“The Super Soul Bros are what would happen if you jammed a 70s Herbie Hancock record into a Super Nintendo”
There’s no better way to open up a discussion I recently had with the funk-fusion video game jazz band Super Soul Bros. than to quote their high energy tag-line. Based in San Jose, California, the 6-piece have been filling out venues with their groove-packed renditions of classic video game soundtracks since 2012. Through a mix of professional musicianship, dynamic onstage energy, and a heart of gaming love, the Super Soul Bros. have become renowned for their presence and fun-filled atmosphere across shows at Comic-Con, TwitchCon, MAGQuest, and MAGFest. The team have released four albums showcasing a range of their live work, as well as cultivating a word of mouth following of dedicated fans.
We were lucky enough to get the chance to chat with the guys about the formation of the band, their best gigs, the games they feature, and their evolution as a group.
How and why did the band form? Did the band have differing interests in games and music?
The band was originally formed by Robbie Benson (In 2011) to play at a local burrito joint called Iguana’s during nearby anime convention (called Fanime), with the intent of getting noticed and eventually being able to play there. The secondary reason was that is was fun to be able to play familiar music to people in our age group in a jazz/funk context with a heavy emphasis on improvisation. The following year Robbie met Brian Sheu, the two hit it off over similar musical interests, and the band name Super Soul Bros. was coined (originally Super Soul Bros. and the Sons of Bits). Throughout the years, the lineup changed many times eventually culminating in our current roster of musicians. All of these members were people that Brian met while going to school at San Jose State or gigging around town.
Chris Haman came in from originally playing a percussionist role and transitioned into being the main set drummer. He brings a lot of power and drive that not many drummers can match. Christian Manzana was brought in on trombone to fill in the low end of the horn section and offer his versatility as a MC. Eventually Alex Popoff became our main saxophonist (Tenor), and a driving force of the band who regularly writes charts and brings many musical ideas to the table.
Bill Smolik joined on trumpet about a year and a half later when our original player Matt Michelin’s visa expired and had to go back to Canada. Bill brings in a level of consistency, experience, and dedication that has cemented his place in the band.
The band definitely has differing interests in games and music. For gaming, Alex tends to be the most outspoken and opinionated about new gaming trends. Robbie hasn’t finished a modern game since Halo 2 (vowing to eventually finish The Last of Us). Brian follows current gaming trends and pretty much plays anything he enjoys (really excited for the new Mass Effect!). He also has been enjoying playing Gary’s Mod with friends, and fun co-op indie games. He currently works for Ubisoft working on the game Rocksmith. Bill Smolik has been heavily into Overwatch, as well as other Blizzard classics StarCraft and StarCraft II. Christian has traditionally been into story driven single player games like The Last of Us and Final Fantasy. And Chris looooooves kitties. He also likes Call of Duty and Trials.
The band also has varying musical interests, and that’s why the band is so versatile. Most of the music someone likes in the band is respected by everyone else, and is almost never outright disliked. The main influences of the band include the Yellowjackets (early era), Richard Tee, Stuff, Snarky Puppy, Brecker Brothers, Chick Corea, Robert Glasper, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Joshua Redman, The Roots, Tribe Called Quest, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown. There are many others not mentioned as well!
What do you look for in a crowd / event – are there any that have stood out to you as the perfect audience?
The audience at Magfest (Music and Gaming Festival held in Washington DC) is consistently some of our favorite people to play for. Not only are they big video game nerds, they are also hardcore music nerds, so many of them really “get” what we do at the deepest level so it’s a slightly different kind of fan relationship. They will dance during tunes, they will cheer when someone’s taking a burning solo, they make us want to play better each and every time.
The crowd has also gotten bigger and bigger by word of mouth, and it feels incredibly encouraging to us as a growing band because of the love that they show. It’s pretty much the perfect experience for us.
How do you select which games to feature in your music?
Usually the games we select are just tunes we think are cool and would be fun to play. Many of the tunes we pick tend to be more retro or simple because they are more open to stylistic interpretation and being made “our own”. We also grew up with many of these tunes so we have a lot of emotional attachment to them. Recently we’ve been on the lookout to new VGM that would be good for us to cover, also venturing into the Anime and TV show realm.
We do Twitch streams of us performing our VGM covers, and sometimes we accept donations to work on a new tune of the donor’s choice. It’s pretty much the same as being commissioned to make an arrangement. Sometimes the tune the donor picks is kind of unrealistic for us however, or just doesn’t really work with the sound or style of the band. Many modern VGM tracks are so orchestrated that it doesn’t lead a lot of room for arranging or interpretation so we don’t enjoy it as much. Sometimes people will also pick tunes that we can do but are of a different style that would work better in a different band (sometimes overly rock or metal tracks, or something with a singer). That doesn’t mean that we can’t do it though.
One of the tunes that we completely reworked to fit our sound is Megalovania, which is originally a retro-ish, metal/hard rock tune from the game Undertale.
Alex cut the tempo and reworked it with a halftime feel. He also arranged the horns with new articulations that made the melody funky. Brian and Robbie wrote some different rhythm section parts along with some reharmonized chords to give it more of a jazzy/funk feeling. The result is something that isn’t metal, but still retains the power and epicness in a different way. It continues to be one of the most popular arrangements we play.
How has the band evolved from where it started? Have changes in the game industry itself had any impact on the type of music you create?
Since the lineup is now very consistent, the band as a whole has gotten much tighter as we have built up chemistry from playing together for so long. As members practiced individually, the level of the musicianship also continues to rise. Having a consistent 3 horn line up has allowed us to create very complex arrangements and do tunes with many counter melodies. The biggest change was probably being able to write a chart and bring it in, since most of the musicians before this lineup weren’t schooled and could not read very well, it made it difficult to learn new material.
Before there was a set horn section most of the band relied on memorizing parts, so it was difficult to perform complicated tunes. Most of the arrangements in the early days were basic melodies and solo sections. Nowadays either Brian or Alex will write/bring in a new VGM chart, a lot of the times taking liberties with the tune and experimenting with new parts/chords/forms. You’ll hear a lot of references to other melodies, original backgrounds, and hidden easter eggs or musical jokes.
You can check, and book, Super Soul Bros via their official website