Tree Wave: Interview
Atari 2600, a TI-994a, and an OPL3 FM chip
(From Tree Wave's online bio) Tree Wave is a band based out of Dallas Texas,
created by Paul Slocum and Lauren Gray. The band uses unique instrumentation:
music is performed using obsolete computer equipment for instruments. Although
definitely electronic-sounding, the music is influenced more by guitar-based
bands and experimental music than dance or electronica. Their first CD was
released in June and has been receiving glowing reviews.
TMT: Tell me a bit about the concept behind Tree Wave.
PS: It kind of started with my previous band, The
Sleuth/Science Club/Probot. We started using a lot of toy and video game sounds
a while ago. Usually sampling stuff at first, then I slowly started writing my
own programs to do stuff.
TMT: What made you start using obsolete computer equipment instead of
more conventional instruments?
PS: We both loved vintage game systems; we grew up on them. I had a
lot of them around, so we used them. One time we did a song using the sounds
from Pitfall, just using the joystick to make Harry jump and fall down
holes to the beat. [Laughs] Chad (the other guy in the band) moved to Austin so
I started doing more stuff on my own. And one day I asked Lauren to try singing
on one of the songs I was working on. And that's "May Banners", the first track
on our CD.
How do you and Lauren know each other? How and
when did you decide to collaborate?
PS: We went to the same high school, but didn't know each other then. We
met through a mutual friend from high school later on. Getting from the
recording of "May Banners" to where we could play live was a long process. I had
to write a lot of software and figure out how to configure the gear to do a live
TMT: Do you have a lot of experience writing software?
PS: Yeah, I've been programming since I was a kid. I fell in love
with it when I first took a programming class on the TI-994a when I was in 4th
grade or so. I'm an embedded systems programmer for my day job, which is very
similar to Atari 2600 and C64 programming…and dot matrix printer programming
Could you go into a little more detail on the more
unique technical aspects of Tree Wave's sound?
PS: Like what gear generates what sounds and how?
Yeah, and maybe how you sort of developed your
thing I used the most (like with the Sleuths) is the OPL3 FM chip. This is a
sound chip that's on a lot of older PC sound cards, similar to what's in the
Sega Genesis and a lot of arcade games. The sound of it is really recognizable
and unique. I originally used this on a modern PC with modern software (it shows
up as a MIDI device), but for performances, I started running it off a DOS
sequencer on a 286. I use it for drums, warm brassy sounds, some bass, bell
sounds, etc. The Commodore 64 is pretty much like an analog synth. It's a fat
sound and includes a real analog filter. I wrote my own software for it that
makes it just work like a synth. The Atari 2600 is bleepy but can do some decent
drum sounds, and it's responsible for all the video at our shows. This one also
runs off my own custom cartridge. And you know what a dot matrix printer sounds
like. All noisy and raspy.
Do you use the dot matrix for percussive noises,
percussive stuff, but also for melodies and for noisy washes of sound. Like the
middle of "Sleep" or the end of "Same."
TMT: How do you operate
all of these devices live?
On most songs,
the Atari, printer, and 286 are all pre-programmed but they have to be
synchronized and mixed manually. And we play two C64s like keyboards (I use
this piano keyboard overlay thing that goes over the typewriter keyboard).
Like a MIDI controller?
No, each piano
key just pushes down a key on the C64's keyboard. It's just a plastic thingy. I
could play without it if I could remember which keys correspond to which notes.
Tell me about the songwriting process. Do you
write songs using the computer or on a keyboard? Do you build songs around a
particular sound or piece of equipment?
I usually start
with some ideas on just the OPL3, and then start playing stuff along with it on
the C64. Sometimes I compose the OPL3 stuff on the just the computer, but a lot
of times I connect a MIDI keyboard to control it. Once I have something sounding
interesting, I'll build a second part and we may start working on vocal ideas.
Then I'll listen to a while and see if it's working. If not, we start over or
occasionally just throw the whole idea out.
Did Lauren come up with the vocal ideas on
Cabana? I was actually curious about how involved she was in the project.
We work together
on those. She wrote the vocals for "May Banners" all herself, which I think is
the best vocal melody on the album. She also plays the C64 when we play live.
Since she's got a lot less experience writing music, she falls into most of the
pitfalls that everyone does starting out. Fortunately, I've already been through
all that. [Chuckles]
So Tree Wave is mostly your baby, I take it?
mostly me. I definitely don't like to work by myself on music, though. I need
someone else to keep me out of ruts and synergize with.
How much of a role has Dallas or Texas in general
played in your musical development? Are you a ZZ Top fan?
Really, not much. Dallas isn't terrible for music, but there's not a whole lot
going on with electronic stuff. I really like the new Midlake record. And
Polyphonic Spree are really nice. It was awesome that they invited for us to
open for them! [Laughs] Actually I think ZZ Top is kind of interesting.
Tres Hombres is a great record.
I always thought
it was weird how subtly they blended electronics into their music.
Like the electronic drums on Eliminator?
I read that ZZ recorded those '80s records with
live percussion, but Warner made them re-do the tracks using electronic drums to
make them assimilate more easily with what was being played on MTV and the radio
at the time. Anyway, how'd that Polyphonic Spree show go? What's the response
The show was
great. It was a lot of fun. It was so crowded that I didn't get to see much of
Polyphonic Spree though. We've had a really good response. We've played some
shows that I thought were awful and had a lot of people come up and tell us how
great we were. [Laughs] I think our live show is a bit different from the
recordings in that people are drawn in by the visuals as much as the music.
How did the live show develop?
It started off
with a 3 song demo thing I did myself in Seattle. Over time I got more visuals
and songs programmed. Then I did a performance by myself in New York that was a
lot closer to a real Tree Wave show. And finally I got everything together
enough for Lauren to join in. When I have time I program more visuals for songs
and try to tweak the software to get the sound more consistent. When we play
I'm really busy tweaking the mix and keeping everything going. It takes some
work to get that gear to sound decent [Laughs].
I remember reading about this whole "chiptunes"
subculture- artists manipulating old video game equipment to create music. How
much of an involvement do you feel Tree Wave has in this 'movement'? I think you
guys could be considered a "chiptunes" artist by default, but I get the
impression that the equipment you're using comes secondary to the songs. It
seems like these "chiptunes" artists are more concerned with playing a Gameboy
than writing a melody.
Well, I know a
lot of people on Micromusic (the main website for that kind of stuff) but most
of the people I've met doing this kind of music don't sound much like us. Yeah,
what you said- a lot of those artists actually use modern software to make music
that sounds like chiptune music. Our music hasn't really been embraced by that
community, but it's still a really nice community and I've met some great
people. But yeah, our music really can be considered chiptune. Except usually a
chiptune is generated by one particular chip, where we're using several. And we
throw in some other stuff here and there like some guitar and kalimba.
Who are some artists you feel maybe a conceptual
If you're just
talking conceptually, Beige/8bit Construction Set and Alexei Shulgin…I'm sure
there are others I can't think of right now. Oh and artists like Paperrad. My
Bloody Valentine, of course. More recently...I love Deerhoof and this guy Daniel
Romero who has a band called .tape. from Spain. Like I said, that new Midlake
record is nice. Been listening to Pluramon a lot.
What is it about those artists that you empathize
[Laughs] I'm not
much of a music writer so it's hard to get it from my head into words…or much of
a writer at all! [Laughs] The distant, sort of nostalgic sound of MBV; I love
the bendiness. To me it makes you aware of the passing of time, gives a sense of
time changing speed. I like lyrics that are hard to understand because you think
they're saying what you want them to say. I like the rawness of Deerhoof. I LOVE
the constant echoes of the vocal melodies with the bleepy keyboard sounds. I
like that they can convey the awesomeness of the moment when you are jamming by
yourself and fall into some kick ass riff. When you listen to them play, you
feel like you are playing it. Anyway, I have a lot of goofy philosophies about
bands and music that I could probably go on for hours about. [Laughs]
the philosophy behind Tree Wave?
hard. I guess I mainly just want something that's more than just a band.
Something that has a bit of a performance/visual art element to it in addition
to the music. Yet I want to keep the music accessible to some extent.
What sort of aspirations do you have for Tree
I was perfectly
happy recording completely inaccessible music in my bedroom with Chad for 8
years. But I always had a bit of a longing to play shows and have people hear
our music. Now I've got what I wanted on some tiny scale, and it's just got me
stressed out all the time [Laughs].
You're going to Europe in a few days, right? How
did that come about?
I got invited to
speak at the Readme festival, which is a computer art conference in Europe. So I
got a ticket for Lauren too and we're going to play a show at the festival and
in London on the way back to the states.
What are you planning to discuss at the Readme
My dot matrix
synth. It's kind of like the printer we use in the band, but you can actually
play it kind of like a keyboard, and it prints images while you play.
Excellent! I've got three questions left
here, my main man. First: what's next on the Tree Wave agenda?
We're going to
try to start doing a little touring- a little Texas tour soon, California maybe
in December, and Europe hopefully early next year. Possibly release the EP in
Europe with an extra song. Maybe do a split with Isan, then record a full length
next year. We're going to tour as much as we can now. It's difficult with my
job. We'll probably at least hit New York again soon, and probably Chicago.
Have you had labels sniffing around?
We've had some
label interest. We'll see what happens. Tonevendor and Darla have both heard us
now (both are now carrying our CD in their stores).
Final question: anything you want to tell the
Be safe around