From turning Gameboys into synthesizers to playing drums in an Americana band to creating an LP entirely on an iPhone, Michael Zucker is truly one of Colorado's most unpredictable and prolific musicians. Dating back to 2002, Zucker has a whopping forty releases on his bandcamp page — and they vary in musical style, themes and instrumentation.
Making music is not just a hobby for the Boulder-based research scientist; it is what he invests almost all of his free time and money into.
Ahead of his show at the Lost Lake Lounge on April 10 with his new band, ZEW, Zucker spoke to Westword about his latest release, a cover of the music from the classic video game Super Mario Bros. 3; finding time to make music while having a family and a full-time job; chiptunes; and finding happiness in life.
Westword: Why did you want to cover the music from Super Mario Bros. 3?
Michael Zucker: I have kind of a history and background with that. I’ve been in Colorado about ten years now, and back in New York, I had this band called This Place Is Haunted, and we were a video game cover band. We were around for five or six years, pretty active, played a lot of gaming conventions and festivals and did some touring up and down the East Coast.
I had done that a long time ago and kind of had knowledge that there was a scene that covered this stuff, and it might be well received. I just kind of wracked my brain about what’s a great soundtrack that would be really great to do with guitars and drums that nobody had done yet, and Super Mario Bros. 3 was the biggest one. It was kind of surprising to me; it was such a popular game, but no one else has really done that one, so I just jumped on it.
The moment I heard the music, I got excited and started laughing. So many memories tied to that soundtrack and I didn’t even realize it.
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Right, right. Well, I think a lot of the musicians might look at the songs and maybe think some are goofy, or there’s not, like, a strong theme or a way to make it your own. But I think what you hit on is exactly why I liked it so much: Everyone played that game so, so much that the music got ingrained in your brain.
And even some of the simpler songs that, really, when you break them down, I found out, they’re really pretty simple; there’s only a couple of melodies that are worked together. But, man, how iconic it is — that feeling of hearing those songs, that nostalgia coming back. That was definitely a goal, for sure.
Did you play every instrument on the Super Mario Bros. 3 release?
Yep. I put out a lot of albums, and often I will program things like the drums, sometimes even the bass — certainly the synthesizer and strings. I primarily play guitar and sing, but I also play drums. I’ve been playing drums in this Americana band out of Louisville for the last year or so.
I think I took a little bit of liberties here and there with this album, but it's more or less strictly played from the original. It wasn’t all that difficult even for something like drums that I don’t normally play live for a record. But I had a pretty well-defined map that I was following.
Your catalogue is, um, pretty crazy. There so many different things, and it’s all over the place in an interesting way. What makes you tick as a musician?
I think you're right: It is a little all over the map. But that’s just how I work. Early on, when I was in high school and getting into playing in a band, that’s where I started doing some recording: for my high school band. It came out really well.
At the time, we didn’t have any good equipment, but they also didn’t have the patience or know-how to do it on their own. I kind of got known around school as the guy who could make a record for your band. That sort of just snowballed all the way through my whole life, where I got to a point, really, after I moved to Colorado, where I just said, okay I can be — and I’m actually in two active bands right now — I said I can be in bands, but what I really want to do is make records. That’s my main passion musically, to make different records.
I go from concept to concept to concept, and I think other musicians might focus on a band or their live show; they’re not able to reach out and really experiment in terms of recording. That’s why I think I put out so much and it was such a wide range.
I had a record label that I ran out of Boulder for a couple years and tried producing other artists in the area, but there was just no money. It was a fiscal decision to shut it down. I was just losing money all the time.
That doesn’t sound like something you can half-ass. Sounds like you have to invest everything into it.
Yeah, you need deep pockets [laughs].
So what’s a jam session like for you? Are you just playing music all the time?
A few of those records, especially recent ones, came from jam sessions where I know a lot of people in the local Denver rock scene and I’ll just get different people from different bands to improv, just riff, and we’ll record it, a lot of times with a lot of reworking and overdubs. There’s at least two or three albums in the last two years that have guest performances by other Denver musicians.
I always think of myself as a producer, so that’s another aspect to it, too: I really try to bring in more of the community when I can, when it’s possible. Because I feel like not only do people know you better and what you do, but you get to see what’s around you and how you fit into your local music scene, and that’s really important to me.
Even though I shut down the label, that’s really important to me. Actually, right now, I’m working on a compilation album with some Denver artists that I wanted to put together for record-store day. I don’t know if I’ll have it quite ready then. But just something to put out at Mutiny or some of these smaller clubs and places around Denver, for people to check out other local acts that they may not know in the rock scene.
How often do you perform live?
I was performing my solo show pretty often for the last five years or so, and that’s a really interesting show. It’s all based around video games and nostalgia stuff, and there’s a huge video component to it, too. I hand-cut all of this video that goes along with my backing tracks, and I play guitar and sometimes my Gameboy, too. I use a Gameboy synthesizer to play live over the tracks, but it has all this hand-edited video from all these old commercials and movies and stuff.
I had some reasonable success when I was pushing that harder and playing it more. In the last year or so, I’ve started to die down to work up some new material. But in the meantime, I have this new band, ZEW, and we just started playing.
That band is sort of ramping up in terms of live stuff. There’s a big video game convention that happens every year up in Loveland, and I played my video game solo set up there, and usually a bunch of the other chiptunes guys play, too. Are you familiar with chiptunes?
No. Tell me about it.
It got the name because you’re making the sound from a computer chip, but essentially, you’re taking old hardware — Nintendos, Gameboys, stuff like that — and you kind of hack them and use them like synthesizers to make music. That’s another huge scene, just like the video game cover scene. I think chiptunes has actually grown to be bigger. Chiptunes has really exploded, and NPR even had a thing on it. There’s been a couple of TEDx Talks, too.
That’s been sort of a growing scene in the nerd cultures over the last couple years, and I have a couple of albums I’ve done like that, too.
How does music fit into your life? Do you have another job?
I do have another job. I got my degree in physics and got a graduate degree in acoustics. I've been doing research stuff forever, and that’s sort of gone up and down. At the time of running [Differential Productions] in Boulder, I was doing more music and producing full-time, and I really had just a small engineering thing on the side. Now it’s kind of flipped: I have a regular full-time position with NOAA — I’m a research scientist.
I also have a family. It’s definitely tough with this full-time job and a family, finding time to do music. But what I always tell people when they’re amazed that I can get this or that done, the biggest thing I say is, well, I don’t watch TV. That’s the biggest thing [laughs].
I know a lot of my friends and family members, that’s what they do: When they get home from work, they have dinner and watch TV. Instead of watching TV, I’m down in my studio. I built a pretty nice studio into my home. I have the tools at my disposal right at home, and I pretty much use all my free time. My "me time" is almost exclusively spent making albums — or, I if have shows, practicing and preparing for that.
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Almost every free minute and dollar pretty much go right into it. I’ve always felt like I had this passion to create, and it’s just something that I need to do. I know that kind of sounds simple, and I know it is a simplified way of putting it, but whenever somebody says, "Man, how can you spend so much time on it?" I tell them that I just have to.
There are many aspects to what you do as a musician, and it sounds like you’ve put yourself in a position to have a life that you really enjoy. Is that the case?
Oh, definitely. I definitely feel blessed. Absolutely. I miss my friends back east and my connections there, and over the ten years I’ve been here I’ve thought pretty seriously about moving back. But, yeah, I’m glad that I stayed here and decided to put down roots here. I think I'm in a pretty good spot.