66: Link and Mario Go to Coachella

Indie rock was one of the biggest genres of the early 2000s. This episode looks at some of the more notable instances of video game music influencing the indie sound, with stories of Super Mario, Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy infiltrating the work of artists such as Owen Pallett, Boom Bip, Fleet Foxes and The Mountain Goats. All this plus a stern warning against going to Coachella if you haven’t been already.

Listen to all the episodes in Singing Mountain’s VGM+POP music here.

Track listing:

0:09: Wario’s Castle / Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins / Kazumi Totaka
3:20: Haunted House / Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins / Kazumi Totaka
4:43: An Arrow in the Side of Final Fantasy / Owen Pallett 
6:41: Star Maze / Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins / Kazumi Totaka 
9:08: Treetop / Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins / Kazumi Totaka 
9:45: Seashore / Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins / Kazumi Totaka
10:24: Machine / Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins / Kazumi Totaka
13:57: He Poos Clouds / Owen Pallett
16:45: Hey Dad / Owen Pallett
18:10: Coin Heaven / Super Mario Bros. 3 / Koji Kondo
19:31: Brazil / Francisco Alves
20:56: Brazil / Kate Bush
24:46: Quiet Houses / Fleet Foxes
27:13: Roads Must Roll / Boom Bip
39:54: Title Theme / Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
35:37: Choose Your Pipe / Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins / Kazumi Totaka
39:35: Staff Roll / Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins / Kazumi Totaka
41:10: Thank You, Mario, But Our Princess Is in Another Castle / The Mountain Goats & Kaki King

Show notes:

The intro track to this episode was the Wario’s Castle theme, composed by Kazumi Totaka and from the last stage in Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. I’m going to explain why fairly shortly. But before I do, I want to talk about indie rock. Yes, this is another installment of my series looking into the connections between video game music and pop music. This is happens to be the indie rock episode.

Who remembers indie rock? It was one of the dominant genres of music a decade ago, and its reign spanned my time in college. The laws of nostalgia, therefore, mandate that this should be a style of music I hold close to my heart my entire life and tell younger generations about. And I guess I would. I legitimately think this loose grouping of bands, categorized under a dumb label that doesn’t mean anything, put out some really good music. But now that that movement is essentially dead — or at least banished to the realm of dad rock — I don’t know how to feel about it.

This is not a brag at all — more of a thing to tell you so know where I’m coming from — but I actually did go to Coachella back when it was cool. And it was cool: not packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people and certainly not wall-to-wall 17-year-olds but mellow and low-key and fairly generous with how it gave out press passes. Having a press pass got me into close proximity with artists I really liked but having a pass for the photo pit got me even closer, in some ways, just because standing below someone performing in desert heat more than once resulted in them perspiring directly onto me. And once into my mouth. That’s super gross, but it’s also a type of intimacy between performer and audience that may be particular to Coachella. Whatever. I got some good pictures. And I had some good times. And I have some good memories. And though I kind of don’t listen to the indie rock that got played at Coachella anymore, this episode was a great wallow in the muddy swamp of nostalgia.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m referring to phase of indie rock that got a lot of mainstream attention in the 2000s: bands like The Killers, The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives, Modest Mouse, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Block Party and Vampire Weekend. However, I won’t actually be talking about any of those bands in this episode, because as near as I can tell none of them did anything that I can tie back to video game music in any kind of interesting way. (I may be wrong. Please tell me if so.)

However, I can talk about another major indie rock band: The Arcade Fire. No, not because of their name, which was inspired by an apocryphal story that frontman Win Butler heard about a video arcade that burned to the ground and took a bunch of kids with it, but because of Owen Pallett, a violinist and composer and singer who has worked with the Arcade Fire over the years. He did the string arrangements for Arcade Fire’s debut Album, Funeral, and also the follow-up album, Neon Bible. If you’ve been listening to Singing Mountain for a while, you may recognize Owen’s name. He came up in my Super Mario B-Sides episode, which was all about lesser-known music from the extended Marioverse. I have another one of those coming in the not-too-distant future, BTW. Owen came up in the original episode as a result of his 2005 track “An Arrow in the Side of Final Fantasy,” which he released back when he also performed under the artist name Final Fantasy.

Those are some poetic, somber lyrics, and when you hear the inspiration for the melody, I think it’s all the more remarkable that Owen got that from this VGM. Have a listen.

This is the Star Maze theme from Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins, composed by Kazumi Totaka, who has made a lot of great music for Nintendo games but is also the voice of Birdo, Yoshi, and E. Gadd, in addition to being the voice, namesake and visual inspiration for K.K. Slider, the guitar-playing dog from Animal Crossing. Seriously, look up a photo of them side-by-side. K.K. Slider has his face. This Star Maze theme is notable for two reasons: It’s catchy as hell, for one, and for another, it is an outlier in the overall soundtrack for Super Mario Land 2.

This game is the one that unleashed Wario upon the world, and has Mario hopping through a strange new world that in many ways is a spiritual sequel to Super Mario World, visually and musically. It’s very much so Super Mario World-style graphics, all the way down to the design of the Fire Flower. The musical debt this game owes to Super Mario World is that all the level themes are variations on the same melody, which unless I’m mistaken wasn’t a thing until Super Mario World.

For example, here is the Super Mario Land 2 Treetop theme.

And here is the theme you hear in the stages in the ocean area of the game.

And here is what you hear in the grinding gears of Mario Zone, a weird sub area located entirely within a mechanical statue of Mario that exists for no reason that I’ve ever been clear about.

If you visit a giant hippo on top of a mountain, however, you can hop into a soap bubble and rise up into the sky into Space Zone. (no, that does not make sense but it also does not matter.) One of the stages in Space Zone has Mario navigating a field of angry-looking stars. It’s essentially an underwater stage, just one where Mario is wearing a spacesuit and floating around in low gravity instead of actually being in water. This is where you hear the Star Maze music. I love it. Apparently so did Owen Pallett.

Normally, this is where I begin the process of pop cultural archeology, trying to figure out how this piece of VGM got adapted into a piece of pop music, but Owen is fairly upfront about his inspirations. Sorta.

If you open the CD booklet that comes with the album Has a Good Home — and yes, I bought the album — you’ll see on the back page that “Arrow in the Side of Final Fantasy” is “largely based on a melody from the game Six Golden Coins.” That… isn’t the name of the game, of course, and the notes don’t shout out Kazumi Totaka by name. But he at least is doing more than have a lot of the artists I’ve talked about in this series so fIn one of the many recollections Owen gives about video game music that I found myself relating to, he explains that the Star Maze theme was his favorite composition from a video game when he was twelve, and that he would include it on mix CDs. “Embarrassed that the recipient might find out that the song was from a video game, I would credit the song to the fictional band name Chuck, and call it ‘Mario in Space.’”

With respect to geek culture, Owen’s albums are really interesting texts to pick apart. His following album, 2006’s He Poos Clouds, has one track for each of the schools of arcane magic from Dungeons & Dragons: abjuration, illusion, conjuration, necromancy, enchantment, evocation, divination and transmutation. I had to look up abjuration too. It’s protective spells and counterspells, though in non-D&D talk, it’s recanting and renouncing. That’s not video games, strictly speaking, but it’s an open embrace of nerd culture and also an interesting way to theme an album. The title track is, according to one interview, actually about Link, playing as Link and falling in love with Link. That info might help you make sense of some of the opening lyrics.

In case you couldn’t pick out the words, he’s singing. “But hey, hey, all the boys I have ever loved have been digital / I’ve been a guest on a screen, or in a book / I move him with my thumbs, I move him with my thumbs.” There’s a back-in-the-day interview he did with the music publication Amp, which I’ll link to in the show notes, where he talks about how he ended up writing a love song for Link.

I think it’s the short tunic. Sometimes you do wonder what’s going on with the games designers, you know? There’s a character in Metal Gear Solid 2 where he is naked for part of game, walking around with his hands on his genitals, and all you can think is – what on earth are the designers thinking? Are they conscious of what they’re doing here? I could see if I was more hard-up for action or too poor for pornos I’d be wanking for video games. I never got that far but yeah... maybe I’m oversexed or something but I was always really attracted to Link.

I hear you, dude. Being a lonely kid who grew up relating to the world via video games and also being gay, it’s sort of uncanny to hear to hear someone else lay all that out. Like, get out of my brain.

In studying Owen Pallett’s music, you hear video game references everywhere, regardless of if they’re intentional. The lead track for his third album is titled “Midnight Directives,” and it features the lyrics, “The way will be lit by the bridges we burn / And come, tornado! Carry me away,” and I’m like, “Wait, is that the Warp Whistle in Super Mario Bros. 3? Or the recorder in Legend of Zelda?” Those are not the only instances of whirlwinds taking people away, I realize, but he set me up to wonder if this is what he meant. Also: ha ha, “cum tornado.”

Sometimes, though, what seems like a video game reference really isn’t — in life, in general, and in regards to Owen Pallett specifically. Keeping in mind general Nintendo-ness, have a listen to a little bit of his track “Hey Dad.”

So that’s obviously a riff on the Coin Heaven music from Super Mario Bros. 3, right? It really sounds like it. Like, really really really. But according to Owen himself… no.

There’s this message board that seems like it’s basically devoted to Owen’s work, and back in the day it hosted real discussions about his songs, though it seems to have been mostly has been overtaken by spambots now. Owen used to post there as well and at one point he owns up to being inspired by the Star Maze theme. When asked about “Hey Dad” and Coin Heaven, however, he says no. “Total coincidence. Both melodies are a rip-off of ‘Brazil,’ anyway. I'm steering away from major sixths from now on.”

The “Brazil” he’s referring to is a song you know melodically but maybe don’t know by that name. The Arcade Fire actually covered it on Funeral, but it’s also been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Dionne Warwick to the Vengaboys. And by Kate Bush in the movie Brazil. it was originally performed by Francisco Alves in 1939.

Here’s the Kate Bush version, which I suspect may be closer to Owen’s heart than the original.

I’m not sure I actually hear the similarity myself. To me, Owen’s song does sound to me more like Coin Heaven than it does Brazil, but I believe him anyway, because he credited the Star Maze song as an inspiration. I mean, why be honest about one and not the other? It’s a good lesson, though: the thing you’re perceiving isn’t necessarily a thing.

This isn’t an Owen Pallett-specific episode. I wanted it to be a fun, mid-2000s sampler of VGM-influenced indie rock, but it turns out that despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find that many instances of one influencing the other. This is where you come in. Do you know some instance of indie rock that draws upon video games as an influence? Please tell me! Do not tell me about the Lana Del Rey song. That doesn’t count. But given the introverted leanings of a lot of indie subgenres, I’m sure there are more out there.

Here’s at least what I can tell you.

Fleet Foxes is a Seattle band that landed pretty big in 2008 with its self-titled debut. Their music straddles between indie rock and folk music, but there is a subtle VGM influence, especially in their first album, especially in the track “Quiet Houses.” “Ragged Wood” is really good and that title alone makes me think of Final Fantasy Tactics, but “Quiet Houses” is maybe the best embodiment of what frontman Robin Pecknold told Rolling Stone in 2008: that Final Fantasy was as big of an influence as Simon & Garfunkel: “Those Japanese games had these dense and mysterious soundscapes. A song would just loop the whole time you were in an elf village or whatever. It was catchy and mysterious — that sounds like good music to me.”

Have a listen to “Quiet Houses,” which maybe by virtue of name alone makes me think of breaking into happy villager houses in the original, NES Final Fantasy and just opening all their treasure chests and taking their stuff.

You hear it, right? And even if you don’t, doesn’t this track put you in a good mood?

Then there’s also Boom Bip. I know, I know. That name. Indie rock had a tendency toward the twee, and I cannot excuse it all these years later. I initially saw Boom Bip back at the 2005 Coachella. It’s a he rather than a they, and the biggest single is probably “Do’s and Don’ts.” The previous album, however, had this track “Roads Must Roll.” Given the topic at hand, it’s pretty interesting. Apparently a lot of non-VGM, non-indie rock people first encountered it through NPR, which featured it in a segment in 2006. The gamers who were listening might have felt nostalgia when they heard it. The part that is relevant begins at about twenty seconds in.

Did you hear it? Did you get the video game reference? While you ponder it, I’ll say that it sounds a great deal like one of my favorite NES-era NIntendo compositions ever. I used it back in Episode 25, which was my wordless space opera episode. Here’s what all available logic would tell us is the source material.

It’s the title theme from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, though specifically the Famicom Disk System version, because it sounds just a little bit better than the NES version we got in Americas. This is actually one of my favorite compositions from the NES era, and I think the overall soundtrack is pretty solid, considering it was composed by Akito Nakatsuka and not Koji Kondo. However, the Boom Bip song isn’t just a reworking of the original VGM melody but what I’m pretty sure is a sample from the final track of Ocarina of Time: Hyrule Symphony, which is a medley of a bunch of Zelda songs not limited to just Ocarina of Time. I say I’m pretty sure about this because there’s nothing official anywhere that I can find that says that the artist is sampling this track. He should say it, based on all the conversations I’ve had with people who work in this sector of the music industry, but for some reason it’s not in the liner notes and it’s not in the ASCAP directory. Bryan Charles Hollon, Mr. Boom Bip himself, is the only person listed as a writer.

If Boom Bip isn’t sampling Hyrule symphony, I’m thinking this would have to be an astounding coincidence, because there are points where the two are so similar as to be nearly identical. I should point out again that I’m not saying this to go after Bryan Hollon or say that anybody has done anything wrong. I actually love “Roads Must Roll.” I think it’s very beautiful, and the fact that it has roots in a video game that I’ve always thought could use a little extra love actually makes me like it more.

I guess it’s worth pointing out that this album was released on the Lex Records label, and Lex Records did have a hand in Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which is a very famous instance of a music copyright battle, since that project used EMI-owned Beatles music without permission. But if you’ve listened to the previous three installments of this series, you’ll know that this Boom Bip song is far from the only instance of pop music using VGM and not publicly acknowledging it. There might be a great reason why. I don’t know what it is, but if you do, please tell me.

That’s it for this episode. As I said before, there are probably other examples of music in this genre or thereabouts using or being inspired by video game music. If you can think if any, please tell me.

If you’ve never played Super Mario Land: Six Golden Coins, you’re missing out. It’s a great Mario game that hasn’t had the second life on other systems that many Mario titles have gotten. But maybe you heard about that remake of Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Switch? It looks really cool — and like a cool way to revisit an old Game Boy game. I’m hoping Six Golden Coins gets that treatment too.

If you haven’t already been to Coachella… don’t go. That’s it. Just Coachella in general seems like a horror show, but understand that I’m saying that as a 36-year-old who likes to stay home and make podcasts.

I talked about The Arcade Fire earlier, and because I probably won’t have another opportunity to share this information, I’m going to tell you that brothers Win and William Butler, both in the band, are actually rock music legacies. Their grandfather Alvino Rey was a guitar pioneer who once performed with a terrifying rock-n-roll guitar puppet.

I wrote about it on my old blog years ago, and I insist that you see this thing to see how terrifying it is. I’m linking to it in the show notes.

Also, I once did a video project using the Arcade Fire’s song “Reflektor” and the two different versions of Psycho — the Janet Leigh version and the Anne Heche version — and it’s one of those rare attempts at art that you finish and you’re like, “Oh that actually didn’t suck.” So yes, I’m trying to make you look at my dumb art video.

If you have any questions, comments or criticisms about Singing Mountain, the easiest way to reach me is on Twitter, either at @drewgmackie or at @singmopod. You can also follow Singing Mountain on Facebook — just search Singing Mountain and then click on the one that is not a bakery — and, if you like pixel art, on Instagram as well.

Please subscribe, and if you like the show, give me a rate and review, because those are helpful for the reasons you hear on every podcast ever.

This show was written, produced and edited by me, Drew Mackie. The cover art for this series of episodes examining VGM and pop music was designed by Jude Buffum, a pixel artist whose work I really dig. You should check his stuff out at his website.

Special thanks to Amy Smith is the person who cleans up this text after it goes on the website — also so I look less stupid. If you’re in need of a copy editor, hit her up on Twitter.

 Singing Mountain is a TableCakes podcast. TableCakes is a Los Angeles-based podcast network that features some really cool shows, including two others that I host. Check them all out at tablecakes.com. If you want to support Singing Mountain or any of the other shows on the TableCakes network, do so at patreon.com/tablecakes.

In a first for singing mountain, I’m ending this episode not with a VGM track but with something by a real, live band. It’s “Thank You, Mario, But Our Princess Is in Another Castle,” by the Mountain Goats and Kaki King. Of all things, this song is a first-person narration of what it would be like to be one of the Mushroom Retainers in the original Super Mario Bros., held captive in a fiery dungeon and awaiting rescue. It’s… actually kind of moving, and again it’s amazing what depth an artist can lend to video game culture. It’s also probably the only instance of mainstream(ish) pop to make reference to Magikoopas. So there’s that.

Drew Mackie