Game Genie Sokolov Finds their True Identity on Trans // Mission

Between synthwave, synthpop, and vaporwave, the music of Montreal artist Game Genie Sokolov changes as they evolve in their search for sound and identity.  On their third and latest album Trans // Mission, Game Genie Sokolov abandons their previous video game aesthetic to show off the full breadth of their talent, with various strains of electronic music permeating throughout the record’s 12 tracks.  For Ambient April, CJLO caught up with the artist about the new album, instrumental music, and getting out of their comfort zone.

Listen to the new album here.

You released your debut album Insert Disk 02 a little over a year ago.  Why did you want to follow up that release so soon?  Are you the kind of musician who is always working on writing new material?

Insert Disk 02 was released in January 2019, but the master was done around August 2018.  It took such a long time to release that before it came out, I already had four new tracks ready to go, some of which I even performed during the album launch (if I remember correctly, they were “Ladyboy,” the backing track for “Non binaire,” “Contact,” and the backing track for “Fille / Garçon”).  Trans // Mission was composed between September 2018 and December 2019, on and off.  Lo and behold, I ended up with 12 tracks quite quickly and was wondering what I could do with them. After some editing, I ended up with 42 minutes of music. It was time to release them.

I love making music, for me it’s a valuable tool to express my mood adequately since I’m a shy person who tends to be quiet socially.  I don’t work on it all the time; it depends on the inspiration.  Some tracks were made pretty fast, sometimes over a couple of days from the first melody idea to the final mixing (“RGB Colors,” “Sky Dance,” and “Coming Out” were done in such manner).  I hate leaving things unfinished.  Once I start a track, I need to see it completed before going to some other project.

You have said that Trans // Mission “contains who I am, which was not the case before.”  What was it about your previous album that was not as true to yourself as your new album?

It contains “more” of who I am, to be precise.  Insert Disk 02 was a continuation of 背景音乐 01, containing almost the same musical elements and general direction.  It had timid, tentative touches of guitar on one track, some different synths than the Yamaha FM I’m using, but it was first and foremost a chiptune album.  And here lies a misunderstanding – I am not a chiptune artist.

The Game Genie Sokolov project is an umbrella covering many genres of electronic music with a nerdy approach, mixed with funky sensibilities and Japanese influences.  It started as chiptunes made for the Sega Genesis internal Yamaha FM synth.  Then, there were vaporwave tracks mixing 80s production values with TV commercials and technical conferences.  Next comes the synthwave / chillwave tracks mixing jazz chords with lush pads.  All of them produced with custom programming tools. While it may be diverse in genres covered, the production and sensibility unify it all in a cohesive unit.  All of this shows who I am. 

If you listen to the album, it is indeed very diverse in genres covered, but somehow, they all have my own identifying sound, my own identity.  The attitude was mostly: “I can play guitar, why not playing it on the tracks?  I can sing (a little), let’s try that.  I listen to hip-hop too, let’s try to make [a hip-hop track].”  That’s why there’s more of myself in it.  I decided to not restrict myself in one area (the Sega Genesis) because this is only one colour out of a more broad palette that wasn’t shown before.

Your new material is more personal than ever, with songs like “Non binaire” and “Coming Out” referencing your place in the LGBTQ+ community.  What inspired the shift in direction?  Was their ever hesitancy in getting into deeper themes, or were you excited by such a turn?

It came with the addition of vocals.  It wasn’t so much a shift of direction, let’s say an evolution. Since now I wasn’t limiting myself to a specific video game console, I could add whatever I wanted to the sound, hence the idea of vocals, which was exciting: a new colour added to the palette, yes!  Of course, it added a new element: the need to say something.  The album title (which is pretty self-explanatory) was decided early on, therefore the idea was that the songs should tell something gravitating around this theme.

I have no shame in talking about being part of the LGBTQ family, it is a part of me.  The community helped me a lot to gain confidence in my work and breaking barriers.  But, honestly, I hesitated a lot to release the album, because it would be some kind of personal and artistic coming out to everyone, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it.  Now I’m excited.

“Coming Out” is also an apt title because it is your first time singing over one of your own songs!  Would you consider it your most personal track because of that?  Is this the beginning of more of your vocals in your music?

(You can hear my voice on the chorus of “No Life” too ^^) “Coming Out” is indeed very personal because this is the first time I’ve been involved in writing lyrics and singing them with my own unprocessed voice.  I didn’t know what to do, and to this day I’m very self-conscious about this track: vocals and lyrics.  It was written pretty quickly as an experiment, but a couple of trusted friends convinced me to release it.  The subject matter is pretty clear, and I’m exposing a fragile side of mine with this.  In a way, it is liberating, but it is the one track I always skip when I’m listening to it publicly.  Not that I’m ashamed of it, but I’m self-conscious about the way I’m perceived with it.

Listen to "RGB Colours" off the new album here.

Trans // Mission is also a much more collaborative album than Insert Disk 02, with guest appearances by Laurence Giroux-Do of Montreal trio Le Couleur, local rapper Jules G, and Nova Scotia hip-hop/new jack swing artist Vadell Gabriel.  How did you decide what songs fit best with each guest?  Do you find collaborating with other artists has aided in diversifying the sonic universe of Game Genie Sokolov?

At the time I was still part of the Lisbon Lux Records label and I figured that I should use this opportunity by asking some fellow artists on the rosters if they’d like to collaborate on some tracks.

Laurence Giroux-Do, from Le Couleur, accepted immediately. I sent her the instrumental backing track, the album title, and that was it.  She was fantastic to work with, her lyrics are perfect, and she made the track her own, always available for a quick chat, recorded her vocals quickly.  I was very impressed and honored to work with her, she is THAT great. 

Vadell Gabriel and I already worked together for a track of his called “Mega Drive Vibe.”  We have a common love for New Jack Swing, Michael Jackson, Prince, Al B. Sure, etc.  Since I love his work ethic and know that we share a lot of niche tastes music-wise, I sent him a track I recorded with placeholder lyrics.  He completely changed it to reflect his own life story, and I love it.  He made it his own.

Jules G. is actually an acquaintance of mine, we have lots of friends in common in Montreal, met at many parties over the year.  He’s in charge of a Montreal organization called Gros Joueurs and had done hip-hop tracks with a geeky vibe in his lyrics.  He was a natural choice for it.  It’s actually the only collab I did where I met the artist involved in it.  I never met Laurence or Vaddell in real-life so far.

A friend of mine told me a song like “Fille / Garçon” is more rare, since a lot of chiptune music is instrumental.  Did you find it to be a challenge to fit pop song structures onto your usual sonic beds?

It wasn’t a challenge really as the track “Fille / Garçon” was initially fully instrumental and called “Fantasy Star.”  It wasn’t meant to have lyrics.  It was a pure chiptune track, every single sound on it comes from a Sega Genesis Yamaha FM synth, even the drums.  During its production, I felt something was missing and it was definitely a good candidate to try a new approach with, such as using vocals.  I don’t know who said we can’t have vocals in chiptunes, but here it is. :) In French, no less.

To be honest, I don’t know what “chiptune track” means.  If you mean “video game music” by it, I have never done so and I’m not interested in doing so.  One of the instruments I’m using (only one of them) is an FM Yamaha synth that is available in a Sega Genesis console, but it is also available in the famous Yamaha DX7 synth that was used by Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson, Queen and so on.  I only used a Sega Genesis because it is cheaper to find, and since I can develop programing tools myself, not too hard to use.  It is a tool for me. I like the sound design possibilities I can get from it, but that’s about it.

Listen to "Fille / Garçon (feat. Le Couleur)" here.

You were supposed to have a launch show for Trans // Mission this month at Turbo Haüs, which is no longer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, you will be having a pre-release listening party for the album on April 23 (through and doing a live stream on April 24.  How have you been holding up during this unique time, both as an artist and personally?  What do you think of the many ways artists like yourself are trying to keep a tangible connection with fans as we can’t all gather together in person?

Personally, I’m holding up okay, I have a side job that allows me to work from home, nothing changed in that regard.  I’m thankful to have a wonderful roommate too, we are holding up together.

Artistically, it certainly blows; this was my only rendez-vous with an audience this year and I worked hard on it.  To see it canceled was tough to handle, but we’re all in this together.  I’m lucky to still have some revenue coming in, which is not the case for a lot of fellow musicians.  I feel especially bad for Le Couleur, they had great gigs coming up and a tour, all of which have been canceled.

The live show meant a lot to me.  This was my only project planned and I was looking up to it with great anticipation.  Doing it via a live stream means that fewer people will see it.  In my case, I’m not a big artist by any means (and probably never will be), but I have to do it – just for the fun of it.

CJLO is celebrating currently Ambient April, focused on not just ambient music, but also instrumental, post-rock, and minimal experimental music.  What is it about the (mostly) instrumental stylings of chiptune music that you are passionate about?

Chiptune is perhaps 20 per-cent of what I do, I don’t want to be pigeon-holed in that genre.  As I said, I don’t consider myself as a chiptune artist but as an electronic music project.   What I love about the chiptune genre is the focus on melody.  Without vocals, without anything else to rely on but creative sound design, melodies are a must-have. That’s what I love the most.

Trans // Mission is out on April 24 (Independent)

Alex Viger-Collins is the host of Ashes to Ashes, your weekly dose of modern pop, every Tuesday at 8:00 PM EST.