Oneida’s Bobby Matador on Videogames, Virtuosity and Repetition

Games Features Oneida

In this month’s Leaderboard, Bobby Matador of the noise-rock band Oneida discusses how the game Kaboom influenced his music.

Wizards of Kaboom

Slap a date on me: I started with Kaboom. 2600, paddle control, little 8-bit Hamburglar-looking guy dropping Sacco-Vanzetti anarchist bombs off a bridge or something. And what was I? Buckets. From your perspective, unless you’re my vintage, this HAS to be the lamest game ever: You’re a stack of buckets! But videogames are funny, aren’t they? No matter the premise, they can wrap escapism, noise-lust, feverish pattern-matching, trash-talking and the collar-popping strut of earned expertise into a chewy package no matter what the content is, or how it appears to the uninitiated.

The elements of Kaboom that still seem potent 32 years after its release serve as a recipe for the music I make, I realize now: breakneck chaos compressed into severely limited patterns, unceasing repetition, instinct triumphing over conscious choice, barely tonal blasts of sound that cause most people to leave the room—hey, it’s Oneida! Fragments of this game bang around inside me. The boneheaded, binary simplicity of paddle gameplay in thrall to obsessive focus is how I play my music. Kaboom is thug improv.

Really, though, I was never that good at Kaboom, or any games actually, at least not when it mattered. And the way I saw it then, and still see it, it only matters if you’re good at the new stuff—is that still true? That two years’ practice might get you the skills, but by then nobody cares?

When it still mattered the Katis brothers were amazing. UNTOUCHABLE at Kaboom, if 30-year old memories can be trusted. My older brother’s friend Jamie, his older brothers…Wait a minute—what was I doing at their house, allowed to hang around? Some useless little 8-year-old grub? I guess I was an audience, and chops demand an audience.

Kaboom mesmerized me. It was new, it was impossibly fast, it sounded like Tron light-cycles backfiring, and watching the Katis brothers whip through level after level imprinted on me a sense of wonder at what appeared to me an unreachable summit of mastery: This is what it looks like to be GREAT at something. How can that happen? Are you born this way? Do you have to have a lot of money? Do you understand things about the world and about machines and about people that I don’t, and never will? Kids’ questions, to be sure, but I think I still ask them—don’t you? Maybe not about Kaboom, or about gaming—I hope not, at least—but when I encounter mastery even now as an adult, it’s shrouded in mystery, especially mastery of technique, or technology, or craft. And I know now where mastery comes from: repetition, dedication, and sacrificing other things—defining the necessary against the unnecessary, and taking sustained, disciplined action to act on that distinction.

Now, when I feel that thrill of adulation toward wizardry or virtuosity, I can (and do) judge the chops against that very distinction: Is the achievement worth the sacrifice? But that power, the thrust of admiration, isn’t diminished much even by that exercise. And I can’t help but wonder: Is there anything I do that inspires the same compromised, suspect admiration in others? Does everyone move within his or her own halo of mastery, that’s mysterious only to the audience and not the actor? Did the Katis brothers understand the monumental nature of their achievements in Kaboom—or did it just feel like a game? Because no matter how good I ever got at any game, or at shredding, or skating, or whatever—hey, even if I did finish Datasoft’s Conan: Hall of Volta (for Apple II)—and you better believe I did!—I never felt that coruscating radiance of supreme achievement, and I can’t help but keep wondering if I’m actually never going to get there; never be a wizard of Kaboom, left instead to justify my own simple deeds as compromises of necessity.

Bobby Matador (birth name: Robertson Thacher) plays organ in the experimental musical combo Oneida. Oneida has released about a dozen albums on Jagjaguwar since the turn of the century.

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