interview by Ian C Stewart
NYC sound artist Josh Davis creates new beats and melodies using a Nintendo Game Boy. He has a new CD as Bit Shifter, called Life's A Bit Shifter.
Davis got into music-making at an early age. "My dad had a couple of guitars lying around, and at some point in high school I figured out how to play two-note chords on the things, and figured that was all you needed to be a rock star. I'm up to three and four-note chords now." Early inspiration came from a variety of sources. "Without wanting to sound too academic about it, there are different categories. Conceptually, my two biggest role models are Warren DeFever and Justin Broadrick, both of whom work in a wide range of style-specific projects and project-specific personas. As artists, their output is really different - although there's a lot of overlap - but they both employ a similar approach of exploring different musical styles with numerous different projects, each of which having a fairly well-defined identity and none of which can really be called a side project. That's something I find really appealing. Musically speaking, my biggest influences are probably best identified as the artists I most frequently find myself ripping off, which are probably Carter USM, Bad Religion, and They Might Be Giants."
Getting back to the present, he explains how he goes about making music with a handheld video game. "For Bit Shifter, the technical aspect revolves around two independently-produced cartridges, called Nanoloop and Little Sound DJ. Each is the pet project of one of a technically-minded musician who, independently of one another, developed software designed to harness the sound synthesis abilities of the Nintendo Game Boy. The two carts differ in their approach to music-making, but both are really versatile programs. Procedurally speaking, the songs are composed very casually and spontaneously. I rarely have a melody or structure in mind ahead of time. I begin by building patterns haphazardly. If I hit upon a successful pattern, melody, or rhythm, it generally spawns subsequent ideas and after a while I've got a finished song. The programming can be painstaking, though, so it's not a rapid process."
Davis rocks this stuff onstage too. "It's been really fun doing Bit Shifter live, response has been really positive. There are a handful of New York area Game Boy musicians that I've gotten to work with, which has been enormously fun, like Nullsleep, Glomag, and Bubblyfish, and there's been a lot of contact with the growing Game Boy music scene in Chicago too, with artists like Mark DeNardo, Bud Melvin, Handheld, and Daniel P."
When asked about other musicians he enjoys, he says "when it comes to Game Boy musicians, Handheld blew me away in April at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Mark DeNardo is another Chicago musician, who's doing understated, incredibly catchy electronic folk with acoustic guitar and Game Boy. Nullsleep is an NYC-area Game Boy and NES musician doing really phenomenal pop tracks, and who floored me with a guitar-strap-equipped PC keyboard that he used to control a Game Boy via a spliced Game Link serial cable. There's a Swedish artist named Nim who does phenomenal Game Boy compositions, and an artist in Japan going by the name Mmfan316 whose material is astounding. In other idioms, I've been addicted to Venetian Snares lately. I've been stuck on the Dillinger Escape Plan disc with Mike Patton for the last week or so. There's a band from Buffalo, angular and loud, called Larkin Administration that blew me away when I played a show with them recently. And I've also been stuck on CDs by Hussalonia, an unbelievable hometaper project who just keeps releasing masterpiece after masterpiece."
As for the eminent future, Davis says "I've recently done some Game Boy collaborations with Viennese Game Boy musician Meike Randow and New York Game Boy musician Glomag, both of those were really great. Bubblyfish and I have been talking about future collaborations too. I have more shows in the NYC area coming together, and a CD on 555 Recordings coming out in the fall. I'd like to begin exploring Synthcart in a live context, which is a music-making tool for the Atari 2600."
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