Power of the Handheld

Battle Lava’s Nintendo Inspiration

Battle Lava, aka Alexander Westcott, is a Concordia computation arts student who writes music with Game Boys. Photo Marjorie Becker

The name Battle Lava brings some pretty pixelated imagery to mind.

It sounds like it could be an early ‘90s Nintendo game that pits a young male protagonist against a world of traps, henchmen, and evil bosses, all suspended over vast seas of molten, bright orange magma.

As it happens, that’s exactly what Alexander Westcott was shooting for. The Concordia student has been creating and performing music under that moniker, exploring a genre much older than pop culture would lead you to believe.

He’s been writing chip music for the last couple years, digging deeper into an 8-bit universe with each digital EP he releases. The resulting work finds much more value in the sounds than just nostalgia for video games gone by.

“I don’t really blame people for seeing it as a novelty,” said Wescott, “but that is something that I’m trying to destroy.”

The Montreal musician started out playing bass at 13, then moving to drums and guitar. Three years ago he began exploring electronic sounds, and upon finding the genre perfect for his creative voice, Battle Lava was born.

“I came across chip music just randomly, to be honest,” said Westcott. “I always appreciated the audio element of video games and media just in general, but I never thought of it really until I came across other people doing it.

“Within seconds of finding out that people do this I knew I had to do it.”

In discovering production software tailor-made for use on game consoles, the potential for creating a whole new realm of sounds presented itself to the young musician. With this idea firmly in hand, Westcott has been exploring the grainy electronics of chip music ever since, with ‘80s Nintendo technology providing the base sounds.

The Battle Lava weapon of choice is the DMG-01, the first Game Boy to land in the hands of kids in 1989. It may seem primitive now with its four-shades-of-green screen and two-dimensional graphics, but it’s an inspiring tool for the Computation Arts student.

Along with the Montreal scene, the online chip music community offers a window into a subculture that has much more to offer than its nostalgic surface value.

It was through the forums that Westcott met the members of Toy Company, a group of friends that put on Montreal chiptune shows. He stresses how forum culture is far from unique to those who find inspiration from old handsets.

“I don’t want to say that chip music is a product of the Internet, because people were doing this before they had Internet at home,” said Westcott. “The only way that I could argue that is the same way that any [music scene] is. That’s how our generation is, we live in a virtual space.

“I don’t want to make that unique to chip music because I feel that can be a misconception. I think misconceptions are a big thing when it comes to chip music.”

As the craft grows and expands, so will the scope of chip sounds. For Battle Lava, the goal is to create dance music that is not necessarily defined by its genetic ties to plumbers and falling bricks.

“Your understanding of the medium before using it is video games, so the stuff you do in the medium is really related to your prior experiences with it,” said Westcott. “The more experience you have with it, the less important those prior ones become,” however.

On his latest EP, Screen Hallucinations, Westcott has really begun exploring the experimental potential of this process, stretching and distorting tones all the more engaging. Constantly writing new material, he’s sure to keep treading this less travelled side of chip music.

“I just want to use [a Game Boy] as an old computer. I like to use it for reasons of appropriation, using the technology in a lateral way, the way you’re not supposed to do it,” he said.

“This artistic appropriation is kind of like a punk aesthetic way to look at the medium. Screen Hallucinations is my first attempt to not sound like video game music, to try and do something really impressive with the technology.”

Battle Lava / Oct. 22 / CFC (6388 St. Hubert St.) / 8:30 p.m. more info