Artist Interview: Techno Mage

Hey friends! You may have heard featured on the show in previous weeks a certain synthwave-y, chiptune-y, metal-y fusion project known as “Techno Mage“. Today, I am extremely honored to present to you an email interview I conducted with the artist behind the project! I will say I did not expect anywhere near as much detail and insight as the answers below provide, so this is quite a special interview for me. A big thanks to TM for working with me on this and I can’t wait to hear more in 2019!

I highly recommend reading this alongside the full release of Rizer, conveniently located right here.

And if you’d like to further support the project, make sure to check out TM’s Patreon page right over here!

 

LAG: First off, what is the history of the project and how did you come to settle on this chip-metal-synth sound?
Techno Mage: Over the last decade, I’ve found myself involved in a handful of (relatively unknown) bands. Techno Mage is more or less the next stage of my musical journey. It takes a lot of the sounds that I’ve been working with across those various projects and tries to do something new and interesting with all those pieces. I’ve always felt that music is about trying to answer the question of: “how do you take existing, well-defined components and use them to craft something unique?” Each project has essentially been an exercise or a study to find my own creative voice. For me, Techno Mage represents a stage in that quest for self-discovery where that voice became most clear. I feel like I have something I want to say and that it’s worth sharing.

More to the second half of the question, the aesthetics of Techno Mage solidified during the early stages of the project—which would be about two years ago. I started out wanting to explore the synthwave sound since a lot of the artists under that umbrella were really inspiring to me at the time. Most of my early experiments echoed those influencers but I wasn’t content to just emulate that style. I found myself hungry to weave in chiptune since I was becoming more familiar with tools like Famitracker. In my previous project, chiptune bore a direct correlation to the subject matter of the lyrics and I wanted that level of thematic depth for Techno Mage. “Circuit Bender” was the first song where I started to feel like I knew where I wanted the project to go. “Cyber Samurai” hammered the nail in further and “Rizer” is where the hammer hit wood so to speak. By that point, I knew the narrative I was drawing from, the voice that was speaking, and the musical elements that needed to be present to support those ideas.

This could just be my own perception, but it seems like synth music and chiptune are often regarded as gimmicky or shallow genres. Personally, I believe they have much deeper significance than that. They are genres that celebrate what was and tries to use that to talk about what’s going on right now. It’s a lot like cyberpunk which uses familiar concepts to talk about the world under a unique lens. Cyberpunk asks lots of questions and leaves the answers ambiguous. It puts the ownership on the audience to arrive at their own conclusions. The comparatively dated aesthetics of synth music and chiptune represent something similar for me. It’s about a unique way of tackling your day-to-day existence. It’s acknowledging that there are easier, more streamlined ways of navigating life but insisting that the process, the journey, and the challenges are what is important.

In terms of how the metal elements crept into Techno Mage, I had originally toyed around with using lots of live instruments like saxophone but nothing seemed to be as inherently necessary as electric guitar. I felt like the underlying narrative of Techno Mage would fall flat without the explosive force of electric guitar. The challenge then became finding a skilled session musician that could bring my ideas to life so that the guitar could embolden the music rather than work against what I was trying to do. I was lucky enough to find that talent in Austin Schuyler who helped elevate the music to levels I hadn’t even dreamed of.

LAGI know many artists describe the process of creating chiptune as quite laborious and time-intensive, depending on the method used. How do you feel Famitracker or other trackers you’ve used fit into that?
TM: “Laborious” is a good word for it. Trackers weren’t really designed with shortcuts in mind.  They can definitely feel a little strange when you’re used to the flow of other software like a DAW. For example, I came from a place where I was very comfortable working with MIDI in a piano roll. As a result, transitioning into a space where suddenly everything is represented with hexadecimal values and flows from top-to-bottom was a bit jarring. However, I think that most skills can be learned or taught—even if it’s not something you have a natural talent for. You absolutely have to care about acquiring that skill, though. It’s something you just have to spend time with—good, quality time where you are allowing yourself to get frustrated, make new discoveries, and learn from others. The knowledge gained from that experience can be so enriching because there’s so much to learn about the behavior of sound on a fundamental level. It really frames the challenges faced by yesteryear’s composers and sound programmers in an awe-inspiring light.

Perhaps what I love most about working with trackers, though, is how dynamic each voice can be. There are so many effects you can use to empower each instrument with their own character. It’s amazing how subtle adjustments can impact the entire soundscape in such pervasive ways. Stumbling across a new trick—whether organically or by the good grace of the ever-knowledgeable chiptune community—can feel like beating the last boss on hard mode. That sense of achievement is really rewarding and serves as testament to the time spent in getting there.

LAG: If I’m not mistaken, “Techno Mage” comes from a previous project of yours. What’s the significance of this name and how does it relate to the sounds you craft?
TM: The name Techno Mage sort of happened by accident. When I first found myself using that name, I never would have thought it would evolve into what it has become today. Not having grown up with either franchise, I had no clue that Babylon 5 and Dungeons & Dragons were already making use of the name (but I was delighted to learn this later in life). At one point, I was involved in a very goofy and very experimental band where basically nothing was off-limits and anything was fair game. During that project, my bandmate and I adopted larger-than-life personas that fluidly adapted to whatever the music needed. That project sort of overlapped into the next—which was much more focused and refined—and I continued to use that name as a pseudo persona. Around that time, I found myself involved in a metalworking course.  I had been tasked with a 10-week assignment and I somehow got it in my head that I wanted to make a life-size, wearable mask out of copper. As I labored with the unforgiving medium of metal and tried to inject it with my own personal flavor, I had lots of time to think about the significance of the piece. Eventually, I decided that the mask belongs to a character which represents the sum of my parts—a sort of muse that affects all the decisions I make as an artist. As you can probably guess, that character became Techno Mage which would later serve as the foundation for the music I would write years later.

In its modern iteration, the name of Techno Mage is now a direct reference to the titular character. The music is constructed around his perception and experiences. By extension, the setting and narrative are directly related. They are entwined with the instrumentation and composition and both influence one another equally. The music helps to establish the narrative and the narrative informs the substance of the music. Every piece teaches me something new about the universe and cements that symbiosis further.

LAG: Do you have any major influences and what initially attracted you to them?
TM: I’ve always loved the music of video games—especially older games. People like Tim Folin and Alexander Brandon were absolute masters of their craft.  They combined creative and technical disciplines in fantastic ways to create memorable, melody-driven music. The music from games like Castlevania could easily stand on its own with all its nuance and substance fully intact. You could shut off the game and still be humming its tunes days later. It seems like modern game music has largely shifted away from this style. Personally, I like music that draws attention to itself. I like music that grabs you and doesn’t let go. Whenever bands or artists are able to do this with their own work, I’m way more likely to take notice. As a result, it’s important to me that I make a concerted effort do the same with my own music.
LAG: I think you’re onto something when it comes to video game music of old versus what we currently hear. Many of the AAA-title soundtracks utilize dozens of musicians in orchestra fashion and make some beautiful music, but to me it doesn’t seem quite as memorable as, say, Castlevania, like you mentioned. In fact, it reminds me a lot of modern film soundtracks. Why do you think there’s been that shift?
TM: There seems to be a big push in modern game soundtracks to blur the lines between the physical senses so that the player can be drawn deep into the experience. From a conceptual level, it’s amazing that the people behind these games are able to craft a game that elicits that kind of immersion. With everything so neatly stitched together, it pulls attention away from the individual parts and invites the audience to engage with the work on a larger scale.  It doesn’t call particular attention to any one element. Instead, it becomes more about the world and the player’s fluid experience in that world.

While older games certainly strived for immersion, there weren’t nearly as many avenues to grab the player in the same way. Because of this, developers and designers had to pull out all the stops in order to build a believable world. For example, there are countless Atari game manuals filled with elaborate backstories and gorgeous, full-color illustrations that evoke a fully-realized universe. Music took a similar cue, placing a huge emphasis placed on melody. In a way, the raw aesthetics of each waveform acts almost like a storyteller.

Composers faced another problem, though: it had to fit on whatever the physical media would allow. This posed the ever-present challenge of creating music that was relatively brief but could be listened to on loop for hours at a time while still remaining interesting. There was a very real and valid concern over how to balance efficiency with character. The people that found themselves in these environments had to marry disparate disciplines in order to produce something compelling. All of this pools into something really special and unique.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a matter of priorities, though. Composers and sound programmers back then had very different concerns than people working with game audio today. From a technological standpoint, the tools have changed a lot over the past few decades. Just like cell phones and social media have shaped the way that younger generations are now interacting with the world, music tools have evolved in ways that fundamentally affect how composers are approaching their craft. Gone are the days where you have to cram everything into just a few channels. Now, with virtually an infinite number of channels, the sonic possibilities are limitless. Depending on who you ask, the idea of “limitless possibility” can be good or bad. As for myself, I think there’s a lot of value in both ideologies, but I strongly subscribe to the notion that the greatest constraint is absolute freedom.

LAG: Take us through some of the steps for you in the music composition process. Is there an order you generally start (e.g., melody first, percussion later)?
TM: The process can vary pretty wildly from song to song. Sometimes, I’ll be humming a melody in the car and will break out a voice recorder so I can build on the idea later. Other times, I’ll stew on an idea for a while before I dive in and block out big shapes. Then I’ll work through them like a painting—building more and more detail on top of the existing shapes. By and large, though, my process starts by trying to identify what I want to do with the song. Usually this is related to melody but not always. Once I’ve written the most important pieces, I’ll go back and make sure they support the original premise. Next, I usually bulk up the work by adding other voices into the melting pot. After a quick mix, I’ll usually hop over into a tracker from my DAW and start transcribing some of the major pieces into more hardware-accurate chiptunes. Usually, I gravitate toward the 2A03 sound chip but I’ll occasionally shake things up by dipping into other chips. This is one of the more time-consuming parts of writing for me (but also one of the most enjoyable). Once I feel happy with the chiptune tracks, I’ll bring them back into DAW and tighten up the mix. From here, I’ll often focus on the electric guitar—which gets a similar treatment to the chiptune elements. After tracking, cleaning up the bed tracks, and dialing in the tone, I bring it back into the mix and fine-tune it in the context of the other voices. Finally, I’ll spend the weeks following crafting the final mix—tweaking EQ, reverb, and so on—until I’m content. Then it’s off to the mastering engineer.
LAG: For someone looking to get into chiptune production in particular, do you have any tips for how they should approach selecting a DAW, tracker, sound chip, etc.?
TM: I think the most important question to tackle is: “what about chiptune do you find compelling?” Whether it’s the aesthetics, the challenge, or something else, I think it’s important to arrive at this answer as it can shape your creative process and your relationship with your music. In a lot of ways, the software you select is beside the point (obviously this is not necessarily the case if you are fanatic about a particular sound chip). You can achieve similar results with a wide variety of tools. However, it’s worth noting that some tools cater very specifically to certain workflows. For example, Pro Tools is great for tracking and working directly with recorded audio. For some styles of music, this is a godsend.  For others, it may not provide the right amount of versatility. Trackers are no different than DAWs in this way. My advice would be to be cognizant. Spend time with a variety of programs and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. There’s no right answer—only personal preference and what makes the most sense to you.
LAG: There is obviously a concept and overarching story to Rizer, based on track names, sounds, and overall feel. I think I’ve heard mention of a comic book series in the works too. Can you share any details on that yet?
TM: After the release of Rizer, Melissa Butler and I began to talk about working on a comic series to supplement the music. These talks stemmed mostly from a collective desire to expand on the story of Techno Mage, tap into some of our pre-existing (but largely unused) skills, and branch into tangentially related audiences. We thought it would be amazing to have an exhibit at Comic-Con with two stacks on our table—music on one side, comics on the other. Having the opportunity to introduce fans of one media to another is a really exciting prospect for us. If, for example, someone who enjoys the music stumbled into the comic series at a convention and gave it an honest chance only to find themselves falling down the rabbit hole of a new hobby, we would be elated to be a participant in that whole process.

At present, we intend to be the only people working on the comic with myself as the primary writer and Melissa providing art, coloring and lettering. The story will draw heavily from sci-fi/cyberpunk motifs and focus predominantly on the Techno Mage character as he is thrust into an unfamiliar world. The art will likely be in mixed media and be a calculated fusion of expressive and illustrative styles. We’re still in the extremely early stages of this project so I can’t share too much at this point, but we hope to make a lot of progress on the first issue this year. The bulk of the updates will show up on Patreon, but a few big milestones will likely get coverage on the main social media platforms.

LAG: How do you feel about the current landscape of modern independent music? That is, how do you feel about Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and social media outlets in promoting your project?
TM: For the most part, I think it’s an exciting time to be making music. I say this because the tools and platforms that are currently available to independent artists didn’t exist decades ago and it was virtually impossible to claw through the ranks. On top of having to sink huge amounts of money into gear, recording, and production, artists would have to earn the favor of the record labels if they wanted to do anything outside of playing bar gigs in their hometown on the weekend. These days, getting your music heard isn’t nearly as difficult or expensive. It’s easier to get your music in the hands of people who are looking for it. The caveat, though, is that an artist will often need to learn an arsenal of new skills. In the past, a musician could be just that—someone who is focused exclusively on writing and performing music. Now, if you’re an independent artist trying to make a name for yourself, you could easily find yourself acting as your own booking agent, lawyer, producer, and mastering engineer. While I think the pros outweigh the cons, it’s hard to ignore the strain that these added responsibilities can have on the creative process.

Aside from this, the biggest difference between then and now is that we’re living in a streaming age. People seem to be buying music less—especially physical media. This is both good and bad. The good part is that it’s no longer about how many CDs you sell. It’s about how many people are listening. The challenge becomes: “how do you turn a casual listener into a hardcore fan?” These are the kinds of challenges that artists should want to face. Without trying to oversimplify things, the answer to that challenge is to make good music—which, at the end of the day, is what every artist wants to do anyway. The downside to the streaming model is that it can be really difficult to stand out in an ocean of talented people who are trying just as hard as you to reach their prospective audiences. For every challenge that the modern artist faces, though, I think there are an equal number of opportunities and I’m excited about the lasting implications of what this means for music as a whole.

LAG: People are definitely buying less physical media, though I for one am quite glad there’s been a resurgence of interest in vinyl in the past couple years. Do you see Techno Mage releasing any physical media with future releases? (Please say vinyl!)
TM: I’m somewhat of a die-hard when it comes to physical media. I love being able to tangibly interact with things. I like lending and borrowing music among friends. I like being able to resell a game if it doesn’t strike a chord or keep it forever if it ends up being my favorite. I like being able to meticulously pour through manuals and booklets looking for easter eggs. I like seeing the artwork, reading the instructions, the lyrics, and even the credits. For this reason, I am also thrilled to see a growing interest in physical media where music is concerned. More to your question, though, I knew long before I started working on Rizer that I would want to release the music in a physical format. I’m very pleased to say that I do plan on releasing Rizer on CD and vinyl. I can’t say when exactly, but it’s one of the next big milestones for Techno Mage so you can expect to see some movement on this in the near future.
LAG: What are some of the difficulties you encounter with Techno Mage? How do you overcome them?
TM: Unfortunately, the biggest challenge I face with Techno Mage is finding the time to work on the project. As the project is still in its infancy, I can’t rely on it to sustain myself yet. All the other facets of life fight for priority and it can be a difficult juggling act. However, I have found that a perceived lack of time can often be a matter of perspective. It’s often a question of how resources are being allocated. If I feel like I don’t have enough time to do something, it may just be that I need to spend less time doing something else. I’ve found it helpful to schedule time for myself during which I can focus exclusively on Techno Mage. It forces me to structure certain days around that time and allows me to dedicate all my energy to the task at hand—rather than trying to sprinkle it between other things throughout the week. It’s my fond hope that as the project grows, those blocks of time grow ever larger and I am able to pour more energy into my music so that I can give it the attention I feel it deserves.
LAG: Beyond the comic series, what else is on the horizon for you? Can we expect a Techno Mage live act at maybe a future MAGFest/MAGWest/similar gathering for chip-enthusiasts?
Live performance is something I am very interested in pursuing and appearing at something like MAGFest would be awesome. In fact, I desperately hope that the project is in a place where it could appear at next year’s MAGFest. There are a lot of things to sort out before I can make that a reality, though, so I’m trying to be realistic. At this point, I wouldn’t say performance is off the table for the foreseeable future, but I can’t confidently staple it down to a time frame yet.
LAG: Any words in parting to your fanbase, both existing and blossoming?
TM: I’d like to extend the largest thanks that I can muster. Knowing that I’ve impacted anyone at all is so humbling and having a genuine fan is even more gratifying still. I am so happy that the music of Techno Mage has been received as positively as it has and I owe it entirely to the folks that have willingly sought me out and stood by me. I’d also like to thank you for having me on the show. It’s been a real pleasure!

 

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