An interview with The British IBM

It’s not everyday you catch word of a band that takes inspiration from the likes of Clive Sinclair and Steve Jobs. It’s not everyday you catch word of a band that’s grounded its aesthetic in a feud between Sinclair and Chris Curry either. Enter The British IBM, a three-piece indie outfit from the UK that, in the words of founder Aidy Killens, combines indie rock and vintage computing.

Having launched a self-titled album over the summer and a couple of singles since, I had a chat with Aidy to see how games have influenced him and the band creatively, what it is about past games he finds so much more appealing that those of the present day and whether tech like smartphones and Ouya can help him in his search for games with real soul.

Brushing aside the band name and the dozens of video references, how have games and computing influenced you creatively? 

It’s mainly the stories behind the games and the people involved that have influenced me. I admire the single-minded enthusiasm of a lot of the people who built these computer companies over the years. I’m fascinated with how it all turned out and the rise and fall of companies like Sinclair and Acorn. So it’s more the human story that’s influenced me creatively. That combined with the aesthetics of it all. I love the look of an old computer manual and the packaging. Also in the same way some people might be inspired by a photo of The Beatles or maybe vintage Americana, I think photos and footage of influential “geeks” look cool as fuck. There’s that black and white photo of Steve Jobs with the Apple II or that iconic image of Clive Sinclair holding the Spectrum above his head. With the British IBM I wanted to bring all that together with indie rock and that’s what I’ve done.

The lyrical themes in some of your songs seem to be more grounded in gaming/computing than your actual music, have games informed your music as well as your lyrics in any way?

No, we’re an indie band that happens to be influenced by computing history in the same way that a folk singer might be influenced by politics but wouldn’t necessarily include political sound effects in a song. It’s something that resonates with me and it’s got into the lyrics and aesthetics of the band but not the actual music. I have experimented with chip tunes in the past but I love indie rock and I love retro computing so I wanted to combine those elements. I didn’t want to be novelty act.

What role did gaming take in your life growing up?

It was a massive part of my childhood, possibly more so that music up to a certain point. I started out playing a game called Bomber on the Mattel Aquarius and then went through various machines growing up like the Vic20, BBC Micro, Acorn Electron and PC before getting into consoles with the advent of the Sega Master System. I spent hours playing video games and made friends with a lot of people based on the games they played and the consoles they owned. In the days before the internet, if you were stuck on a game you were properly stuck and had to rely on finding other like-minded people who had played the same games in order to problem solve them. One example of that was the spitting contest in Monkey Island 2. I remember everyone at school knew everyone else that had a copy of that game and it seemed like we were all stuck on that puzzle for ages, but after a lot of playground discussions one of us cracked it, which meant we all cracked it.

With that in mind, how has your interest in the industry changed over time?

I think the Sega Megadrive was the last “new” console that I loved. I lost interest around the time the PlayStation and Sega Saturn came out and that’s when I started looking back and got into emulators and buying old consoles on Ebay. It’s a bit like collecting records. You’re always discovering great games that you missed back in the day or games that just didn’t do very well because they didn’t get the publicity or magazines unfairly slated them so it seems like a shame to skip over such a wealth of material. When I was a kid and getting £2 a week pocket-money, and with a Sega Master System cartridge costing £30, it took ages to save up for a game, which you subsequently played to death as a result. I think it’s awesome that I can now download old video games and emulators in seconds or buy them off Ebay or a car boot sale for next to nothing.

I remember the first thing I did when I got into emulation was to play every game that Sega Power magazine rated below 50% because back then absolutely no one would have risked spending £30 on a poorly reviewed game. So those were the ones that I’d never played and surprisingly quite a few of them were actually half-decent, like Transbot and Alf.

You reference vintage computing and retro gaming as some of your influences, what is it about older games and systems that appeal to you more than the games of today?

Vintage and retro games have soul in my opinion, I don’t think a game that’s been created with a million pound budget by hundreds of people could possibly compare to something that a small team or a lone bedroom coder’s poured their blood, sweat and tears into. I read Masters of Doom by David Kushner not too long ago. It tells the story of id Software and it does seem that things became less enjoyable the larger the company got and the more people were involved in the making of their games.

Do you think new platforms like Kickstarter and technologies like the iPad, smartphones and Ouya have the capacity to reinvigorate that sense of soul?

It’s quite cool how smartphones are giving a second lease of life to retro style games and bedroom coders. We’re in a situation again where someone can have an idea, spend a bit of time learning to code and try their hand at creating and releasing a videogame, which is an awesome thing. I’ve got an Ouya on order and I’m looking forward to seeing how that mixes things up, it’s apparently going to have its own marketplace that’s free for everyone to release on so the bedroom coders of today won’t just be confined to smartphones and tablets anymore.

I remember going to a talk by the founder of Team17 (Andy Davidson) where he talked about how they pretty much had to release a 3D version of Worms because that’s what the people with the money wanted. It got to the stage that everyone had to do 3D graphics whether the game needed it or not because that’s the way games were going and it wasn’t worth taking a risk with the amount of money it took get something onto a modern console. Smartphones have changed all that. Worms are where they belong in a 2D world once again and companies like Team17 are no longer under pressure to crowbar games into using the latest 3D engine just because the market or the people holding the purse strings dictate it. 

Have any projects on Kickstarter particularly interested you?

Yeah quite a few. The Ouya, which I mentioned, but the main thing I love on fan funding sites are the documentaries. I’m a massive fan of geeky documentaries and I’ve chipped in for a few including Viva Amiga, Indie Game the Movie and Bedrooms to Billions. A lot of people that lived through that era have some fascinating stories to tell and it’s great that they’re able to get together with documentary makers and raise funds from people like myself who are really keen to know what went on behind the scenes of these iconic games and companies that made up my childhood.

What would you say have been some of the best examples of music in games, not just in terms of the music itself but how the music relates to everything else: gameplay, art, themes?

I think Space Quest and Monkey Island are two of my favorites for doing this. In both cases the developers have created an entire world in which I’ve entirely submerged myself where the graphics seem to perfectly compliment the music and vice versa.

Monkey Island especially. The entire soundtrack has a Caribbean / Reggae style to it that changes subtly as you explore islands, jungles, and footpaths that wind round the cliff tops. And when things kick off in the more action based parts of the game so does the music. It’s a lush layered soundtrack that makes your pixellated environment seem all the more real.

This interview originally appeared on BeefJack.

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