‘Brentalfloss’ Discusses His Music, Beethoven and The Genius of the Mega Man III Theme [Interview]
It might look easy to do what comic musician, composer and video game lyricist Brent Black does for his fans by adding lyrics to instrumental video game songs and soundtracks. He just makes it look easy.
Black has more than just a fond memory of video games and the soundtracks that accompany every life the player saves and loses. He also understands music’s mechanics the way a mechanic knows what makes a car start and stop whether the song comes from a hit Broadway musical or a NES cartridge on a used video game store shelf.
“I started writing music around 12,” Black said from his home in New York. “I wrote instrumental scores for school plays and random projects through high school and towards the end of high school, I wrote my first musical and that was a whole new thing. That’s when it sunk in. I was like, OK, this is what I want to do.”
For the last three-and-a-half plus years, the shiny headed performer better known as Brentalfloss has taken some of the most memorable instrumental video game themes and pondered the question that has become the mission statement of his adult career: “What if (insert video game title here) had lyrics?”
Thanks to a steady stream of viewers and fans and partnerships with sites like Screwattack, he also performs at conferences, conventions and clubs and wrote enough songs for a full album, “What If This CD…Had Lyrics?” that left his fans clamoring for a follow-up. The few who didn’t score an autographed pre-ordered album will get to buy that CD or digital download called ‘Bits of Me’ sometime later in May.
Black is a native of North Texas who moved to Oklahoma to attend OU to enroll in the Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre to pursue his musical theater dreams and later to NYU for a masters degree in the same subject. At first, his dream didn’t take him very far. In fact, after the musical theater school turned him down, it only took him as far as Ardmore, Oklahoma.
One night, he said he found himself stuck in a town “where there is actually less than nothing to do” humming the theme to ‘Mega Man III’ over and over in his head.
“I think it has a great soul to it,” Black said. “It just had a great combination of slickness and sexiness to the curve of the melody, like it sounds like it’s being improvised but at the same time, it sounds like this masterful opus to me. It’s like it’s the sound of seduction. If it was totally separate from ‘Mega Man,’ it would be the sound of a hot sexy villain in a movie who’s like ‘Oh you’re totally evil but I totally want to do you.’
“To me, I would put it up against Beethoven as one of the top five best instrumental pieces of music ever,” Black added, “and I just thought it would be fun to add lyrics to the thing.”
He posted it to his YouTube account’s subscribers and sent the link to some friends and in a few days, it earned some choice real estate on popular sites like College Humor and Gorilla Mask. Pretty soon, it earned him a figurative Internet gold record.
“It became clear that if they liked it, then I should stick with it because more people were seeing that video than anyone had ever seen any of my work in my entire life put together,” Black said.
Every Brentalfloss song starts with a funny idea that he calls “Anchors and Boats,” a concept he teaches to the kids in the summer musical theater program he created in Ardmore and flies back from New York to teach every year.
“A lyric is like a crossword puzzle,” he said, “and the only way to start figuring it out is to know the answer to one of the hints because that can help narrow down the rest of your options.”
Most of the time, the lyric or joke comes from the game itself, some of which he never played or heard of until a fan tells him about it. His song for the ‘Bloody Tears’ theme of the mediocre ‘Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest’ actually came from learning about the game from another Screwattack video game comedian, James Rolfe aka the Angry Video Game Nerd.
“I thought the idea of collecting Dracula’s body parts to put him back together was so funny,” he said, “and obviously, ‘Bloody Tears’ was a song that everybody loves.”
Of course, with Brentalfloss, the mood and the music are just as important as the mirth and some of his songs can show just how touching a tune about ‘Super Mario Brothers’ can be such as his ‘2-2 Blues’ set to the underwater level theme, which he performed in New Jersey at the Video Games Live concert series. It may sound like one of his more serious and honest songs but Black said that all of his music has an element of truth to it because “comedy is about truth and if something has no truth to it, it can’t be funny.”
“That song is not really about ‘Super Mario’ or a plumber,” he said. “It’s about a question that people ask themselves of am I going to find that special person or why do I keep failing at my attempts at love and everybody (unless they married their high school sweetheart) asks themselves about that at some point. The idea of Mario going to all these different castles is a perfect metaphor for that.”
Black has again tried to find that perfect mix of silly and serious for the tracks for ‘Bits of Me’. The pressure was on, he said, to not only overcome the “sophomore slump” of striking gold twice but also to make each song something that will keep listeners from skipping tracks to something with more meat on it. Some of his prouder achievements on the new album, he said, include a ‘Banjo-Kazooie’ song with a ridiculously fast tempo for singing and writing a story into a song and another sweet and deep ballad about Baby Mario and Papa Yoshi set to the ‘Yoshi’s Island’ athletic theme.
“[Baby Mario and Papa Yoshi] combines so many great things: good story, fun lyrics, funny stories and amazing musicianship. It just comes out of my love for that game and tune and that style of music,” he said. “So it’s out of my actual real life love for all of that. It’s a song that has everything.”
And no Brentalfloss album would be complete without at least one song for Mega Man. This time, it’s ‘Mega Man II.’
Black says the work he’s done up to his new album is more than just a perfect way to return the favor to his fans who helped him create a very creative career. He hopes it’s also a perfect way to return the favor to the little boy he was at age 5 who would make up songs and belt out silly parodies or make up words to fit melodies in his head who would set him on his personal path of making music.
“What’s funny is it’s taken me something like 20 years through all the journeys of insecurities and junior high and high school and stuff that make people start to second guess themselves and makes them feel silly when they go out on a limb,” Black said. “It’s taken me 20 years to get back to that little kid and yeah, it’s going to be dumb sometimes but if you don’t try, then you’ve got nothing.”