Ninterview: Smooth McGroove On A Life In Game Music
Posted by Darren Calvert
"I'm used to people calling me Smooth McGroove when they meet me"
If we say we're interviewing Max Gleason from Oklahoma, you may wonder what exactly we're talking about. If we say we've posed some questions to Smooth McGroove, however, there's a good chance that you already subscribe to his YouTube Channel, or will be doing so shortly.
Gleason, through his performing name, has become a YouTube sensation, with nearly 800,000 subscribers; it's a figure that's rapidly rising. His fame comes from acapella (unaccompanied voice) arrangements of classic game music, helped along by the simple but stylish approach of recording each segment for the world to see in splitscreen — the more Smooth McGrooves there are, the more complex the arrangement. Not only does Gleason have an impressive voice and overall level of skill, but the arrangements themselves are complex affairs. Throw in flashes of charm and guest appearances of his cat, and it represents some of the best entertainment on YouTube, along with the happy coincidence that the fame of Smooth McGroove is based on substantial talent.
With so much of his material being based on Nintendo games, in particular, we decided to catch up with Gleason to learn more about how this career started, the genesis of Smooth McGroove as a character and, of course, his feline companion.
To begin we'd love to know a little bit about your gaming history. What was your early experience in gaming? What are some of your favourite consoles and games?
I started gaming at three or four with the Atari 2600, which my dad traded for a Sega Master System. I played that for several years until I got a Super Nintendo, which changed my life. That console and its games made a huge impact on my life, and I played it for many years until we eventually got a PS1 and an N64. In high school I eventually built a gaming PC which made me ignore consoles for quite a while. I'd have to rank the SNES as my favorite console, and A Link to the Past as my all-time favorite game.
What gave you the idea of doing your first video, and how did you come up with the Smooth McGroove persona?
"I never imagined that it would turn out so successful! In the back of my head I thought that if I put enough work into making music, I'll eventually get a few thousand subscribers and that would be cool"
My first videos consisted of original songs written about video games, though they weren't done in A cappella. I eventually came up with the idea to do an acapella cover of Zelda's Lullaby from OOT as a way to get through a songwriting creative block. I had so much fun with it and knew I could improve, so I kept making them! The Smooth McGroove name originated as a joke, since I didn't want to use my real name for my music projects. I honestly never thought it would take off like this, but now I'm used to people calling me Smooth McGroove when they meet me.
How do you go about making one of your acapella arrangements from start to finish?
I start with the original song, and record rough takes of each track that I hear. If I feel that it needs any embellishing, I add rough takes of harmonies and extra percussion. Sometimes I use midi to arrange very intricate parts before I record them. From there I begin refining the takes until they sound great individually, and keep going until they sound great all together. The process changes quite a bit depending on if I do a simple NES or Game Boy song vs a complex Playstation-era arrangement or even a dense SNES or N64 song.
Has the process of creating your arrangements evolved over time?
It's come a long way since I posted that first Zelda's Lullaby video! I'd say that I spend way more time on the songs and videos than I did back then, because I know once they go up on YouTube and Loudr.fm/iTunes they're up there forever. I may only put out a song a week now, but I'm proud of each of them.
Which arrangement has given you most personal satisfaction to produce to date and why?
That's very hard because I put a lot of work into every single one, but If I had to pick one I'd say Castlevania - Bloody Tears really surprised me at how well it sounded in the end!
Which arrangement has been the most difficult for you to produce? Are there some tunes you are putting off doing due to perceived difficulty?
The faster and more complex a song sounds, the harder it is for me to arrange and record it. I've done a bunch of songs that meet those criteria, and many more exist that I haven't tried yet because I know they'll take a long time! A few examples would be JENOVA, Pokemon Mt. Pyre Theme, U.N. Owen Was Her? and other songs like that.
When you launched your channel, did you envisage that it’d be such a success?
I never imagined that it would turn out so successful! In the back of my head I thought that if I put enough work into making music, I'll eventually get a few thousand subscribers and that would be cool. Now it's a year later and my expectations have been blown away. I can't thank people enough for subscribing to my channel and supporting me in all the ways that they do.
Before you became a YouTube sensation, what did you do for a living?
Before YouTube, I gave private drum and guitar lessons and was in school for a random degree that I thought would be a safe career (not music).
What were your thoughts when you made the switch to working on your channel full time?
When I saw my channel start growing at a massive rate, I knew that I had the opportunity to put way more time into creating music and possibly have that replace my job. Though it felt risky, I'm glad I made that decision and didn't look back. I have always put my all into projects, and I saw this as another big project that I could enjoy and put my all into. I couldn't see myself doing anything else!
How do you balance your personal passions and fan requests when deciding which tunes to cover next?
I balance them pretty equally. I have plenty of songs I've wanted to do, but I also get some great ideas from fans every week.
Who are some of your favourite video game composers?
Too many to name, but my favorite ones as a child were Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo.
Do you think some of these classic video game tunes are more memorable when compared to modern musical works?
I think that limitation breeds creativity. Back in the early video game days, composers had very strict limitations on their compositions due to the hardware. That made every note count, so some truly amazing music came out of that era. I think it works in a similar way to my acapella arrangements. Because I'm limited to my voice, I have to make some interesting decisions when it comes to singing or doing a percussion part. It keeps the process interesting.
"Because I'm limited to my voice, I have to make some interesting decisions when it comes to singing or doing a percussion part. It keeps the process interesting"
Have you considered doing a collaboration with any other famous YouTubers?
I have, and some great collaboration offers have come my way recently. I have to pace myself with things like that because I work very well alone, and it can sap my energy when doing work with someone else. It feels similar to being in a band, honestly. It can be great fun to make music with people, but you have to sync up schedules, personalities, ambitions, and all those things. I've been in many bands; enough to know that I enjoy working alone for the most part, unless you just gel really well with the other person or group.
As most YouTube artists rely on ad revenue for a living, do you have concerns about the way Content ID claims are being handled? What impact has this had?
Content ID concerns everyone that does music or gaming on YouTube. I happen to do both, so I definitely have concerns about this. It's made me seek out licensing and other protections for my work, which I've had success with so far.
We noticed that your Patreon page has been very successful. Can you tell us a bit more about why this is such a vital channel for you? What benefits can patreons get?
Patreon is an amazing way for anyone creating regular content, especially YouTubers or musicians. It has allowed me to get valuable support from my hardcore fans and also get in touch with them more directly. Depending on how much support a patron gives, they get access to my weekly blog or even Google hangouts or one-on-one Skype sessions. I'm extremely thankful for Patreon, and all of the people who support me on that platform!
If someone wants to buy a high quality version of your arrangements, where is the best place to look?
Loudr.fm is the best place to buy my albums. They're a great company and have been extremely supportive, not to mention the high-quality downloads they offer. I also have my music up on iTunes, Bandcamp, and Google Play. I have links up on my YouTube "about" page for anyone interested.
The artwork on your digital albums is always a highlight. Have you enlisted some help with these?
I've been working with an artist named Kyle Peterson for the last few albums. He's great, and we've already started planning the next one. It's going to be awesome!
What are some of the funniest or most bizarre comments you have had on one of your videos?
I get some pretty funny ones. They range from dudes wanting to procreate with me to marriage proposals from girls or... yeah, it gets a bit weird.
We’d love to know a bit about your feline sidekick Charl. What’s his personality like?
He's extremely laid back, but also has a dominant personality. If I don't pay attention to him for a while, he'll force me to. He also gets very vocal when he's hungry, and absolutely loves fresh meat and certain lettuces. I'd say he's an awesome kitty friend.
Do the multiple McGroove’s in your videos all have different personalities in your mind?
I don't really see them as having different personalities, but they definitely have different jobs. The ones doing very hard parts have to stay determined when singing, while the ones with more laid back parts can goof around and not take things so seriously. I never know how Charl will react when I'm recording, so that's always a surprise.
In closing, could you tell us about some of your hopes and goals for the future?
I want to continue to make videos and improve on my techniques. I've got some difficult songs in mind for the future, and I'll have to improve to do them properly and make them sound as good as I want them to. I also want to thank everyone supports me by watching my videos. You guys are awesome!
We'd like to thank Max Gleason for his time. Do you have a favourite Smooth McGroove video?
Ninterviews are a series of interviews where we get to know interesting people with a passion for Nintendo. Please contact us if you have any suggestions for future Ninterviews. Click here to see the full series.