And Now for Something Completely Different: The Relay Bros!

- Posted February 27th, 2020 by

Through the course of art history, there have always been artists or projects that defied the norm. I welcome you to this new column, titled ‘And now for something completely different!’, where we will take a look at Chiptune related acts that get themselves out of ordinary boxes and into uncharted territory where they can blossom.

Surrealist artists invented the exquisite corpse which bears a striking resemblance to an old parlor game. In that game, players would write a sentence on paper, fold the paper to hide that sentence, and then pass the sheet to the next player. Unable to read the previous sentence, the following player would add their own sentence. This would repeat until the end where the page would be unraveled and the text read aloud for the amusement of the participants.

Though not very different at its core, the techniques that evolved from this simple parlor game became an enriching way for words (or images) to be collectively assembled.

In these evolved permutations, it was common to see rules in place to make the result of the game somewhat cohesive, or that the next collaborator in line could see the last part of what the previous one had spun out to help them concatenate their own.

These days, how often do we see the phrase ‘collab’ being thrown around?

While it’s obviously great to see artists featuring one another on their tracks, how often do we see ‘true’ collaboration—especially where more than two artists are involved?

This is where the Relay Bros come in, combining the sequenced assembly of ideas with a unified structure (just as the surrealists did before them).

The Relay Bros are comprised of a rotating cast of artists that each contribute their own unique ideas to a single song. They embrace the differences of each collaborator and stitch everything together as one cohesive string of ideas.

Let’s start by looking back at the genesis of this project through the words of Toni Leys himself.

Hi Toni! Thank you for participating in this ChipWIN interview. Tell me: what lead to the idea of this Relay Bros project?

TONI: It all began in Soundcloud. Through my unending search of Chiptune and game music I ended up finding a track by the user ああああ (pronounced ‘Aaaa‘), an incredible Chiptune/Happy Hardcore musician from Japan that really fascinated me. It was a ‘Green Greens’ remix from Kirby, but it was made by concatenating remixes by various artists, all of them from Japan.

Here’s said track:

Another user that was involved in this was Umeboshi Chazuke, I was already following him and loved his music, so I asked him about the project and he said something on the lines of it being kind of ‘random’. So I wanted to make something like that, but more organized, with a group name and all.

I called my chiptune buds Swerdmurd and Ika Risu (we talked a lot at the time) and they loved the idea! We came up with the name and started scouting artists. Even Umecha joined us!

When creating this project, did you feel that there was maybe some creative space that was missing or unexplored at the time?

TONI: That’s a funny question. I don’t ever feel like I’m doing something nobody else is doing. I feel respect for all creative endeavors and I think that at some point ‘everything’s already invented’, as a brother of mine may say. The force that drove me to make this group was seeing some people doing something awesome and wanting to do it too, and building upon that idea.

I mean, when I saw that first relay collab by Aaaa and the others, it was as if a spark was ignited in my mind and lots and lots of ideas and possibilities appeared, it was more like a game based on curiosity and fun. I know a lot of animation projects that go through the same pipeline though, but I never saw it in music until I discovered Aaaa‘s track.

But looking back now, it was kind of a tool that fueled creativity and helped starting artists grow and learn really fast, thanks to our collective work. And that was something I didn’t find elsewhere. I mean, when an artist wanted to join us he had to stick to the rules, step up his game to be on the level of the rest of the artists in the group. But the reward for doing so was huge. For starters, you get to listen to your piece mixed in with the rest of the artists’ creations, and then there is a followers cross-pollination. Since each of the artists shares the song, their fans get to know the other artists in the collab, and that happens at a kinda big scale, so yeah, you also get to know a lot of people by participating in a Relay Bros song.

Did you find it difficult to recruit artists at first? How was the task of collaborative coordination handled?

TONI: The coordinating part was really complicated and it evolved over time. We have a Facebook group where we first make a poll in the group, to choose the song and see which of the artists want to participate. Then we chop the track in pieces of 4 or 8 bars and hand over the corresponding part to each artist along with instructions on how and when to submit the part and the do’s and don’t’s. Once we have all the tracks, it’s time to compile them all, mix them together, and master the whole thing.

I used to do all the technical work for the first years, then Senn (Kirk Moore) and Dya took over. It was kind of a mess because each part always sounds completely different, so in the mastering stage you have to make them blend in as best as you can.

So you can imagine there were a lot of comings and goings, considering it was a pretty big group. Even I had to quit at some point. A few years ago Dya, Swerdmurd and Senn took the lead since I was really busy with other projects, but right now I feel like going back in and making some crazy stuff with the guys, only when I have some time though! As for Umecha and Aaaa, I stumbled upon some of their tracks in a rhythm game called VOEZ, so they’re going big! There’s also BLVKAROT (Don Banks), who is blowing up now on YouTube with his Steven Universe remixes, he was one of our really cool artists when starting.

When the project was starting out, were there any criteria in place to select the first artists who participated?

TONI: Going back to that moment when I first found the song that sparked idea of doing collabs, the first person that came to mind was Swerdmurd, so I told him ‘Dude let’s do something like this’.

Then, we called some friends, at first there were like 5 of us: Dya, Swerdmurd, Jredd, Ika Risu, and me. So we started recruiting artists to make the first song, there was no criteria really, just asked artists friends of ours that we thought were cool and sounded good. After we released the first one, some friends and fans wanted in too, so for the second one we actually had artists eager to participate. And that started scaling up. Imagine this, we ended up being a really big group of people, we usually receive messages from artists wanting to participate and we even had some big names on board like Tee Lopes, Ben Briggs and RobKTA.

I think that it’s really inspiring that musical diversity is celebrated within each track, and I really like that there’s an open ground for several types of music and instruments! Is there something in particular that lead you to propose these guidelines for the project?

TONI: Yeah, what I enjoy the most from the Relay Bros tracks is that each part surprises you, and you can recognize the personality, style and sound of each of the artists.

In the notes we send to the artists when making each part, we specify some things that they need to follow, like tempo and key. But then, the rest is up to the artist, they can do any genre or style with any instrumentation, we don’t care. In fact, we encourage it!

It’s curious that some of our artists started experimenting new styles after listening to their co-producers. And while it is true that most of our artists come from a Chiptune background, some of them don’t, and what’s more, we have artists from all around the world, so it’s really a celebration of cultural and musical diversity.

After this initial run, Kirk Moore was involved with the project, and he is a part of the current staff. Let’s talk with him to find out how this shared history unraveled, shall we?

Hi Kirk! So, how was it that you found out about Relay Bros and the work of Toni Leys?

KIRK: This is quite an awesome story of one thing leading to another! A close friend of mine is the author of the fan comic Pulseman 2015, based directly on the story of the somewhat little-known pre-Pokemon Game Freak game Pulseman.

The comic was discovered by Toni and it encouraged him to make a Pulseman remix (which is available on SoundCloud)

That remix got me looking into Toni’s music and later making a remix of one of his tunes.

This was summer 2015 and talking to Toni about his music and remixing it inevitably led to chatting about his new group music project Relay Bros, itself having only just started with a single tune under its belt (‘Dr Wily’s Castle’) and the second one in production.

“Dr. Wily’s Castle” by The Relay Bros

How was it that you became involved on the Relay Bros project?

KIRK: ‘Oi, Toni, that Relay Bros thing! I want in!’

Or something to that effect. 😉

At the time I asked, the second relay (‘Grass Land 1′ from Kirby‘s Dream Land 3) was in the middle of being made, so I couldn’t just jump in straight away. Toni welcomed me into the fold after that was finished and I was on board for the next relay, ‘Sonic Boom’, the epic mashup of ‘Guile’s Theme’ and ‘Marble Garden Zone’. It really does go with anything…

I personally loved that you did a Katamari Damacy collaborative track! What are your favorite franchises that were made into tracks for the Relay Bros project?

KIRK: Ah, this is a tricky one. I remember being super excited about doing the Metal Gear Solid Main Theme relay as I’ve been a big fan of that series since the release of MGS.

I have of course loved doing ‘the big ones’ like Mario, Sonic, Legend of Zelda, Pokémon… but some of my favorite relays on a musical level have been the more unexpected ones. Blaster Master is a great listen, even though I didn’t know the game or the music before doing the relay! And Out Run is just super funky. ChipWINners might also want to listen to our ChipWIN specials, relay covers of tunes from the great volume releases.

Has the creative process for the production of a Relay Bros track changed much since the project started? Could you walk us through the steps that entail the creation of a track?

KIRK: Hmm, at its core it probably hasn’t changed much at all! I think the only thing we’ve done over time is evolve the rule sheet that gets given out during the production of each relay so we could iron out any tricky aspect of getting the final just right.

We have a super secret FB group for organizing the relays and pinning down which tunes we cover.

The first thing is usually a poll within the group to find out what people are interested in covering, though tunes are sometimes picked by staff members.

Once that’s determined, the relay manager (me most of the time, though the other staff members have done the job too!) takes the original tune and determines tempo, key and time signature.

It’s then chopped up with a Relay Bros approved meat cleaver into parts of 4, 8 or sometimes even 16 bars each. This is flexible and depends on the speed and length of the tune. The number of parts we end up with determines how many people can take part. With one Relay Bro per part we then have 1 or 2 weeks to cover just that set of bars in any style or production method we like. From LSDj on hardware to orchestral sample libraries in a DAW, we’ll accept anything as long as it’s well made and recognizable as a cover of the part that was given out.

Once everyone has got their parts done, it’s up to the manager to determine whether that part is good enough or needs a little tweaking or revising.

Once finalized, the next job is to put these parts back in the order of the original tune and master them into a coherent whole. I’ve done this myself two or three times now (with my DAW of choice, FL Studio) but the vast majority of relays, especially the earlier ones, were put together by Toni. We’ve had others contribute nicely to this aspect too, Game Genie Sokolov for example!

Once that’s all done we release the relay on SoundCloud and YouTube and encourage everyone to spam it on people’s faces.

Are there specific criteria when it comes to choosing the artists that become a part of the project?

KIRK: The vast majority of the time, not really! Any current member of Relay Bros is eligible to jump onto an upcoming relay. Once the number of parts has been determined we use a Google Forms sign-up method to get people involved on a first-come-first-served basis. This sometimes leads to inevitable disappointment when a member really wanted in on a certain track but as ever, there are only a limited number of parts to give out!

We do occasionally run ‘secret’ relays where the members can be hand-picked by the manager. This has happened with some of our ChipWIN specials.

Do you usually send out a call for artists or do they contact you themselves?

KIRK: Over time, Relay Bros as a group has grown through people asking if they can jump in after having heard some of our works or through existing members knowing other people that would do good work. Admittedly, the doors aren’t always open.

It has always been the intention to have a ‘core’ membership where we can rely on said members to be available, interested and willing to work on a relay to the deadline set.

There have been occasions where existing members have moved on and we haven’t had enough people to successfully complete a certain project so we’ve pulled more people in.

Could you share with us your favorite story or fun fact behind the creation of any of the Relay Bros tracks?

KIRK: ‘Monty on the Run!’ Anyone who knows Rob Hubbard‘s main theme of this classic Commodore/Spectrum game also knows it’s long and fast. I had wanted to do this as a relay challenge for a while so I thought ‘let’s do this thang’ and chopped the original up.

It came to 33 parts which of course meant I needed 33 people.

Insane? Probably. But I went for it anyway, knowing that the current core membership of the group wasn’t quite enough to complete the project. I had to ask a few people to recruit some trusted musicians to pull it off, even dragging in another close friend of my own.

What made this seemingly crazy idea so successful in the end was that despite being our biggest relay in terms of part count so far, NO ONE went over the deadline.

Each and every Relay Bro got their part in on time, and I was utterly floored.

There’s a little in-joke we have at Relay Bros… we quite often get plenty of Delay Bros. People who, for one reason or another, breach the deadline and don’t get their part in on time. It had been a thing for most relays already, so for 33 people to get their parts in on time and with very little fixing or guidance to give to anyone it was just an awesome success and a great feeling for me, considering I had second thoughts about how ambitious this relay was.

It seems that this track has also made a lasting impression on Toni Leys since, when asked which was his favorite track ever covered by The Relay Bros, he answered:

TONI: I love all of them of course, and some are totally fantastic. But ‘Monty On The Run’ is sick, it has the most people involved all in one single track, 33 artists participated in this one.

To this day I can’t understand how we managed to make it. So, it’s my favorite mainly because it’s the most pretentious of them all.

Some people might prefer to bask in the solitude of their studios, that sacred ground where they have the final saying on each artistic decision that they make, and that’s ok. The Relay Bros, as many other collectives, are thriving in the basis of shared work, enriching the perspectives of both their artists and listeners.

This concludes this first edition of ‘And now for something completely different!‘ If you know of any other works, projects or artists that defy the norm, please make sure to send it our way for consideration. Until next time, this is Pixel Syndrome signing off, so stay chippy, you beautiful, digital monsters!~ (づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ

The Relay Bros
Soundcloud | YouTube
| Facebook

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