I’ve been a Xoc fan ever since SMW (Super Mario World). That album rocked my world like the Tunguska blast, and my musical tastes haven’t quite been the same since. Seriously, as far as major musical influences go, Xoc is right up there with Joe Strummer to me. So, with the power of the interwebs I wanted to find out a little more about the man who created such great tracks. Xoc, or known mortally as Jason Cox, consented to my inquisition, and here we are, so let’s get into it!
Jason: I am extremely flattered, thanks so much!
SMW (Super Mario World) was your first album that I found and the attention to detail just blew me away. All of the little moments from the game were lovingly recreated or even emphasized. I’d heard a few other bands that were doing covers of Nintendo songs at the time, but they were mostly just trying to do a ‘punk’ version, which ultimately just sounded like shit. SMW felt like a love letter to my own childhood, and for the first time made me realize that these games really had created a kind of hive-mind effect on a large portion of our generation. Why did you decide to record SMW, specifically why this game, what did (does) it mean to you, or was it a random choice? Describe some of the lengths you went through in the recording process? About how many different instruments/layers went into the tracks? How did you plan out your versions, or did they spring from improvisation?
Jason: I started learning videogame music sometime in 2000, maybe 2001 – it all started with learning about emulators. The first one I ever used was NESTER, and the ability to single out the separate audio channels was the key, just because I’d never been much good at figuring things out by ear. I could pick out the main melody, but the concept of harmonies had always eluded me. So NESTER opened up a whole universe of possibilities for me.
When I started using an SNES emulator and listening to even MORE bits of songs, I was amazed at how much went into those songs, especially harmonies and countermelodies that I never would’ve noticed before. The very first Xoc song was Lower Maridia from Super Metroid. That’s also how I got stuck with the name Xoc, actually – the first place I posted it was on the metroid2002.com forum, where my user name was just Cox backwards.
By then I had figured out the other system emulators and was finally able to do music from Sega, Game Boy, and with MAME, arcade games. This was the point where I started going berserk, covering everything I could think of. I tried to form a band, but very few people would take it seriously; or at least serious enough to learn the sometimes difficult parts.
Which brings us to SMW, which was my first full album. I was originally planning on doing a variety of games, in medley form, for the albums. But after reacquainting myself with Super Mario World, there were more and more tracks from it that I wanted to include, so I eventually decided I would do it all.
By the time of SMW I was living in Noah Nelson’s house, and so had an entire room to myself; not to mention access to all of the instruments of the bands I was in. (SMW might not have turned out as good without banjo or melodica!) I was so excited by FINALLY being able to play this stuff – I wasn’t good enough to figure it out when I was a kid – that I really threw myself into it. I confined myself to “Optical Pies Recorders” (my room) for many hours… and after a really long time, when your mind gets a little screwy, things like using the fridge as a bass drum or recording a 20-voice Muppet-style choir seem perfectly reasonable. And, of course, “asscheeks”, which is the penultimate entry on the list of “instruments.” I swear, that was probably the most-asked question: “…you played ‘ASSCHEEKS’?” Yes, I did. For songs requiring handclaps, I set up a microphone pointed at my ass and slapped it with both hands. My reasoning, during what was likely one of those fevered, work-exhausted mental states, was that I was doubling my output; I was getting two handclaps for the price of one. For the price of one red ass, I guess.
The first time I heard ghosthouse, I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be great if he took the secret exit, and holy shit you did! It was one of the first times I remember just throwing up my hands and going FUCK YEAH at a song. Sorry if I keep gushing over this album, but you know when you hear a cover version of like a Creedence track, it’s simple and straightforward on a technical standpoint, but it always sounds off, like it’s from an alternate dimension, none of these songs ever felt like that, they just worked, and they worked oh so well. What were some of the things that you were attached to and went out of your way to preserve in SMW? Was there a song that stood out to you as a favorite, or one that you thought THIS is it, this is the one?
Jason: Ghost House was something I wasn’t sure was going to work. It seemed like it was, I dunno, too similar to the SNES version. But the secret exit was absolutely – pardon me – the “way out” of that song. It’s like a punchline; the main figure repeats just a little too long just before it hits.
A big part of it for me was drawing attention to the harmonies and other “buried” parts of the music; sort of flipping the standard focus, so that the most recognizable parts are more in the background, and the supporting parts up front. Because those parts are always there, but they’re sometimes harder to pick out and whistle, y’know?
The entire ending of the album is completely amazing. Castle Medley, perfectly lays out a soundscape for the epic, no holds barred vision of Bowsers castles that I had in my head as a kid, and throwing in the end level medley too just was icing on the cake. Valley of Bowser Medley captures the frenetic energy rush that you got while trying to clear the boss of any of the castles, but specifically the epic final fight, and Vacation just nails the sense of relief, much deserved after the fight. I’m not afraid to admit, that under the right conditions, End Credits still makes this ‘grown’ man tear up. Damnit man, why’d you cover it so well?! Part of it is that wonderful accordion, then the sound of all the Yoshi eggs hatching, the constant build up and chorus line ending, it’s all there. How was the reaction to SMW from your friends and family once it was finished? What kind of response did you get from the internet at the time? Did you feel that you got everything you wanted out of SMW, or was there any kind of reservations or things you wanted to do better?
Jason: My favorite part is the ending, for sure – when it speeds up towards the end. That was a specific attempt to invoke the Mr. Bungle album Disco Volante (kind of a mashup, stylistically, of “Merry Go Bye Bye” and “Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz“). One of the best reactions I’ve heard about that particular track was an angry one: something along the lines of, “that song is so good, but it never resolves at the end? Why did you cut the last two notes off???” I have to admit, that was on purpose (haha). I wanted it to ALMOST make it to the end, but at the last second the “death jingle” interrupts it. But I think the Game Over piece does the job of ending everything on an “up” note, pretty much.
My family has always supported everything I do, creatively, So I’ve been very lucky. Back in high school, my parents allowed my band to practice, at full volume, INSIDE a bedroom in our little 3 bedroom suburban home. We were very loud, very obnoxious, and some things we did really stretched the definition of “musical” to the breaking point – noise saxophone battles, circus metal, funk versions of Paganini’s 5th Caprice, etc. – but my folks let it happen, and I’ll be eternally grateful for that freedom.
But the response from the internet has been something else entirely. I remember getting positive reactions from the first stuff I did (except for an ill-advised Eninem/Metroid mashup I thought was funny, but nevermind). But once I put SMW on Archive.org, it just exploded. I would check the number of downloads every day, and it just kept GROWING. I had never been a part of anything that popular. It was strange. But also extremely gratifying, and encouraging, and convinced me to continue – ASAFP.
What’s Pink and Sucks? This one was very different for me since I did not have any real experience with Kirby growing up. I knew of the weird little pink mouth breather, but I’d never played one of his games for more than 5 minutes at a friend’s house. So, when this one came out, first off, I loved it, second it drove me to find recordings to compare your version with, and then of course, to track down a copy of the game to enjoy properly. Starting off with the telephone always seemed like genius to me, don’t know why, it just fit the sound and tone for the rest of the album so well. This album has been in constant rotation at work for years since it’s so cheery and upbeat, it’s the perfect thing to keep you from gouging out your eyeballs during the daily grind. Vegetable Valley 1 and Ice Cream Island 1 just sound like marshmallow pop, in the best way. I have to admit, every other time I hear Butter Building stage select, the chanting in the background, I’d think ‘Hook! Hook! Give’m the Hook!’ from Hook, but that may be because I have my own deep seeded issues. Holy shit is Grape Garden stage select a great track, you almost feel like you are floating through space. Forest Theme sets the pace like a sack of cement, gradually layering in the rest of the elements for a terrifically solid one minute and fifty seven second jam with an appropriate breakdown at the end. Orange Ocean 2 seriously is a Parisian trip, you can smell the croissants and shit. What made you choose Kirby as the focus of an entire album? Anything you want to share from recording/releasing this one?
Jason: I didn’t play Kirby when I was a kid either! It just never appeared on my radar. It wasn’t until the emulator age that I was able to enjoy it (and probably a hundred other games I never had the money for back then). I really made up for lost time, game-wise.
There’s a quote – I can’t remember by who – that describes hearing Steely Dan for the first time as, “like hearing the Beatles with jazz chords.” And that’s how I felt hearing Kirby for the first time: Super Mario and other early Nintendo music was simple, elegant, and catchy as hell. But the Kirby music, while still catchy, is so much more intricate and elaborately crafted. Every second is so full of music. Unfortunately, I found this out when learning to play it; particularly the bass parts. So quite a lot of it was recorded at half-speed. I know a lot of artists might not admit to studio trickery like that, but it’s never bothered me. Mainly because I’ve never claimed to be an astonishing player – I couldn’t get up on a stage right now start shredding through metal versions of Final Fantasy or anything. My goal is to create studio recordings of game covers that sound interesting. Accuracy is a close second to that, haha. And anyway, I really like the way pitch-effected music sounds; the timbre of double-speed guitars is such a unique sound. I’d point to Ween and, of course, Frank Zappa as influencing me there.
I really don’t know why the “telephone intro” seemed like a good idea. Because the melody is very simple, and it’s the first thing you hear when you turn the game on, I probably thought that was one way to make it more interesting. I did discover that the lowest note is not available as a touch tone, so that’s why I “played” it with a quick click over to a dial tone in the same key.
The chanting in Butter Building stage select is, alas, pure gibberish. If I had to transcribe it, I’d maybe say WOO HAH HUGGIDDI HO or something. 🙂
Emulator, holy shit, again with your interpretations of not only the game music, but of the other bands that you are cross-breeding them with. Zelda 2 (Beach Boys) blew my mind, and Sonic the Hedgehog – Marble Zone (The Ventures) fits just perfectly!
Jason: Thanks! The whole thing started with Zelda II, I think; it was entered in a Dwelling of Duels competition. I had also done a Melvins-style cover of Kung Fu (NES), and it sort of snowballed from there. Matching VG music to other artists became a short-lived pastime. I have something like 100 more combinations I want to do. Let’s see… Butthole Surfers doing the title screen from Madden ’93; Fishbone does Mario Party; Sunn0))) does Rygar; Hank Williams Sr. doing Bubble Bobble (I’m not sure what I was thinking with that one, but I’m sure it made sense at the time).
The Beginning of the End is such an epic themed experiment, “100 Songs from 80 games from 10 systems.” Where did the idea for this project come from? How hard was it to choose which bits to use, or was it more difficult to find material you wanted to work with? Were you already familiar with all of these games or did you have to go out of your way to find more material? My son LOVES this album, despite only knowing a very small selection of games presented. He specifically loves the medley version where it all plays as one rapid fire track full of seemingly random bits of awesome, so he wanted me to pass along his compliments to you. What is it about short, almost Wario Ware-like micro songs that you seem to enjoy so much? Your use of them throughout the XOC albums really influenced me in my mix making, showing how useful a short kind of pallet cleanser can be. On top of that, it really makes those tracks more endearing because they don’t go on for 3-4 minutes too long.
Jason: I think Beginning of the End came from a few different directions. First of all was my love of … I guess it’s called blipcore? 3-second hardcore/grindcore songs? Like the pre-S.O.D. cassette “Crab Society North” was one of the earliest. I’m a John Zorn fanatic, and Naked City’s “Torture Garden” has always been in my top 5 albums of all time.
The other factor was (and is) that other VG artists rarely cover the brief fanfares and jingles. Sometimes as an intro/outro, but almost never as a standalone track, on its own merit. So that was a part of it too, just wanting to “fill in” the list of musical pieces that have been covered in the VGM community.
There weren’t a whole lot of games represented that I wasn’t already familiar with; Donkey Kong Country was one I didn’t know, and Military Madness was suggested to me by a friend. I was really happy to do all of the music from arcade games.
If You Don’t Listen To My Music I’ll Kill This Dog, this one has some brilliant arrangements. The Metroid tracks on here are all phenomenal. Lower Maridia is so damn creepy, as it should be, and it just keeps building, and getting better. Phendrana Drifts gave you some room to be more atmospheric and spacey, like some dark, unused, Doctor Who themes. Kraid (country version), hell, yes. Almost without exception, everyone I’ve played this for has fallen in love with this version. Holy shit, what drove you to cut this version, tell me, I must know the story/inspiration behind this track.
Jason: After the first 5 years of doing Xoc, I was honestly surprised at how much material I’d collected. Most of the
tunes in the “Earlier Years” section were simply posted on my website, or perhaps MySpace, directly after completing them; I wasn’t thinking in terms of “albums” then. The country version of Kraid’s Lair… well, that really only happened because I was unsatisfied with my own “straight” cover. I could never quite get it to sound right, and my playing just wasn’t up to Minibosses or Advantage standards. So this might have been the point where I thought, okay, lots of others can do just straight covers with distorted guitars a lot better than I can, so I’ll do a totally different style – that would at least stand out. I also happened to have a banjo handy.
Metroid doesn’t steal all the spotlight here, Adventure Island’s Overworld #1 is probably the funest track on the album, and that Misc. Mario Medley that just swaggers in like some dark magic, bell bottom wearing mother fucker. Finally, Sonic the Hedgehog – Green Hill Zone, sigh, I cannot tell you how many times that song has made my day. That seriously is one of the most chill video game related tracks ever. The whole arrangement is spot on as a cover, and again, adds so much depth and character to the track that it becomes a whole new meal to enjoy. Do you have any favorites from this release, or any other production related anecdotes about it?
Jason: Sonic Green Hill Zone was one of the earliest covers, maybe directly after Super Metroid’s Lower Maridia. It might be my favorite from the early years (although the Donkey Kong Jr. Medley is much closer to my childhood nostalgia). Besides not playing as much Sega growing up as Nintendo, at the time it was much harder for me to figure out the music from Sega Genesis games – simply because I didn’t know of an emulator that could isolate the various melodies. So now I have to admit to relying on fan-made MIDI covers to pick apart the music. I wish I had kept track of who made those.
Let’s change gears a bit. You’ve been particularly prolific over the years with your own video game related solo projects as well as a lot collaborative albums and even a few groups you were a supporting member of. In no particular order; XOC, Recreational Episiotomy, The Buttfuxtables, Hemostat, Heavy Friends, The Soundry Courter Project, Theophagus, Las Pesadillas, and I’m sure I’m missing some too.
Jason: I’ve played drums for Las Pesadillas since 1995 or 96. There have been some hiatuses and lineup
changes over the years, but the core group is still together: Noah Nelson (guitar, vocals), Glenn Newport (bass), Damian Sol (violin, keyboards) and me on drums. The four of us have been part of many other projects
along the way; one that’s still together is Radio Orangevale, which is Noah, Glenn, Kevin Coughlin (an outstanding drummer, from Sacramento’s best surf band Hypnotic IV), and me on guitar. I also played guitar for the punk-metal-sex-grind performance spectacle KnifeThruHead for 10 years; KnifeThruHead grew out of Old Man Homo (with me, Damian and Noah), etc. etc. I could go on and on – a diagram of all the bands and bandmates I’m connected with (and all the bands THEY’RE connected with) would be overwhelming.
For my solo projects, I’ve always found it easier to get stuff done when I’m working within specific parameters, or within a “box.” Xoc is videogame covers; Recreational Episiotomy is a mix of jokey grind (but with disconcerting lyrics) and jump-cut weirdness in a sort of Naked City vein; Hemostat is a mix of dark ambient and harsh noise. There’s a specific goal, and the limitations are what defines the method. (If that makes any sense.)
You are in process of re-releasing the Theophagus recordings, which you started when you were about 16. What drove you to start recording these tracks? Did you come from any kind of music background or family?
Jason: In the beginning, Theophagus* was just about me learning about music and recording simultaneously, by experimenting. All that stuff I was saying about working within parameters? The big exception has been Theophagus, because it’s really just me without any filters. It’s the only project with traditional “songs”, that’s for sure. At the time, my main songwriting influences were the Pixies/Frank Black, Steely Dan, They Might Be Giants, and probably Beck.
My mom taught me piano, and later got me started on guitar. But my main instrument has always been drums – my uncle, a real multi-instrumentalist, helped my folks get me a real drum set, and I took lessons for years. As I say, my family has always been completely supportive!
* “Theophagus”, the name, was something I thought I created; I took what I thought was the prefix for “god”, and the suffix for “eater”, and decided that it meant “GOD EATER.” (It was years later that I found out that “Theophagy” was a real thing, with the Eucharist, etc.) Originally it was a joke name for a metal band. Y’know, like, how far can you go with violence, size-wise? “Megadeth” is just killing a bunch of humans, and something like PLANET KILLER – well, shit, there are LOTS of planets. How about something so big and so evil that it eats GODS? I think the furthest you could go would be, I dunno, how about “EXISTENCE PUNCHER”?
You can hear a lot of things that would go on to be staples of your later works, such as the use of many improvised instruments, extensive voice sampling, and other forms of distortion. Some of the stand outs to me, from the collection I had when you first released some of them years ago are Coffin Conga (remake), Elephantine, Friscoids, Gwambesque, Motel Window, Oasis=Mirage, Ping Pong, Rigor Mortis Song, The Cold Shoulder, and World War Zero. Theophagus covers such a WIDE array of emotions more than anything else. How do these tracks feel, and what do they mean to you now after all these years?
Jason: I’m a much better singer than I was then, and I’m STILL horrible at it. And I never could get the hang of tuning guitars. So for at least those two reasons, a lot of it is hard to listen to. But even at the time, I was thinking of most of it as being “demos” – a way to try out ideas and get them recorded, and hopefully re-record the best of it all later in a proper studio. That thought never really went away – ONE of these days, I can do these songs the right way!
The Soundry Courter Project was your way of keeping sanity at your day job. Did anyone ever realize what you were doing, or care? How were you getting the music to and from the work computer, stacks of CDs, zip disks, work computers aren’t known for having large hard drives.
Jason: Wow, that’s amazing you ask that – I’d forgotten how I did do that stuff. Because that project started in around 2000, and a thumb drive larger than 500 MB was probably a science fiction fantasy back then. Everything done in Windows Sound Recorder was done as WAV files, which are notoriously large. I had a few methods to get those files home: one was to bring in a portable MiniDisc recorder, plug it into the headphone jack, and record the finished songs in real time. This worked okay, except for the EQ sounding a bit bass-heavy. A better method was to split the song into a bunch of fragments and e-mail each one somewhere. My work e-mail would only send attachments smaller than 3 MB, so a 2-minute song would require around 7 or 8 e-mails. But believe it or not, the best method I found was to use AOL Instant Messenger. I would sign on at home, go to work, sign on as my “work self”, and transfer files. It took forever, but… I was at work, so I had other stuff to do. (hahaha)
No one has yet found out about what I did – I don’t think they’d understand even if I told them.
XOC & Heavy Friends actually introduced me to Stemage, and then Metroid Metal, so many thanks for that. That series was interesting to me because of the collaboration between all of these distant people, you didn’t see a whole lot of that back then. How did the first one come about and what was the experience like working with all these different artists remotely like?
Jason: I had tried something similar on the metroid2002.com forum (I solicited musicians to record themselves playing a portion of a specific Metroid tune, that I would then add into a single mix; it was never really finished), but I didn’t think of it again until joining THE SHIZZ. (Theshizz.org is a forum dedicated to the Minibosses, and has since grown into a substantial hub of the VGM online community.) So one day I just asked the forum if they would mind sending me… “something.” It had to be an original recording, and it had to be unaccompanied (a solo instrument, voice, or any other sound). The first volume (actually an EP) had a handful of participants, so I filled in quite a bit in terms of arrangements. But as the project grew, there are plenty of songs where I don’t play at all – I only wrangle and mix everyone together. I think the big appeal to Heavy Friends is that anyone who has contributed hears the albums differently; hopefully I’ve been able to surprise people with HOW I used their sounds.
I only just recently discovered Las Pesadillas, and was eternally grateful their catalogue is on Bandcamp. This lovely band is described as ‘punk-gypsy-spaghetti-surf-rock’, and that is an entertainingly appropriate description. You play drums, additional percussion, misc. instruments and provide backing vocals. How did you get involved with the band, did you know the other people, or was it the style, or both? How involved were you in the songwriting process?
Jason: I joined the original founding members Noah Nelson and Steve Sullivan to form a trio, first called Teenage Superstars, and then Ed Special and the Nightmares. It was originally going to be a one-off thing: they had a gig coming up, they were without a drummer, and so I would learn the songs, play the show, and that’d be it. Well, y’know, that was twenty years and three bassists ago, and we’re still together. The majority of songs are Noah’s; he is an incredibly talented and prolific singer-songwriter in his own right, so that has mostly informed the style of the music. As time goes on, and with various line-up changes, it has become more of a democracy. …Though there is one Theophagus song that we still play exactly as I wrote it – “Desert Flower”, a song about the movie Raising Arizona.
Looking forward, what do you have lined up? More collaborative albums, playing with local bands, or is there some new solo material on the horizon? It’s obvious that music has meant a lot to you throughout the years, and has been a natural outlet for expression and creative freedom. Is there anything you’d like to say or add?
Jason: Trash Can Eagle Records, my new Bandcamp label, is my new favorite hobby. It’s an easy way to share all of my music with the world – for someone who grew up writing song lyrics on a state-of-the-art Apple IIc, it’s practically a dream come true.
There are two long-overdue Xoc albums in the works – one is a collaboration with Damian Sol – and Las Pesadillas and Radio Orangevale are both playing shows, writing new songs, planning new albums; I have thousands of ideas for Xoc and all my other projects, but I’m also supporting my bandmates in their own solo projects as well. (Just wait until you hear Noah Nelson’s new solo record…)
I’m as excited as I have ever been to play music. I’m lucky enough to play and create with my best friends, and I don’t think we’re going to stop any time soon. And I’m just as lucky to have my own projects on my own time. And you KNOW I’m not going to stop.
Big thanks go to Jason for agreeing, and providing some of these great pictures from over the years
(I’m looking at you Kraid the Kid)
All of Jason’s albums we talked about and much, much more can be found at his TrashCanEagle page below.