As many of you are aware, video game music is big business; 8-bit themed chiptune music has been becoming very popular as of late, along with groups that take classic video game tracks and remix them. Well, we recently had the chance to meet the man behind Viking Guitar, a one-man band, that specializes in taking classic game music and making it Metal. He sat down with us to give us an insight into the process, so enjoy his thoughts below, and make sure to click on either of the embedded players to rock out while you read!
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I'm 28 years old and live near Santa Cruz, CA. I started playing guitar at age 14 and have gone from there! I listen to a lot of different music, but always gravitate back towards metal. I started home recording around 2002 and have since recorded two original thrash/death metal albums, two albums of video game remixes, two albums of techno/dance music, and dozens of one-shot songs for various projects and compilations. I've had the honor of working with some of the other greats in the video game remix community, like Stemage (Metroid Metal), Danimal Cannon (Armcannon, Metroid Metal), Pyro Paper Planes, and others. I'm currently working on a soundtrack for an upcoming indie game (Dungeon Hearts) that's coming out in 2013, a new video game remix album, and tracks for three upcoming compilations.
What drew you to the gaming music scene?
I've been playing video games for almost my entire life, and you really can't fight the power of nostalgia! I had toyed around with game remixing a long time ago, but never really did anything with it. Around 2005, I ended up taking about a two year hiatus from guitar because of other things I was doing, and when I picked it up again, I was very rusty. There's a monthly online competition called Dwelling of Duels where musicians submit themed remixes, and I decided to use that as a way to build up my chops. After doing that for a bit, I realized that I still really liked playing that music, which lead to the first VikingGuitar album. There was enough of a positive response that it's kind of become my main thing!
How exactly do you go about choosing what pieces of game music get “metalized”?
It depends. Sometimes I go for a song that has a strong, recognizable melody. With something like that, it's easy for me to envision it as a guitar line, with all of the little flourishes and embellishments that the instrument can produce. I prefer songs that have a strong emotional content. I like my listeners to be able to feel the challenge the hero faces as they struggle to be victorious. Sometimes I'll choose something strictly because I've heard it a thousand times, like the Solomon's Key music. I also enjoy finding songs that people probably haven't heard, because the game itself wasn't that good. I covered almost the entire soundtrack from an NES game called Heroes of the Lance. The game is essentially unplayable, and the music is presented in a very lackluster fashion. But the melodies involved are incredible, and I could hear how awesome the songs could be if treated properly.
I think that a big aspect of remixing is striking a good balance between treating the source music with respect while still bringing something new to the table. A lot of VG remixers will either do straight covers of the original song, or just use it as a soapbox for their own ideas. While there are good examples out there of both of those styles, I think the best remixes only have new material that feels like it augments what was already there. Playing the original melody for one cycle and then having a two minute guitar solo in a different key feels more self-indulgent than anything. I really try to focus on serving the music, and not make the music serve me. Sometimes this means I'll do something in a different genre entirely instead of trying to cram a song into a metal template. I've done a few surf rock songs that turned out better than if I'd tried to make them metal.
Can you walk us through the actual process in which you “metalize” a song from a game?
I'll usually start by just listening to the song and thinking about what areas I want to focus on. Sometimes the more hidden melodies are the most powerful, and I'll augment those if possible. After that, I'll figure out the chord structure and guitar lines, and decide whether or not I want to change the key it's in to better fit the guitar tuning. After that, I'll just start at the beginning. I'll decide how I want the energy to flow through the intro, and how I want the song to build. If there's the possibility to write interesting rhythm guitar and bass segments instead of using simple chords, I'll do that. I'll work my way through the song, writing and recording the rhythm segments and then putting placeholder lead guitar melody lines on top. Sometimes these will remain in the finished song, but I'll usually re-record them later to incorporate more embellishments than just simply playing the melody line. After each section is recorded in rough form, I'll put myself in the mind of the listener and think about what I would want the song to do next. I'll keep going that way until the song is finished. At that point, I'll go back and change things that I decide don't work too well, and re-record any sloppy playing.
What are some of your favorite games and related pieces of music?
Wow, this could be a long list. There's so much good stuff out there, spanning so many years... yeah. Here are some tracks that jump to mind:
Castlevania - Heart of Fire (music from first game, level 5)
Mega Man 3 - Spark Man level
Ninja Gaiden - Masked Devil
Binding of Isaac - Everything
Silent Hill - Everything
I could go on. I know that there are a lot of folks that don't consider newer games to have music of the same quality and caliber as the old NES/SNES days, but there's awesome stuff coming out all of the time.
Who, would you say, are the biggest influences on you with regards to your musical style?
I would say that Eric Peterson from Testament and Joe Satriani are two guitarists that I try to keep as guiding lights. Peterson is incredible at writing brutal musical passages with just enough melody to not be your standard meat-head fare. Satriani is incredible in every way, but is especially good at walking the line between pure technical awesomeness and emotional, restrained playing.
How often do you do live concerts, and do you have any planned in the near future?
Since VikingGuitar is a one man project, I don't play live. Maybe at some point in the future, but not yet.
Where can people listen to and even purchase your music?
http://vikingguitar.bandcamp.comhas all of my music available to stream for free. You can also purchase it there if you like.
We would really like to thank Erik for taking the time sit down us for this interview and we would HIGHLY recommended you give his work a listen, as it really is quite awesome.