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Steamy Stemage: Grant “Metroid Metal” Henry Interview

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Yesterday we gave you the review of Metroid Metal: Varia Suite, and called it one of the best CDs of 2009. For many years fans have only dreamed of a full studio album from Metroid Metal, and finally it’s here. With the CD being such a masterpiece and activity within the band being at an all time high, we couldn’t help but chat with the mind behind this project.

So today we are happy to bring you an interview with Grant Henry, the man behind Metroid Metal! After many years as a fan favorite through his website, he’s today having great success with live shows and the new CD with his band mates. Find out where the project started, what Metroid game Grant prefers and how a bald man swept him off his feet. It’s all here. Special thanks to Tommy Ciulla for helping out with some great questions!

Read the interview after the jump!

OSV: Let’s talk about Stemage for a bit. How long have you been writing music as Stemage? Were you in any bands prior?

Grant: I’ve done my share of band hopping. I sang for a hard rock band called MiniVoid in college, played drums in the pop group Off Centre after that, and enjoyed getting back to guitar in Blue Dot with Dan Taylor and Kevin Lawrence of the Metroid Metal group. Those were the biggest band experiences though. I’ve always been writing and recording my own solo stuff. I was quite good at cleaning the heads on my 8-track before starting on the whole Metroid Metal thing.

So yeah, I guess Stemage was born when I did my first multitrack recording of a cover of “Polly” by Nirvana. Wow, that was a long time ago.

OSV: Do you have any plans for Stemage live shows? A live version of “Ground Pink” would be awesome!

Grant: I’ve thought about that. For a long time I thought Metroid Metal could never happen live, and I was clearly wrong. My only thought on Stemage is the ability to play some of that stuff while singing. The parts weren’t written together, and I haven’t played guitar while singing for a long time. I will say that there’s a new Stemage instrumental album hitting later this year, so there’s a much bigger chance of something like that happening live. I guess anything is possible.

OSV: The space/alt rock band Failure seems to have been an influence on your songwriting and sound. Stemage’s version of “Leo” is great – how did you get involved with the Failure tribute record, “The Nurse Who Loved Me”?

Grant: I became familiar with the music of the guy putting the Failure tribute album together. After a conversation, he made the ask. I was so excited! I’d been meaning to cover a song or two of Failure for a while, and this was my chance to do it. I think I got him the first track, “Undone,” in less than a week! [laughs] I ended up getting two tracks on the record. I also did “Leo” on Failure’s Fantastic Planet album, which was my second favorite song.

They are a huge inspiration, and there is all kinds of Failure in my music. I hope that sentence doesn’t get taken out of context.

OSV: What other bands or musicians have influenced your sound and composition?

Grant: The only musicians that I’d say have a huge influence on my guitar playing are the metal gods of the late 80s and early 90s. I’ve definitely been influenced more by bands in the last 15 years. My top five list for influences are Self, Failure, Hum, Meshuggah, and Shiner. It’s a very strange list, because my music doesn’t necessarily sound like all those bands, but they definitely influence it.

OSV: How do you go about choosing which songs to arrange from Metroid Metal?

Grant: Well, the original goal was to complete the NES soundtrack. That’s why those vocals were at the end of “The Ending.” That was supposed to be it. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the awful things I could do with “Lower Norfair.” So, I just picked up and kept going.

After that, I’ve just been choosing songs that I’ve always wanted to do. I haven’t quite finished that list yet. There is a lot of quality music beyond that actually. I’m just not as familiar or infatuated with them to the level of something like “Phendrana Drifts.” As long as I still get repeat requests for certain tracks, I will do them.

OSV: In retrospect, is there an arrangement of yours that you would call your favorite? What about least favorite?

Grant: This answer will change from day to day. Today’s answer is “Crateria.” I was really happy with the human elements in the drums, the overall composition, the way the solo slid in there, as well as the solo itself. I have others that I like a lot, but I think it’s the source material I’m the most attracted to. I always tend to say I like the NES “Ending” the best, but the truth is that I really didn’t do much to that track. It is one of the best Metroid songs in its original form. I just made it all loud.

As far as least favorite, I’m not sure. There aren’t any that I strongly dislike, because I wouldn’t release a track if I didn’t think it was ready. There are probably three or so that sit together at the bottom of the list, but I’m not sure what they would be without lots of Excel work.

OSV: Your arrangement of the Torvus Bog theme from Metroid Prime 2 is very lively and has a great drum programming. Seeing as how Prime 2′s score is much more atmospheric and minimal from the first Prime’s OST, did you have any trouble with this arrangement? What was it like incorporating the Korg DS-10 into the arrangement?

Grant: Thanks man! That was a really weird one, because the entire track just keeps coming back to this same melody over and over again, so I had to figure out different ways to create diversions with things other than just changes in melody. There are parts where the rhythm chugs the melody, places where the melody is transposed, parts where the start of a measure changes around the melody, and new riffs written out of that melody. Those same four notes are used a lot. It got a little wacky, but it was a fun one to do.

The Korg DS-10 thing was fun. Since that melody is so easy, and I was spending a lot of time with the DS-10, it just felt right. It’s very understated, but it’s there. My music has never had much synth, and I didn’t want it to be a focus. Did I mention the word melody yet? I’m trying to say melody the same number of times as that melody appears in “Torvus Bog.” I think I’m about a third of the way there. [laughs]

OSV: Do you have any plans to arrange music from Metroid Fusion? It seems to be the only main game from the series thus far (Hunters excluded) that hasn’t had any Metroid Metal arrangements.

Grant: I do, I just haven’t gotten there yet, which is sad. I had plans to do it before Metroid Prime 3 came out, but I had these wild ideas for a big concept track from the music of Prime 3, so I went there instead. I even included the Wii menu music at the beginning. Fusion is definitely coming though! There are actually a pile of cool tracks in there – maybe enough to constitute another medley.

OSV: Which Metroid title is your favorite? How did you feel when the series made the jump from 2D to 3D with Metroid Prime, and do you have preference to 2D or 3D gameplay in the series?

Grant: Oh no. Here’s the question. Well, my answer is Metroid Prime. It’s my favorite game of all time actually. At least today it is. Most people go with Super Metroid without a blink, but my overall experience was so solid with Metroid Prime that I just don’t think I could have been any happier. I was really sad to see it end.

That being said, obviously I think the jump to 3D was a quality one. If I had a preference for the series, I’d say that 2D is the way it needs to go next. Prime 3 was a great entry, but I truly feel that for the first time, the brains behind Metroid could learn something valuable from Epic Games and Shadow Complex. They really nailed the formula with a wild amount of replayability.

OSV: Do you have any other favorite video game music?

Grant: No one ever mentions 3D Worldrunner, so I will here. 3D Worldrunner.

Honestly, I don’t listen to a lot of soundtracks from recently released games, unless it has something to do with Sega or Katamari. I’m a big fan of games released from the SNES era and before, and I’m an especially big fan of quality remixes of those titles. I’m not a big RPG guy, and I never really have been, so things like Chrono and Final Fantasy don’t show up on my list.

I’m a big sucker for old game soundtracks that push the limits of what would be considered standard fare for a game soundtrack. Marble Madness is basically it; that, and anything on any Nintendo game.

OSV: At MAGFest 7, January 2009, Metroid Metal made its live debut, performing your arrangement with a full band. How long had you been thinking of putting a live band together?

Grant: I’d been considering the idea ever since the option came up to do PAX back in 2004. It wasn’t until I went to MAGfest 6 that I realized that bands could really learn their parts from forever away and come together to play them. I knew that three guitars were the required baseline for a live show, and where I lived, I didn’t think I could find really good players that were also big gamers.

OSV: Tell us a little bit about the band members and where we might know them from.

Grant: Like I quickly mentioned, I was in a band with Dan Taylor (chunkstyle) and Kevin Lawrence from the old band Blue Dot, and Dan has been murdering on bass with the Metroid Metal stuff since the “Maridia” track. Kevin was a preferred choice since he’s not human, still lives near Dan, and I knew the rhythm section could practice together. The three of us have a project called Yes Mayhem that has a record coming out later this year. It’s essentially Dan’s brainchild with a collection of performers from his past musical legacies. Xoc is on the new Yes Mayhem record as well. Xoc is also on Varia Suite reading the manual from Metroid as he does so well..

Dan Behrens (Danimal Cannon) is from the mind-bendingly awesome group Arm Cannon. He claims he’s the worst guitar player in Arm Cannon, which makes no sense to me because I can’t play a third of what he cranks out regularly in Metroid Metal. Danimal the hairless wonder also helped me master the new Metroid Metal stuff. Let me say that co-mastering when you are across the country is not efficient. But it will work in the end, especially if it’s with danimal.

Micheal Molnar (Kirby Pufocia) is from tempsoundsolutions. He’s a young monster. We’re all like 20 years older than him, but that doesn’t change the fact that he completely rules and rocks about half and half – leads and rhythm – on his whopper 7-string guitar. He strikes the perfect balance between my rhythm focus and danimal’s lead focus.

I give the leads to the boys because my specialty is rhythm, and their specialty is lead. It just makes sense. They even said they’d rather learn the lead runs than my wacky chords, and that’s just fine with me.

OSV: How was the setlist worked out? Did you have to alter the arrangements heavily due to there being more instruments than usual?

Grant: The odd thing is that on most tracks, there are less instruments than usual. There is a moment in “Torvus Bog” with five or six guitars. Three had to be the minimum, and everyone is definitely working. Many people get worried when they see three guitars on stage. I know I do. But in this group, everyone has their job, and they are almost always doing that job alone.

OSV: In later years, your arrangements have began to expand quite a bit, not only with a live band, but also different new instruments such as piano done by Daniel Brown. Are you looking to do more in the style of that and work with combining classical elements with metal?

Grant: The only way to bring more classical elements into songs is to bring in other musicians. I play what I can play, and I’m reluctant to attempt new instrumentation since it’s not my specialty. I do love collaborations, and as long as I can keep the focus from track to track, you can plan on hearing from more players in the future.

OSV: Your new CD, Varia Suite, is the first studio album you released of your works of Metroid. Tell us a little bit about how the whole project got rolling with the CD.

Grant: Kevin, chunk, and I had been recording practice sessions on my field recorder to send to danimal and Kirby. We thought it would be fun if they just recorded their parts for us to layer on top and maybe slap it up for an extra on the site. After the PAX announcement, it made sense for us to do something a little more official since the majority of the people there had not heard of the project. Everyone recorded their parts in their own cities, and I acted as the hub for all the files. The album was recorded and mixed over a period of about 3 months or so – on and off.

Silent Uproar Records, who put out my first Stemage record, had interest in officially putting it out. This was fantastic, not only because we get to share the experience with them, but they plan on making a small push to the mainstream just to see what the reaction could be from outside the gaming media. Plus, their artist is a Metroid fan and might as well be a psychologist. We couldn’t be happier with the iconography and art that provides some visual weight with the new album.

It’s really funny how the new CD project took shape – especially since we only casually mentioned the idea of recording anything in November of last year. But it’s great because many of the best tracks get new attention with new players and new production. We’re proud of it.

OSV: What do you think of the reactions the announcement and release of the CD has gotten?

Grant: It’s been very positive. The album is made up of rerecordings of previously written and released songs, but we’re only charging $8 for a full length album. There’s a lot of new stuff on there as well. The songs have definitely taken a new shape and sound more human with the full band adding their best.

We are interested to see the reaction in communities and media that aren’t rooted in gaming primarily. We all feel that the album could exist on its own as a solid prog/metal record even outside of the attachment to the Metroid soundtrack. But, we could be wrong about that. I guess we’ll see.

OSV: You recently played PAX with your band. How was this experience for you? How did you get in touch with PAX to perform at their convention?

Grant: I’d actually talked with Robert Khoo from Penny back in 2004. He invited me to play, not knowing MM was just one guy. Dan wasn’t even playing bass at that point. After turning down his recommendation of coming out to perform over a laptop of backing tracks, I made him aware of the project before MAGfest, just to let him know it was happening. I sent him some media from the show, and the rest is history.

OSV: What was your expectations going into doing a live show at PAX, and how did it all turn out musically and personally after the concert was all said and done?

Grant: We didn’t really have any expectations. We were too busy being busy and freaking out. I couldn’t help but wonder how stable a mountain of metal would be between Anamanaguchi and MC Frontalot. But it couldn’t have gone better.

The only hiccup was the intro of the show. We had a chiptune of the Samus materialization jingle that was supposed to play before landing into Brinstar, but apparently there were some technical difficulties that caused only the last two notes to play. Since it wasn’t in the monitors, we had to just look at Kevin and say “Go.” No band should ever have to do that. Luckily, after that it was pure bliss. The crowd was responsive and enthusiastic, and there were even a few mini-pits. There were horns everywhere and even a few ‘troid plushies in the air. That made us happy.

OSV: What did you feel different about the live performance at PAX compared to the first show at MAGFest?

Grant: We were lucky that we had instant musical chemistry, because we only played together for the first time the day before the concert at MAGfest. For that reason, I know we weren’t as comfortable with everything as we are now. Not only have we now done PAX, but everyone knows the parts well enough to record them for an album. That should make MAGfest 8 all the more comfortable, fun, and tight.

We’ve heard the board mixes of the MAGfest performance, and of course there are parts that make us cringe a bit, but there are only some things that people in the crowd would notice. For that reason, I’d say we’re all happy with it, especially in context of what we had to do to prepare. We’re all perfectionists and primarily studio musicians, so it all makes sense.

OSV: One last question, What do you think of the newly announced Metroid: Other M and can we expect Metroid Metal to arrange the music from that title?

Grant: I’m just glad the series is getting some attention. While Metroid is a revered Nintendo franchise, it’s definitely the least popular in the grand scheme of gaming. I don’t think Prime 2 or 3 sold as much as anyone had hoped, so I wondered what would be next. At first, I was disappointed that I didn’t get my 2D/3D hybrid announced at E3, but Shadow Complex fixed that.

I think Nintendo bringing in Team Ninja is a bold and exciting move, and I don’t think Nintendo will allow Other M to be a bad game. I think it’s farther away than we think, but I’m still excited. I’m also excited to see how the music pans out. There were some good tracks in Prime 3, and I’m sure there will be at least a few tracks that will stick in your head from Other M. We shall see.

OSV: Thank you so much, We hope for all the best with your new CD, and hope to see you back at OSV in the near future!

Grant: Hey, I’m always at OSV! Thank you so much for the opportunity! It really is an honor.

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Metroid Metal is confirmed to play at MAGFest 8 this upcoming January so be sure to check them out if you are in the area! You can buy Varia Suite at MetroidMetal.com

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