Peter Berkman was curious about the long line of teenagers winding around the Much Music building. He wondered what band was causing all the commotion. I joked that it was all for him. In fact, a few moments before, Berkman was stopped along the Queen Street sidewalk by two different groups of fans, each snapping a photo with him. One fan, who had clearly kept up to date on their Kickstarter developments, brought up their label situation. "You should sign on with Nintendo," joked the fan, "Super Nintendo!"
About an hour later, Berkman's tour manager would tell him that a similar line had coiled around the Hoxton for his own band, Anamanaguchi, a chiptune outfit expanding beyond its nerdy niche.
"It was definitely a conscious choice just to try new stuff," says Berkman. "We love a whole bunch of kinds of music. We wanted to try our hands at something else than straightforward 200 BPM punk songs. We had done so much of that, we wanted to know what a dance song would sound like."
Chiptune is not by definition music exclusive to game nerds, but it tends to court techies and Duck Tales' NES nostalgics. The electric subgenre's definitive feature is old sound chips, commonly from hacked Game Boy and NES husks or emulators, used to create songs that echo out of the halls of Castlevania. And like the games it evokes, chiptune has its roster of heroes: Henry Homesweet, Nullsleep and other. Anamanaguchi stands to be the genre's first big mainstream crossover.
In the beginning Berkman used a program called NerdTracker ii, overlaying his teenage punk rock band with Nintendo noise. Comprised of Berkman, Luke Silas, Ary Warnaar and James DeVito, Anamanaguchi released their first album, Dawn Metropolis, in 2009.
The geek world treated them well. Their song, Jetpack Blues, Sunset Hues, became The Nerdist's theme song. Soon, the band was approached to score the Scott Pilgrim video game. At this moment, their Kickstarter is the second-highest earning for a musical act, money they've used to self-produce the new album, Endless Fantasy, build lighting, hologram cubes for the tour and send a slice of cheese pizza into space.
As much as the gamer world has championed them, Anamanaguchi doesn't want to feel pigeonholed by its association with the scene. Playing shows with broader acts, Peelander Z, Pictureplane and soon Kitty, Anamanaguchi aren't looking to leave the nerds out, but invite everyone to the party.
"We're not drifting apart, we're not leaving, we're adding," says Luke Silas. "As soon as we add vocals, or use less chip sounds, then it stops being Anamanaguchi? We are making very clear decisions as far as style and sounds that we work with."
Over an hour long, Endless Fantasy is the evidence of the band's sprawling expanse. There's as much influence from Katy Perry as from Bubble Bobble. It debuted with a rabid blipped punk single called?MEOW?. The music video assembled web-celebs like Tumblr icon Molly Soda and 4chan founder moot in Peter's hometown arcade, Elmsford's Sportime USA.
"It's where everyone had their birthday growing up, I think it's where I had my first slice of pizza," says Berkman. "We had some Four Loko. We had some tickets to play all the games for free. I actually drank from that slushee machine. It was a perfect night."
Games are still a major part of Anamanaguchi. Berkman acknowledges that, ultimately, Contra III will always have its influence. But as video games become more popular, Berkman also believes that the idea of music for gamers, gamers altogether, will become frivolous as parents continue to make Angry Birds dinner table conversation.
"Even if you listen to pop radio," says Berkman, "it's like, there's a song on Britney Spears' last record that is literally the Streets Of Rage 2 theme. Games influence music, it's not like either is made in a vacuum."
Their Toronto performance had nerd charm. One of the Kickstarter supporters, winning a perk to hang out backstage, wore a 1-Up mushroom printed on his white tee. All over the floor there were Super Mario and Aquabats paraphernalia, but also vintage sportswear and torn backpatches. Games were a unifier, but not a prerequisite.
"It'd be impossible to write music with no influence from the stuff we grew up with" says Berkman. "When you grow up with pixel art, crystals, weird 3D models in the time when you're figuring out who you are, you're going to go back to that."