Local band makes music with Game Boys


For the people whose thumbs hardly ever strayed from their Game Boys or Ataris when they were growing up, the sounds of Unicorn Dream Attack will probably envelop them like a musical security blanket.

In a way, Unicorn Dream Attack is musician Stefen Keen taking the synthesized soundtrack of his youth and turning it into his own pop orchestra. He's assisted by what's called Midi software. It allows Keen to connect the computer chip that generates those very Game Boy-specific tones with his keyboard.

Stefan Keen
Stefen Keen is Unicorn Dream Attack. His goal is to breathe life into the machines that generate his music.
Image courtesy Unicorn Dream Attack

He won't deny the music may sound harsh to the untrained ear.

"If you play some of the higher pitched versions of those sounds they can really knock you out, actually, they're just really piercing," Keen said. "But as they get deeper they kind of warm, and they just have a really grating sound to them that I'm really attracted to."

As for Unicorn Dream Attack's robotic sounding singer, it's Keen, using what's called a vocoder. It lets him blend his voice with whatever audio is being fed to it -- in this case a Casio keyboard.

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Ironically, Keen uses all this technology not to become some android performer, but to lend some humanity to the machine.

Ghost in the Water
Ghost in the water (and friend). Mandy and Nathan Tensen Woolery say they are drawn to Unicorn Dream Attack's music because it's so well crafted.
Image courtesy Ghost in the Water

"It's a challenge to me to somehow bring a human side to something synthetic, to breathe life into something cold, in a way," Keen said.

Unicorn Dream Attack works within a sub genre of electronica called chip music, or 8-Bit, which refers to the low fidelity of the audio. As Keen said earlier, it's a grimier sound. Keen's instrument of choice, a 1980s era Game Boy, produces 4-bit audio.

But it wasn't the primitive technology that first attracted Nathan Tensen Woolery to Unicorn Dream Attack. Tensen Woolery, who's in the Minneapolis electronic band Ghost in the Water, says the music is really well crafted.

"Really great, delicate electronic pop songs, really sweet and really well written with really great hooks," said TEnsen Woolery. "Then the execution, with the sort of technology that he's using, it all just blended together so perfectly. I think that's what turned me on."

Tensen Woolery's wife Mandy, the other half of Ghost in the Water, says Stefen Keen stands out in the 8-Bit world because his music transcends the machinery.

Playing live
Unicorn Dream Attack playing at BentFest in 2007.
Image courtesy Unicorn Dream Attack

"I like a lot of 8-Bit music, but a lot of times you can see the video game or hear the video game in it," she said. "And with him, you don't so much. Like he's really good at putting together a song in a way that it's still human."

Some of the songs on Unicorn Dream Attack's latest CD, "Love Bits," either harken back to Keen's childhood or long for that time when life was less complicated and more innocent.

In the tune "Pillow Fort," the singer is back in the bedroom of his youth, playing with toy soldiers. In "Alone," he wishes he could go back in time.

Keen admits that despite their perky beats and melodies, several of his songs are tinged with the melancholy that comes with having to grow up.

"I'm sure everyone clings to something in their life that is a piece of their youth, that's probably considered their fun side or something like that, or their goofy side," he said. "I'm pretty much that way all the time."

Apparently there are many others like him. Keen says through MySpace he has thousands of fans all over the world, including Italy, France, the UK -- where 8-Bit music is gaining in popularity -- and throughout the U.S.