Guitar Hero’s Guitar Hero
For the past decade, Marcus Henderson has been locked up in a Silicon Valley bunker recreating the greatest guitar music of all time. You’ve undoubtedly heard his work for the Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Karaoke Revolution Party video games. His painstakingly note for note performances have sold millions of games worldwide and inspired legions to take up a musical instrument.
Now, for the first time ever, he is coming clean with his own solo album. He is releasing the first six tracks, one at a time, eight weeks apart that will ultimately culminate with the full album release and bonus tracks in the Summer of 2015.
What inspired you to start playing guitar and what were some of your favorite bands growing up?
I was trying to think of the very first spark, the catalyst that delivers the message to you, you know? I think the earliest possible instances where it hit me, was hearing Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”. Just the sound of Tom’s (Scholz) distorted guitar was what did me in man. I think any guitarist can relate to that vibration running through them. But for me, it was something about the sound of that distortion, that wavelength that just connected with me so instantaneously. So I’m this little kid, and I’m hearing this incredible rock guitar playing, and these ridiculously big laser beam pick-slides and I’m like, “What else do you got?” you know? My ears instantly started tuning in to rock guitar players on radio and cassettes and records or whatever we could get our hands on as kids. So I remember badgering my parents about guitar for years and years and years before they finally relented when I was 14.
I earned five dollars for my first public performance with my teenage band, Square Meal. It was spent on a delicious cheeseburger after the show. From there I knew if I rocked hard, there would be more cheeseburgers in my future. Let that be a lesson kids: rock hard and you may be lucky enough to eat a burger.
Do you still practice guitar every day?
Yes, although it’s not always a physical endeavor; it’s more like a subliminal analysis of sounds. If something catches my ear, I’ll instantly kind of filter it through and sort it out. “Well here’s some cool liquor, something from a violinist, a horn player, something unique”, and I’ll sort of administer it into my database.
How did you get involved with Guitar Hero?
I had known a friend of one of the engineers at Wavegroup Sound, the Oscar nominated studio responsible for the music behind some of the biggest music games ever created. I was introduced to him at a party and was asked if I was open to possibly coming in sometime to track some metal guitar for them on a variety of applications. I came in, signed the nondisclosure agreement and was tasked with pounding out “Symphony of Destruction” by Megadeth as my first tune for an E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) build of a game called Guitar Hero. After that they kept giving me harder and harder songs until I somehow ended up doing 20 of the 30 tracks for the first game!
How did that experience help you improve as a guitar player?
For me personally and professionally it was by leaps and bounds. It was almost like a hyper-challenging six month video game recording GIT of sorts. No charts were ever given to me to learn so I’d pick things apart off of an MP3. My critical listening skills improved as well and that’s a serious kung-fu that always stays with you, good or bad. Mostly good because I can analyze music at a seemingly molecular level, but also bad because it ruins the beauty of organic construct of music if you’re not careful.
What video games (besides the ones you personally worked on) do you enjoy playing?
I love big, expensive to develop, release-date pushing, mega-engrossing games that you get absorbed into. The Bioshock series is one of my all-time favorites, and Portal 2 completely blew my pumpkin out of my gourd! Red Dead Redemption was epic. Probably my favorite game of the last few years was called The Last of Us. No other game had me thinking of it, rationalizing the character’s decisions, and reading about it for days and weeks after I finished that game. I guess I like and appreciate cinematic style games with moving storylines and memorable characters the most. I’m actually a HUGE Alien fan, so the new Alien: Isolation game will be my reward when I finish this album.
What is cooler: having your own signature Epiphone guitar, The Apparition, having the White Flying V guitar you used for making Guitar Hero 2 on display permanently at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or having your own Topps baseball card as a guitar player?
Hands down the Apparition Epiphone guitar. That other stuff is cool when you run out things to talk about at parties I guess, but having your own signature instrument with a company like Epiphone is beyond cool. I never grew up wanting to be in the Rock Hall of Fame, mainly because it didn’t exist, and I stopped playing baseball when I kept getting stuck in right field. Also, I sucked at baseball so I didn’t really dream of being on a Topps card, although Topps is another amazing American heritage type company. But that other stuff is still super-cool too!
What did you look towards as inspiration while writing “Embers” and what message do you want the song to portray?
My son Orion was my biggest inspiration on “Embers” for sure. As a solo artist, I was going down this road where, for better or worse, I didn’t have a collaborative partner and I really didn’t have anybody else to rely on to bounce ideas off of. I would just gauge the response of the people around me to see how anyone would react to my music, and every time I put on “Embers” my son’s face would light up and he’d start dancing like crazy. I suppose the message behind “Embers” is to stay positive, keep your head up and believe that better things are coming, even when you don’t have any tangible evidence to support it. I know it sounds corny or cliché but you honestly have to believe in the idea that things will improve no matter how crappy it may seem in the immediate. Believe me, we’ve all been there.
What kind of gear did you use on the recording of “Embers”?
The “Embers” sessions were embarrassingly simple, but complex in the way I tracked and developed the tones. For guitars, I used an Epiphone Apparition with Dean Markley Signature Series Nickel Steel 9-46 strings, into a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, into my Macbook Pro. I have a larger external monitor for the sessions and mix windows and I use Logic for everything. The piano is pounded out by my unskilled hands using an M-Audio Keystation 49E and I use Amplitube 3 for all of my guitar and bass sounds. I have a bunch of great guitar equipment that takes 10 minutes to set-up, annoys the neighbors and sucks to record at home. I’ve found a bunch of warm sounding impulses that make mic’ing a hard argument to win in these circumstances, so I go with what sounds good. For you stat geeks, (like me) I used 67 tracks in Pro Tools to mix, and there is approximately 590 single guitar notes on “Embers”.
It took me somewhere around 450 hours of work from early scratch demo, to tracking, to mixing. I’m beyond repair when it comes to obsessing over music arrangement and depth of sound. It’s like my own private Idaho; I get lost in writing a framework, and trying a ton of sounds until you match what’s in your head. That discovery process, man it can be so rewarding when you find it, but it can suck when you get nothing. And that’s grand illusion right? That every day you’ll make something incredible. It’s really like 70/30… 70% of it is crap, but if you seek hard enough, that other 30% is worth the work. The way I write and record is like driving five cars at the same time. Only it’s like, 13 cars and every 2-300 feet you have to walk back and drive another car up 2-300 feet so it takes time for me. Plus I have two year old son that doesn’t care about the nuances of Optic vs. FET Compression, so I can only record about 40% of the time when I’m not living/existing/not recording…
How different do you think this album would sound if you wrote it a decade ago?
The last album I wrote was Orchids and Ammunition from Drist. That was around 2006-2007 or so. After that, I was done. I was pretty well burnt out from recording at that point having done like four games worth of stuff and AND an album in such a small window. I guess not much, would change, but 10 years ago I was probably a bit more solo oriented so I guess this album would have a lot more notes if anything.
Why did you feel “Embers” was a good choice for the debut single opposed to other songs from the album?
I went with “Embers” because I wanted to start off with a track that meant a lot to me emotionally. It allowed a wider range of fans that are just discovering me to enjoy it. It’s upbeat and deliberately paced. It just felt right.
What kind of sounds do other songs off your album have that fans can look forward to?
So there’s a groove-metal track, some stuff that sounds like Robben Ford, a bunch of weird stuff that sounds like Muse, Faith No More, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and a bit of doom metal. Then there’s a song that sounds like a Super Nintendo chip tune and a giant sweeping symphonic saga called “Forgotten Realms”. There’s also freak guitar type track I’ve been working up and oh yeah, a Plasmatics cover. So I guess it’s all over the place (laughs) but somehow eerily cogent at the same time. This is the age of “who cares”. If it works, it works. I can’t explain it and I really can’t help it… Like the drugs in Fletch; when it comes, it comes.
Can you talk about the Little Kids Rock (LKR) Charity in which you are on the Honorary Board of Directors, and expand on the importance of musical education?
LKR is my favorite charity going. Primarily because they are so results-driven and effective at what they do. LKR isn’t some media darling, faux-ribbon organization. They go to the schools where they’re needed most and I’ve been lucky enough to be a small part of the amazing efforts of David Wish, Keith Hejna, Tim Chang, and Jim Broadstreet. To me, music education is just like eating and breathing. It’s an essential component of education in most countries and is an essential human element that must be fostered. We’re lucky that charities like LKR exist. How else will rock continue on as an art form if the tools aren’t present to begin with?
What advice do you have for musicians who are picking up a guitar for the first time?
Having a good attitude is everything. Fearlessly learn from those who know how, and give respect to those who have been where you want to go.
If you were stranded on an island and you could only have one movie, and one video game, which ones would you choose?
For the movie, I guess I’d take Escape From New York and for the game, I’d pick Metroid on NES, but with a PS4 Controller.
Are you excited or nervous for the new Star Wars movies to come out?
Dude, I’m actually typing this on my phone from the line at the box office!!! Sure I’m the only one here, but still! I think JJ (Abrams) is going to knock this out of the park. He knows very well what wrath he must face if it turns into another episode of C-Span with sub-par actors. I guarantee you some dude somewhere will build a working AT-ST and trounce Pinewood Studios or something if the holy trinity is sullied.
What do you think the 49er’s chances are of winning the super bowl this year?
It all comes down to the defense. If Bowman comes back healthy and Smith can start getting to the quarterback after his suspension then we’ve got a decent chance at making a run at the title. Also the O-Line needs to stay healthy but that’s a given. And when in doubt, feed #21(Frank Gore) the rock. Go Niners!