Last month, we had the opportunity to interview Henry Allen and Preston Walker of the electronic outfit Virtual Boy before a show. While their music is outside of our usual demographic, their stylistic hybrid of classical melody and harmony in a chiptune bass heavy setting has found itself occupying a large spot in each of our respective libraries the past few months. We talked about everything from Coldplay to Back To The Future, and learned how a homework assignment turned into a touring band.
Virtual Boy interview with Preston Walker and Henry Allen.
Virtual Boy Audio Interview
Preston Walker: I’m Preston, and I’m from Virtual Boy.
Henry Allen: I’m Henry. I’m the other half.
Islander: How long has Virtual Boy been in existence?
Preston: We started this project about a couple years ago. We actually took a music technology class at the university we go to; Chapman University. We actually started it in class; we started writing songs together because our homework assignment was to do a song a week using electronic instruments and programs and stuff like Ableton and Logic. We ended up pairing up and by the end of the semester we had a unique sound. Our professor has a lot of connections with the industry, his name is Nalepa. He’s signed to 1320 Records and he really liked our sound so he sent our stuff to a bunch of labels and we ended up getting signed to 1320. The next we knew we were touring and playing shows.
Islander: Did you meet in the class or did you know each other before?
Preston: We actually met freshman year.
Henry: In college.
Preston: Yeah exactly, just at a party.
Islander: What’s the craziest show you’ve played so far?
Preston: Crazy? Oh my god.
Islander: Before this one.
Preston: Over the top would probably be, we played New Years with Sound Tribe Sector 9 in Denver at the Wells Fargo Theater in front of five thousand people, so that was pretty cool. We’ve done a few festivals; we’ve done Nocturnal in Texas, which was really cool. I don’t know, I think our favorite shows are probably smaller ones, right(to Henry)?
Henry: Yeah, smaller clubs are more fun to play. When it’s packed, people are smashed together and its fun.
Preston: Yeah, the weekly in LA called Low End Theory that goes on every Wednesday – we’ve played that a couple times and it’s always just fricken awesome. That’s actually run by Alpha Pup, who we just recently signed to in LA, so that’s pretty cool. Last week they had Odd Future in, you guys know Odd Future?
Preston: It was a secret set and last night was also a secret set, Thom Yorke showed up and did a DJ set. We were all there. That venue is just really cool, they pack it up so hard. It’s the loudest music and coolest vibes. It’s really cool.
Islander: Could you describe your live setup?
Preston: Yeah. You wanna run them through that, Henry?
Henry: Sure. We basically each have our own little sector of gear. We each have a laptop running Ableton. I play guitar and and two keyboards, one of which is analog synth and the other is a midi controller so I’m playing software instruments. We have iPads controlling Ableton with TouchOSC, and we trigger samples, play drums on those, and do effects. Preston has a couple synths too and does vocoder where he sings through the keyboard. That’s pretty much it.
Islander: So what you say is next for Virtual Boy?
Preston: Next would be…
Henry: Hopefully Europe.
Preston: Yeah Europe, we’d like a little eurotour kind of thing. We’ve beeen playing a lot of shows, a lot of one offs, in the U.S. So I’d like to do a U.S. tour also, but right now we’re in talks of doing a eurotour, hit like London and stuff.
Islander: What’s the one place in the U.S. that you haven’t hit yet, that you would like to?
Preston: Miami, no I think anywhere in Florida actually; and New York.
Islander: Oh, you haven’t played New York.
Preston: We haven’t played New York. We can talk about the symphony. Our SYMPHONY No. NØNE just came out on Alpha Pup Records a month ago now probably, and it’s on Alpha Pup Records. Check it out, it’s kind of cool. It’s a four song E.P. where we kind of did a weird electronic music meets symphony meets beat scene kind of stuff, and dubstep and all that kind of cool stuff. It’s kind of like four movements, they all connect together. I’m sure you guys have probably heard it.
Islander: Oh yeah. What inspired you guys to do that?
Preston: I think the first inspiration was the end of the new Muse album.
Henry: Oh yeah.
Preston: It was a three party symphony and we just thought it was so sweet, so we took it upon ourselves to try to do one, but we did a four part more, you know, I don’t know, never mind.
Islander: How did you come up with the name Virtual Boy? Was it from the console?
Henry: We started making tracks and we had to make a Myspace for our music because our teacher wanted us to. We kept blowing through names, and [Preston] just came home and was like “What about Virtual Boy?” I actually didn’t know about the console. He knew about the console.
Islander: It gave people seizures.
Preston: Seizures I know. It’s insane!
Islander: Aside from Muse, who are you guys listening to right now?
Preston: Good question. Sleigh Bells!
Henry: Sleigh Bells… um…
Preston: A lot of Sleigh Bells!
Islander: Do you guys see yourself doing a festival; something along the lines of Coachella?
Preston: Yeah, definitely.
Henry: We’re playing a couple festivals this summer already we’re booked for; one in Minnesota, I forget what it’s called. We’re playing Lightning In A Bottle which is in Orange County actually.
Preston: Yeah, Irvine.
Henry: Do Lab puts it on. They do a stage at Coachella too. All [the festivals] are this summer. Coachella would be dope next year.
Islander: Favorite movies and favorite Virtual Boy song.
Preston: Favorite movie… Back To The Future; the first one. Favorite Virtual Boy song… I think it would have to be “Thrust”. Most people like that, a lot of people like “Lost Treasure”.
Islander: You should probably play that tonight.
Preston: We’ll play it. But yeah, I think it has to be “Thrust” for me. We just did a new remix for a homie of ours that’s pretty cool though. It’s really different, but I think “Thrust” still takes the cake.
Henry: Favorite song… I don’t know. Probably “Mass”. That was probably my proudest moment. Favorite movie… I’m gonna say Space Jam.
Islander: Good choice. What was the most surreal moment so far, as Virtual Boy.
Henry: When we walked on stage on New Years Eve. Not this year; last year at the Wells Fargo Theater.
Preston: We had only been performing for a couple of months and we kind of got thrown into it really fast. The next thing you know we’re in front of five thousand people. It’s a little frightening but exciting at the same time.
Henry: Honestly, another one was today. A month ago we got a text from our manager and was like, “Hey I just licensed your song to Skins” (The TV show in the UK). Tonight, on that episode, our song “Mass” is on.
Islander: Wow, that’s incredible.
Henry: Yeah, he was like, “The music supervisor just emailed me and asked for it”.
Preston: Yeah, that was pretty cool.
Henry: We just got booked to play with The Glitch Mob.
Islander: That’s cool.
Henry: The first thing we heard that made us want to make music was The Glitch Mob. We just did a remix for them for their remixes album.
Islander: You guys don’t primarily do chiptune, but that’s definitely a part of it. How did you guys get into that?
Preston: Chiptune is interesting. It kind of just came to us naturally because we love old school synthesizers and stuff, and we love playing around with those nitty-gritty sounds. Henry bought this synthesizer called the Roland SH-101. It’s from the eighties, so its got a lot of these cool square arpeggios on it. It just fit and ended up happening and it was really cool and people were like, “Wow, this is really 8-bit”. It kind of plays into the whole, you know, when people composed for Nintendo videogames. They would write these classical songs on 8-bit so that they could fit the song onto the Gameboy. It’s kind of like a hybrid of electronic meets classical and now meets beat scene dubstep stuff.
Islander: Do you guys consider yourself a part of that scene with Sabrepulse and all the other chiptuney guys?
Preston: I wouldn’t say that, but right now I’ve gotten way into that scene, so expect to hear more of that sound in our music.
Henry: We’re going to probably have a new four track EP on Alpha Pup this summer.
Preston: Yeah, by summer. For sure.
Henry: We’re going to do a full length May 2012.
Preston: We’re working on a B-Sides for SYMPHONY No. NØNE
Islander: Oh, nice.
Henry: We got a remix from this guy Young Montana. He’s from the UK, and he did a remix of “Mass” so that’s going to come out.
Preston: It’s really sick. It’s really cool.
Islander: I asked about the live setup already, but how did it evolve?
Preston: Yeah, oh man that’s a really good question. The way the whole live set ended up happening, we were students at a university, Henry is a guitar performance major, and I sing in the choir there for scholarship and stuff so we were kind of grown up classical, playing piano and guitar and stuff. We had never DJ’d before, so kind of getting thrown into this music technology class and as our final we had to play it live. We had to figure out how to do this live.
Islander: And it’s totally different from doing it in the studio, right?
Preston: Yeah, totally different, but the most natural thing for us was to actually play it out because that was the easiest and we don’t know how to DJ. We ended up just taking all our synths we used in the studio, setting them up, and playing it live; just do it.
Islander: Once you guys graduate, what do you want to do with the project?
Henry: We have all the abilities to put ourselves to work; we just have to say no to a lot of stuff because we’re trying to graduate. In may, we’re just going to tell our agent, “Just go wild, send us wherever”, so this summer we’ll maybe do a tour. Definitely in the fall we’ll be doing a full tour.
Preston: Yeah, for sure.
Islander: Is there any message you want us to include?
Preston: (sarcastically) stay in school! I mean, for those of you guys who are trying to pursue electronic music and that kind of stuff, definitely just jump in head first. Don’t be afraid to open up a program or turn on a synth and try to figure stuff out. The more you mess up, the more you learn. We really know nothing about synthesizer programming and stuff; we have been using them for so long and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Everything is trial and error. I remember when I first opened my first computer program to produce beats and I was like, “What the heck is this? What does that knob do?” Just jump in head first, that’s all I have to say. Definitely go for it.
Henry: Get out and see events, because that’s how you meet people and that’s how you get connections.
Islander: What is your favorite live show that you’ve been to? One electronic and one not electronic.
Preston: We saw this guy Jon Hopkins. You guys know Jon Hopkins? He’s kind of an ambient electronic dub producer guy and he does these really beautiful piano melodic stuff dropped with glitchy square-pusher beats. He’s a famous producer; he produced “Viva La Vida”, one of the greatest pop songs; yeah Coldplay. He actually produced the whole album. We saw him perform and we knew nothing about his music and he actually performed after us at a concert at Moogfest. That just blew our minds the way he did his live set. It was fricken awesome. I think that was probably my favorite just because it was so shocking. I had never heard this music before and I was like, “This is sweet!” For electronic, that’s my favorite.
Henry: Yeah, probably the same.
Preston: For sure. Henry and I are into Indie-Electronic bands like Cut Copy and The Presets and stuff like that. I saw The Faint a few years ago and that was really cool. It was insane. It was at the Wiltern so they were up on the [stage]. It was really fricken cool. The lead singer came out with goggles and a lab vest on, he looked like a mad scientist. He just started wailing on the synth and made some nasty noises. I liked The Faint, that was cool. That was electronic too.
Islander: Where do your synths in Ableton come from? How do you guys start and build the synth? We don’t understand.
Preston: Actually we have a lot of analog gear; actual hardware synthesizers that we use. We use a lot of that.
Henry: That’s usually where it starts.
Preston: We like the analogy feel.
Henry: If we can’t find a preset we like to build on a synth, we’ll just open up Massive and we just pan through presets. We find one that sounds kind of cool, and go from there. We delete oscillators, add them, and tweak things. It usually starts on a synth.
Preston: Distortion, delay, reverb, and sidechain [compression]. That’s the thing.
Islander: We wanted to hear an Inception [trailer] music remix.
Preston: We’ve talked about it a lot. Yeah, that would be really cool.
Henry: We’ll have to do that; we’ve talked about it quite a bit.
Preston: Definitely. You guys might’ve just sparked the flame on that.