Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.
Shredding on a makeshift stage near San Jose State’s campus village last week, Super Soul Bros. turned some heads as they ran through their repertoire of funk, soul and jazz tunes—mined from video game soundtracks.
With a laid-back attitude that suggested an informal jam session, the group happily took requests from an enthusiastic crowd of listeners excited to hear their favorite video game music come alive. The band played tracks from Pokemon, Mario Kart, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Legend of Zelda and more.
Super Soul Bros. headline two nights at Café Stritch on May 23 and 24, delivering their funky takes on video game classics in honor of FanimeCon 2014.
The concept came to life in May 2011 when keyboardist Robbie Benson got some friends together to jam on video game tunes at Iguana’s during the FanimeCon weekend. Back then, the loosely formed group was playing a set billed as a “live video game music extravaganza.”
What began as a labor of love has since become a year-round endeavor, fronted by Benson with key support from guitarist Brian Sheu. Benson got more serious with the idea when the band started in earnest in 2012. With a setlist that nods heavily toward the Nintendo game catalog and a sound that unites soul, funk and jazz, Benson and company settled on the name Super Soul Bros.
A sideman for Tower of Power drummer Ron E. Beck and Santana vocalist Tony Lindsay, Benson has been a working musician for a while. However, with Super Soul Bros., he’s still getting used to fronting his own outfit. As he jokes, “I think we could be building more of a buzz much more quickly if I knew what I was doing.”
He sees the group as a band of local players united by their love of music and video games. “It’s not always a consistent lineup of musicians or a band per se, but it’s kind of a collective of musicians that all play jazz and funk,” he says. “A lot of us are musicians in those genres already, but we also have a common love for video game tunes and video games in general.”
Their fun sound and concept tends to capture an audience that transcends both genre and generation. They reel in the 20-something crowd that grew up playing Genesis and Super Nintendo, but they also grab baby boomers who can respect their sound and musicianship.
While the only group of their kind in the area, they aren’t the only band that performs video game tunes live. Benson says the Bros have been compared to Arkansas-based The One Ups among others, though he thinks his collective does stand out.
“First and foremost, we’re musicians, and second we’re gamers,” he clarifies. “We’re very well qualified to do the material, and I think people definitely recognize it.”
“I don’t want to say [our musicianship] gives us an edge because obviously it’s how people hear the music that really matters,” qualifies SSB bassist Paclibon, who officially joined the band earlier this year. “But it does help that we’re all able to play a lot of different styles of music.”
While the 8-bit and 16-bit original versions of the songs in SSB’s repertoire may sound like a far cry from what they perform live, Benson says the songs’ original compositions show the games’ composers were heavily influenced by jazz fusion and funk. That bleeds through into the songs themselves, even though the backdrops might not immediately reveal it.
“People reduce video game music to bits and beeps and stuff, but if you look at it compositionally, the notes that they’re playing and the rhythms and grooves that they’re creating, it’s jazz. It’s funk,” reveals Benson. [You can tell that’s] what the composers were really into at the time.”
Benson and company also enjoy their source material because it offers plenty of room for expansion. While the lead melody may draw people in, their musicianship shows just why the SSB are so special.
“That’s what I think people really get a kick out of, is they recognize it but then it goes somewhere else or it’s played in a different light than they had previously put it in,” notes Benson.
Though so far the band has stuck to local venues, Benson is looking to branch out in the coming months. He applied for the Bros to take part in MAGFest, a four-day video game festival in Washington, DC that incorporates plenty of live music that honors video game culture.
With the video game industry now a bigger cash cow than Hollywood, Super Soul Bros. have arrived at the perfect time to capitalize on the once niche culture becoming ever more mainstream. But as the enthusiasm of the band members reveals, they’re united first by the love of music.