When approached about their Dec. 21 show, local video-game rockers The Protomen declined to comment, being locked into a heavy combat-training schedule in preparation for their battle with Itzamná, the Mayan god responsible for this calendar business. They also said something about a Jack Black vs. Jack White arm-wrestling match for charity, unicorn ponies and a new cassette release, but we had stopped listening.
All right. Almost none of that is true — save the cassette-release bit. But here's the silver lining in this bummer cloud: an opportunity to learn more about the frequent Protomen companion who will open the 12th & Porter show: the mysterious ski-masked musician who has released a dozen albums and EPs of fascinating, varied and evocative electronic music under the name Makeup and Vanity Set.
Even before the heady days of the dot-com bubble, more people than ever were connected via the Internet, but it was not the firehose of kittens doing Roy's death scene from Blade Runner that we have today. Matthew Pusti heard rumors floating around his Cleveland, Ohio, middle school about downloading music from the Web. Curious, he typed a strange new term ("mp3") into AltaVista, clicked the first link that appeared, and left the family's topflight 28.8 kbps modem to work. That night, after dinner, he opened the folder to find Squarepusher's "Beep Street" and Daft Punk's "Around the World." This goldmine of funky alien grooves tickled the youngster's ear like nothing he'd heard before, and life would never be the same.
Without the coin to invest in synths and tape decks, Pusti immersed himself in an Internet community of benevolent chiptune fanatics, well-versed in programming the sound processors built into every home computer, and very welcoming to newcomers. Pusti developed a knack for composing with the free DOS-based program Impulse Tracker, and the resulting tunes — the sound of which very much recalls music from classic video games — caught the ear of three of his Middle Tennessee State University classmates: future Protomen who felt his material was the perfect warm-up to their nascent rock opera about a Nintendo character. With their encouragement, Makeup and Vanity Set was born.
Fast-forward 10 years to spring 2012 and the premiere of 88:88, a short sci-fi/horror film by Joey Ciccoline and Sean Wilson featuring an expressive, minimalistic score by MUVS — a score that manages to feel organic while being programmed entirely on synthesizers. The Scene asked how a small but amazingly effective amount of music in a 13-minute short turned into a full-length record. The team initially reached out about "some light scoring," Pusti says, and when he responded with a demo of "A Glowing Light, a Promise," "it was like they'd sailed up onto a new continent and claimed it for the end credits of their movie." Buoyed by their enthusiasm and nontraditional storytelling, Pusti continued to explore the storyline beyond what was revealed in the short.
"They held the cards to a greater story," says Pusti, "but they only pulled the curtain back enough to let a little sliver of it out, and that fascinated me. The record came from endlessly watching the short and literally getting lost in that world, and then imagining what [lead character] Val would do and where she would go from there. ... The record literally starts where the film ends because of that."
Though 88:88 marks Pusti's first collaboration on a film, much of his work sounds like excerpts from a score, especially from the oeuvre of a horror director like Dario Argento or his admirer, John Carpenter. Considering that one of Makeup and Vanity Set's early records was a painstaking chiptune remix of The Protomen's debut rock opera, has writing music that relates thematically to a larger story — even one he's made up himself — become a founding principle of his work?
"I think it's fair to say that themes come by design and inform the music," says Pusti. "I don't think I took the theme side of things seriously until I made Charles Park 2 [released October 2010]. Everything after that had specific themes for me. They're not always obvious, and I guess a little vague on purpose, but they're there."
The third installment in the unnerving Charles Park series came after Pusti and his wife nearly died in a hit-and-run car accident.
"It had to do with coping, and dealing with the horror and the anger associated with that," Pusti explains. "It was something I could never change or have taken back, and it echoed through every part of my life, including my music."
As the film 88:88 makes its rounds on the festival circuit, Pusti carries on with new projects. He's finished a new EP, due early next year, which begins with nebulous, ambient atmospheres before making its way slowly into more familiar pulsing, rhythmic territory. At 12th & Porter, Pusti will appear accompanied by Christian Williams on drums. Though this is only MUVS' second outing as a duo, Pusti is excited about their future work together.
"[Working with] Christian is like that scene in Terminator 2 when Sarah Connor carves 'No Fate but What We Make' into the table, and they all go meet Miles Dyson and change the future," says Pusti. "I saw him play, and then started talking to him, and it just felt like this was the guy. ... I have no idea what the future will be like, but it's for sure going to involve him beating the crap out of a drum kit."
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