Harley Likes Music
Sheffield videogames festival Games Britannia Live takes over Millennium Galleries at the end of this month with a plethora of videogame-ey treats from 3D printing your own Minecraft to driving lessons from Sonic Racing devs Sumo Digital. They’re also putting on an evening of the chippiest chiptunes you’ll find this side of a singing Mr. Potatohead, so In Session is playing away in the leafy environs of one of the city’s hidden treehouses for an In Session with the Nintendo DS dual-wielding headliner Harley Likes Music.
Listening to him talk about his favourite background to a bus journey across the city (the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack) you realise he’s a perfect fit for Games Britannia Live. Throwing shapes and shadows across music and videgames alike, Harley’s looney apocalyptica is like a flying saucer hovering over the seven hills.
We’re Earthbound for the time being though, as we wander the leafy surroundings of host Handspring’s woody creations. Pausing only to re-enact Indiana Jones’ classic machete stunt on one of Handspring’s rope bridges, we dangled our feet over the edge of the city for a chat. Bit first, here’s Harley…
Exposed – So we’re in magnificent leafy surroundings here. Did you ever used to play in woods or owt when you were mini Harley Likes Music?
Harley – I used to be outside all the time as a kid. Me and my friends used to make dens in this little area of trees near where I used to live. Other people used to go in them too though so we made traps. They never worked.
Did you have any favourite games when you were a kid playing the woods or playground? What were you good at, what were you bad at?
We used adapt a videogame actually! We played a woodland version of Dragon Ball Z, which involved each picking a character to play then pretending to fly around and fight each other. Battles used to go on for days just like in the TV series when they’d last for ten episodes!
That sounds pretty epic. Has playing socially as a kid influenced your adult music making?
Yeah, I think so. I used to go to a lot of outdoor camping hippie type festivals with my dad so I was always getting introduced to new things and meeting new people I guess that could be why I do things a bit differently now. I love going on little adventures. that’s when inspiration usually hits me.
So a Harley Likes Music performance sees you playing a virtual instrument in the form of a videogame software, DS-10. Do the boundaries between music and games get quite blurred?
Well because I’m doing live electronics I often get gigs with bands. That goes down well cos it’s something the bands haven’t seen before. But because of the electronics side I’ve also played with DJs so that means I have do things like figuring out ways to mix from the last track. If I’ve got a long enough cable I’ve been known to walk onto the dancefloor though!
Well that’s pretty rock and roll. But you’ve also played at lots of videogame festivals haven’t you?
I’ve done the last two years at Superbyte – a chiptunes festival in Manchester. I played at the opening party for a chiptunes festival in Tokyo called Squaresounds. And this year I got booked to go over and play at Squaresounds Melbourne – headlining on the first day.
How did you wind up doing this line of work Harley?
First instrument I picked up was a guitar. Me and a group of friends that all lived on the same road started making songs as a band. That was fun – a bit of a messabout – but as time went on I could never find the right people to write and work with.
Were you playing videogames by this point?
I was! There’s certain games I get obsessed with. I was playing a lot of Final Fantasy VII and Grandia at this time. So I thought I’d start making electronic music. Cos then I can make whatever I want and rely on myself to do stuff. That was about five years ago now. I got my laptop, downloaded some software, then I got a DS, which I bought for the Korg DS-10 software. I just thought it would be cool to mess about with and maybe sample some stuff. It just escalated out of control from there, really!
I wanted to look at how game and non-game music fits with your stuff. There’s this apocalyptic sense to your music. It’s like The War of The Worlds at 180bpm. Guys I Got This sounds like a lost Bemani tune.
A mate suggested it would be good for Stepmania.
So Mr.Likes Music. What are you doing for us here at In Session this month?
You’re getting an eight to ten minute set. An example of what I do live really. I’m gonna get one of my circuit bent toys involved too, which I don’t too often do live. So it’s a bit of an experiment for me as well I guess!
Can we get a quick diversion to explain what a circuit bent toy is?
It’s when you take a children’s toy – usually – that makes noises. You open it up, make short circuits and alter the circuits in various different ways to make crazy sounds!
Is ‘crazy sounds’ an important part of the definition there?
It’s crazy sounds for crazy people. No-one in their right mind would use it.
You’ve talked about how Final Fantasy VII is probably your favourite soundtrack but what games themselves have inspired you?
Well Fallout’s a big inspiration for (‘War of the Worlds’ at 200bpm concept album) The Sixth Extinction. When that came out I was obsessed with it! A lot of my music is quite heavy and Fallout has a kind brutal apocalyptic feel to it I like.
You did a track-by-track on The Sixth Extinction which I thought was interesting because it didn’t mention characters apart from one straggling dude who (spoilers!) dies almost immediately. There’s this broad sweep to your music where you seem to be generally viewing events from a distance. Do you play strategy games?
I don’t play them so much now but I used to play Age of Empires and Empire Earth when I was younger. I really liked the idea of building a civilisation – on Empire Earth for example you start off on the Stone Age and you go right through to modern day then the Nano Age where you’re building robots and things! I really like the survival theme in games –
But you generally seem to be on the side of the system that’s trying to smash puny humans…!
[laughs] Yeah… There’s one track on The Sixth Extinction called The Greater Good where aliens come down to earth and tell humans they’ve got to sort themselves out or they’ve gotta go…
Virtual musicians is very 21st century. Reminds me of those people that could play Guitar Hero but couldn’t play an actual guitar. Could you play an actual Korg NS-10 (the machine Harley’s software emulates) if I put one in front of you?
I’ve used them briefly in shops! I’d be able to recreate sounds I’ve made with DS-10, aye. I could load up a sound I’d make. Same setup as where you’ve got a subtractive synth with a modular section to it. The NS-10’s similar – you’ve got one section with your dials and knobs and another part which sits on top and allows you to patch things in like a modular synth. One day I’ll have my own hopefully.
Just to make things even more confusing you’ve got real models of virtual characters from games. I recognise Vault Boy from Fallout. Is this chap from Final Fantasy?
It’s Cloudstrife from FFVII! I got him from Japan. His sword is bigger than that in – well not real life, but – [A brief look of existential horror crosses Harley’s face as he struggles to work out where he is]
Readers, Harley’s doing an impression of someone lost in a virtual world right now…
I am stuck in a land of buster swords.
What’s the insane meme art for [latest single] ‘Guys, I Got This’ from?
It’s this place we went to in Tokyo called the Robot Restaurant. You go in, you have a meal and there’s this show with all these robots going on. Crowd flanking either side of this show in the middle.
Was it like being in the future?
Mate, it was like the future of the future! And as we’re waiting to go in there’s all these photos of people posing with the robots.
It sounds a bit like Robot Wars…
There’s this wall of people who’ve previously been here and this photo just stood out and we wound up making loads of meme images for this guy.
There’s mileage here. Have you considered making songs of other memes, like the Patrick Stewart Facepalm? Or Sean Bean’s ‘One Does Not Simply…’
I should make an EP based on memes and their adventures! I actually had a loose story based on the ‘Guys, I got this’ guy as well. He’s flying round in this robot doing stuff, the world explodes at some point…
As it tends to in your music!
That is a theme, yeah!