Armed with Game Boys and a guitar, chiptune artist Danimal Cannon mixes Mario with Metallica

Jan 24, 2019

What do you get when you mix two Game Boys, a guitar and a composer inspired by bands like Metallica? Buffalo’s own Daniel Behrens, more commonly known as Danimal Cannon. He came to the WBFO studios to play some songs and talk to Nick Lippa about chiptune music, including a fully chiptune version of the "All Things Considered" theme.

Artist Danimal Cannon with his two Game Boys
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO

Remember your old Nintendo system? Blowing in to the cartridge and thinking it would help start up your game? (PS-It won’t.) Zelda. Super Mario Brothers. Duck Hunt. The sound coming from those games came from a chip that was built into the system itself.

“Essentially what I’m doing is I’m hijacking that sound chip to use as my own instrument to write my own music on and they sound surprisingly cool.”

Behrens said he has a fear that when he talks to people, they won’t take him seriously after he tells them he makes music on Game Boys.

“They’re not wrong to do that,” Behrens laughed. “Because it is ridiculous. But a lot of people associate that sound with a sort of chintzy, 8-bit, lo-fi sound. But honestly if you use some clever programming and some tricks you can get some really huge and interesting sounds out of them. In the chiptune scene, that’s what we call ourselves, people who make that sort of music, it’s almost like a competition to see who can come up with the craziest raddest sound using those pieces of hardware.”

There are several types of chiptune, also known as chip music and 8-bit music. Behrens said it’s more of an instrument rather than a genre. Video game hardware can make jazz, bluegrass, dubstep, country and in Behrens’ case, mostly progressive heavy metal.

“A lot of old Nintendo songs are almost arranged like you would a rock band, except they have this sense of melody to them that it’s more complex than you find in traditional rock music. I really love the rock arrangement of it, but it had this complex musicality to it that I didn’t really hear anywhere else except for video game music. I’m thinking Castlevania tracks, Mega Man tracks… you hear songs from those games and you can pick them out instantaneously. They don’t sound like anything else.”

Mega Man 2- Dr. Wily Stage 1/2

In Behrens’ song “Roots,” you can hear the percussive gallop taken directly from the Mega Man 2 track "Dr. Wily Stage 1."

So how does one fall into the niche of progressive heavy metal chiptune? It started with 12ish-year-old Daniel Behrens receiving the Metallica live album “Live S**t: Binge & Purge.”

"That's just how it works. You can't be a 12-year-old and watch Metallica tapes in their prime in 1989 and 1991 and not want to play guitar. I'm sure there's literally a generation of kids that picked up a guitar because of those pieces of medium and I'm one of them."

“I watched the videos for that because it came with these VHS tapes of live shows and I was like, ‘Well I have to play guitar now. That’s just how it works.’ You can’t be a 12-year-old and watch Metallica tapes in their prime in 1989 and 1991 and not want to play guitar. I’m sure there’s literally a generation of kids that picked up a guitar because of those pieces of medium and I’m one of them,” Behrens said.

As the '90s progressed, Behrens was a heavy metal kid who listened to thrash metal, electronic, industrial, and as he puts it, “unfortunately” new metal.

All of this on top of being a self-proclaimed big video game nerd.

“All I would do when I wasn’t watching Metallica VHS tapes, was playing my Nintendo. Those were kind of my two things that I was into,” he said. “My parents told me that I was going to grow out of video games.”

He didn’t.

“So (growing up) I never got another system beyond the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES),” Behrens said. “So I, throughout high school, even through part of college, all I ever played was the regular Nintendo.”

Playing games for all those years developed his love for the music accompanying them.

“I tried to convince my band at the time to cover songs from the Nintendo on rock instruments. On guitars and drums. I wanted to make it real loud. I loved the melodies. They had been stuck in my head for years. I did that for a long time,” Behrens said.  

His group, Armcannon, formed in 2005/2006 and continues to play. Their most recent album, Legvacuum 2, came out in 2013.

Danimal Cannon performing live at Lower Terrace at WBFO
Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO

At the same time, Behrens would chat on a forum created by guitarist Grant Henry (also known as Stemage) that started in 2003 called “Metroid Metal.” Henry was making arrangements of songs from the well-known NES game Metroid in a metal format.   

“It was a little sub-culture around heavy metal and video game music and I really just fell down the rabbit hole. I’d go check this forum every day and I became friends with all the members.”

Starting in 2007, Armcannon played MAGFest (Music and Gaming Festival) in Washington D.C. That’s where Behrens met Henry.

“We met we hung out and had a few beers and he was like, ‘Hey! What if we did a couple of Metroid Metal songs live?’ And I was like, 'I will learn them as long as you can get a band that can play the rhythm section,'” Behrens smiled, “because the rhythms were really difficult in those tracks. He went out of his way to make them extra… just extra. That’s how I would put it.”

“I ended up somehow being in two video game cover bands through being a giant internet nerd and a video game nerd and a heavy metal nerd. All of my worlds were colliding into one.”

When arranging tracks from Nintendo games, Behrens learned a lot from the hardware itself. That included picking apart the source code. Through this, he learned many of the tricks old video game composers used.

“All of a sudden I found myself with a large body of knowledge of how video game hardware made music. I played a festival with Metroid Metal in 2009 called Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle,” he said.

"At that festival, I saw some people making music on Nintendo Game Boys out on the street with an amplifier hooked up to a car battery. It was like the most punk rock thing I had ever seen in my entire life."

“It was this chiptune dance party with Game Boys. They had a huge crowd just dancing in the street. It was amazing. I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing I have ever seen.’ I had been studying video game hardware for probably four or five years (at that point). I didn’t realize people were making new original music using video game hardware. I was like, ‘Wow! I want to do that. This is cool. This is exciting. People are making new sounds I’ve never heard before.’ It really came very naturally to me. I felt like it was a test that I had been studying for several years before I took it without knowing.”

It wasn’t until 2012 that he released his first chiptune solo album “Roots” under the name Danimal Cannon. It was originally just a side project that “wasn’t supposed to be anything.”

“It was just going to be some backing tracks. I was just going to play a couple shows around town. I was going to play as many guitar solos as I wanted. It was going to be kind of a jam band kind of a thing. But it turns out that I don’t really write jam band sort of music. I write weird, intricate sort of heavy metal tunes that have tons of detail. So what came out was something a little bit differently.”

After his first show, Behrens had show offers in New York City, Philadelphia and other major cities, but a basement gig in Rochester, NY is what really opened his eyes.

“They had a really cool punk rock chiptune scene going on there,” he said. “I really put a lot of effort in to it after that.”

Watch video of Danimal Cannon performing live in our studio here

Fast-forward to today. Danimal Cannon has three solo albums and has played on four continents: North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Unsurprisingly, Behrens also composes and contributes music to video games. This includes a well-known and critically poorly received action platformer called Mighty No. 9. His guitar solo is used in the end credits song.

“When you compose music for hire, it’s like the Iron Chef,” Behrens said. “Let’s say you’re a chef and they ask you to make a dish like spaghetti. But then they’ll give you some random ingredient that you have to incorporate that’s insane like cumin... So you have to use all your skill as a chef and knowing all your flavor palettes and everything. You have to think on the fly and make something new. Composing for video games is a lot like that.”

“I’ve had to do tracks where they’re like, ‘We want something that’s like Pokémon or Final Fantasy battle music, but we want it to sound like it’s coming out of a fax modem or a dial-up modem’… or something like that.”

This is a real example of something Behrens was asked to make.

To help computer programmers or artists who may not have the musical vocabulary to describe what they want, he’ll ask for a reference sample, something many game composers do. This will lead to combining two different jarring ideas quite often, like Pokémon with a dial-up modem.

“It’s a challenge,” Behrens said. “Many times I say I don’t know if I can do this. Then I just sort of put down some notes and it’s actually worked out really well so far for me. It’s really pushed me as a musician outside of my comfort zone.”

Behrens next project may be putting him in unfamiliar waters. He’s working on an idea that involves a singing voice synthesizer called Vocaloid that’s popular in Japan. It uses avatars that are often anime characters.

“The technology is exceptionally complicated and difficult. I’ve had to study linguistics to figure out how to program voices saying words,” he said. “But I have learned a lot and I don’t know if the project will ever be good enough or if I’ll ever wrangle the technology to really do my grandiose vision with what I want to do with it.”

Behrens said he's gotten feedback from some of the YouTube videos he has released on his channel.

“Vocals are the most human element of music. It’s the most direct sort of thing that we can do. And when you remove the humanity from music completely by making the vocals synthetic, people really have an adverse reaction to that,” he said. “(Some) people hate it. People absolutely hate the sound of synthetic vocals and it’s my job to convince them that they’re wrong.”

8-BIT COMPOSERS THAT INFLUENCED DANIMAL CANNON

If you ever reach the end of an old NES game and get to see the credits, you may notice some blatantly fake names. Behrens said he’s heard stories where old composers had to use fake names so rival studios couldn’t poach them.

Imagine your favorite soundtrack being from a game like Castlevania only to see the name is James Banana, which happens to be one of Behrens favorites. The name is a pun off film composer James Bernard’s name who scored the 1958 film Dracula. The real composer was Kinuyo Yamashita, a young woman who made her debut in this 1986 NES classic.

Bun Bun (Yasuaki Fujita) wrote for Mega Man III and parts of Mega Man IV.

Behrens says he thinks Castlevania III is the best NES soundtrack of all time. Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi, and Yukie Morimoto were credited for the score.

The company that made the Castlevania series was Konami and Behrens said it wasn’t until recently many people found out who actually wrote the music for their favorite game.

“It’s difficult to know who composed for the Konami games because they usually listed it as Konami Sound Team. So they had a team of people and you had to know who was on what roster at that time,” he said. “Now some historians are kind of going through old interviews and translating Japanese magazines and things like that and asking questions… It really was not well documented who did what up until only a couple of years ago.”

On top of all of this, many NES composers have no idea the large following their music has gained over the years. Behrens uses Mega Man 2’s composer Takashi Tateishi as an example.

“(Tateishi) just found out that people love the soundtrack to Mega Man 2 and have done tens of thousands of covers to that music. It’s kind of incredible,” Behrens said.

And then there’s Tim Follin, a composer who influenced Behrens’ song “Axis”.

“He was revolutionary in that he used a lot of really complex musical techniques in chiptune music back on the NES and some other systems,” Behrens said. “A lot of the sounds he used for the NES were actually, you could say way ahead of their time. Now, in modern times when I’m trying to make a NES or a Game Boy track, I’m trying to push the limits of what’s the craziest sound that I can make with this programming and he was already doing that back in the 80’s. And really, nobody else was pushing the hardware near that far.”

Games like Solstice and Silver Surfer stand out immediately because of their distinct and loud arpeggios. Behrens said if he had one criticism to make, it was that he didn’t always write music that always fit the game, he often would just write sweet progressive rock tracks.

Pictionary is one great example,” he said, “where the music really stands out as a poor but amazing fit. Like, why not have insane tracks going on?”

“So the track Axis, which is the first track off my newest album Lunaria, I sort of borrowed the idea to use those wild gigantic arpeggios that he uses in tracks like Solstice and Silver Surfer and I really wanted to extenuate and push the programming as far as it could go,” Behrens said.

Axis was also influenced by the progressive metal band Animals As Leaders. Behrens was performing a gig opening for them.

“They are a really complex shreddy band and I was feeling a little intimidated. I was like, 'Oh, man! I have to write something that’s really going to fit the bill like a crazy progressive rock track.' I wrote Axis to fit in on that bill and that’s why that track got made and I borrowed a lot of influence from Tim Follin while I was making that track.”

You can check out Behrens' TEDxBuffalo talk "Chiptune: Pushing the Limits Using Constraints" here.