If you’ve followed the video game cover scene for any length of time, chances are good that the OneUps aren’t a new name for you. They’ve been around for almost a decade and a half and have played numerous concerts and even opened for the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in 2008 . Back in September of 2002, “Mustin” (a.k.a. Mr. M), Nathan McLeod, and William Reyes gathered for their mutual love of music and video games, forming what would become one of the most notable video game cover bands.
“The way I remember it was Mustin, Nathan Mcleod and myself were in a room of the music building at our university and we started talking about how cool it would be to play music from the game Super Mario Kart,” Reyes reclaled. “One thing led to another.”
One thing led to another indeed. Over a decade and seven studio albums later, the band has been going strong as one of the pivotal influences in video game cover music.
The OneUps have been going strong for close to 15 years and through numerous iterations.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes,” Mustin commented. “Some of the initial crew never even made it to the first record. Most notably was former Editor-in-Chief of Destructoid, Dale North on keys. We had a violin player, and prominent sax player, but people have to move on. The good thing is when people can come back and do a guest recording, like both sax players Nathan McLeod and Anthony Lofton were able to do on the last album, ‘Songs for the Recently Deceased.’ Overall, we’ve had over 15 people in and out of the band in the past 15+ years.”
While Reyes commented that the band’s eclectic music ranges in genres from Latin jazz, funk, classical, and even a few closer to heavy metal and rock influences, most laymen will classify the a lot of the OneUps’ catalog under the broad heading of “jazz” with a laid-back feel and very pronounced instrumentation.
A lot…but not all.
I would describe our music as a mix of many influences. It doesn’t quite belong to one single genre. We all come from different musical areas. In general we all appreciate bands like Jamiroquai, Daft Punk, George Clinton, and 80’s pop.
In many ways, this allows the iconic tunes that the band covers to be front and center in their arrangements with the clever instrumentation and improvisational sections playing support to those familiar melodies.
I think our usual goal is to have fun with each song. We can add anything we want, change harmonies or rhythms, and pay homage to other tunes all while trying not to depreciate the original. All we really try to accomplish is to create an arrangement of a song that we love and that our fans hopefully love as well.
Overall, the band values “diversity and artistic integrity” and, if the wide range of genres covered by the OneUps doesn’t sell that point, I don’t know what does. While their first few albums were pretty straight forward remixes of popular video game tunes, as the band went on, the music became more outlandish in instrumentation and style, creating a very distinct identity for the band that would become one of the forefathers of video game cover bands.
While the OneUps do have a “typical” instrumental setup for their pieces, they utilize a variety of instruments and musical styles for their pieces, giving them an often eclectic sound that, along with their willingness to experiment with genres, means no two songs sound alike.
“Our usual setup is two guitars, bass, drums and keyboard,” remarked Reyes. “We do add certain instruments for specific songs or shows depending on our set-list. We’ve used saxophones, congas, flutes, synths, and violin. We also have members who can play more than one instrument.”
These days, the band consists of Tim Yarbough on electric and acoustic guitar; Reyes, still going strong on his electric and synth guitar; Mustin on the electric and acoustic bass, keyboards and “various other stuff”; and Jared Dunn on percussion and sometimes keyboards.
Along with their wide range of musical genres, the OneUps cover a huge variety of music. Naturally there are classics like their cover of the Legend of Zelda theme and plenty of Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog stage themes, but their tracklist contains more than a few less-mixed titles like the Angry Birds theme, Ghosts and Goblins, Silent Hill, and even a few obscure pieces like a chill rendition of a song from the Nightmare on Elm Street game (which I highly recommend giving a listen to here).
“We are old,” Reyes quipped when asked when the band remixed so many classic (and obscure) pieces.
“A few of my all-time favorites are classics for Nintendo such as the Zelda series and Castlevania games,” he went on. “I love Street Fighter II. I also loved the newer God of War games. They are wonderful and magical.”
“I’ve been gaming since I was 9,” Mustin added. “The games I remember most playing are Super Mario Bros. 3, Final Fantasy IV, Streets of Rage 2, Sim City, Mega Man III, Chrono Trigger – the list goes on. Recently I’ve been playing a lot of Splatoon with my wife, and I just finished playing through Final Fantasy VI for the bajillionth time. Not sure how much time I can make for games going forward but I just got Miitomo and I’m enjoying it! I think I may arrange the shop music – so good!
“I recently finished Undertale and I haven’t been moved by a game like that since Chrono Trigger. It really floored me. And to think that one dude did almost all of that, Toby Fox. Man… It’s hard to wrap my head around. But it was a fantastic game. I didn’t know much about it and I had my four-year-old daughter guide my decisions in the game, which lead me on the “Pacifist” path (which I only learned about much later), and it made for a very powerful experience. It was nice to be able to involve the whole family in a single player game and all benefit from its entertainment. Highly recommended.”
Hopefully that means The OneUps’ next album will feature some Undertale pieces.
To date, the OneUps have produced seven studio albums, with their most recent one having just come out in February of this year – the very literally-named Part Seven.
Part Seven is the seventh studio album from The OneUps. It’s a collection of recording sessions with bassist Matthew “Moose” Bridges and features some favorite (and some obscure) NES/SNES era games like Mega Man 2, Pilotwings, Donkey Kong Country, Double Dragon, Super Mario Bros., and even Bucky O’Hare. The genres range from Funk to Blues, to Hip-Hop to Metal.
Part Seven and the OneUps’ other six albums – Volume One, Volume 2, Super Mario Kart Album, Intergalactic Redux, Intergalactic Continuum, and Songs for the Recently Deceased – are all available for digital distribution on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Bandcamp, and Loudr.fm. You can also order physical copies of their music at their website here.
Things aren’t slowing down anytime soon for the prolific cover band. Reyes said that the band has experienced “some good luck financially with our band adventures” and the future will contain “more shows, more music, more albums, more everything.”
As always, I asked my interviewees what they thought of the current state of gaming. Mustin chimed in:
It’s an exciting time! It will continue to get more exciting as the technologies become more powerful and varied. It’s unfortunate to see how gamers treat each other behind a microphone or a Twitter handle, but as far as the games go, there’s some really cool stuff going on. I’m looking forward to what the VR world will bring and I hope the indie momentum doesn’t collapse on itself, though that’s more of a problem for technology and media as a whole. Gotta stay on your toes!
Reyes commented on the importance of video game music:
It is essential. When a person plays a video game and the music accompanies his/her journey, the music then becomes the soundtrack of the person. It’s personalized and the player internalizes it and often learns to love it. It obviously influences and enhances the mood during each stage or section of the game which is why games have music. Without the music the game can still be enjoyed, but it’s only half of the amazing experience that it could be.
As I alluded to earlier, it took the OneUps a few albums to really get off the ground in this writer’s opinion. While their first few albums weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, they weren’t anywhere near as experimental, unique, or interesting as their later stuff. It was pretty stock standard instrumentation of the video game tunes they were remixing.
But with their two “intergalactic” albums (four and five) in particular, the OneUps really started to experiment with instruments, genres, and musical structures in ways that made their music stand head and shoulders above lesser arrangements. It made the music their own, which is what a good cover band should do. This has only become more true in their sixth and seventh albums, which are easily my favorites, despite not containing as many songs that are as personal to me (i.e. songs from games that I have played for any length of time). This means that a lot of the songs that stood out to me are songs that aren’t necessarily ones that I’ve heard before or are from games that I enjoyed as a kid. Which speaks volumes for the OneUps’ skills as both musicians and remixers.
That being said, picking three favorites out of a tracklist of almost 100 songs is no mean feat, and unfortunately the songs that I recognize naturally rise to the top of the list when all is said and done.
As always, I have selected three of my own personal favorites and listed them below (in no particular order). I encourage you to head on over to the digital distribution service of your own personal preference and buy copies of one or all of their albums (or the OneUps’ website for a physical copy!). Be sure to sound off in the comments below with your own favorites.
#3: Hardest Working Duck in Show Business [Duck Tales] (Songs for the Recently Deceased)
As I said before, the OneUps cover a wide range of musical genres. While many of their pieces have a distinctly jazz spin to them, there’s just as many that flirt the line of rock or even metal. However, my own personal taste tends towards their jazz arrangements of pieces, and Hardest Working Duck in Show Business is a great arrangement of the Transylvania theme, with shout outs to the jazzy, funky soul era of the 1950’s and 1960’s. One Youtube commenter likened it to James Brown, and I can totally hear it. It takes away some of the sinister undertones of the original and makes it sound more like a swing-dance party in Count Duckula’s castle.
No I don’t know if Count Duckula was a thing in Ducktales. Just bear with me.
The absolute perfect selection of style/genre for this remix cements this as an amazing track from start to finish, and the improv sections are well-executed and take nothing away from the piece as a whole. The instrumentation makes the OneUps sound like a swing band, much bigger than they are, and gives this piece a really playful tone despite the minor key. I may have started dancing a bit. May God have mercy on everyone’s soul.
#2: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – Mystic Cave (Volume 2)
I don’t know what it is, but I’ve never been into the Sonic the Hedgehog stage themes. It’s more than likely because I never owned a Genesis as a kid, but I’ve never found them as iconic, catchy, or timeless as the Mega Man and Mario Brothers stage musics that Capcom and Nintendo churned out in the late 80’s and 90’s. Since I did play Mega Man and Mario Brothers games as a kid, I’m almost sure that’s the reason, but whatever the case, rarely does Sega’s speedy, spiked mascot frequent my playlists.
The OneUps’ arrangement of Mystic Cave is probably the sole exception.
There’s so much character to this piece. Its minor tonality has an almost slithering character and it screams “underground stage” as much, if not more, than Zelda and Mario’s own underground themes. While there is a shade of mystery and an almost ominous tone to it, it isn’t as outright threatening as those respective tunes and the OneUps make the most of the almost playfully-ominous melody while adding their own jazzy character to it.
#1: Boomer Kuwanger (Volume 2)
Once again I find myself picking a Mega Man X tune over other excellent Mega Man classic tunes (this time it’s the Air Man arrangement and Shadow Man arrangement on the same album, not to mention the excellent Metal Man arrangement on Volume 7), but it’s just hard to deny the excellent music from the X series, even if I preferred the classic series’ gameplay and story and between Jonny Atma playing up the wailing 90’s tone of the soundtrack and the OneUps’ more unorthodox approach to remixing this piece, I definitely have to allow that the Mega Man X music is at least as good, if not better, than my beloved Mega Man classic series.
This job is making me learn all sorts of weird things about myself.
From the laid-back opening with the OneUps’ iconic string/saxophone combination, this is an excellent homage to one of the most recognizable tunes from the original Mega Man X. The build up to each refrain and the improv sections to an excellent job of getting the listener hyped up several times throughout the piece and I just can’t help but bob my head along with the infectious rhythm.
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Enjoy Boss Tunes? Check out the last installment of Boss Tunes, featuring Jonny Atma here.