Imagine yourself in a Heavy Metal concert with thousands of people banging their heads; The music is amazing and you feel like you’re in another dimension. Then you realize this is not Metallica, Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath, but MegaDriver playing SEGA songs in heavy metal versions.
MegaDriver is one of the most famous bands that play video game music, playing for thousands of people in concerts like Video Games Live and MAGFest. The band has been playing SEGA songs since 2003 and all their albums are available for free on their website, Spotify and iTunes.
Today, SEGA Nerds interviewed Nino, the lead of the band, who told us how everything started and how they learn the songs and turn them into the tunes you hear as the end result. The band also lets us know their plans for the future.
Good morning Nino! First of all, it’s a pleasure to interview you. I have followed your work since I watched you on MTV Brazil, but for those who don’t know you, tell me who are you, where you are from, and what do you do in your life? How did MegaDriver start?
I am a 38 year old nerd, born in São Paulo but now I live in Piracicaba (City inside São Paulo state). I have an academic background in Computer Engineering and Computer Media, but my passion is music and nowadays I have the great pleasure of working with it professionally. My first thoughts of playing game music emerged in the early 90’s when I noticed the similarity of some games with the Heavy Metal universe. For example, one of my great inspirations was the game, Golden Axe: A barbarian, an Amazon, a dwarf, a full track of “horseback riding”. This is pure “Iron Maiden”!
However, at that time people did not walk down the streets hunting Pokémon with Flash t-shirts screaming Bazinga. People were ashamed to say they liked anything that might sound “nerdy.” Then, when I played with garage bands and told the guys, “let’s play Golden Axe! There’s nothing more metal than that!”, The answer was, “Never! If we play that we will die unmarried.” So the project was shelved for a few years. In 1999, I decided to follow another inspiration, Bathory band, and set up a solo project. At the time, it was just the “Nino.com.br”, where the main goal was to really have fun. Things were changing in the world; the acceptance of the nerd universe was becoming much better and then in mid-2003 I decided to return to the original idea and I started the MegaDriver. The name, of course, was in honor of my favorite console, the SEGA Mega Drive. The project had a huge acceptance in Brazil and internationally. Within a few weeks after the publication of the first material on the website of the band, we were already in magazines everywhere.
When and how was your first contact with a SEGA game?
Although the focus of the band are the consoles, I am a guy of arcades. I spent countless hours playing with my skateboard, leaning on the side of the machines. My first contact with SEGA games was with a pinball machine. I’m talking about 1990-91 and games like Golden Axe, Altered Beast, E-Swat, Thunder Blade, Shinobi. Many of SEGA’s advertisements at that time said that SEGA Genesis was as potent as an arcade, so my first inspiration were the arcades and later I met Sonic! Hahaha.
Did you already notice the songs at that time? Is there some game that marked you because of the music? If so which one?
Of course! Music has always been part of my life and when you like music, it changes your perception of things. I always noticed the video game music; Some of them we end up playing only to enjoy the atmosphere that the music creates. So, I have a huge list of games that led me down this trail. I have mentioned Golden Axe, which was my first inspiration. Altered Beast also follows the same inspiration in the Metal universe, as well as Sonic.
And there’s a guy that I am a fan and he inspired me a lot, although his songs are the totally the opposite of heavy metal and so enhances even more the value of the thing. Imagine a 14-year-old in the 90s, at the height of his “Black Metal” phase, that you want to set fire to churches and hates any other style than yours, enjoying a game, an artist who makes electronic music? It does not fit, does it? This is to get an idea of the size of the importance I attach to this guy. The name is very known: Yuzo Koshiro. Streets Of Rage and The Revenge Of The Shinobi are masterpieces for me. I thought, “Hey, this guy is fucking good! He even has his name on the titles.” For me, Yuzo is the “nectar” of video game music.
When did you start to learn guitar? Did you already want to play video game music?
Yes of course. I was lucky to have contact with the early days of the Internet, while access was done by the universities, in my case at USP (São Paulo University). At that time it was very different; we accessed only the console of Unix, then all environments were done in command lines. At that time, I studied music through files exchanged by gopher system. Even the size limitation, it was much easier to share melodies than rhythms. So, I was always more like studying melodies than bases. Since I started playing guitar I always took the music of the games I played on the instrument. It has always been a great challenge …
Nobody has doubts you are a very talented musician, but what impresses me is that you have a very good ear. When you learn a new song you learn everything just by listening to it, right? Is it difficult?
Music is just like any other art, the more you practice, the easier it gets. We learn everything just by listening, but it is a very natural process because we practice over the years. Even when you study music, you begin to listen differently. It’s like if you were listening to the melody and already imagining the “drawing” of it in the score in hand path, etc. So it’s really something very natural.
Do you imagine these songs in metal versions before you learn them? What is the process?
Apart from melodies that are more obvious, that will be played almost entirely on the lead guitar, other instruments, the drums, rhythm guitar and bass, I listen to original music already imagining my heavy metal influences. For example, which rhythm of drums that combines, then the bass interweaving with the drums in octaves, then the bass guitar, then arrangements to complement the main line, etc. I like to bring influences from bands that I like the songs. I usually listen to the original already imagining what style would be cool. For example, if I will leave the song close to Black Metal, if I will leave it closer to the traditional style like Iron Maiden, or if it will become something like Thrash Metal, etc.
About the electric guitars…that one that is a Mega Drive. How did you have this idea? Does it have the same timbre of a common electric guitar?
My “SEGA Guitar”, how I like to call it, was a sacrilege I committed. That was my first SEGA Genesis! It was an idea that I had on a bored Sunday, something like, “Hey it would be interesting if I could play the songs on my own Mega Drive”. Then I looked at an old guitar I had, I looked at my console, and committed this sacrilege! Hahahaha. It has a normal tone, like a normal guitar, only the “carcass” is a Mega Drive. Nowadays I have a second “SEGA Guitar.” I didn’t take the original to the shows. The original is now guarded with great care.
I heard rumors that you and the other members of the band also develop games, is it true? If so, do you have a project in mind for the future?
I’m a programmer and I developed basic games in academic places . Jeff, our former drummer, has also made a game development course. I don’t particularly focus to develop games; I like much more of the music side. I still prefer be in an amusement environment, the way we do with MegaDriver today. We have already received invitations to do game trailers, but I ended up not accepting because the game didn’t match with our style.
I saw that you have done shows outside Brazil and also played to that huge audience at Video Games Live. When you started, could you imagine that the band would go so far? What do you think about it?
I really didn’t think that one day I could be a professional in this. The MegaDriver started for fun and for a noble reason: I didn’t want some games to become forgotten. The MegaDriver never existed for self promotion. As the band was getting popular, invitations to shows were increasing and the process of professionalization was natural. Throughout our career, we had several memorable moments; the Video Games Live was one of them, (perhaps the first) because we are playing in a specialized event to a large audience and a tremendous acceptance. And the other, perhaps something I consider the pinnacle of our career, was to have been the headliner at MAGFest 12, an event that I always followed and I always dreamed to participate in a sacred stage of Game Music. Even the God, Yuzo Koshiro has played there! Can you believe that? We played on a stage where Yuzo Koshiro played?
The band now has vocals. When did you decide to do this change? Do you think you can attract more audience with vocals than instrumental music?
Nowadays is very common for nerd bands or gamers to make their own music. The idea is to innovate, always seek new challenges and always evolve. That’s why we brought a vocalist for the band to further broaden our tribute to the games and continue to show our potential. The gamer audience is used to instrumental songs, although some of them are the weary.
They have a certain rejection of songs with vocals, but in a concert of an hour and-a-half, we play themes from various games, everything is more dynamic when we alternate with vocal songs. So, our focus is to reach all the audiences and mix them; the classic fans of instrumental music and also people who like follow to lyrics.
Do you as a musician think the video game songs nowadays are catchy as before?
If I could only answer “yes” or “no”, the answer would be a straight ‘no’. We do have games with catchy trailers today, citing my favorites are the games like The Witcher and Skyrim. However, the vast majority of modern games melodies are too simple, almost imperceptible. Many formed only on a base note, the arrangements are orchestrated with lines divided in several instruments which are good in all but lost independent manner. It’s easy to play. Whistle any Sonic theme. Now whistle one of the themes of games like Batman Arkham series? You know what I mean? The trailer of the Batman games are really cool, really like, match the game, etc, but not remarkable. This is closely related to the style of play and also to the technological limitations.
The older games were very fast; sometimes you couldn’t pass two minutes in each stage. Then, the composer had to give all the excitement of very quickly and directly. Furthermore the technical limitations forced the composer to use a smaller set of instruments and, therefore, they had to create bigger melodies to be striking and not cloying. Today the games are longer and need ambiance, it have a lot more filling than music themes itself.
Would you like to leave a message or news for the fans?
I’d like to say thanks to all the fans who support our work over the years. I also want to say stay tuned because MegaDriver is focusing a lot on new releases. Our last album, “Rise From Your Grave”, is all dedicated to games “B side” of the SEGA Genesis, and it’s already available for download on our website, Spotify and iTunes. I also want to say thanks to all the fans of SEGA community. We SEGA fans, we are different, we are warriors who never let our passion disappear. Other brands have the media and financial strength, SEGA have us 😉
Thank you very much.