As gamers, we are inspired by the artistry created in the games that we play. Video game music specifically seems to stir something deep inside of us. The music in our games emphasize our heroic actions, our moments of drama and the heart-pumping thrill of victory. Like any great piece of music, we find ourselves humming our favorite tunes, or maybe downloading them on our iTunes account so we can listen to them during our commute or work day. But one group of musicians are so inspired by the music of the video game scene that they formulated a full rock band to expand the reach of these songs as far as their sound will carry. That band is known as Do a Barrel Roll!
I recently interviewed Zero (all of the band-mates operate with game inspired alias’) about the formation and mission of this video game themed rock band. The band consists of Paperboy on drums, Ayalisse on 7 string electric violin , Zero Nimbus on guitar and keyboards, Axe Deadeye on guitar, Photo Man on bass guitar and Meta-Man on trumpets and keyboard. Zero and I had met briefly in June on the floor of 2D Con and after a good discussion about all things Nintendo, I knew I had to see these guys in action. My wife and I attended their concert that night and we were both blown away by their incredible performance. I knew that Do a Barrel Roll! was the perfect fit for our month of music and I was ecstatic when they accepted our offer to be a part of the celebration. The following is our interview. I hope you enjoy this look at Do a Barrel Roll!
Mega Dads: First off, thank you for being a part of our music appreciation month. Why don’t we start with an introduction as to who Do a Barrel Roll! is?
Zero: Do a Barrel Roll! is a musical act focused on bringing classic videogame soundtracks to life as well as engulfing the audience into the performance. Our current line-up features twin guitars, bass guitar, drums, a 7-string electric violin, trumpet, synthesizers, and a sampler that plays soundbytes from the original games. Our specialty is trying to recreate the feelings of magic we all originally felt when playing these games–to call back to something familiar, warm, and fuzzy. Sometimes we spin it in a new light, and sometimes it shouldn’t be messed with. But we always try to bring something unique and interesting into the mix to separate us from other acts. One of our favorite things to do is to set up old-school consoles and hand controllers to the audience. Watching 4 gamers in the front row of a concert racing on Rainbow Road while we play the theme is exhilarating for everyone in the room!
The band came together in college. All of the members of the group were students at the same music college, so we came to know each other through that network. Each semester, performance majors (which is what we all were) are required to audition for, enroll in, and perform with some type of ensemble. Most folks would go for “rock” ensemble or “jazz” ensemble focused around a specific genre. I wasn’t really interested in those types of things–I wanted to do something different and that I was more excited about. I found out there was a way to start a “creative” ensemble, which basically meant you could do whatever you want as long as it was approved. I found a director and a group of friends willing to take the journey with me, and our “videogame” ensemble was born. So believe it or not, before we were called Do a Barrel Roll!, we were doing it for a college credit! Once the semester ended, things had been so fun and the response had been so strong, we decided to continue as a band outside of school, and that’s where things truly lifted off and Do a Barrel Roll! was born.
MD: I can remember very specifically falling in love with video game soundtracks with Final Fantasy VI for the SNES. To this day it stands as not only my favorite game soundtrack, but one of my favorite albums of all time period. Nobuo Uematsu’s brilliant score opened me up to this whole new avenue of original music and ever since then I’ve had an appreciation for the medium. Where did your love of video game music begin? Is there a certain game or era of gaming that you cite as an inspiration as an artist?
Z: It’s awesome that Uematsu was an inspiration for you. He’s undoubtedly the biggest singular inspiration for myself as well.
Videogames were my first love. I’m an only child, and I was raised by a single mother who worked long hours. This meant that in the early days of childhood, I had to learn how to be alone and entertain myself, which meant lots of time in front of the TV, playing with Legos, drawing, using my imagination in the backyard, and eventually–videogames. My mom purchased me the Super Nintendo + Mario All-Stars bundle and I took to it like a duck to water. And when I say that, I mean that I was absolutely terrible. But I enjoyed the activity so much and was so enthralled by what I could get out of the experience–I was in control and the game was responding to me!
Everything went like an avalanche from there. More and more games, more and more consoles, more and more growing up all surrounded by games. As I matured along with the industry, I got to experience all kinds of things and got to hear all kinds of soundtracks. Little did I know it was all just getting stored up for later. I always felt strong feelings toward music, and there was some kind of a subconscious response to the magic of it all, but it was never something I tried to grasp until later–I just let it happen. It wasn’t until my teen years that I discovered that not only did I love music, but that I wanted to play it and create it.
I spent several years teaching myself guitar and basic music theory and quickly realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life. And once I had committed to going to college to pursue a further education in music and to grow my talents, my first love for gaming (that never once died out) and my new life in music collided in a glorious supernova. I began musica scholastica, and coming from a self-taught realm and never having any formal music instruction, I was inundated and overwhelmed with knowledge. Suddenly all of these dots started to connect in my mind and my understanding of everything grew and swelled immensely, and it was at this moment that all of that videogame music embedded into my child psyche came rushing back. It all suddenly meant so much more.
It’s hard to cite a singular era of gaming as the most inspirational. For me there are really two chapters. The first is my early years, from probably ’93 to ’99 where I was playing pretty much exclusively nintendo games. So all that strong melodic content in Mario, Pokemon, and those flagship N64 titles were just rocking my world with upbeat, catchy tunes. When the Playstation 2 came out, a new chapter began and I discovered RPGs, specifically Final Fantasy with others to follow. So from 2001 to 2008, I was pretty much exclusively playing JRPGs (and Zelda) with more complex and intricate soundtracks. Those are definitely the two most important eras to my VGM development, but I don’t know if I could choose one over the other as more important musically. The former is certainly the most important to my life overall.
MD: You guys perform a lot of retro tunes in your catalog, how difficult do you find converting chip tunes into a full-band arrangement? I remember from your concert at 2D con that you infused a lot of sound effects and original sound bytes with your live performance. Is this done to help bridge the gap between the audience’s nostalgic expectations of what a song “should” sound like and the way Do a Barrel Roll! performs it?
Z: Well, the focus on retro tunes in our catalog just naturally stems from all of us growing up during that era. We all play newer games, too. I actually find it more difficult to arrange modern game music over older, “chippy” stuff. Modern music seems to have so much less focus on the “tune” and more focus on the atmosphere. Looping has all but died out, and technology allows for so much more to be possible. These two factors make the prospect of VGM more interesting, in theory, but for me personally it causes me to be a little less enchanted than by the old stuff. These retro soundtracks we love so much were created under strict limitations, and the result is very strong “tunes” meaning very clear melody and harmony that provides an awesome structure and form to expand upon during the arranging process. A lot of newer soundtracks lack some of these qualities for various reasons–and there’s nothing wrong with that–it just doesn’t appeal to us as much for the context of our performances. Converting 8 and 16-bit music to a full-band arrangement feels incredibly natural to me.
The samples are just something that I thought would be fun right from the get-go (we even had them in the college days). It’s just that extra little something that really takes the listener back in time to that one special moment. When we play Heroes of Lylat, our Star Fox 64 medley, I get a very happy feeling. But when I hear the original audio from Star Fox 64 there’s something special that triggers within me that can’t be replicated. When you hear the original game audio from that soundtrack you grew up with or love dearly, there’s nothing that can beat it. It’s so embedded in your mind–THAT is the definitive version always and forever. I’m sure you’d love listening to the Black Mages version of Dancing Mad, but if you go back and hear the original in all its 16-bit glory, it just can’t be beat. Us using the samples is just an effort to inject little nuggets of that feeling. Something ripped right out of those memories to really pull you in to the feeling we’re trying to invoke. Whenever I hear the sample of General Pepper saying “We need your help Star Fox!” I’m instantly 7, sitting criss-cross applesauce, staring up at my TV. I can picture everything in my childhood room, I can even smell it. It’s incredible how strongly tied to memory some of these sounds are. We’re trying to tap into that and give everyone some magic.
MD: Do you pay a lot of attention to the soundtracks of games as you play them, listening for tunes you may want to cover as a band? Are there any recent games whose soundtracks have stood out to you as being exceptional?
Z: Especially at this point, we can’t play any game without paying attention to the music. The list of tunes we’re hoping to learn, record, and perform is always growing faster than we can cross them off. As for recent soundtracks, I guess I personally am a little biased. I look for a melody that intrigues me and gets stuck in my head, so I end up falling in love with newer soundtracks that imitate older styles and focus more on melody and harmony rather than mood and tone. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a lot of those. I love the music from Mass Effect, Last of Us, and Metal Gear Solid. The feelings it gives me while playing are great, and the tone is so perfectly indicative of what it comes from–but it’s not the kind of VGM I want to perform. It just doesn’t capture me in that way. But if we look at something like Shovel Knight, Yoshi’s Woolly World, Mario Kart 8, Bravely Default? Now there’s some modern VGM that just kills. We don’t want to give off the impression that we only care for “old-school” soundtracks. We’re working on getting some more modern stuff into our catalog, too. We love it all!
MD: What is your take on the importance of music in video games? How do you feel music contributes to the experience and the medium as a whole?
Z: I couldn’t think much more highly of music’s role in the experience. Just like in film, the music is telling you how to feel. And in the context of a game, you’re also being given a task or a challenge—so that feeling the music is giving you is being connected to that task and it creates such a strong symbiosis between those two things. If you ever hear that music in another context or a similar task in another context, the other component immediately jumps to the front of your mind. It’s very cool how an awesome tune can take a really objectively mundane task like entering button combinations seem an otherworldly level of cool. Think about a Final Fantasy battle. Especially an old FF. Guys on the left. Guys on the right. Navigate some menus, choose some commands and watch it play out. It’s actually a super boring and primitive concept! But when the music is going and you’re in it,the whole thing just feels so good! Music makes everything better, and games are no exception. It’s so important.
MD: There seems to be a certain affinity for Nintendo games with your band personas. Are you all major Nintendo fans? Do you play on other platforms as well? What are your current favorites?
Z: Most of us did grow up Nintendo. The reason for such a large representation of the Big N in our current catalog is simply because that’s what I personally grew up with, and until about 2 years ago, all of our arrangements were done by me and no one else–so it was just a representation of my tastes. But we are expanding as quickly as we can to other eras, genres, and platforms. When it comes to the soundtracks we really don’t discriminate, there’s just a lot of stuff that we aren’t aware of lots of times. It’s really fun to go and discover a soundtrack to a game that you’ve never played and find tunes that you like, only to later connect it with what’s happening visually in the game to get a better understanding of the theme. The retro games are just our common ground that we all agree on.
At this point in our lives we all play different things. Some of us play a lot of Xbox and PS4 online to the tune of Destiny or Fallout. One of us grew up with only Sega consoles. One of us grew up with no games at all until their teenage years. We all have a different path (then and now), but our warm, fuzzy feelings always converge surrounding Nintendo games of the 90’s. I guess that just says something special about them. Currently, several of us keep up to date with the Pokemon games on 3DS (we’re eagerly awaiting Sun and Moon in November). I also still play a lot of RPGs and platformers. I’m currently in the middle of Bravely Second and Yoshi’s Woolly World. I design a lot of Mario Maker courses, which are a big highlight of our merch table at events. I also can’t wait to get into Zero Time Dilemma, which is the final entry in an amazing visual novel series on the 3DS. And those of us that don’t have time for games just explore soundtracks or watch let’s plays. I think between all of us we really run the gamut.
MD: What does ‘Do a Barrel Roll’s traditional schedule look like? Are you guys playing shows fairly regularly?
Z: We went through a bit of a transitional period this summer, which slowed some things down. But it has really improved our sound. It’s hard to say what a ‘traditional’ schedule looks like, because it’s always changing around. But what we’re shooting for is to get back into livestreaming on Twitch and recording and releasing tracks on a monthly basis. We’re mostly focused on special events and conventions like MAGFest, 2D, and Gamer’s Rhapsody, because the atmosphere is just right for us, and we find a lot more gratification in those audiences. The con crowds just get it, and they are going to those events to see something exciting and unique. Playing VGM at a bar or music venue is something we have done many times, but we just don’t do it very often anymore because it isn’t the same. All that being said, our goal is to play shows as regularly as possible, so if anyone reading this knows about an event and they can’t see why we aren’t a part of it–let us know!
MD: How about recording? Do you have any albums available for purchase/download?
Z: We are actually hard at work on our next release. We’re hoping to release it by the end of 2016 if all goes according to plan. Currently we have a lot of music available, though. Our first album Thunderous Crash released way back in 2011, and that is a free download on our bandcamp. Our first full-length album Boss Rush is also available on our bandcamp, as well as iTunes, Spotify, Loudr.fm, and the other major digital outlets. We also have a series of acoustic videosongs available on YouTube and all the major audio outlets. We’re about to start work on Volume 2 of our acoustic series as well! The first video and track should be releasing in August.
MD: Where can we see you perform next?
Z: Our next big show will be at Gamer’s Rhapsody 3 in November. If it’s an event that you’ve never heard of before, it’s definitely one that you should check out. GR is a gaming convention with a focus on music, so there are lots of performances, a talent show, and the panelists and guests are often music-centric as well. It’s a great place to network and acquire some new knowledge while also getting the great staples of a con like the indie developers, vendors, and tournaments.
We’ll be getting back into our livestream schedule soon, but I don’t have any hard dates that I can share with you at this time. Check our socials and keep up with our schedule, as we will post it everywhere!
Aside from that, everything else is either top-secret or unconfirmed.
MD: Where can we go to find out more information about the band?
Z: Our official site, doabarrelroll.com is a nice hub for all of our social content. We’re working on another overhaul for it right now
MD: We appreciate you taking the time to be a part of our Mega Dads Music Month, Zero! Everyone make sure and check out Do a Barrel Roll! They truly are GAMERS WHO ROCK.