Chipzel is the alias of Niamh Houston, an independent Northern Irish chip-musician who indulges in the use of Gameboys to create energetic, melodic dance tracks. Through taking the original 8-bit sound and manipulating it into something frantically hard-hitting, Chipzel has seen crowds of all ages turn to “raving loons”, taken right back to their days of retro gaming.
Her new EP is the soundtrack to hit indie iOS game Super Hexagon.
How long have you been making music, and what drew you to chiptune as a genre in the first place?
I started attempting to make music when I was around twelve to thirteen, on guitar and piano, but without any music theory, or knowledge of writing. What drew me to chiptune, first off, was the sound of it. I started listening to it and became obsessed. Once I got myself set up I would just sit all day making melodies and random sounds and that's what kept me with it. It was a way of writing music, without any pressure to perform to a certain level or skill, but instead do your own thing and just enjoy it.
How did you doing the Super Hexagon soundtrack come about?
Terry got in contact with me about using "Courtesy" for the Flash version he'd made of Hexagon. I was hooked on it, trying get past my best score of like, five seconds haha! He then asked about using a couple of the songs for a more in-depth version of the game, which I couldn't pass up. So we got everything sorted over a few months and it's worked out amazingly. I can't thank him enough for letting me be involved.
You play at festivals surrounded by kids going absolutely mental for your set, other people walking by with confused looks on their faces – do you think chiptune is only ever going to appeal to that generation who grew up listening to the originals, or can anyone get into it?
Haha I wouldn't have noticed, I'm usually jumping around like an idiot as well. It may not be everyone's cup of tea but it varies to be honest, there's the younger generation who may have never heard of 8bit before, and see it as a weird new version of dance music, but then there's also the older generation, who feel the nostalgia of their gaming days. Chiptune originated from the demoscene, which was to do with hacking into old computer systems, so a lot of the artists and fans in chiptune have been around since then as well.
What other chiptune acts do you rate?
Way too many! There's Sabrepulse, Henry Homesweet, Fighter X, anyone from the 8BitPeoples label, Anamanaguchi, Skip Cloud, cTrix and plenty more. I'd definitely recommend people to have a look into the genre, if they like the 8-bit sound.
Do you have a fave game soundtrack? How much gaming would you say you do?
Oh god, I game far too much, especially for a girl haha! I love the Chrono Trigger soundtrack, especially the Guardia Castle theme. I'm also obsessed with The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion soundtrack, which isn't 8-bit but still fantastic. I could listen to that all day. I also recently started playing World of Warcraft, which was probably a terrible idea. You may not hear from me for a long time haha!
With today’s software it’s relatively easy to create the semblance of the chiptune sound, but you still use the original gear e.g. Gameboys with Nanoloop & LSDJ, and many chiptune artists swear this is the only way to do it - do you think it’s important to stay ‘true’ in this way, or are you open to using more modern software/hardware in your music?
It's something I've thought a lot about to be honest. I love LSDJ, because you work with limitations in what you can create, so it pushes you to always improve and exceed those boundaries. Whereas, with music software, there's a lot more space available to make whatever you want, which can be daunting in comparison. I enjoy the original 8-bit sound too much to stray away from it completely, but little additions can make the difference to the production of a track so I imagine I'll experiment with it further and see how it goes.
What was playing BlipFest like last year? Are there any equivalent events where people could see you perform in the UK/Ireland?
Amazing! BlipFest is home from home. Such an amazing community of people who always put on a great show and it was incredible to be a part of it. It's actually heartbreaking that they won't be able to continue it anymore. The UK/Ireland is looking very promising at the minute though. In Liverpool, where I am, there's ChipFest which is run every year, the Megabyte guys in Manchester, who just put together a fantastic show called Superbyte, 8 Bit Nights in Glasgow and Gamepak, back home, in Dublin.
Can you briefly talk us through your setup? Do you have any special stuff for playing live? Any fave bits of kit?
I use two Gameboys, the big brick ones from the ‘90s, along with LSDJ and mixer. It's very much like a DJ setup, but with two Gameboys instead of turntables.
Can you recommend any good places/sites to go for anyone looking to dabble in a bit of chip themselves?
Yeah there are quite a few, since 8bc shut down. There's Noise Channel, 8bit Peoples, True Chip Til Death and quite a few others. Definitely worth checking out a few for anyone interested in the genre.
More and more artists are learning that syncing (licensing their music to TV shows, adverts, films and the like) is a good and profitable way to reach new fans. Are you experiencing this now, and would you consider licensing your music further?
Yeah, it's definitely a great way to promote music. I would love to write music for games for a living, as it ties in everything I've already been doing nicely. So far, it's just been a really fun hobby and a way of meeting new and exciting people.
Where can people find/download your music?
All my official releases can be found at chipzelmusic.bandcamp.com. You can also follow me on twitter @chipzel, for future updates on the music and hilarious pictures and videos of my cat haha
Finally, what’s your best time on Super Hexagon?
Forty-two seconds on the first level (fist pumps)
So endeth the interview! Thanks to Niamh for answering our probing questions!