At first blush, if all you notice is the members standing on stage, thrashing at their instruments, the Athens band Bit Brigade might look like just another group playing twin-guitar hard rock. Sure, it’s a little more complex than some others — more Iron Maiden than AC/DC — but it’s a recognizable enough live approach.
Well, except for the guy sitting in the middle of the stage in front of a television, playing an old-school video game in time with the music, and the giant screen behind the band showing you the gamer’s progress.
And the music might sound familiar, too — especially if you love old-school games like Contra or Metroid, the two titles Bit Brigade will tackle this week in West Columbia. The players crank through the soundtracks to these throwback favorites, following gamer Noah McCarthy as he plays through the twists, turns, puzzles and bosses.
“The combination of the visuals and the music keeps everyone really engaged,” McCarthy tells Free Times, enthusing that it’s an experience for the video game faithful and the uninitiated alike.
The band formed in 2003 as a joke — just some friends sitting around laughing about what it would be like if a rock band played the tinny, computerized music from games like Castlevania or Mega Man II. The musicians (guitarists Bryant Williamson and Jace Bartet, bassist Luke Fields and drummer Mike Albanese) all were involved with more serious musical concerns (Maserati, Reptar, We Versus the Shark), but the idea stuck — and the band slowly started to get more serious about it.
“A lot of the guys were more focused on their own bands,” McCarthy recalls. “So for the first seven years or so it was more of a side project. But it slowly started becoming something we focused on more.”
When the band played at the 2010 MAGfest (aka The Music & Gaming Festival), an annual event in the D.C. area that celebrates both video games and their music, Bit Brigade made such a big splash that it started getting steady work.
And it is work. It can take months for McCarthy and the band to get a game and its soundtrack to sync up with one another.
“I spend however much time it takes to learn a game,” McCarthy says, “and then Bryant and I go over the music to see if it’s even feasible.”
McCarthy watches speed-runs, taped attempts by gamers striving to complete a game as quickly as possible, and does exhaustive play-throughs to get a handle on each game.
“Once I learn it, I try to get it down to an amount of time I feel is going to be consistent,” he says, explaining that about 45 minutes is typically ideal. “Then the band starts learning their parts. Then we practice all together and figure out the cues and what they need to keep an eye out for.”
Everyone has to stay sharp to realize this pairing of gaming and music, for reasons both obvious and less than.
“These songs were written to sound like guitar music, but they weren’t written for guitars,” McCarthy offers. “This music was not intended for humans to play, so a lot of these riffs are absolutely insane. So while we’re playing, I’m listening to them, speeding up and slowing down so certain parts of the games can fit the songs, and they’re watching me and the screen. I have cues to let someone know that they need to speed up or that they have to slow down.”
Other challenges crop up, as well.
“The first time we ever did Contra, the crowd was getting so into it that they knocked the TV over,” he remembers. “I had to pause the game and put the TV back up, and that caused the game to freeze.”
But there are worse possibilities. What happens if McCarthy loses a life while playing, or loses enough lives that it’s game over?
“That’s when the shows get more interesting, when something happens and I have to figure out how to keep it going,” he says. “It’s all on my shoulders to beat the game and not fail. If I mess up too many times, it’s game over, but fortunately that has never happened.”
What: Bit Brigade
Where: New Brookland Tavern, 122 State St.
When: Thursday, Aug. 15, 8 p.m.
With: Double Ferrari
More: 803-791-4413, newbrooklandtavern.com