Let’s start with a gig memory from university: I am in line to a sold-out concert, standing in front of Mario and Samus. Mario is represented by a short man, with sparkling eyes and a thick wide mustache, wearing a blue overall and a floppy red cap, while his female companion, Samus, wears a sleek blue suit and a large space helmet. It’s just another gig night at the university somewhere at the beginning of the 2000s, but it’s not an ‘ordinary’ show, it’s a night out with a band playing C64 and Nintendo classics.
The power of video game music to attract such an enthusiastic crowd – many of whom dressed up in costumes for the occasion – was in many ways remarkable, but 80s nostalgia was strong at the beginning of the 2000s and gave birth to a completely new music genre: bitpop/chiptune/8bit music [for the sake of simplicity we’ll call it bitpop below].
Of all things, the Game Boy, perceived as an emblem of mind-dulling entertainment with the uncool touch of a nerdy toy, especially in Europe and the USA, becomes the centre of a hip-urban subculture, both as a sound generator and as an instrument for live performances. With the big success of the Blip Festival in New York, live performed bitpop music received considerable interest from a broad public and gained significant media coverage. Since then the scene quickly developed and gained popularity.
Bands like Bit Shifter, Sabrepulse, 8 Bit Weapon and Anamanaguchi popularized the scene in North America and Europe, and in Sweden 047, Goto80, Slagsmålsklubben and Dunderpatrullen, to mention a few names, were household names of an outstanding new movement in the music scene.
047 was one of the early pioneers in the Swedish bitpop scene and released a Christmas album, Wheel du fira hjul med mig?, as their debut in 2001. The band is still around but with a completely different sound, and in November this year they celebrate their 20th anniversary. We met up with Sebastian and Peter in their studio in Gothenburg and chat about their bitpop years, how they left their sound and gained commercial success and what they will do to celebrate their anniversary. And you know what, the boys need a push because it may be too much work to celebrate the anniversary. But they want to!
”We never liked to be boxed in as a bitpop band”
First thing first, I have to congratulate you for staying twenty years in the scene. Anything coming up as a celebration of your anniversary?
Sebastian: We actually just talked about it and if you would have asked us four months ago we probably would have told you that we plan for something to happen, but today we’re not sure if anything will happen at all. Maybe it will be enough to post something on Instagram (laugh).
It’s difficult to force creativity and do something just because we feel that we have to. If you summarize our back catalogue it doesn’t look like a band that has been around for twenty years because we haven’t released that many albums. What is it, five years between albums on average?
Peter: At the beginning of this year we had this idea about releasing a compilation of old and unreleased Fasttracker II songs. But I don’t think we’ll have time to do it, it’s just so much work.
Sebastian: When we start on a new album we always look at what we already have, like old demos that didn’t make it onto the latest record. And it’s always like “Hey, we have thirty songs. Can’t we just rework some of them?”. In the end, we never use anything, we always write completely new songs because the unreleased material is too old and our sound has progressed too much. It wouldn’t work out.
What you say is that every new record you have released is a huge step forward leaving the old sound behind, and a compilation entailing twenty years of 047 music would be too diverse?
Sebastian: That’s how I feel about it. I just don’t want to release music that sounds like we did eight or ten years ago. You want a record to have some sort of uniform sonic identity, but it will be too much work to start writing new songs or rework old ideas.
Peter: We have done it a few times before and have used old ideas that didn’t make it onto previous releases, like “Error” and “Follow Me Home”, but it is lots of work.
Sebastian: But I hear you, we have to do something to celebrate our anniversary, wouldn’t it be a bit sad otherwise? We even have a birthday somewhere in mid-November.
It can’t be that many bands that release a Christmas album as their debut album though.
Sebastian: (laugh) Probably not. I tracked my first songs to that album, Peter showed me how to work with Fasttracker.
Peter: It must’ve been one of the best ideas ever, to start with a Christmas record. Isn’t it something you do after eight records when you run out of ideas? (laugh)
Sebastian: But it was very close that we became a niche band from the start. I remember us discussing our second album and what it would be and we talked about doing a Disney album.
How did it turn out that you started making bitpop music? Didn’t you meet in a rock band at first?
Sebastian: Yeah, something like that. My childhood friend and Peter were best friends, and Peter and I started to play together in a country rock band with Einar that sang on one of the songs on our latest album; he was the frontman. Let’s say it wasn’t really something we were passionate about (laugh).
Peter: We both collected Nintendo games, it was a huge interest especially for me. I’ve listened a lot to original Super Nintendo soundtracks since I was a kid and recorded loads of tapes with Nintendo music. That type of music pulled me in quite early in life and that interest grew even bigger when bands started to release albums. No one had ever done it before, but it quickly became popular.
I remember a review on Final Fantasy III in the beginning of the 1990s and people commented “Please, release the music on record”. But it took a few more years before it happened. On the back of that, it wasn’t a huge step to start writing our own game music.
But wasn’t the whole genre also about a rather nerdy aesthetic? All bands had some sort of live aesthetic that seemed to be about being as geeky as possible.
Sebastian: I didn’t watch that many other bands in the scene, just bands that played the same night as us.
Peter: But I did and it is just like you say. But it was geeky on so many levels, it wasn’t only about the live performances. You were also quite limited in how you worked with music because you needed that special sound chip or a Game Boy to get the sound you wanted. But you won’t get a large sound from that, and you had to find a way to get maximal output from your gear to get that fat sound you were looking for. That was the really geeky stuff.
Sebastian: There were different schools on how to produce music. One wanted to push the chip to the max while others just wanted to recreate the music of their favorite C64 or Nintendo soundtracks and write music that sounded similar to that.
Peter: And many wanted the old 8bit sound but worked with modern software, like Logic or Cubase, and recreated the sounds on the computer which wasn’t the ‘real way’ of doing it. It was just two different ways to work with music in the scene.
We just recently discussed our own sound and how we did our music, and for us it has never been important to do it with the right gear. We were never like “We can’t release this song because we don’t have a SidStation, it’s just a virtual synthesizer”. It never bothered us because we just wanted it to sound good, and in that sense we weren’t hardcore nerds (laugh).
Sebastian: But we never liked to be boxed in as a bitpop band either. That name didn’t exist when we started, it was something that someone made up later. I remember that I bought an issue of Super Play [British Nintendo magazine] and they had a special issue with a free CD called Bitpop with lots of Instant Remedy-songs – remixes of C64 music. That was the first time I ever heard someone calling it bitpop.
What I find interesting is that many musicians in the scene don’t have a music background in general. It’s people good at their gear rather than those spending hours of practice at the local music school.
Peter: I’m quite sure it was like that, but isn’t it even more like it today? Just look at the house scene and bands like Swedish House Mafia. I don’t really think they’re educated musicians but they have an ear for good music and beats. It’s not really necessary to have the music school background, especially not today with modern music gear.
Both of us have some sort of music education. We did like many other kids our age back then and practised at the local music school and continued at a music college, and later we studied music production.
But the scene was quite big in Sweden during the first decade of the 2000s. Quite many bands played at the main stages of big festivals.
Sebastian: Definitely! The scene was huge for a while. Fans of all music subcultures suddenly listened to bitpop music – metalheads, punks, rave kids and so many more. It was a scene where no boundaries between genres existed. I don’t know how it happened really but it must have been nostalgia.
Peter: The atmosphere at the gigs was magic and usually there was some sort of theme, like a room full of vintage arcade machines, and people often dressed up as game characters laugh).
But I think that this type of hype is part of some sort of nostalgia that turns up twenty years after it started. You know, the bitpop scene was made up of people that grew up in the 80s with an interest in Nintendo games and C64 stuff, and it was the same with music made in the 90s; it became popular again in the 2010s. It’s all part of this twenty-year nostalgia cycle.
Bitpop came and bitpop conquered – and then it disappeared?
The bitpop scene had its big breakthrough sometime around the early 2000s and took everyone by storm. The story of the rise and fall of the genre is a well-documented one, but the truth is that bitpop never really went away, it just disappeared from the mainstream. However, many of the first wave of bitpop bands embarked on new sonic adventures and turned to different types of electronic music.
For 047 it happened naturally when their Game Boy player Niklas left the band, and for a short while they split up. But Sebastian and Peter returned just a year later, started to study music production and left the Fasttracker II world that had dominated the band’s sonic identity for years. With their second album Elva they turned to electropop and had their first aired song, “Let You Go”, on radio and with the latest album &, on which they worked with a range of acclaimed Swedish musicians on guest vocals, the band gained lots of media attention.
047’s roots in the bitpop scene is unrecognizable today, but the band is more than happy about their chosen path. And maybe they have energy enough to release a new record in a few years – and if Peter is making the decision it will be black metal.
We’ve already talked about it a bit, your sound has changed much between records. It’s a huge difference between Robopop and Elva and between Elva and the commercially viable album &.
Peter: It’s not big steps, it’s a leap for every new album we’ve released. Robopop was actually the first time we changed our sound a bit, that’s when we started to experiment with orchestra sounds and not only worked with Fasttracker II.
Sebastian: Our Christmas album and the album after that, 047 som det heter på engelska, were both Fasttracker II records. We didn’t use anything else than Fasttracker on those albums. At Robopop we started to use other gear and software. We also started to play live with me and Peter on synthesizers and Niklas [former member] playing on a Game Boy, and all that changed how we sounded.
Peter: And we started studying music production at the university and learned how to use Cubase. At first, we recorded our Fasttracker tracks in Cubase but we also mixed them with virtual synthesizers which had quite an impact on everything we did. Let’s call it a technological leap that made an imprint on our sound.
Sebastian: We also had a long break between Robopop and Elva when Niklas left the band, and we literally split up for a while. But just a year later Peter and I restarted and released an EP called General Error, and with Niklas out of the band we didn’t have anyone playing Game Boy anymore. That was a huge step away from our old sound into something new. And we wanted to try out vocals on Elva, although I don’t remember who came up with the idea (laugh).
Peter: Let’s just wait there for a minute. I did a rap on the Robopop album, on a song called ”Knight Baggy”!
Sebastian: Sorry Peter, but the first time we had real vocals was on Elva (laugh). I’m not sure what to call the stuff you did on Robopop (laugh).
Peter: So now the trash-talk starts (laugh).
Lots of things changed with Elva. The song with Thomas Halberstad on vocals, “Let You Go”, even got airtime on the radio which gave us a bit of attention and we wanted to continue in that direction.
But we also reached a point where we didn’t want to do bitpop anymore. The whole scene almost disappeared within a few years. Or at least it wasn’t anything interesting left save for a few bands, like Dunderpatrullen, who became quite popular. But the scene was dying.
Sebastian: The Elva album was also a rather eclectic record and contains a diverse set of electronic pop music, not bitpop music. Some songs, like “Trekker”, were part of Peter’s ambition to write music for walking (laugh).
Peter: Yeah, I wanted to have a record made for walking where all songs would be in 112 bpm (laugh), that’s what I was trying to do with “Trekker”. But I realized that it’s a bit too slow for walking if you want to get something out of your walk.
On & you also had a sort of producer role and used guest vocalists to represent every song on the album. Is that your future goal, being producers rather than releasing music as 047?
Peter: We decided from the start that we wanted to work with guest vocalists on all songs just to get a more diverse record.
But I always wanted it to happen, to have the role of a producer rather than an artist because I’ve never really liked to play live. Sebastian is more into doing live shows.
Sebastian: You need to add: when it happens. We haven’t done that many live shows. It’s fun when it happens, but I’m also quite happy about not doing too many. It’s a lot of work.
When we did the latest record we talked about going in the producer direction and work with other bands and artists. We already had a bit of experience and had worked with Den Svenska Björnstammen as co-producers on their first EP on two songs.
But you also worked with Maia Hirasawa [Swedish pop artist[ on her latest record?
Sebastian: Yeah, but we actually wrote a song for her for our latest album but it didn’t work out for her at the time. Actually, her label at the time told her to not get involved in collaborations because it wouldn’t work with her own album release.
Peter: But she got back to us later about working with new songs for her next record.
We’ve also worked with Åke’s [Den Svenska Björnstammen member] solo project and co-produced a few songs, but other than that it isn’t that much yet.
The scene was quite big in Europe as well, although only for a short while just like in Sweden, but I don’t remember you playing abroad.
Sebastian: We never really tried to get gigs at all, not even in Sweden (laugh). You can count the times we tried to book ourselves for gigs on one hand.
Peter: Our strategy was to let people ask us and then we were like “Yeah, ok, maybe we can play” (laugh). I wasn’t really up for it.
Sebastian: The only time we really tried was around 2005 when we emailed demos to festivals and were picked up by the Emmaboda Festival and the Arvika Festival, and we also got a gig at Sticky Fingers in Gothenburg. Maybe we were a bit lazy and, as Peter said, we didn’t really want to play live.
But most bands would love to get attention through live shows, why didn’t it work out for you?
Peter: I felt very uncomfortable on stage. Sebastian was our frontman and I usually tried to hide behind him (laugh).
Sebastian: Let’s stop there for a minute! It wasn’t my choice at all, it just became like that. Before our first show you said,”You’ll do the talking, I’m not gonna do it” (laugh).
Peter: It wasn’t fun to watch us live either because we didn’t have a show, not like Slagsmålsklubben and Den Svenska Björnstammen.
Sebastian: For us it was important to play our music live. Most bands in the scene pulled off great shows but used backing tracks. At most of our shows it was just the two of us and we wanted to play as much as possible live, and you can’t really have a great show at the same time as you’re stuck behind your synthesizer.
Peter: And to make it even more boring we didn’t have any visuals. We had a backdrop but it wasn’t bigger than 1×2 meters and was barely visible (laugh).
To wrap it up, is there anything new in the works at the moment, either as 047 or as co-producers?
Sebastian: No, there’s nothing at the moment. Those songs we worked on with Åke have been released now but they were already old stuff for us when they were released.
We didn’t have any project coming up when the pandemic arrived and couldn’t start on anything at all. I also became a dad last fall and haven’t had any time to work on new music. That’s the reason nothing have happened for a while. But we will always be around even if we’re not working on something at the moment.
Peter: Creativity has to come naturally, you can’t force it, and at the moment we don’t have the energy to write anything. You really can’t squeeze out a new album without creativity.
But considering the average hiatus between records, something should happen in 2022 or 2023. Why not something completely new again, like a black metal album. I’ve started to listen to it quite much (laugh).
Sebastian: The problem for us is that as soon as we start talking about releasing a new album we give up because we know how much work we need to put into it.
Peter: Our latest album was just too much, especially for Sebastian who took care of all the contacts with our guest vocalists, and they were quite many. Maybe we took it a bit too far but it was also a fun thing to do.
Sebastian: No, I never want to do that again. The next record, whenever it turns up, will be an instrumental record.
Let’s see when something happens, if we’ll do a special 20th anniversary release – or if it’s too much work for us to handle (laugh).
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