Key change, mofo!
[Every now and then, Dtoid shines its Spotlight on a games-related artist, event, or place we'd like to share with you guys. Basically, we think this is awesome. Do you think it's awesome?]
When Brent Black earned his master's degree in musical theatre writing, I doubt "videogame song parody artist" was high on his list of post-graduate careers.
Better known by his stage name brentalfloss (mind the lowercase "b"!), Brent has been entertaining Internet nerds for the past four years by adding humorous lyrics to classic videogame melodies. He has sung about Scrooge McDuck's escapades on the moon, girls' affinity for Tetris, the futility of NES-era endings, and many other subjects on YouTube, then he re-recorded some of his earlier material for a pair of must-have albums, What If This CD... Had Lyrics? and Bits of Me. But aside from being a damn talented musician and an all-around funny guy, he's also a sometimes teacher and now a webcomic author!
I asked Brent to join me for some Skype merriment last Thursday. Before we kicked off the interview proper, however, I wanted to discuss a sensitive issue that is very personal for me. An issue that only somebody else in my same situation would be able to relate to.
When and why did you decide to go bald?
Ha! The same day I decided to be 5' 9'' and have a huge wang.
One of these things is not like the others.
True. But to answer what might have been your question, I started shaving my head in 2005 and haven't stopped since.
Just felt it was time?
Well, I mean... after a few years of trying to hide my baldness, I was like, "Look, I have a nice-shaped head. I don't look so bad with the buzzed look, and it makes me seem less creepy." I came back from my junior year summer with a tan and a shaved head and suddenly got laid like... what's 50 times more than zero?
I might need to grab the calculator for that one! I only ask 'cause I like hearing people's hair stories. I feel a sense of camaraderie with other bald and balding gentlemen. I no longer feel alone.
Gotcha. I started losing mine at 15... I found out around 16 (friends of mine knew but didn't tell me). So five years later, I had pretty much accepted it.
The one that started it all! Also check out the extended remix.
You've been in the "With Lyrics" sphere for a while. Your first one was "Mega Man 3 With Lyrics," wasn't it?
When did you realize that "With Lyrics" started to take a life of its own and decide to run with it?
Umm... I think within 48 hours of releasing "Mega Man 3 With Lyrics." Before I knew it, it was on CollegeHumor, GorillaMask.net, and other websites. I got more views on it in the first 48 hours than all my other videos combined. And so it didn't take long before I put two and two together.
And when you told the people you went to college with what you were doing, they said...?
Oh man. To this day, they're like, "So I hear you're like... on the Internet or something?" Very few people outside the Internet videogame content culture really understand it. But once I got to the point where I could say I did it full-time and didn't need any other job to pay the rent, I got more confident about it and I stopped caring whether my college friends understood or respected it.
It's baby steps. I mean, I'm still trying to explain to my parents what Internet bloggers and journalists do. So I know the feel, bro.
It's like my relatives would have a way easier time grasping what I do if I just said, "I'm a drug dealer by day and a gigolo by night!"
Your stuff is great, but I've heard you explain before that you still have your sights on bigger things.
I don't know about "bigger," but "other," absolutely. Between the ages of 16 and 24, I had a ton of different life plans: teacher, actor, composer, playwright, songwriter, musical theatre writer, etc., etc., etc. I went to New York in 2006 to write musicals, but there came this point where I realized brentalfloss was moving a lot faster than my musical theatre career. And it satisfies a lot of the same desires, like wanting to write lyrics, tell stories, etc.
But it's good that you were able to channel your education and passion into a career that you enjoy. Not many people can claim to be doing that. You are involved in teaching, though, right? Don't you run a music workshop for kids?
I was a drama teacher at a children's camp in NYC in 2007, and then I added that experience with my master's degree in songwriting to make a curriculum for a summer program that I've done almost every year since 2008. So yes. Although incidentally, the fate of the program is somewhat unclear.
Oh no! What's up?
Budget cuts, scheduling issues, and a death in the family that actually hired me to do the teaching.
Jeeze. But you were able to make something of it, at least. How would you describe the experience?
It was awesome. During a time when I was becoming known as a foul-mouthed Internet clown, I was actually honing my skills as a mature, professorial teacher-type. Huge contrast there. It was scary at first, but after a while, you just realize that kids are programmed to be afraid of you if you're a confident adult. My program was opt-in, so there were no kids who got stuck there by their parents. I became more comfortable being a single teacher with a room full of students, and in the end, I think it actually helped me become more comfortable speaking in front of audiences as brentalfloss.
What was the age range of these kids?
8-16. In the same room, I mean, as opposed to sequestered groups.
So then when you go on stage for a performance, it feels like addressing a classroom.
Well, I'll put it this way: My classroom works more like a live improv show than most. So it's kind of chicken vs. egg.
The first installment of Brent's musical instruction series, "Lyrics 101"
I bet you and Mega Ran could do a wild lecture / musical set together.
Oh, I'd love that. I actually want to get him to guest on my "Lyrics 101" video series, which itself is an outgrowth of my teaching career.
It's nice to see what goes into the production of one of your musical numbers. The way certain commenters act, you'd think songs just pop out of thin air.
That's the Internet for you. We start life as babies who have no idea how or why we're getting fed, but we get it without having to pay for it, and we don't question it. Some people never get past that age, I guess.
Yeah! It takes skill to rhyme "taint"!
Ha ha, yeah!
Everyone knows you for your Nintendo-themed compositions, but little by little you've been adding some non-Nintendo material to the mix. You've covered Civilization V, Team Fortress 2, Thief, and recently BioShock. What was the impetus to branch out?
I was never married to Nintendo's library exclusively. It's just that I started with a Nintendo game, and that's what people liked, so it took me a while to take the risk of leaving the Nintendo library. It wasn't really a calculated move. It's more that, in my opinion, about 80% of the really good videogame tunes in existence originated on Nintendo consoles.
"Team Fortress 2" and "BioShock" are a whole different thing, since they're original tunes, But again, I'm not always quick to stray from the main stuff people know me for. If you go straight from toothpaste to orange juice, it doesn't matter if you have great orange juice.
Brent's BioShock-inspired original composition, "The BioShock Song"
"The BioShock Song" got a super positive reception. I don't think I've heard one bad thing about it.
Yeah, people really seemed to like it. And unlike the occasional fan service video I do, it was 100% for me. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
Something something be yourself.
Yep. And moreover, the works that you do because you want to have a different quality than things you do because you feel you "should."
Where would "Metroid: A Fight for Love" fall? Talk about a wild departure. You don't even sing in that song!
It's like if you took the style of "The 2-2 Blues," except made it rock opera. It just happened to require a girl.
You've said in the past that there's a music video for that in the works. How far along is it?
It's a CGI video, so that's a tricky number to produce. There's a storyboard, and most of the main characters / creatures have been designed. Most of the settings have not, so in the grand scheme, it's maybe... 40% done?
brentalfloss and The Cartridge Family perform "Metroid: A Fight for Love" at Video Games ROCK! 2
That's actually a misconception. Amanda sings the lives version, but we got a singer with a slightly different style for the video, slightly more of a Disney voice. Her name is Alysha Umphress, and she's been in a few Broadway shows.
Amanda's thrilling on stage in person, but when you take the Amanda away, the voice that remains doesn't quite communicate everything my animator and I were hoping for.
As for Descendants of Erdrick, they're also your backup band The Cartridge Family. When did that happen?
Two members of DOE approached me at MAGFest 9 and asked if I'd be interested in having them as my backup band. I said yes. Pretty simple origin story, really.
Dudes just walk up and say, "Be our leader!" And you're all like, "Sure!"
Yeah, that's the TV version, sure.
Similar thing happened with brentalfloss the comic too, right?
Yep. [Creator and co-writer Dan Roth] approached me and said, "Hey, let's do a brentalfloss comic!" Now, I didn't say yes quite as immediately, but the first step was essentially the same.
It's been just over a year since the comic began. How happy are you with it thus far?
Considering the fact that I had no expectations going into it, I'm really happy with it! I wish it generated a little bit more revenue (currently, I'm still losing money on a monthly basis to pay the team), but just like with my videos, I know that sometimes you have to build a large library of content before it turns a profit.
Who picks the episode titles? Because those are groan-inducing... in an oddly appealing way.
95% of the time, I do. Sometimes I override Dan's title idea with something corny. I can't help myself. Maybe I watched too much Rocky & Bullwinkle as a kid.
Then you should have two titles for every episode. Like... "Sink or Swim OR I'm Drowning and I Can't Get Up!"
"The Bald Soprano," yes.
I just realized I don't like Rocky & Bullwinkle.
Was there supposed to be some kind of continuity? I never once saw those shows in any semblance of an order.
I think they exist in that cartoon purgatory where characters die and then come back to life, get blown up, and then suddenly have no soot on them after three minutes.
Then they make a Dudley Do-Right movie with Brendan Fraser! God, whose idea was that!?
Probably the same asshole who thought George of the Jungle and Leave It to Beaver would make great films.
From brentalfloss the comic episode 84, "Wii Hate U"
I wanted to ask your further opinions of that Wii U event you attended on behalf of ScrewAttack. Taking away a proper journalist's jobs just because you are an oh-so-famous celebrity! Shame on you!
Ha ha! I actually couldn't believe how professionally I was treated. The videogame journalism world is one where you can wear ANYTHING, and as long as you have the right admission bracelet, you're in. I was schlubbing around in a T-shirt and jeans, getting to sit 10 feet from Reggie and talk to a corporate PR guy... it was nuts.
That said, the PR guy I interviewed seemed like he was refusing to have any fun in the interview or make it any more interesting than bare minimum.
I don't know how we convinced these companies that we are so important.
Well, at some point, they have to respect our platforms. I have a potential reach of about half a million if I have a juicy news nugget or a juicy, controversial opinion. That gives them pause, and even if certain journalists are more small-time, they still often have a fan base who will side with them.
You are still on the fence with the Wii U, though you will definitely be buying it, correct?
Oh, I pre-ordered it the day I went to that event. Partially a fanboy thing, partially a business thing. I knew it'd be hard to get one if I didn't hurry up and order.
And also, the whole webcomic thing is tricky if it's all retro, because it's impossible to know whether some other webcomic (there are so many) has made the same joke before. So if you're actually on the cutting edge and making a joke about a brand new game, it's less likely that someone will have made that joke.
Also, I want to believe that the Nintendo from my childhood still exists somewhere.
I sense some doubt.
Oh, I have plenty of doubt. I actually turned down an offer for a free Wii U because it would involve me entering a video contest, where I'd have to make a video showing how much fun it was to play and the winner gets to attend Sundance on Nintendo's dime. But I don't bullshit on the big stuff. It's one thing to be nice to a fan even if I'd rather be somewhere else... it's another to shill for a company and compromise my integrity.
Good on you for that.
I mean, why not launch with a NEW Mario? Like a follow-up to Galaxy? And not the same freaking Mario sidescroller game I've played since 1991!
From brentalfloss the comic episode 108, "And Now for Something Completely the Same..."
I understand "why." The 2D Mario games easily sell three times as much as the 3D ones, and the 3D ones sell A LOT. Galaxy is around 11 million, I believe. It's a different style of game, so it's not difficult to see why one would be more appealing. That said, I agree that Nintendo isn't trying hard enough.
I mean, my [Wa-Peach] strip from today was about this.
It's playing safe with the formula.
Exactly. Rather than doing something new, they're leaning back on an old formula: "Tack on another Wa-character!" "Make a new kind of fucking Yoshi!" Think about 1985-1990. They were ballsy.
I think they had nothing to lose, really.
By the same token, though, we can't be nostalgic forever. The "Golden Age" was about 25 years ago, so we have to accept that times have changed.
There you are being a grump old fart again!