The duo Virtual Boy is one of the most singular proposals in the Alpha Pup label catalogue. In spite of coming from Los Angeles and releasing via one of the leading names on the city’s beat scene, the music of Henry Allen and Preston Walker is in a class by itself. The fruit of the combination of their academic musical training and their passion for electronica, the twosome’s sound brings together elements as seemingly disparate as classical music, chiptune, and the rougher expression of the bass flow with a surprising ease. They showed this in “Symphony No. None”, a debut EP that sounded like a cut of robots writing evocative synthetic symphonies.
This robotic soul acts as the motif of their recent debut album, “Virtual Boy”, in which their compositions are more measured and contemplative; in certain passages they come close to what could happen if their admired AIR were to be produced by some luminary of today’s bass scene. Like the French group, Virtual Boy are vintage synthesizer and vocoder fanatics. However, this is a passion for retro that is combined with entirely contemporary musical tastes. They prove it with the mix that they have recorded for PlayGround, which they insist could be used as a soundtrack for a ride on Space Mountain at Disneyland. In this interview they explain, among other things, their taste in science fiction, the synthesizers they dream of, and their desire to visit one of Barcelona’s festivals.
How did you two meet each other and what led you to start making music together?
We met freshman year at our university and immediately hit it off musically. We both decided to take the music technology class that was taught by Los Angeles producer Steve Nalepa. We began writing together for our class projects, and over the next couple years that turned into Virtual Boy.
Your first EP for Alpha Pup caused quite a stir. How did you come up with your unique sound, which mixes classical music, bass music and chiptune?
It really just came naturally. We weren’t really trying to go for a specific sound—that was just what happened. We wanted to create music that had elements of what we were studying and listening to in school. Our love for vintage synthesizers paved the way as well.
Especially on the first two tracks, the album presents a calmer, kind of introspective sound. What was the main idea or concept you had in mind when you started to compose it?
The record kind of came naturally as well. I think like most artists, what you’re currently listening to can have a huge influence on what your writing, even if it’s not intentional. I think the album really reflects a lot of the music we were listening to at the time, as well as the stuff we have been listening to since day one. Our goal wasn’t to write a club record, it was to write something to listen to. It was something that showcased musicality versus just bass music.
A lot of the songs on the album have this kind of robotic soul that seems to refer to the idea of artificial intelligence. To what extent are you interested in science fiction? Just fans, diehard collectors or obsessed freaks?
We’re both very big fans of science-fiction films. In particular the way 70s and 80s films viewed the future. For example “2001. A Space Odyssey”, “Blade Runner”, “Back To The Future”, “Tron”, and “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. Not only the films themselves, but their scores were a big influence to us as well.
Although your focus is on electronic music, it seems like you both have classical training. What kind of musical training/background do you both have?
Henry: I started studying classical guitar in high school, which led to me continuing my studies in California at Chapman Conservatory of Music to get my degree in Classical Guitar Performance.
Preston: I sang in the choir throughout high school and college, so I’ve always been immersed in classical music.
Can you describe the set-up of your studio? I understand you use a lot of hardware synths - do you also use software?
We rely mostly on hardware synths just because we prefer the sound over digital and software synths. We’ve also gotten a lot into sampling lately, where we take an old symphony or something and chop it up and reverse, re-pitch it to create something new. The software we use is primarily for EQs, reverbs and compressors. Nothing too intense.
Is there any particular synth or piece of gear that you always use in your tracks, in other words, that you consider essential to your music? By the same token, as vintage synths fans, is there any piece of “dream” gear that you are yet to get?
On almost every track from our album, we took all the drums, a lot of the synths, and the vocoder and ran them through amps. This really gave everything a unique vintage lo-fi sound that we became hooked on right from the beginning. It created a unique space that each element in our music could live in. As for dream gear, we would definitely have to say a Roland VP-330 vocoder and a Roland JX-3P with a PG-200 programmer.
Your tracks are usually pretty complex. Can you explain the usual process of creating a song? Do you always follow the same pattern or does it depend on what the track “demands”?
The process is pretty much different every time. A lot of the time it will start with a drum loop one of us has come up with, or possible a progression one of us has written. Lately, like I mentioned before, we have been doing a lot of sampling, which is sometimes how an idea for a track is spurred.
The L.A. beat scene has been pretty effervescent for a while now. Do you feel connected to the scene? I ask because although you're part of Alpha Pup, one of the key players on the scene, your music goes further than the “typical L.A. beats”.
We definitely feel connected to the scene in Los Angeles. You can almost always find one of us at Low End Theory every Wednesday. Also more than half the artists that we listen to are L.A.-based. Although our music might sway a different direction than “typical L.A. Beats” our music is very much rooted in the L.A. sound.
What other artists or labels inspire you nowadays?
Young Turks is always releasing great stuff. Also Stones Throw out of L.A. is constantly putting out amazing stuff. Even Rabbit Records, a brand-new indie label, which is run by producers Fuzz and Djembe Djembe, has been putting out straight fire. Our biggest inspirations lately have been James Blake, SBTRKT, Araabmuzik, Jamie xx, and Jonti.
Where and how was the mix recorded? Is there any specific idea or concept behind it?
We recorded it in our studio at home. We wanted the mix to sound like a journey. It needed to sound like something that could be played on the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland.
What are your favourite robots?
Autotune was a big feature on many pop/rap songs years ago, but is now used less than before. What keeps you attached to the autotone aesthetic, and what do you think it adds to your songs?
The vocals were actually all recorded live with a vocoder and not run through autotune. This vocoder is what gives Virtual Boy a voice, almost like a “Virtual Boy” character that sings through processed equipment.
What are your plans for the immediate future? Do you have any European gigs in the pipeline?
Currently we’ve been working on finishing a few remixes and starting our next album. We’re also working on setting some stuff up in France, and hopefully the U.K. around the same time. It would be great to get to get to Spain on the trip as well. We would love to get involved with some of the festivals that go on in Barcelona like Primavera Sound or Sonar as well!
Albums Virtual Boy - Virtual Boy
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