As a young boy growing up in a small American town, Arman Bohn entertained himself as countless kids have done over the last couple of decades – by playing video games. Fast-forward to 2007 and these fantastical characters, blood-strewn battles, and pixelated space-worlds provided him with the inspiration for his first solo album, Bits, an electronic indie-rock album with plenty of pop moments. But this isn’t just an album for video-games fans. On the contrary – it’s for anyone who loves harmonies and melodies that get stuck in your head, songs with strong yet softly-sung vocals and layers of unusual instruments making all sorts of wonderful sounds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Arman once played in bands with members of Death Cab for Cutie, as he too has a perfect sense of how to construct songs that have a strong narrative and balance light and dark with a mellifluous touch. Taking a real hands-on approach to this album meant that Arman even went so far as to create his own instruments for recording with – now that’s what we call dedication.
Bits is currently available via www.music.armanbohn.com. Here, Portland, Oregon-based Arman explains more about the making of Bits, his musical influences, and his hopes to travel to Ireland.
Your album was inspired by the video games you’ve played over the years – can you tell me more about this concept?
I grew up right at the start of the video game craze in the 80’s. I remember seeing all the fantastic covers on the cartridges and getting really excited about what the game would be like. You’d get the game based on this over-the-top cover art and then you would plug it in and play it. Hmmm’¦There would be a little square and maybe a blocky looking triangle. I would play these games for hours and I must have created all the details in my mind. Later on, I came back to the games as an adult and started to collect them. It became this thing where I would pick up new games and see if I could still experience them as I did when I was a kid. Most of the time it didn’t work out ‘¦ but it connected me to some things in a way that I hadn’t felt for a while. I tried to encapsulate those feelings on the record. There was something about the vague titles of the games ‘¦ ‘Atlantis’ ‘¦. ‘Outlaw’ ‘¦ ‘Warlords’. The concepts were wide open for interpretation. Each game deserved its own ‘voice’ and I had a lot of fun experimenting with them.
The album took two years to make – was it easy to -let go’ of it in the end or were you tempted to tweak things a lot in the latter stages?
I’d say that the whole record was really a writing process. I was adjusting the instruments all the way up until the final mix revisions. Many songs ended up being these strange combinations of tracks that I recorded from the first days of writing the songs almost two years ago, to the final days of mixing in June 2009. I usually construct my vocal harmonies as I record them, so many of the vocal takes on the record are the first or second time I actually sang the lines’¦combined and layered in with takes recorded much, much later.
I’m interested to know how you chose the narrative running through each song – did you approach it from the point of view of a participant in the game? How easily did the lyrics come to you?
I wanted each song to be its own experience, sort of like how each of the games would be different and appeal to a different audience. For instance, I knew I wanted the song ‘Kaboom!’ to be very catchy and instantly pull people in ‘¦ like the actual game. In the game, this guy just starts dropping bombs on you and you have to deal with it fast. There wasn’t much of a concept to grab onto from a lyrical point of view, so I just took the pace and sheer addictiveness of the game and tried to make a song that did it justice.
The song ‘Brain Games’ was quite the opposite. The actual game is an incomprehensible jumble of symbols and numbers that you absolutely need the instruction manual to figure out. I took those things into account and made a less conventional song and mixed in my feelings about the scientific method to fit in with the function of the original game.
For the most part, the lyrics came out song by song, with little sections that would haunt me for weeks at a time. I am constantly writing ‘to do’ lists, so there would always be a little section that would say ‘Finish lyrics for …’
As someone who wouldn’t know a lot about the video games that inspired the album, I still found the lyrics really accessible – they still made sense out of that context. Was that important to you – that they would appeal to listeners who aren’t familiar with the concepts behind them?
The video games were just the core inspiration for the songs. I never intended to exclude anyone from the music based on the association with these old games that most of today’s listeners have never even heard of (much less played). It was important to me to honour the ideas behind the games. I appreciate the fact that the games were so basic and yet appealed to millions of people at the time.
The album cover art by Gideon Klindt is pretty awesome (it reminds me of the TV series -Firefly’) – is there a specific concept behind it?
The old video game cover art often had multiple elements and perspectives intersecting in visually confusing ways. I came to Gideon with a long list of items and environments I wanted to try and include. After I showed him some examples of the style I was after, he quickly made me cut my list down to a realistic amount of elements. I should dig out the original list. It was pretty funny. I think it had ‘briefcase’ and ‘destroyed futuristic city’ on it amongst other things. Gideon did an awesome job.
I noticed on your blog that you constructed a number of instruments to use on this album yourself – that’s definitely taking things to another level! I’m particularly curious about -the magical toolbox’ – can you tell me more about this and the other instruments?
I’ve been making weird stuff in preparation for this record for way too long. I made the Magical Toolbox as a stereo analog effects processor. It has two phase cancelling spring reverbs, two fuzz boxes, and two ring modulators. It’s hard to explain, but anything you patch into comes out sounding really messed up. You can listen to it on my blog. For Bits, I mainly used the stereo spring reverb. You can really hear it on ‘Lost Luggage’. I’ve also made a bunch of microphone preamps, some virtual instruments (Casio SK-1 drum VSTi and Toy Piano VSTi). I really like making things (both on the computer and with wires and solder).
You’ve been in a few bands over the years. When did you decide that you wanted to make a solo album – was it something you’d been thinking about for a while?
I’ve always wanted to make a solo record. Jason McGerr (the drummer from Eureka Farm) encouraged me to do it back when we were playing together. It took me a while to commit to it ‘¦ I knew it would be a loooooong process, so I had to be ready.
What elements do you most enjoy about being a solo musician?
I enjoyed being able to work without any limitations or interpersonal issues (except my own). That was also the biggest drawback. I really felt isolated. No feedback. The big challenge was saying to myself: ‘Can I do this?’ and seeing how far I could take an idea by myself. An even bigger challenge was saying ‘It’s over’ and turning it off. Eventually, I had to just set a release date and crash through to the finish line. It got pretty bumpy.
Having released albums with your former bands, what did you learn that influenced your approach to Bits? Were there things you were determined to do differently?
All of my former recording projects led me to want to do Bits on my own. The process has always been intense for me and I wanted to see how I could handle it without backup. Some of my old bandmates offered to help ‘¦ and it was really hard to turn them down ‘¦ but ultimately I made a promise to make the record on my own and I did it ‘¦ barely.
Can you tell me about some of your musical influences growing up?
Oh boy. Growing up. I lived in a reeeeaaaly small town (about 800 people). My family listened to a lot of heavy metal and pop music. I’m sure that’s all still floating around in my head somewhere. I played piano in first grade, changed to trumpet, back to keyboard and eventually got a guitar and a four track recorder when I was 14.
What inspires you besides music – art, film, literature, technology….?
I’m inspired by physics, science fiction from the 1950’s and earlier, old stereophonic demonstration records, wiring diagrams and ‘¦ wow ‘¦ I’m sounding really nerdy now. I truly get inspired by my close friends. Many of them are painters, musicians and film makers. It’s easier for me to get into art if I know the person/people behind it.
Finally, do you have any plans to visit Ireland and play some gigs here?
I would love to. My sister has been living over there for some time. I’m sure it would be a blast. I’ll start making my boat right now!!!
Find out more at www.armanbohn.com, where you can download the album for $10 (just over €7)