What if Tedium … Had Lyrics?

A conversation with video game music icon Brent Black (aka Brentalfloss) about his music, thoughts on YouTube, and using your words.

As our readers are now undoubtedly aware, there are two things I’m incredibly interested in—unique types of music and the history/technical aspects/playing the games of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (I’m also really into miniatures, FWIW). Knowing this, it was only a matter of time before I discovered someone who combined these two interests into one. Unlike U2, circa 1987, I found what I was looking for almost a decade ago.

Conspicuously absent from our recent Nintendo Still Rocks issue of Tedium was more than a mere mention of Nintendo comedian, game creator, musician and YouTube personality Brentalfloss. Brent Black made his name on the internet via YouTube in its earlier, freeform days, alongside—though not associated with—other many other channels like James Rolfe’s Angry Video Game Nerd.

Getting started with Brent’s music is simple. Navigate over to his Bandcamp page and have a listen or three. We recommend Flossophy as the diving-in point and moving on from there. His videos are all available on his YouTube channel.

In addition to his comedy work, Brent is a serious composer and has released his own compositions on a dedicated website, where he offers to do one-off commissions for your own video game songs, podcast intros and other types of music. Brent is a professional and incredibly talented musician, with a keen sense of observation that goes beyond the comedy.

Recently, Tedium conducted an interview with Brent, discussing his work, YouTube success, thoughts on comedy and more. His intelligent, informed responses show he is more than a mere novelty artist who adds goofy lyrics to video games. In a bit of a departure from our usual style, here are a few of Brent’s responses from our interview:

Talking about music

Brent is certainly staying busy these days.

“I have lots of projects happening simultaneously. We’re working on an upcoming free content pack for my party game Use Your Words, I’ve got a few new Brentalfloss YouTube videos in the works, and I’m also still uploading weekly episodes of my podcast Trends Like These.

He’s a professional piano player, who was drawn to playing the instrument by an old doo-wop tune:

“I got the song “My Girl” by the Temptations stuck in my head when I was 7 years old and when I tried to figure out how to play it on the piano, I realized I liked it. Eventually, I think what hooked me into the piano was the fact that it was a great way to get attention.”

He learns everything by ear and rarely struggles anymore with picking out tunes on the piano:

“You know, in the time since I recorded that video , I have become a much more computer-based musical arranger. I struggled with tunes so much, I don’t struggle with it anymore!”

The same goes for learning video game songs by ear...some of which have their own music-only arrangements:

“It really depends on what the style of music is. If it’s basic rock and roll chords, I can figure it out in a matter of minutes. But if it’s orchestral and musically complex (like say Shadow of the Colossus), it might not even be worth it for me to figure it all out. As for my arrangements, all of my ‘without lyrics’ tracks are available on my Bandcamp page, and many of them are available on iTunes and other stores.”

Regarding the “with lyrics” series:

“I have some ideas for the future of the “With Lyrics” series, but I’ve been essentially on a hiatus from it for the past two years, so my main goal now is to dip my toes back into it and see what the response will be.”

Thoughts on “Weird Al” Yankovic and his parodies:

“I respect Weird Al more than I’m a “fan” per se. He’s a genius, but his tunes aren’t in my regular iPod shuffles. My favorite song of his is “Eat It.” I think if he’s had any affect on my songwriting, it’s the way I sing. Sometimes, I wish I had more of a “radio” voice, but then I think about the fact that Weird Al has made a career out of a vocal instrument that... let’s just say it’s not exactly Elvis Presley, haha.”

Though he recently received airplay on The Dr. Demento Show—related to his recent appearance at MarsCon—he wasn’t directly influenced by the show at all.

“I didn’t really listen to the show, but I borrowed a Dr. Demento compilation CD from the library in 1995, and it absolutely changed my life. To this day, I know every word backwards and forwards.”

The higher quality of his parodies stands out among the sea of mediocre parodies across YouTube because of his background and education in music.

“I got a masters in songwriting and, while my professors may not have intended for me to write parody songs on YouTube, the basic techniques of music and lyrics apply to any style of music. While I have made lazy songwriting choices here or there, I think that the joy I take in the craft of songwriting shines through most of the work.”

He performed a set at the 2018 MarsCon convention to much praise.

“MarsCon was an unexpected delight. I had never performed at a Sci-Fi con, and I had no idea whether they would be receptive to my mostly video game comedy or not. The crowds were amazing, and the attendees were all very nice and warm.”

Brent’s thoughts on the state of comedy music in 2018:

“It’s getting harder to do, but it’s getting harder for the right reasons. There was a time when a comedy song was often a white man making fun of a less-privileged group like gay people (Martin Mull’s “Men”), heavy people (Weird Al’s “Fat”), black culture (Hammond and Snell’s “Wappin’”), the kink community (Tom Lehrer’s “The Masochism Tango”), Jews (Frank Gallop’s “The Ballad of Irving”) the mentally ill (Napoleon XIV’s “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Ha”) and others. These days, you need to be a bit more subtle and nuanced because we have a more inclusive culture. But where punching down was once an easy way to write a comedy song, now there’s more of a market for writers making fun of their own faults, or delving into complete absurdism.”

Brentalfloss has his own comic, telling the story of his YouTube success in a humorous manner. Read it here.

“Dany Roth approached me in 2010 to see if I’d like to adapt the YouTube brand to a webcomic format. I was skeptical, but there was something appealing about a lot of Dany’s early drafts, so we created a roommate character based on a combination of ‘The Roommate Song’ from my first album, and my actual college roommate Travis McElroy.”

He’s not completely satisfied with some of his earlier parodies:

“I think I just started doing the Tyson voice as a joke while I was writing the lyrics and suddenly I thought I should have Mike rap. I kind of cringe at some of my early material like that now.”

The origin of the phrase “key change mofo” in some of his songs:

“I love the moment in various musical theatre songs where the key changes. One prominent example of this is the musical version of “The Producers” where this totally bonkers characters just says “KEY CHANGE” when his song changes key. I always liked that, so I added “mofo” in my Final Fantasy Classic lyric and it sort of became a catchphrase.”

Discussing production and YouTube

He’s worked with fellow YouTube musician Dave Bulmer on two videos: “Super Mario Land with lyrics” and “Ocarina of Time with lyrics.” They took a long time to make:

Super Mario Land With Lyrics was a collaboration of about 10 months, and Ocarina took about 18 months (we actually shot the confrontation scene twice because we changed the ending!)”

Brent became involved with YouTube early on—practically at the beginning of the platform. He has a few succinct thoughts on how the platform has evolved, where it’s headed and some of the changes that seem to make it more difficult for creators to succeed on the platform.

“The main way it has evolved is that the average YouTuber in 2018 is about forty seven thousand times more attractive than the average YouTuber back when I started experimenting with it. “Old media” people made fun of it and pushed its head down right up to the point where they all decided they wanted a piece. Nowadays, the top trending video is usually a clip from a TV show because networks have realized the power of YouTube. It’s been a huge change.”

Using your words

Brent and his development team recently had a successful release of a party video game called “Use Your Words” across several platforms. He told us the inspiration behind the game, but left us in the dark about possible future projects.

“I’ve always loved the kind of party game that allows players to get points for cracking their friends up. When I discovered the genre of Jackbox-style “play with your phone” games, I realized I could finally make the ultimate comedy party game.”

A long way from game over

With a successful video game release, several albums behind him, a popular podcast and a brand new entry into his ...with lyrics series, Brent shows no signs of slowing down. The future seems quite bright for the musician/comedian/game designer and I look forward to seeing what the next project is, when it finally comes along.

(Photo by John Maynard/Flickr)