In Conversation with I Fight Dragons

Ask I Fight Dragons lead vocalist/guitarist Brian Mazzaferri to describe his band’s sound and you’ll likely hear an explanation of an underground internet meme scene known as Chiptune. More on just what that is later.

You can start to get an idea of the how eclectic this band is by taking a solid chunk of pop-punk, mixing it with some old-school NES, Commodore 64 and Atari tones, and then throwing in lyrical references to everything from sci-fi pop culture to youthful idealism. If you’re skeptical, know that in just over a year this Chicago-based band has amassed a legion of fans, headlined legendary rock venue The Metro, and recently signed to Atlantic Records. 

Mazzaferri took some time out from touring and working on I Fight Dragons’ debut full-length album to take some questions. In our discussion, we cover the band’s unexpected beginnings, connecting with fans over the internet, and of course, the geeky gadgetry behind their music.

Bill Welense of Across the Line: For those that aren’t familiar with I Fight Dragons, I describe your music as pop-punk with a Gameboy synth or “Nintendo-core.” That said, let’s start off with the obvious question: How on Earth did you guys get into making music out of Nintendo sounds? What do you even call the genre?
Brian Mazzaferri of I Fight Dragons: It’s a good question. We’ve gone back a forth a lot, originally we called it NES-Rock or Nintendo-Rock, but we’ve been trying to refine it for a while. Usually we say Chiptune Pop Rock these days. Actually there is a whole scene of folks using old video game soundcards to make new music, the scene as a whole is called Chiptune. It’s a really cool way to make music, mostly on old Game Boys, but some Nintendos and Ataris and Commodore 64s as well.

As for how we started, it was sort of an accident. I was working with Bill (Prokopow, IFD’s keyboardist) for the first time on a demo of “Heads Up, Hearts Down” and on a lark I asked if we could make an intro that sounded like the song coming out of a nintendo. We mocked it up and were so pleased with it that I started looking into it further and discovered the Chiptune scene. From there I was hooked.

BW: You’ve been very successful in promoting your band through the internet, doing things like hosting live chats with fans and personally replying to them on Twitter. How did you learn to connect with fans so well? What are some tips you recommend for other bands?
BM: Well, our biggest mentor was Leah Jones of Natiiv arts and media. She knows a lot about social media and we did a session with her very early on. But mostly I feel like it’s just about being a real person and putting yourself out there. As you start to grow it gets harder and harder to be able to keep one-on-one interactions, but especially in the beginning it’s really rewarding to get to have such a direct relationship with fans.

BW: You recently signed to Atlantic Records and have remained incredibly open and communicative with fans throughout the process. This seems like a departure from the closed system, old-media model of the music business. Now that IFD is a full-time focus for you, what can fans expect?
BM:Well, the biggest thing we’re working on is our full-length album. We’ve done a lot of preproduction on it, and we’ll be hitting the studio this summer, hopefully for a fall release. From there we have a massive new expansive website planned, and a whole lot of crazy shit that hopefully will blow people’s minds :)

BW: Let’s get into the nerdy side of things. What gear do you use to create the Nintendo-esque chirp sounds in your music? And how do you juggle all of the chirps and bleeps in your song writing process?
BM: Well the hardware we use to create is mostly a Game Boy running a cartridge called Little Sound DJ (LSDJ) and a Nintendo with a cartridge called a MidiNES that lets us access the soundcard through midi. As far as software we use a plugin called Chipsounds both for composition purposes and to emulate some of the chips we don’t own yet like the Atari and the Commodore 64. Then in the live setting, we use Retroports to convert NES controllers into USB controllers, then a program called junXion to map the notes onto the controllers buttons, to trigger all of the sounds on the fly.

BW: To that end, how do you translate all of that technology to a live performance that you can take on tour? You must have encountered challenges on the road; I can’t imagine a sound tech being familiar with connecting a Power Glove to the mixing board.
BM: It can be really tough, mostly because dealing with 25 year old technology can be fritzy. Honestly though we’ve consolidated a lot of it so that the chiptune all runs through Bill’s control center, so there’s only one mix that we’re sending to the sound guys. As I said before we have a lot of hardware that extends the playing of the chiptune out onto controllers like the Power Glove, Power Pad, NES, etc.

BW: Lastly, it seems to me like it would be challenging to be taken seriously as musicians when people find out you have superhero aliases and play on-stage with Nintendo gear. What sort of challenges have you faced in establishing yourselves as a serious, hardworking band? How have you approached the inevitable problem of people labeling your unique creativity as a gimmick?
BM: It’s a continuing challenge honestly. I feel like as long as we’re always honest with ourselves and are making music that we love and have fun making, we’ll be ok. People will always say you suck, no matter what you do, it’s just the sad nature of life and humans, so I feel like in the end the important thing is whether or not we like what we’re doing. And we all love what we do!

I’d like to give a huge thank you to Brian for taking the time to answer my questions and to the band’s management at Atlantic Records for setting things up. 

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