Shawn Phase’s Temp Sound Solutions Plays Video-Game Blasts From the Past
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When Shawn Phase performs as Temp Sound Solutions—say, in support of his latest self-released album of video-game covers, Now You’re Playing With Powar IV: The Last Battle of LaGrange Point—the tall, intelligent-looking metalhead wears a helmet-mask reminiscent of that worn by Samus, the protagonist in Nintendo’s classic video game Metroid.
The look is intentionally futuristic-freakish and complements the retro-futuristic music he plays. TSS performs video game music, the constantly shifting, never-ending melodies and noises that scored countless hours logged in front of a television with a controller in hand. And he’s part of a growing crop of video-game cover artists who are tapping into the aural memories of a generation of young people who can name-check the soundtracks to Castlevania and Contra as instantaneously as others can spot Guns ’N’ Roses or R.E.M.
Where game icons Samus and Mega Man have powerful guns attached to their arms, both of Phase’s hands hold a headless ax, his Steinberger GM PRO guitar. A black and gray NES Power Glove—the Nintendo accessory that allows you to control a crude virtual reality—covers his right hand, his left claws the guitar’s neck. In this mode, he’s ready to shred, finger-tap, and take requests.
He comes to shows with a set list but informs everyone that he’d rather have requests shouted out. He’ll meet them so long as they are Nintendo titles and Arizona’s the Minibosses, another video-game cover band, have not already recorded it.
Wired about Phase’s neck are rectangular controllers and a box-shaped console adapter. Tattoos going up his arms repeat the Konami logo, a tribute to the Nintendo-licensed software company with a reputation for killer game soundtracks.
“With the apparel I can appear as something out of the ordinary, something that you wouldn’t get a chance to see from someone simply sitting behind a laptop, pressing ‘play,’ and then playing Minesweeper for 45 minutes,” Phase says. “I am attempting to re-create an all-too-ignored facade of futuristic fashion sense and still feel uninhibited and perform to the best of my ability.”
Watching and listening to Temp Sound Solutions is as shocking and exciting as his fluid medleys, which arrive in an irrepressible flood. His emotional guitar whips up a nostalgic joy for a past when life and video games were simpler and sweeter.
“[TSS] allows me to be able to brainwash people, even myself, in a subconscious way,” Phase says about his choice of material. “A lot of times I will play for people, and they stand in front of me and scratch their heads, not because they don’t understand but because they don’t understand why something sounds native to them. With video-game covers, a medium more relaxed than if you are performing your own music, you gain the ability to interpret what someone else had brought you as far as 30 years ago, out of the midst of sines and blips. And if you can adequately reinterpret that in a room full of your friends, you’re re-creating everything you ever remembered of this music, and any feelings you had about it come out freely.”
In one twinkling riff from Final Fantasy, Phase can tap into the memories of an entire room. Smiles appear on the faces of those who recognize it, and then, sure enough, a shout from the crowd identifies it: That’s from the password screen as you start the game. Ever eager to participate, some listeners start tossing out requests from ubiquitous titles such as Super Mario Bros., Zelda, and Donkey Kong.
The seeds of Temp Sound Solutions were planted after the dissolution of the Idea Men, Baltimore’s late-’90s math-rock ensemble that included former City Paper contributor Rjyan “Cex” Kidwell and Gary “Your Imaginary Friend” Barrett. Their breakup pushed Phase into a six-month hiatus from performing, beginning a fertile experimentation period.
“I had no former experience writing or recording with a computer and I felt that it was necessary to step up and learn the basics of making music with one if I were to flourish,” he says. “This time was necessary for me to be able to learn the flexibility of writing a hybrid electronic music, something that was truly untapped.”
A tireless archivist of his interpretations—to date, Phase has self-released 64 CDRs, EPs, and CDs—TSS’s latest, Powar IV, is a shower of 30 meticulously realized game melodies. On the three Trojan tracks, live drums pound grittily to hype the action of a forgotten sidescroller as Phase’s sick guitar fingering slowly redraws it. Blades of Steel and Gyromite are also covered, which Phase considers to be his best work, having taken him six to eight months to complete.
At the heart of Temp Sound Solutions, though, is the power of participatory entertainment. Whether he’s sitting behind a modest merch table, with his album track lists lined up on cards and his mask lifted, or busily responding to e-mails, CD orders, and fan art, he never dodges an opportunity to include listeners in on the fun of resurrecting music that inspired him.
“What attracts me to video-game music is usually the isolation of a beautiful melody or the emotional bond that I have had with a specific song or group of songs,” Phase says. “My original music has always been an extension of my love for video-game music.”