The Minibosses show us why dorks rock
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: Phoenix New Times, Thursday, September 30, 2004
The two hottest job perks that come along with being a member of the Minibosses can be summed up by a pair of photos posted on a friend's Web site.
In the first shot, taken on the occasion of the Tempe band's performance at the Atomix Gamers' Choice Awards in Mexico City last May, musicians Aaron Burke, Ben Baraldi, Matt Wood and Fred Johnson pose among a bevy of sexy Nintendo "booth babes," the quartet smiling like a team of delirious IT geeks hired to install Linux in the Playboy mansion.
The second shot is a close-up of a shrink-wrapped box stuffed with the complimentary Nintendo schwag each of the guys received as payment for the gig: a brand new Game Boy Advance SP and a collection of cartridges from Nintendo's Classic NES Series, including such retro titles as Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda.
Under one of the photos, a jealous fan has added the comment, "Lucky, lucky bastards." Tellingly, the caption's not referring to the pic with the girls.
While other aspiring local bands struggle to make inroads along the traditional paths to rock stardom, the Minibosses have been quietly garnering a large national following the nerd way. A feature spread in Wired. An interview on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. An appearance on G4/Tech TV's The Screen Savers.
Certainly the Minibosses' novelty play list is pure catnip for the nerd nation. Fronted by guitarist Burke, a gangly 6'6" graduate from the University of Massachusetts' math and astronomy programs who says he grew up glued to his first-generation Nintendo Entertainment System, the Minibosses' geek-grabbing gimmick is a set list that includes nothing but cranked up prog rock covers of moldy '80s video game soundtracks. Proud of their esoteric tastes, the band members steadfastly resisted covering any Mario game music until just recently.
"Mega Man II, Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Double Dragon, Castlevania II, Goonies . . . II," says Burke, reading through the list of meticulously arranged game theme medleys the band has just finished rehearsing tonight for tomorrow's gig at the legendary Troubadour in Hollywood, where the band is opening for Jimmy Eat World. Although both bands hail from the same East Valley music scene, no one in the Minibosses has ever met anyone even associated with the major label-hopping headliners. The invitation to play arrived the way most good things originate for the Minibosses: via e-mail.
"It was very mysterious, how they hooked up with us," says the busy Burke, who's just arrived home from a Boston trip two hours ago and is now packing up his guitar, amp and gear for the van ride to L.A. in the morning.
"I guess we have some friends in common with them," adds drummer Matt Wood. "We just don't know who they are yet!"
Most of the success and fame the Minibosses have enjoyed so far has come via lucky clicks on the Internet, through hyperlinks forwarded by the band's even geekier fans and friends -- or sometimes even chat room rivals.
"That's the way the Wired story happened," says bassist Baraldi. "The guy who wrote the story stumbled on our name while visiting the Web site of another band, the NESkimoes, who also do video game covers. They had a huge thing on their front page about how much we suck. So he found us through there, and wound up doing the whole story on us."
Finally, all those years spent fraternizing with the other freaks and geeks in A/V Club are beginning to pay off for the Minibosses. While the band's own Web site, minibosses.com, is deliberately lo-tech, all the photos, QuickTime concert clips and iTunes-tagged-MP3s are unusually first-rate for an unsigned band -- the products of a growing fan base of obsessively creative types, who identify instantly with the Minibosses' reworkings of obscure 8-bit game themes vaguely remembered from their misspent, controller-addicted youths.
"I played all those NES games -- Castlevania, Metroid -- pretty heavily when I was in high school, so I immediately loved the music they were doing," says Cambridge-based children's book illustrator Matt Smith, who designed the top-notch cover for the limited pressing of the band's debut EP. Smith met Burke while the two were both living in Massachusetts, where Burke, Baraldi and Wood started playing together. "Out of that came the 'Hey, if you ever need some artwork,' and that's how I came to do some stuff for them."
Likewise, the tee shirts the band trucks along to sell at their shows are custom designed by another fan, David Rees, whose cult comic strip, "Get Your War On," appears regularly inRolling Stone. On the tee shirts, Rees' familiar clip-art cubicle drones debate priorities over their office phones: "You're saying Minibosses practice is more important than me perfecting Zaxxon?!?"
Currently, the band is putting the finishing touches on its first full-length CD, due for release in the fall, which it hopes will sell briskly online. But so far, even the able-moused assistance of the Internet's coding and creative field pros hasn't translated into big bucks for the foursome, all in their mid-to-late 20s and tied to decent-paying day jobs.
"We basically play for cost," says Baraldi, whose transfer to Phoenix landed him a job with Intel impressive enough to lure Burke and Wood here soon after (Tempe guitarist Fred Johnson completed the lineup last year). "Our general rule is, we'll play anywhere if they buy us plane tickets and put up hotel and food."
Mostly, the Minibosses are e-mailed invitations to play at all the gaming, anime and comic book conventions they'd be itching to go to anyway. A listing of the band's recent concert dates reads like the itinerary for a game geek's traveling fantasy camp: Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle; Magfest in Roanoke, Virginia; Defcon XI (not to mention Defcon X and IX) in Las Vegas.
"There's a lot of gaming at these conventions," says Baraldi. "And we're all pretty much into video games. So we do all the festivals and conventions we can."
"That's if Ben doesn't have a wedding he has to show up to," Burke interjects.
"I had a wedding to go to on the day of Defcon this year," Baraldi explains. "So it was the first time in four years we missed it. They'll never shut up about that."