It would seem that, when it comes to discussing it as a music genre, a lot of different people have just as many if not even more varying criteria as to what exactly constitutes synthwave. For some it’s all about retaining that sound from the 1980’s, while to others it’s all about the synths be they hardware or software, but at the heart of it all is one simple fact: it’s inherently electronic in origin. That said, synthwave tends to not only at times sound like other electronic music genres but melds well with them too at other times as a result. Perhaps there’s been no better example of this than the ways in which chiptunes have influenced synthwave, and vice versa, although to really crank them up it never hurts to add a little metal into the mix. This trinity of sound has therefore produced what has become known as electrodeath and one of its emerging torchbearers is Big Lich.
If there were a way to really describe Big Lich to a first time listener, and someone that is familiar with other electronic-infused metal acts in the synthwave scene, it would be that they’re as if Dance with the Dead were filtered through an arcade machine. Which is an apt description considering that the duo behind Big Lich are developers and composers of video games themselves. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, where they were part of a rather active punk and metal scene growing up, friends Pat Stein (drums) and Mike Beaton (guitars) followed their mutual love of video games to Portland, Oregon, where the two eventually began to compose music for games and assist in their development. It was there that Big Lich began to rise from it’s grave.
“It was inevitable that we would eventually collaborate for a game audio track and so, a couple years ago, we had the chance to get together for a local game jam” Pat and Mike recalled, “we were trying to make a “boss fight” track and decided it should have a retro-metal edge. What came out of that session was the prototype for what would eventually become Big Lich. We had so much fun making the music, using both of our strengths to our advantage, we knew we were on to something. After the jam, we wrote “Incantations and Such” (although the working title was “Boss Fight Ya!”) and decided to meet every week to see how long we could go until we ran out of ideas. The idea solidified as electronic video-game music, but featuring our primary instruments and background in the punk and metal scene instead of straight-up chiptunes. Conceptually we focus on a dark, fantasy universe, where literally a big lich dwells in the necropolis, alone and obsessed with his copy of Phil Collins‘ Face Value where his soul is encapsulated forever.”
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When asked to delve deeper into the twisted catacombs of their music, specifically their sound and relation to certain genres, Big Lich reiterated that their music “is completely based on video game aesthetics, specifically “boss fight” music. I think that the origin of synthwave owes credit to retro video game music and chiptunes at least as much as it does to 80’s movie music and EDM, so it makes sense that there would be a great deal of overlap between fans of all those genres. In Big Lich, we are basically trying to blend chiptunes with poppy retro metal by grounding it with organic instrumentation like guitars and drums. Hopefully the results are able to reach an audience, not necessarily of any of those specific genres, but to individuals among many different genres. Ultimately we think our music comes across way more like a rock show than a dance club, and although we would describe our sound as some kind of chiptune/metal hybrid, we really love synthwave and use it as a guiding influence a lot, perhaps only in subtle ways, but it’s certainly there.”
In fact, when he’s not listening to synthwave acts such as Gregorio Franco, FacexHugger, DREDDD, Elay Arson, Die Scum Inc., and Mangadrive (to name a few), Mike is making straight-up synthwave music himself under the name of Lightfrequency. As for Pat, when not making music for Big Lich and video games, he’s listening to Deerhoof, Propagandhi, and Mutoid Man among others. It is through this varying assortment of acts and genres that, over time, Big Lich formed it’s own unique sound which, as previously stated, is itself a real amalgamation. “We grew up in a very healthy and diverse local music scene” Big Lich explained, “the shows were usually mixed-genre and we were exposed to a lot of great bands coming in from out of town. We lived near Chicago, so there was never a shortage of shows to play or go to. Over the years, we’ve individually gone through many phases – punk, metal, classical/orchestral, and electronic music, and we draw from all of that.”
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However, if any one genre could truly define the sound and genesis of Big Lich it would once again have to be video games. As mentioned before, Mike and Pat are video game composers and developers by day and are working on a variety of projects at any given moment. While Pat has made the transition of making music for games to straight-up developing them, Mike continues to strictly compose music and has done so for a number of indie games including Nowhere Prophet and The Thin Silence, both of which are slated to release later this year and/or early next year, as well as a few others still in development such as Truth or Dig and Robo V Dino. When asked what their personal favorite video game soundtracks were or are, Pat and Mike replied with an assortment ranging from the classics like Metroid, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and Zelda to more modern ones like Dustforce, Shovel Knight, The Floor is Jelly, Risk of Rain, Spiral Knights, Hyper Light Drifter, and Kingdom.
With busy lives due to jobs in the video game industry, and being family men, Big Lich in terms of music production is not unlike the time crunch nature of a game jam which brought them together in the first place. When asked to discuss this process, Big Lich explained that “basically we only have time to work together one night per week, which creates a sense of urgency and thus forces that “jam” oriented process. We don’t allow ourselves to listen to, or even really think about, any Big Lich music on any other day of the week so that when we do get together we have what we call “fresh ears” which is something like “hearing it again for the first time.” It’s great for momentum because we never get stuck on an idea or go too far down any rabbit holes during the writing process. We write on the fly, basically like a jam session in slow motion. Mike mostly works on midi input and, once we understand the essence of a track, we flesh it out on our instruments. From there it’s like putting a puzzle together, but really at some point the songs kind of take over and lead us the rest of the way.”
“We usually have an idea for the next track before we’ve even finished the one we’re working on. It feels like we’re never going to run out of material. It also ends up being really fun because, since we have no real scene to fit into, there are basically no rules to adhere to stylistically. With no time to waste, and no limits to our choices, we have a lot of fun being impulsive and our history of working together has made us really efficient. Sometimes we can get a whole track done in one or two nights, but being a side project allows us to take our time and make sure everything is where we want it before we ever release anything, while also having the freedom to be as reckless as we want. We had the same process for both EPs, which was basically just an instinctive but frantic writing frenzy. And in both cases, we spent more time on arrangement and mixing than we did composing that actual material. It was slower at first, as we were figuring out our sound, and we had some gear limitations during Rock It From the Crypt, but we were back up and running by Dark Matter, where we pretty much hit our stride.”
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“We record everything at Mike’s studio. We use an RME Fireface into Mike’s Macbook running Logic Pro X. There isn’t much outboard gear other than guitar, which is usually either a Mexi Telecaster or a mid 90’s Gibson Les Paul Studio Lite, which then gets DL’d to the Fireface. Stein plays a Yamaha Stage Custom as well as a Roland V drum kit, but we get down on the sequencers like Ultrabeat as well, and we mix in a lot of soft synths. Some native Logic synths like the ES2, RetroSynth, and Alchemy, but also 3rd party stuff like a Tal-uno, Minimoog, and some vintage Arturia soft synths. We also have an analog Roland Juno 60, but we tend to favor the soft synths for their utility. Our sound isn’t bound to the gear at all though, and we have a major studio upgrade coming soon. The next album will likely have a very different synth palette, but it will still be the same unholy marriage of guitars, drums, and synths you might expect.”
While Big Lich has become mostly known for doing completely original songs, all instrumental, they just recently released a cover of Dead Kennedys‘ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” featuring some synthesized vocal work. The origins of the cover, and why they chose that particular song in question to cover, is an interesting one: “There was a post on Twitter by The G calling for someone to do a synthwave cover of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and we took it upon ourselves, especially since we represent punk rock whenever possible as well as the sentiment of this specific song. We felt that the lyrics were the most important part which offered an interesting challenge. We used a couple of text to audio programs, which were then heavily edited to become the main “vocal track.” It was a huge pain in the ass, but we liked the results. It was well worth it for the cause – which is, in essence, to let people know (if they don’t already) that nazis should absolutely fuck completely off. We are obviously not normally political in our music, but we wanted it to be abundantly clear where we stand on this issue.”
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When asked if this type of vocal work, or any other kind of vocals in general, could make their way into future songs, Big Lich revealed that “the ambient track on Dark Matter, “Manafont,” actually has vocal work although heavily drenched in effects, but there are tiny moments of Stein’s actual voice. As for future vocals? We have no rules, so everything is on the table. And although vocals may not be likely in the near future for us, we do love collaboration, and we are very good at keeping secrets. We have also talked about doing covers, in fact there is already a work in progress on an electrodeath cover of the beloved 90s club banger “Pump up the Jam” by Technotronic, and the possibility exists for others with anything from video game tunes to classical.”
So, what’s next for Big Lich? “We just finished a badass new track called “Oathkeeper” that might have set the tone for the next batch of songs. We want to eventually release a full-length, but are holding off until we are prepared for an actual, physical release. In the meantime, we will likely be releasing a few videos on our Youtube channel and preparing our live show. We don’t intend to play live often, but when we do we want to go all out. For one, making sure the stage is big enough for a lich as big as Big Lich. Ideally we would also have a hologram of Phil Collins playing drums and keys with us, so there’s really just a lot of technical things to consider. We’re working on it. We are no strangers to the stage but, if we do this, we want it to be some next level shit. A covers EP is also a possibility. We like to give out pay what you want singles to our followers randomly, as we did with much of Dark Matter, to reward free music to those loyal enough to listen to our social media babblings. So we will be continuing to do that as we go. 2018 will be interesting for us if we can get it all together.”
BONUS ROUND: What kind of pizza, and burrito, does a Big Lich eat?
“Big Lich is more of a pizza band than a burrito band” Mike and Pat admitted, “mostly because after a burrito we need slumber and are full for several days. We are proud to be pro-pineapple on pizza and, although Mike’s ideal pizza is simply fresh tomatoes and pesto, he loves pizza in all its forms. Pat prefers a straight up cheese pie, but will take down “fancy stuff” like mushrooms and sausage like a rabid jackal.”