Turn It into Music: An Interview with Robert Ashley

Nick Martens chats up Robert Ashley, creator of A Life Well Wasted, the web’s best audio programming about videogame players and culture.

As his industry, freelance videogame journalism, shriveled like a prune under the heat of the financial crisis, Robert Ashley only got busier. When Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM), his final magazine gig, closed its doors last December, Ashley got to work on a new project to keep his name in circulation. The result, A Life Well Wasted, is a beacon of culture against the vapid, pubescent sea of videogame coverage. He calls it “an internet radio show about videogames and the people who love them,” and he avoids the word podcast for good reason. This is not four guys blathering about Call of Duty for two hours. A Life Well Wasted instantly calls to mind NPR’s Radio Lab and This American Life, literary radio programs that approach their subjects with an elegant emotional flourish.

Robert Ashley; Photo by Willis LambertAshley addresses topics both narrow (“The Death of EGM“) and broad (“Why Game?”), and in the newly released Episode 4, “Artists, Fans, and Engineers,” he investigates the curious propensity of gamers to pick up a needle, brush, pen, or soldering iron and turn their favorite game into something new. He talks to people like Jeri Elsworth, a hardware hacker who can build an old Nintendo system into a purse, or a cosplayer named Kellie who makes elaborate costumes based on popular characters from games and Japanese animation. Ashley is also one half of the band I Come to Shanghai, with Sam Frigard, whose first album debuted in June.

I spoke with Robert Ashley at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle.

The Bygone Bureau: I noticed that most of the subjects in the new episode were women, which I don’t think you expect from gaming media. Was that intentional?

Robert Ashley: No, and you’re actually the first person to point it out. I was so nervous about it because sometimes… I don’t really know who my audience is, but I’ve seen in other podcasts, like gaming podcasts, whenever there’s a woman on the show people get really brutal about it. I was really worried that I would get this reaction like, “What the fuck is this, I don’t want to hear this girl, she’s stupid.” There are a lot of bad attitudes about women. The amazing thing is that I’ve not seen a single person, not seen a single comment that even acknowledged that the show is mostly women. I don’t think anyone even noticed.

That’s actually kind of cool.

Yeah, I think it’s cool. Because I went out of my way to not even mention it, because they all had their own interesting things. And I think having someone like Jeri Ellsworth, who is so much more of a badass than any fucking gamer geek dude — you know, [she’s a] race car driver, self-taught engineer, knows more about how electronics work than any geek in his garage.

Yeah, that was such a good interview. How did you get in touch with her?

In the second episode, I interviewed Mike Mika, who is an old-school developer of games, has been around the business for fifteen years, and has this big game collection I went and saw. He really likes the show and is into trying to help me get new, interesting people to talk to, and he instantly got that what I wanted.

I wasn’t looking for an interview with the most famous person in the games industry. I wasn’t like, “Oh, what if I could interview Cliffy B.” [Ed Note: Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski] What I was really looking for was people who were interesting and had a cool life story to tell. So he suggested Jerri Elsworth, and I had never heard of her, so I just tracked her down. She came to the Maker Faire in the Bay [Area] and I interviewed her in my car. That’s why you hear cars driving by sometimes.

A part of the show that really stands out is the music. You make that all yourself?

Yeah. When it first started, before I invested so much time per episode and I was just experimenting, I had all this leftover jam material from the making of my band’s album over the years. Sometimes we would just play around and have mics up and record things, or we had a bunch of failed songs that we ended up abandoning, and I would use clips of that. But over time, I started wanting to make more and more music specifically for the show because a lot of times the music that had I wouldn’t fit the moment.

And I felt really adamant for some reason about only using my music, like I didn’t want to use other people’s music. Mainly because music for the show doesn’t work if it’s too complicated — like a real serious song where you’ve got all kinds of crazy arrangements going on, where you could tune into several different parts — that can be distracting when you’re in an interview. I tend to like something that’s a little more ambient, where maybe you’ve got one or two elements going on, and if you wanted to focus in on it you could, but it’s not going to distract you. I feel like it’s easier to make something specifically for the show.

Now, I think I finally arrived with where I want to be. I mean, this episode in general is finally the one where I did what I really wanted to do with it. I took the time and really did it. I think I figured out what’s best is that I get together with [bandmate] Sam [Frigard] for a couple of days, and we just play whatever comes to mind with no particular direction, just jam out. And I build up a big vault of that stuff, and then when I go in and start editing the show and thinking about music, I’ll see if I can use any of that in the episode. Any spaces I can’t fill with that, I’ll go and specifically make things. Then I have a few little pieces that I like to use over and over again that help define the personality of the show. There’s a certain kind of music that I like for funny, mischievous moments where something weird is happening. I hate to use the word quirky, but there’s a lot of quirkiness going on and it’s hard to make music that fits that, and I have a couple of things that work for that. I just use them over and over again because I don’t know how to make more.

In the most recent episode, I think during the cosplay interview, you really blurred the line between the music bed supporting the interview and the interview becoming part of the song.

Yeah, and I’ve gotten a lot of requests from people to put out the music from the show. I can see people wanting that music, and that’s cool and everything. But what I would really like is for the actual product to be the music. I would really like to make something where the music was so good, it was so interesting, that you might want to go back and listen to it as if it were music. Sometimes I think you can push the music too far. Every moment in an interview doesn’t work as music, sometimes it’s just information, or sometimes something really low key is happening and if you put music in there you’re gonna kill any sense of what the person is actually saying. But I love the idea of trying to turn it into music, and using the language of music to communicate.

This all sounds like you put a ton of work into A Life Well Wasted. How long does an episode take you to make?

I don’t time it, because I think if I did I would probably feel really bad about it. But I know for a fact that, especially if you count all the time spent interviewing people for this last one, I easily spent over a hundred hours on the new one.

I don’t know how to phrase this, but you seem to be tapping into, like… an emerging indie game movement. Do you see that as something that’s forming?

I love indie games and feel like the show is somehow related to them, but I don’t know how. With indie games, you see a lot of people who are coming from a general youth culture, people who are into art and music and they have interesting styles and are using games to do what they want to do. They’re not building off this old gamer culture. They’re just accepting it, like, “this is just like anything else.” It could be a web app or a painting. And I feel like, with the show, I’m just trying to make a radio show, and the only reason it’s really about games is because I worked as a games journalist for years. I knew that there were a lot of interesting people out there that I could interview, and I knew there would be an audience out there who would be interested in it. So I just went with that. I can’t even really explain why I started doing a show about games.

I guess, when I was writing magazine features, I would go on these cover stories where you fly around the world to some exotic place and you’d meet the people who make a game. And all you’d get from them is this sales pitch where they’d go through the bullet points of the things they’d want you to write, they’d tell you all the features of the game and all the things they were trying to communicate to your audience about the game so they could sell it.

While I was there, I would try to get personal with them, try to ask them, “Why are you making games? What is this game about? What does it say about you?” I’d try to get them to answer those sorts of questions, and they rarely would. And whenever they would, and I’d try to turn it into the story, the editors at the magazines were not into it. They wanted me to write about the product, and I wanted to write about people. So I had all this pent-up desire to do something more people-oriented.

So, if an indie game movement is arguably emerging, I think it’s important that there’s journalism that will connect with it on its level. It seems like the current institutions of hardcore games coverage are not sufficient for that.

Yeah. Also, when you’re talking about indie games, you’re usually talking about one person, maybe two or three people who work together to make a game. And suddenly you have this more traditional narrative like you would for a musician or filmmaker, where you can talk to them and get to know them as a person and try to figure out what the things they make say about them, and have this personal, human connection with it. Games that are the products of giant committees of people, it’s hard to get a personal story out of them. Even gamers, you can love games and everything, but if you enjoy stories, what you want is to read a story about someone you can relate to and connect to. I think it’s boring if there’s no human element in what you’re writing. If you can’t ever make someone laugh or make someone thoughtful or get some sort of emotional response out of your audience, it’s just boring. I don’t care.

I’ve noticed with all these projects that you’ve got a lot of supporting design. You’ve got that crazy music video, or the CD cover, or the posters. Are these friends of yours that are helping you out, or people you reach out to?

What’s amazing is that most of them I’ve met because of the gaming business, because of Twitter, and because of the show. So, Olly Moss, who does the posters for the show — and he’s doing a poster for every episode, so that’s how it will be now, there will always be a new poster when there’s a new episode — he had heard the first episode. For some reason, a huge part of the audience is graphic designers and artists because I think they listen to a lot of podcasts. A lot of those guys will say, “I don’t listen to music a lot when I work because it’s exhausting somehow.” So they’ll listen to something they can tune out on.

So [Moss] listened to an episode and he approached me after episode one about making posters for the show. I was just going to keep on making it and not making money and seeing what would happen. But he approached me with the idea and it was a good business model. Also, it was a cool thing to be able to have a visual representation of every episode to communicate the idea that this isn’t just something that I’m gonna turn out every week. This is a big task and each one of these is special to me.

With Benjamin Braman, @adventureface, he followed me on Twitter one day. I go through and meticulously get rid of spammers, then I go and look at people’s websites a lot because I find cool things that way. And I went to his website… he has this crazy fucking website called Adventureface, where he posted these videos. And he had this video, it was a happy birthday video set to the tune of… what’s that song? (sings) Run away, run away, run away if you want to survive. It’s some ’90s bad dance song.

He had done this happy birthday song that was like, Your birthday, your birthday, your birthday another year you’re alive. And he had this video where it was his face on a birthday cake, so the birthday cake was singing this and it had Ninja Turtles all around it. Then the big punchline was like, “Let’s party if you want to high five,” or some shit like that, and then these two basketball players high five in the middle of the video.

And I just thought it would be cool to have any stupid video, so I was like, “Hey dude, you should make a video for I Come to Shanghai.” And he was really into it out of nowhere. I didn’t realize he was gonna do it for real. Like, the footage that we made for that video, we went and bought ten dollars of green felt and hung it on the wall of Sam’s apartment, and we used his MacBook camera, and we basically did a YouTube karaoke video, where we just pretended to be singing the song. But he took it and spent god knows how many hours on doing all this crazy shit with it.

But somewhere along the process we had been having trouble getting album art that we thought really worked with the album on a thematic and sound level. We had found people who could do one or the other, but we couldn’t find one that would do both, and were liking the style of what Ben was doing, and we were like, “would you like to give the album cover a shot?” And then, in a classic Ben move, he was into it and he spent so much time on it. I mean, he did two different versions of it for us, and we were like, “so close but… could you please start all over again.” He was so accommodating and awesome about it. We owe Ben a lot of money.

I think on the internet, it’s so important to have a visual way of communicating to people  because there’s so little time for anyone to consider giving you a shot, especially when it comes to audio.  Because, you know, you’re sitting in a computer chair and you’re going to listen to a snippet of an album or a snippet of a radio show. You’ve got to communicate something visually that makes them think, “This could be worth it.”

And with the posters, I just noticed this with the last episode, it makes the whole thing so much more… bloggable, for lack of a better word.

Sure, sites post the poster along with a link to the show.

Yeah, so people are just attracted to the posters as a thing, and so they’re like, “Oh, look at these posters… and there’s a radio show.”

It’s literally a poster like you would see around the neighborhood, but it’s around the blogosphere or whatever.

Yeah, yeah. That worked out well. I have really good luck meeting people who are good to work with online, just randomly.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.