It's when the game creators become a troupe of improvisational musicians, laying down sprawling, electronic-tinged odysseys with titles like "Echoes Infinite" and "Mesmantra," most of which are quickly shared online.
Nearing its first full year of existence, The Electric Bends has six recurring members, well over 100 recordings, and three albums, with additional releases on the horizon. Amid heavy work on PixelJunk 1-6, how does the game industry's preeminent lunch break band keep the beat with just an hour-or-so a day to play together?
The Electric Bends' aural adventure began last February, following occasions in which programmer Eddie Lee would strum his guitar over lunch. "Someone left an old keyboard lying around, and I got Eddie to teach me some basic notes and chords," explains a fellow programmer who goes only by the pseudonym, Kalin. Quickly, the jam session expanded to include programmer Jaymin Kessler and president Dylan Cuthbert, who founded Q-Games in 2001 after working on titles like Star Fox and Blasto.
"I had overheard Eddie, Kalin, and Jaymin strumming away in the corner of the office for a few days, so I strolled over with my iPhone, the little Akai keyboard for it, and a copy of NanoStudio, and started playing along with them. We recorded the moment via a shitty laptop mic," explains Cuthbert, with the resulting 20-minute jam available online via SoundCloud.
It's expectedly a more rugged cut than the band's recent output; at the end, one member says, "This one's going on Twitter," to which another amusingly responds, "All six hours of it?" Despite its lack of brevity, even Cuthbert was surprised by the off-the-cuff results. "As soon as I heard that recording, I realized we'd have to invest in better recording gear," he exclaims. "You can really hear the potential in this very rough track, though, considering we'd never played together before."
Paul Leonard, a 3D artist at the studio, was also looped in, and the quintet kept a standing date in the cramped space – currently about five square meters, though it was "stealthily expanded" out from about half that size, says Cuthbert. When producer James Mielke joined Q-Games in June, following a stint at the unrelated Q Entertainment and a long career in games journalism, he quickly chimed in to complete the current lineup, and admits that the prospect of playing with the in-house band was appealing.
Cuthbert regaled him with tales of the band's new KORG drum machine prior to starting the new job. "As someone who is really into electronic music and gear, I was already looking forward to it before I'd even worked here," explains Mielke.
"I was only at work for a day or so before I joined the guys for a lunchtime session, and it was fun from the start," he adds. "I figured any development team – particularly in Japan – that was relaxed enough to not only let you jam at lunch, but whose president joined in personally, must be a place I'd want to work. [It] sent a positive signal for sure."
Since then, the Electric Bends have played almost daily, carving out a chunk of time each day to spin through freeform instrumental songs with whoever's game. Cuthbert jokes that some other employees have invested in molded earplugs to deal with the added sound in the office, though, and Kessler adds, "Many Japanese staff members like to sleep at their desks. I'm personally building a shelter under my desk in preparation for the day they revolt and destroy the band area."
Others have taken the opportunity to play with the band on occasion; for example, Q-Games intern Sagar Patel played on the most recent album, Plastic Fantastic, using tabla drums sent by relatives in India. Beyond looping in guests from time to time, the active members frequently swap instruments between them, all while bringing in new ones when possible. It's a freeform structure that adapts well to members ducking away when need be; Mielke says he's been too busy to play much recently, and as a result may not appear on the next album.
"Every day is a mix of different moods, different people, and different instruments," notes Kalin. "There isn't much structure! Over time, it's been much easier to have everyone get into the same sort of rhythm/mood quickly and turn some random sounds into a nice song with only a few minutes warm-up."
"We begin at about 12:45 after we've finished eating, and then just start playing around with sounds. If we find a few loops or core melodies we like, we hit record. Rinse and repeat," explains Cuthbert, who says the sessions usually run until about 2pm each day. "Sometimes, up to four songs are made in one lunchtime! We never re-take a track, so this speeds up the process."
Cuthbert then takes the separate channel recordings, which are done at 96khz/24- bit (as of about July) via Ableton Live software, and rebalances the tracks with filters to "make the sound 'blend' more pleasantly" before putting the finished product up on SoundCloud or Bandcamp. Along the way, he streams the process via Q-Games' local network so members can listen and offer feedback.
How the band ended up releasing albums of these tracks was simply a matter of supplying a noted demand. "We found ourselves producing reasonably good tracks at quite a rate, and people on SoundCloud and Twitter commented that they would actually pay money for a proper album release," says Cuthbert, "so we thought, why not?"
The album real.time debuted in June, spanning eight tracks (two in excess of 14 minutes each), followed by .chroma in July. Third album Plastic Fantastic dropped in October – with newest member Mielke in tow – on Bandcamp and iTunes, with the former storefront offering the option to pay more than a base rate of $5 to speed up the process of buying electronic drums, to help further evolve the band's sound.
All told, the sales generated enough funds to purchase the equipment, which multiple members describe in glowing terms. "New goal: learn to actually use the drum kit to justify having bought it," jokes Kessler.
With the number four bearing unlucky connotations in Japanese culture, the Electric Bends have decided to skip their fourth official album and go straight to the fifth, which is currently being assembled.
"The next album is going to have a tight live and dynamic kind of sound, because of the 'new' 1972 Les Paul Custom Guitar that Jaymin brought back from the US," asserts Cuthbert. "And of course, the drum kit gives us a huge boost in the dynamicity of our sound." Recent track "Come Ride the Sun" is pegged as an example of what to expect from album five, with both the Les Paul and the electronic kit standing out amidst a flitting digital effect.
They'll mark the gap between proper albums with an "unofficial" double-album sometime in February, which will be given free to anyone who purchased one of the earlier albums or buys the fifth one upon release. A tentative playlist for the release spans more than two hours as of this writing, with songs like "Mario vs. the Tardis" and "Take These Broken Wings" – decidedly not a cover of Mr. Mister's hit 1985 single, "Broken Wings" – under consideration for inclusion.
Beyond additional releases, Cuthbert says the band wants to play a live show, "but we're all too nervous about it," he admits. They've also occasionally rented out studio space to rock a little harder using additional instruments – with lengthy video footage of a September session available online – which shows some hint of the band endeavor extending beyond strictly a lunchtime event, though that's currently still the strongest focus.
Kessler admits that diving into music has both benefits and drawbacks amidst a hectic workday. "It's both energizing and tiring. If a jam goes well, it's a great rush that carries with you and lifts your mood for the rest of the day," he says. "Alternatively, if its just one of those days where everyone wants to play what they want and no one is on the same page or willing to compromise, I do find myself quite a bit more drained from the 'fighting' than I was coming into the jam."
"...jamming with the band everyday allows me to stimulate the creative regions of my brain, leaving no neutrons unelectrified." - Programmer Eddie Lee
On the other hand, Kessler sees longer-lasting benefits to the band dynamic. "Previously, the technology and R&D team I am on worked very individually. Playing in the band was actually my first experience with working together in a team," he adds. "It definitely taught me the painful lesson that while you can have some influence in the way things go, you can't get exactly what you want all the time."
"As a programmer, I am required to think very technically thus utilizing the left hemisphere of the brain. However, jamming with the band everyday allows me to stimulate the creative regions of my brain, leaving no neutrons unelectrified," claims Lee. "Sometimes stress or deadlines can be heavy. Jamming and [creating] music during lunchtime is definitely a stress-reliever, which allows me to clear my brain and focus when I return to work."
Cuthbert also sees the creative benefits within, but it's clearly become more than a fleeting endeavor. "It gives me an outlet for quick, instant experimentation and feels like a small lunchtime club," he asserts. "The fact we sometimes produce remarkably good music from it is just icing on the cake and helps feed the jam addiction."
[Image Credits: Arioka]
Andrew Hayward is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chicago, Illinois. He is a regular contributor to Official Xbox Magazine, @Gamer, TechRadar, and many other publications, and edits the iOS apps and games coverage for Mac|Life. You can follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.