Taking their name from Final Fantasy VI (or III if you played it on the SNES), The Returners are a video game music cover band from Austin, Texas. Their lineup is Lauren on flute/vocals, Wedge on keyboards/synths, Lobos on guitar, Danger on bass, and the newest member Justin on drums. They are becoming something of a regular performer at PAX, and anyone who has read some of my other PAX articles knows I am a fan. I was recently able to have an interview with the band at PAX South. They are a very talented band, but also down to Earth and approachable. They have an album out called Immune To Silence which can be purchased here.
How did The Returners come into existence?
Lauren: Some of the original founding members had been in another video game cover band together, and when that band dissolved we had to figure out what we wanted to do. We had a shared vision of wanting to do something similar to what we had been doing, which is true to the original covers of video game music but also had a shared love of metal, so the original vision was faithful to the original video game music covers with the occasional Nightwish song. As far as organizing the band we didn’t know exactly what we needed but we knew how we wanted to sound. We found Wedge through a friend of a friend, and the keyboards have been a fantastic addition. Danger we found through Craigslist where he was looking to form his own band. He hadn’t played bass in a few years and thought this might be fun and he was amazing. We wound up needing a new drummer and we’ve known Justin for a while, he’s in another video game cover band so he’s been part of the family, and now he is a part of our family. So, he’s no longer a cousin, he’s a sibling. I don’t want to think about how that happens. Don’t think too hard about that. (Never anything you need to worry about with this interviewer–Editor.)
What other projects or bands are you involved with?
Lobos: I am full time streamer on Twitch, I have been doing it for 6 years and it got popular when I was doing challenge runs of Dark Souls, and it got popular I can live off it so I do that for a living. I am also in a band called Gimmick, another video game band, which is more obscure stuff than what The Returners do.
Wedge: I don’t have any side projects. I used to be in this band called the Pushpins and we played pop rock. I go to school and work so The Returners are the thing I do outside of that. I don’t feel the need to have a side project. (Lauren chimed in to state that Wedge does a lot of the arrangements for the band which is analogous to doing most of the heavy lifting).
Danger: I am in a punk rock band and a J rock band. The J rock band I met the members through my day job, I am a sushi chef and work with a lot of Japanese people. They had a band and needed a bassist so they had me join. The punk band played a show with them and I wanted to join the band so they let me in. The J rock band is Saint Lo-Gun and the punk band is The Awful Lot, both bands are active in Austin.
Justin: I am also in Gimmick with Lobos. I am in another band where we write originals, we play indie rock and roll and we are called the Bone Pilots. We have a cellist in the band so that is pretty cool. As far as a day job is concerned I am a technician.
Lauren does solo work under the name Lauren the Flute and has been a part of collaborations with other artists. This will be addressed in more depth in a separate article.
How do you decide what songs to play?
Lauren: Can I answer this? I like to talk a lot and that is why my voice is like this. We want to make it so everyone gets to play something they want so we’ll talk about it so everyone gets some say but occasionally I pull rank like with the Undertale song where I say we’re doing this now and you’re going to learn it.
Wedge: Sometimes me and Danger gang up and do two against your rank.
Lobos: Occasionally someone will decide to just arrange a song and be like here so we’re like well, it’s already done might as well learn it.
Lauren: Which is why sometimes things we really really want to do get pushed, and sometimes an event is coming up like an anime convention so we’re like maybe we should play something from an anime, so now we know a song from Naruto. And there is the matter of picking something that will suit us.
Wedge: I love the hell out of the Toe Jam and Earl soundtrack but I don’t know if that is us.
Going back to song selection when you put together a CD is licensing an issue?
Lauren: This is actually new territory. A lot of Japanese companies don’t care too much because there is not a lot of money made doing game covers. There is a company for licensing called Loudr which was made by video game cover musicians. They saw this as a void that needed to be filled so they do the footwork for artists, so going forward this is something we can use. We have to be careful in selecting pieces since Nintendo doesn’t approve everything.
What are some songs you want to do that you haven’t gotten to yet?
Lauren: We have always talked about doing a Shadow of the Colossus medley which we’ve been excited about doing since our first show around May 2013 and we haven’t actually learned it. We actually put together a mock up but it didn’t quite work so we have to try again. It will happen someday.
Wedge: And it will be great when it does.
Lauren: It will happen before The Last Guardian comes out.
What type of gigs do you play besides PAX and other nerd friendly conventions?
Lauren: Austin is actually very receptive to nerdy music and one of the things we try to do is try to play music that is going to appeal to anyone so we play at bars and coffee shops. There is a thriving games industry in Austin so there are a lot of people that like to go out, have fun, drink and also like video games. Plus you never know when that aging biker you never pegged as a gamer hears you and is like “Mario, F*** yeah!”
How often do you play out?
Lauren: I am not good at booking things and traveling to play shows takes a lot of you and a lot of the venues I used to have connections have shut down. We were hoping to do every month or every other month which we’ve kind of been doing but conventions come up that want us to play or something out of town. We are trying to play more local shows. We are talking about Florida and our Austin fans are like why Florida, you’re from Austin? And it’s because they set up shows for us.
Danger: Austin is already supersaturated so there’s usually people booked at the available venues.
Lauren: Sometimes we’ll team up. There are these people that bring consoles to bars and coffee shops to have tournaments and they bring out the fans so we are trying to do something with them but it keeps falling through.
What’s your favorite song to play?
Lauren: There’s different favorite things about favorite songs. Phantom of the Opera is really rewarding; it’s very satisfying.
Lobos: My favorite is Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie: The Game. I get to do crazy cool meaty guitar stuff. And the Power Rangers intro with all the tapping.
Wedge: My favorite is whatever newest one we just learned, but I really like the Ecco 2 medley.
Danger: I like Phantom because it’s the easiest and Robotnik’s Revenge because it is the most challenging on bass.
Wedge: Cause Sonic dies at the end.
Justin: I really like Robotnik’s Revenge, last of transitions and lots of energy to it.
Lauren: My actual favorite is actually The Best is Yet to Come because I feel no one can do it like we do it.
Wedge: I really enjoy doing that one live.
Lauren: To show how much we love it and how ingrained it is, at least for me and Wedge, when we recorded it for the album, we had no time (click track) because it’s entirely a capella at the beginning. I had to rerecord the vocals over Wedge’s existing track, and when I sang, the keyboards automatically came in at the exact same time as they did on the earlier recording because our timing was just right. We just do it so much that it just works.
What has been your favorite show so far?
Lauren: Honestly, PAX South.
Today’s show or last night?
Lauren: Can we just say the whole weekend has been fantastic?
Lobos: It’s a completely different energy when you play to a room of a few thousand than a room full of 40.
Wedge: It feels a little weird to me if people aren’t standing right next to the stage. It’s like I have to feel the people right up next to me, otherwise it’s hard to feel the energy of having an audience. It’s kind of a trip too, at least where I was standing where I can see us on the big TVs.
Danger: It’s also kind of hard to hear ourselves on the big stage. We have monitors but because it’s an orchestral set up the reverberations make it hard to hear.
You do quite a bit of traveling, any good road stories to tell?
Wedge: Florida was definitely… unique.
Lobos: Maybe not good.
Wedge: Well, we all piled into this big van with another band, Random Encounter, with their van called the Vandom Encounter. They had this big trailer that we really had to tetris everything into. We somehow made it to all three shows in one piece.
Lauren: The person who was supposed to book the shows fell through so we had to do a lot of last minute scrambling. We played at a middle school and had to censor Danger’s tattoos. His hand said “Rock Y’all.” We have also played libraries where we have to keep things PG-13.
What is something you wish I asked about that I didn’t?
Lauren: I am very excited that you didn’t ask us what your musical influences are or our favorite video games since we get that all the time.
I did go to your website so I kind of have an idea…
Lauren: Yeah! We always get asked that. There was only one other interview we didn’t get asked that and that was exciting.
Wedge: I always like talking about arranging and the musical stuff. That’s probably too technical for most people so it’s probably not a good interview question. I think it’s a fun challenge trying to find the right key and the right tempos.
Lauren: And listening to a song over and over and over and over again and wondering what are the harmonies doing? If it’s a Super Nintendo game and you have the SPC file, you can mute individual channels so you can isolate certain parts and write those out and that is so much easier than something like Undertale or Starcraft. I spent a ton of hours listening to Undertale and writing the notes out and then I gave them to Wedge since she has a better ear for that and she ended up reworking half of it. It’s a fun collaborative effort.
Wedge: It’s a weird process when you take these parts that are played on instruments that don’t exist. You take all these parts and are like this is now a flute, this is a guitar, I’m going to do something on my keyboard. There’s so many songs that don’t have drums or percussion.
Justin: I like writing my own drums. It’s something I naturally do. My entire life when playing video games I would add my own drum parts or beatbox something into them.
Is there something you would like to cover but don’t have the equipment for it?
Lobos: See Toe Jam and Earl.
Lauren: We talked about Tank from Cowboy Bebop but we need brass.
Wedge: And something better than my Yamaha brass.
Lobos: Nothing in particular, but sometimes we hear something and are like that would be cool but the instrumentation wouldn’t work.
Danger: Or something that is a good song but wouldn’t be enjoyable to watch live.
Lauren: It’s always a challenge. Even sometimes when we play Kakariko Village I’m like is this too boring? But people are dancing so it’s like ok, they don’t hate it.
Wedge: We had to nix one of my favorite Ecco 2 songs.
Lauren: Have there been any major live parts flop where we were like let’s not do that again? There’s definitely been I need to learn my parts.
Lobos: It’s never been that didn’t work let’s not play that again.
Wedge: Every song we played someone has come up to us and been like oh my god you played this. And the more obscure it is the more excited the three people in the world who know it get.
Lauren: The three people that like the obscure songs make up for everyone who doesn’t know it. Like we’re going to do this song from Star Ocean 2 and the Star Ocean 2 fans are like YEAH!! Look at my tattoo!
What’s up with a new album?
Lauren: In February we are going to have a band party where I am going to reward them with pancakes for learning the Undertale song in three weeks. We’re going to have a band pow wow and figure out what songs to put on the album. We’re actually going to commit to it. Did I tell you guys that yet?
Danger: You just did.
Lauren: I figure we can do that when we aren’t eating pancakes or playing video games.
Wedge: Danger knows a guy who is good at recording who can help us with this.
Lauren: So maybe we can make this happen this year. We have a lot of new stuff not on the album but we have to find out if it fits with how we want to present ourselves.