Darren Criss was always destined to make a career out of music. He studied the violin from age 5 well into his teenage years, picking up other instruments along the way, while also pursuing a love for musical theater. But he credits his own musical endeavors to the environment in which he grew up -- particularly his older brother, Chuck, who brought other musical interests to the table especially when they were in high school.
"Music has always been the backbone of our relationship and our household," Darren tells Billboard. "We both had a voracious appetite for music, but I think high school is when we started playing together and being to communicate on a level that changed everything. I think the kind of music we played is probably loud garage rock, because we were just playing in the basement."
Once they graduated, though, the Criss brothers decided to take their own paths. Darren independently released a solo EP, Human, in July 2010, just months before debuting in his breakthrough role as dreamy choir head Blaine Anderson on Fox's hit musical dramedy Glee, while Chuck found a home in New York City and became a founding member of indie-rock fivesome Freelance Whales.
With Glee seeing its end in 2015 and Freelance Whales' most recent album hailing from 2012, both Criss brothers were itching to do something new musically -- so they thought, why not relive the days of the brotherly collaborations? And come March 8, 2017, behold, the Criss alt-pop project Computer Games.
Paying homage to Darren and Chuck's other childhood love of computer games (yes, like Oregon Trail and SimCity), Darren, who serves as the project's frontman, calls it a "total passion project," and a perfect opportunity to play music with his brother again. "I was really trying to figure out what I was going to do and I was trying to decide if I was going to have a band, or a pop moniker, or what the thing was gonna be to make it something new and exciting as opposed to just being myself. I was shying less and less away from just me -- I don’t really like that, I think that puts a lot of pressure on you because it’s just you, you, you."
After dropping mysterious social media hints, Computer Games officially launched Wednesday (March 8) with the release of its first official EP, Lost Boys Life, featuring three songs and a demo cut. Billboard sat down with Chuck and Darren ahead of the big day to talk about why now is the time for a Criss brother project, how they found their "unapologetically fun" sound, and what they hope to see come of it.
What made you decide that now is the right time for you two to actually release music together?
Darren: I was at the crossroads of what I was going to do next -- Glee was over, there’s been a festering solo record, which people have been asking me about forever. Between all the songs I’ve written and produced over the years, I wanted to start fresh. Chuck and I were writing songs, and I was like, “Why don’t we just do this together? These are both our songs.” I’ve always wanted to do something with Chuck, and life’s too short, so here we are.
It’s a really cool way to break the door down, and then we’ll see what people react to. We win either way, because we wanted to record these [songs] and we’re happy about these -- nobody was shoving this down our throats, it didn’t feel forced. In that regard, it was a personal victory. We’ll see what people say and what they want, and we’ll give the people what they want.
How has the dynamic changed working with your brother now, rather than working with other people or on your own?
Chuck: I think it’s been better. Darren comes from a different background, more of a pop sensibility and more of an understanding of harmony -- especially from the Broadway world, a really strong attention to songwriting detail. There are things that I’m not typically used to working with, but it was really cool. I would have an initial idea, and then the way Darren would flesh it out is much different than the way it would work with the Whales.
Darren: There’s a familiarity between Chuck and I that there’s not a lot of red tape to cut through. I’m hyper-specific and very militant -- as chill of a guy as I am, I treat music and anything I create with hyper-specificity, and kind of maniacally so. So it’s nice to have Chuck’s looser grip on certain things, which is good for creativity. Chuck will just kind of splatter stuff against the wall, and then I can kind of pick up the pieces. It’s like making a face out of a doodle.
Chuck: But it’s great, because me as a doodler -- since we’ve known each other for so long and have written songs together for so long -- I can kind of be abstract, and he still kind of knows what I’m talking about. I don’t have to go through that extra step of explaining. Or, I can reference "that thing we did in the basement."
Is the music you’re making now similar to the garage rock you made in high school?
Darren: No, although we’d like to get back to those. A lot of this is sort of chasing the past.
Chuck: If we had made these songs when we were teenagers in the garage, I think we’d be geniuses. There’s a reason why we wrote these when we were 30 [Laughs.]
Can you elaborate on what makes Computer Games' music "unapologetically fun pop"?
Darren: Yeah, that’s more to apologize to our producer friends, because one of the lead tracks on it -- the song “Every Single Night” -- is so layered.Harmonically and production-wise, there’s so much happening that typically I would be like, “No, no, no, we gotta take some of this out.” I come from a world where when I record I like to try and have it be ready for a live experience as much as possible. I kind of threw that to the wind once I started Computer Games. As long as it sounds good...
It’s kind of marrying these two schools, of thought of being a purist, and also just accepting what’s hip. Chuck, you kept saying this when we were in the recording studio -- I was like “Having 13 guitars is kind of wacky,” and you were like, “I don’t know, it sounds good.” And that to me just trumps all. You let go of making concessions and you just say, “We’re not sorry!” We just want it to sound f--king rad.
How did you guys figure out the "rad" sound you wanted?
Chuck: We had the songs written, and then it was just a matter of, “What kind of clothes do you want to put on this?”
Darren: So we teamed up with a crew that I have always admired called The Elev3n. Chuck and I, our sensibilities are a little more mom-and-pop, and more band-y. And The Elev3n guys are straight-up pop producers, and they’re really strong pop producers. They have a vocabulary that we don’t have and we certainly have a vocabulary that they don’t have, so we thought it would be kind of cool to meet halfway with these guys and see what they do.
I’d like to think that Chuck and I could hold our own, but for the most part, I would play something out and then be like, “All right, Dave you do it better. It’ll take me 30 takes, it’ll take you three.”
Chuck: We probably could’ve made this record on our own, it just would’ve taken 10 years instead of two weeks.
It only took two weeks to make?
Chuck: No, no, but at least [just the] time in the studio.
Darren: The reality is, Chuck and I live in different cities. Chuck’s full time in New York, and I’m full-time nowhere... I have a life running around the world doing whatever I gotta do. So this was really kind of put together sort of when convenient -- which is not the most ideal way to make something, but it certainly prioritizes what you need to do. With The Elev3n, they do have such a strong pop-influenced way of thinking, and we welcomed that into the way that we were making this because we wanted to make it accessible.
When you are making anything, all you can do is chase the idea that exists and then see where it goes. It’s like having a child and seeing what the child gets into. If a song sounds a certain way, we go, “Okay cool, we should probably let it sound like that and mix it accordingly, as opposed to trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.”
Chuck: Yeah because these songs ended up having an ‘80s aesthetic, but by no means were we stepping into it like, “We gotta make an ‘80s record.” It did end up sounding like music that was popular when we were kids, but it was almost like, when we were kids, we weren’t even rocking out to that stuff, it was just kind of in the ether. I was born the same year Phil Collins was a superstar, but I didn’t start listening to Phil Collins until I was in college, maybe later. My ear was completely tuned out to it.
Darren: And now your ear is just like, “Oh man, this is the best s--t ever.”
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And what made you decide that Lost Boys Life was going to be the name of the EP?
Darren: The thing that Chuck and I share is, we're men grappling with this concept of adulthood, but still one foot is forever stuck in adolescence. All the music is thematically sort of adolescent, and sonically adolescent – it sounds like the popular sounds of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, when we were little kids. In that sense, it’s about not wanting to give that up, and sort of living this Lost Boys Life. All the songs have something to do with growing up in some weird way. It’s also just a title that I f---ing love, to be real. [Laughs.]
Chuck: Yeah, it kind of sums up the EP nicely. What I like about it -- it does kind of have that Peter Pan-y lost boys thing, but then I like it more as a vibe of the Kiefer Sutherland movie.
Darren: Yeah, people forget – they’re like, "Oh, Peter Pan." And we’re like, "No, vampires."
Even though it's still pretty new, do you guys have any goals or hopes for Computer Games?
Darren: All you can hope for -- it’s not that people like what you’re doing, it’s that people have any reaction at all. We’re not making incredibly heavy, pensive music. But the prime objective of what we’ve created is, like we said, [to be] unapologetically fun. So if you’re singing or dancing, or laughing, or smiling, f--k yeah. That’s all we really ask... or hope for, because we’re not asking for anything.
Particularly people who don’t know who we are -- the people who don’t know Freelance Whales, the people who didn’t watch Glee -- those are the people that I hope to reach. I look forward to the blank slate, and I look forward to these songs grabbing people objectively.