Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good
A full-length under their belt and a recent label signing augurs well for Armcannon
by: Colleen Burton
Buffalo legend Dan Behrens recently took a brief hiatus from the rock star lifestyle to chat with me about his New York-based band, renowned for covering 8-bit video games with an injection of metal. Armcannon put out their first full-length release at the end of 2007 and have been playing shows around the country ever since.

CoC: The bio section of your website is incomplete, so you ought to take this opportunity to favor readers with an account of your formation.

Dan Behrens: The core group of myself, Mike, Chris and our original bass player Dave were all SUNY at Buffalo students. We met in the commuter lounge. Chris had wanted to form a video game band and recruited Mike and Dave because we knew they were good musicians. After some jamming, I said I knew a drummer, Brian, who I used to play "Megaman" with. It was originally intended as a fun side project that ended up overshadowing everything else we were doing.

CoC: What other projects were you involved with at the time?

DB: I was working on a melodic metal project called Terraform and Mike was in a thrash metal band, WeaponEx. Brian has his progressive / groove original band, Canto V.

CoC: So would you say that metal is the primary musical interest of most of you?

DB: Except for Chris, we were primarily metalheads -- he was a classical fan.

CoC: Why would Armcannon become the main outlet if most of you were already involved in metal projects?

DB: It ended up being extremely popular off the bat, much to our surprise. It was a much more diverse outlet than a traditional metal band.

CoC: You said that Chris suggested the idea of a video game cover band. Were any of you also notable video games fans? It is a rather eccentric project to try to kick off.

DB: Myself and Chris were avid old-school gamers. Mike and Dave were more casual but had definitely played a bit. Mike was more of a "Dungeons & Dragons" player. It's funny because after playing in the band, the guys that weren't into it so much originally ended up getting into the genre a lot more, discovering things about themselves.

CoC: What musical aspects of Armcannon manage to retain the interest of more casual gamers like Mike and Dave?

DB: The way that old-school video game songs were composed due to the limitations of the systems at the time lend themselves to challenging and interesting live playing. It doesn't sound like a normal band, especially with intertwining lead playing as opposed to a traditional band setup.

CoC: How do both you and Mike manage to play lead guitar?

DB: In many of the games there are two lead channels, a harmony and a melody. We both take solos, respectful of each other's guitar playing. A lot of it has to do with the way the music is originally composed.

CoC: Not to mention, your work is primarily instrumental. How have you worked to incorporate everyone's rather talented vocals with lyric-less video game tunes?

DB: We like to expand past video game music and cover songs we enjoy from our past, nostalgic music like "Power Rangers", "Ghostbusters", and "I'm a Real American", the Hulk Hogan theme. We've been lucky to have Mike be a very talented singer, which led us to move somewhat past being an instrumental band.

CoC: Tell me about Dave's split from the band and the acquisition of Kev.

DB: We've had three bass players. Dave moved to Chicago, where he's currently working as a game developer on "Spore" for the cell phone. Our second bass player, Bill Drew, decided to concentrate his efforts on his original material. Just recently we picked up Kevin, who had been playing in WeaponEx and we brought him in as a ringer, being talented, he picked up the material quickly and he decided to stay with us full-time.

CoC: How does Armcannon relate to the metal scene?

DB: If you had to categorize us, it would be the overly melodic shred instrumental, with multiple leads going on at any time. The truth is, we don't fit into any particular metal category. Being metalheads, we like to throw fast distorted guitar on top of whatever's going on. That makes things metal and it's always been a passion of ours so it gets injected into our arrangements with Brian's double-kick drums.

CoC: What non-metal situations do you find yourselves involved in, as surely your music must appeal to a broad base of nerds?

DB: We've played with every kind of band from jam bands to death metal bands and end up playing events like anime conventions and video game conventions that take place in hotels, which are far from metal. We opened for Green Jelly a couple of months back alongside some death and hardcore acts but we'll also go play Yasumicon alongside solo pianists.

CoC: What crowds are most receptive to your music and what is the best show you've ever played?

DB: The best crowds are at the nerd conventions because they know the music the best and are willing to flip out about it because they're out geeking out anyways, and the best show was probably MAGfest 5 in 2007.

CoC: What is MAGfest?

DB: The Music and Gaming festival that is based around video game music, so it draws attendees that are our absolute fans.

CoC: Tell me more about the techno / electronic influences within Armcannon.

DB: Chris was a big electronic fan before joining Armcannon and his keyboard playing lends a different sound. We like to diversify our sound as much as possible so we embrace that influence.

CoC: His keyboard creates perfect, simplistic video game sounds, but _Legvacuum_ includes songs such as the aptly named "Techno"; how do these songs come about and mesh well with the metalhead work most of you are trying to proffer?

DB: The story behind that song in particular is that usually after "Megaman 3", we would often do a free-form jam with a techno feel, Brian drumming some techno beats for fun. Instead of including a jam on the album, Chris said he wanted to write an electronic track and came up with electronic chip tunes and progressive metal, which we all greatly enjoyed.

CoC: What elements of originality do you typically manage to insert when you're constantly dealing with previously recorded material?

DB: It really goes on a song-by-song basis, some songs are already arranged for live play and we have very little to add to them, yet others are a 35 second loop that we can add external arrangement around. When playing a certain part we'll get inspired to write our own parts that fit in and they work as transitions to create longer medleys of multiple tunes from the same game. A lot of original sections involve adding an additional harmony to the main lead or changing the chord progression underneath the theme going on.

CoC: How do you compare yourself with similar video game-oriented acts, such as Horse the Band of so-called "Nintendocore" fame?

DB: I would not describe us as fitting under this label because we don't have any hardcore vocals. That, and Horse the Band is only Nintendo-inspired with their use of square-wave keyboards and some 8-bit references, but they largely have nothing to do with video game music. There are some other video game cover acts around the world like The Minibosses and The Advantage, who do old-school, straightforward covers, whereas ours are more interpretative remixes.

CoC: What is your affiliation with other local bands? Do you collaborate with them? What about more well-known acts?

DB: Right now, three of our members are involved in a shred / prog band called WeaponEx, a new iteration of Mike's former band, where we do completely original music, more traditional metal. Our biggest influence has been Blotted Science. As far as collaborating, I used to play with Jay Zgoda who is now involved in local doom metal project Where She Wept.

CoC: _Legvacuum_ is a relatively new release and your first full-length achievement. How did it come about?

DB: It was originally intended to be an EP, but after all the recording was said and done, it was 45 minutes long, the length of a shorter LP. We've had fans clamoring for studio recording since our inception. We ended up working with Jim, the guitarist of Buffalo groove act 137 who helped us with tracking drums, and we self-produced the rest of the album in my own studio.

CoC: Your album seems to be a song-by-song homage to classic Nintendo titles, "The Legend of Zelda", "Tecmo Super Bowl" and "Metroid" among them. What's the basic breakdown behind _Legvacuum_'s arrangement?

DB: When we went to go record the EP, we picked the songs we were most excited about at the time. A few have been left out that are mainstays at our live shows, such as Mario tributes, but the CD ends up being a smattering of our song selections. There really is no rhyme or reason, it wasn't intended to be a full-length CD. When we were in the studio, it was just a random choice.

CoC: So what can you tell us about your label signing?

DB: We recently signed to Fatality Entertainment, an upstart label, and we plan on trying to get future CDs distributed within GameStop and other stores as opposed to traditional musical outlets. We would stand out a bit more there than among the millions of CDs in a music shop.

CoC: Do you have any comments on the musicianship in game compositions between then and now? What prompts Armcannon to focus on the NES tunes, apart from nostalgia?

DB: 8 bit games are set up well for a live band translation, and that lends itself to being performed pretty authentically while newer game material tends to be more orchestral in nature or less tailored for live band play -- even though the older stuff was only coincidentally fitting for a live band. Part of the interestingness of the old-school material is these classical composers writing music within these extremely restricted settings. The channels on an NES were monophonic, meaning they could only play one tone at a time, but there were three different channels so you could theoretically play three notes at a time. These limitations allowed for some very unique arrangements that sound original when played by modern instruments. A lot of this older material is very difficult, not meant to be played for traditional instruments, but programmed on a sound chip. Therefore, much of what we cover has unorthodox playing patterns as we perform songs which were never meant for guitar, for example.

(article submitted 5/10/2008)

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