Like most kids my age, I was raised on a steady diet of soggy sack lunch sandwiches, Saturday morning cartoons, and the 8-bit Nintendo game system. Everyday after school, I would spend hours rubbing my thumb raw playing Commando, avoiding what looked like giant floating shrimp on the last level of Contra, or mastering the downhill race on Skate or Die.
When I hit high school, it wasn’t as cool that I could break 120 lines in Tetris, or that I knew the code to get to Mike Tyson by heart. Instead of growing up and moving on to try and master something more socially acceptable, I got a skateboard. Here I sit, more than eight years later with nothing more to show for it than a shitload of scar tissue and a steel screw through my ankle holding it together. Haha, but my Nintendo still works!
Spencer Seim was not much different. He grew up blowing through his shirt into the Nintendo game cartridges when they didn’t work just like I did. The difference was when he got to high school he didn’t get a new way to hurt himself, he got a drum set. Soon thereafter, he saw two kids perform Nintendo songs on guitar at a talent show without a drummer and asked to join the band. Since then he’s carried the torch and continued to play Nintendo songs with new bandmates. The current configuration of The Advantage band just released a self-titled album on 5RC Records containing 26 songs from some of their favorite nintendo games. Spencer is also the guitarist for the two piece instrumental tornado known as Hella. When I asked him whether he considered himself a drummer or a guitarist first, his reply was “For the advantage? A drummer, yeah… I probably couldn’t play some of those guitar parts, honestly. I mean they are ridiculous. I don’t even know how those guys learn some of those things.” If you’ve ever heard Hella, you’d suspect he was just being modest. I wondered if in order to learn the songs, they sat there and listened to the actual games over and over, or if it was more technical than that. They can easily obtain the music files online, but it is much more complicated than just listening to the songs? So, how do they do it? They’ve obtained a software program that enables them to decode the music and separate it into the different parts, and if need be slow it down. I asked if the software was designed specifically for decoding nintendo music. Spencer wasn’t sure but, “Some one at some point just decided to do that and we’re definitely glad they did. It would be insanely hard to learn that stuff without it, only because those games are in mono, and when the guitar tones are so similar, and there’s all these harmonies and really fast runs going on, it’d be virtually impossible, at least for us, to figure out what each guitar is doing. It’d be incredibly time consuming to do it that way. So, I’m glad that software exists.” Being in two active bands can keep Seim pretty busy. He took some time out to answer some of my curious questions.
Do you guys actually get permission from Nintendo to do this?
No, we’ve just been doing it for a while and not really thinking anything of it. We had only recently decided to put out a record. There’s not a ridiculous amount of copies going out so I think it’s not going to be a big deal for them where they would be worried about the minute amount of money they’d be able to get out of our project. We are also not misrepresenting their company or saying in any way that we have anything to do with Nintendo.
Ever thought of having Nintendo support or endorse you?
We went through that for a while before releasing the record… there wasn’t a whole lot of interest at the time. I think that they thought it was just kind of a nerdy thing and maybe didn’t realize how much interest there actually is out there for this type of thing. If Nintendo were ever to get involved, it would probably be after the realization that it could be a pretty popular thing. We definitely explored that and tried to figure out getting permissions. The companies that we talked to really didn’t have any problem with us covering the music. They just didn’t want one of their employees to spend the time that it would take just to type up something saying that we could. That would cost them money in some way.
How do you go about choosing which songs to cover?
In the beginning it was just the songs that we remembered from childhood and still had in our brain and thought would sound really good with a live band. We’ve pretty much learned most of those. Now we’re onto searching through the music files from all these games and finding songs that are really good. Some of the songs are from games that we’ve never played before or games that we’ve played but we haven’t gotten to that certain level because the games are ridiculously hard.
Is there an issue with having to credit the original composers?
The thing is… and it’s something that we’ve found from trying to get a hold of the companies… that the companies bought all the rights to all that. So, the video game companies actually own those songs. We really didn’t want to get into all that legal stuff. If somebody wanted to know the name of the original composers it’d be relatively easy to find out their names.
Inspired, perhaps by the Advantage, my roommates and I recently busted out all of our old nintendo games. I can’t deny that I find them just as enjoyable as they were when I was a kid. I wondered if the members of the Advantage still actually played the games in their spare time. I found it somewhat ironic when Seim replied, “Yeah, for sure… in our living room we have a Sega Dreamcast with this disc that some nerdy programmer put together with every Nintendo game ever made on it,” considering Sega is only making software now. “I love all the Megaman Games a lot. Ninja Gaiden…” Despite having every game at his fingertips, Spencer stays true to the original. “I’d love to have all the cartridges. I only have like one hundred now. I’m sure there are a lot that I’ll never have, but I’m constantly collecting more.” Taking into account how technically difficult the music is to play, he takes his hat off to the original composers. “We love this music. It’s fun as hell and sometimes ridiculously challenging to learn it. Some of the stuff was not meant to be played on guitars. I know trying to play it can give those guys a lot of trouble sometimes. Going between so many octaves and doing all this stuff where your hands are just flying all over the fret board isn’t easy.” With the release of the first album and a second in the works, his outlook remains simple and positive. “We just wanted to get it out there. We definitely don’t care about making tons of money… We’re just a bunch of dudes having fun playing this music. We just want to get our versions of the songs out there and play shows. I would like to do this forever or for as long as I can.”
With somewhere between 700 and 1000 total games, each ranging somewhere in the neighborhood of between 5 and 30 songs, they won’t soon run out of material.