It’s certainly a little like working towards the future, using elements of your past.
Innovation is a fetish of our era. The Valley is so lousy with game-changing novelties that we’ve even had to create creative disruption just to clear shelf space for all the awesome things we’re about to invent.
This was not always so. In the Renaissance, thought leaders were skeptical of our capacity to innovate anything from scratch: After all, it was God’s universe; we were just living in it. Though we have since muddled the distinction, these guys spoke enough Latin to know that inventio means not “creation,” but “discovery.” Denied the divine power to make something out of nothing, the best we mortals could do was invent—to discover what already existed and remix and repurpose it to our will.
Which brings us to present-day San Juan Bautista, the tiny mission town on the southernmost edge of the Bay Area, and to 22-year-old Pedro Silva, who, for the past three years has been playing and recording as Slime Girls.
One of a growing number of “chiptune” artists, Silva uses software hacks to transform his vintage Gameboy into a sequencer-synthesizer, on which he composes and plays original songs. It’s a 21st Century expression of seriously old-school invention.
“You’re re-appropriating hardware that was never meant to do quite what I and other musicians are doing,” Silva explains, “and that is always exciting.”
Drawing on an 8-bit rainbow of inspiration, Silva’s songs are at once uncannily familiar yet fresh. “I love anime, comics, movies, TV, video games, and everything 80s—especially everything Japanese. I’m a huge nerd when it comes to all of this.”
This style of genetically resequenced low-fi music has been around since the turn of the millennium. In 2007, it got a mainstream bump—and an NPR mention—with 8-Bit Operators: The Music of Kraftwerk, a tribute to the grandfathers of electronic pop, reproduced on classic Nintendos, Ataris, and Commodore 64s.
It is no accident that chiptune would confront its own foundation. With its cheeky exuberance and back-to-basics ethos, you could call it a primitivist reaction against electronica’s 40-year push for ever-sleeker technology. You might even call it electronica’s punk moment. Silva certainly thinks so.
“As far as the technical limitations, they are inspiring, and it is a very digital punk rock idea to take these raw sounds and make music.”
Think “Donkey Kong soundtrack” and the word “punk” might not immediately follow—but the connection is not in sound but intent.
“During high school I would go up to San Francisco or San Jose and see punk bands,” Silva recalls. Captured by new takes on old forms—rockabilly, surf, new wave—he was also galvanized by the ferociously independent spirit that endured in the underground music scene.
“[These experiences] spearheaded my desire to create my own music with total energetic earnestness and no compromises. Everything I was inspired by during that period has carried over to Slime Girls.”
Silva dabbled with guitar and synthesizer, but it was chiptune that resonated most with his DIY sensibility and his broader affection for digital culture. (He hasn’t given up on analog, though. Silva plays in a wedding cover band—for reals—and Thee Joan Wylder, a ska ensemble rooted more in 60s Jamaica than 90s Orange County.)
In chiptune mode, Silva sees himself less of a mad programmer than an alchemist of moods and textures. “While I’d certainly call myself tech savvy at the very least, Slime Girls is much more about the emotions and story behind the songs. The technology aspect comes much later.”
There is another appeal, which goes back to when an eight-year-old Silva listened obsessively to the Legend of Zelda on his Walkman: “It’s the sound palette…Mostly the sound palette.”
And a distinctive palette it is. Whether you were a preadolescent Pokémaniac or a high-era slacker—for anyone who spent quality time on a Gameboy, the telltale bleeps cannot be separated from a magic 2-D world where flowers dance and cartoon characters leap on clouds and shoot stars from their hands.
Undeniably, then, there’s a saccharine core to the Slime Girls’ EP, Vacation Wasteland. Guitars and drums give it edge and depth, as does ample genre bending. Several tracks have a goofy 90s energy that evokes Weezer, others border on anthemic rock or dancehall reggae, while “Time Travel Lament” somehow attains BadtzMaru levels of dysphoria. The standout is a riff on 80s synthpop, a terrific dance number called “Summer Is Gone.”
“I find it really fun to come up with ways to combine my influences,” says Silva. “There’s not much chiptune ska or chiptune surf.”
Unlike retro bands that try to clone long dead musical species, Slime Girls jumbles together eclectic parts to breed strange new beasts, chimeras unknown to zoology.
That’s a type of invention even Petrarch could approve.