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Complex Balance: C-jeff & Ubiktune Interview

July 28, 2011 | | 4 Comments Share thison Facebook Complex Balance: C-jeff & Ubiktune Interviewon Twitter

For chiptune enthusiasts, Ubiktune is now one of the most thriving and exciting labels in their minds. For several years, the little net label has grown considerably from a small Russian Speccy establishment into a fully realized chiptune label, featuring concept albums with a unique and fulfilling flow that the chiptune albums often lack. This year alone, Ubiktune has been responsible for some of the best electronic based albums of 2011.

At the front of this label is C-jeff, the Russian chiptune artist who time and time again has impressed listeners with his incredibly creative process and product. Catchy melodies with an underlying melancholy is his special trade, but in the midst of this darker take on arts, you’ll find a very interesting, cheerful and interesting individual. I had the pleasure of having a long and very interesting talk with C-jeff where we discuss at length his music, Ubiktune, the chiptune scene and growing up in Russia. Of course, we also discuss his upcoming album and the surprise appearances it features.

Read our interview with C-jeff after the jump!

OSV: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, C-jeff

C-jeff: Hello, Audi. You’re welcome.

OSV: Now, you are born and raised in Russia, correct?

C-jeff: Yeah, I was born in 1987 in small Russian city — Yoshkar-Ola.

OSV: So before going into your musical affairs and career, I’d like to hear a bit about how video gaming culture was in Russia during the early 90’s and throughout your childhood. Just in general, how popular was video games within your circle of friends?

C-jeff: Well, my personal earlier memories about video games refer to 1993-1994 or so, the time my uncle bought “Elektronica BK” and then “Delta-S”; a 48kb ZX Spectrum clone. I was happy enough to get involved with it because as I remember, very few of my friends had the same system. This is largely due to the whole situation in Russia at that time. Computerization was interesting and accessible to the ones, who one way or another had any knowledge towards it. My uncle was studying in the university on radio-technical faculty, so this totally explains his interest.

Of course, later, when the game consoles began to arrive, the popularity of video games started to grow incredibly fast. During my school years, most of my friends around had a great interest with video game consoles. Usually it were different NES-clones or later if you was lucky enough, Sega Mega Drive. I must say, we had a really huge interest in that. It was kind of a pop culture item, and by the time my uncle put our “Delta” on the shelf, I was completely obsessed with the NES. Only towards the end of 1999 I went back, repaired and started my ZX Spectrum scene activity.

OSV: What about the concept of video game music, did people take notice of the music in games?

C-jeff: I always considered the music as an important integral part of a game. During the time we were playing on consoles, music was something more to me, that just an element of support. It creates a right mood and takes you deeper into the game. I remember I liked to run through Contra Force for example, mainly because I wanted to listen through the in-game music. Or in my early acquaintance with ZX Spectrum, when I had no AY-soundchip on a board, I liked to associate some music with some game. So, I was playing Saboteur 2 (which actually didn’t have any game music anyway) while playing Koto albums on the cassette player. So for me, the importance of music is an indisputable fact.

OSV: Did you personally have any specific game that truly inspired you?

C-jeff: It is hard choose exactly one game, so I could try to name just a few ones. Ultimate’s Knight Lore, Ocean’s Head Over Heels , Durell’s Saboteurs and, of course, Codemaster’s Dizzy series were the most favorite ones on the ZX Spectrum. Of course, when I moved onto home consoles, I enjoyed titles like Contra, Crisis Force, Zen Intergalactic Ninja and other great Konami titles, but above all I liked the Battletoads. Oh yeah, I loved Battletoads so much. I was pleasantly surprised when found out that Battletoads development company Rare is the legacy of Ultimate, whose games I played a lot on Speccy (ZX Spectrum).

OSV: As far as I know, the consoles available in the region at the times were clones such as the Dendy and later on Kenga. Even though most people around the world associate Russia and games with Tetris (or if you are really nerdy, Gorby’s Pipeline), the clone systems allowed for a lot of Japanese exclusive games as well as American due to the pirate nature of those systems. Do you think this has given Russian based chiptune artists a more varied range of inspiration musically?

C-jeff: [Laughs] really, we had a whole set of these clone NES-systems everywhere. So yeah, I’m sure you’re right, and I would say, it could have planted the seeds. As far as I can see, this influence began to appear closer to the middle of 2000’s or about. The whole ZX Spectrum movement was very popular before that, and at least for me, almost everything connected to chiptune was related to Spectrum and AY/YM soundchip only. I’m sure, chiptunes were rarely done with home video game consoles at the time, probably until the Internet became more accessible to the masses. But then, people began to remember.

Dendy, the NES clone popularized in Russia

OSV: That segue nicely into the topic in which you are most famous for. Can you tell us a little bit how you started out creating music? Had you always had an interest for composition?

C-jeff: Since early days I was connected with music. I was studying playing classic piano in music school, but what is more important, that my father was a guitar player and a singer with his rock band called “Mifa”. So, I always had a lot of sources to good music right at home: lots of vinyl and cassette records together with classical works while doing my homework. As I wasn’t captured by the idea that I can compose music myself on my early years, instead I got a great listener base: Queen, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Genesis and other bands were the sound of my childhood.

After I’ve started my ZX Spectrum scene activity, I was writing lots of software and different games for it, and I always wanted to have the music behind. So, if for the first times I was just hiring favorite AY songs and put into the projects, later I thought what if to try to compose the music myself? As I was always connected with it so much, that was quite a natural decision.

OSV: What is the origin of “C-jeff” as your name by the way? Or is that a secret?

C-jeff: Absolutely not. Back again to the early 2000’s I was needed a name to sign my projects. The first one probably was the “Scorpion Software”. But, you know, I was changing them with the enviable frequency as soon as I found any new attractive one (at least, I thought so at that time :). So I was signing the stuff with bunch of strange nicknames, like “Zen”, “Orion Software”, “DestroyERR”, “Illusion Dreams” and so on.

However, after the composition started to consume me more and more, I decided to settle down and come up with a name that could associate me with my music. At that time, Futurama just began its run and, if you remember, there was a character robot named Flexo. So I took the name that could describe the flexibility of my music preferences and added a “Cj.” prefix to it. I was using “Cj. Flexo” until 2003, when decided to change it for more pleasant “C-jeff”, a twisted form of pronunciation of the shortcut “CjF”. Now I see, “Cj. Flexo” was also just bad as hell.

OSV: We spoke a little bit about it already, but outside of video games, what were some of your musical inspirations beyond the ones you mentioned?

C-jeff: Of course at first, it was my father’s works and the music he showed me. I’ll never forget the times when we were watching live videos of Queen, The Beatles, AC/DC or Aerosmith. We had lots of video tapes with that gold stuff! Second, this is my familiarity with jazz music, and later — closer acquaintance progressive rock and metal. A chance to discover it helped me a lot to understand the way that I compose music nowadays.

OSV: What would you say was your first exposure to the chiptune community?

C-jeff: Well, since I’m involved into demoscene, I was exploring the music of different platforms. Beside ZX Spectrum, you had Atari and, of course, Commodore 64, although I had only the Speccy in use myself. When I got my first PC I was listening to lots of that stuff via emulators or special players. I still love to tune on my HVSC archive and have a good time. I have discovered and 8bitpeoples a few years after, and that was just great to know that there are people outside of the demoscene who honor that kind of music.

C-jeff performing live.

OSV: Your music has an incredible range of atmosphere and style, and your compositions are also wonderfully structured, making the sound very accessible for all listeners. Can you take us through the process how you create a song? Where you begin, how you go from composition to execution and etc.

C-jeff: Thanks, Audi. Well, if to speak about my first years of composing with Spectrum, to learn all the scopes and to get a proper technique I was writing about track a day/two. It was kind of competition, but I was getting lot of pleasure in it. So, I was finishing my study and switched to Pro Tracker by the evening.

Of course, nowadays my songs got bigger and a lot more complex, but I still use the same scheme — no matter if I work on game soundtrack or 10-minutes heavy progressive epic, I just sit down with OpenMPT or CuBase with my midi keyboard, and start writing. I may end with just a 30-seconds or minute at once, next day I’ll continue it. Because of this habit, I rarely come up with a theme in advance. However, sometimes it happens, but usually most of them sent to the island of unused ideas, full of random sketches with idiotic filenames. I’m sure it has some useful things, and perhaps worth being revisited or just checked out at least one day in the future.

In short, I love the process, or better to say, the moment of music creation. Probably that’s why I feel myself so comfortable with working on progressive big form songs.

OSV: I think where most of our readers would be familiar with you first and foremost is through your label, Ubiktune. How did that that label come about and what was the main inspiration into starting your own label?

C-jeff: You know, when I had only Spectrum as a home computer, I liked to switch on some musicdisk and then do stuff at home while listening to it. That was like to listen the actual album of a current artist, not just a bunch of random songs.

Somewhere in 2004 or so, my friend Key-Jee and me thought about to create kind of project, that would collect all the best Speccy musicians to take part in various solo and team albums to be released in executable musicdisk form. The project was called Emphasis. Unfortunately, we didn’t go further the invitation release. People weren’t too motivated about it as we were. So, the project was closed.

A year before I was invited to AY Riders and took part in their third album 8 Bits is Enuff. I’ve noticed those guys released the album and all their previous stuff as MP3 packs, which was absolutely unknown to me because that time I used sloooow as hell dial-up internet connection. Later, in 2006 I finally switched to a ADSL line and found that to have a lot of tunes in such packs like that was very useful. That way it makes the chipmusic more accessible to people over the internet – no need to have tons of plugins, players, emulators and so on if you just want to listen to the music. It is fun, but I hardly knew much about 8bitpeoples or micromusic until that time.

So, I remembered the idea of Emphasis and with my friend Newart we decided to try to recreate the project with a model of netlabel, simultaneously changing the name for “Ubiktune”. The main goal of Ubiktune was to release the Spectrum music albums as MP3s and original tracked files. Besides, at that time I almost finished my first album Konami, so we already had the first release to pull out.

OSV: In my own humble opinion, Ubiktune is bar none the most well executed and impressive out of all the chiptune labels. What really connects with me is the way these releases are directed. They feel like full flowing albums with a clear intentions and tone. Chiptune albums have a tendency of being a bit unfocused and become a cocktail of styles, which even though it is great music, tends to create a somewhat uneven listening experience. Is the flow of Ubiktune albums something you consciously look for, or is it just a coincidental similarity between all the releases?

C-jeff: Yeah, you’re totally right. Since it was kind of legacy of Emphasis, that was one of the initial points trying to have the label that releases the actual albums with its style and sound. So, of course, I have something like a point of view on the stuff that I accept to the catalog.

OSV: In the beginning, Ubiktune was a rather quiet label which releases great albums here and there, but since 2009 you been releasing fantastic monthly albums. What was the reason for the sudden increase in your catalog?

C-jeff: Well, on the first couple of years we were able to get only 4 releases in almost 2 years. The Spectrum music scene was totally unpromising in this endeavor. Besides, during that time I experienced a lot of great chiptune and videogame music, so my own musical perception became richer and I was personally more interested in areas outside Speccy. So I thought about to try to expand the label’s restrictions and have another way to keep the project active. This time it worked out great.

OSV: How do artists go about getting an release on Ubiktune? Naturally I would think they send demos and such of course, but what are the requirements that UT has for an artist to join the label?

C-jeff: Yeah, sending the demo to our email is actually the simplest way. However I also often contact the artists personally, especially for V/A projects, since it has a straight theme and usually I know who of the artists could fit to.

If we speak about the requirements, I’d say the music genre is one of the important ones. Of course, every situation is individually, so the borders are rather blurred, but usually it is the chiptune/vgm music based with progressive rock, jazz, funk, fusion and similar elements. Though, it can also just be a good music that I like [laughs].

OSV: There are so many great albums throughout 2010, such as Sky Burial, the seasonal Tunes series, we could probably talk hours about each any every release. But released in March of 2010 was your special project, Teleidofusion with Around Past which was an interest mix of electronic and live instruments. Can you tell us a bit about this album in particular?

C-jeff: Sure. Teleidofusion is the duo project of my friend Megus and me. We were going to do something together for quite a long time, and finally came up with idea to have kind of ensemble of our lovely chip sounds with real instruments and synthesizers.

Both of us had a bunch of special tracks that were composed many years ago on Speccy. Those days we had only this machine and AY/YM soundchip but the music was begging for more. With Around Past we tried to make all our ideas real, so it has guitars, pianos, vocals, layers of various synthesizers and even alto-saxophone (thank you, Chris!). We also added a couple of new piano-based songs which play the role of openers for each half of the album. So, overall, Teleidofusion is the project where we work with everything we like in music, be it chiptune or not.

Recording Teleidofusion.

OSV: Is Teleidofusion something you will continue doing along with Megus?

C-jeff: Yes, currently we have the second album in work.

OSV: Fantastic! Now let’s jump to 2011. This year has truly been the year of Ubiktune starting with SOUNDSHOCK, an incredible tribute to the FM synth. You didn’t musically participate on the album, but what was your thoughts on it and zinger?

C-jeff: That was quite a great idea zinger once suggested me. I always liked funk music as well as the FM sound, so I thought that would be awesome to have a special line for this kind of releases. zinger selected and contacted lots of FM musicians all over the world. Some of them are well-known, some less, but they all were a pure FM masters. zinger is the boss here.

The artwork was made by Tsuyoshi Shimokura, who deserves a special mention. That super-talented artist and musician drew the cover art by hand, giving the whole project a perfect face. You can feel the whole MADNESS!! of the music on that picture.

So, the overall reaction was fantastic and even higher than our expectations. Especially for me, that was a great chance to meet new names and expand the label’s sound into new areas that I always wanted to try. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to finish my song in time, so to not to delay the release date, I decided to leave it out until next time…

OSV: Equilibrium was released in April of this year. We already featured the album on our site, but this album to me truly inhabits the true soul of what Ubiktune has become to me. 9 artists working together in unison to craft a full story through music, flowing seamlessly together, making use of familiar and new names. This album has become my favorite album altogether so far this year, and your track has helped solidify that opinion.

I really love about this album in particular is the way it manages to use a certain inspiration such as Japan and still create a musical story that works independently from that, and emotionally takes the listener full circle. Absolutely magnificent. So, let’s talk a bit about how the concept for this album came together and how you guys worked to make the songs work so well.

C-jeff: The basic idea came from surasshu this time, and initially it was supposed to be an album of support to the Japan after that scary natural incident. The music was planned to be mellow and calm, but inspiring hope at the same time. More important that we thought to make the whole thing in a very short amount of time, however seems that we were not original enough and more promising projects successfully and more usefully were already being made, such a True Chip Till Death’s Japan complilation.

As our work had already been started, I got two songs that Kulor and Blitz Lunar decided to combine as 2-parts together with some transition. I was already thinking that we have to do something with the whole idea, so that was the key moment of Equilibrium concept. The compilation turned into an imaginary tale about the equilibrium of bad and good sides in life (as the girl on the cover picture symbolize) with the reference on the recent Japan’s accident.

From there on out, we were expanding the concept. I asked Velathnos and RushJet1 to make their songs more dramatic. So, when the first tracks show the rising of another peaceful day, “Poseidon” takes us to the depths of the worst thing you could ever imagine. Then “Waves to Lullaby” and “Maroon” symbolize the calm after the storm, waiting for the “Calming Winds” which brings the sounds of hope to “Recovery” and finally, the “Rebirth”.

Despite some spontaneity during the album creation I was very pleased with the result. The way I’d like to create the music also worked well with this project’s establishment. I need to say a special thanks to surasshu for the support, junkboy for the perfect presentation of the atmosphere on the cover art and of course, to all the musicians who were able to participate!


OSV: Ubiktune has continued with several releases since Equilibrium, such as the eroge tribute album Tree of Knowledge, RushJet1’s Forgotten Music and BLUENOISE from PROTODOME. What else can we expect throughout the summer and fall?

C-jeff: Actually, we have a few surprises to the rest of the summer. Very soon the new long-awaited album called Game Genie from Shnabubula will appear, and also as a few solo releases I’d like to keep in secret for now. In autumn, be prepared for a couple of V/A projects, they will have fairly curious results. Many more albums are in the works, so keep an eye on our website and social networking outlets.

OSV: Naturally, people will find the links to those at the end of this article. Now I wanna ask jump to another topic for a second. In the last few years, we have seen a new-found surge of interest in chiptune music, which has resulted in some acts being even featured in tv shows such as MTV’s Skins, and a healthy live act scene in North America and Europe. But there are some who feel chiptunes does not get the recognition from mainstream that it deserves. Sometimes though the artists that will beat their chest and proclaim themselves the unappreciated artist also composes very particular and technically complex music that doesn’t lend itself well to a mainstream ear, acting more counterproductive to their cause.

Being a chiptune artist who does master the middle ground of complexity and accessible, I am curious to your opinion on the matter, does chiptune music have a place in a more popular market?

C-jeff: Well, nowadays in the age of the Internet, everyone can access and find all kinds of different music. So, if to speak about popular market, I think the Internet itself is the market that gives to musicians a lot of features to access the listener and vice versa. It’s just another genre of music with its roots, history and sound, and when the paths are open, nothing can stop this connection between the artist and the listener.

OSV: Is there a scene in Russia for chiptune acts and music though? Would you consider it growing to become a healthy alternative for people looking for live music there?

C-jeff: Yeah, here we have some kind of chiptune gigs scene, especially in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. There are many musicians, like Kosmopop2, Uoki-Toki, Snork25, GameBoyDrice, 2NRO8OT, etc who compose dance-oriented music with mainly the Game Boy, and do a lot of live gigs here and there. Also we have ChipCult, kind of association who organized here with many concerts for foreign musicians like Stu, Random, Goto80, M-.-n and so on. My friends Siril and Newart also organize some gigs in their towns, primarily playing ZX Spectrum music for people.

So, from my point of view, we definitely have an activity on this side of the chiptune culture. Of course, not to compare it to the American scale, but still. Unfortunately, I can’t really say how it has evolved during the time, because I haven’t really followed this movement since the beginning.

OSV: You also recently started doing some video game music work for Iphone games, isn’t that correct? Was it Color Buttons the game was called?

C-jeff: Yeah, and actually, that was just one of the projects I was involved as composer. I was doing music and sounds for games as a part of The SandS collective since 2006 and until somewhere 2010. That was primarily casual PC stuff, published by Alawar, BigFish Games, NevoSoft and so on. On the last years I made a few projects for iPhone, including the Color Buttons, King Strike and even narrated story for the children’s game called Mystic Maggie.

OSV: So is video games and film somewhere you want to take your music eventually?

C-jeff: Yes. Actually, to score a film is kind of my dream I hope I will be able to realize some day in future. I always loved to listen a lot of film music, like Mark Snow, Jeff Beal, Joe Hisaishi, John Williams or Elliot Goldenthal… There are too many names I could mention. As for games, I totally would like to apply the progressive side of my music to those projects. Unfortunately, that was not possible in almost all the stuff I was involved in to score.

OSV: You have a new upcoming album as well that we been hearing great things about. What can you tell us about it?

C-jeff: Wow, you know, it’s been already more than two years since Electric was out. Time goes really fast. So, even though the album doesn’t have any certain background plot, it tells imaginary tale about a far future and traveling through space. The title is Preschtale, which is actually, the girl’s name who is a pilot of small space shuttle. Musically, the album takes progressive rock and metal influences and will consist of two epics (one of them is 20-minutes long) and a few shorter songs. While Electric had only 2A03 (NES sound chip) and C64 SID sounds, Preschtale goes further and uses additionally lots of FM. Danimal Cannon from ARM CANNON and Megus act as guests on the guitar parts this time.

So, keep an eye on my website, Facebook page or Twitter for further information and updates.

OSV: Before we let you go, are there any other Russian musicians you’d like to recommend to our readers? Be it chiptune or regular music.

C-jeff: Sure. At first, I’d like to recommend a few classic ZX Spectrum composers: Key-Jee, n1k-o who is also known as nq\skrju or nq, D-juice, MmcM and Siril. If you’ll want more Russian Spectrum music, it worth to check the 6th episode of True Chip Till Death podcast, what consist a strong selection of my favorite artists with narrations about each of them.

Second, I’d very recommend to listen to my friend Megus, Darkman007, Manwe and the rest of The SandS, vibe and Sleepy Town Manufacture. Of course, I could come up with many more names but in my opinion, these are the ones you should check the first.

OSV: Thanks so much for all your time, it’s truly a pleasure to finally be able to speak with you!!

C-jeff: Thank you too, and good luck!

Check out C-jeff’s projects and keep updated on his website, Twitter and Facebook.

Ubiktune is always updated with new albums and updates on upcoming works at their own website, Twitter and Facebook as well.

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