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I Fight Dragons - A Little Mario in the Music
Thursday, June 16, 2011

If you’ve ever played Super Mario Brothers it’s a safe bet that you can imitate the music from levels 1-1 and 1-2 without missing a beat. The connection is something that fascinated Brian Mazzaferri as he played his NES. Mazzaferri also plays a guitar, and can sing, and in 2008 the Chicago native decided to combine all of those musical loves to form the band I Fight Dragons. The band’s current lineup includes Mazzaferri, Bill Prokopow, Hari Rao, Packy Lundholm and Chad Van Dahm, and they’re currently working on their first full length album after releasing two EPs. I caught up with Mazzaferri to find out more about the band, including how they fell into the musical genre of chiptune, and the last time any of them actually fought a dragon.

Adam Bernard: Let’s start with your website, which as a very 8-bit feel to it. Are you guys retro gamers?
Brian Mazzaferri: Yeah. It’s funny you say retro gamer. I used to play a lot of Nintendo games and Super Nintendo and I kind of got stuck in that era. It’s definitely still what I choose to play when I sit down. It’s a lot of fun to play the old games. I own a couple of Nintendos at this point, some for musical purposes, but I always have my old one that’s still hooked up for gaming.

AB: You’re talking to someone who still has his NES hooked up, as well. I even refurbished it myself.
BM: They’re pretty solidly built. The Game Boys are, too. I tend to make most of the music on my old Game Boys from growing up and they are so solid for things made in the mid 80s. The later generations of Game Boys break so much more easily than the old grey brick.

AB: You could beat someone with the original Game Boy and it would still work fine afterward.
BM: Somebody showed me a link online to one that had been through a fire, or something horrific, and still played Tetris.

AB: That’s awesome! At what point during all of your video game playing did you decide you wanted to create a band, and you wanted video game music to be incorporated into that band’s style?
BM: It’s a little more backwards than that. I was actually doing solo music back in late 2007, early 2008, and I started working with a friend of mine from high school who I knew was in music, too, who is Bill Prokopow. I had been in a lot of bands and was thinking I was done with acoustic for a while and really wanted to get a band together. For whatever random reason, when he and I got together to make a demo I thought “what if the intro to this song sounded like it was coming out of a Nintendo?” I must have been playing a lot of Nintendo that weekend. He and I played some Mario 3 and listened to the sounds that were being made and mocked something up and loved it. After listening to that, a few months later I did some more research and realized there’s actually a whole gigantic chiptune scene, which is people making new music on old video game cards. It’s been around for many years and I just kind of stumbled into it. From there it was almost a foregone conclusion for me. As soon as I realized that was a thing I knew that I wanted to make a band and have that be an essential element, where it’s rock and pop-rock on one side with the chiptune being all the electronic elements that fill in all the holes.

AB: When you say chiptune, for someone who may not understand older video game systems, could you give them a quick and dirty of what that is?
BM: Yeah. Chiptune is new music made on old video game sound cards, usually the original Game Boy or the NES. People always say it sounds like bleep and bloops because in those old systems they could only make a few really specific sounds because of needing to keep the costs of the chips down. Usually they can only make three or four sounds at a time depending on the chip, so all of the musical lines had to move really fast to suggest larger chord structures and songs. Because that’s how all the video games sounded at the time, because of those restrictions, it kind of defined its own kind of musical mode. As of, I think, basically ten years ago or so, people started writing software to manipulate the sound chips so that basically anybody with a Game Boy or a Nintendo, as long as you get the software, you can write your own music on it. People use all kinds of video games, too, they even use Commodore 64s and Ataris, they go crazy, but I’d say the Game Boy is the most common instrument you find.

AB: I’d love a symphony of Tecmo Super Bowl.
BM: Aw man! For me, and this is not necessarily something shared across the chiptune world, but I loved the old NES game melodies and arrangements. Tecmo Super Bowl is awesome. Arch Rivals is another good one, as is the whole Mega Man series. To me those are games you spend a lot of time playing and those melodies and arrangements kind of engrain themselves in your head. To me that’s definitely a big part of why I like chiptune as a sound, it’s those connections in my brain to adventure and that sort of thing.

AB: Is it ironic that we have a whole subgenre of music that’s using classic video game sounds and now video games aren’t using video game sounds anymore, they’re using soundtracks?
BM: Right, and full orchestras. Ironic is definitely the beginning of stating the post-modern twists that are chiptune as a genre. The other fascinating thing to me is I’m actually in my 20s, but a lot of people that make chiptune are teenagers, people who were born after these chips were already outdated. It’s fascinating to me that the sounds appeal to everyone. I think it’s because they’re so basic. They sound very honest, which I feel, in the world of modern complex sounds, where it’s so easy to make something sound really sophisticated, it’s cool to hear something honest sounding. And in video games themselves I feel like there is a bit of a retro pull at the moment towards old 8-bit games and things on the Wii and the Xbox where you can download all of the old games and play them right on your new console. There’s definitely people that yearn for that kind of simplicity in their gaming.

AB: Before you started the band, were you all lifelong friends, or did this get put together with CraigsList postings?
BM: Well, somewhere in the middle of that. It’s tricky, too, because as a band we’ve had, like a lot of bands, a lot of lineup changes as things have gotten off the ground. For me, I knew right away it was what I wanted to be doing and basically spent all my time on it from day one, and so did Bill, really, who co-produced both of our EPs with me. He was someone I knew from high school. Hari (Rao), the bassist, I knew from playing open mics. Packy (Lundholm), the drummer at the time who would later switch the lead guitar, was someone I had gone to high school with, as well, but just kind of knew from the music scene. The one person in the band who is not an original member, that we did audition, is Chad (Van Dahm), our current drummer, who is basically like Animal from The Muppets. He’s an amazing drummer and amazing to watch. The rest of us, for the most part, are all original members of the band. They’re people that I just asked “hey, you want to play with me,” and they all said yes, or came around to saying yes eventually.

AB: As you mentioned, you have two EPs out, Welcome to the Breakdown and Cool is Just a Number. I hear you’re also working on a new album as we speak.
BM: Yes. The first EP we did basically on our own. Bill and I co-produced it and we released it in 2009. The second EP, which we released last year, is kind of just a pit stop on our way. We’ve been working on this album that is tentatively titled KABOOM! for the better part of two years. Ever since releasing the first EP I've been writing for it, and especially in the last year, since signing (with Photo Finish / Atlantic Records), that’s been the main focus other than a little bit of touring. The second EP is an acknowledgment of the fact that it was taking a very long time and we had a handful of songs that we thought were awesome, but maybe weren’t going to make it on the album, so we recorded em real quickly, Bill and I co-produced it again, and put it out there digital only just so that fans would have some new music to listen to during the long wait for the full length album, but it’s coming along and it’s going to be amazing.

AB: Do you have a potential release date?

BM: We’re hoping late summer or early fall. We’re in the final stretch of the making of the album, so we’re about to start talking release dates and stuff like that.

AB: And it’s called KABOOM! after the Billy Mays product?
BM: How did you know! {laughs} No, it’s actually one of the songs on the album, although I realized after writing the song that there’s an Atari 2600 game that I own called Kaboom!

AB: Did you go back and say crap, we need to incorporate a sound from this game?
BM: No. We don’t incorporate any samples from any existing games, that’s all copyrighted material. All the stuff that we do is 100% original music.

AB: Not to play devil’s advocate, but do you really think the creators of Kaboom! are sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to sue bands right now?
BM: You know, they may be listening to this as we speak, so I don’t want to dishonor them by not assuming that they stand by their own compositions. Although on the Atari it’s really rough. Atari basically has basically one sound channel at a time, plus a noise channel. The only melody that anybody can really remember from Atari is Pitfall. There are a couple of theme games like E.T. and Journey the game have small clips of sort of recognizable melodies.

AB: Isn’t E.T. the one that’s in the landfill?
BM: Yup. Couldn’t beat it. As a kid I always just thought I sucked at it. I still own my copy of ET the video game. I would play with my dad and we just assumed that we were really bad, but apparently you couldn’t beat it.

AB: Finally, close out this interview by telling everyone about your band name. When was the last time you actually fought a dragon?
BM: That's a good question because it depends on size what you’re actually counting because the smaller ones you can fight on a daily basis, and they’ll jump you from the alleys, but the larger ones, it’s more of an annual thing.

AB: So it’s a festival type of deal.
BM: Exactly. You don’t want to do it when no one’s watching. You gotta save it up. We fight metaphorical dragons all the time, but the real ones, it’s been at least weeks.

Story orignially ran on SubstreamMusicPress.com.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:23 AM  
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