“Why the hell are you so happy?”
This is the question I pose to Anamanaguchi, a band that has to be one of the more joyous and buoyant of the Holocene Epoch.
Peter Berkman, Luke Silas, James DeVito; they’re all there, sitting in front of me, pondering this question. All of them minus the rarely-sighted Ary Waarnar.
“Is it the 8-bit?” I wonder aloud. It’s a fair question; Anamanaguchi is a household name in certain circles for their mastery of Bitpop (aka chiptune), a niche and video-gamey brand of electronica that sounds like if every appliance in your house emitted a warm, cute quip in orchestra. They’ve ascended to special snowflake status among their kind because they play their bleep-bloop live, on real instruments. No laptops harmed in the making of their shows.
I feel like you have to be positively psyched on life to make that kind of music, so I ask again.
“Why are you so happy?”
It’s not Anamanaguchi’s mood that spawns their chippy 8-bit glee, they tell me. It’s fantasy.
After a successful tour with Vocaloid singing synthesizer Hatsune Miku, the release of Capsule Silence XXVI, their own interactive video game that allows audiences to interact with their new music in a virtual world, sound-tracking Scott Pilgrim: The Game, and releasing a slew of projects and videos that bend the very defintion of reality, I can see what they mean. In fact, watching a few of their videos (“Meow,” “Endless Fantasy”), I’m surprised it hasn’t hit me before: Anamanaguchi is a fantasy band.
I mean that in the sense that they see no earthly limitation on what they can do. Their imagery and sonic palate doesn’t abide by convention and their songs aren’t driven by anything in particular; in fact, part of the fun for Anamanaguchi is a very stream-of-consciousness, in-the-moment figuring out of meanings. Nobody in the band goes, “I’m going to write about love!” then composes a melody made of prescribed chords that convey lust and longing. Rather, music is made for the sake of music, and if it sounds good, great.
This out-of-the-box thinking means they can apply their sound to anything. And they do. That’s why you’ll find Anamanaguchi’s fingerprints all over projects a normal band grounded in the mundanity of the real world would never be able to touch.
Case in point: Capsule Silence XXVI. Since its release almost four months ago, the origins of the game have remained tantalizingly unclear. Anamanaguchi has expertly managed to build up a certain urban legend around the game using a brilliantly carried out publicity stunt to hype up the intrigue.
The game is a first-person shooter with RPG elements set in a mysterious world with talking robots, references to the band Sugar Ray, the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution, and a slew of other Japanese pop culture cues. It’s really quite something; the entire game is designed to allow users to interact with Anamanaguchi’s music — you kind of hunt for it as if you would Pokemon — and is full of hilarious hacks that let you unlock hidden tracks.
(“I recommend dog hack,” says Peter).
In March, the band “leaked” a version of the game via a questionably real Twitter meltdown between them and a mysterious, un-Googleable game developer called NHX.
Although the band has since deleted the outburst off their timeline, fans have suspected the Twitter beef was a diabolical viral marketing ploy, mainly because NHX has zero Internet presence save for this web browser music video for a very Anamanaguchi-like song called “Anarchy.” I’m told the developer is nodded at if you Google “torahorse” which is one of the games opening screens, but, using my meager and thoroughly underdeveloped search skills, I’m unable to personally encounter an example of this.
Yet, the band insists it’s all real.
“Oh yeah?” I challenge. “Show me NHX’s website.”
“It’s been down since March,” they say. Suuuure.
Peter follows with a cryptic riddle that only heightens the enigma surrounding the game: “We actually can’t talk about things as specific as that [NHX], in relation to press releases or, you know. Of course, there’s performance involved in every aspect, but it is a game really, what we released, and a game is something that has a lot of gray space in it that is uncertain and only acts when it’s been acted on.”
I’m not sure that I know what that means, but I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to.
Did Anamanaguchi create create NHX themselves, and use the ploy to market Capsule Silence XXIV?
After two hours of sitting with them and a follow-up interview, I still have no idea. The band are masters of disguise, expertly answering and not answering my interrogations like highly trained tactical spies. I’m no closer to the truth, but I’m kind of enjoying the mystery..
Regardless of whether they did or not; is it so wrong not to claim credit for a good idea? Erring on the side that both Capsule Silence and NHX is 100 percent Anamanaguchi (and a complicit, existing game developer we’ll never hear of), it’s almost more thoughtful and generous to just put out a great product without over analyzing its genesis story in the media. Blaming someone else for that kind of brilliance is a lot less “look at me” and a lot more “look at the game.”
To give away their secrets would be to take away the mystery; the user’s feeling that they’re part of some lore, however odd. Others are looking into the exact same conspiracy you are. It’s like chasing Bitpop Bigfoot. The whole thing is a fantasy about a game that’s a fantasy.
What matters more than the game’s urban legend then, is that they’ve thoughtfully and painstakingly created an entirely new medium to interact with their fans on. On the surface, Capsule Silence is a whimsical first-person RPG game with more than the recommended daily dose of Sugar Ray references woven in; look deeper, and you’ll find Anamanaguchi collectively spawned a fantasy universe where players can navigate the ins and out of their musical inspirations, sense of humor and extracurricular interests. It brings you, as directly as you can be brought without physical touching, into their world.
Then again, most bands just release an EP. A music video. Something great, but distant. Why go to such belabored heights?
“Not doing what’s expected of us is the only way to keep any sort of true interaction, nothing means anything in an echo chamber. Today it’s common to form a xenophobic media tribe, but it doesn’t sound so fun,” Peter tells me.
No doubt this has something to do with Anamanaguchi’s cult-like fan base. They’re self-made, interactive and honest as a band, but most importantly, they don’t have that rock-star reflex to put themselves above their fans. Quite the opposite; they barely see a separation between themselves and the people who love what they do.
“There are a lot of days where being in Anamanaguchi is a lot like not being in Anamanaguchi,” Luke says. “There have been times where there’s a line around the block to see us, and it’s for a show we didn’t advertise; didn’t even make a poster for. And we’ll be as surprised as the fans.”
That in itself is another fantasy for fans; having such a thin separation between themselves in the band levels the playing field.
“We just just have so much respect for everyone in our audience as a rule,” says Peter. “The second that we don’t, we’re putting ourselves above the audience and we’re thinking that we know more than them, or that we lead more interesting lives than they do. That’s not at all the case.”
Another undertaking of Anamanaguchi’s which fits perfectly into their cult of fantasy, is Hatsune Miku, the Japanese singing synthesizer who’s taken the world by storm by not having a physical body, yet putting on high-adrenaline concerts for rabid J-Pop superfans.
Miku is just a computer program. With the right coding flourishes, she’s capable of embodying anyone’s clear, G-rated vision, carrying out a song and dance routine that mirrors the interests and tastes of her audience and reflects the shape of the culture around her. But since she doesn’t exactly write her own music (she’s a computer), her team enlisted Anamanaguchi to give her life.
For their recent co-tour, Anamanaguchi wrote a song for her (“Miku”), designed her image, and choreographed her dances. For that time, Miku was Anamanaguchi, just another extension of their human forms in 1’s and 0’s. A fantasy of theirs, as it were.
Even the band’s sound is fantasy. It’s weird to think of 8-bit’s arcade-esque emissions as organic or human, but for Anamanaguchi, they’re nature’s purest sounds. Their limitless way of thinking has allowed them to see the cheeps and bleeps of computer chips as the heaves of sighs of vertebrate life.
“There’s a lot of 8-bit music out there that may seem robotic, but it’s always our aim to make those as expressive as possible and make them have the same kind of articulation and detail as Britney Spears would doing 200 takes to get it just right,” says Peter. “I think for us, 8-bit is a bit primitive, perhaps the most human because it’s just so simple.”
Anamanaguchi really believes in things. They believe in the lore of Capsule Silence. They can suspend their disbelief enough to create a Vocaloid performance for a pop star that’s nothing more than a hard drive. They see humanity in technology. That’s what makes them so spectacular to watch; they’ve bought into their own fantasies and you can’t help but do the same. It’s earnest and honest and uniquely them.
If there’s anything that brings the band back down to Earth, its the effect their music has on their fans.
“Some of the most important moments of my life so far have been moments that I’ve been in this band and we’ve played a show and someone has said it’s changed their life,” Luke says. “We were playing a show in Pomona and someone said, ‘I fucking lost my cousin recently. This was a very, very important thing. You guys actually helped give me a very fantastic moment while I’m dealing with this.’ Anytime that people have had a profound experience with any kind of joy that we give someone can’t be understated ever, can’t be overstated ever.”
Fantasy is a gift. Whether its through song, video game, Vocaloid pop diva or inclusive live show, it’s one person augmenting another’s reality for just long enough for them to remember that there are worlds and ways of being beyond their own. If that’s not a slight, joyous departure from everyday life, nothing is.
Anamanaguchi is playing a free show this weekend at the perfect fantasy venue, San Diego Comic-Con. YOU SHOULD GO.