Xnarky Interview: The King of Smooth Jazz VGM Spills His Secrets
I first came across Josh aka Xnarky thanks to the insaneintherainmusic Jazz Challenge. It was immediately clear to me that he had a special talent for transforming video game music into a wonderful musical stew of soul, funk, and smooth jazz. Shortly after the contest, I reached out to him and asked him to join GameLark Records. He accepted, and debuted his first track on our charity album GameLark Gifts. I loved the track so much that I made it the album opener, but it was on our next album, Rarities, that his true genius started to show. His track “Atlantis” was one of my favorites on the album, and I thought it was high-time that I got to know more about this track and the artist behind it.
First things first. How did you enter the VGM scene?
I entered the VGM scene kind of unexpectedly. I first introduced myself to insaneintherainmusic in the summer of 2016 because I’d been a big fan of his work for a while, and I’d heard he would be attending Berklee that fall. Since I was also attending the school, I figured I’d make myself available if he had any questions about the school or whatever.
A few months later, Carlos held the insaneintherainmusic Jazz Challenge, but originally I wasn’t going to enter. I had a gig and several rehearsals that week, and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to set aside the time for it. Turns out, the gig and the rehearsals all got rescheduled due to scheduling conflicts. I found myself having a free week so I decided to enter just for fun and ended up placing 3rd!
You had some stiff competition for the Insaneintherainmusic Jazz Challenge. How did it feel to place 3rd?
It felt surreal. There were a lot of great entries, and after posting mine, I saw a new thing I wanted to fix every time I watched it. After all, it was my first time making anything like that. I had recorded things for class before, but never for a competition and not only that, I had to film and edit it!
Luckily, a good friend of mine, Jon, was available that week to help with the filming and editing. He also graciously let me use his music recording gear since I didn’t have anything like that at the time. But yeah, I totally didn’t expect to place since I thought mine wasn’t particularly special in any way, and the production quality had “beginner” written all over it. But I did end up placing and it felt great!
I already loved your entry, but now I love it even more knowing that you made it in a week! So, was the intention always to create more covers or was this originally going to be one-off thing?
During the process of making my entry, I realized I really enjoyed covers and decided to continue making them after the contest. It’s kind of funny because now that music is my full time job, it had been a long time since I made anything just for the fun of it. Being in the VGM community was an opportunity to bring myself back to why I started playing music in the first place: because it’s fun!
Speaking of the VGM community, what's been your general impression of GameLark?
GameLark is without a doubt one of the most amazing groups of people I’ve ever been part of. The level of passion each person in here has for what they do is honestly so inspiring to me. Everyone was also incredibly welcoming of me when I arrived, and as someone who usually considers himself really shy, the warm welcome was much appreciated. The level of support the group has for one another is another thing I love about it.
When I was in high school, I never envied the theater kids and their culture of “step on everyone to get to the top”. I always had the philosophy that the best art is created when it is a collaborative process, so whenever I come upon a group of people who, despite having different backgrounds, support each other and everything they do, it makes me proud to have chosen to be an artist by profession.
That’s been my impression too, and that’s why I love doing this thing called GameLark. Your GameLark debut was on our charity album, GameLark Gifts, but I think you really came into your own with Rarities. What inspired you to choose “Atlantis” for GameLark Rarities?
“Atlantis” was a very important song for me growing up. Well, I guess I can say the same about every song I choose to cover but this one is different. This is one of those songs that even now I can still remember the first time I heard it. I find with some songs that I have to reach into my memory a bit to remember how it goes. “Atlantis” was never like that.
I remember playing the game, diving under the water, and listening as the “Jolly Roger’s Lagoon” song slowly morphed into “Atlantis”. I thought it was one of the most gorgeous things I’d ever heard. Eight-year-old me was not even close to being a musician yet, but I was still awestruck by how beautiful, yet mysterious it was. It gives off a soothing aura yet at the same time makes you feel like the next discovery in your adventure is just around the corner. I felt like Rarities would be a great opportunity to pay homage to one of my first ever musical “oh my god” moments.
I can relate. “Dire, Dire Docks” was basically my “Atlantis,” and to this day, I get chills whenever I hear it. Getting into your arrangement, were there any particular songs or musicians that inspired you for this cover?
I don’t think any one particular song inspired my cover but many musicians did. I always loved the slow jam R&B genre, perhaps because I was exposed to a lot of that stuff growing up in a family who loves karaoke. Artists like Heatwave, Luther Vandross, Tower of Power, and of course the incomparable Earth Wind & Fire come to mind when thinking of who inspired my cover.
So, it seems like you’re a big fan of 70s music, and I think that definitely comes through in the arrangement. What was the hardest part of arranging?
Honestly, the hardest part of arranging this was making it an instrumental cover. Slow Jam R&B is very vocally driven, and the guitar is kind of just a texture creator more than anything. I had to almost think like a vocalist while I was playing it, and that’s way out of my comfort zone.
Another thing that was hard about the arranging was the effects during the recording process. Slow Jam music is VERY produced, often times having multiple layers of reverbs, delays, and other things. On top of that a lot of these sounds are very specific. There was a “sparkly” piano sound that I couldn’t emulate exactly, but I think what I did in the video came close! I may have another go at making this just for fun sometime now that I have a feel for what I need.
Yeah, the guitar practically sang in the cover so I think you definitely achieved that vocalization that you were going for. Speaking of guitars, you use a particularly distinct one. I have to ask, why a headless guitar?
The actual answer is actually pretty boring. That’s the only guitar I had with me at the time!
Headless guitars are designed primarily to be travel instruments, and at the time, I was travelling from Boston to California quite frequently and didn’t want to deal with guitars possibly getting checked under a plane. The headless can be pushed all the way to the back of the overhead compartment, and you can’t even see it’s there. Magic!
Thanks to your guitar, you have a very distinct style compared to the rest of the VGM community. Sure, there are other jazz VGM artists, but I’m curious where would you like to see the VGM community go in the future?
Fortunately, where I’d like to see the VGM community go is actually slowly happening. I want it to head in a more stylistically diverse direction. However, I think that up until pretty recently, the VGM community has been rather over-saturated with metal covers.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there should be less metal artists making music. I love metal music. A lot. A lot more than some of my band-mates do. If you want to be in this community and want to play metal go for it! I just think more artists of other styles need to start dipping their feet into the VGM community.
I actually agree. As much as I love metal, I think people need to go beyond your typical “VGM metal cover.” Artists like BillytheBard11th, BlackearacheXD, Ro Panuganti, and RichaadEB all have explored various niches even within the metal genre. I still am waiting for a grindcore/death metal VGM artist, but I digress. I think the point is that there are plenty of genres just waiting to be explored.
In my opinion, one of the coolest things about video game music is that we can all listen to something like “Saria’s Song,” and all of us are going to interpret it in so many different ways. Why should the community be any different? I think jazz is on its way to being well-represented. Super Soul Bros, insaneintherainmusic, Charles Ritz, Portmantone as well as myself are making sure of that. However, I want to see more funk. I want to see more soul. I want to see more hip hop. I want to see more folk and country. I even want to see more out there stuff. I think an avant-garde cover of “Guile’s Theme” would be pretty sick.
Long story short, I want the VGM community to be one big beautiful rainbow of styles that come together to celebrate the same thing.
I think you’re doing your part to realize that big beautiful rainbow of styles. Aside from expanding the VGM community, what are some personal musical goals for you?
Something I’ve really been struggling with lately is being confident in my own playing, and I’m sure many other musicians feel the same way. I can’t really bring myself to fully enjoy anything I play upon listening back to it. I’ve gotten into the habit of recording myself every time I play live. Whenever I listen back to it I always cringe. I think “my time feel could be better” or “Oh, that line I played is stupid” or “Man, why can’t I just play like insert other musician’s name here”. I know that this mentality is very toxic and self-destructive, but I can’t help myself.
So, one of my goals is to not only get better at my craft, but to hopefully also learn to love what I put out as much as other people say they love it. I’d also really like to learn to play the piano. I feel like I’m transitioning to a phase in my musicianship where I’d like to compose more, and I feel like learning piano would really help to represent my compositional ideas fully.
I’ve definitely heard other artists say the same thing. In fact, I think what you’re talking about is impostor syndrome, and I’m glad that you’re being honest with yourself and our readers. Is there anything else that you want fans/listeners/readers to know about you?
I always see comments on my videos like “man you really deserve more subs” or stuff like that. While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m just happy the people who are watching my videos are enjoying them! My channel has been a cool safe haven for me where I can make whatever kind of cover I want and just put it out there. The enjoyment of my audience is the reward. Not the size of said audience. So to any of you who may be reading this, thanks so much for your support, and I hope you continue to have fun with whatever my nerdy mind comes up with next!
Well, that was an insightful and uplifting interview. Thank you Xnarky for taking the time to share your thoughts, and thank you, dear reader, for reading said thoughts. If you enjoyed “Atlantis” or want to hear more of Xnarky’s music, please enjoy Xnarky’s rendition of “Secret of the Forest” from our latest album, At the End of Time. Until next time!