I’m not entirely sure, but I think I may have witnessed, last Saturday night, a spot of history in the making. Brisbane band 7Bit Hero’s launch for their debut EP ‘We Eat Loot’ was a groundbreaking cross-media experience, and I’m grateful I got to be a part of it.
This was an unusual show in so many ways…let my businessy bullet points enlighten you on the how and why:
– 7Bit Hero sent out a pre-gig email to guests who’d purchased presale tickets, with instructions on how to download a custom smartphone app that would be used during their show. So, my interest was piqued before even attending, as I wondered why I needed to find and send the band my iPhone’s UDID (I had no idea what that was either), and what these guys had in store for me…
– The band somehow wrangled themselves a popup performance space in the middle of the State Library of Queensland’s current ‘Garage Gamer’ exhibit (a showcase of up-and-coming game designers, with all the exhibitor’s games available for play on iPads in the venue). This was a total stroke of genius for the band and, as I discovered, matched up really well with their whole aesthetic, musical ethos and mission for the evening.
– There was a help desk at the gig, for people who’d had difficulties configuring or downloading the band’s app. (Yeah, I was one of those who had to line up. The help desk staff were super nice.)
– 7Bit Hero’s lead singer, Hans van Vliet, also doubles as a game designer. (7Bit Hero is essentially a multimedia extension of his solo project, Hunz). There was a beautiful array of different videos projected behind the band for each song – all of which looked like game landscapes, and were designed in 8-bit, classic computer graphic style, with modern twists.
– The big surprise (the mysterious app we had to download) was that the band’s app was a game – a game designed to be played during the band’s show! You began the cute, quirky game by creating your very own character – your own ‘7Bit Hero’ – and throughout the gig, you character (as well as everyone else’s) would show up on the gaming landscapes onscreen behind the band, duking it out to see who would emerge as winner at the end.
This was a very well-integrated operation, with so many elements balanced in perfect sync.
Except for one thing: the game wouldn’t work!
ALL the weepy emoticons.
But more will be revealed, my friend, as I intimate you to how the night flowed…
As mentioned, the choices of timing and venue were inspired. Instead of the usual milling-around-before-the-band-plays, 7Bit Hero’s crowd had an interactive game exhibit to keep them occupied and entertained. Some of the games were awesome, some downright bizarre, and one of them was even singer Hans’ very own ‘Penny Time’, a rhythm skateboarding app designed for use on iPhones, iPods and iPads.
The crowd was all ages – and I really mean that; there were children who couldn’t have been over five years old, a lot of 20 and 30-somethings, and even the odd grandma and pa. I don’t usually bother mentioning drink service, but being someone who frequently forgets that cash even exists, I was impressed that there was an EFTPOS machine at the bar. As I dorkily sipped my apple juice, I mused on how fitting it was that an event so focused on technology managed even to integrate it into the evening’s refreshment service.
The room darkened around 8pm, when 7Bit Hero graced the performance space. During the opening chords of the band’s first song, I found myself reminded a little of Garbage, with the triphoppy patterns of drummer Richie Young’s beats and samples, and Hans’ crunchy vocal distortion and slick pop melodies. Bassist Phil Evans kept a steady groove, but it was Hans the crowd couldn’t take their eyes off for that first song. With his laptop, Roland keyboard, array of pedals and handheld keys/sample trigger remote, Hans is a quirky and memorable frontman. Playing his trigger wand with facetious faux-rockstar moves, he seemed to be simultaneously acknowledging the absence of the typical guitar/bass/drums band setup, and gently mocking the bravado and machismo that oozes out of so many guitar-wielding frontmen.
It was after the first song that things started to go a little haywire. After humbly thanking the crowd for being there, Hans explained about the app, and he (and the band’s video screen) encouraged us to open the app and join the game. Unfortunately, we couldn’t. I could open the app, but…nothing happened once it was open. After some nervous looks and conferring between band members, Hans apologised that they were actually beta-testing this new technology, and that hopefully it would be working before the end of the night.
With a ‘show must go on’ attitude, the band told us, ‘We’re still gonna play for you!’, and bravely plunged ahead into their second track.
I’m gonna confess something to you at this point; my note-taking on my phone got a little jumbled and I can’t quite remember in what order some of the songs were. Memo to self: next time, write things in order and don’t start scribing 5 different notes at once. However, the first song that really jumped out at me and grabbed my heart was ‘Oracle’, so let’s pretend that happened right about now.
The song opened with Hans’ searing, heartmelting falsetto juxtaposed against glitchy samples. A wintry landscape adorned the screen, with angular ice crystals jutting into the sky. Even the lighting was well chosen for this song, with blue spotlights spreading a snowy glow over Hans, Phil and Richie. It became apparent to me at this moment that 7Bit Hero had created for this evening not just a game, but a world, to become immersed in. I, and I think everyone in the crowd, was heartbroken for them when the game didn’t work. It looked like an awesome game to play, and I wish I could be experiencing it the way they had wanted for us. However, all wasn’t lost. The audience was still getting a good picture of what it would have been like, in seeing the lovingly created landscapes onscreen.
Before the next song, Hans mused, “It was bound to happen. You try to do something big, and it laughs in your face.” Ah, the best laid plans…he then shouted to the crowd, “Let’s improvise! Give me a topic!”. Proceeding to rap spontaneously for us, he kept up a surprisingly good flow. Okay, so the rap didn’t rhyme, but you try randomly spitting out words out of nowhere and see if they even make sense. Hans has a natural, self-depreciating humour that had the crowd laughing along with him (not at him). As a confident, yet humble, spirit, he is the perfect person to lead the epic, beautiful, but undeniably slightly geeky project that is 7Bit Hero.
The band’s next song, “Fight”, drew me to make a comparison I’m sure won’t be a first for the band – Deathcab For Cutie. It’s an inevitable parallel to make, with both bands sharing an aptitude for sweet pop songs, simple but straight-to-the-heart melody layers, and quirky lyrics. 7Bit Hero are a lot more synth and sample driven than Deathcab, but I see a strong similarity in their left-of-centre catchiness and well-structured songs.
As I observed everyone tinkering on their smartphones throughout the evening, I felt that 7Bit Hero had tapped into the current human mindset really well. So many of us are consistently glued to our phones these days. Now that we have internet, wifi, bluetooth, MMS and apps, our phones have become our micro-worlds. 7Bit Hero not only made it okay for us to be on our phones during their show, but stepped it up – so that instead of us ignoring them, we would actually be interacting with them. I mean, really, that’s pretty genius.
There were echoes of Foster the People in some of the next tracks, with dancier beats being introduced, and a lot of shouty chorus echoes, vocal delays and distortion used to underscore certain vocal moments.
Another standout song of the set, to me, was ‘Come on. Stand Out‘:
Come on Stand out
Join me and let’s shout
And change this
It’s OK to have views that are not like mine
Don’t troll or lame attack me please
It’s the fact that we love that makes us shine
It’s what makes us greater then beez
At this moment, perfectly timed, bees filled the screen. And it indeed made me bee happy.
7Bit Hero showcased great range throughout the set, with songs about mining gold, naughty cacti, and even some moodier, more lower-end driven tracks.
In between songs, the band remained hopeful about the app working, with Hans asking, “Anyone?…” and then, as the crowd shook their heads, “Aw, man!”
Though this band definitely has some hits, and played a ridiculously tight, great sounding set, the only criticism I can make is that I can see a uniformity to many of the sounds used. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s good for a band to have a defined sound. But I can see some limitations with the music sounding quite similar after a while, with same-y loop and gaming sample sounds being used. However, this really shouldn’t be a deterrent for anyone to go see one of their shows; this band has a great sense of the rise and fall of a song, and even if some tracks sound similar, the video and lighting helped created a separate scene for each song. Each song had something memorable about it, with most boasting straight-to-the-heart melodies and interesting effects. I can genuinely say that the show was an unparalleled experience that I’ve been ranting about to anyone who’ll listen for the past week.
Before the last song, Hans addressed us again: “Thank you all so dearly for coming out tonight – we will be back and this will be working!”. He told us how humbled he was that people came out even though it was raining, and mused on the fact that it’s great we were supporting an indie band who put all this together in their spare time. The final song 7Bit Hero played for the night was titled “The Winner’s Song”, but, as Hans said, we were all winners that night. This was a song that was designed to incorporate the winner’s name (and the info they’d given when creating their character). But since no one/everyone was a winner that night, Hans just sang the default lyrics (which was pretty amusing…)
The names of people who had bought tickets scrolled upon the screen during the last song, with the song’s lyrics summing everything up perfectly:
You are a winner in this awesome game tonight
You are a winner ’cause you pushed a button fast…
Oh I bet that when you came here you felt so alone…
But how fate decided to turn on you so unexpectedly
Heaven knows that ‘he or she’ is so special
And the other ‘insert occupation here’s,
They think you’re cool
The crowd is jealous cos you pressed a button fast
You are a winner so your gloat gets +10 rights
I bet if lasers felt sadness they’d party with you
I bet if ponies rode people they’d only choose you
I think you’re so chromy or matte like the ps4 console…
This final song was the pinnacle track, as a good final song should be: an incredibly hooky, feel-good tune, with lyrics that tied the whole theme of the launch together perfectly.
After the band finished (to thunderous applause), I overheard a disappointed child’s interaction with his mother:
Child: That was awesome! But what happened to the game? I wanted to play the game.
Mother: I know.
Child: Why did it not work?
Mother: It just didn’t quite…sometimes things just don’t work out how you want them to.
Child: But I wanted to play!
Mother: Well…we’ll just have to come to the next show!
As this interaction illustrates, this was a genuinely impressive show. And even though all didn’t go according to plan, people will be keen to come to the next one. Perhaps the band should have had a better contingency plan in case things didn’t pan out, but who knows – I have no idea how any of this business works. I know they did their best, they played an amazing set, and everyone loved it regardless.
After speaking to Hans’ partner, who was manning the merch desk at the end of the night, I learned that the band actually did test the technology the night before the gig. Everything had been working fine. It was just that when they got so many people in the room trying to get into the game at the same time, the game crashed. I guess sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan, and this show was a great example of how things can still be successful if you’re willing to be adaptable and improvise.
7Bit Hero are true artistic pioneers doing amazing things, and (I can’t stress this enough!) you should go see them whenever you get the chance. This band has a genuine understanding of what makes live music tick – engaging the audience – and it’s obvious this is a band that truly cares about giving you, the punter, an amazing experience.