Introducing Our November Artist in Residence: Computer Games
As high school kids, Darren Criss and his older brother Chuck spent nearly every afternoon playing music in their basement for hours upon hours. With Chuck on guitar and Darren on drums, the San Francisco natives tapped into everything from British power-pop to Bay Area punk to create their own rowdy breed of garage rock. Though they’d always planned on forming a bona-fide band together, each ended up striking out on his own path: Darren embarked on a singing/acting career that’s included the creation of YouTube sensation StarKid, starring on Glee and in the next season of American Crime Story, and a string of successes on the Broadway stage. Meanwhile, Chuck joined acclaimed indie-rock act Freelance Whales, with whom he recorded and toured with as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter for several years. But in 2016, the two finally decided it was the right time to revisit their teenage ambitions and launch a guitar-fueled alt-pop band that they’ve named Computer Games.
“The basement was a really hallowed place for us growing up, and spending all that time knocking around and making music together is what made us into the people we are now,” says Darren, lead singer for Computer Games. “So to finally follow through on that dream, and start this band together after wanting it for so long—it’s just wildly exciting for us.”
With its blazing guitar solos and boundless energy, Computer Games’ debut EP Lost Boys Life perfectly captures the spirit of adolescent abandon. At the same time, Computer Games show a sharp sense of songcraft born from years of refining their musical vision. “One of the things about this project being a long time coming is that we’re taking the kind of riffs that we would’ve played back in the basement, but adding different layers to turn it into something new to put out into the world,” notes Chuck.
Darren and Chuck share songwriting duties for Computer Games, drawing on their indie sensibilities to build the ideal backdrop for their often-introspective lyrics. In the making of Lost Boys Life, Computer Games went for a chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter effect by enlisting the pop expertise of New York City-based music production team THE ELEV3N. Known for their work with artists like Meghan Trainor and Jesse McCartney, the Criss brothers hoped THE ELEV3N’s production sensibility would add a more contemporary, familiar sound to their initial left-of-center tracks. The result was just that: a shiny sheen polish on scrappy garage pop. And for the mixing of Lost Boys Life—an EP that gracefully blends raw live performance with electronic elements—the band looked to their long-time hero, producer & mixer Tony Hoffer, who’s responsible for a number of albums that shaped the Criss brothers’ musical background: Phoenix’s Alphabetical, The Thrills’ So Much For The City, and Beck’s Midnite Vultures, to name a few.
With the band name referencing a bit of low-key childhood mischief (“As kids we weren’t allowed to play video games, but we had games on our computer—so there was a loophole there,” explains Chuck), Computer Games delights in what Darren refers to as nerdstalgia. “As we’re crawling out of our 20s, a sentiment shared by the band is this eternal sense of nostalgia, which is something pretty prominent in nerd culture,” he says. “It’s about liking whatever you like, and not needing to ever apologize for that.”
That nostalgia also extends to the pop heavyweights of the mid-’80s, according to Chuck. “A lot of bands seem influenced by the ’80s right now, but they’re usually going for that darker, Blade Runner vibe,” he says. “We wanted to look at parts of the era that haven’t really been explored as inspiration—some of the music that’s just super fun.” Naming Miami Sound Machine, Lionel Richie, and Huey Lewis and the News among their reference points on Lost Boys Life, Computer Games channel that outrageous fun into a deeply melodic sound that feels both fresh and timeless.
The most unabashedly joyful track on Lost Boys Life, “Every Single Night” fuses jangly guitar riffs and intricate rhythms with huge harmonies and some Michael Jackson-esque vocal styling. “I tried to crush those consonants and vowels and make as many phonetically inspired lyrical decisions as possible—like how with Michael Jackson, ‘jam on’ is suddenly a really cool lyric, just because it sounds cool,” says Darren. On “We Like It,” a flurry of handclap-backed acoustic strumming gives way to a soaring, soulful anthem that’s epic in scope and subtly defiant in message. “‘We Like It’ partly came from hearing people of my generation or older generations worrying about kids being glued to their phones, and how that’s such a cyclical concept—like how our parents were worried about us being glued to the TV, and their parents were worried about them listening to rock-and-roll,” says Darren. “It’s about kids saying, ‘This is our life and this is how we express ourselves, and we don’t have to explain that to anyone.’”
The EP’s moodiest moment, the slow-burning “Lost Boys Life” merges its heavy beat with an intense synth riff inspired by the darkly glamorous vampires of the 1987 horror movie. In the lyrics, meanwhile, Computer Games slip into a dreamy romanticism that’s more autobiographical in nature. “To me that riff sounds like so many nights walking home alone in the city, whether it’s San Francisco or New York or L.A.,” says Darren. “There’s an aimless quality to it, and the song’s about finding meaning with someone after living an aimless Lost Boys life for so long.”
Throughout Lost Boys Life, Computer Games sculpt a kaleidoscopic sound that reflects their eclectic appetites. Listing early-’90s grunge, late-’90s pop, Led Zeppelin, Supergrass, and Spoon among their formative influences, the Criss brothers each started studying music as little kids. But while Chuck quit piano lessons early on, Darren kept up with violin and added guitar to his repertoire by elementary school. “Chuck was a late-bloomer, which impressed me and made me jealous at the same time,” says Darren. “At some point in high school he got a banjo as a joke, but then got really good at it really fast. After that he started playing guitar too—and then got really good at that really fast.” Once Darren got his drum kit, the two took to the basement and started working on original songs together. Through the years, they continued sharing songs with each other, sending demos back and forth via email while away at college. “I always admired those early songs, and I’ve still got aspirations of putting them through the Computer Games filter and seeing what we can make of them now,” says Darren.
For Chuck and Darren, there’s at least one major upside to the long delay in launching Computer Games: that hard-won sense of freedom that comes with pursuing their purest passions. “Instead of trying to chase what’s next, we’re trying to do right by those kids in the basement,” says Darren. “We’ve learned to embrace our love of what makes music fun for us, and we’re putting that into a project that’s 100 percent dedicated making people happy. It’s about creating something completely unique to us, and trying to make as many smiles as humanly possible.”Make sure to tune in to ALT 98.7 every Sunday at 9pm in November to hear @tobitalks play music from @ComputerGames on her #CloseToHome show.