Sacramento’s Nintendo cover band reaches the next level
In 1889, Japanese businessman Fusajiro Yamauchi formed Nintendo Corp. to manufacture hanafuda playing cards. Though Nintendo has diversified its investments over the years, including ventures into instant rice, taxis, hourly “love” hotels and even its current ownership of the Seattle Mariners, there’s no way Yamauchi could have foreseen the product Nintendo would become internationally known for: the gray, boxy Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Of course, NES has joined the Commodore 64 and Atari home-game consoles in electronic obsolescence, surpassed by Game Boys, GameCubes and Xboxes. But for those who grew up in the NES heyday of the late 1980s and spent hours of their formative years piloting the Super Mario Bros. through the underworld or trying not to succumb to Marble Madness, the system has left an indelible influence. Gaming purists strive to preserve the NES tradition, buying and selling the console and its accessories in fevered eBay auctions. And then there is the Advantage, Sacramento’s NES cover band.
Named for the NES controller (with “real arcade joystick, turbo adjusters, and slow-motion feature”) released in 1989, the Advantage currently is touring the West Coast in support of its sophomore album, Elf-Titled. The CD, hilariously decorated with a tacky illustration of bikini babes washing a giant, sudsy NES, debuts January 24 on Kill Rock Stars’ sister label, 5 Rue Christine. The Advantage will conclude its tour this Friday at Fools Foundation, but SN&R caught up with the band as it piloted the tour van from Vancouver to Seattle.
Speaking loudly over the vehicle’s blaring stereo, bassist Carson McWhirter began by affirming that the Advantage only plays songs from NES games. No Xbox, no Sega, no Atari. “Not even Super NES,” he confirmed.
The total number of NES games hovers around 800 (foreign titles and pirate copies complicate an exact tally). With some games having as many as 20 musical themes for various levels of play, there’s a huge catalogue of songs to choose from. The 5 Rue Christine Web site boasts that the quartet intends to record every NES song before death, but McWhirter balked at the claim. “We’ve thought about it. I don’t know how realistic that is, but it would be nice,” he admitted. “It seems like a good life goal.”
Given the musical commitments of all four members, it might take a lifetime. Drummer Spencer Seim is busy most of the year with his band Hella. Guitarist Ben Milner plays for the Eloi, and guitarist Robby Moncrieff just started a band called Who’s Your Favorite Sun God, which opens Friday’s show. After rattling off his bandmates’ résumés, McWhirter grew vague about his own projects. “I don’t know what I play in,” he said, “a bunch of weird, random stuff that changes names all the time.”
In various formations since 1998, with the current lineup going on two years, the Advantage functions as a side project for all members. The band chooses new material by listening together to MP3s of NES songs, exhaustively catalogued by gamers on the Internet. Then each member learns his part on his own. “Most Nintendo songs are four-channel, like two melody lines and a bass line and a drum line, which is our instrumentation, so it works really well,” McWhirter explained. “We just listen for songs that sound like good rock songs.”
What’s immediately apparent when listening to the Advantage is that the band transcends not only the novelty of its gimmick but also the bounds of instrumental rock. Freed from the limiting context of electronic blips and repeating melodies by the group’s amplified arrangements, NES music reveals itself as a complex—yet always catchy—creation that alternately swings, thrashes, hustles and waltzes through influences from funk to classical.
Fortunately, the Advantage has the advantage of solid technical skills. That’s what happens when a love of video games gives way to a love of music. “We’ve all gone through serious Nintendo periods in our lives,” McWhirter concluded, “but right now we don’t play it that much, which is kind of weird.”