Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Interview with John Nelson of UNICORN HOLE by Dave Wolff

Interview with John Nelson of UNICORN HOLE

I interviewed Chase Fincher of She Wants The D Pad recently and we talked at length about the new subgenre known as Nintendocore. Present your insight about this subgenre to the readers.
My understanding is that Horse The Band jokingly coined the term Nintendocore. They use a keyboard in place of a second guitar, and instead of using the standard metal synths - choirs and string ensembles and stuff - they embrace the more standard keyboard bleeps and bloops that bring retro video games to mind. This style really hit home with kids like me who grew up with a controller in their hands. Since Nintendocore wasn't exactly created on purpose, the genre isn't very well defined. I see this as a good thing. It basically means that you can take whatever style of music you like and combine it with video game synths and themes, and you've got your own take on the genre. Horse The Band happened to choose metal, and that's the route I took as well. Also, shout out to Chase! He's a cool guy, and his music is rad too.

For a genre initially named as a joke, Nintendocore seems to be gaining momentum as more bands are adapting this sound. How did this approach to extreme music speak to you and what made you decide to pursue it as a musician?
Nintendocore actually became really popular around 2005, and was at the height of its popularity during "the Myspace days." It died off for a while, I'd say around 2010, and has recently started to gain momentum again. There were always bands releasing music, even during the slow times, but the community is really hoping and fighting for a second wave of popularity soon. Gaming is more popular than ever, so it seems like a real possibility. As for why I was drawn to N-core, I'd definitely say the most straightforward answer is simply because I'm a huge fan of video games. I grew up playing Mario, DK, Pokemon, and Zelda, and I still do today (plus many more of course!). When it dawned on me that I could combine my passion for gaming with my passion for metal, it was just a no-brainer. I'd have to say another reason I was drawn to N-core is that metal tends to be so damn serious. Check any comment section on a metal song and you'll see people vehemently fighting over whether it's blackened death metal or technical black metal, or whether it's "true metal" or "Hot Topic stuff." Who gives a shit!? So I liked the idea of playing music that didn't take itself so seriously. It's a genre that's just about fun.

Do you think the “old Myspace” was in any way instrumental in the birth of Nintendocore, as musicians dabbling in it spread their work from profile to profile?
Horse The Band is the only band I know of who was signed to a major label and claimed the genre of Nintendocore. There are a handful of other signed bands that you could argue played Nintendocore, but the point remains. Myspace was definitely the canvas upon which N-core was painted, ha. If not for Myspace, I don't know how the bands back then would have ever reached any level of popularity.

Did Myspace really need to upgrade to version 3.0 or was it fine the way it was before?

I don't know which version is which, but I gave up on Myspace pretty much right away when they started making weird changes. I hate having to go there for any reason now, ha. Last time I checked it was ridiculously clogged with ads, and nobody seemed to be using it.

Who were the first Nintendocore bands you listened to? How active have those bands been and have they released any material?
The very first N-core band I heard was Horse The Band. Once I starting making my own stuff and got into the scene, I heard a lot of other Nintendocore bands, but I honestly never really listened to any of them much back then. Instead of dwelling on one band, I would just jump around different bands' pages and see what was new. I don't even think there were bands I checked consistently - just whatever was popping up on Myspace. I kinda regret that now, and today I listen to a pretty big selection of N-core bands and know them personally (well, over the internet). A lot of the N-core bands that were big when the genre first took off are no longer active, or are active in different projects today. I think the emphasis today seems to be on quality instead of quantity, ha.

What subgenre of metal is Horse The Band and how long have they been active? What sort of vision did you have when you started Unicorn Hole? Is this project influenced by traditional metal or underground metal?
It's not wrong to call Horse The Band metalcore, but they've dubbed themselves Nintendocore to be more specific. They've been around since '98, but their first official CD was released in '03. When I started Uhole I had a handful of bands in mind, one of which was Horse The Band. The others were more intense metal bands: See You Next Tuesday, The Number Twelve Looks Like You, and Anal Cunt somewhat. AC influenced the humor element and short song lengths, but not much as far as the actual music was concerned. The music was more akin to SYNT and TNTLLY - fast, spastic, and unpredictable, but with occasional refrains and melodic sections. There was definitely an N-core influence too, which mostly manifested itself in the lyrics and Nintendo sounds and melodies I sampled. I would say that very little traditional metal influenced Uhole's original sound. Over the years, however, the metal aspect has become more representitive of popular contemporary metal. The Nintendocore influence has also increased to the point that I feel comfortable claiming the genre as my primary goal now.

Is Horse The Band still releasing albums on CD or on the net? Which of their releases would you recommend?
They are still putting out music as far as I know. Their most recent CD was in 2009, but they're supposedly working on another now. I would recommend any of their music, really; they've always been a solid band. My favorite track by them is probably Birdo (about the enemy from Mario Bros 2), but my favorite CD is Desperate Living. You can't really go wrong with them.

How many full lengths has the band released altogether? Are there any sites where people can check them out?
Horse The Band has released four full-lengths, and a few DVDs. You should be able to find their music on any normal streaming site, or buy them physically online. They're fairy popular, as far as extreme music goes, so you won't have to dig for it.

How would you describe the song structure and lyrical content on HTB’s Desperate Living full length?
Their lyrics range from silly (like Kangarooster Meadows) to more serious and somewhat abstract (like Cloudwalker). Their song structures vary too- from the more traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, to no discernible structure at all.

Being that Nintendocore is not well defined yet, how much room for originality exists within this subgenre? Do you plan to bring anything new to it at this point?
As with anything, there are elitists who would attest that N-core does have very specific guidelines. I believe people are too concerned with genres and labels anyway. If the music appeals to you, then be a fan; it's that simple. I would argue that N-core is a genre where you can combine pretty much whatever style you want with video game influenced synths and ideas to craft your own brand. Most Nintendocore uses aggressive rock styles, but as long as the Nintendo element is there, I say it counts regardless! With Unicorn Hole I try to incorporate all sorts of music that I like: metalcore, technical death metal, post-rock, and occasionally some outliers like hip hop and carny punk. I believe I've crafted a novel take on the genre. Again, I do urge people not to be too concerned with labels, and to just write and listen to what they think sounds good!

Who are the N-core bands you’ve been keeping track of these days? Are they all contributing something different?
A lot of the active N-core bands of today are in a big group on Facebook, and we've put out a couple compilations over the past year or so. If you check them out, you'll have a good idea of which other bands I'm associated with. And yes, I'd say everyone brings their own flare to the genre. Also, if any N-core bands are reading this and interested in the group, just message me on FB and we'll have you added! nintendocorelives.bandcamp.com.

Are these compilations you speak of independently released? What label are they on and who are the bands involved?
The comps are not a part of any label, but they are released through the Nintendocore Lives blog. There are more bands than I care to list involved- just check out the comps! I'll point out that She Wants The D-Pad is on the newer comp, since you mentioned him. And a couple other favorites of mine on the comps are Poopmaster and Are You Afraid Of The Dog?

From where are Poopmaster and Are You Afraid of the Dog based? Is Nintendocore most active in the States or are bands from other countries experimenting with it?
Poopmaster is based in Germany, and Are You Afraid Of The Dog is based in Canada. I guess that kind of answers your second question too. I don't know if N-core is as big in other places, but it certainly exists. There's a big N-core scene in Russia and surrounding areas that some of us have stumbled upon. They share our stuff on VK (kinda like the European Facebook) when we release it, and write their own stuff too. There's a lot of talent there as well.

What Russian N-core bands are worth mentioning here? How much exposure has your project gotten on VK?
Muhrochka is the project that introduced me to VK. He invited me from Soundcloud, and I was surprised to see the following Unicorn Hole had there. Muhrochka's music is really moody and spacey. I got a message on VK a couple days ago from a project called Gurknakk, saying Uhole was their main influence to try Nintendocore. There are a lot of good acts there.

Are there other countries on the Western Hemisphere where N-core bands are based from?
I would be willing to bet you could find at least a handful of N-core bands just about anywhere. Other than the places I mentioned, I'm not sure of specific bands. You'd have to check Facebook or Soundcloud, etc.

Describe how you started Unicorn Hole and if you decided you would work with other musicians or do it solo. Where do you get your sound samples from?
Unicorn Hole was started to be a quick, easy outlet for my more obscure musical ideas. Because of this, I decided to make it a solo project. Group projects are a lot more work, and tend to take much longer to complete. The way I produced my tracks in the early days was simply to write songs in the tabbing software I use called Tabit, and then export the raw midi and add vocals. That was the whole process. Since I only wrote 30-second tracks, I would put out five or ten at a time. My first full-length is sixty-two tracks, ha. I did have guest spots occasionally, but it was limited to people who were at my house and could easily contribute. As for the samples, I used to just sample anything I thought would be funny. Most of it was clips from shows like South Park or Drawn Together. My video game samples would come from websites where you can download sound packs from games. I still use video game samples today, but I've dropped the random, funny samples. I feel like they're just cheap laughs, and when I listen to my old stuff now I get really tired of hearing the longer samples that I've heard so many times before.

How did you discover Tabbit and what made you decide you wanted to record with it?

I actually don't remember how I first found Tabit, but I'm sure one of my guitarist buddies showed it to me. I used it for Uhole's music at first, just because it was quick and easy, and had a unique sound. Obviously it was fake, but it wasn't supposed to seem real. Seth from Anal Cunt had a side project at the time that was an acoustic black metal band, where the drums were just someone slapping his lap. I was kinda inspired by silliness like that I suppose. My thought was "what's something wild I can do that'll be easy and fun?"

What were the reasons you chose to name your project Unicorn Hole?
This is a good question, and I don't think anyone's ever asked! Uhole started out a lot more grindcore oriented, so I wanted to start with a word to contrast with that extreme style- something like rainbow or butterfly or unicorn. I settled on unicorn, and then tried to come up with something from there. Unicorn Hole eventually came to me, and I liked it for several reasons. First, there's the ambiguity of it. It could refer to the hole of a unicorn, or a hole filled with unicorns, or perhaps something even stranger. Then of course there's the cornhole in the middle- childish slang for butthole. I liked the idea of childish terms for gross stuff, again, because it contrasts most band names in the genre, which go for shameless vulgarity. You know- stuff like Anal Cunt or See You Next Tuesday (CUNT). Cornhole is also a game played in the south, and I'm from the heart of SC (much to my dismay).
Finally, my favorite reason, is that it's actually a very subtle Zelda reference. In Ocarina Of Time (my all-time favorite game) there was originally supposed to be a secret area called the Unicorn Fountain. It was in the Beta build of the game, and you can find pictures of it online. It was removed, however, from the final version. Well in the 90's, the internet ran rampant with video game rumors and outright lies, and we didn't know the picture was from a beta version. Everyone saw the picture and was dying to find out how to get to it. People believed you could acquire the fabled Triforce in the Unicorn Fountain. Of course there were people claiming to have already done it, which fueled the fire. In the game there are secret holes that open up when you use bombs in certain places, and these holes lead to secret areas. So before we realized the picture was from an old version of the game, there was this cult following of hardcore Zelda fans looking for... the Unicorn Hole.

Do you think the name Unicorn Hole brings a kind of fantasy element to the band’s music?
I hope so, but I'm sure a lot of people just think of the butthole joke, ha. I'll take either. Humor has been an emphasis since the beginning of Uhole.

Were any demos released by you before your first full length? Are all the songs on your debut full length original pieces or are there also a couple cover songs?
I released a handful of demos and other small releases before my first full-length. My first demo was released in 2007, and was just a collection of everything I'd done up to that point. In 2008 I released a split with Cheerleader Concubine, and later a CD of grindcore-style Christmas covers. In 2009 I released a CD of covers from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Finally, my first full-length was released in 2010. I've never included a cover of a non-video-game song on a release, but I've done a couple and just posted them here and there online. I'll include a link to an anthology I released called The Hole Damn Thing that includes everything that exists from before my big style change, which naturally has all the stuff I just mentioned

Was The Hole Damn Thing released strictly for promotional purposes or can people review this anthology?
Anything of mine is open to review I suppose, but I would rather have a solid review of something newer I'd done. The Hole Damn thing represents the entire catalog of my old stuff, but nothing of my new style. Then again, a review of it would be pretty cool too I guess, ha. I love feedback, as any musician probably does.

How did your demos differ in sound and approach to your debut full length?
Really the only difference is the overall production quality, which was improved a good bit for the full-length. The writing wasn't much different; in fact, most of the tracks from my first demo made their way onto the full-length with a nice polish.

What tech did you have on hand to produce your demos for Unicorn Hole?
With Unicorn Hole I write all my music in Tabit- a simple guitar tabbing software. In the early days, I would export the midi from Tabit and convert it to mp3s. I would then record the mp3s onto a Zoom 8-track recorder my dad had bought, and record vocals onto the tracks with it. I'd use whatever mic I could find. My dad is a musician, so I was lucky enough to have the stuff I needed lying around. Then I'd export just the vocal tracks off of the Zoom recorder and add them back to the music on my computer, where I had a bit more control over the sound. The only difference in the process today is that my vocals are recorded directly onto my computer, and the midi is ran through virtual instruments rather than staying raw. And of course I have my own equipment by now, ha. I use Cubase for mixing and producing.

Do you generally feel sampling is too overused in extreme music, particularly grindcore and goregrind, these days?
I have a problem with sampling when it's done just for the hell of it. If a sample sets the mood for your song or matches the lyrics, then it's probably fine. But when bands add brootal samples to every song just because that's what you do in the genre, then yeah, it becomes an issue. You also have to realize that people get desensitized to stuff, so after the fifteenth clip of a woman screaming and being chopped up, we start yawning. And as I said, there's the issue of hearing the same sample over and over upon repeatedly listening to the CD. The music may not get boring, but the sample surely will. I'd say use them wisely and sparingly.

List some examples of sampling that did and did not fit the song it was recorded with.
I actually don't listen to a whole lot of music with samples. I have a friend who's big into goregrind and genres like that, so I'll hear them a lot when we hang out, but I don't really know what I'm listening to. Or I'll hear a random band on Youtube with a bad sample, but then forget who it was, ha. One example of a band who uses samples well in my opinion would be Stick To Your Guns. They always find samples that match the message of the song, and usually mix them in with the music, so you're not just listening to talking for twenty seconds before you hear the actual song every time. Affiance's No Secrets Revealed also has a sample that sets the stage and gets the listener pumped right off the bat.

Describe the lyrics you have written for Unicorn Hole from your demo days to the present.
My lyrics were very much grindcore lyrics in the beginning: this is stupid, that thing sucks, so-and-so is lame. I tried to always make them funny though, not just angry or vulgar for the hell of it. I had songs about video games back then too, but over the years I've just zeroed in on that theme. I think it's a lot of fun to write about something that I hold so dear, and that so many other people do as well. My most recent EP, "Songs Unsung" tells the stories of a few popular video games, but from the perspective of side-characters. It was a lot of fun thinking of how those characters would perceive the events of their games. My third full-length, which is just in the planning stage now, will be a concept album about a big war among the Nintendo characters. Pretty nerdy, yeah, but I embrace that.

Describe the amount of work that went into Songs Unsung. Was it released on CD or online or both?

Well, it involved 28 hours of driving! Confused? I met a guy online who would do real instrument covers of my midi songs, and the production on them was top-notch. I knew going into Songs Unsung that I wanted the absolute best sound I could muster, and that he could help me achieve it. He lives seven hours away in Florida, and was unemployed at the time. He couldn't drive himself, or afford a plane, so I drove up there and got him. I made the seven hour trips four times in total: there, then back, and then both again to take him home. We didn't only meet for the sake of producing my CD, but it was definitely on the list. Tyler had become a good friend of mine by then.
Aside from that, the actual writing and recording process wasn't too much different from previous efforts. Production took a little longer, and I made sure all the recordings were as perfect as I could get them. I also approached writing differently for some of the tracks. Only one of the tracks was written solely as Uhole writes, if that makes sense. The other four were planned for a specific purpose ahead of time, and written with it in mind. One was the single- written to hook listeners, one was molded after The Faceless and some more mainstream deathcore acts- to appeal to fans of heavier music, and a particularly challenging track for me was Stranger Danger. I challenged myself to use dropped D tuning (the highest I'd ever used), include clean guitar sections, have no breakdowns, and try to write something emotional for the listener. Basically, I pushed myself to branch out with Songs Unsung. It also features some of the first serious lyrics for Uhole, and I think I did a pretty good job showing the characters' points of view with them.

Could you perform with Unicorn Hole if you got a full band together? Would you be able to pull off live what you do on record?
Most of my recent stuff is in the realm of possibility, although that's definitely not the case for my older stuff. My buddy Tyler Hendricks does real-instrument covers of my songs sometimes, and he plays most of the guitar parts normally. He says some parts he has to play at a slower tempo though, and then speed them up. I don't pay attention to whether my music is possible or not, since I don't intend for it to actually be played (Granted, listening to my new style most people can't tell I don't use real instruments. I don't try to trick people- it's always in the description!). If I were to do a live show- and the thought has occurred to me before- I'd probably play the music through speakers, and just do vocals live. But I would get friends to come on stage and play with Guitar Hero guitars and Rock Band drums and stuff, just to make it a fun show. That's how I envision it. And this would be a small party thing at first; I don't expect to sell out venues this way, ha.

I was thinking a live show like you described would go over at private parties or perhaps in a promotional video.
Unless we put on a hell of a show I'd feel bad charging people for it at some venue. I'd rather just do it for fun with friends and stuff. And the video idea is something I've thought about too- I wanna get Uhole moved onto Youtube Fosho. It's definitely on the list for next year!

How long have you been into grindcore? Before you started Unicorn Hole did you consider doing straight grindcore? What grindcore bands did you most listen to (for me it was the early bands like Napalm Death, Sore Throat and Agathocles etc)?

I was never especially enamored with the genre. I liked what I heard, but didn't seek it out I guess. I heard stuff by Anal Cunt, See You Next Tuesday, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Massacre Of The Umbilical Cord, and probably a few others that I've forgotten about. Cybergrind was big at the time too, so bands like Wecamewithbrokenteeth were a bit of an inspiration too. I know a little by Napalm Death.

I’ve heard of a few cybergrind bands, but not Wecamewithbrokenteeth. What can you tell the readers about them?
Not much at all, haha. I just know I liked their music back when I started Uhole, and that they were fairly successful at the time, as far as cybergrind goes. I remember they didn't take themselves seriously either, which is a plus as I see it.

What was it like to grow up as a metal fan in South Carolina? I’ve heard a few accounts of living in the Bible Belt and not fitting in; I was wondering if you would relate some of your experiences.
It's just what you'd expect- about half the people who hear any extreme music dub it "the devil's music" right away. I was never offended by it; I just found it funny and ridiculous. You can show a dude being chopped up in a Saw movie, and the general public is fine with it, but when a song has screaming (even if it's a Christian metal band like For Today) it's automatic grounds for eternal hellfire. A lot of preachers around here tell kids that rock and metal are evil just because they aren't the genres the preacher likes, and since he's in a position of power, hey, why not force his opinions as fact? I've witnessed it a few times. Pretty sad.

What specifically have you witnessed when it came to preachers condemning music? Personally I see it as infringing on free expression; do you think they sincerely mean it or is it just to further their own authority as church spokesmen?
I can count the times I've been to church on one hand, and the times it was of my own volition on one finger. I've just had lots of people tell me their preacher/pastor/whatever said metal is the devil's music. If you listen to it, it leads you to evil stuff, and to hell, and blah blah blah. One example that particularly bothered me was an ex's little brother. He was probably eight-years-old and thus very impressionable. He heard I was in a metal band and informed me that I was going to hell. I told him there were Christian metal bands, and that whoever told him that is a closed-minded jerk, and naturally he said it was his preacher. I wanted to write the guy and tell him he was a piece of shit (diplomatically), but I knew there was no point.

Besides Stryper I have heard of many Christian death and black metal bands (Living Sacrifice, Mortification, Horde) that have been around for as long as their “evil” counterparts. Do you see fundamentalists overlooking them or no?
I think a lot of religious people do. Rise is a Christian metal label for Christ's sake (see what I did there?)! There's no reason to assume metal is Satanic these days- it's like racism to music.

A long time ago I read that the staff of a friend’s zine were being hassled by evangelists pressuring them to convert, and a friend of theirs stepped in and put a clean end to it. More recently a friend of mine discouraged someone trying to convert him with some verbal self-defense. So sometimes it is possible to intervene so to speak. Have you ever had to discourage attempts to convert you?
Not very many. In high school I would lie and tell people I was Christian so I wouldn't have to listen to the inevitable lectures. Now that I'm out in the world and mostly get to choose who I spend my time with, I choose people who are like-minded or who agree to disagree. There are a few people where I work who used to give me Jesus pamphlets around Xmas, but they've let off. I won't bother someone about his religion unless it's directly causing other people problems, but one lady at work did start a religious debate with me. It ended with her being unable to answer a lot of questions I posed to her, and with her understanding that I'm not going to give anyone a hard time about their choices. That was the most recent encounter I remember, and it was probably a year or so ago.

One of the most prominent examples of how metal fans are misunderstood in the Bible Belt is the story of the West Memphis Three, how they were incarcerated for at least two decades without sufficient evidence to convict them. It makes you wonder how much there have been similar situations in that area and elsewhere in the States, of varying degrees.
It's a scary thought. Atheists and people who like metal are definitely thought of as evil-by-default by most older adults in my area.

Did you see all three documentaries about the West Memphis Three (Paradise Lost I, II and III)? As those films cover the entire story from their conviction to their release, what are all your thoughts on them? There was also a movie made about it, but the documentaries generally seem to cover more ground.
I'm familiar with the case, but I haven't seen any documentaries on it actually. I'll have to check them out; you've definitely got me curious.

How do you anticipate Unicorn Hole expanding musically and lyrically on future releases? How soon do you expect to work on new material?
Unicorn Hole's music will evolve as I am influenced by more and more new things. I want to keep all the elements that are currently a part of what I do, while adding new elements as I discover them. Lyrically, Uhole will be heading into more serious and even emotional stuff- but again, while retaining the humor and sarcasm that I started out with. I really want Uhole to become even more so a band where you never know what to expect. And I'm always working on new material, ha. I'm writing for a couple little releases now, and will be starting my third full-length soon. Thank you so much for the interview!

Unicorn Hole on Facebook
Unicorn Hole on Bandcamp
Unicorn Hole on Soundcloud

-Dave Wolff

No comments:

Post a Comment