Chiptography: I'm sitting with Nikola Whallon. Am I pronouncing it right?
Nikola Whallon: I pronounce it "WAY-lin" and then "NIK-ko-la." I pronounce Nikola wrong. Apparently it's "ni-KO-la" yeah.
Chiptography: That's what I thought...
Nikola Whallon: Yeah, that's just how I say it.
Chiptography: So that's your actual legal birth name?
Nikola Whallon: Yeah, like from Nikola Tesla ‘cause my mom is from Yugoslavia where at the time I don't know what it was, but Tesla was born over there.
Chiptography: Oh! Interesting! A lot of people don't use their real name as their chiptune artist name. I wasn't sure if that was your actual legal name or if that was the name you preferred to be called. But it's your actual name?
Nikola Whallon: Yup!
Chiptography: Why did you decide to keep it as your artist name?
Nikola Whallon: Probably a combination of me being lazy and it's sometimes difficult to keep track of faces and names and artist names. I like to write all sorts of kinds of music and I didn't want to have to make a different project for each of them. I just wanted to be known as, "Hey, that guy writes music and sometimes it's really cool chiptune, sometimes it's totally different."
Chiptography: What other types of music do you do?
Nikola Whallon: I guess I started writing classical music and then I started writing rock music when I was in high school. I was in some rock bands. And then electronic music in college and then at the tail end of college is when I started chiptune specifically.
Chiptography: Did you study music in school?
Nikola Whallon: Sort of. I studied music a lot before college. When I went to University of Michigan, for fun I took a bunch of music classes but not enough to minor or major, just sort of to meet the people and learn some composition stuff. I have to say, all of the things, credit should go to my parents. They started me at violin at 5. Obviously I hated it for like five years and then by the time I hit middle school, I liked it. Right around that time, I started picking up other instruments because I realized that I really liked instruments. I took piano lessons, I continued violin lessons until I was 17. I picked up the guitar like everyone in high school does more or less. I just sort of went crazy. I started composing very simple tunes.
Chiptography: Aside from chiptune, you're part of several musical groups. What are they and can you tell me a little bit about them?
Nikola Whallon: Ya! So I used to be in a couple bands before life got really busy (starting in 2012/2013?) - I've been able to keep doing my solo chiptune act during that time because you don't need to coordinate with other people, but I really love playing in groups so since I finished grad school I started playing with 2 klezmer groups, 3 orchestras (the Seattle Social Rock Orchestra, the Seattle New Baroque Orchestra, and the Seattle Video Game Orchestra and Choir), and a 10 piece rock band called Steel Beans. I play violin in all of these, except a little sax in Steel Beans and a little clarinet in one of the klezmer groups. It's a really full load, and I have to drop from some of the groups for some concert seasons, but having the opportunity to play all sorts of different styles in the different groups is really musically fulfilling.
Chiptography: Tell me about your family. Are they also musicians?
Nikola Whallon: Ya! So my dad is a violinist, also just amateur. He does stuff for fun but he got me into it. My mom doesn't play music herself but she was a big reviewer of media back in Yugoslavia. She had listened to tons of music and has a lot of perspective from her background. My mom introduced me to my favorite band of all-time, Bosnia-based Bijelo Dugme, and their composer Goran Bregovic. She also introduced me to Balkan music in general, one of my all-time favorite genres. A lot of Yugo-nostalgic influences have made their way into my music as well - I do several Balkan numbers during live sets, and while sometimes those less familiar with the genre do catch on at concerts, if my mom and her friends are ever in the audience, they burst into dance to the 7/8 beat, it's really cool!
Chiptography: You shared the history of your family on both your mother's and father's side. Not only is it incredibly interesting, but it shaped you into the unique person you are today as far as your musical background and political passions.
Nikola Whallon: I try not to delve into politics too much on stage or at shows, but it'd be naive to think politics should be separated from art, and this is definitely an appropriate place to get into it. My mom is from Yugoslavia, and her parents were super OG life-long communists, and my dad became a university professor in the 60's, came from a long line of academics, and in many ways was your stereotypical hippie-socialist-academic type. This has definitely contributed to me being a vocal leftist for sure! And it gave me an appreciation for both boots-on-the-ground leftists and also armchair leftists.
My grandmother on my mom's side fled into the woods after the Nazis burned down her home, and she joined the partisan movement as a secret messenger. After the war she volunteered her labor to build Yugoslavia's infrastructure, and my mom's dad joined the Yugoslav army - both working towards that whole brotherhood and unity ideal. My mom really enjoyed growing up in Yugoslavia, it was a lot different from the stereotypical view of authoritarian communist countries - Yugoslavia broke off all ties with Stalin in the 50's, even after Stalin tried to intimidate them bringing tanks to the border, but Tito wasn't having any of it. Yugoslavia also had a thriving art scene (music, movies, etc), and my mom worked in the media as an art critic, and also did stuff in theater-like directing.
Chiptography: Wow, that is wild! What a different reality your grandmother and mother lived in.
Nikola Whallon: Learning about Yugoslavia really had a big impact on me politically - in the US we learn that "communism is bad, period" but there are bright exceptions out there. I remember it was either me or my brother who wrote a paper in middle school about Tito's Brotherhood and Unity in response to the prompt "write a report on why communism is bad". When explaining the benefits of Yugoslav society, the teacher's response in red ink was something like "oh, I didn't know that." I'm not saying I'm a communist, I firmly believe 21st-century problems need 21st-century solutions, but the blatant anti-communist propaganda in this country is pretty sickening, there are good ideas on the left. Anyways, Tito eventually died, and so did his Brotherhood and Unity - the Balkans fell apart in brutal genocide, and the rest is really complicated history.. I remember when NATO, backed by Clinton, bombed our friends and family in Serbia - my grandparents in a bomb shelter, some of my parents' friends narrowly escaping just because my dad called the day before to let them know we were gonna bomb them.
Chiptography: I can’t imagine the fear and anxiety your family had to endure during that time.
Nikola Whallon: My dad has been an archaeologist for over 50 years and has traveled the world over decades, bringing back an appreciation for cultures and art and music and "old things" from everywhere he goes. I'm in the process of getting the saz he bought in Turkey in the 60s restored and recently have gotten really into ashiks (Turkish saz player/traditional singers), my dad used to go watch them play when he lived in Istanbul. His work travel is how he eventually met my mom, similarly, I met my wife during work travel to Japan.
Chiptography: History repeats itself!
Nikola Whallon: My other passion in life, science, comes from my dad. Both him and his dad were professors, and while I likely won't go down that route, I did manage to snag a PhD in Physics along the way. Doing that research is like super geeking out, and understanding the coding, electrical engineering, signal processing, etc that came from the research is actually really illuminating as a chiptuner and audio engineer as well. During one project in undergrad, I determined the waveforms of dozens of variable stars, and converted the data to WAV data, threw it into my sampler, and then I could play tunes from variable star waveforms with a midi-keyboard! Ultimate geeking out.
Chiptography: Did you grow up in Washington State?
Nikola Whallon: No, I grew up in Michigan, in Ann Arbor. The first chiptune-y stuff that I did was with this group, Piko Piko Detroit. They were super awesome but one by one a lot of the members started to move other "more hip places" like me now in Seattle. I love Seattle so much. I want to stay here for the rest of my life.
Chiptography: We're currently talking on your houseboat which is amazing! Tell me a little bit of how you found this houseboat and how you figured out that you wanted to be on a houseboat.
Nikola Whallon: I was applying to grad schools and I got into a few. I started looking at the cities that the grad schools are in got it down to, "I like both of these schools, which place would I rather live in?" I was curious if it was financially feasible to buy anything which is very hard these days. The cheapest place I found was this houseboat. I looked at it and I saw the price tag and I was like, "This is the most amazing thing in the world. I have to live here." And so we figured that out and here I am now.
Chiptography: Amazing. Were you with your wife at the time?
Nikola Whallon: We were dating long distance. We were long-distance for five years 'cause she lived in Japan and I lived either in Michigan or later, here, Seattle. But we weren't like fiancee or married or anything.
Chiptography: How did you meet?
Chiptography: I love it! So then you started talking and became friends and decided to go long-distance?
Nikola Whallon: Yup- kind of right away. We went on like three dates while I was in still in Japan during that trip 'cause you can't stay for too long. We decided to go long-distance right away and I came back three months later and went from there.
Chiptography: You speak Japanese, correct?
Nikola Whallon: Yeah.
Chiptography: Did you know Japanese before you met her or was it something you learned?
Nikola Whallon: I knew before I met her but at various levels. I'm still getting better. By the time I met her I was competent enough that we could hit it off.
Chiptography: Why did you decide to learn Japanese?
Nikola Whallon: Let's see... I mean the honest answer is that I'm a massive weeaboo.
Chiptography: What's a weeaboo?
Nikola Whallon: A weeaboo is like a foreign otaku. Foreign from the perspective of Japan. Apparently it has a really weird history where it was autocorrecting the term "wapanese" on some website at some point and then it took on a life of it's own. It basically means someone who is not Japanese who is pretty obsessed with Japanese culture.
I was in middle school. Anime and video games. It has to be anime and video games. The more you get into anime and video games…. first you see Toonami, and you get the video games from Toys “R” Us but you dig deeper and then all of a sudden you realize that this world of anime and video games is much bigger in Japan. Now it's not so much the case. Now our cultural exchange is much faster. But you know 10, 20 years ago there's always a time lag when we get to watch DragonBallZ and when they got to watch DragonBallZ and stuff like that.
Chiptography: Wow. And now you have a Japanese wife and a baby.
Nikola Whallon: Yup.
Chiptography: How old is your baby?
Nikola Whallon: He is 7 months.
Chiptography: Brand new!
Nikola Whallon: Yup.
Chiptography: Aww. And you have a Japanese cat! What's your cat's name again?
Nikola Whallon: Rin. Short for Ringo. In Japanese it means, apple. He came here originally from Hyogo-ken and then to Tokyo and then his first stop was in Berkley, California where I was at the time. And then we went to Michigan and then we went to Seattle. So he's been all over the country and all over the world. He's really good in cars, not so much planes, but cars- he digs cars. He belongs to Yumi and she got him something like 7-9 years ago. So before we met and stuff.
Chiptography: He's part of the family now.
Nikola Whallon: Yup.
Chiptography: What's your day job?
Nikola Whallon: I'm a software engineer. I went to grad school for physics and that was great but there aren't a terribly large number of jobs in physics and some physics people from the University of Michigan that went on to make a start-up in San Francisco got a hold of me and said I could work remotely. That was an offer I couldn't refuse. So I do software engineering.
Chiptography: What type of software do you work on?
Nikola Whallon: A.I. We write models for natural language processing. Speech to text. I started a year ago, but because we have the baby now, it would be convenient to separate work and home more. A week ago, the company agreed to get me access to a co-working space which is right over there [pointing out the window]. You can kayak there. It takes about 20 minutes. It's on the water.
Chiptography: You kayak to work?
Nikola Whallon: That's right. I tie up to the floating office space but then I go inside to the building which is nicer. That's one of the reasons I love Seattle. We have two big lakes: Lake Union and Lake Washington. And then west of them, we have the whole Puget sound. You have mountains and you have a forest and you also have a gigantic city with everything that you would want from a city.
Chiptography: It definitely sounds like the best of all types of worlds and environments. That's really interesting. That's really cool. I like it. I'm liking it more and more.
Nikola Whallon: Maybe you should move here!
Chiptography: As far as your creative process, do you have something already in your head that you're then just trying to pull together and in a more visceral way or do you take something and build on it and let it grow?
Nikola Whallon: I try a lot of different things. When I hear music in my head that I think sounds really cool and I try to write it, that is the hardest for me. I wish I could do it better because you often hear things in your head abstractly that are extremely cool but then putting it on paper or putting it on a sound chip is much more difficult. What ends up working much better for me, although I continue to try other techniques of being creative, but what ends up working really well for me is I'll grab and instrument and I'll just doodle daddle for an hour. I'll hit on some things that I really like and then I'll write them down and then maybe I'll build on them then. Maybe I'll just diddle daddle some more and a week later I'll go back and build on some of the riffs and whatnot that I wrote down. That's what works best for me these days. Because of that, I'm trying always to learn new instruments 'cause you have a completely different perspective the way that you do your diddle daddling.
Chiptography: What types of instruments are you experimenting with?
Nikola Whallon: I just this year, picked up the saxophone. It's extremely fun. Luckily I played the clarinet before and my mouth was somewhat used to making the noise. Flute for me is impossible. I can't make a noise. People are like, "Oh, I'll just blow on a bottle. You can make a noise." No. I cannot make a noise blowing on a bottle. My hard limitation there. I know, I've seen people do it. I have started to make sound on brass instruments. I've played trombone a little bit but sax is going really well and I'm working it into my live stuff too. It won't be ready until maybe the end of the year because I need to work on stamina unless I just want to play one or two pieces. It's totally different than violin, totally different than guitar, totally different than keys. The production of the sound, the way that you do the fingering and whatnot. So the diddle daddles that I get out of it are different. When I write that stuff down it is different music.
Chiptography: That's great. Tell me about being a dad.
Nikola Whallon: It's really, really awesome. It was terrifying at first just because the baby is so fragile and you're afraid at every step but he's started eating like crazy and he grew very big. It's just so fun playing with him. He likes music! He's kind of picky though. He likes when I play violin and when I play guitar but if I play clarinet too loud, he's like, "No, I don't like that" and I'm like, "ok fine I guess I won't play that for you." His favorite is my tamburica right there, it's kind of like a mandoline but from central/south Europe. He loves it. He plays with it and he plucks it and stuff. I'm like, "You're already plucking it. That's so cool!"
Chiptography: Do you know if you like that as a kid?
Nikola Whallon: I have no idea. I do know that when I started violin I hated it. That makes sense. Your parents are making you do work or whatever.
Chiptography: It's also a really difficult instrument.
Nikola Whallon: Yeah, it is extremely difficult and I don't like it when people who love violin will say it's the best instrument in the world. Well purely from an ergonomic point of view it's a terrible instrument.
Chiptography: Yeah, I mean you have to hold both your arms up in the air for a long time.
Nikola Whallon: And your neck in this thing and there are techniques where you don't need to pinch it with your chin and stuff but then you have to focus on other techniques for shifting. The way that it's taught is totally different if you're doing modern classical where you pinch it so you can shift freely or older styles, either old classical music or like fiddle tradition. Then you don't shift as much and your neck is more free and that's nice but then you have sort of less things that you can do with it. Anyways, I love it as an instrument but it's very hard and it's not a perfect instrument. No instrument is perfect.
Chiptography: What is your favorite instrument?
Nikola Whallon: [sigh] I mean, it's violin! It has to be!
Chiptography: After all that?!
Nikola Whallon: Just ‘cause I'm most comfortable at it and I have the most experience with it. If I stand back for a minute keyboard is easily the most utilitarian instrument. It's unbelievably useful and great. I think saxophone is the coolest instrument. I read a book recently on trombone actually that claimed the two perfect instruments are the violin and the trombone and I immediately knew why they said that. They said that because you have a true sliding scale. You can play any note, any microtone. Guitars have frets. Keyboards have as many tones as they have keys. Saxes have keys. Clarinets have keys and holes and flutes have keys. Recorders have holes. So they're all discreet instruments. In other words, you can do techniques to bend around a basic tone but they're not nearly as versatile in tone in terms of microtones as violin or trombone.
Chiptography: What about chip? Is that even more limited or is it less limited in the amount of tones?
Nikola Whallon: Gameboys are great actually ‘cause they can generate all frequency. Not all frequencies literally but basically all frequencies you'd want to hear.
Chiptography: But is it more on the level of trombone/ violin?
Nikola Whallon: If you take the example of a keyboard where you can only literally play the frequencies that each key is assigned to, if you think of a very bad keyboard, you get basically a chip inside an Atari2600 which can play this set of frequencies and that's it. That doesn't even fill out a complete major scale or anything. It's extremely painful to work with which is why basically no one does. Or people who do are really cool because to be able to make something sound cool on an Atari2600 is a real feat.
Chiptography: Let’s talk about tie-dye. When I think of you, I think of tie-dye and bright rainbow colors. What's the appeal of tie-dye?
Nikola Whallon: I used to wear tie-dye every single day exclusively and now I wear it more or less half of the time, on normal days but 100% of the time for performances. My dad at some point in his life (aka the 1960s) was a really hippie. I see pictures of him with long hair and headbands and a big beard and I'm like, "Oh my God, wow."
Chiptography: My dad too. He's from Germany but he was a total hippie. He hung out in the town center and played his sitar.
Nikola Whallon: My dad had this instrument, a Saz. He got it in Turkey. It's pretty exclusively a Turkish instrument. He got that, he had this long beard, this long hair. He had a fez. I'm like, "You are so stereotypical."
Chiptography: Do you think your love for tie dye comes from the influence of your father?
Nikola Whallon: Yeah, for sure. I mean it's a big mishmash. There's the hippy stuff. There's the classical stuff. There's the ethnic stuff from Eastern Europe.
Chiptography: And of course, Japanese culture.
Nikola Whallon: Yup, that's new to the table. That didn't come with my parents but now that is going to be passed on to my kid so he's going to have an even more mishmash of stuff than I did.
Chiptography: Where do you see yourself in let's say, 25 years.
Nikola Whallon: In 25 years, the kid will be in college or whatever he'll be an adult. Well, probably Yumi and I will get a “house house,” hopefully in Seattle. Probably, we'll give our kid this houseboat. That would be cool. I'll have a bigger studio. I'll have more instruments, a real collection. And I'll have, I don't know, half a dozen albums that I'm really proud of. Probably I'll be working a similar software engineer job.
Chiptography: What I'm hearing is you're really happy with the way it is right now and you just want it to grow.
Nikola Whallon: Exactly. I'm in a really good place and I'm eternally thankful that that has happened and I know that's not the case for a lot of people, especially a lot of musicians. The hustle is real for sure. I'm pretty happy.
Chiptography: Pacific Noise Works is a fairly new chiptune group. How long as it been going on?
Nikola Whallon: A year and a half. We started in January of 2018.
Chiptography: Were you one of the founding members?
Nikola Whallon: Currently it's me, Mikey (Skybox), Graz and Kino. Kino does a lot of the art. Graz is super big on the promo. Mikey does a lot of the curation booking and I do all the relations with the venue and a lot of local promos. I hit up media outlets and try to do some interviews and some stuff. This group, like most effective groups, works really well as a team. You need a team effort to be able to put on really cool events like this.
There's an interesting short story about how we started at Substation. Actually more or less how the whole thing started. January 2018 I was just like, I want to play somewhere. I send a message to Substation booking and I was like, "Hey can you get me a show on some Thursday this month." The dude's like, "Well this next Thursday or in two weeks, whatever it was, we don't have anyone booked if you want to book the whole night." I was like, "It's now or never." So we got the crew together. We're like, "This is it. We're going to do this night and then we're going to make Pacific Noise Works." And so we did. That was a really good chance that lead into something.
Chiptography: Who played that show?
Nikola Whallon: It was me, Skybox, Graz and now I have to remember..... PTYNX! From Olympia.
Chiptography: That brings me to my next question. How did chiptune find you? Tell me about your first exposure to it and how you came about integrating the Gameboy into your musical life.
Nikola Whallon: Chiptune for me is intrinsically tied to VGM (video game music) - I know and totally respect that this isn't the case for everyone, but it is for me. I loved the music in the video games I played growing up and at some time I discovered OC Remix - that's where the majority of my iTunes playlist would come from in middle school and high school. It wasn't long before I discovered the VGM cover band scene, and then Magfest. Then I discovered the live chiptune scene when I saw Zen Albatross perform at Magfest... 7? I think it was 7 (it was quite a ways back now) - I thought it was the coolest, hypest music. That, and more or less simultaneously discovering 8bc and Sabrepulse at the recommendation of a friend, inspired me to try to write some chiptune in 2011, that's when I made Massive Squarewave Party, my first CD/release, it was fakebit though. I had been writing music (mostly classical and rock, some VGM) up until that point, but chiptune gave me a chance to create a solo project I could perform live.
In 2012 I started messing around with LSDJ, right around the time I met Corey (SNESEI) and Yuuya with Piko Piko Detroit (I actually met them in my favorite cafe because I saw Corey "playing" an original Gameboy, and I just knew he had to be using LSDJ or something). I tried playing a few shows with them and very quickly decided to throw live instrumentals in, mostly because playing instruments to me is so fun but standing behind a table staring at a screen felt awkward and embarrassing, so instead of queueing up sequences or whatnot, I get euphoria from running, jumping, and wailing on some strings instead (I think those stage antics show out particularly at shows too).
One of the tunes I wrote on Gameboy in 2012 was 8-Bit Hypnotized - it was a remix of Metal Hypnotized by the Earthbound Papas, Nobuo Uematsu's band, made for one of their competitions. I had met Uematsu and his band at Magfest in 2012, and after nervously telling them how much I appreciated their music in Japanese while they were on their smoke break, I got a selfie with the band and they later recognized me as "the guy with the cool tie-dye t-shirt" when I was in line with hundreds (thousands?) of others for their CD signing. Their kindness and openness really inspired me too, and so I entered their remix competition and got an honorable mention.
The rest, you could say, is history. But I'm still evolving as an artist, I have yet to release a big production of Gameboy + live instrumentals (though I finally released a final final version of 8-Bit Hypnotized this past summer with guitar and violin), and I have some plans beyond my next release already, we'll see.