. “They just needed a little help.” He started remixing the songs. That led to making his own music, ultimately under the name 8 Bit Weapon.