[Firebrand Boy - The Gorbals]
Back in the 80s, the melody of blips and bleeps that accompanied Mario and Luigi’s pixelated endeavours was every primary school kid’s soundtrack of choice.
The technology may have been as basic as the sums they were adding up, but game consoles offered kids a gateway to a glorious future. What the Tetris-eyed scamps probably didn’t expect was that, 20 years on, these 8-bit wonders would cornerstone an entire musical genre.
You may never have heard of it, but chiptune is thriving. Born from the limitations of a technologically archaic time, the synthesized sounds of Atari, Nintendo and Sega have been transformed as a glitchy melee of beats and melodies by a nerdish pack of retro-revivalists.
Greenock born Philip Cunningham, aka Firebrand Boy, is Scotland’s flag carrier for the chiptune uprising. But, unlike the rest of us, he’s had years to get used to this unconventional sound.
“I’d been working on a classical guitar and off-kilter Celtic guitar set for some time before going in a completely different direction [with] the whole chipmusic thing,” he says. “In 2004 I found the Japanese VGM and chiptune news site VORC. I remember my mind grinding to a halt when trying to comprehend the enormity of the idea of making music on videogame systems and in particular on the Nintendo Game Boy.”
Six years later and Cunningham’s not only comprehended the notion; he’s mastered it. Chiptune’s minimalistic mantra bleeds through Firebrand Boy’s sound, but within it lurks textures so rich they could crack the Forbes 100.
“I get really excited about the idea of technological antiquity and modernity meeting in some kind of homogeneous relationship,” says Cunningham, explaining his music’s conflicting juxtapositions. “The idea that you can re-purpose technology for unintended purposes is a really powerful idea from musical, environmental and ideological perspectives.”
Despite Scotland’s electronic resurgence, Firebrand Boy somehow remains anonymous in a local scene swimming in plaudits from the blogosphere and beyond. Yet rather than being irked by this lack of limelight action, Cunningham accepts it as a chip musician’s cross to bear.
“There’s a lot of interesting things going on [in Scotland], but I've always felt like I've been on the fringes. I guess that extends to the chipmusic community in general, which tends to be quite insular,” he says. “Until fairly recently, I'd been playing gigs with metal and punk bands. I mean, it didn't bother me but it is probably quite representative of what a lot of chip musicians experience.”
[Firebrand Boy - Queen's Park]
Fortunately, the new wave of Scottish electronica is allowing Firebrand Boy to reach out to more appreciative audiences. Given Scotland’s genetic make-up, it’s a revival Cunningham feels was inevitable:
“There's some kind of deep rooted self-deprecation in people who've grown up in Scotland. So, it makes sense that computers, synthesizers, drum machines and other utilitarian devices are a popular expressive choice. Combine that with long standing pop sensibility and it’s no surprise there's such a fantastic electronic music scene in Scotland.”
Like all musicians, the recently passed Digital Economy Bill affects how Firebrand Boy’s music reaches mass markets. And with the ball now back in the court of the industry old guard, Cunningham’s contempt towards the Bill is clear:
“The only people who stand to gain from this are the big four [major record labels],” he says. “What would make the market more lucrative for independent musicians would be to liberalise licensing. I think music consumption will shift from access to ownership over the next five years, but until royalty payments are adjusted to represent this shift, musicians simply won’t reap the benefits.
“In terms of how it affects society,” continues Cunningham, “it further penalises the individual for an industry's slow and ineffective response to the way in which people consume media. iTunes came into being in 2001 and wasn't DRM [Digital Rights Management]-free until 2009, whilst in 1999 Napster had an effective system of distribution with no digital restrictions.“
Confidently erudite and musically innovative, Philip Cunningham is the sort of personality Scotland’s music scene has recently lacked. But, with a trend for the creatively tuned to hang their work from the ‘art’ mast these days, does he even consider himself a musician?
“Definitely,” he states without hesitation. “Sound artist sounds way too pompous for a boy from Greenock.”
Firebrand Boy’s EP called the 'Glasgow EP' can be downloaded free from his website. He is playing at Scotland's first chipmusic festival on 22 August in the Forest Café in Edinburgh.
Words: Billy Hamilton
Photo: Distant Tonic
Firebrand Boy's blog
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Posted by Billy Hamilton