We have here with us the guys behind the Red Hot Chili Peppers Halo parody song, Palette-Swap Ninja. They are considered the Weird Al of the gaming world, a two-man crew with Dan Amrich as the guitarist/vocals and Jude Kelley as the keyboardist. They’ve parodied Jimmy Buffet, All-American Rejects, Paul McCartney and the Wallflowers. NERDSociety decided to ambush PSN (Palette-Swap Ninja) for this interview.
NERDSociety (NS): Tell us a little bit about yourselves and how Palette-Swap Ninja all got started.
Dan: Back in 2003, Jude and I both answered an ad for an 80s cover band that was looking for several members. I was working at a gaming magazine; he was working at a science lab and repairing arcade machines in his spare time…for fun. It didn’t take long before we realized we were nerds of a feather.
Jude: Being in a band means you’ll be spending loads of downtime with the other members–car rides, hanging out backstage, changing flat tires, etc. We were always bouncing crazy ideas off of each other on the long ride home from practice. One day Dan hit me with the band name ‘Palette-Swap Ninja’ and I was sold at that point, even before he explained the concept.
NS: It must’ve been hard on you, Dan, when Jude moved away. It’s OK, you can tell us if tears were involved. How has living thousands of miles away affected Palette-Swap Ninja?
Dan: Big, sloppy man tears were involved…and a year or so of Jude saying “I miiiiiiiiiight be coming back to the Bay Area.” I definitely held a torch. Then he bought a house, and I realized, okay, that’s that. But I’d like to think it was hard on Jude when he moved away from ME, too. At least, I like thinking I made him suffer.
Jude: Tears? Sure thing. Moving was a tough decision, both professionally and personally. Dan was quick to point out that moving these days is not a huge deal, what with the internet and all. We still manage to chat, game, make music, etc.
Dan: I actually don’t think we would have done PSwap if Jude hadn’t moved away. Honestly, it motivated us — the 80s cover band took a lot of time and effort. As long as we were in Fast Times, Palette-Swap Ninja was an idea that we liked, but not something we had the energy to pursue. But once we had no musical outlet together anymore, we had a need to create one.
NS: It’s amazing how you guys collaborate from afar. Dan, did you try to convince Jude to come back to the Bay Area?
Dan: Sure, but I don’t really want to make him feel guilty — life takes you places, and you go. And I know he’s going to visit. There’s a big arcade collectors’ show out here every summer, and he’s promised he’s coming out for that weekend in 2010. I think any time we don’t spend at the show will be spent doing band stuff. We need photos and we’ve got a concept for a video for “Padding Your Gamerscore.”
Jude: I had a blast in California, and am looking forward to my next visit out there to visit with friends, work on some band projects and the like.
NS: When collaborating, is it pretty balanced with throwing ideas going back and forth and creating music, or does one of you tend to nudge the other to get going?
Dan: It’s a two-way street. A few songs have been instigated by me, a few have been Jude, and sometimes we just get to talking and it really is a collaboration. Because it developed very quickly on my end over a day or so, I sort of railroaded “Learn to Spell” into existence without much dialogue, and Jude just ran with it. But the next two songs we’re working on were purely Jude’s ideas and I’m totally on board.
Jude: We like to start with a story and weave it into whatever parody we are attempting. Gamers have a lot of interesting stories to tell, but not many of these stories get told musically. Take “The Viva Piñata Song”, which is about a gamer for whom a kid’s game is his guilty pleasure, or “Halo ((All-I-Play-Oh))”, which tells a story about a gamer who goes from being a big fish in a little pond to getting creamed on Xbox Live. As a listener, maybe you know that guy — heck, maybe you are that guy! We want to tell stories that resonate with gamers.
Dan: For the actual creation process, there’s a lot of back and forth. Drafts of lyrics get emailed and tweaked and emailed again. And we use the same recording software on both sides, so we can swap audio project files back and forth pretty easily via FTP. There’s usually a full week of mixing and tweaking; I think “Halo” went through four rough mixes before we were happy with it.
NS: Out of all the songs under your belt, which one’s your favorite?
Jude: I’m pretty happy with how “Halo ((All-I-Play-Oh))” turned out, and I was blown away by how well the song was received by our listeners. The song gave us both plenty to do musically, and I still get a laugh out of the lyrics. Above all, the song allowed us to incorporate Dan’s kazoo work, something we have always wanted in one of our songs. Weird Al has his accordion, and I think the kazoo has potential for us.
Dan: I am very proud of the guitar tone on “Three Red Lights” — I spent about a week trying to figure out what gear The Wallflowers used and turned to some of my guitar geek friends for help. I also think it’s the nastiest satire of the bunch, and a topic that an unfortunately huge amount of people can relate to. But when we released it, a lot of people said “I don’t know the original; what’s the joke?” Maybe it’s not funny because it’s too true! So I always feel like “3RL” is the underdog of the catalog.
NS: It seems that everyone, including Bungie, loved “Halo, ((All I Play-Oh)),” including me. Do you know if Microsoft felt the same way about “Three Red Lights?”
Dan: They never said anything, but I suspect they did not find it very funny at all — or if they did, I can understand why they wouldn’t admit it! A few days after we released “The Viva Piñata Song” I timidly sent the link to some of my contacts at Microsoft’s PR department. In about two hours, it spread throughout Microsoft, to the point where Frank O’Connor sent me an instant message saying “Your voice is coming out of every cubicle here, all out of sync with each other. I hate you.” They actually wanted to use the song as part of an online marketing campaign, which was a huge compliment, and they asked for our blessing. I said “You can have the permissions for our lyrics and recording…but I can’t give you the permissions to the original song, because I don’t own them.” And it stalled from there.
NS: Dan, being a magazine editor, I’m going to assume “Learn to Spell” was your little baby. Who was the commenter/poster that pissed you off so much that you had to write a song about spelling?
Dan: Well, first off, it was my wife’s idea! But it was no one specific person; I think everybody has seen what I have seen at one point or another. You can find a jackass in just about any web forum or blog comment roll saying “OMG PS3 SUXXORS U R STUPID IF U HAVE 1” or something inane like that. I am an editor, I do believe in the power of the written word, and I don’t think it’s that effing hard to learn how to use the language correctly. Online, you are only as smart as you can type, and English isn’t perfect, but the standards of the language are the only common ground we have with the rest of the WORLD. Would they let you drive in the Daytona 500 if you didn’t know how to shift into third? Of course not — but people break basic rules online all the time and would like to suggest that it doesn’t matter, or “spelling doesn’t count.” No, it counts; you’re just ignorant, and what’s worse is you’re willfully ignorant. So the song really grew out of my frustration of seeing people think that somehow being stupid on purpose makes them cool. And like I said, my wife Kat was actually the one to articulate that.
Jude: I think it would be really funny to blast the crowd chorus from that song at a spelling bee when a kid screws up a word.
NS: “The Viva Piñata Song” is about liking something and being embarrassed to tell others about it, kind of like wearing tighty whities for me. So here goes…boxers or briefs?
Jude: I started out my life with briefs (Hanes). I kept a couple of pairs of boxers around for my annual physical at the doctor’s office (you know, for extra coverage!). Then, sometime after college I switched to boxers. I guess I was bored, and the Episode I Darth Maul boxers called out to me.
Dan: Briefs. Colored ones. From Target. And the funny thing is, my wife makes fun of me because I try to match the colors to my t-shirts. Black, maroon, gray…I’m basically wearing a little set. She just rolls her eyes. What can I say? I’m a slob, but I’m coordinated.
NS: Jude, I can’t believe you’re a chemistry professor. Yes, I’ve had nightmares about chemistry. Anyway, do your students know you have a keytar fetish?
Jude: A lot of chemists like to delicately make things–but I’m the type of chemist who likes to destroy things with lasers. I guess it’s a logical extension of all the arcade games I played as a kid. Yes, a few students have discovered my keytar fetish. One day I came in to work and saw that the background of one of the lab computers was a picture of me sailing through the air, keytar in hand. I knew then that the jig was up!
NS: As musicians, which artist has inspired you the most?
Jude: I blame Devo for inspiring me to strap on my first keytar; they showed me that keyboardists can get out from behind the boards and mix it up with the guitar players. As a kid, I used to stay up late on Saturday nights listening to the Dr. Demento show on the radio, which often featured Weird Al.
Dan: I have always been a Beatles fan; that led me to clever pop like Barenaked Ladies, Fountains of Wayne, and Jonathan Coulton. Those are all strong influences, but from the musical comedy side, it’s Weird Al and Tom Lehrer in equal measure.
NS: As gamers, what is the one game you’d want to be buried with?
Dan: Jude won’t be buried with a game; he’ll be buried IN a game. I suspect we will hollow out an Atari Return of the Jedi or Midway Tron arcade cabinet and lay him to rest. Instead of insert coin, we will insert Jude.
Jude: That’s hilarious, and sadly it’s quite true. A close runner up would be Herzog-Zwei for the Sega Genesis, but you’d have to cremate me and pour the ashes into the cartridge case.
Dan: I almost want to say you should bury me with something lousy, like No Escape for Sega Genesis or Psybadek for PlayStation, so nobody else will have to play it ever again. But I would have to say NBA Hangtime, since I’m a secret character in that. That one is sentimental.
NS: What games are you looking forward to this holiday season?
Dan: This has been a huge year for my personal passions — first Ghostbusters, then Beatles: Rock Band, and later this year, Guitar Hero: Van Halen. It’s not quite holiday, but I’ve preordered Scribblenauts. Most of my biggies are next year — Split/Second, WoW: Cataclysm, and whenever they decide to grace us with Twisted Metal on PS3.
Jude: I’m curious to see how Star Wars: The Old Republic turns out, but I’m not sure when that one is coming out.
NS: Thanks for the interview fellow awesome nerds!
Dan: Thanks for the nerdy love, awesome website!
Jude: Live long and prosper!
Don’t forget to check out their site www.paletteswapninja.com where you can download and listen to all their songs.