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Cutting Into Jason Cox: XOC Interview

October 22, 2009 | | 5 Comments Share thison Facebook Cutting Into Jason Cox: XOC Interviewon Twitter

XOC is one of the better known arrangement artists in America. Ever since he released SMW, fans have been in love with his strange yet superb arrangement style, interesting song choices and bizarre personality. With over 15 releases under his belt, he has established himself as quite a prolific artist, and every release is more exciting than the next it seems.

Currently, XOC is enjoying a great reception for his latest album, XOC Plays SMB3, which is a digital release arranging the full soundtrack of Super Mario Bros. 3, and if that alone isn’t exciting enough, he’s joined by none other than Dan Taylor, the amazing bassist of Metroid Metal. XOC was kind enough to get some clothes on and answer anything we could throw at him in this interesting interview detailing most of his releases so far.

To read our interview with XOC, click the jump!

OSV: XOC, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today!

XOC: I’m honored, even if it sounds unoriginal, it’s the truth!

OSV: Let’s go back to the beginning of your life to start this off. Were you circumcised at delivery?

XOC: If it wasn’t done right away – if it happened later – I must’ve repressed that memory. I certainly have a more vivid memory of the first uncut wee-wee I ever saw in person. But for the record… yeah, I’ve been snipped. It shouldn’t be too difficult to locate my nude pictures online to prove this.

OSV: Where did you grow up?

XOC: I was born in Roseville and then moved to El Dorado Hills (near Folsom). But I spent my grade school years in Orangevale, which is about a half hour from downtown Sacramento. I discovered later in life that the source of the smell in Orangevale was a combination of horse manure and methamphetamines. I’ve traveled outside of California only a handful of times.

OSV: Now obviously when looking at your discography, you must have been a big video game fan. What games did you grow up with as a kid?

XOC: I played in arcades as a kid – there used to be a Sam’s Hof Brau near my house that had a big game room. My uncle had an Intellivision, which I absolutely loved. I played a lot of Bump ‘n’ Jump, Thunder Castle, Discs of Tron, and an odd climbing game called Beauty and the Beast. The first system I owned was a Colecovision – my collection was Mr. Do, Burgertime, Donkey Kong Jr., The Smurfs, and Tapper. When the NES finally came out, I probably only had a dozen games for it – but I played them a LOT. Kid Niki, Life Force, JAWS, Elevator Action… then I lent them out to various people and never saw them again. The only NES cartridge I still have is 3-D World Runner. And then, a decade later, I made that NES into a guitar.

OSV: What was the earliest you remember game music striking you as something special?

XOC: The only formal music training I’ve had was a drummer, so I don’t know much about music theory. So I couldn’t really describe, technically, why music like two of my early favorites, Castlevania and Metroid, is so compositionally strong. “Catchy” is probably the wrong word, because you could say the same for, say, Kid Niki. Frank Zappa told a story about playing a doo-wop song for his high school music teacher, and asking him, “tell me why I like this so much.” The teacher replied, “parallel fourths.”

OSV: So your only formal training was on drums? When did you expanding your musical abilities and play all these instruments?

XOC: I learned guitar, bass and piano mostly on my own (my mother showed me some chords), starting from about age 14.

OSV: What influenced you throughout your life musically? In some ways your style can be similar to DEVO and Mr. Bungle.

XOC: My uncle (the same one who had an Intellivison, as it turns out) gave me a cassette of DEVO’s Duty Now For The Future when I was a kid, and my brain has been swelling and itching ever since. Mr. Bungle had a profound effect on me as well – I was astounded when that record came out – but even more importantly, it led me to John Zorn. The first compact disc I ever bought was Naked City’s Grand Guignol (up until then I only bought vinyl), which is probably where I got my love of brevity. Let’s see, what else… I’m an absolute Zappa freak as well. But if I was making a list of artists that I take direct influence from, it reads like this: Pixies/Frank Black, Steely Dan, Ween, Butthole Surfers, The Residents, Melvins, and Prince.

OSV: Did you play in any bands or other musical establishments in your teens?

XOC: The first band I was in was called Tuna-Free Dolphin Sandwich, that would’ve been when I was 15. Luckily, there is no surviving documentation of our horrible racket. One of the songs involved me playing drums and scratching a Shostakovich record at the same time.
Then I joined a band called Mittens, playing trombone, which I can’t play at all… I took over the drums once the drummer quit. Our songs were primarily about beer, porn, and duct tape.
All the other projects, primarily a prog-surf-spaghetti-western outfit called Las Pesadillas, happened in my 20’s.

OSV: So finally in 2005, you launched onto the video game arrangement scene with SMW, a full soundtrack arrangement of Super Mario World. Tell us a bit about your decision to do this game specifically and on doing the entire soundtrack, it’s quite an impressive debut!

XOC: When I first became aware of the NES emulator Nester, I was completely blown away by the ability to isolate the sound channels. As I say, I don’t know theory, so to finally be able to figure out all the harmonies and countermelodies to tunes I’d been humming since childhood – it was a HUGE thing for me. So part of the reason behind choosing Super Mario World to cover was inspired by ZSNES, the emulator I was playing it on – there are lots of little musical moments that I wouldn’t have been able to hear or decipher on my own.
When I first started recording VG covers, my initial style was to perform long medleys, strung along by similarities in tempo/feel/key, of otherwise unrelated game songs. (I eventually followed through on this method on a smaller scale with The Beginning of the End, my mini-CD from 2008) I recorded quite a few tunes in the style of the Minibosses – simple, sparse, and distorted – but I was never totally satisfied with the results. Two of the songs (the main theme and Forest of Illusion music) happened to be from Super Mario World. It’s hard to say what possessed me to take those two tracks and expand it into doing the whole thing, though. I was nervous enough about copyright issues that I released it on the Internet Archive under a Creative Commons license, just to make sure my ass was covered!

OSV: SMW uses pretty much uses any object you could find to produce sound. Do you remember the full line up of items you used to record this project?

XOC: Yep, I kept detailed notes, all the way! I included a full list on the artwork and in a text file. I love making lists, so getting to compile all the strange instruments I’ve played is a real self-indulgent treat. So here’s another list (ha ha) of the “non-standard” instruments I’ve utilized:

TURKEY LOCATOR AND GOOSE FLUTE – Inspired by John Zorn’s earlier works, I bought these game calls from sporting goods stores. I was even lucky enough to play a turkey locator “solo” on the God of Shamisen album Dragon String Attack alongside Trey Spruance! http://www.godofshamisen.com/
CRAPPARATUS – This is a home-brew noise machine I made out of an old rack-mount EQ. I played it live a few times as a guest of the Sacramento noise institution Uberkunst.
CANON POWERSHOT – You can just barely hear the sound of this digital camera retracting its lens (heavily amplified, of course) within the first seconds of “SMW Title Screen.”
MATTEL CLASSIC FOOTBALL 2 – I included a sample of the digital referee whistle sound @1:09 of “Clamp Enterprises” from the G2EP.
TACKLEBOX, ANTIQUE PICKAXE, REFRIGERATOR DOOR, CERAMIC TOILET MUG, CLAMP LIGHT REFLECTOR, ASHTRAY, WINE AND MALT LIQUOR BOTTLES, SCHOOL BELL, etc. – Quite often there are some interesting sounding percussion instruments within arm’s reach. The school bell is an antique, one of the really loud ones.
BOX OF SUGAR, PILL BOTTLES AND IODIZED SALT CONTAINER- These made for some distinct and/or subtle shakers.
ELECTRIC PINECONE – I bought this from the arts ‘n’ crafts division of His Name Is Alive, another favorite band of mine.
http://www.timestereo.com/specials.php?nice_day=5

OSV: With SMW establishing you as a musical Jackie Chan and the reception being universally praised, how do you personally feel about this project today?

XOC: I feel that I still haven’t met my musical Chris Tucker. There are certainly a few things I would do differently now, but then there are moments that I don’t even recall happening. I was closed off in this little room, with a drum set and tons of instruments, and just obsessively overdubbing non-stop. The Muppet-style vocals on the first track are a direct result of me being isolated in a sweatbox and starting to get a bit mental.

OSV: You later released SMW Goldinum Edition. What were the differences made?

XOC: Someone contacted my on Myspace, offering to do a remastering job on the original album. It never ended up happening, but I did go and remix the album in preparation for the job. The changes are subtle; some slight level balancing, reinstating parts I had previously deleted, stuff like that. Then I recorded more variations on the map theme, a cover of Mark Mothersbaugh’s (Devo frontman) theme song to the Super Mario World cartoon, and put in the first SMW track I ever recorded, a short demo of the main theme.

OSV: Now during 2006 you released a lot of single track arrangements on your website such as 3D-World Runner, OutRun and NES Dance Aerobics before releasing 2 projects on the same day on in May of 2007, Cinema 80s Volume One and Nester Babies!!!. Tell us a little bit about those 2 projects.

XOC: Nesterbabies started as an experiment that just came to me one day – learn to sing Super Mario Bros. backward. Doing it at half-speed was necessary to coax a more accurate performance from my horrible singing, haha. It’s a pain in the ass project, because you have to put in twice as much work, and the end results aren’t the most accessible thing to listen to. After a while, the ear gets tired of the munchkin range.
Cinema 80s probably started with the Beetlejuice game – I wanted to do the complete soundtrack, but it was too short for an album; likewise for Goonies II. The only real connection between them was being based on 1980’s movies, so I started making a list of others. Turns out Wikipedia really is an invaluable resource for those sort of lists.

OSV: Cinema 80s Volume One is really interesting cause most of the games arranged are remembered for being amazingly bad, such as the LJN published games like Beetlejuice, JAWS and Karate Kid. Do you find these games to have a distinct charm even being in some cases absolute turds when it comes to gameplay?

XOC: It makes sense, because at some point in the gameplay, you’ll remember that it’s part of a marketing ploy. I would categorize Back To The Future, Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom, and Beetlejuice as “unplayable”, myself. The only charm to the latter is the music, which I found incredible; even more incredible given its association with such a slapdash pile of a game. I have fond adolescent memories of both Goonies II and JAWS, however, simply because I owned them back then.

OSV: When you set out to arrange game music, how do you go about picking the different games? Is it based on memories and personal enjoyment, or do you look for material that is mostly forgotten or deserve more attention in your opinion?

XOC: The music has to already be good. The only other reason to cover something as forgettable and moronic as the theme to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure or many of the inconsequential micro-ditties on The Beginning of the End is if they fit the theme of the album, within a larger framework. The music from Beetlejuice, Gremlins 2, Kirby’s Adventure, the Super Mario Bros. games… it was already bitchen before I discovered it. So it’s like having someone do most of your work for you. Or, put it this way: if you’re a huge Journey fan, and you go to see a Journey tribute band – you don’t have to worry about them being incompetent songwriters, you just judge the performance.

OSV: Your next release was WHAT’S PINK AND SUCKS? Why was the decision made to name the album after my penis? That hurts you know.

XOC: You’re confusing that with the underground mixtape remix version, What’s Pink and Huge and Sucked?

OSV: That’s true, sorry for the confusion there. WHAT’S PINK AND SUCKS? is done in a similar way to SMW, using many different instruments to create your trademark style arranging Kirby’s Adventure. How long does it take you to record these albums when you use so much?

XOC: I record all the drum and bass parts first, and then it’s just a piecemeal frenzy of overdubbage. If I’m doing guitar on one song, I’ll get an idea for an accordion part, then while I’m recording that, I’ll do accordion on a few other songs. I find it much easier to bounce around all over the record than to concentrate on a single track. That kind of work ethic always sounds forced when I do it.

OSV: A few weeks after you released the Kirby album, you released G2EP, which was arrangement of most if not all of Sunsoft’s Gremlins 2: The Video Game on NES. It’s one of your lesser known projects sadly, but what do you think of the soundtrack and are you surprised it is so overlooked in the arrangement community?

XOC: It might still be my favorite to listen to – and I have no qualms about admitting that I enjoy listening to my own music, either. It’s not the same as Prince saying that he recorded a track and then listened to it 100 times while riding around in a limo – I still have a goofy sense of wonder about recorded sound. Multi-tracking is still a miracle to me, y’know? It shouldn’t be narcissistic, it’s still fascinating to me that it’s possible.
Anyway, G2EP. I’m not that surprised that it’s not well-known, because on the surface – “oh, another bunch of covers from some shitty movie tie-in game? Yeah, PASS” – it doesn’t sound exciting. But the music is so GOOOD. It’s Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo good. Whatever my interpretation is, you can’t help but admire the original tunes – I wish there were more tracks in the game. Maybe I should have come up with a catchier album title.

OSV: All of the previous releases were released online for free, but in 2008, you released your first physical release titled The Beginning of the End, which was released on a mini CD and covered music from 100 games into an 18 minute medley. Why did you decide to release this as a physical CD and how was the process of not only arranging 100 songs, but stringing them together into a medley?

XOC: There are so many tunes from games that never get covered, simply because they’re too short! Maybe someone will play it as an intro, or work it into a longer piece, but short jingles and stings from games are rarely presented on their own terms. I wanted to make a listenable album of such songs. The album title, which I realize now is pretty clichéd, refers to the number of “game start” and “game over” jingles included – each has the opposite emotion ingrained in them: sort of like, “get excited and ready!” versus “you blew it!” The process of recording them was tedious but fun, because there’s that constant wild shifting of texture and mood every few seconds. I had also recorded a handful of them already, so I had a few tunes to work with. But figuring out the order of the final medley was a bitch. I made charts; organized the tracks by tempo, key; and listened to many different permutations of track listings before I arrived at the finished product. I’ve heard that it can be jarring and hard to listen to, that it’s a bit too dense at times; but I personally like that sort of thing. Someone described it to me as a nostalgia machine gun.
I probably got the 100-tracks-on-a-3-inch-CD gimmick from Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Once I saw that I could get 100 songs together, I wondered if they would fit on a mini CD. Then I was lucky enough to get Concatenation Records and Good-Evil.net to put it out for me, and they did an outstanding job.

OSV: You’ve also done some original music projects, such as VIDEOGAME: THE MOVIE: THE GAME. How did you come up with the concept behind this album?

XOC: That was for a contest to create a fictional game and its soundtrack. Before I had a concept, I just started writing stylistic rip-offs: a jaunty C-major Mario-style song, something that sounds a little like ‘Kraid’ from Metroid, some major-7 rainbow-cloud-dream-time Kirby fruityness, etc. Once I had a few done, I realized the only way to conceptually tie them together would be nothing less than The Ultimate Rip-Off Game. So the story was going to be about a multi-game cartridge with bootlegged versions included on it. THEN, I started to make it a fictional game based on a fictional movie, even though that aspect has virtually nothing to do with the music. The only reason for the fake movie was the make the game’s title longer, haha.

OSV: Another fan favorite of yours is the XOC & Heavy Friends series. The basic concept with this is getting small recorded parts from anyone who is willing within a time period and put it together into a song. What’s the favorite submission you can remember while doing one of these?

XOC: It’s probably a fan favorite because those are the people making the music, really! There is nothing on any of the Heavy Friends collaborations that I would likely have created on my own – the sounds provided are what ultimately dictate the direction of the music, and people have sent me some BIZARRE stuff. The most memorable submissions are usually the solo vocalists, though. Spookmeister C sent some highly quotable vocal outbursts for HF3 (“Oh Mr. Internet Provider… IT’S NOT MY FAULT!!!”). DrBlackJack’s drunken vocal mashup of “Oof Da Kitty” and J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” from the first volume will live in infamy, I’d say. And more than one person has recorded themselves urinating.

OSV: You also experimented with chiptunes, and one of your chiptunes was published on the II Pause chiptune label. What are your thoughts on chiptunes and the chiptune community? Are you planning on more chiptunes in the future?

XOC: It’s odd, because “chiptune” ought to be more of an instrumental classification (like ‘rock band’ vs. ‘orchestra’, which tell you the tools used but not about the content), but it seems more like a genre to me. The timbre of pure blips/bleeps/et al. is something I have to be in the mood for. I do enjoy the meticulous construction aspect to making chiptunes, although my own method is definitely non-standard (rather than using a genuine tracker program, I take WAV samples of NES sounds and arrange them through step-recording). I would like to do more original chiptunes, but it almost seems to me like that should be another project, with another name.

OSV: Most recently, you returned to Mario by releasing XOC Plays SMB3. Tell us about the recording process for this and how you got Metroid Metal’s Dan Taylor onboard to do bass.

XOC: The majority of the drum tracks were finished in 2006, and Chunkstyle recorded his bass tracks not long after that. See, the original concept was going to be the complete soundtrack, start to finish, performed by only four musicians – me on drums, Chunkstyle on bass, and two guitarists. It was going to have sort of a virtual garage band feel, like the Minibosses or the Advantage. But I never pushed the project on any guitarists, so it was never finished.
So recently, when I pulled out one of the old Super Mario Bros. 3 drums+bass tracks out and finished it off for inclusion on another forthcoming album (I won’t say which track; it might give away the theme!), it ended up sounding fine. So I kept it on this album and finished the rest off everything myself, to keep it more in line with SMW.
I knew of Chunkstyle from the Metroid Metal boards – so I simply asked him if he was interested. He’s obviously an outstanding bassist, but also the nicest guy ever. I finally met him in person at MAGFest 7, and he really helped me through my initial jet-lagged panic attack upon arrival. He bought me a sandwich. 🙂

OSV: Speaking of MAGFest 7, you were actually onstage during the Metroid Metal set and read the Metroid manual during their performance. How did it feel not only being part of that set acclaimed set, but also being on stage infront of so many of your fans and friends who followed your music all this way?

XOC: It was terrifying! I think most people were confused about what I was supposed to do. I had a little toy voice-changing megaphone, and as soon as I started to forget the words, I just started screaming out nonsense. But when Metroid Metal is behind you, and the heavy part of ‘Item Room’ kicks in, all you can do is get out of their way and start headbanging. It was gratifying just to see them perform for the first time, but to be invited on stage to be a part of it… whatever part that may be, it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

OSV: The release of this album came 1 day after the passing of Lou Albano who played Mario in the Super Mario Super Show. Was it just a coincidence or were you unaware that he had passed away at the time you released it?

XOC: It was an unfortunate coincidence. I was working on the YouTube commercial when I read the news. I thought it might appear opportunistic to try to associate his death with the album, at least on the same day. I played a show with Knifethruhead that night, and my real regret is forgetting to relay the news to our singer, who has a monstrous beard, and he should’ve been rocking some memorial rubber bands in it!

OSV: You’re also responsible for creating the NES Paul, a Les Paul modified to hold a NES. This project actually gained you some attention from MTV and I even remember seeing this on many Brazilian blogs and news sites during my days there. Who inspired you to make the NES Paul and does it actually work?

XOC: There were a number of people who had constructed guitars out of game systems – I recall seeing guitars and basses made from Super Nintendo and Genesis consoles. Whether I’m the first to use an NES, I don’t know. The guitar part of it sort of works. It’s impossible to keep in tune, but it does have a pretty raucous distorted tone. I’m sure there’s a way to build a working guitar that is also a working Nintendo, but I’d be terrified to strap on something that was plugged into the wall. I wouldn’t trust my craftsmanship at all. I butchered both components to make it work.

OSV: Can you tell us anything about what we’ll see from you next?

XOC: I have so many other projects, there’s this huge backlog of finished and unfinished material to release. There’s the Recreational Episiotomy box set, which is every single song to date (which includes tons of unreleased tracks) – but since it’s an actual BOX with CDs in it, it keeps getting delayed. I play guitar in a rock band called Radio Orangevale, and we’ve been recording our debut album and playing shows around Sacramento. I’ve also been a member of the grind/punk/metal/comedy fiasco Knifethruhead for ten years, and this year we’re trying to finish up our “Manniversary” CD, which will be a compilation of all of our vinyl-only releases. And then, of course, there’s always the next installment of the XOC & Heavy Friends project.

But as far as just XOC music goes, I’m currently halfway finished with another album, this time a full collaboration with Damian Sol. (I’ve been playing music with him since 1991, but XOC listeners will know him best as the violinist on my entry for the DoD “PC Month” competition.) I want to keep the theme of the album a secret for now, but I will say that it’s not another complete soundtrack. There’s tunes from a lot of different games, from NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, and arcade games. Expect this one to be an actual CD, and to sound a tad more polished.

OSV: Since the release of XOC Plays SMB3, a lot of people have been asking for a CD collection release of SMW and SMB3. Is this something you’d be willing to release? There seems to be quite the demand for physical copies of your projects in general.

XOC: I’d love to put that out, but only if there was sufficient supplementary material. That’s the only way I could see it being worth buying, if the disc was completely full of both old and new music. The obvious solution would be to fill in the gaps – all of the Super Mario Bros. music up to (and including) Super Mario World, all on one disc. Alright, mark my words, right here – it WILL happen. …along with the seven or eight other unfinished XOC albums I have planned!

OSV: Thank you so much for your time, I hope you will continue to stay as productive and interesting as ever for years to come, and wish you the absolute best of luck with XOC Plays SMB3!

XOC: Thanks you guys! And to everyone, check out my website at XOCMusic.com

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