Chris Graue loved video games long before their soundtracks could take up more than a megabite or two per cartridge. Playing the likes of Mario and Sonic, he took something more from them than just analog fun; he took profound musical inspiration. Combined with his experience directing music videos for the likes of NOFX, Reel Big Fish, Goldfinger, and many more in the ska scene, Graue created Lo(u)ser, his latest project, combining upbeat, chiptune ska with dynamic, fun videos. We sat down with Graue (over Zoom) to discuss Mario Power-Ups, Deserted Island must-have games, and his latest single, “Growing Up.”
How are you? How’s your quarantine days going?
Chris Graue: Oh, you know, just, like, it’s this weird combination of being overworked and in jail, you know? I’ve been making music videos for everybody, including myself, and since we’re in quarantine mode, a lot of it is less shooting and more animating or editing so it’s just a lot of time at the computer.
I’m gonna start this off with some ice breakers. You wake up in Pallet Town and professor Oak tells you to choose a Pokémon. Who are you choosing?
CG: Um, I’m kind of a fire-type so I’m guessing I’m going Charizard but also, like, weird, as much as I love video games, was never a big Pokémon fan until, like, GO, and there was also that mobile game that was kinda like DR. MARIO-y, sort-of, I can’t remember what that one is called. But I never actually liked the OG which is like totally anti-my cred.
Did you play Super Mario back in the day?
CG: Oh, yeah! Absolutely.
If you could use any of the Mario power-ups, which would you choose and what would you use it for?
CG: Ooh. That’s a good question. I’m actually making my next music video in MARIO MAKER 2 right now, so I’ve been doing a lot of fire flower stuff. Like, I love the tanooki suit but, like, I’m not much of a furry, so I don’t know, y’know? Like, I really want to fly, but also I’m not sure if that’s the attention I want. So, yeah, maybe just the fireballs, that’d be great. I mean, arson’s cool. Also, I like the sound. I like that fireball sound a lot.
Did you sample that in “Growing Up”?
What were your biggest influences—obviously musically, but also in games—for that track?
CG: Koji Kondo, obviously. Like, y’know, big influence just because of all the video game music. But I also love Jeff Rosenstock, Bomb the Music Industry. I love Crying. I love Ozma, We Are the Union, Deb and Kay and the Solutions—I listen to a lot of that stuff. And then, yeah, I mean, game stuff, y’know. I’m actually a big Yu Suzuki fan on the Sega side. He did a lot of really cool stuff. Like, he, as a game programmer, his thing was always “We can make the game, sure, but what makes it interesting?” Like, wouldn’t it be cool to sit on a bike and use the bike as a controller? It’s just a racing game, there’s no difference between that and any other racing game, it’s just his thought was instead of using your thumbs, what if you tilted your body? It’s just clicking left and right, the same. And I really admire that, the idea of what we can do without totally reinventing the wheel… without being the smartest person in the universe and like figuring out crazy new things to do, how can we make something more fun. How can we take what we have and do it in a different way that makes it more fun?
How was the creative process different using an 8-bit synthesizer?
CG: Man, it’s taken a long time and it’s something that I’ve really been messing around with different methods on. Like, I have a set-up right now where I’ve got a Gameboy and I can actually get the audio out of the Gameboy. So, I can play a keyboard and play the Gameboy. That’s one way that I’ll do stuff, but then I also use a lot of ChipTone. This dude built a flash tool forever ago that’s just basically an NES-type synth and you can tweak it, modulate everything in-browser and then just download .wav files. So, a lot of times, I’ll just be like “Oh, I want kind of an explosion sound” and I’ll just go in there and make it, download it, and drop it into the mix. That’s been a lifesaver. And then, yeah, sometimes just pulling samples, but wherever I can, I try to create stuff.
There’s a big learning curve to it?
CG: Yeah, I mean I haven’t actually used it as a proper synth—like, playing keys on it—yet. I really just use it for generating a sound that I’m then gonna just drop in places. Yeah, there’s really not [an easily accessible tool]… without spending a lot of money, it’s crazy. You would think that in 2021, with some dumb mini-keyboard, that I could plug that into any computer and play NES sounds, a 35-year-old system, that that would be simple. And it would sound like it and you can make tweaks there, but there are not good instruments out there without spending a lot, a lot, a lot of money. It’s surprisingly difficult. And, even just getting good samplers working, if you have sounds that you like and you want to adapt, it’s not easy and that’s weird. That’s also something… I’ve been tinkering with Raspberry Pi stuff and whatever—I’m hoping to make some stuff that makes that easier at some point. It’s weird that it’s as hard as it is.
Do you think that affects the amount of content out there in the chiptune genre?
CG: Well, there is a good chiptune steam and, actually, I’ve found, through doing this and a couple others, but there’s actually other chiptune ska bands. There’s one from Japan called WABISAVITA that’s so good. Like, way more chiptune than I am. It’s, like, heavily, heavily chiptune with some ska in it. And then there’s Flying Raccoon Suit. Their original music is just ska stuff, but they do 8-bit covers. They did an 8-bit cover of “Growing Up.” Like, they took my kind-of-8-bitty ska song and made it full 8-bit and I was, like, “Whoa!” Blew my mind.
On “Growing Up,” it’s an 8-bit ska love letter to the consoles of yesteryear—if you were stranded on a deserted island with just one console, which would you bring and which three games? There is a power outlet.
CG: There’s a lot of ways to tackle that question. Like I’m assuming it’s cheating if you just bring a modded Wii with access to every video game on it, basically.
Three games. You got three games.
CG: Yeah, that’s cheating. I’m really torn. Like, the Genesis kind of hits me home the most, but I’m thinking I’m on a desert island… the NES is really simple to repair. And I’ve repaired a lot of NESes. So, that makes me think I’d probably do better with the NES. Probably with KIRBY’S ADVENTURE, SUPER MARIO BROS. 3 is great, and maybe PUNCH-OUT!! I think that’d probably be my three for that console.
Solid picks! They’re all really replayable.
CG: Exactly, and they’re pretty deep. Like, PUNCH-OUT!! Is obviously a little more linear, but it’s relatively long. And, also, I could probably fashion a brush out of some coconut strands and keep the contacts clean and bent, y’know, so that it still played for many years until I was rescued. Or not. Probably not. Probably never.
With PUNCH-OUT!!, you could probably finally beat Mike Tyson!
CG: I have! I have beat Mike Tyson. I got a bad cold maybe 10 years ago and I was like, you know what, I’m just gonna play PUNCH-OUT!! until I beat Tyson. Because I was just home. Yeah, it took a long time.
On the music video you made for “Growing Up,” in which you have a child with an NES, did the idea come first for the video or for the song, or both?
CG: The song was first. The song was something I’d been working on for a long time and then I was, like, “What is gonna be the video for it? What’s gonna work?” And I thought about it for a long time without getting any really good ideas. And then I just thought of the idea of making sweet love to a Nintendo Entertainment System and I was like “Well, you can’t show that on YouTube.” So then I started thinking of the consequences of that and that’s where it came from, really.
Yeah, you got a little Game Boy baby.
CG: It’s really a video about safe sex. Honestly. It’s a PSA. And watch out when you’re buying new consoles, you never know what you might discover in your bedroom. Your best friend, the Master System, just might, y’know, pull something. Might not be such a Master after all.
That’s true. Or the most Masterful. You’ve done video work for all kinds of ska punk acts, from Big Reel Fish to Goldfinger. How does creating a video for your own music differ from collaborating with other artists?
CG: I found it to be a lot harder. Because, like, when you’re working with an artist, you can sort of come up with really bad ideas and lob ‘em at them and then see what they react to? Like, some of the best ideas start as a bad idea. “Oh, this is a bad idea!” and then you say it to them and they’re like, “Wait, wait, that’s actually not that bad!” Like, the collaborative effort, I think, really helps and the fact that someone else is the filter is a lot more creatively freeing because you can just throw stuff and see what makes it through. And then for my own, it was like, “Am I gonna fuck a Nintendo?” And there’s nobody there to tell me no. It’s like, “Okay, yes, I guess I will do that.” So yeah, that was rough. And then also, like, I didn’t really realize it until I was in production, but that whole video is just a string of prop comedy. When I was prepping for that video, I just had boxes full of all the odd props I needed. I didn’t really have to buy much other than, like, the nurse’s uniform and stuff. Pretty much all the video game stuff I had—one or two things I borrowed—but every single shot of that, there’s some different item in it. And it’s been a long time since I’ve had to be responsible for that many individual props.
One last question. You’re playing an RPG with two moral paths: hero and villain. Which is your go-to on your first playthrough?
CG: I usually do good guy stuff. It’d have to be pretty compelling to do the villain path on the first playthrough. Chaotic good is typically my alignment chart, I think.
Check out the video for “Growing Up” here!