'PixelJunk Eden' Co-creator Baiyon on His New Album 'We Are'

Gaming music at its best

Kyoto-based musician Baiyon has a low-key but notable place in the games industry. As a frequent collaborator with Q-Games, he made his name as both artist, designer, and musician on the indie hit PixelJunk Eden, and later PixelJunk 4AM. Now a full member of the team, he's hard at work on the spiritual sequel to Eden, titled Eden Obscura. But when he's not at the office, Baiyon is busy pursuing his double-life a prolific DJ and artist.

This year finds the prolific musician and designer shifting gears and releasing his first new full-length LP in years. Titled We Are, the album features 10 new songs he wrote in collaboration with other renowned games-adjacent musicians, including Disasterpeace (Fez, Hyper Light Drifter), C418 (Minecraft), El Huervo (Hotline Miami 1 & 2), and Mitsuto Suzuki (The World Ends With You, Final Fantasy XIII). Despite the disparate array of co-writers, We Are coheres as a beautiful, inventive, and endlessly surprising album of electronic music. We spoke with Baiyon at length to get a deeper look at his creative process in the creation of We Are.

You're constantly releasing music, but your actual albums seem to come out at a very deliberate pace. What makes you decide it's the right moment for a new Baiyon album to come out?
After releasing my first album Like a School on Lunch Time in 2006, I've gone through a transition in the way I thought about music. Back then, I didn't use beats and my understanding of sound was different.

Since then, I've always had this strong desire to continuously release albums, but it's easier said than done. That why, in the recent years, I continued to make EP releases. There is certainly difficulty in making a track dedicated to the dance floor and putting it together into an album format. Album tracks require a variation in style, and for DJs to play, there are some things that require similar functionality and structure. Another big influence in change was my involvement with producing video games. Titles that involve my art and sound are much like my albums, in which the created game is experienced like how an album is experienced.

How did you decide which artists you'd collaborate with on this album?
It all started with the simple idea of hooking up with my friends who compose game music to make a collaboration album. These are hand-picked artists, and of course the their music says it all. The collaboration was very organic and I had a fantastic experience. I knew it would become something unique and special.

How did you get Disasterpeace to sing on the album?
When he used to live in San Francisco, he'd invite me to stay at his place often. I enjoyed our talks into the night over herb tea, but what was memorable was what happened [one day] when I was taking a shower. He casually began to play his upright piano and started to sing for me. It was a very soothing feeling and it made me want to share it with other people. That's when I asked him if he would play the piano and sing for my album. "Rafael Bridge" is a track that we made after we drove his car to go to GDC. I put in sounds that would best fit the experience of when we crossed the San Rafael Bridge. The geometry of the bridge and its futuristic wire structure was a fantastic contrast to San Francisco's blue sky.

Will you return the favor and sing on a Disasterpeace album?
I've never used my own voice in the past, so who knows! He's a talented artist and collaborating with him is always a pleasure so I'd be delighted to work with him again.

Do you think you're easy to collaborate with?
That's a difficult to know, but I'd think I'm probably not too easy to work with. For In The Collaborations, I already had the concept in the beginning to create these tracks for DJs and it involved getting the sounds from the collaborators and making the tracks. The collaborators on this album are from all parts of the world, so meeting them to record was impossible. So it was an iterative cycle where I received the samples, I send them back with additions and getting them back with some mixes. Of course I would give them an image of what I'd like, but ultimately, we had fun with this experimental process.

Do you have any interesting or funny stories about how a particular song took shape?
The track "Hazy Sunday" with Manami was fun. She came to my studio and recording was done in one take. I gave her a simple idea and she went on to play on the Rhodes Piano. I started to twist the knob as she played, processing the tape-echo effect. I originally planned to record samples for the track, but we both realized this roughness felt right and kept it. In essence, it was a live recording.

"Shinjuku Acid," which you wrote with longtime Square Enix composer Mitsuto Suzuki really shows off the depth of your songwriting style. What was the process like for that one?
Mitsuto gave sent me a lot of samples to work with. I made a track and sent it to him soon after I got the samples and to he was surprised to hear so many of the tracks in it since he didn't expect me to use them all.

I think Mitsuto has two sides to him. On one side, he was with a techno-pop band, and the other as a seasoned artist who debuted on Fumiya Tanaka's TOREMA label. He also released music under [YMO bassist] Haruomi Hosono's Daisy World. [So he] truly understands what goes on on the dance floor. I got samples [from him] that fused both of those elements together, so I challenged myself to create a track that had both of those elements. The TB-303 has been his go-to gear, and the bass line he provided me with was a great piece for me to put in towards the end.

"I tend not to shoot for perfection, but allow for a more organic process, with some flaws here and there."

Did you meet Luis Hernandez a few years ago when you went to Mexico for [Mexican game music festival] VCON with Akira Yamaoka and others? "Metal Detective" is one of the more unique tracks on the album, as it has a very strong 'real instrument' sound.
Disasterpeace is actually who I met in Mexico. It was a fun tour. I believe I met Luis back at GDC. We got into a really geeky conversation about synths and he surprised me when he mentioned that he made an EMS synthesizer all on his own. The sounds he provided were made from old analog equipment with unsteady pitch and beats. I thought about how I could use that in making something that grooves to that unsteadiness.

What has been the reaction of some of the artists you worked with on this? Did the final version of some of these songs surprise them?
This is a good question that taps into the core of what I consider collaboration. There certainly were collaborators who reacted with surprise, but for the most part, they all really enjoyed it. But in a collaborative situation, there's a responsibility to surprise the collaborator. I think that's what keeps everyone excited.

At the end of the day, this is still a Baiyon album. I assume you handle all the final production and mixing duties yourself. Is anything dramatically different in the end product from what you originally receive?
Right, I do all of the mixing on my own. I have an engineer that I always work with that helped me with mastering. Editing and fine effects were things I did constantly. One collaborator sent me sample ideas enough for two tracks, and I mixed the two together by matching the keys and made a single track. This time around, it wasn't a compilation of tracks for DJs, but I thought about how to put this particular collaborative situation into an album, which was also a concept that I had. What I did as much as I could was to stay away from trying to make the sound forcefully work for me. I retained the characteristics of the original sound, while being able to have the listener recognize each song with who I collaborated with for it.

It's interesting how your sound has evolved over the years. If you listen to the PixelJunk Eden soundtrack from nine years ago, while it is certainly electronic, it's very different from We Are. It's hard to describe this in words, but We Are has a much more minimalist, almost 'live' sound compared to some of your previous albums. In some places, it's jazzy and filmic, like the music to a soundtrack.
As I've mentioned previously, I tried to retain as much as I could of the original sound characteristic that the collaborators made. I intentionally made an effort not to modify the original sound and compose in more natural way. I avoided having a predetermined mindset of how a track should be. I also wanted this album to be something that could be enjoyed in many situations.

The evolution that occurs with my sound is something quite unique to me. I tend not to shoot for perfection, but allow for a more organic process, with some flaws here and there, even going so far as to leave in unintended effects – what I call "smears." I thought about how I could make a track by capturing a one-take situation with a Rhodes Piano rather than a synth sound that was accurately sequenced. Leaving in the "smear" was my theme. In other words, I wanted both the human factor and groove to coexist.

That's a bit of influence I picked up as a DJ. You know when dust gets caught up on the record needle and it hops to make that awful hissing and popping sound? That's really uncool, but at times the crowd can get into that sort of thing. Once you come across such a moment, you realize that perfection can't be achieved through being perfect. As a creator, I try to find that perfect 100 percent expression as much as I possibly can and it's the best situation if that can be felt by the listener. But when that needle hops, something happens to the atmosphere. I wanted to find other ways to recreate that kind of expression.