Monday, September 16, 2019

Ten questions with Drew Mackie, host of the Singing Mountain podcast

I've got a confession to make: although I dearly love video game music (VGM from here on out), I pretty much never listen to it when I'm not actually playing a game.

Except, that is, for when I'm listening to an episode of the Singing Mountain podcast.

The thing is, I'd likely ignore Singing Mountain just I like ignore most out-of-context VGM if Drew Mackie weren't its host.

That's not just because of the dulcet tones of Drew's NPR-ready voice, by the way. You see, he and I go way back--in a manner of speaking.

Drew Mackie and Wario
I first became a fan of Drew's around the time I launched the blog you're reading right now. He had his own blog at the time, Back of the Cereal Box--it still exists, though it's been defunct since early 2018--that not only regularly covered video games, but regularly covered the kind of games I tend to enjoy.

In the years since, we've become friends via the comments sections of our respective blogs as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Anyway, between our similar taste in games and my appreciation of Drew's way with words, you bet your sweet bippy my ears perked up when he announced in mid-2017 his next venture would be a VGM podcast.

Speaking of which, Drew recently agreed to answer a few questions not only about why he started Singing Mountain, but how he named it, why he likes 16-bit VGM so much and more.

The Gay Gamer: You launched the Singing Mountain podcast just over two years ago. What spurred its creation?

Drew: To be honest, I had my first podcast and I thought I might do this as a side project to draw attention to the main project--do short little episodes about VGM and then tell people at the end that I have this other nostalgia-based podcast about movies. Very quickly thereafter, Singing Mountain ended up being the project I enjoyed more and before long, I ceased that first podcast and started tinkering around with what I could do with this VGM podcast format. I actually didn't know much about the VGM podcast community and quickly had to educate myself.

The Gay Gamer: Why did you name it Singing Mountain anyway?

Drew: Chrono Trigger! The original OST for Chrono Trigger has one track that you don't hear in the game because that area ended up being omitted from the final version of the game. That's "Singing Mountain." And that name alone evoked something magical and made me wonder about what this lost area might be like. The song has since been used in subsequent ports of Chrono Trigger, but I would still like to see the creator's original vision for it.

This wonderfully beefy piece of cover art wasn't used
for an episode, but I'm including it here anyway

The Gay Gamer: What has been your favorite episode so far?

Drew: "Ric Ocasek in Moonside," an episode I liked so much I actually made it twice, just to iron out the kinks and make it as good as I possibly could. This episode is about EarthBound, but also me and the general way that music can linger in your head for years, unattached to lyrics or anything that could help you identify what song you're actually remembering. If that makes sense.

The Gay Gamer: Which episode do you think is most emblematic or representative of Singing Mountain or even of your taste in game music?

Drew: People make fun of my titles sometimes, but as a gay dude who likes pretty things, I gotta say that the most representative episode of my show is one is called "A Beautiful Place by Moonlight." A big theme throughout Singing Mountain is how I like softer, quieter, more relaxed music, and this episode was all about music that evokes the night but not in a way that's sinister or, like, dark, if that makes sense. It's about how sometimes things are prettier at night. I like thinking of a really abstract theme and then figuring out the weirdest collection of music I can get together that fits that theme. Also, the cover art made me happy.

Runner up: the one about VGM that sounds like italo disco, because I feel like people aren't aware of italo disco, generally, but would be into the idea of disco and new wave having a baby. They actually have an italo disco night at one of the gay bars in L.A. and this makes me very happy. (Not that I'm taking credit for it.)

Drew's Birdo-focused cover art for Singing Mountain's
"The Best Saxophones in Video Game Music" episode

The Gay Gamer: What is your favorite aspect of creating an episode?

Drew: Knowing that I'm my own boss and can do whatever I want. That sounds bratty, but I like that I can break format any way I want and it's OK. I've never had an in-office job where I had that much freedom.

The Gay Gamer: What's the hardest or most annoying part of creating an episode?

Drew: Trying to decide between "I can make this work" and "maybe I can't, maybe I should go in another direction." I don't like putting something out there that I don't think is worth the listener's time, and if I can't deliver the goods, then I need to go with plan B. This last week, I actually ended up not posting an episode, just because nothing was coming together. I'm hoping the time off lets me come up with a good idea.

The Gay Gamer: I always look forward to seeing the cover art you create for each episode, and I'm sure I'm not alone there. I'm guessing you enjoy it too? How long does it usually take you to make a piece of cover art? And what's your process for making one?

Drew: Sometimes the pixel art takes me as long as the episode itself, but only because it's my favorite part. It's basically just doodling, really, because I'm taking existing, official pixel art from Spriter's Resource and then screwing with it and making it weird or taking stuff from two different contexts and making them exist together. It's weirdly relaxing, even when I'm doing it at 2 a.m. because the episode is done and I'm still trying to figure out the art.

The rad cover for a heart-pounding episode
called "A VGM Dance Party"

The Gay Gamer: You obviously have a particular fondness for game music from the 16-bit era. Is that simply because you grew up in the '90s, or is there more to it than that?

Drew: On one hand, yeah. I was born in 1982, so most of my video game playing happened in the 1990s. It's my pop culture sweet spot. However, there is a less objective reason why I focus on 16-bit stuff. Super Marcato Bros. is another VGM podcast, hosted by composers who can talk about music on a technical level. One of the hosts (I think it's Will) has said that he thinks 8-bit VGM is the pinnacle of the genre--and yes, it is a genre--because the technology with which VGM composers could make music was very limited. In order to make music sound good, those 8-bit composers had to be clever enough to work within those restraints and find was to make the technology sing. Alternatively, they could compose melodies that are so purely good and catchy that they'd sound good even being played with those limited means. Often they did both.

I totally think this is true. As video game technology evolved, the restraints gradually went away. So composers coming along later didn't have to be as clever or the melodies nearly as perfectly composed. Coming right after the 8-bit age, the 16-bit stuff is still feeling those restraints but also getting a little more wiggle room, technologically speaking. To me, 16-bit is the best, because you still had to be fairly clever but you could also benefit from a wider range of sounds and consequently do a little more. And then as you get into the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 era it kinda gets... less catchy, I would say.

Drew and his adorable pup, Thurman
The Gay Gamer: Regardless, what are your favorite 16-bit soundtracks?

Drew: EarthBound (because eclectic), Seiken Densestu 3 (which is Trials of Mana now and I'm so glad people get to hear how Hiroki Kikuta took his work from the first Secret of Mana to a slightly darker place), and Super Mario RPG (because I actually think Yoko Shimomura is the most versatile composer working today, having composed this and the original Street Fighter II and Kingdom Hearts and Mario & Luigi and a billion other things). Oh, and the Donkey Kong Country trilogy. And then Treasure of the Rudras would probably be the one less famous OST from this era. Also Lufia II is better than you might remember.

The Gay Gamer: Do you have any favorite game soundtracks or even individual songs that come from outside the 16-bit era? If so, what are they?

Drew: Samurai Shodown! Especially the first three. Because I feel like the SNK fighters aren't remembered necessarily for their music, but the composers really nailed the mood of these games. And the DarkStalkers games are where Capcom always liked to get weird and experimental and kinda gay, if I'm being honest. And that includes the music. And then Wario Land 4 is just.... fascinatingly bizarre.

See also: 'Ten questions with the guys behind the best GameBoy game you've probably never played, Tobu Tobu Girl'