Tyler Swan is drinking a bottle of Budweiser when he and Ryan Trudell, two-thirds of local eight-bit rockers Truckasauras, meet me on Capitol Hill one warm Sunday evening in April. We're heading to their home studio in Green Lake to check out the robotic guts and human brains that make up "the Truck," to see what's behind the band that Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne half-jokingly, half-apologetically dubbed "the future of techno."
The band aren't taking the sudden attention too seriously; not much has changed other than a spike in their MySpace activity. They just finished their debut full-length, a monster of side-scrolling eight-bit electro backed by classic analog beats. They plan to release a limited run of the album themselves or maybe with local label Fourthcity—and then do the usual, vague "shopping around" for labels. They're cautiously optimistic. "You know anyone who wants to spend money on music?" asks Tyler.
Driving up I-5, it becomes clear that these guys are so familiar that they seem, in the best possible way, barely aware of one another's presence. They're totally comfortable. Tyler, his brother Adam Swan, and Trudell have been friends since grade school—Trudell is "like a brother," according to Adam, who describes their bond as "almost psychic"—and they've been making music together for 15 years. They grew up and went to school together in the suburb of Kirkland, and we reminisce a little about the Eastside's Teen Center concert circuit, where we all attended or played shows. They refuse to reveal the names of their old high-school bands.
The house in Green Lake has a small, slightly overgrown porch, and we have to duck under a tree branch to reach the front door. Inside, the band's video artist, Dan Bordon, another childhood friend, is sitting on the floor playing The Legend of Zelda on an old Nintendo Entertainment System—he's looking for the level-five dungeon but can't remember where it is. A friendly black Lab wanders the house. Adam walks in from the kitchen, beer in hand.
"You want a beer," he says by way of greeting.
The house is dilapidated—there's mold and peeling paint on the bathroom ceiling—but the band have built an impressive studio here. In the basement, there's a drum kit, several synthesizers and other instruments, and a massive screen-printing press. The basement rooms are all mic'd and wired to the "command center" on the second floor. In the center of this room is the Truckasauras arsenal: a tabletop of vintage analog drum machines, samplers, and other assorted gear. Surrounding this island—on every wall and available surface—are racks of effects, old boxy computers, xylophones, and tape machines. A not-unimpressive bong rests by the door.
Adam, Tyler, and Trudell began accumulating electronic equipment years ago, when still living in the suburbs, so they could practice and compose into the night without waking up their folks. In 2002, they began playing and recording as Foscil, a band that combine live drumming and keys with samples, synths, and effects to create futurist hiphop instrumentals. Truckasauras started as their "drunken side project," according to Tyler.
"We were booked to do something at Hugo House as part of a video-game-themed benefit for the Zine Archive Publishing Project," he says. "So we just started drinking at noon that day and programmed a bunch of stuff to play that night on the Nanoloop"—a cartridge for the Nintendo Game Boy that turns the old portable device into an extremely lo-fi synthesizer. At that first show they performed as a duo, with Tyler on live drums and Trudell on the Game Boy, but they eventually ditched the live drums for drum machines.
"It's more forgiving if we're drunk," says Tyler of the more mechanized setup. "Because everything's synched. So if we mess up, it still sounds okay. We'd probably be the only ones who would notice."
Adam joined on keys and delays, and Bordon began making visuals for the group, editing together clips of monster-truck rallies, WWE wrestling, and '80s action movies to create a kind of ADHD channel surf through the best of white-trash TV. "There's a bigger reaction to the video than to us," says Tyler. "The video is like the lead singer."
Despite all the drinking, the trash-culture affectations, and the general goofiness, it's clear that Truckasauras are more than just simple-minded party rockers. There's a surprising emotional depth to their video-game melodies, a specific nostalgia in the band's fondness for old-school gear and the vintage cheese on their visuals. The Game Boy—won in a grade-school walkathon—the pro wrestling, and the vintage beeps and beats go back in time to a suburban rec room circa 1989: a Pop Rocks–fueled sleepover spaz-out in full swing. This sometimes playful, sometimes longing nod to Nintendo-age adolescence gives Truckasauras's computer music a uniquely human touch.
A couple weeks later, back at the Green Lake house, the band are gathered to practice their set in preparation for an upcoming show. A copy of the new Vice magazine, in which the Truckasauras boys are featured as "Dos," rests on the arm of a couch. They're listening to remixed tracks from their forthcoming album in the living room—there's DJ Collage's ragga toasting; Jerry Abstract's punishing techno; Copy's bit-crunching electro; and even a remix from Adam and Tyler's younger brother, a classically trained bassist.
Before practice can get started, the band have to transfer some samples from their desktop storage into their portable Dr. Sample and reprogram some beats that Trudell apparently erased from their Roland 808 drum machine. Because the upcoming show is a friend's birthday party, they're uploading a sample of the Beatles' "Birthday" in addition to the usual scraps of Airwolf, Public Enemy, and wasted shout-outs from their friends. As Tyler and Adam take turns trimming the samples, Trudell starts connecting cables to and from the various devices laid out on the table. Thanks to frequent smoke breaks and plenty of beers, this process stretches out over an hour.
The rehearsal, when it finally gets going, is rough. Even with most of the elements synchronized and Truckasauras basically built to be driven drunk, there's still room for mistakes. In the close quarters and bright light of their studio—Trudell forgot the attachable light for his Game Boy, so the overhead lamp is cranked—every misstep is apparent. The band is sweating little details and working out sketchy patches. Adam accidentally knocks over a nearly full beer.
"We should try to come more correct than that on Wednesday," says Trudell midway through their set.
Two nights later, in Neumo's basement VIP Room, Truckasauras is definitely coming correct. The band are decked out in their best lowbrow apparel: Tyler is wearing his usual American flag cape, Adam is sleeveless, and Trudell sports a Kenworth T-shirt. Adam towers over a toy-size keyboard controlling a vintage Commodore 64 sound chip, Trudell thumbs at his Game Boy, Tyler leans over the drum machines, triggering patterns and tweaking levels, Bordon crouches over a mixer and a pair of VHS decks, projecting video onto a screen behind the band. Their swaggering beats and acid squelches are chugging along in seemingly effortless lockstep. Everyone is drinking, Adam is pumping his fists, Tyler wanders into the crowd at one point—it's a party.
The Truckasauras sound is lo-fi and robotic, but their pixilated jams are structured more like traditional rock songs than repetitive techno. And while guitar snobs may scoff at all the button pushing and knob twisting, their live show packs more than enough trashed spectacle to make up for the lack of a lead singer. At the end of the night, they've wowed the small but crucial crowd of DJs, producers, promoters, and press. Truckasauras face a lot of obstacles on their way up from the basement, but they're more than ready to kill, crush, and destroy everything in their path.