Over the last two years, Watch Out For Snakes mastermind Matt Baum has played a transformative role in fostering Atlanta’s chipwave, chiptune, and synthwave music scene—electronic music that combines elements of video game sounds, Italo Disco, post-punk, acid house, and new wave songwriting. Since releasing his frenetic debut album UPGRADE in 2018, followed by Scars in 2019, the Florida-born electronic music producer, who has lived in Atlanta since 2006, has kept the art of high-energy live performance chief among his priorities. As standing quarantine orders lumber toward the one-year mark, Baum has channeled his efforts into creating his first video for a new song titled “Fight Those Invisible Ninjas.”
Baum took a few minutes to talk about the song, his experiences growing up amid the hardcore scene on Florida’s Space Coast, and bringing attitude and energy to electronic music.
Chad Radford: “Fight Those Invisible Ninjas” gives nods to soundtracks for games like “Ninja Gaiden” and the “Megaman X” series—it’s driving enough for the dance floor, and benefits from modern synth tones, yet it’s nostalgic enough to draw some seriously nerdy references.
Matt Baum: Totally! I draw influence from a lot of different sources, largely retro games from the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era, ‘70s/’80s outfits like Sparks, Depeche Mode, and ELO, synth-y composers like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, and the energy of hardcore/punk bands like Minor Threat, Refused, Comeback Kid, and Underoath. I’d say 90% of my instrumentation is synthesized from NES chip tones, everything but my drums and pads, but I tend to arrange with a hardcore/punk sensibility because I want to throw down when I perform live. It’s always been about bringing as much attitude as I can to the electronic scene, because that’s the energy I respond to when I’m a fan in the crowd.
How did growing up on Florida’s Space Coast affect your relationship with music?
My introduction to any music scene was going to local hardcore shows in the late ‘90s/early 2000s. I spent a lot of time in community centers like the Melbourne Jaycees. We were all young and dumb with too much energy so all of those shows were a blast. Everyone would get super into dancing and throwing down—we were all super supportive of each other too because the scene was so small. I have a lot of nostalgia for that scene because there was a certain simplicity and authenticity to it. Everyone just wanted to make music that was fun and there weren’t a lot of gatekeepers. There was a single promoter down there called Little Reggies Productions that handled all of the hardcore, punk, and emo acts and they were super fair about how they booked acts, which fostered a lot of love across the scene. Everything I do now–live performance-wise—is trying to recapture the magic of those early days and show everyone a good time.
Did you play guitar before you switched to keytar?
I grew up playing classical piano, but never really enjoyed playing music until I discovered that you could transcribe and play tunes that actually meant something to you. The first song I ever transcribed and played was the main theme for “Final Fantasy VI” on Super Nintendo. That was when I was in 4th grade and it was an epiphany for me, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I started performing at actual shows. I joined a melodic hardcore band in my Florida hometown of Indialantic, called Audrey. They wanted a synth player so I started writing with them. A few months in, I got jealous of the guitarists being able to throw down and engage with the crowd at floor shows so I bought a keytar off eBay and never looked back. I used that same keytar through Audrey, the first Atlanta band I was in, The Drownout (2007-2009), and on up to WOFS. I can’t not be mobile when I’m playing and I don’t like putting up a barrier of synths between myself and the crowd because the only reason I play is to directly feel that reciprocal energy between myself and the crowd.
On a side note, I bought a Telecaster with the intent of teaching myself guitar in 2010, but I didn’t get very far. I still want to spend time learning at some stage. Because I respect the hell out of multi-instrumentalists. I do know how to play oboe (three years in middle school), but I don’t know that there’s much call for oboe in popular music at the moment!
What inspired you to pursue this style of music?
I stumbled across chiptune and synthwave as genres without knowing that there were established genres for either. I’ve always enjoyed messing with minimal synth tones, which I mainly got from more contemporary groups like We Are Wolves, Metronomy, and Bloc Party. But this project mostly began as me thinking, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote an ‘80s movie soundtrack concept album but had all the instrumentation sound like video game music?” The only reason I was even going down an instrumental avenue is because my previous project with my former bassist had fallen through and I was tired of trying to get a vocal tone in that project that I was happy with. It was only once I had a few tracks written that I discovered SURVIVE through The Guest soundtrack and then College through the Drive soundtrack. Those two groups really opened up my eyes that there was a demand for structurally simple, but pure musical ideas.
How do you pull off your high-energy shows as a one-man act?
I had my first full album written almost a year before my first live performance primarily because I deliberated for so long about the best way to perform the music live. Originally, I experimented with a looper pedal because I loved what artists like Howie Day have done, building the whole song live, but the songs I’d written at that stage were too layered and had too many song parts for that to be practical. I also wanted to find a way of incorporating the actual Nintendo into what I was doing, but at the time, the only chiptune artists that were using actual consoles in a live setting were using them more as sequencers, not as instruments and I wanted listeners to connect with what I was doing on stage at any given second. I’ve seen some disappointing synth and chip shows where the artist either just hit play and stood around or was walled up behind so much hardware that you couldn’t tell what they were doing. I didn’t want that for me. So I found a way of compromising where I play backing tracks with the lead parts of each song section pulled out so that I can perform those parts live with the keytar and the softsynth Nintendo emulator I use, Plogue chipsounds.
My entire stage show was designed based on experiences in previous bands to be as easy to set up, tear down, and perform as possible so that I can just focus on the performance itself. I’ve had my share of embarrassing technical glitches with hardware, etc. right before a set and knew I didn’t want to deal with that in WOFS. Proud to say that I’ve only experienced one technical glitch in any of my live WOFS performances and it was something that got worked out during sound check thankfully.
As far as being solo goes, the biggest challenge comes more from travel, trying to figure out how to fly and safely transport all of my equipment from A to B. As an individual, this was probably one of the largest problems I faced, but I figured out a system involving some solid road cases and bungee cords that’s done pretty well for me. I’ve still experienced some unfortunate damage due to TSA checks though, but mostly minor stuff.
Is the song’s title, “Fight Those Invisible Ninjas.” about dealing with personal demons, or is it simply a “Ninja Gaiden” reference?
“Fight Those Invisible Ninjas” is actually a tongue-in-cheek homage to my hardcore days. There are certain mosh calls we’d use as hardcore musicians in the early 2000s to get the crowd to start throwing elbows, kicking, and basically just getting a good pit going. One of those mosh calls “Fight those invisible ninjas!” was one that musicians used half-jokingly because of how ridiculous it was and it eventually became a meme within the hardcore scene, but it perfectly captured this great energy that I always felt at those shows. I want to do what I can to bring more of that attitude and energy to the synth world especially, because I feel like synth artists tend to prioritize polish and aesthetic over grit and rawness.
You hit on some of the subtext of the track though, which was an intentional double-meaning in the title—battling personal demons, which in my case revolve around personal health and self-esteem issues. But each listener can re-interpret those demons to their own personal experience.
Part of your dynamic is channeling personal experiences into songs. How do you approach this?
When I start writing a song, it always starts with a combination of an emotion I’m feeling in that moment as well as some musical technique I want to explore. Musical expression is a form of therapy for me, which is why my songs span a variety of different tempos and musical moods. I’m not that different from most musicians. To this point, what’s inspired me to write has been an amalgam of different traumas and celebrations I’ve experienced over the course of my life: losing family, getting divorced, going through heart surgery, new relationships and friendships … If I find myself focusing on one of these things to the point where it’s overwhelming, that’s when I feel the urge to sit down and write.
I end up shaping these feelings through different song structures or instrument synthesis though, which is where the technical experimentation comes into play.
Initially, I suspected the name, “Watch Out For Snakes,” was a reference to old-school Pitfall for Atari, but it’s a MST3K reference.
I didn’t run across MST3K until I hit high school, but when I did, I went all in on it. “Watch out for snakes,” initially a one-off joke in their Eegah episode became a frequent callback through the entire series that just stuck with me. So when I knew that I wanted to start an attitude-driven chiptune project that kept things light-hearted and goofy, and began brainstorming project names, Watch Out For Snakes was something fun that I kept gravitating back to that no one else seemed to be using musically. I used to have great Google Search results too until a few years ago when the MST3K guys did a reunion “Watch Out For Snakes Tour.” Ah well.
Do you face a different set of standards, or is it difficult to be taken seriously?
The biggest challenge I face is booking shows, especially locally, as a “chipwave” artist. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities out on the road playing huge fests like MAGFest and BitGen Gamer Fest, both in Baltimore, Outrun the Sun Fest in LA, Neon Rose in Portland, OR, and NEON Fest in Providence, which got cancelled last year due to quarantine measures. I feel like I’m an act that wins people over in a live setting because of my energy. But it’s been a hard sell to get booked as support, especially here in Atlanta, for larger synth and video game acts because I ride a fine line between the two groups. Most of the time that can work to my advantage, because I have fan appeal across multiple genres, but a lot of promoters that haven’t seen my act sometimes find me too chippy for synth shows and too synthy for video game shows. I’m positive though that eventually everyone will come around!
There’s a lot of local synth and chip talent in the Atlanta area that doesn’t get the exposure it deserves because some promoters just don’t know what to do with us. That’s one of the reasons I started putting together an artist collective prior to COVID (in partnership with Drunken Unicorn and Outrun Brewery) called Terminus Retrowave, with the goal of providing more opportunities for touring chip and synth acts to perform in Atlanta while pairing them with relevant artists in our local community. Atlanta has one of the largest synthwave artist populations in the US, but Atlanta fans don’t know about them because there’s not a central hub/event to bring everyone together. Hopefully, once the COVID dust settles, we can get that going again in earnest, but in the meantime, I’m partnering with local artists to put something on together in a virtual livestream setting.
What’s next for you?
I quit my day job in November 2020 to pursue music full-time for at least a couple of months so I’m going all-in on a few soundtrack commissions for video games and film, exploring a split 7-inch release with a fellow musician, knocking out some remixes for people, and finishing some additional singles that will be out in the coming months. I’m also going to invest a lot more of myself in Terminus Retrowave and hope to get the first virtual livestream on the books by April 2021. Basically, I’m going to continue exploring how to diversify my music career in a way that’s sustainable and that hopefully gives back to the Atlanta music community.
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