All Music

An interview with Bertrand Guérin-Williams

Ahead of BRKfest 2014, the tri-states third annual three-day Chipmusic festival, we caught up with Bertrand. a huge supporter and cog in the wheel of the Chipmusic scene. He hopes to raise enough to help himself and fellow journalist Leah Oakes make it out to Cincinnati, Ohio to document and enjoy the growing festival. In support of this, we offered to talk to Betrand and what he’s working on. You can help with their GoFundMe if you’re feeling generous. Every small amount, counts.

Tell us about your journey that brought you into writing chip music.

For Christmas in 2008, I somehow convinced my parents to buy me a CycloDS Evolution, the best DS flashcart on the market at the time. Some time in 2009, I found Nitrotracker  on one of the many DS homebrew repositories that ran back then. I had wanted to start making music for a while back then after hearing my brother’s band, so I threw some terrible, free samples on the cart, and started making some horrendous music.

One of the free set of samples provided on Nitrotracker’s site was nitro2k01’s chip samples pack. I hadn’t started listening to chip at that time, but, with those samples and a rather limited sense of musicality, I tried to emulate the sound of the Gameboy games I had played when I was younger. They were so terrible, I quit making music until two summers ago when I finally caved in and bought LSDJ and a pre-backlit green Play-It-Loud DMG. The first song I made on that was so terrible, I put making music on hold again for a few months until I relistened to Auxcide’s of Atoms and Stardust, played the songs on the 2 carts and 2 SPs I’ve kept since I was a kid, and tried again to make music. Since last summer, I’ve been slowly but surely learning LSDJ and how to make (listenable) chip on 2xLSDJ.

Bertrand Guérin-Williams by Chiptography
Bertrand Guérin-Williams by Chiptography

What do you feel are your biggest strengths for writing chip?

I like to try different things with my music. Though I’m most comfortable writing 4-on-the-floor, songs with sidechained bass lines, I try not to stick to one genre for an entire song. I tend to do that, because I spend a few hours creating one section for a song then transition to another the next time I sit down to write again, creating a sort of patchwork style. That’s probably something I could work on, but I like the kind of tension that slapdash sound can create. I also spend a long time polishing songs, and when I find that one song in my mind that inspires me, I have to finish it and chip away at it until I think it’s ready.

Favorite and least favorite pieces of gear you own?

Honestly? My least favorite piece of gear is my mixer. If I had paid 50 bucks more, I could have bought a mixer that would support 2xLSDJ, an effects pedal array, and whatever else I wanted to add in (like another set of 2xLSDJ for anything live). You should have seen the ridiculous set-up I had for the song I played MAGFest 14 open mic. In addition to the two stereo channels I had my GBA SPs plugged into, I had two mono channels panned left and right respectively for a third SP, and a fourth SP plugged into my Aux Return.

My favorite “gear” is something I don’t even use in my recorded music: my family’s upright piano. It’s where I come up with the skeleton for all of my songs or flesh out a melody with chords behind it. If you listen to my music (and the music I’ll be putting out in the future) and try to play it on a piano, you’ll see just how much I write for that instrument. And I don’t even know how to play it. I just like sitting there when I’m starting a song and playing chords until something sounds good, then I record the progression(s) all the way through once, break down the chords into their individual notes (since I work best with sound, not theory), and sprint upstairs to start working on the song in LSDJ.

What projects are you working on right now?

For music, just today I actually solidified the concept for an EP I want to release this winter. It’s gonna be 3 or 4 tracks focusing on compound time signatures and time signatures other than 4/4. I’m using it to work on the repetition in my music. I also have a few tracks started for a concept album I’ll be putting out later summer/early fall next year. In true chip fashion, it’s about space.

I also write for chip, too. I’ll be posting my first review for a monthly series on The Waveform Generators’ blog next week, and I have a GoFundMe running right now to raise funds so that Leah Oakes (of Chiptunes=WIN) and I can go to and cover BRKfest 2014. I’ll be doing daily recaps with her, and interviews for ChipWIN and another, unnamed site. ;3 We’re also trying to get Glenn Dubois (founder of Clipstream) to BRK if we get enough donations over the original goal. If I can’t make it there, then I’ll be giving one of those ChipWIN interviews for a write-up sometime in the near future.

I’m also an admin at LGBTune and their Midatlantic Coordinator, and we’re currently in the process of curating tracks for the compilation (which is still technically accepting tracks: see details here.

Where do you see the most obvious signs of self improvement since you started making chip music?

Since I started to write music again last summer, the one thing that had been a major stumbling block was taking the music and sounds I was thinking up in my mind and translating them into something listenable on LSDJ. I actually I had become so frustrated that I couldn’t get the sounds I wanted out of LSDJ that I had a huge creative block for about two months this winter. After skimming through the LSDJ save files I had accumulated over the past couple years and talking with Bryan (Auxide) and Sean (Awesome Force) about the program, I really started to be able to crank out the sounds I wanted.

What music training/experience did you have prior to writing chip?

I finished my 11th year in a school/college band on alto saxophone last May. I’d never really received much music theory training beyond scales, key signatures, and the basics in band. I think the things that really influence the way I make music now are not so much the theory, but the nuances you’re taught about over the course of practicing and performing in front of others for so long: how to shape notes, how a whole ensemble can work together and what typically creates weaknesses in their sound. Those lessons translate almost directly into my music today. What other music theory I know, I taught myself earlier this year then almost immediately forgot. I rarely use theory unless I’m covering a song, and even then I use it sparingly.

How many chip shows have you been to? Is there a particular show that’s been your favourite?

I’ve only gone to 8 so far, actually. I really want to say that Blip Fest ’11, my first chip show, was my favorite, and it’s certainly up there on the list, but BRKfest ’13 was definitely my favorite. Not only did I get to meet some cool new people there, I actually felt more involved in that show and with that group of people than any show before or after. The energy that weekend was ridiculous, and wasting all of my money on bar food and alcohol was totally worth it.

When did you first hear chip?

The same year I started writing on Nitrotracker, actually. It was during summer PE (fulfilling all of the nerdy, chipster stereotypes here) when someone heard the crap I was writing and asked if I had heard of chiptune. They didn’t actually listen to much but had heard some days before and suggested I look it up. The next day, I had the 8bit Collective’s jog/exercise compilation on my iPod and played it every day when we ran the mile and got hooked on nonfinite’s Northbridge not long after.

You have been writing your own chip for a while. How’s that going?

It’s been pretty tough, actually. I never imagined I’d just “get” making music, let alone making music on LSDJ, but I had hoped it’d come to me sooner. It’s been a humbling experience seeing just how much I still have to learn. At the same time, it’s been an incredibly gratifying experience. Submitting to Chipwin for the first time two weeks ago certainly felt rewarding. I take forever to write my music, though. It took me a month and a half to finish up that song. Remixes and covers usually take me a week to complete, or a few days if I’m really into the song/adaptation, but original songs are something else altogether.

It’s become annoying to me how slow my writing process for original songs is by contrast. I typically sit down at my family’s piano and just plonk out chords until a series of them sounds good. I’ll also find some progressions that are similar to the original one or otherwise work with those in the context of a song. From there, I’ll either think about them for a while or just throw them into LSDJ (which is nice, considering I use 2xLSDJ) and come up with a melody to go with the progression. I’ve come up with the melodies and general structure of the past three songs I’ve made or am making by zoning out in the shower or at work when things are slow. When I actually get around to writing and iterating on a song, I usually just go with what I think sounds good rather than worrying about what’s “correct”. Then I spend probably entirely too long listening and relistening to what I’ve made at every stage of its creation, shoving each version at Bryan and Sean until they tell me it’s alright (both of them have endless patience for this process, at least, I hope they do. I’m infinitely grateful to them for their help every time) and then I tweak a few more things until I think it’s fine, and a month later, I’ve got a song.

This is your 3rd BRK. Who are you looking forward to seeing? What are your favourite memories of previous years?

That’s just an unfair question considering the lineup this year. I finally get to see Glomag and Ricky Brugal live, and I’ve been wanting to see Tri Angles live after the change in direction he announced at last year’s BRK. There are some new faces and ones I’ve only seen briefly this year that I’m excited to hear; Corset Lore and diode milliampere just to name a couple. I’ve also always wanted to see the same musician live 5 times in the span of a year, so it’s great to see Trey Frey getting stage time at BRK again. ;3

As last year was my favorite chip/live show, I’d say it has the most fond memories, but losing Sean in a Walmart has to be one of the better ones. It’s where I met Bryan in-person for the first time, which was pretty awesome. Dissing him for so long to get there the first second I could talk to him was also pretty swell.

Seriously, though, the first BRK was the first real moment that I felt connected to the scene as a whole. It felt so great to see a show basically thrown together by one guy turn out so damned well and draw so many people. With the death of Blip Fest that year, it felt even bigger the next year to see how popular it had become and the fact that artists were being flown in from all over the world to play it was great to see and be even a small part of. Just meeting and talking to all these people far outshines any other experience I’ve had with the scene. No matter what chip show I’ve been to recently, I tend to enjoy hanging out with my friends more than being at the show itself, which I think says more about the people in this scene than it does about the quality of the shows.

You’ve traveled quite a lot to get to chip shows. What’s your local scene like? What’s the furthest distance you’ve gone for a show?

The farthest I traveled was to New York City by way of Washington, D.C. for Blip ’11. That bus trip actually wasn’t so bad with a few video game podcasts and 8bc songs stocked up.

My local scene is, to put it bluntly, almost dead. We have a few shows every year: Trey’s shows in the WV/western Virginia area, MAGStock, and MAGFest. Sometimes the Maryland chip folk put on shows, but, because of our close proximity to Philadelphia, and the fact that all the musicians in the Midatlantic scene are scattered across the three states in our area, any show besides the MAG shows/events typically get little to no draw. I’ve been trying to plan something to change that, but I just haven’t had the time or money to fully commit to it. With Daniel Davis (aka an0va) moving to Richmond, maybe that’ll change sometime soon, but for the time being, our local musicians remain fairly isolated, sadly.

Tell us a little something about yourself that people don’t know.

I like to talk a lot.

Wait, things people don’t know. Damn, that’s a bit tougher. That question has been the bane of my existence every time it’s been asked of me, because I typically wear my heart on my sleeve (and say way too much). That said, one aspect of my life that I typically never talk to others about is my family; specifically: my parents.

It might sound strange to mention them here, but they’ve seriously helped and inspired me throughout my life. As much as we piss each other off on a daily basis (and, oh dear GOD do we piss each other off), they’ve been the only ones in my corner during some of the roughest, loneliest parts of my life. They’ve taken me around the world, they listened to my brother and I when considered whether to adopt (three times), they’ve been there for me financially regardless of if it was smart to back me in the end.

That’s not to belittle my siblings, though. Those many times my parents just couldn’t deal with me, my older brother was always there to kick my ass and set me straight. Being jealous of his guitar playing was what led me to start writing music and is often times the force driving me to get better (mainly so I can just be better at something than he is). My three younger siblings are the harshest critics I’ve ever had in my life. My family is pretty tenuously held together at times, but they’re the things, the people I keep close to my chest, because without them, I wouldn’t be here and certainly wouldn’t be the same person I am today.

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