Stemage Interview: MAGfriends and MAGculture
Grant “Stemage” Henry has made a name for himself through a blend of original music and creative covers. His band Metroid Metal has performed at game music venues internationally, from PAX East to Vconcert in Mexico City. On his own, Henry writes music and performs as “Stemage,” earning himself a name as not only a cover artist, but a composer. His most recent album “Narrowband” was released in March, and is a testament to his ability outside of game music.
In this interview, Grant speaks about his work on Chronicles of Time, a Chrono cover album that was released earlier this year by Nate Horsfall, and his work with Metroid Metal that has brought him to perform regularly at live venues. We are joined during the interview by Elliot Wernlund from Eight Bit Disaster, who also performed at MAGfest this year, for a lively discussion on arrangements, live performances, and MAGfest atmospheres.
Interview Subjects: Stemage, Elliot Wernlund
Interviewer: Emily McMillan
Editor: Emily McMillan
Coordination: Emily McMillan, Chris Greening
Emily: How did you get involved with the Chronicles of Time album?
Grant Henry: The album was created by Nate Horsfall (FoxxDragon) who previously did Spectrum of Mana, which is a giant Secret of Mana collective project; I have known Nate for years, and we actually got in touch through MAGfest. He started doing artwork for every song release for Metroid Metal – he would draw banners – so we just kept doing work together.
Eventually, he got to the point where he was doing artwork for so many musicians, and he got to know so many people, so he started seeing who would be aboard for a big project like this. It’s a huge three-disc project, it went well, and then he knew that it was time for the big boy. This was a huge undertaking, so I have been working with him for a long time – I made myself available to play guitar or mix, or do a song by myself, and then I helped master two other discs as well, so we’ve always done stuff together.
Emily: So on those albums, you are just credited on your own, not with your band.
Grant Henry: Yes, it’s just me. The members of Metroid Metal have sort of a side band called Yes, Mayhem, and we call ourselves that when we are not playing the Metroid Metal stuff, although it is kind of the same crew. It is a little confusing sometimes for us too!
Emily: When did you find out that you were playing at MAGfest?
Grant Henry: We learned that this was going to be the Metroid theme year and we have not played for years. I played the last two but it was with other bands, but when we learned it was Metroid we were like, “It’s been three years since we played and we should apply to do it! We have to, right?” so we did it and we got it!
Emily: How did you decide on your setlist?
Grant Henry: We have a lot of songs – several records’ worth. It was hard to decide whether to play a lot of the more obscure songs or the ones that are more familiar to everybody, and we realized even though it’s only been three years, MAGfest is twice as big this year as it was three years ago, lots of new faces. So we try to combine that, we play songs that are the Metroid anthems because we have to.
Emily: How do you get about to writing and arranging?
Grant Henry: It is interesting when you are writing a song or recording a song because of the nature of technology now. You can layer it as you go, and you don’t always write a song with the intention of it being split between three guitars exactly, so you kind of end up with strange sound effects or stuff that you don’t have the pedals for. You have to think through that kind of stuff, so we really want to do it.
I have done a combination of what I might call straight covers recently and the ones that were really strange arrangements, because both are fun to me. I love hearing people inject their songwriting into an arrangement. Some people just want to hear a rock or an orchestral work version of the more straightforward “vanilla” version. For me, I memorize it until I can’t stand it anymore. [laughs] And then sometimes it starts with just playing the ideas, sometimes it starts with an open session in Reaper, that’s what I use…
Emily: [laughs] I use Reaper too! Really fun program.
Grant Henry: It’s really cool, and sometimes I’ll just drop a track in there, the original, just to start learning parts and then come up with ideas and start chopping – it’s like playing along with the original, and then reorganizing pieces, sometimes it’s more in my head, sometimes it’s more on paper….
Emily: Is there a difference when you work with more modern soundtracks? Sometimes I think it’d be much harder, since older soundtracks are often more bare, which seems like it would give you more to work with.
Grant Henry: The instruments are already up to date, you know so that’s what why you want to change the genres or give it your own spin. We’ve done here a lot of stuff that’s is considered VGA standard – Leisure Suit Larry, a time travel medley, let’s just do silly stuff and never get to the stuff we need to do….
Emily: I saw some post floating around about a list of VGM tracks that everybody needs to have memorized before coming here.
Grant Henry: It’s true, I mean it changes a little every year, but there are certain games that you’re definitely going to hear. Zelda probably a little on almost every set unless that thing is a game specific concert, but there are standards and there are songs that you just don’t hear anymore. I find it interesting that in the time I’ve come to MAGfest, maybe once or twice I have heard someone do World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. It’s the most widely known mainstream VGM song by anyone, so I wonder why no one does it. Maybe it’s because everyone does know it and that’s a boring theme – I don’t know.
I actually have this idea – the one that I would like to do, play one of the Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 backwards. It sounds amazing, literally you take the media and you flip it backwards, add a drum to it and figure out the beat, it sounds amazing and it’s just as catchy as the original but it’s completely different.
Even Nintendo does that already for Skyward Sword, they take all these lullabies and reverse them; that’s the main thing for Skyward Sword. It’s the easy way to come with a theme song; like “here is a familiar melody, just flip it.”
Emily: It would be great to listen to! Taking melodies people all know very well and making them different and unusual with time signatures, keys, and so on.
Grant Henry: I don’t know if it is something that people would want to hear, but really the most fun you have is within the making of it. I mean, I wouldn’t reverse “Mario 1-1” because people want to hear it. I want to do it I want to do it for me. That’s one of the best things that happens in there, you can cover something because it’s trendy or you can cover something because you think it is kickass. It’s so easy to get – oh my goodness! It’s Eight Bit Disaster!
Elliot Wernlund [sits down]: Special guest!
Grant Henry: How’s it going, man? You’re all here already, aren’t you? My band’s not even here yet.
Elliot Wernlund: Well, that doesn’t surprise me, as you guys are spread across the country! [laughs]
Grant Henry: We’ll all get here! Anyways, we were talking about our love of screwing up VGM covers on purpose – completely rearranging them the way they need to be, right?
Elliot Wernlund: Well, I think that’s two separate conversations though, because as a musician, screwing up on purpose is one of my favorite things to do! [laughs] “I totally meant to do that!” But it is interesting that you put that flavor on how you arrange them too, you don’t mean like screwing up the arrangement – you just mean taking the song and twisting it from something that was never intended to be, which of course we love to do.
Emily: You too!
Elliot Wernlund: One of our songs is Tetris, which we’re going to be playing here, but it’s a pretty cool mashup. Lately we haven’t been shifting genres too much, but we’ve been doing a lot of smooth funk so you and Adam know Doctor Mario is one of the staple Eight Bit songs for heavy rock but Matt Murphy is talking about arranging and has a smoother touch on it. Tetris is a mashup the Tetris theme – the Russian folk song Korobeiniki – and then we are going with Russian composers so, Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”….
Grant Henry: That’s awesome! [hums the song]
Emily: That’s a great twist from the usual A, B, and C themes.
Elliot Wernlund: Yes, you are probably thinking of the licensed Nintendo cartridge. The Tengen one actually has the Sugar Plum Fairy theme featured on it –
Grant Henry and Elliot Wernund: [both humming theme]
Grant Henry: Yes, that’s definitely on the Gameboy, too.
Elliot Wernlund: Yeah I thought it was on the Gameboy one, so we’ll be playing that one too, just for the hell of it…
Emily: So that’s the arrangement we’re going to be hearing tomorrow?
Elliot Wernlund: Of Tetris, yeah, that’s the arrangement we’ll be playing. It’s going to be so cool, man.
Grant Henry: It’s going to be great!
Emily: How many years have you guys played at MAGfest?
Elliot Wernlund: I’m a newbie, two years ago was our first performance. We played at the second stage and since then we’ve been involved in all of MAG activities, the game overshows, and that was the first time I met Grant Henry! [laughs]
Grant Henry: Yeah it was one of my favorite game shows ever!
Elliot Wernlund: Oh dude, that was a blast.
Grant Henry: It was a lot of fun.
Emily: It’s like this every year – running into people?
Grant Henry: Here is the best way to put it: if you want to walk up from the lobby to your hotel room, you think it’s going to take three minutes, but it takes about three hours because of everyone you keep running into, deciding to jam together, catching up with….
Emily: It’s also awesome to see so much crossover between bands and artists – everyone knows each other! I just came from chatting with Alexander Brandon, who you were on Chronicles of Time with.
Grant Henry: Yes, you would have heard the tracks I played on that. Yeah, Alexander Brandon is a big name in the industry and has been for a long time. This guy is hands-on with the VGM stuff, and everyone becomes a peer when you are all working on a project together and you got composers here with independent artists and musicians.
All the crossover you said – that is exactly what is happening in VGM. It’s so weird; I wouldn’t have thought that we got to a time where we get composers playing with their fans, collaborating and doing all that stuff. The groups like that, specially the network guild, definitely help with that happening, Alexander Brandon is a great guy that can pull that kind of stuff. It’s surreal! But it’s fantastic, it’s great.
Elliot Wernlund: It is kind of surreal because – well, I don’t know about Grant – but I’ve played in local bands and made original music, and done all that stuff for 15-20 years, and I’ve found that a lot of local original music is very cliquish. The punk kids only like the punk kids, they don’t like the hard rock screamo kids, and then hip hop rappers – and there is this disconnect of genres when really should all just appreciate each other’s music. That’s what astounded me at MAGfest – it really doesn’t matter what you do. The World is Square is a folk band, Metroid Metal is a metal Metroid band…and then you’ve got the Super Soul Brothers, Triforce Quartet, all across the music spectrum.
Emily: I know you both have places you need to be, but is there anything else you would like to say to your fans on our site?
Elliot Wernlund: As a musician, it’s one of the most rewarding things to see a fanbase that is agnostic to its genre. It it seems less about making a clique than it is about the music. Its more about your interests, Magic cards, games, and whatnot, and it’s just really cool to see the collaboration and appreciation from the fans to the volunteers here at MAGfest, to the musicians and to people who make it all work. It has been an eye opening experience to me stepping into this world, because I’ve been in it for 10,15 years.
Grant Henry: This has been going on for such a long time but it is still growing, and it seems to be growing even more, so I just want to say thanks to anyone that had given Metroid Metal the energy to keep going and keep playing, thanks for the continuing interest and thanks for the interest in my original stuff too, because that’s something I’ve had a lot of people discover – my own original music through digging stuff and that’s the kind of stuff that keeps us all creative and going on, thanks for the time…love VGMO!
Posted on June 22, 2016 by Emily McMillan. Last modified on June 25, 2016.