Hey, what’s up everybody! Welcome back to RCwK! I’m BronxKuma — Kuma for short — and this time around I managed to get a hold of a bonafide legend! A founding father of the Philly scene, this guy’s been making tracker music for nearly 20 years and is proof that time, dedication, and hard work doing something you love can pay off in the long run. Here to talk to us about his journey through chip, some of his more recent and notable projects, and the future, I’m proud to present my interview with one of the very best artists the community has fostered: Alex Mauer!
Kuma: So first and foremost, you’ve been in the scene for quite a while, and some would say you’re something of an icon in chiptune. Tell me, how did you get started in all this?
Alex Mauer (AM): I was always the kind of guy who wanted to make the things I liked. I always wanted to make games and game music. I remember when Tiny Toon Adventures debuted, I wanted to be an animator – so I guess that’s the starting point. I started chip specifically when my cousin showed me some demoscene MODs he had recorded on a cassette tape. When I heard that normal everyday people could make those grand productions, I asked him to build me a computer and then I learned how to use trackers.
Kuma: That’s pretty cool. What was the first tracker you used? And do you still use that software/hardware now or have you moved past it?
Kuma: Ah, you were an Impulse guy! What made you transition from Scream to Impulse? Did you ever give rival programs like FastTracker 2 a shot?
AM: I transitioned to Impulse because most of the guys I met online (on AOL) were using it. In order to hear their songs, I needed to use the program. I then realized IT is based on ST3 and it was incredibly easy to transition. I tried FT2 but I never liked how it favors the mouse over QWERTY.
Kuma: That’s fair. That said, I’m slightly blown away by how long you’ve been doing this for. I was about…9, maybe 10 when you first started tracking. I never would have thought about doing anything like that at the time! How long did it take you to produce your first album?
AM: Ah… well, I made my first proper album in highschool. It was my graduation project. In PA, you’re required to do a grand project to pass high school. It took me around a year to do it, and actually I mostly played the instruments by hand. I only used Impulse for the drums. And that album is locked in the vault. I no longer consider it fit for human consumption. My first chiptune album was an EP i made in 2005 titled “Eat People“, which I made in one summer.
Kuma: So, let me get this straight: you’ve been tracking for about 19 years and yet you didn’t release a full fledged chiptune album until about nine years ago? Was there any particular reason for this?
AM: Lets see, was it really 19 years ago? i think it was 18. It was ’96 when I really began tracking. I was first exposed to demoscene in ’95. But yeah, there was a reason: I’m a perfectionist. That’s primarily it. I didn’t consider my music good enough to really make public until I hit that point in 2005. It was my first exposure to a real NES tracker– Nerdtracker II–and I was super inspired by it. I made a break thru.
Kuma: What was it about working in NT2 that allowed composing chiptune to click? Or do you think it was simply a matter of time and practice over the years?
AM: Well, I had been doing “fake NES chiptunes” using samples since I started – virt was one of the guys who popularized that technique and I was definitely trying to keep up with him and failing. This is back in the late ’90s. By 2005, I was starting to get better at music and I just happened to be super inspired by being able to use the real NES! It sounded so much better! It was like ‘I FINALLY CAN GET THAT SOUND I WANT!’ !
Kuma: That’s wonderful, man. Looking back at that victory in ’05, do you think “Vegavox I & II“ would have still happened if you hadn’t made “Eat People”?
AM: Vegavox absolutely would not have happened. When I first made “Eat People” I had the idea to put the music on a cart, but I knew I had no practical way of doing it.
I met Dino Lionetti (of Cheap Dinosaurs) in 2005 and we hit it off. Eventually we played our first show together w/ Joey Mariano (aka animalstyle) and Don Miller (aka NO CARRIER). It was probably the first Philly chip thing ever. I’m almost positive.
Anyway, that’s the first time I ever met Don and he presented to me the idea of making a cart album: something that already crossed my mind but I figured was not possible.
Kuma: Let’s talk a bit more about that, shall we? The process of actually getting the music onto the cart, getting enough of them produced to sell. Don’s an amazing guy, no doubt, but I can’t imagine this was something that was very easy, smooth or quick to do. How long did Vegavox take from inception to creation to actually produce in cartridge form?
AM: Actually, it took less than a year… maybe about half a year from start to end.
At the time Vegavox 1 was made I worked a seasonal job. Most of the work was done while I was on the off season, meaning i spent ALL OF MY FREE TIME doing music. Don had already done some things with putting ROMs onto carts before he presented the idea to me, so that part was already proven. He taught me how to build the carts and I’m the one who actually made them all by hand. The first run of Vegavox was 170 carts.
Kuma: Wow, that is ridiculously impressive.
AM: Yeah, it kind of proves how crazy i am really. It was a labor of love combined with the fact that I cannot relax. I have OCD and I basically cannot stop doing things – its kind of a creative super power really. They call it a disorder but it makes me able to pull of projects which maybe should not be possible, so I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kuma: Speaking of projects, you mentioned earlier how aside from making music, you wanted to also be part of producing a video game. And over the course of the past year, you’ve had the chance to do that! Tell me, how did you first get involved with Sizzlefist?
AM: Ah yeah Sizzlefist. Well that wasn’t my first game soundtrack but it was a good one. I got involved w/ Sizzlefist thru a working relationship I’ve had with Imagos Films. I met Don Thacker from Imagos Films online. He heard of me from Vegavox and my work with Penny Arcade. He wanted to hire me for his film Motivational Growth, which took a long time to complete.
Before Motivational Growth was complete, we worked on a bunch of other projects together including Sizzlefist. Sizzlefist was put together by Don and Danny of imagos films. They created the concept, and–alongside guys from Pixeljam Games–we made a small game company with only one hit. The company was appropriately named “Studio Crash and Burn”. So yeah we made one game and it was made for Adult Swim Games.
The idea behind that game is you’re a fast food cook who aspires to be better, something more than just a cook. The devil grants your wish by making you THE BEST fast food cook ever! Your hand is mutated into a frying machine: you cook food by punching it with your mutant, lava fist! The funny thing is, you want to be more than a fast food employee, so instead of becoming a real hero you are just THE BEST fast food employee.
Kuma: That’s fantastic, and I have to admit, I’ve wasted a fair amount of time playing it myself. That said, I want to rewind a little and go back to something you mentioned, which was your work with Penny Arcade, which, I won’t lie, I’m not very familiar with. How did you get started with them?
AM: My involvment with Penny Arcade… it all started with 2 Player Productions and “Reformat The Planet“. Those guys put together a great documentary, and they used my music WITHOUT PERMISSION. I just happened to be going to a screening of the film in Philly, and as I was watching, I was like “HEY… WHAT THE HELL GUYS?!”
and right after it was over, they approached me and said “Hey… can we use your music?”. It was pretty funny. I thought the smartest response would be HELL YES for the exposure – so thats what I said, and i was right.
Then those guys moved on to filming PATV’s Penny Arcade: The Series, and once again they used my music without telling me first. It was pretty easy to forgive when I got contacted by Robert Khoo from Penny Arcade. He said he wanted to pay me to license the music. I was like “YES DUDE!” The thing that I regret about the whole thing is that I didn’t realize how big penny arcade was when they made the license agreement with me. They gave me the choice of royalties over time or a lump sum upfront. I was hurting for cash so i took the lump sum. Then I attended PAX East after the agreement was made and my jaw hit the floor: I couldn’t believe these guys were so big! Newb error. I learned from my mistake. Find out who you’re dealing with before signing things. I should have asked for way more.
Kuma: Newb error indeed, but to be fair, I know what it’s like to be strapped for cash too, so I guess you can say it was just the best thing for you at the time. That said, you’ve been involved with Penny Arcade, been involved in game and movie production via Imagos, you’ve put not one, not two, but three albums on NES carts and are one of the founding fathers of Philly chip. So now I have to ask, with all that behind you, what comes next for Alex Mauer?
AM: What comes next! Well, I continue on with doing soundtracks – it’s my dream job – and I’m waiting to strike some gold on a hit game. Paying my dues. There are a lot of dues to be paid waiting for a hit. I just finished a “guest star appearance” track for the fan game “Mother 4“ which is getting a lot of hype right now considering it’s a fan game. It looks very polished. Official, even. I also just started using Soundcloud.
Kuma: Yeah, I’ve been following Mother 4 for a while now. It looks very promising and I love it’s urban feel. And I noticed! How is Soundcloud treating you? Have you noticed a larger response to your music since using it?
AM: Yes! I am surprised at how much activity I’m getting! If I realized people cared so much about Soundcloud i would have started using it sooner! i didn’t really realize it’s a community thing more than just “a place to upload stuff”. I’m trying to put 1 track up per day for a while. I know it’s gonna be hard to go forever so it’s a temporary thing
Kuma: That sounds like a solid plan. A solid, precarious plan XD
AM: I have a lot of singles which aren’t on my Bandcamp albums. They’ve been waiting for some love and are ready to go.
Kuma: Awesome! Then it won’t be so hard after all! That said, Alex, regardless of what comes your way, I look forward to hearing and seeing more of and from you. Is there anything you’d like to say before we wrap things up?
AM: Yes! Please check out Motivational Growth: the film I’m so proud to have scored w/ NES and C64! The movie comes to VOD on Sept 30th and DVD on October 6th! If you like horror, Jeffery Combs, chiptune, or any combination of those, you’ll like–no–
Kuma: Fantastic! I’m definitely looking forward to finally getting to see it. That said, Alex, it’s been an honor talking to you at length like this. We’ll have to do it again some time. Thank you for sitting down with me for this interview!
AM: Absolutely dude! Thanks!
That does it for this edition of RCwK! Thanks for checking out the interview and if you like Alex’s music or any of the companies and projects he’s been involved with, check out the relevant links below! Also be sure to check the blog regularly for the latest in chiptune related coverage, from album reviews to artist interviews and everything in between! Good vibes to you all and don’t forget: Kuma loves you!
‘Til Next Time!
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