That said, I’ve very much missed both talking to awesome folk in and around our communities and sharing those insightful conversations with y’all. That’s why today, I’m hopping back on that interview train!
Presenting a very special guest and friend that’s I’ve been happy to have worked with in the intervening busy months, everyone welcome to the blog Alex Soborov aka Purely Grey of Tracked Records! Enjoy!
Brandon: Hey Alex! Welcome to the blog!
Brandon: Before we get started in earnest, give us a quick rundown of who you are and what you’re about!
Alex: Hey, I’m Alex, also known as Purely Grey. I make electronic music with varying amounts of chiptune and I’m one of the people behind Tracked, a cassette-oriented netlabel!
Brandon: Let’s start with a basic question: how exactly did you get involved in the wild world of chiptune?
Alex: It’s a long story.
I touched on it a bit in the recent Twitter thread by @bananamanzero. Check it out. There are lots of interesting responses from lots of chiptune musicians.
I had a Famicom clone as a kid and I loved some games just because they had slamming soundtracks. Neil Baldwin probably was the biggest influence. I remember how I exchanged cartridges with my cousin and got Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge because the music in it made me feel so cool! I also loved Tim Follin‘s soundtracks; had a Target: Renegade cartridge and played the hell out of it. The game was trash, but the sound was on another level. Music by Konami and David Wise also left a dent on me (notably TMNT games, Zen Intergalactic Ninja, and both Battletoads games).
I was introduced to non-videogame chiptune when I was 15 or so. There was a videogame magazine that put two 8bitpeoples releases on each of their CDs. My parents didn’t have a decent internet connection at the time and those CDs were my only sources of information. One day I found Nullsleep’s ‘Electric Heart Strike’ on one of them and it changed everything. It never occured to me that one can make videogame music, but I didn’t even know how videogames were made, so no surprises there! I still had no idea how these tracks were composed, but it didn’t stop me from dabbling in FL Studio.
When I was 18 I had a girlfriend in another city and I finally had a chance to download tons of stuff from the internet. When I first got my hands on it I saved EVERY album from 8bitpeoples and listened to pretty much all of them I believe. ‘Icarus’ by Trash80 and ‘Extended Loo Break’ by Vim became two of my all-time favorites!
At roughly the same time I was involved in the Russian interactive fiction community. One game had some music from Modarchive (even a tune by Radix!) and it opened the doors to trackers for me. I tried MilkyTracker first, but it was very frustrating; so was Famitracker. Then I found Sunvox and it was the first tracker that I could actually use, so I stuck to it, but I wasn’t serious about the whole music thing at the time.
I moved to my girlfriend’s city when I was 20. After a year we broke up but I decided not to return to my parents, as I already had a job there. The memories of this time are very hazy, but somehow I decided to pursue music, bought my first Game Boy, and here I am, 5 years later!
Brandon: That is quite the story! haha It’s also cool to see that your influences come from both retro video game music composers as well as modern chiptune artists. Often it’s one way or the other!
Alex: Yeah, it’s a mix of vgm, demoscene, and modern chip scene; a bit of everything. I didn’t want to make electronic music in my teens, but it happened anyway. Guess I got tired of constant stream of distorted guitars and screaming.
Brandon: Hey, variety is the spice of life and all that jazz, right? haha That said, I _do_ hear the influence of some of those distorted guitars in your music at times. ;)
Alex: You’re right. It creeps into my music sometimes. A lot often lately. Fragments, for example, sounds like a Deftones song to me! One cannot simply quit things, I suppose. Glad I wasn’t dumb enough to “quit” chiptune. I know people who quit for like 3 times and they’re still going. Once chiptune, forever chiptune!
Brandon: CHIPTUNE: THERE IS NO ESCAPE.
Have you considered live performances for Purely Grey? Or has this happened already and I’ve missed it somehow? It’s certainly possible. I need clones….
Alex: It happened a few times. I used to play a lot of shows in the Twistboy years when I was a part of the local scene, but I don’t consider myself a part of it anymore. I play maybe twice a year or so, if somebody invites me. Nowadays I don’t feel like doing gigs as I used to; “DJing” and jumping like crazy on stage aren’t as fun as they used to be. Also playing off a laptop feels more like a chore. I want to do something more expressive, like singing, and not use a laptop at all. No idea when this is going to happen and in what form. Maybe it’ll be a new project, maybe not.
Brandon: Oooo! Maybe I’m already curious! hehe
That said, if you do ever decide to just straight up DJ one day, you already have a name for that, remember? DJ PURELY GREG. ♪┏(⌐■_■)┛♪
Alex: Oh yeah, and it fits real good too! I’m awkward on stage, and in the last two years I’ve been pushing it to the limits. I always prepare a special intro of sorts (last time I ripped bits of videos of Cal Chuchesta and spliced an introduction from them) and I use sound effects like applause, explosions, etc. (though I dropped airhorns from my sets this year haha). Not to mention the All Star mashup I made just for one show.
Brandon: See, you say “awkward’, and I say sounds like damn good times! hahaha There is something to be said for just having fun with it all after all. hehe You ever make it to the states, we’ll perpetuate some shenanigans together. Count on it.
Alex: I grew to love awkwardness; it’s a lot of fun and it’s more honest. I’m happy when people giggle at my stage antics. :) And yeah, I hope someday I’ll visit, and it’d be a crime not to throw something together!
Brandon: All just a matter of time I reckon!
Speaking of collaborations and shenanigans, talk to me about Tracked Records!
How’d you go from “not taking music seriously” to making awesome jams to curating great tunes by other folk?
Alex: Not sure how the “taking seriously” part happened. I wanted to be a programmer and do stuff with computers when I was in school, but turned out it’s not what I want to do for a living. Working on music and audio is. There’s sort of a social stigma about it, especially when you didn’t show any talents as a kid and don’t have a formal education, so the realization got delayed for a few years. I consider myself professional, even though I don’t make a living out of it at this point. I have a good work ethic and I’m happy people around support me. A web development day job is how I survive.
Tracked is a whole other story though.
Brandon: Story time! -sits crosslegged on the floor and listens-
Alex: When I was involved in the local scene we had only one working chiptune netlabel, Bleeplove. At the time, a few of us weren’t happy with how it represented the scene. To be honest, I thought it sucked big time and I was very bitter about it, but there was nothing to do because the guy behind it, VRUMZSSSR, wanted to do everything his way. So I took the plunge and created Tracked, which was intended to represent local chiptune and be “cool”. Crazy times! I remember the community in general was borderline toxic sometimes, as most of us were young and stupid, myself included. Glad it’s not the case anymore. We’re good friends and I think Bleeplove is, and always was, cool and crucial for the scene. No idea where I would be without it.
The vision of Tracked came together in roughly six months. I asked my friend Zdeněk to do the logo and he did a fantastic job, I’m very happy with it to this day. Ubiktune and Cheapbeats were my biggest inspirations in terms of consistency and style. Cheapbeats had just started out at the time. I bought a few of their CDs and I remember they had a release number on them, although on later CDs it disappeared and I was a little disappointed (hope I’m not imagining things haha). I always loved numbered albums, so I decided to have a consistent numbering on the label. And I began working on ‘Kittens in Space‘, Tracked’s first release.
Then things took a sharp turn. I was depressed and engaged in a lot of self-destructive stuff throughout the Twistboy years and it reached the peak at the end of 2014. One time I went to a chiptune gig and, after topping loads of alcohol with weed, ended up sitting in a club bathroom for 3 hours thinking that I was going to die. Another time I went to play a show and I felt absolutely nothing but despair; I remember shouting something from stage like I was on the verge of breakdown. I hit a major crisis and I didn’t want do any of this anymore. Luckily, I met Xenia earlier and we started dating soon after this hot mess happened; she helped me a lot with getting through it. Because of my withdrawal from the scene, my reason for working on Tracked disappeared. And now you know about the context of my track from ChipWIN Volume 4!
After some thinking, I decided to keep Tracked going as a place to release music that I like as well as my own stuff. I didn’t want just to upload music to Bandcamp and call it a day, but to provide some kind of service to artists. Helping people improve their music and releasing albums without taking any sales cuts became our mottos, and when I got Marshall Art‘s self-titled album on tape I liked it so much that I knew this would be the perfect medium for physical releases. So go blame them for the whole cassette business! Xenia agreed to join and we split managing between us; she took artwork and postal duties and I was left with planning, communication, and music-related stuff. That’s how we roll since our first release!
Brandon: As I like to say, when shit hits the fan, live and learn, and just keep moving onward and upward!
Oh, and for especially crazy situations completely out of your control, “Fuck it. Roll with it.” Years of MAGFest staffing taught me that one! hahaha
Regardless, I’m very glad that both Tracked and you, as an artist and a person, survived all of that. Life’s a helluva thing sometimes. Awesome life partners, friends, and communities often can help get through it all, as you’ve clearly learned as well.
Alex: Thanks! I agree. Life is interesting and you never know where you will end up, like I never imagined to be on ChipWIN judging panel :D
Brandon: Indeed! hahaha How’d you enjoy that experience btw?
Or at least I hope you enjoyed it…. ◑.◑
Alex: It turned out to be a lot more demanding than I thought. There wasn’t enough time to cleanse the palate, so to speak. It was easy to rank tracks on first impression, but it was impossible to keep the context in mind. Also, first impressions are often useless. Happens often to me; I find an album and don’t like it at first, only to revisit it year later and fall in love with it. There was a lot of re-listening and comparing!
And I did enjoy it! It was an interesting experience. :) Some of the tracks blew my mind right away, which doesn’t happen too often. Reading comments by other judges was a fun time too. And I learned a few things about what people should avoid when submitting a track, so next time I’ll give better advice, I hope. :)
I like giving advice. Sometimes it happens a bit too often though, haha. Here’s a fun pic about that:
Brandon: hahahahah Nice!
And “interesting experience’ is a good way to describe the process. I always try to warn new judges of just how much work it is. Good, fulfilling work, but time consuming and fairly intensive all the same. I knew you’d be a great fit for it, however. Little surprised I hadn’t asked you sooner! Ah well. Worked out great for this round. hehe And hot damn, that expansion release! Let’s talk about that for a minute, shall we??
Alex: The expansion was a big surprise, too! In fact I wasn’t sure how to approach it at first. I think it started to come together while I was busy with judging. There were a few very enjoyable ChipWIN submissions that deserved a spot on the main comp but sadly they didn’t have a chance against other tracks because of various mix issues. Luckily fixing those kind of issues is exactly what Tracked is about. I spent a few weeks working on these tracks; it was quite challenging because each track was in a different style, but I hope what I did to them deserves at least another half a point. Shout-outs to Zanate, Pitfall, BinaryCounter, LePlancton, and Jentu for being a pleasure to work with (although I ended up doing nothing to BinaryCounter’s track! :D).
Then there were other tracks without any problems that almost made it to the main comp; it would be a crime not to give them a proper release. But curation wasn’t easy; I was aiming for an “afterparty” sort of vibe while I was picking tracks for the album and it was very difficult not to include some tracks simply because they didn’t fit as well stylistically.
Bonus tracks had their difficulties too; we didn’t get as many as I wanted. It was a busy time for most people, but the ones we got fit into the album perfectly. Shout-outs to Kubbi and Exelotl for getting through with the tracks. As for artwork I knew Xenia must do it; she’s designed the artwork for most of our releases and her style is one of our features. She did a fantastic job, it’s easily her best yet. Have you noticed the ChipWIN-esque lines on the background, by the way? I was surprised when she pointed them out. :)
Overall it turned out so much better than I initially thought. It was a bumpy ride. Honestly, I think we got lucky multiple times; even the unlucky parts were mostly for the best. But that’s what comes with trying, I suppose!
Oh yeah! And Grant did a fantastic mastering job. No idea how he did it, but he managed to make the album 100% more cohesive. :) It wouldn’t be the same without him!
Brandon: HOLY CRAP! I hadn’t noticed the circuit-y linework in the background of the artwork until you just pointed it out! Wow! Yet another round of props to Xenia!
And I recall your initial concerns about the release coming together, but I had faith it would succeed under your curation. Happy to have that proven quite thoroughly. Easily one of my favorite collaborative releases that we’ve produced yet. “Shorter” at 13 tracks, but so very damn potent! Still playing thru it regularly.
Alex: Thanks! I’m very happy it’s warmly received, it took a lot of sweat and it’s easily our biggest project to date. :)
Brandon: Which of course begs the obvious question: what’s next? For both Purely Grey and Tracked Records. Or can you even talk about that? hehe
Alex: Not sure to be honest. I plan to release a few Purely Grey tracks in November (got a bunch of Weeklybeats singles worth releasing) and then go woodshedding. After months of focusing on mixing and whatnot, I’m itching to dive deep into practicing instruments and studying composition & music theory. Got a few books lying around.
Can’t say anything about long-term goals, except playing more shows as I mentioned earlier. I’d like to ditch my dayjob to free up more time to work on audio, but it’s difficult to speculate when that will happen. The other thing that’s bothering me is that Purely Grey has virtually no identity, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’ll need to figure it out. As for Tracked, making t-shirts and other fun merch is what’s been on my mind for months now. We’ll probably get into that, as well as fixing our online presence, because it’s a mess!
Brandon: I wish you the very best of luck on any and all of those endeavors!
Alex: Thanks. I hope it won’t disappoint!
And I look forward to next installments of Chiptunes = WIN! You can be sure I’ll drop a fun track. Unless I end up on a judging panel again. wink wink
Brandon: Well, I guess we’ll just have to see what happens there, huh? (^_−)−☆
OH HEY! Random tangent, but let’s talk about Night in the Woods for a minute because I know you like it and because it’s awesome, duh.
Alex: Sure! Great game.
Brandon: Right? I legit love everything about it: the story, artwork, and of course the music!
Alex: Same here. Maybe a plot point or two left me a bit confused, but the sense of place won me over in the end. I don’t think I experience it very often.
Brandon: Sense of place: yes! Great term for it!
Got a favorite moment, or maybe a favorite tune? Mallard’s Tomb all day here! haha Or all night rather. Still pretty regularly play it in bed as an evening chill track.
Alex: Mallard’s Tomb is great and one of my favorite tracks, along with Possum Springs and Outskirts. And a bittersweet moment too. I also liked hanging out in the mall and, of course, the bridge part! =D ]
Love the sound design work too. One of the moments that stuck with me is how the music loses its low end when you get up high. Very nice touch.
Brandon: Yes! Absolutely! That was a very nice touch!
Alex: As soon as I saw Xenia playing the game I knew it was something I’d love to get into. I’m a big fan of both Earthbound and Undertale (who aren’t?), and I have a soft spot for quirky humor. =) Also, I struggle to play any action games these days. They make me extremely anxious. I prefer slower ones, and NITW turned out to be one of the coziest experiences ever.
Brandon: Again, same page. It’s been a fav of both Erin and mine since we discovered it last year. We actually just started a replay earlier this month, and I think we’re now aiming to make that a yearly fall/October tradition. Care to join us in that? hehe
Alex: Yeah I probably should; there are questions to answer and places to explore. Maybe I’ll look at things in a different light this time!
Brandon: Every playthru we’ve caught something we missed before. The game is really great like that!
Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but your Volume 6 submission was influenced by the game, wasn’t it? The bridge scene if I remember correctly?
Alex: Indeed! I tried to capture the bittersweet feeling of revisiting a familiar place years after and reminiscing about the past while early autumn breeze blows in your face! =D
Brandon: Okay, yeah, I can hear that in it without even listening to it again. Yay awesome VGM influences! haha
Brandon: Okay, now that we’re done with the sudden NITW fanboy-ing, time to close this out for real! haha
Any parting words you’d like to share before we do?
Alex: I’d like to give shout-outs to everyone who was involved in the expansion release; to the Tracked team for being an awesome bunch; to my patrons, family, and friends for believing in me; to everyone who listened to our releases and supported us in any way; and to ChipWIN crew for being professional in a goofy world of chiptune! Thanks for having me!
Brandon: You’re more than welcome, man. Until next time, see you around the intert00bs!
Editor’s note: The lovely couple literally just got married and I can’t resist adding a huge CONGRATULATIONS AND MUCH LOVE TO THEM BOTH here at the interview’s end! (ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:･ﾟ✧💕✧💕✧💕✧💕✧💕