Robert Swackhamer has been covering all kinds of nerdly pursuits (and beer, which might qualify nowadays) since 2010. At first with Spankwagon, and more recently with 8BitX. He’s expanded his coverage to the video game music, chiptune, and nerdcore music scenes, and related festival and convention coverage. His video and photo work ensures that these under-reported scenes get a piece of the coverage that they deserve. If you’d like to help him you can support him on Patreon and make sure that he has the resources to continue catching some of the creative pursuits that so often slip through the cracks.
[Full disclosure: I appeared on Spankwagon a couple of times, years ago.]
You cover stuff that doesn’t get much coverage other places. How do you gather info? Forums, social media?
With smaller communities like VGM, chiptunes, and nerdcore being so tight knit it actually makes our job a lot easier. The bands and performers themselves are really the best sources for information we have, both for their own material and stuff that might be coming from others.
Being active in these communities in various ways is probably the best way to get news of what’s up and coming. A good chunk of the 8BitX crew is based in Philly so they always have a good idea of what’s going on in that region. And with myself and a couple of others being based here in Austin we usually hear of new things occurring here rather quickly.
But even without a physical presence in some places (i.e., West Coast) having direct lines of communication to those In The Know like event organizers and so forth helps.
Short version: GET INVOLVED.
Nerd stuff has become more and more mainstream. Is that happening with video game music and chipcore/nerdcore?
While you would think we’d be experiencing a “rising tides raises all ships” situation, for some reason the tide has yet to reach our shores. While there have been some instances of where some groups have had a spotlight shined on them (i.e., Anamanaguchi’s “Pop It” being used in a Target commercial, The Protomen being on Warped Tour this year) it really hasn’t floated down to everyone else yet. I think I have some ideas on why that might be, but I don’t have enough data to help me go hunt down grant money to fund a study.
What’s your relationship with more mainstream sites? Are you trying to fill in what they don’t cover? Are they direct competition?
What strikes me as strange for a lot of these sites is how they don’t cover some of these scenes (Destructoid might be the only exception, but then again Grimecraft does some writing for them, so that helps). I’m not sure if it’s just that some of the bigger sites just don’t think the material would be interesting to their audiences, or if there’s some sort of willful ignorance on their parts.
A great example of this actually involves the band Bit Brigade. For those who don’t know this is a band out of Athens, Georgia that has a guy by the name of Noah McCarthy play a NES game ( some examples being Mega Man 2, Contra, and Ninja Gaiden) on stage. But they use a special version of the NES ROM that has no music. While Noah plays the game a band behind him plays ALL of the music from game, stage specific tunes and all.
For MAGFest 12 they debuted a new game/music combo: The Legend of Zelda. Now one thing to keep in mind here is that for a music festival a band will typically have a 40 minute set. So here Noah had to use some speedrunning tricks in order to complete the game in that timeframe. So we have a mix of some speedrunning skill (which has gotten more coverage in the mainstream nerd press) along with some most iconic video game music being played live in front of a huge audience. And we captured it all on good quality video.
None of the sites I sent it to bothered to even respond to me, much less report on it. I really wish I knew why they chose not to as I think their audiences would have enjoyed watching it.
What do you do when you get to an event or show?
If I’m doing primarily photo coverage I try to figure out what would make for good spots to shoot from, especially when considering what crowds may show up. I also take into consideration how I’ll have to shoot. To give you some comparison a lot of venues in Austin tend to be dark, so at a minimum I’m usually shooting at ISO 1600 or 3200 with shutter speeds ranging from 1/40 to 1/60 depending on how the stage lighting is.
When it comes to video I’ll typically take a few quick glances to determine what settings I may need for a camera, but then after that I’ll try to have a discussion with whoever is running sound to see if I can get a good mixer recording. As long as you make a point of being out of their way a lot of the time most sound guys are really cool about allowing us to record. Plus it also helps that I tend to bring a lot of my own cables, adapters and splitters so they don’t have to hunt down items to hook up my recorder.
What’s your favorite part of what you do?
I’d say each activity has a different enjoyable aspect.
With photography there’s something about just getting into the thick of everything and just trying to figure out what will make for interesting photos. After a bit I can usually figure out the “vibe” of what’s going on around me and start snapping away.
As for video production, I’ll really like the act of directing (at least when working on a team project like MAGFest). I’m certainly not a micro-managing kind of director, for which I’d bet the people I work with are glad for. I just give them some ideas of things to try for when it comes to shots, but outside of that I give them a lot room to do what they think looks good.
What’s your least favorite?
Organizing the captured material. Trying to sort through 4500+ photos from a five band set or 300+ GBs of video is less than fun. But once I get through that slog I really enjoy the post-production aspects that follow afterwards. So it’s something I have to remind myself of when I’m cursing at myself for taking so many photos and such.
Do you coordinate with someone who will be writing an article? If you do, what’s that process like?
Primarily when it comes to any sort of news type coverage and interviews we go with podcasts as that’s our secondary draw outside of the music itself. Though my current plan is to start writing more articles both on the event experience itself along with the technical aspects on how I do things. Yeah you can read up on tech specs and various tests about certain equipment all day, I’m hoping that providing a ‘real world’ perspective will really help people. Especially those who may want to cover similar scenes in their own towns.
So at the moment most article writing is a solitary venture, but we’re always open to collaborations.
How do you determine what gets covered?
There’s really only two questions we ask
1: Would this be interesting to our audience? 2: Would this be interesting to us?
If we can answer “yes” to both of those questions then we go do it. While we may not initially know a lot about whatever we’re considering coverage of, as long as we show genuine interest in it that can make up for a lot.
For example one subject that’s building more of an audience interest for us is indie wrestling leagues. And it turns out there are a couple of leagues here in Austin. While I know little about wrestling (the last time I had anything to do with it was going to a WWE house show in Cedar Falls, Iowa in 2004) but if the opportunity arises where I can go cover it, I’m down.
I’m totally OK with going outside my comfort zone when it comes to covering stuff.
Is the scene primarily retrogressive? Is it mostly repositioning/remixing/reimagining previous pieces of music or is it taking the sounds and techniques of those pieces and creating something new?
It goes in a few different directions. With regards to VGM there are some bands that do straight covers (or as a friend semi-jokingly refers to it: first wave VGM). But then you have groups who write completely new music about a well known video game subject (The Protomen, Random Encounter), some that take the original music and write lyrics around the storylines (The Megas, MegaRan, Those Who Fight) and then there are those who will take the music and put new stylistic spins on them (Descendants of Erdrick with the prog rock sound, Knight Of The Round with the heavy metal/djent perspective, and Droidekka with the reggae/ska/dub styles).
With chiptunes it’s less about the throwbacks to video games and more about the individual sounds the hardware can make. While some people will be familiar with the tones because of their history (i.e., the 2A03 of the NES, the SID in the Commodore 64) people in the chiptune scene are just treating these systems purely as instruments. If I had to offer an analogs for people to understand it would be like those who want the Roland TB-303 or TR-808 for rhythm patterns that was used in early dance music, or the Yamaha DX-7 keyboard sound that was popular with 80’s New Wave.
What makes your coverage of an event a success or failure in your eyes?
I don’t think we’ve really ever had anything that has come out as an outright failure. We look at our projects in terms of varying levels of success. Even when we do something that we think we did a super awesome job on we always ask ourselves “What can we do better next time?” And I think as long as we always ask ourselves that question we’ll keep pushing 8BitX forward.
Where are you headed with 8BitX and how are you getting there?
I’m going to be a bit odd and answer the How before the Where.
If there’s one thing I will say we’re doing right is that we’re covering these scenes in a way that not very many have done before. And that is only due to the skills of everyone on the 8BitX staff. While some of us have some serious expertise in some areas, without everyone else involved I don’t think we could put out a product with the quality that we have demonstrated so far. As long as we keep that up we will continue contributing.
As for the where: while we’re always pushing for new subjects to cover, I don’t think I have a definitive answer for that just for the sake that I’m not sure what to compare ourselves to. And that’s not to say we’re pushing a new paradigm or something dumb like that. There has to be SOMEBODY who is trying to do the same thing we are. So without some good comparisons it’s hard to use that as a metric.
So I guess I will just leave it at this: as long as we’re covering things that ourselves and our audience are interested in, and we’re putting out a product we can be proud of, we’re heading in the right direction.
How’s the working environment? Are you primarily support to other people’s projects? Do you drive your own projects? Do you have a strict hierarchy or are things looser?
We have a really open environment when it comes to creating material. For example a lot of the music coverage here in Texas is handled primarily by myself. But going back to my Austin indie wrestling leagues references from earlier, while I can get good photo and video material about them I myself can’t really talk to the subject. So that’s where I might reach out to the guys at Roundtable Wrestling Radio or Will Strouse (owner of 8BitX) to inquire about talking to the people in charge for interviews and such.
We are really big about playing off each other strengths. Jack Murphy and I are good about talking to game developers. Will, Jack and the guys at RWR are super knowledgeable about wrestling. Andrew Struve and Brandon Hood are the go-to guys on chiptunes. The Black Tribbles know a lot about comics, TV and movies. And practically all of us are cool with discussing VGM, nerdcore, and retrogaming in general.
So while we’re cool about people doing solo projects, we do have quite a few subject matter experts we can pull in at any time. And I think that’s one of our biggest strengths.
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