If the name Awkward Terrible rings a bell, you probably recognize it from its normal place near the bottom of local show flyers and beneath a band or two on Facebook event listings. That should in no way suggest the Milwaukee trio is bad. In fact, they’re actually quite good. However, the band reaches a very specific audience. Instead of a guitar or keyboard, vocalist Chris Kowall blankets the rhythm section—bass player Sam Gehrke and drummer/vocalist Sam Sieger—with a thick layer of 8-bit and 16-bit noise with his uncommon instruments: A modified Game Boy and Nintendo, along with a Commodore 64 outfitted with synth cartridges.
While the city’s premiere “chiptune” band and its symphony of obsolete technology sometimes seems like a strange fit on shows at traditional Milwaukee venues, once a year, Awkward Terrible feels right at home. For the second consecutive year, the tech-rock trio will play for fellow gamers in Brookfield a Midwest Gaming Classic musical guest. Before they take to the vendor tent on Saturday afternoon (which is essentially headlining by convention standards), the members told Milwaukee Record about chiptune, discussed last year’s MGC, and laid out their plans for the rest of 2015.
Milwaukee Record: You played Midwest Gaming Classic last year. It was their first year doing music, but this year the lineup is larger and it seems like there’s a focus on highlighting the musical portion, with ABOG Podcast finding the bands.
Sam Gehrke: I’ve worked with Joel a few times. His podcast does both video games and talk about music, so I’ve worked with him in the past with Soul Low and Antler House, whose music I helped put out in the past. And he said, “Hey if you have any bands you think might be good for this, let me know.” I was like, “I have a Game Boy band that played last year!”
MR: So that’s how you’d classify yourselves, as a Game Boy band?
Sam Sieger: It’s called “chiptune.” It uses 8-bit or 16-bit sounds. All describes in what you’re using to make the music, so it can sound like anything, but it’s all kind of lumped into this one genre.
Chris Kowall: And it varies because there’s a basic effect culture of just a dude and a Game Boy, and over the years, it started really branching out. People have been using different programs to break into different genres and doing new stuff. I use a program called LSDJ, and that’s the main program used in Game Boy, and that’s all native. I write, I compose, and I play with the Game Boy. I can back it up on my computer, but it’s all on the game Boy. I also started using this program for NES call NTRQ. Then I also use a Commodore 64, which is an ‘80s computer. It has a cartridge slot and I use synth carts with that, and that just turns the keyboard into a synthesizer.
MR: With it being the first year of music, I realize it might not be the best measuring stick, but what was the response of people [at Midwest Gaming Classic] walking by who heard you guys. It seems like you guys are tailored for an event like this.
CK: Last year was fun. I’ve never had someone recognize the Commodore 64 for what it is, and they had a whole room full of them there. I had dudes come who were amazed that I wasting it the way I was.
SS: People there aren’t super outgoing, so it didn’t seem like they were into it while we were playing. They didn’t dance or anything. They just sat down and watched. But afterward, a ton of people came up to talk to us. That was super cool.
CK: It was a good response. We’ll see how Saturday goes. It’ll be interesting because we’re going to be in the vendor tent and it’s going to be at a prime time.
MR: And in terms of the event itself, are you excited to walk around before and after your sets to take it all in?
CK: Yeah, there’s every system imaginable and I really like to go into the vendor’s tent because, for me, that’s like going to a guitar store. I can buy equipment and buy tools I need to play music. I love going there because I love pinball and the old arcade games, and everything is free.
MR: On the non-Classic side of things what have you guys been up to? Are you ramping up to a new album?
CK: We want to get into the studio soon. We have two songs ready to go that we might be releasing as an EP or as part of a something longer. We have a music video for a new song. It’s crazy, and I want to release it because we haven’t released anything in a while. It’s driving me nuts. We haven’t had any releases since 2012.
MR: Well, you mentioned the response last year. Maybe playing this will give you the push—knowing you have an audience out there’s who’s into what you’re doing.
CK: It’s funny; as much as I love this city, our fanbase is not necessarily here. It’s more branched out in San Francisco, New York. We get a lot of orders from people there. Even Portland, Oregon. I see orders from there, too.
SS: Those are kind of the cities where chipmusic sort of started, and they still have pretty prominent chipmusic scenes.
Awkward Terrible plays in the Midwest Gaming Classic’s vendor tent Saturday afternoon at 12:45. The Atomic Spins, BEAKER, Evacuate The Earth, Mechanical Life Vein, Sugar Stems, and Waxing Gibbous (album release show) will also play the free—included as part of MGC admission—show.