Meet video game bands Super MadNES,
8-Bit Jazz Heroes and The Megas

By Naughty Mickie

The Retro City Festival will be held in Pomona, California Jan. 5 and 6. It is an event celebrating video games with an arcade, pinball, console museum, tournaments, vendors and live music by the MniBosses, The Koopas, Travis Morgan, Super MadNES, 8-Bit Jazz Heroes and The Megas. Sure, you'll want to spend time playing the old games, but the music is pretty amazing. All of the bands at the fest have their own takes on what they play, for some it's a pure tribute, while for others the themes are a jumping off point. The genres range too, from rock and jazz to hip-hop and electronica. We spoke with three groups to learn what they do, why and a bit more.

 

Super MadNES
www.supermadnes.com 

Performs 2 p.m. Jan. 5 and 6 outside stage.

Based in Huntington Beach, Super MadNES pays homage to traditional heavy metal and retro (1980-early '90s) video games. We spoke to drummer Nico Saavedra.

DB: Why do you play video game music?

NS: Everybody that is in this band has had a connection to video games, such as how we grew up. We all grew up playing Nintendo or arcades and pinball. It’s interesting because everybody had a connection because of their youth and we all, separately, became professional musicians. Everybody has doen music professionally to some extent and there’s always been that thing where, oh, wouldn’t it be cool we can actually do some video game music. There’s this big love towards gaming, that nostalgia, and also the love for the music. If you grew up playing those games because of the way they have the soundtrack the music would be looping so you would memorize all of the music. This was around the time traditional heavy metal was happening in the ‘80s or early ‘90s so a lot of that music was influenced by it and it fits very well.

DB: What is your focus?

NS: We like to create themes in our releases and our performance. For example the first album we did was a Super Nintendo-themed album. We combined two games, which a lot of people might do a best of doing songs from a bunch of different games. We don’t do that, we create a theme of two games that somehow connect in the mechanics of the game play, but also musically.

DB: What video game music is the most difficult to play?

NS: Game music in general is hard to play, specifically the old ones because everything was built in machines. These were all Japanese composers that were hired to do the job, but they weren’t writing music so it could be performed, they were writing music so it could give some energy to the game. There’s a lot of sequences that are impossible but we work really, really hard to make those happen specifically in the way we arrange them with the heavy metal approach.

DB: Due to the nature of video game soundtracks, you must have to add to the score or work out arrangements for a complete song, what do you do?

NS: We’re basically keeping pretty much everything true to the original soundtracks, but we do take a little bit of freedom in terms of arrangements so we can create really cool heavy metal riffs. Our band in comparison to most video game bands, it’s very rhythm based. A lot of the other bands focus on the lead playing and we do want to have that, but we want to portray ourselves as a full band.

DB: What is your live show like?

NS: We have a big screen and a video for every song that is completely synched to the performance in real time.

DB: Do you think interest in the video game music genre is growing and, if so, why?

NS: There is a scene for video game music in the country and there’s a big scene, which came as a bonus, we didn’t really know how big of a scene it was. There are video game festivals and stuff like that. Everybody’s got this nostalgia whether they know it or not. They already love it and the forgot about it. It’s been such a gap since that youth and that excitement they had growing up that when they hear about it again they go back to when they were really, really happy. And now they can reconnect with that part of their lives as an adult and that’s amazing.

 

8-Bit Jazz Heroes
www.8bitjazzheroes.com 

Performances throughout Jan. 5 inside stage.

From  Long Beach, the 8-Bit Jazz Heroes combine classic video game themes with ‘60s jazz, as well as funk, blues and hip-hop for new sounds. We spoke with guitarist Adam Bellotto and upright bassist Robby Delosier.

DB: Why do you play video game music?

AB: We started out playing jazz standards. Then we came up with the idea of what if we did Mario with jazz or Donkey Kong?  We started playing them on our regular jazz gigs. We loved playing it, the people listening loved it and so we added a couple more and then a couple more and eventually a couple months in we realized that we could have a lot more fun and have a lot more unique of a niche if we played all video game music.

DB: What is your focus?

RD: All video games and all the decades, we span pretty much every system.

AB: It’s less about the time or genre, it’s more about how the music speaks to you. The reason we like this stuff is because it’s the game we played as a child or even what you play as an adult, but when you hear it again or play it again you get that instant transport back to when you were a kid and were playing it for the first time.

DB: What video game music is the most difficult to play?

RB: A lot of the Sonic stuff is hard just because in the original sonic games all the music is fast, high tempo and lots of energy. Every song we try to approach and see how we can make it our own and make it resonate with other people so they know what we’re playing, but we’re not just playing note for note what the original composer wrote.

AB: In our current set list the hardest one we have is Big Blue. Big Blue is from a racing game on Super Nintendo called F-Zero. It’s supposed to sound like shred metal dueling guitars and we turned that into more of a Charlie Parker bop tune.

DB: Due to the nature of video game soundtracks, you must have to add to the score or work out arrangements for a complete song, what do you do?

AB: We’ll keep the actual melody of the game music note for note and the underlying chords are not going to be from the game, but they will be something from more traditional jazz.

RB: It’s the classic jazz thing to do, to take pop music turn it into a jazz song solo under the change, Miles Davis did that, David Brubeck did that, everybody at one point or another takes a poppy song and makes it a real cool jazz thing. We’re taking the video game music and we’re using that road map and throwing it into a jazz feel and we’re soloing around it and making it our own.

DB: What is your live show like?

AB: What we sometimes do at conventions we will have the original Super Mario Brothers broadcast on a big screen and we’ll have people from the audience come up and play the game and we know all the music from that game by heart so as the levels change, as the powerups happen, we just change the music so it matches the game. You’re playing with a live band soundtrack.

RD: It’s great because everybody knows Mario and evrybody thinks they’re great at Mario until they get in front of an audience and die right away. They die right away and the audience cheers and the audience groans and it’s a lot of fun.

DB: Do you think interest in the video game music genre is growing and, if so, why?

AB: My day job I teach private (music) lessons and so many young people I ask them what do you want to learn to play on the instrument? The first thing they say is video game music. They already like the music so it’s the first thing they jump to when they want to play something on the instrument that’s already familiar to them.

RD: Calling it video game music when it’s just good music is trying to pigeonhole it when you shouldn’t be. Koji Kondo, who wrote almost all the original Nintendo music, he’s a jazz guy, he was writing jazz music it’s just that it was easily accessible for 12-year-olds.

 

The Megas
www.themegas.com

Performs 3:30 p.m. Jan. 5 outside stage

From Los Angeles, The Megas  play pop and have concentrated on material from Mega Man and, more recently, Castlevania. We spoke with vocalist and guitarist Josh Breeding.

DB: Why do you play video game music?

JB: When I was in college I was really obsessed with the games and I think it just comes from being a a giant dork. Me and Eric were buddies in college, we moved out to Hollywood and didn’t know anybody so while we were unemployed and didn’t have girlfriends we started a band based around video games.

*It was just a fun project which the two friends shared on MySpace and then discovered there was a community interested in video game music, so they kept playing.

DB: What is your focus?

JB: There aren’t any rules as to what we won’t cover, but we started with Mega Man.

DB: What video game music is the most difficult to play?

JB: A lot of the bands we’ve played with there’s a lot of metal or prog rock bands with a really solid guitarist and the few bands that we’ve played with will just do these shredding covers of Nintendo songs. If you’re approaching it from that way, yeah, it’s pretty hard, you have to be a good guitarist. You reach these plateaus of your skills so you’re like, how do we play these songs with these really noodley chords? So we’ll spread it out among different instruments, sometimes it’s a vocal melody or a keyboard melody. And then there’s the other kind of hard, the new games, it’s like a movie score. Those songs are great and they’re fantastic. They’re orchestra themes and they need a  lot of work to do.

DB: Due to the nature of video game soundtracks, you must have to add to the score or work out arrangements for a complete song, what do you do?

JB: We take each level and the level has a loopy melody and we take that melody and we try to stretch that into a full pop song. Sometimes we have more material than others, sometimes the song loops a little bit longer or it’s got a bunch of different parts to it that change and that will help us because then we can be this is the chorus, this is the melody, this is the breakdown, but sometimes you have to write in parts. We usually start with the structure of the original song and then we’ll see what’s missing to turn it into a pop song. We do what we can with what we have and then we start adding in to that. The whole point is it’s an homage and we’re trying to do justice to the source material so as much as we’re making it our own we’re trying to acknowledge the lore and the music that kicked it off.

DB: What is your live show like?

JB: We’re a band and we’re just telling these stories. We’re not the characters, we’re just telling the story of these characters.

DB: Do you think interest in the video game music genre is growing and, if so, why?

JB: I think it has grown, but I don’t think it will ever go beyond being sort of a tribal, cool, underground thing. There’s been some mass appeal. It reminds me of pro wrestling where it’s this tribal thing, they travel around, everybody knows who they are because they come to their town.

* Breeding thinks this may be because video game music is a niche genre with a specific audience, which can be good and bad.  More conventions are helping spread awareness so he hopes the audience continues to grow.

JB: Our goal has always been to do justice to the games, but have a cool pop song that I could play for my girlfriend and she wouldn’t dump me, not too nerdy. I want everyone to like the music, but our goal is to do the story and the games justice.

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