Pixelh8 calls the tunes

Internationally renowned musician Matthew Applegate's unique blend of electronica has taken him around the globe - and it's thanks, in part, to his baby sister.

Pixelh8 calls the tunes

By WAYNE SAVAGE, entertainment writer.

Internationally renowned musician Matthew Applegate's unique blend of electronica has taken him around the globe - and it's thanks, in part, to his baby sister.

“She spilt her bottle of milk on my Nintendo games system. It was about a week after I got it. I was absolutely gutted and - being ten or 11 at the time - thought I could fix anything,” says the 32-year-old, known in the business as Pixelh8.

“I didn't even have the proper screwdriver, so I had to crack it open and made a heck of a mess.

“What I learnt was if I pointed the screwdriver in different places while the cartridge was turned on - very dangerous in hindsight, now I know more about electronics - it froze it in different ways and held musical notes. My friend's father was a radio DJ and we used his equipment to sample and use them.

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“Years later I was in a very bad rock cover band and I used an Amiga 500 as backing for some REM songs. It had a very synthetic, very basic kind of sound that I fell in love with and I thought 'I know how to do this trick with chips' so started combining them.”

The dawn of home PCs and the internet opened his mind further to the world of computers and he learnt to programme in about 30 different languages.

And the chip tune artist - so called because he uses sound chips from old computers like ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s as well as newer devices such as Gameboys and the Nintendo DS to make music - has been breaking toys and musical barriers ever since.

We're chatting at University Campus Suffolk's Centre for Design and Innovation where the father-of-four is studying for his masters in design context and practice as well as lecturing.

Led by Mike Doherty, the centre works with outside partners and sponsors to use and explore converging media and the collision of our physical and digital worlds.

Just down the hall, students are using the latest software to create applications for the newest games platforms and mobile phones.

“If they have a good idea they can develop the software, sell it to the Apple iStore and be sorted when they leave here,” adds Matthew proudly. “Students here have very good job prospects.”

It's a comparison he's probably heard before, but his mind's like a computer; processing multiple paths of discussion with ease - from the world programming crisis to his eldest son's love of Bon Jovi. The one constant is his obvious passion for music; it's hardwired into his soul.

“It's taken about 12 years to get where I am, but it's only the last three years you hear about; it's like 'he came out of nowhere. His third gig was at Apple iTunes; how'd that happen'.

“I started out as a bedroom musician, breaking toys and laying out what was inside. I played in Ipswich for two or three years, but nobody came.”

That changed in 2006, when Matthew won a MySpace competition to open for Grammy-nominee Imogen Heap on her UK tour.

“Prior to that I'd done a gig to eight people in the local community centre, then I show up at Brighton and it was 2,500 people.

“Then I played Apple in California and a few other places and got e-mails saying 'why aren't you playing Ipswich anymore' and it was like 'because nobody came when I did',” he remembers with a smile.

He has since played at places as varied as Berlin's Microdisco, Helsinki's Assembly 2008, Holland's Game in The City Festival, BBC Radio 1's Maida Vale Studios, Liverpool's Abandon Normal Devices Festival for FACT and The National Museum of Computing at the Second World War code-breaking centre Bletchley Park.

In 2008 his second collection, The Boy With The Digital Heart, won Playback Album of the Month from Sound On Sound Magazine. He has also created music for video games, stage productions and media groups around the world.

Being a new father, Matthew was keen to do something nearer home.

As part of this year's Ip-Art Festival, his Childhood Remixed project will see him scouring car-boot sales for items from his childhood to create an automated orchestra of toys along with workshops and lectures.

“I went to a car-boot a few years ago with ten quid and bought two Amstrads, a Gameboy Advance and a sampling keyboard. I spent the rest on a Coke and bacon roll and went home with a complete music set-up. That's where the remixed idea started.”

He's also looking forward to playing the CSV stage at Ipswich Music Day again.

“They've been really supportive of new bands coming up and they've been really helpful to a lot of my students who are studying music, too,” adds Matthew, who has created software and sounds for other musicians such as Heap and Blur's Damon Albarn.

“Imogen used some on her new album, which was really cool. It's very nice to hear some silly beep I created on a Gameboy get internationally played.

“I also made a version for Damon and some software I was developing. I don't know what he's used it on; he's quite secretive. He liked the fact I was reusing largely thrown away technology, bringing them back to life.”

Matthew's different approach to music-making and performing has given birth to a new kind of audience.

“I realised I didn't have a stage act so I go on and talk about my music, how I created it. Although it's well rooted in popular music, the tech behind it is largely very geeky, very elaborate.

“You have trendy people who read about me in Dazed and Confused magazine and you'll have geeky people who read about me in New Scientist - and they all get on.

“The main problem is chip tune gets classed as a genre. Most people's first interaction with it is dance trance so it's very fast, very happy and upbeat. But you can have quite sad ballads, disco funk and so on. It's an instrument, not a genre.”

His shows comprise him and a musical menagerie of Gameboys, Nintendos and some of the 60-odd old computers littering his Ipswich home.

The main bulk can be controlled by a laptop, but Matthew has also developed software for handheld games gear to turn them into real-time instruments.

“Like a Stylophone, it lets you play basic chip tune beeps and musical sounds - push up and it'll play a C, down it'll play a D,” he enthuses.

One musicians' union was so impressed it officially recognised the device as an instrument.

“I've got a piece of paper that says I can take it on an aeroplane and put it in the chair beside me instead of the cargo hold because it's my professional instrument,” laughs Matthew.

He created it in opposition to the sequencer-based software that was around at the time.

“You'd put in all the notes you wanted, press play and then didn't have anything to do on stage. It doesn't lend itself to much of a performance. I've seen people show up then run into the crowd and it's like 'who's playing'. I like the idea of having a live element, the danger of making mistakes; it's all part of the thrill.”

Matthew was born in Ipswich but travelled the world with his mother and specialist American air force pilot step-father - leading to musical experiences with different cultures. He wants to use the software to change people's perceptions of music.

“I really want to engage schools in music. In my neighbourhood, nobody owns a piano; but almost every kid owns a DS. So I took some keyboards and my DS into schools, playing sounds on both and asking who wanted a go.

“They all raised their hands and lined up behind the DS. I asked 'does anyone want a go on the keyboard'? They were like, 'no because we don't know how to play it'.

“They made the cultural decision the piano was for professional performers and the DS was just for having fun. Both were plugged into a huge PA, so it's not like they could quietly make beeps and nobody would hear.

“A lot of people are frightened to make a mistake, play the wrong note. Come along, hit stuff, see what happens; there's no point not trying,” he urges.

Matthew will be bringing his message of musical unity to the streets of Liverpool later this month - in the form of a marching Nintendo DS samba band.

“Anyone who can hit the screen of a DS can make music. I've come up with different drum sounds and a Dance Revolution-type screen so you can learn a song.

“You attach the DS to a mobile amplifier and then you can have an entire group of people marching down the street playing digital samba music.”

This talk of reaching out to youngsters brings us back to a possible world computer programming crisis and the related workshops he runs - specifically the Holywells computing club in Ipswich.

It takes year ten students through the basics of programming by creating two types of game.

“When I started at UCS as a tutor we identified that we're not getting any new computer programmers coming into the system,” he says.

“There's a massive decline in programmers all around the world. Even Microsoft suggests that by 2014 we're only going to have about 1,500 people entering A-level computing - and even less of those are women.

“It's a major issue. Chinese children are leaving secondary school with the same level of programming our degree students are leaving with. In Asia they're cloning Nintendo NES for ten dollars so they can train in the basics of computing and they're ready to go.”

Matthew blames the instant, want everything now culture of the 1980s.

“What's happened is instead of us having to create the tools to make things we've got point and click. It's very alarming that we're at a stage where we're quite happy to think we can solve all our problems this way.

“Essentially, doing that generates all this extra code, extra baggage, we don't need. If we learn to code ourselves, we can do it in a much better, more compacted way.”

The eight-week course at Holywells has been such a hit that more spin-off computer projects are planned, which will see youngsters programming mobile phone apps and robotic devices.

Matthew has others raring to sign up and intends to run the after school club at UCS for pupils who schools don't take part but want to get into computer game design.

For more information on Matthew's work visit www.pixelh8.co.uk

For more information on the UCS Centre for Design and Innovation and the design context and practice course visit www.ucs.ac.uk

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