The Runaway Five Interview: Unique Fan Arrangements (June 2008)
The Runaway Five is a Toronto-based band of jazz musicians that regularly perform unique arrangements of various video game pieces. They have acquired a dedicated fanbase, received critical acclaim from prominent artists, and even performed at Video Games Live. This interview with band founders Brendan McElroy and Brendan Swanson discusses the band's history, influences, accomplishments, and future plans.
Interview Subject: Brendan McElroy, Brendan Swanson
Interviewer: Andre Marentette
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Andre Marentette
Andre: What was your inspiration for beginning the band The Runaway Five? Does that inspiration still drive your artistic vision or has it evolved into something greater?
Brendan McElroy: Growing up I have always been intrigued by game music. Game music is a powerful. It has the ability to create emotional connections with specific scenes in specific games. Not a lot of musical styles or genres have the ability to do this. Growing up, I listened to game music extensively. Throughout high school I was constantly arranging game music for various ensembles; brass quintet, brass dectet, trombone quartet, and various jazz ensembles. It was something I loved doing. I found it very nostalgic.
At the end of high school I decided on pursuing a degree in jazz performance. The inspiration that sparked the project was essentially me wanting to share my interest and love for both game music and jazz. Much like game music, jazz is associated with many negative stereotypes and the majority of people write it off without giving it a chance. I started this project in an effort to cross genres and to gain respect for The Runaway Five in both areas. The Runaway Five's members are all influenced by different music and musicians and it is that collective pot of influences that give us our unique sound. However, our love for video game music will keep The Runaway Five coming out with new and better material.
Andre: How did you and your fellow performers come together? Did the project spring from one individual, or from the combined artistic vision of several people?
Brendan McElroy: It's complicated. It began when I was attending the world famous Banff Center with the Calgary Youth Jazz Orchestra. I ran the idea of The Runaway Five by a good friend of mine and co-founder of the group, Brendan Swanson. At first, it was a one time show scheduled for May 17th, 2007. Because of the show's turnout, we decided to schedule another. It eventually became a regular thing. Come September 2007, I moved out to Toronto to study music at the University of Toronto and wanted to continue the project. This led me to Toronto's guitarist and a good friend of mine, Alex Goodman. It seemed we shared the same interest for arranging video game music. As for the other guys, they're constantly changing. Our main horn player is Matt MacLean, a trumpet player from Calgary who is also studying in Toronto.
Andre: Who makes up the current band? Could you give us a little information about each of you?
Brendan McElroy: Matt MacLean is our trumpet player and is currently doing his undergrad in jazz performance at the University of Toronto. He's also the lead trumpet player for U of T's 10 O'clock Big Band, one of Canada's finest jazz ensembles. Brendan Swanson is the piano player. He's the only non-music major and is currently studying biology at the University of Calgary. The guitar player is Alex Goodman. He's based in Toronto, has completed 2 years at McGill University, and is currently finishing his undergrad at the University of Toronto.
We actually have two regular drummers. In Calgary, Spencer Cheyne is a graduate of Mount Royal College's jazz performance diploma and is one of Calgary's most active youth drummers. In Toronto, Jon McCaslin has his Masters in jazz performance from McGill University. He has toured with the world famous group Barrage and is currently acquiring his doctorate while teaching at the University of Toronto. I have finished a 2 year jazz performance diploma program at Mount Royal College in Calgary and now I'm currently completing my undergraduate at the University of Toronto.
Andre: Are you influenced by specific original compositions or composers? How has that influence emerged through your own arrangements?
Brendan McElroy: My biggest influence is Yasunori Mitsuda. However, I am influenced by a lot of other music and musicians. I am often influenced by my surroundings as well. You don't need music to be influenced. Generally I won't be influenced by individual pieces, but I have been known to combine pieces if they work well together. For example, "King Kang Kong" is an arrangement I did of the jungle theme from Donkey Kong Country and I combined it with the popular "Sing, Sing, Sing". I usually do this if I am stuck with a certain arrangement. For the most part my arrangements come naturally.
Brendan Swanson: Musically speaking, everything I do is influenced by something else. I'm generally not influenced by specific composers, per se. If I hear something I like, it will eventually find its way into something I do; a lot of it just comes naturally at this point. That being said, once I do get a specific idea for an arrangement, I may take ideas directly from other artists I admire if I have trouble with it.
Andre: How did the style for your arrangements develop?
Brendan McElroy: Although Alex and I or Swanson and I will occasionally work some stuff out, our arrangements are usually done individually. The majority of the arranging is done by Alex, Swanson, and I. Sometimes some of the other members will bring a tune in that they want to do. Also, we often feature special guests who arrange a piece or two for the group. Other than that, our style is merely a collaboration of the influences of each member. If the specific arranger wants a certain style, they'll just dictate what they want. As jazz musicians, in order to survive the working world of music, we are trained to play any style. If we can't, we don't get called for the gig.
Andre: How do you choose your arrangements? Do you generally turn towards pieces which have a certain potential for your instrumental choices, towards pieces which are simply a challenge to reinterpret and adapt for a new audience, or a combination of the two?
Brendan McElroy: Simply put, if someone in the group likes a piece, they'll arrange it. As a band leader, I'm very easy going. We'll play anything anyone brings in. Swanson even went as far to have him and I sing Japanese during his rendition of the Katamari Damacy main theme. It's a good thing that that recording didn't find its way to the public (laughs). We even take requests and suggestions. Often we find ourselves not knowing what to play for the next show and are in need of suggestions for arrangements. If anyone has any, feel free to suggest them on our site.
Andre: What goals have you set for The Runaway Five?
Brendan McElroy: Currently, we are planning to release an album sometime in the next year or so. The plan is to make it a fully legit, studio recording. I'm hoping by then that we'll have sufficient support to get such a recording done. As for the long term goals, it has always been my personal goal to someday work with Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross). If that were to happen I imagine somehow that The Runaway Five would get involved. Our most important goal is to play our part in getting video game music and jazz the respect they deserve. I figure The Runaway Five will at some point get back to its birth place, The Banff Center for the arts. I would like for this ensemble to get accepted there for their world renowned summer jazz program. Meeting many of the industry's game composers would also be nice.
Andre: You've had a few interesting achievements so far with the band. Would you like to share them with us?
Brendan McElroy: Back in February we had the opportunity to perform at Video Games Live and got a great response from both the crowd and the staff of the tour. From this The Runaway Five was able to meet Michael Salvatori (Halo series). We got a great response from him as well, and I quote, "When you guys came out and played, I had a grin on my face the entire time. I loved it!" I have been talking to Michael by email and he's very supportive of our work and can't wait to hear what we come up with next. He mentioned that he sent some of our stuff to Marty O'Donnell (Halo series) as well.
Video Games Live did wonders for us! Jack Wall (Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, Jade Empire, Mass Effect) and Tommy Tallarico (Earthworm Jim, MDK, Spot Goes to Hollywood, Wild 9) have invited us back to perform at any of the Video Game Live shows we can make it to! We are currently scheduling to play at Video Games Live in Kitchener, Ontario (if we can make the trip there from Toronto) and two nights in Calgary, Alberta. Both shows are in 2009.
Our MySpace page has been kind to us as well. In this past year we've received almost 10,000 profile views without the use oft a friends adder. Also through myspace, Motoi Sakuraba (Star Ocean series, Baten Kaitos, Valkyrie Profile, Tales series) came across our profile and quoted us as being "Absolutely wonderful". Also, I came into contact with the kind people of PAX and we are potentially performing at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo. Performing at PAX would give us a great amount of publicity. I really hope that gig comes through. Finally, near the beginning of the year, I was contacted by the PR Marketing Representative for PlayStation Canada and he was interested in us performing at some corporate PlayStation events. Hopefully something happens with that as well.
Andre: When you look at the video game music scene nowadays, it would appear that more and more often the general public is getting a look at smaller, independent projects which focus on personal arrangements of popular themes. How do you perceive this new wave of independent talent in the video game world, and what possibilities for other independent artists do you think might become available to them in the near future?
Brendan McElroy: I love it! The idea that there are independent artists trying to break into the world of game music excites me. That's what I'm trying to do! I have a shared interest. All of these independent artists are truly the ones that have helped game music get into the ears of listeners who wouldn't necessarily listen to game music. Just the other day I woke up to the sound of my mother playing Final Fantasy VIII's "Eyes on Me" on the piano. She's never played a video game in her life, yet she knows the music. It's these independent artists that are influencing people to give game music a chance.
As for opportunities, you never know what you are going to be faced with. It is always a possibility that independent artists could be contracted to do some recording or composing for upcoming games. It's definitely possible to make a name for yourself in this industry. Take a look at Mustin from The OneUps; he's made quite a name for himself. You have to take risks, make mistakes, and keep doing what you're doing until you gain the recognition you think you deserve.
Brendan Swanson: It seems to me as though video games are becoming more and more mainstream as time passes and that's saying something, considering they've been popular since their inception. The music associated with these games has become timeless. I'll bet almost everyone could hum at least one piece from a Mario game, whether they've played any Mario games or not. This is music that makes people nostalgic. It's music people want to hear more than ever and us gamers / musicians are only too eager to please. This music is fun to play, it's fun to listen to and, because of its origins, it always spurs a reaction. I can't tell you how often I get requests, sometimes from games I've never even heard of.
I can't possibly be the only person people want to hear video game pieces from so several video game bands have come into the mainstream. Even before we founded The Runaway Five, I had heard a bunch of stuff from the Minibosses and The Black Mages, and now there are bands like Arm Cannon or Thwomp. Video game covers are getting so well known that the amount of opportunities to perform are most definitely going to increase. Maybe not at corporate parties, but there are many places to play.
Andre: Do you have any advice for other artists seeking to explore their own adaptations of video game music?
Brendan McElroy: Listen to lots of music. Open your ears to all music the world has to offer. Game music has got me listening to many different styles and genres I wouldn't normally listen to. I am influenced by everything I listen to and it shows up in my arrangements. Also, try and find something unique and roll with it. Playing the battle theme from Final Fantasy VII the exact same way fifteen other rock/metal bands have played it will only get you so far. I would much rather hear it done by three hundred tubas and a spoon player (laughs). I can't guarantee it would be my favorite, but at least it would be unique, interesting, and possibly humorous. Finally, find other musicians that share the same passion for game music as you do. By doing this you'll be working towards a common goal. In addition, every person has their own set of influences; combine them. You never know what you'll come up with.
Brendan Swanson: First and foremost, you have to know your stuff. Learn musical theory and train your ears. Second, it's important to know the musical styles you plan to use. This makes it easier to arrange any piece for any band. That being said, playing a piece from a video game as is isn't going to get you a lot of praise. Each piece has its stylistic limitations (i.e. a lot of RPG combat pieces seemingly suitable for rock or metal (Hello FFVII boss theme), but with enough imagination you can pretty much do anything with any tune. Of course, it is most important that you expand your musical horizons and listen to as much music as you can. Half of my own practice doesn't even involve touching my instrument; it comes from listening to and analyzing music. This not only trains my ears, but also gives me stylistic ideas that will inevitably come out when I'm arranging another tune.
Andre: Where is The Runaway Five headed next? What can fans look forward to in the coming year?
Brendan McElroy: We're always updating the audio tracks online from our previous shows so please check the website often. I am about four months behind with the updates so you can plan on a massive one with all new tracks, photos, etc. in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully we'll be performing at PAX 2009. Fans of The Runaway Five should plan on seeing a CD release relatively soon and plan on seeing us perform at Video Games Live a couple more times in the upcoming year.
To hear recordings from The Runaway Five and learn more about the band, please visit their MySpace and Facebook pages. Thank you to Andre Marentette, Brendan McElroy, and Brendan Swanson for taking the time to conduct this interview.