Friday, December 30, 2011

It's All Fun and Games at MAGFest

 With his penchant for rapid-fire pop culture references, women and a gutter-level sense of humor, video game icon Duke Nukem has never missed the chance to enjoy himself while thwarting the alien apocalypse.

While pursuing a good time, Jon St. John, the man behind The Duke’s golden voice since the release of “Duke Nukem 3D” in 1996, resembles the character whose franchise launched his voice acting career. In the two years he has visited the video game and music festival MAGFest, St. John has become notorious for stalking hotel hallways in search of festivities. His record at last year’s event at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center was 32 room parties in two nights.

This year, MAGFest X will move to the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center from Jan. 5-8. With last year’s score so high, St. John also says he may need to channel his party-searching energies elsewhere.

Jon St. John is the voice of Duke Nukem.
“I’m not sure how strict their rules are going to be,” St. John says. “I had an entourage of 40, 50 people with me for a good portion of the night, so when you invade somebody’s hotel room who are making noise and drinking, it could be disconcerting to neighbors.”

A broadcaster for 30 years, St. John now works out of his home studio in San Diego doing voice work. Although he has participated in recent and upcoming titles such as Recoil Games’ “Rochard” and Valve Corporation’s “DOTA 2,” he says video games are only a small portion of his efforts. He also covers commercials and character voices for theme parks, among other projects.

At MAGFest, St. John will present as a panelist, most likely fielding questions about how to enter the voice acting industry.
The key, he says, is to audition all the time, since many game producers or directors already have a voice in mind when hiring actors.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a better actor, it doesn’t matter if you have a higher or lower voice, when they hear the voice that fits, it’s like a crap shoot. So my job is auditioning constantly,” St. John says.

Other guests at MAGFest include Ellen McLain, who voiced GLaDOS in the popular “Portal” series, and Grant Kirkhope, composer of games such as “Banjo-Kazooie” and the upcoming “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.”

The festival also boasts a Local Area Network party room where players can join in games through their own computers, a tabletop game room, two music stages, a museum and a marketplace. Additional activities include a charity auction, videogame improv, MAGFest art hunt and art competition.

But at the core of the festival are the games, which Promotions and Public Relations Director Nick Marinelli says cover some 40 years.

“We have consoles that go all the way back to Atari 2600 [and] a little earlier,” Marinelli says. “It goes all the way up to the PS3. Same with the arcade. We’re going to have at least 150 cabinets all on free play and they go from ‘Pong’ all the way to modern music games.”
The Minibosses fuse video game music with progressive rock.
The first MAGFest, held in Roanoke, Va., in 2002, was created by Joseph Yamine, who now teaches writing and film at Ferrum College.

“[Yamine] wanted a place to play games and see some video game bands play,” Marinelli says. “It went pretty well, so I’m told, but it only had 250 people or something and after that finished he didn’t want to do it anymore so Brendan Becker — also called Mr. MAGFest — he purchased it off him … and Brendan started to build it up and brought more staff on.”
Over the years, MAGFest, now owned by the board of directors, has continued to grow, and after reaching the 3,000 person cap at last year’s event, Marinelli says a move was necessary. This year’s numbers have already surpassed its predecessor.

While the festival has enjoyed rising popularity, Marinelli says the event has “stuck to its guns” in spirit. Whereas many gaming conventions are flooded with studios promoting their upcoming titles, MAGFest features current games and guests with little advertisement.

“[Most gaming conventions are] all about … broadcasting, marketing everywhere, telling you about all the new games that are coming out… just trying to get you to buy things,” Marinelli says. “MAGFest is different because it’s all about celebrating gaming in general … and coming together as a gaming community and hanging out with each other.”

Video game tribute bands also will pack the stages, with acts including Austin, Texas, shredders Descendants of Erdrick, jazz fusion aficionados The OneUps and DJ Cutman.
Topping off the list is Nobuo Uematsu, a composer for the “Final Fantasy” video game series. Uematsu has been scoring games since the mid-1980s, but will bring his new rock band, Earthbound Papas, to MAGFest. The band’s first album “Octave Theory,” which gave a fresh rock approach to Uematsu’s past symphonic works, debuted in March.

“He’s like the John Williams of video game music,” Jace Bartet, guitarist of the fellow MAGFest band Bit Brigade says, “So for him to be able to appear in person, onstage, it kind of elevates the event from somewhere in this weird zone slightly above what it’s been in the past, which is a fan get-together, to ... [having] something intriguing for maybe a more casual video game music fan.”

Bit Brigade, which hails from Athens, Ga., first brought its multimedia style to MAGFest last year. The group performs in front of a screen displaying images from games such as “Ninja Gaiden” or “Megaman II.” Playing these games is Noah McCarthy, who quietly sits cross-legged in front of a small television at center stage. What makes the performance unique is that the musicians of Bit Brigade re-create the music of each level and cut scene.

“We don’t have a set list that we can cut from,” Bartet says. “We can’t skip through the game. It’s what we do. We play the game and it’s a defined period of time. The game starts and the game ends and in between that time, it’s going to be 40 to 45 minutes.”

Although the group went on tour this summer to cities such as Baltimore, Flint, Mich., and Chicago, Bartet says the enthusiasm of MAGFest attendees is hard to match.

“When you go to MAGFest, it feels like you’re at Woodstock ’99 or something,” he says.

For Bartet, MAGFest is an event with ample replay value.

“Every year there’s MAGFest and then you go home and you experience very heavy post-MAGFest depression,” Bartet says. “You’re back in the regular world and things feel just a little bit dimmer.”

Photos courtesy MAGFest; Jon St. John.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Blizzard of Beats: Winter Classic Tour storms the Fillmore

Justin Blau is a college student and electronic music producer.
Weekdays, Justin Blau, 20, is a finance major at Washington University in St. Louis. Fresh off a summer internship with Credit Suisse, he plans to graduate in 18 months by taking on a course load ranging from business to poetry classes.

But on weekends, Blau is 3LAU, an up-and-coming house DJ who during the last seven months has found his way off campus and onto stages in cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
“I was getting ready to apply for internships this summer,” Blau says. “Now I’m getting ready to think about who I’m touring with.”

On Saturday, Blau will come to the Fillmore Silver Spring as part of The Winter Classic Tour. He shares the bill with producer Paper Diamond and live electronic trio Savoy.

A musician for most of his life, Blau first became interested in electronic music while visiting Sweden in the summer of 2010.

“It was my first exposure to real dance music and Euro dance music,” he says. “And [I thought] ‘Oh my god, this is amazing.’”

Blau returned to school in the fall, experimenting whenever he could with mashing together bits of pop songs from singers like Katy Perry over driving, synth-laden beats. With his first track “Children E.T.” that February, a friend recommended he post or submit them to college blogs. Blau cites the blogs as a major driver of his music, his Facebook page growing from 100 “Likes” seven months ago to more than 21,000 currently.

Still, it would be during the three weeks prior to his summer internship that Blau began working in earnest on the material that would result in his free-to-download album “Dance Floor Filth.”

To test his efforts, Blau would frequent the social DJ website Turntable.Fm. The site allows users to upload and play songs to others in the same chat room. What was once Blau’s testing grounds also became a major networking opportunity as it was through Turntable that he familiarized himself with other producers and even landed a sponsorship with Sol Republic Headphones.
“I would say Turntable has been, next to all the blogs, the other biggest help that I’ve had all the way, and the community is pretty close-knit and the regulars know who each other are. I’m on there quite often debuting new stuff and asking for feedback,” Blau says.

One of the connections Blau made through hooked him up with singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. Blau will remix her song “Ghost” from her upcoming January release “Human Again.” He considers his work with Michelson indicative of his efforts to focus on producing original material. Two more original tracks are in the works.

“This mash up thing was always kind of a gate. and it was the easiest way for me to get any form of notoriety,” Blau says. “That was always the plan. It was never in the cards that I remain a mash up artist because at the end of the day, I like making music.”

The life of a jet-setting DJ may not seem compatible with that of a college student, but Blau says his professors understand his extracurricular activity. In fact, one of his classes next year, “Economics of Entertainment,” will put a scholarly perspective on his burgeoning career.

“[My professor] agreed that I could do some form of combined research on my career as a DJ and more industry-specific work and research and kind of combine it all into a research project,” he says.

Blau will share the stage with the electronic trio Savoy. The group is known for its high-energy live show, which features two DJs and a live drummer.

Alex Botwin performs under the name Paper Diamond.
The lineup is rounded out by artist Paper Diamond, whose real name is Alex Botwin. Botwin is a more seasoned road warrior than Blau and the gear he takes along when he travels has only become lighter as Botwin controls his shows via an iPad. Running through a series of programs including TouchOSC, Botwin uses the Apple device because he can dissect each song during his performance from a drum beat to individual effects. This allows him to craft unique sets based on the crowd’s reactions instead of spending time beforehand rearranging his shows.

“Its legitimately like ‘OK, I’m going to pick the first song, see what the people are vibing on that night,’”  Botwin says. “And then it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book or something. I just go from there. It makes it enjoyable for me because I don’t do the same thing every night.”

Botwin’s Paper Diamond project debuted in a string of New Year’s Eve shows featuring acts like Bassnectar. Shortly after, Botwin released his first EP “Levitate” through the Pretty Lights Music Label and his record label, Elm&Oak. Under its banner name, which stands for Exclusive Limited Merchandise and One of A Kind, the company acts as a record label, boutique and design firm. Botwin runs the company with partner Berk Gibbs.

Botwin began producing independently in 2010 under the name Alex B. after parting ways with his live electronic band Pnuma, which also toured under the name Pnuma Trio. Botwin says the split was amicable, citing the desire to find a new artistic venture and sound as the reason for leaving.

“Honestly, the change has been the best. Everyone is super happy and musically doing what they want to do,” Botwin says. “We’re not closed off to playing more shows [as Pnuma].”

As Alex B., Botwin released the down tempo album “Moments” in April 2010. With his independent release out of the way, Botwin once again decided it was time to rebrand himself, this time as Paper Diamond.
Originally, he says he wanted to change his name so people would be more willing to accept his move into a
style that touches on more up-tempo sounds with elements of electro, hip-hop and dubstep.

“I think that people come to realize that at my shows, they’ll get a nice barrage of things,” he says.

Botwin debuted his first Paper Diamond release, the 8-track “Levitate” EP, in January. The follow up will be another 8-track EP titled “Paragon,” which, he says, is almost complete. The album’s name is a play on both the word for the perfect diamond as well as paragon’s standard definition as a model of excellence.
“Even though I’ve been able to make hundreds of songs over the past period, these are the favorites that I’m feeling right now, so it’s my personal favorite and my best of the best,” Botwin says of the upcoming release.

The album will also be free-for-download, which Botwin says is what the Paper Diamond project, down to its name, is about: getting the music out there.

“If you have a piece of paper and you’re folding it into a diamond, whether it’s simple or complex, it’s your form of self-expression and it’s your art,” Botwin says. “So for me, making music is like taking nothing and turning it into something, and whether that be simple or complex, it’s my form of self-expression.”

Photos courtesy Paper Diamond; Just Blau