Artist: Square Boys
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Peanut Gallery: Sound
Artist Rep: Nathan Dell-Vanderberg
My boy! Welcome Nathan! I’m really excited to exchange words with you about this exuberant instrumental ensemble! To start off, what is Square Boys all about? What constitutes a boy to be “square”?
Square Boys is about digging into the history of video game music like a DJ digs for deep cuts or even how an ethnomusicologist delves into the musical history of a foreign culture. I wouldn’t say we’re snobs though, we search for nuggets that inspire a good party from old and new, popular and unknown, all of this while embracing the attitude of cult B-movie culture. I’d say that cult flavour comes from our off-kilter interludes and mirrored geometrical anthropomorphic stage personas.
And to answer your second question, what constitutes a boy to be “square”? All you have to do is make a pit stop at this burger joint in the East end of Toronto by Donlands station called Square Boy. Rip a game on their tabletop arcade, get a greasy burg, fries and a pop for $5.
Who makes up the band membership? How do you all know each other?
Picking apart this Megazord brass band contraption, you get Brian Walters on Trumpet, Julian Nalli on Alto Sax, myself (Nathan Dell-Vandenberg) on Trombone, Ian Tulloch on Sousaphone, and Jared Goldman on Drums. A bunch of us crossed paths earning our music nerd stripes at Humber College with the exception of Ian Tulloch who came into the fold while Nathan and him were playing with Lemon Bucket Orkestra.
You have given yourselves the impressive enduring title of “Toronto’s Premier Video Game Party Brass Band”. This is a fantastic jumping board descriptor into the music the band performs… all through brass band instrumentation! Why did you guys feel compelled to start this kind of music group?
We live and breath music with brass bands these days in Toronto and we wanted to explore the outer limits through the group. I personally wanted to take some of the lessons I learned from some of my favourite bands in Toronto that I play/played with and mash them together. Julian and I play with Fat as Fuck which enables the band and audience to lose all inhibitions through strange masks and hazmat suits. Lemon Bucket Orkestra pushes boundaries of energy levels, speed, and crowd invasiveness and interaction. We really wanted to take the best parts and create a new beast.
Could you talk in finer detail about what eclectic styles Square Boys belts out?
Eclectic is right on the nose really. I write the arrangements for the group and have some favourite angles to lean on, but it is a wide breadth of styles. I really enjoy taking inspiration from the Caribbean, styles like Soca or Dancehall. I also spent a bunch of time digging into early 70s Deep Funk so you can pick out a handful of tunes with that in mind. I’ve taken some cues from bands like Too Many Zooz, Lucky Chops, and Moon Hooch too so there are elements of Trance, Disco, and House.
But as I said, I go left field often. I used a Venezuelan style called Joropo for a version of Guiles Theme from Street Fighter. I used Brazilian Forró for a cover of I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire which was licensed for Fallout 3, Surf for Ghosts n’ Goblins, Trap for Undertale’s Megalovania, New Orleans second line, Polish Polka, Romanian Sirba etc etc etc.
I just really like exploring styles from various parts of the world.
A key chunk of the ensemble's repertoire are covers of video game music. Square Boys is currently releasing video game cover singles monthly for 2020. How have video games been influential in your lives?
Honestly, video games were a huge part of my childhood growing up. I was the one with a 6 foot stack of Nintendo Power Magazines, a SEGA Genesis with the SEGA CD and 32x extensions, I had pre-ordered a gold (spray painted) copy of Ocarina of Time back before the internet was really a thing, and THEN proceeded to take apart my N64 controller to spray paint that gold.
It was a big part of my social life with friends and I have lots of good memories from those times. I sure I also neglected a bunch of other things at the time too.
Ever since I headed off to College my time with video games waned, but gaming really has impacted me musically over the last couple years since starting this band. There are treasure troves of incredibly well written tunes in video games from Atari up to the most recent releases and it’s taught me a lot.
What attracts you boys into rearranging them for your instrument selection? How do you decide which works to cover? Is it difficult to orchestrate video game music for the band?
It was pretty much born out of the fact that we wanted something portable and that many of us have been playing with various forms of brass bands in the last handful of years. From there it is a puzzle of how to make the game music fit into the band’s instrumentation. Some of these songs are orchestral and others are simple 8-bit ditties so there are a bunch of liberties taken when piecing them together.
When we started the project I was listening to hours of soundtracks, scanning through every NES, SNES, Genesis title I could find and then noting what songs I liked. I would browse through older DOS games too or games released on Steam, Xbox, Playstation etc. and other times I would find gems through people’s suggestions.
The real challenge to bringing the songs to life is having an interesting idea behind it. I never want to play a cover song straight up, that’s just lazy. And you know, sometimes the idea just isn’t working and you try and finesse it over and over, then other times it clicks right away. So when working on the music the difficulty varies.
This is probably an expansive question for you: What are your favourite video games and those shared with the entire collective?
We all have our own tastes and different histories with games, but lots of us enjoy Super Smash Bros (I’m partial to the original), and two of the guys play Rocket League a fair amount. I’m a sucker for the classics and I think some of the others agree. Things like Zelda: Ocarina of Time, early Super Mario Bros franchise (although Galaxy was pretty damn good), but I also devoured games like Doom 3D, Dead Space, and Wolfenstein: A New Order (I have a soft spot for Wolfenstein 3D though).
I really loved more obscure titles too as I grew up like Hugo’s House of Horrors, Jazz Jackrabbit, Jill of the Jungle, but yeah the list can keep going and going. I played a lot as a kid.
Square Boys compose their own original music, adventurous and stunning in its own right, mainly heard off 2018 EP Can I Play, Daddy? How do these originals contrast musically with respect to your video game covers? Does your performance texture and techniques change at all?
The goal at first was to balance original tunes in the mix and just share stylistic elements between those and the game covers, but there is too much great material to explore and highlight from the existing gaming world. Safe to say that we are exclusively a cover band at this point… unless we are asked to score a game ourselves…
What can each and every human_person expect to experience at a live Square Boys music extravaganza? And tell me about your shiny animal masks! What symbolism do they bring forth?
People can expect to dance, sing a long, feel nostalgic, but also be shaken out of their comfort zone. We keep it fun and lighthearted. Who knows, maybe next time we’ll parade through the audience?
As for the masks, we wanted something polygonal, something to unify the group. We were literally going to cut pieces of mirror at first and affix them to masks, but luckily we found an alternative solution with cheap dollar store placemats as a base and mirrored vinyl to layer over top. Most importantly is the design though and I have to give kudos to Wintercroft which sells templates for mask making.
I am not sure if I would say the masks are symbolic though, but rather tips of the hat to various video game related lore. They aren’t all animals either; Bat, Fox, Skull, Devil, and Unicorn.
And as a side story, I had made all the masks before I decided “what the hell, I’ll put together the massive Unicorn mask and make the drummer play with it on”. I only realized after that you can’t see AT ALL with that mask on since the eye holes are a foot away from your face! After a suggestion to cut out a part of the bottom for a bit a sightline, I realized that I could play trombone with it on… Unfortunately for me, I can only see the floor and not a single person in the audience. Sometimes I feel like people aren’t enjoying the show and that people are leaving, but then at the end of the set I take the mask off to see the dance floor full.
How did the ensemble come to be included with this weirdo community of Splendid Industries? What potential do you see with this community? What would you like to see happen?
I think that might be a better question for you! How did we come to be included in this weirdo community? If I have to answer, I would assume that’s because we are pretty weird! Part of it could also be our affiliation with Fat As Fuck, as they are pretty weird.
This community of bands is chalk full of talent, unique voices, and hard to pin down genres. This community can inspire people to express themselves through art and music in a much more dynamic way than we are typically fed.
I would like to see Splendid Industries grow and incorporate other forms of art that explore the fringes, that fit the ethos that you hunt for in your music choices. Find ways that these can all collaborate whether it be stage design, merchandise, or something else.
How can Splendid Industries encompass more of the weirdo creative community?
Nathan, it has been a pleasure to pick your (mother) brain! Before leaving yonder, what can we all expect in our futures from Square Boys?
Our next big thing is our follow up EP Don’t Hurt Me which will be released and celebrated at our show Friday June 26 2020 at the Burdock in Toronto. Tickets are on sale now via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/square-boys-epic-ep-release-party-tickets-98719888845
You can also look forward to some weekly video content that we’re just starting up on Tik Tok (@squareboysband), Instagram (@squareboysband), Facebook (/squareboys), and Twitter (@squareboysband). Sometimes short oddities, sometimes full tunes to dig into.
Thanks Splendid Industries for the splendid interview!