For the better half of the past decade, Yousef Hatlani has been one of those everywhere-at-once scene notables; he worked at the now-shuttered Backspace and Someday Lounge, was a co-host on the music podcast Faces on the Radio, and remains a tireless photographer and documentarian of live music in Portland.
After a few false starts at playing music in Portland himself, Hatlani—who moved from Bahrain in 2006—is finally readying the release of his first solo album, Bit by Bit. It’s an ambitious debut to say the least.
“I knew that, since I had so many friends ask me if I had a band or an album out, my first album was something I had to get serious about,” Hatlani says. “It took a while to come together.”
Bit by Bit is a lovingly crafted, painstakingly faithful covers album of classic video game music. Its title—which Hatlani concedes is “not super original”—serves as both an allusion to retro video games and the meticulous nature in which the album was recorded. “I recorded bits and pieces of it every day for four to five months,” he says.
Hatlani sends me detailed tracking lists that include the amount of time it took him to record each song. The haunting “Corridors of Time” from the landmark 1995 RPG Chrono Trigger—which Hatlani has gorgeously rearranged for electric guitar—takes the cake at 16 days. It’s the highlight of the record.
Bit by Bit is Hatlani’s first “proper” release as a solo artist, but he’s been playing music for over a decade. A teenaged Hatlani cut his teeth as a member of Bahrain’s heavy metal scene in the early ’00s, serving as a guitarist in the band Motör Militia, one of the first Middle Eastern metal acts to release an LP of entirely original material. (The group primarily played covers live.)
“Looking back, it’s really interesting to think about,” Hatlani says. “I think what separated us from other bands in our scene is that we played songs by bands that were a little heavier. Most bands at the time played songs by Metallica or System of a Down, but we were more interested in bands like Slayer and Pantera.”
But Hatlani’s first love was video game music. “When I was seven or eight, I was very big on the music in the original Sonic the Hedgehog games,” he tells me. “My understanding of music was still developing, but I identified very quickly with it. I loved the tempo, I loved the quirkiness.”
The “gateway” for Hatlani into full-blown music appreciation was the soundtrack to Shenmue—a cult classic for the Sega Dreamcast whose stirring, piano-driven score remains some of the best music ever produced for a video game. “That music really struck me, because it was huge, sweeping, and orchestral,” Hatlani says. “Around the time Shenmue II came out in 2001—that’s when I became interested in music, and it really became the focus of my life.”
As focused as Bit by Bit might seem, Hatlani says that the album was ultimately something of a confidence-building exercise. An unlikely source of inspiration for the project was Prince, whose jack-of-all-trades approach to recording his pre-Purple Rain output gave Hatlani the courage to make a bona fide solo record.
Hatlani says that he hopes to form a new band soon that performs original material. But for now, we have Bit by Bit—a nostalgia-inducing paean to gaming’s glory days that Hatlani thinks could appeal to non-gamers, too. “I think that maybe what holds some people back is the fidelity of a lot of older video game music,” he says. “A lot of those older songs were recorded with very minimal technology, but you could have an entire orchestra play them and it would sound incredible. It just goes to show you the strength of this music.”