KILL SCREEN 002: Mike McKenzie of THE RED CHORD Wants You To Live Your Best (Digital) Life

“We’re down to our last 7 minutes, I’m so sorry…” I begrudgingly said. A disappointed groan could be heard from all sides as our free Zoom account was counting down the time for what would be not our first, but second full session that day with the hyper-prolific Mike McKenzie. Though probably best known as the guitarist for the Red Chord, Mike has a discography that spans several varied bands and musical projects over his two-decades-plus career: Umbra Vitae (playing their first live shows ever December 15 and 16 in Massachusetts and New York, respectively, as well as the first Subterranean Dissonance Fest in Philadelphia on February 11), Wear Your Wounds, Sexless Marriage, Stomach Earth, Unraveller and more. Though a conversation about his enthusiasm for music would prove just as long and spirited, we spent our time discussing a shared passion of video games, not just as pastime, but as true high art. And though we wrapped up our interview within that time, we could have easily continued for hours more.

The excitement was palpable as video games were dissected into their many moving parts: The music, the art, the structure of its gameplay and the antimatter that exists outside of its polygonal walls. McKenzie has much to offer in personal reflection of his gaming past, present and future, having come up in a time when video games remained very much on the fringes and only championed by the freaks and geeks, much like the world of extreme music. What started out as a lighthearted chat about obscure vintage games, long-since-bankrupted businesses and sharing the inside jokes of his Twitch channel eventually led to a much deeper discussion of responsibility and a defense of digital escapism in the face of the mounting obligation that growing up brings. A discussion, fittingly, that was halted all too soon by a timer unforgivingly rooted in the real world. Let us take you inside Mike McKenzie’s world. We hope you will take the time to read this super-sized interview as much as we hope you take the time for yourself to start that game you’ve been putting off for too long. We certainly will be.

What was your first gaming experience?
I think my first gaming experience was an Intellivision II. My parents had it. It was probably, like, ’83 or ’84. I was very young. I know we had Burger Time and we had Snafu, which I still think about Snafu all the time. But then the real one that hit me was I played the original Super Mario Bros. in Service Merchandise. They had a demo. I was probably, like, 5, I think it was the year [the] Nintendo [Entertainment System] came out. I think we got it the year it came out, which is the only time that’s ever happened in my life. Especially my childhood, I wasn’t getting the new games or the new systems or any of that. But it was, like, the one splurge and it just took over my life. I just became obsessed with it.

Then, of course, friends ended up having games. I remember as a kid, if you go over to someone’s house and you don’t see their video game console by the T.V., I was like, “What the fuck kind of house is this? They don’t have a game console here? What kind of miserable existence do these people live? They just have a T.V. in here? What do they do?” Even my grandparents. My grandparents had an Atari, I think it was a 2600, and I played Barnstorming on there a lot, and other games. Definitely as a kid in the ’80s, I felt like if you went into a house and there wasn’t a game console out, then it was, these people are awful.

Right before touring with the Red Chord, you actually had a job selling video games. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Well, it was sort of selling video games. I worked at CompUSA, when that business was still open. I was in the warehouse when I first got the job there. I was leaving to go on tour. At some point, I went back and I couldn’t work in the warehouse anymore, I forget why. So they put me on the sales floor. I wasn’t really knowledgeable enough at that point to sell computers or software, especially since I was working there in the late ’90s/early 2000s when nothing was plug ‘n’ play and everybody’s question was, like, “Does this work with Windows?” And you’re like, “Eh, maybe, I don’t know.” So they gave me the title of “Gaming Champion,” because everybody had to be a “champion” of something. That was their thing. They were like, “It’s not really a title, but we had to make you the champion of something, so, you’re the one who knows the most about games here”—which I don’t know if that was true. I think that my boss just was, like, “We like you and we’re gonna let you be the gaming guy.”

So let’s be clear: After this, when you put applications in someplace, this was obviously the thing that you would include first, right? “Gaming Champion. This was literally my previous job title, just so you guys know.”
They even rigged a contest for me to win. There was a raffle at the company Christmas party to win a PS2—which I already had—and they went, “21!” And I was like, “Ah, it’s not me.” Someone was like, “What’s your number? 20!” And then they went, “Oh, it’s 20!” So, then I got a PS2. There were a couple of controllers and it came with three games. It was a whole package. And at the time, PS2 was still relevant. It wasn’t new, but it wasn’t the last generation yet, so it was a good prize. I think two of the games I still have never even opened. [Laughs]

Do you have any idea what they were?
One of them was a college basketball game, one of them was Jade Cocoon 2, I think. Someday maybe I’ll play that. It looks cool. I forget the other game.

You might want to check the price of that. If it’s still in shrink-wrap, some of those PS2 JRPGs are really expensive.
I still kick myself for not grabbing a copy of one of the most valuable PS2 titles, Rule of Rose. I remember seeing it in the store and being like, oh, that looks cool, I should grab that. Twenty bucks? And I didn’t buy it. Now it’s worth a ton of money.

I [Michael] bought that in Japan for I think $100? Buying Japanese games is way cheaper than buying the North American games, but still, I’m so glad that I did. For the past 4 or 5 years now I’ve been looking for a reasonable copy of Rule of Rose, but they’re not getting any cheaper.
They’re not gonna make more of them. Even when stuff comes out for digital, I’m like, Is the price gonna go down for the original? And it doesn’t.

When they were first talking about games being made available digitally, there was concern that it would really devalue the physical product. And that has not happened at all. If anything, it seems like it only builds more excitement on it.
I’ve been a collector for a long time. I’m kind of moving away from that. I’m not actively collecting anymore and I’ve been trying to cull my collection. So it’s nice when stuff like that comes out on digital. Some of these games, I’ll just sell the copy because I’m nervous about damaging it. I have a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga. I bought it maybe 2006 or 7 when it was, like, $120. It was the most I’ve ever spent on a video game and I thought it was crazy, but I really wanted to play it. But now, it’s eight or nine hundred bucks. I don’t want to risk damaging it and then the value goes down. If they release that digitally, I’m selling it immediately. I want to play it, I know it’s a great game. But I get nervous about that. Every time I’ve moved, I’ve been like, Oh no, I gotta pack this up carefully. If it breaks during moving, I’m out a thousand bucks. [Laughs]

When you were actively touring, you actually picked up a little bit of game collecting along the way. What were some of the other gems in your collection?
At the time, I was collecting other video game memorabilia and pissing off the band by filling the van with stuff. They’d be like, “Can you put this in the trailer please?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s gonna get destroyed in the trailer. The trailer’s a mess! And there’s dirty clothes and gear. I’m not gonna put it in the trailer!” So they’d have to sit in the van with stuff at their feet, like boxes of action figures and shit that I bought. And I’ve sold a lot of that stuff, I still have some of it. I had the Final Fantasy X figures. There’s a foot-or-more tall Kimahri that I had boxed. I had them all boxed. Those were cool. And I had the Final Fantasy X-2 figures as well. I sold those.

As far as games go, Panzer Dragoon Saga is probably the most special in my collection because it’s the sought-after title. I have some other Saturn games. I was trying to collect for Saturn back before it became just impossible. I have Mega Man 8 Anniversary Collection, which… I don’t like very much. I’ll probably sell that. [Laughs] My collection, the expensive stuff, is stuff that I’m not really that crazy about. The early Persona games, the PS1 titles, I have both of those. I know they’re not super fun to play compared to the newer ones. The Saturn stuff, though, I don’t want to get rid of it because it’s cool. I love the giant case and how absurd it looks, how huge it is on the shelf. I got some Sega CD games, same thing. I don’t even have a Sega CD console, but the games are cool.

I [Michael] have a couple of those early PS1 titles that, they’re not rare or sought-after games, but I’m a sucker for packaging. It’s cool to see this larger format, kind of the same way as vinyl.
Yeah, that makes me think about the part of my collection I just never want to get rid of, even though I probably won’t play them: my big box PC collection. I was helping my mom clean out her garage, like, a year ago and I found a bunch of the big boxes that I had broken down and folded up and put in a bin. I just folded them back into box shape and put them on the shelf because they look really nice. Most of these games already have digital GOG versions, there’s no reason to keep them anymore. But the Heretic shareware box art is so fucking cool. And I got Doom II. I have the 3.5” floppy disc version of Hexen. I don’t even have a 3.5” floppy drive anymore. I’m never gonna have one again, but I gotta keep those.

Even if you don’t have a 3.5” floppy drive anymore, you’re never gonna find that shit ever again. Why get rid of it for no great reason?
Some people do just toss this shit. I remember my mom trying to get me to get rid of video game boxes that didn’t have the games in them when I was a kid. Same with NES—I took all my NES boxes and I folded them up because I didn’t want to get rid of them because I liked the art. Same with vinyl. It’s a celebration of the art form as well. That’s one of the reasons I like the big box stuff. A lot of those fantasy and horror big box PC covers, they look like death metal art. It feels like a lost art now. Obviously, people are bringing that back. Limited Run is doing stuff like that, all this collectible stuff and it’s cool. There’s something special about the old [big boxes]. Or maybe it has a cool book in it!

I [James] remember having the Final Fantasy VII PC version and, like you said, the big display and Sephiroth and the fire scene, it looks so awesome on that big box. And this thick instruction manual. So much of that is just not very useful, it’s not like you have ultra-limited art or something, but it’s really fun to sit there and flip through that.
I loved the old NES manuals. The Zelda manuals had cool art in there that was nowhere else. I guess it was probably originally concept art or something. But the images in there of Link in the shop and looking over the land, all that stuff rules so much. Those are burned into my mind. It just takes me back to that perfect time when I was a kid and I didn’t know the world was awful. [Laughs]

Page 6 from the official instruction manual for ‘The Legend of Zelda’ (NES, 1986).

Have you bonded with any bandmates or tour mates over gaming?
Not really. More recently—probably after I stopped touring with the Red Chord, actually—was when video game conversations started to happen a little bit more with people. But it’s been, like, here and there that I’ll meet somebody who’s into video games. Thinking back to when the Red Chord was active, I can count on one hand the number of people that I talked to about games who are also into it. Trevor [Strnad] from the Black Dahlia Murder, he and I used to talk about NES games and I remember being like, Oh man, now there’s a dude on tour who wants to talk about video games! But he only liked NES. He was like, “I’m not into this newer stuff,” which is kind of how I feel now. But yeah, there wasn’t a lot of that.

It’s funny how all these younger bands, they grew up more in the age of games. Games are mainstream now. They weren’t years ago. They were for the weird kid or the nerdy kid, just like metal. I feel like metal and video games, they’re so much like each other. They only sometimes have crossover in the two worlds. Power metal bands singing about dragons is no different than people talking about dragons in a game. I feel like it’s kind of weird that more metalheads aren’t already into this shit. Or maybe they are, and we just don’t know it.

It’s kind of what I’m hoping to root out with this column a little bit. Bring it a little bit more to the forefront.
When video games started to look like death metal cover art, and vice versa, that’s where I was like, that’s what I want. I want to play a game that looks like the cover of [Suffocation’s] Pierced From Within, or I want to listen to a death metal record that makes me think about video games.

I know that you’re an avid listener of video game OSTs and you have a chip tune project under the name Unraveller. What are some of the soundtracks or composers that have had the biggest impact on you?
Video game music influences me in most of the music that I make. I tend to like the more cinematic-sounding stuff, but obviously the old 8-bit style, too. Matt Uelmen, the guy that made the Diablo I and II soundtracks. And he also did Torchlight. I love that guy’s stuff. Yuzo Koshiro, who’s done a million things, but I first heard his music in Streets of Rage. Jesper Kyd. He did the Hitman music and a lot of cool stuff. I always loved his orchestral stuff. I actually invited him to a Red Chord show once, because he lives in L.A. When MySpace was still around, I reached out him and he responded and said, “Thanks for the invite, I’ll see if I can make it out.” He didn’t come, or he did and didn’t come talk to us, I don’t know. Nobuo Uematsu, obviously, everybody loves his music. The Final Fantasy stuff is great. Everybody who wrote the music for Bloodborne. To me, Bloodborne’s music is 30% of the game. That music affected me musically more than anything. It kind of ignited something in me to write music. And then there’s tons of other classic soundtracks I love that I don’t remember the composers of. The Mega Man games, a lot of the old NES stuff. That dude Jake Kaufman, who did Shovel Knight and Contra 4, that guy is incredibly talented. He did the music for that Batman game for Wii, also, called [The Brave and the Bold], which is like this swingy, jazzy, really cool soundtrack. This dude’s range of composition is amazing. There’s plenty of composers that have come from film who are now doing game stuff that I love as well. That all kind of bleeds into one category in my mind–film and video game music, just general scores. Which, to me, is just as big an influence, maybe more so, on my writing than a band.
Even though I like to play retro stuff more, the soundtracks that stick with me more tend to be a little bit more cinematic. Obviously I love the chip tune stuff. All the retro sounds are just, like, massages for the brain. To me, those wave forms when they’re mixed right, sound enjoyable in the same that a distorted guitar does. It makes sense I was drawn to that because I love the retro video game sounds as well.

What, to you, is the cutoff line for retro gaming?
Well, I think there’s a couple reasons why I’m drawn to retro stuff, so it’s hard to say where my cut off is. One reason is obviously nostalgia, stuff that reminds me of my youth. Putting that there, my cut off would be, like, PS1. I got a PS1 when I was in high school and that was the last time I had a part-time job and went to school versus a full-time job. Also, the time factor. A lot of retro games, you can pick up and play. You don’t have to wait until a save point to play a Nintendo game, usually. The retro thing for me, I guess it’s PS1 and earlier. I still like plenty of modern stuff, too. Bloodborne is my favorite game of all time. It’s harder for me to start modern stuff now. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s maybe the time involvement. Loading times definitely make me think, Ugh, I’m waiting for this game to load and I only have an hour to play!

Do you think part of it is sometimes you have to sink more into the world in a sense? For something like Bloodborne, you have to really think about the environment. It’s very all-encompassing, but at the same time it’s not as simple as picking up a controller in Mega Man.
That’s definitely it. A more involved game, a game like Bloodborne, I want to give it that time. If I’m gonna enjoy that, I need to sink into it, like you said. I feel weird playing some of those games unless I have dedicated time because I don’t want to be ripped out of it. A lot of newer games, especially AAA games, really want you to be in their world. As much as I want to, I’m stuck in this world most of the time. [Laughs]

Earlier you mentioned looking at video game box art that caught your eye and reminded you of metal records, or you wanted to listen to metal records that made you think of a video game. Does that go with the same “telling a story” thing? And, with that, can you think of ones in particular that really caught your eye? You specifically mentioned Suffocation’s Pierced From Within.
I had already heard one of the songs [“Thrones of Blood”] on college radio and I fell in love with it because it was the heaviest thing I had ever heard. And then I found the CD in Newbury Comics, and I was like, that is the coolest cover I have ever seen! It’s some horrible landscape, someplace you’d never want to be with no hope in sight. Video games that bring you into that world, give you a little elaboration on what may have occurred, which I like. I like stories where you don’t know everything, but also I like a little bit of elaboration, too.

When I was young, I was always fascinated by the limit of the game. Especially when 3D stuff came out, like Doom and Wolfenstein, there were codes to get outside the map. The first Doom episode, the end of it, you kill the two Barons of Hell and then you’re teleported into some dark place where you’re killed and you get sent to Hell. But as a kid, I remember being like, “What’s in that place? What if I use the cheat codes and see inside that room?” So I did, of course. It’s just a room full of demons that kill you to continue the script of the game. The idea of the world beyond the bounds that had been created was so fascinating to me. It made me yearn to know what was beyond the walls, even if it was never made. If they never made something beyond the limits of this level, it made me imagine it.
One of the things I don’t like about some games—this really happens more with newer games—I don’t want the game to hold my hand because it wants me to see the story. I like the idea that maybe you’ll never get to see the story. You have to earn that story. I don’t like the Uncharted games. They’re beautiful games, they’re really well made, the music is great, they’re like films. They’re very cool. But I hate the fact that it just autosaves you so much to the point where it’s like, we just want you to see the end. And I know people worked really hard on them for years and if I worked on them I would also want everyone to see the ending. But you’re not making a film, you’re making a video game. It doesn’t feel like there are any stakes, it doesn’t feel like I earned anything.

I love the Souls series. I love them for the dark worlds that they’re in; they feel like death metal cover art. However, I also like them because there’s stuff that I may never get to see. When I was young and I was playing games that were hard and I would get somewhere late in the game, the stakes felt so high and it felt scary. Like, oh my god, I’ve never made it this far! You get really emotionally invested. Being able to connect to a video game requires a different set of emotional taps than a record or a movie. The fact that I’ve played Bloodborne numerous times and still think about it all the time even though I haven’t played it for years, they did something special with that. Metroid [1986] is another one that comes to mind. That game was haunting for a time when games weren’t haunting. It really felt like you were on a cold, alien planet. It felt scary to explore places you hadn’t been before. That’s hard to do, especially with the limited technology of back then. Metroid is a real accomplishment, in my opinion.

You have a Twitch channel where you play games and guitar. Has Twitch changed your approach to gaming or your appreciation of it?
In the spirit of trying to play more games, I decided that Twitch was going to help me to do that. If I have a schedule where I play video games and other people are around, it holds me accountable for playing the games that I spent money on. Collecting is fun, but the reason I was collecting them in the first place was so that I could play them. I love lists. I love making lists of things, I love checking things off of lists. I made the goal of beating 1,000 games, an absurd goal that I’ll never actually accomplish, but it’s fun to see how far I can get. I’ve only beaten 160 games. This is a lifetime goal.

I think I’ve beaten 40-something games since I started Twitch, which is pretty fun to think about. It sort of forces me to sit down and have fun because I love playing games and I just was not having any time to do it. I wasn’t scheduling time to do something that I liked because I was like, well, I don’t have time to play games, I have this, this and this that need to get done. Well, whether I play games or not, these things are still gonna take forever to get done, so I may as well not ruin my life. I probably spend, like, 4 or 5 hours a week on Twitch playing games, which is really not very much. But it’s 4 or 5 hours a week that I’m playing something fun.

It’s fostered this little community with a bunch of inside jokes and other fun stuff that’s blossomed from it. I was like, Oh yeah, the pandemic’s happening, everybody’s on Twitch, I’m gonna do that. Now I’m like, I wanna hang out with my Twitch friends and do something silly. And then we’ve done this thing with Greg Weeks, who plays in every band I’m in, pretty much. We call it Weeks Wednesday, because it’s always been Wednesday that he comes over. Usually it’s some silly day where we play some game, like this one bowling game that we for some reason play even though it’s awful. [Laughs] This awful bowling game that I bought for a dollar, it sucks. But it has this great music that opens it. It’s a terrible game and for some reason we play it and we end up riffing on all this nonsense.

Twitch has helped me in a number of ways, but it hasn’t actually changed my approach to playing games at all. The only thing that it’s made me realize is that I also want to play games off Twitch. Playing games when you’re on is not the same as relaxing. If that group of people were all hanging out in a room, it wouldn’t be as tiring as if I’m on Twitch and no one’s there. I’m reacting to just their words; I don’t see their faces, I can’t play off of what people are saying, so it doesn’t feel the same. I get tired doing it, which is kind of weird. Greg said the same thing. We’re kind of performing a little bit, even though we’re hanging out. I have a very niche thing going on where I play old games and talk about death metal. Maybe that’s growing! Maybe there’s more people for that. But it’s still very fun, it’s more active.

Have you been able to game off of Twitch at all?
Not a whole lot, but I did play the game I was playing on Twitch yesterday, [Wallachia: Reign of Dracula], on Switch because I can bring the Switch to places like the toilet, which is just fantastic. I played a couple of levels on the hard difficulty because I was like, I may as well try this out. I was feeling guilty for a while playing games off Twitch. And that’s a ridiculous thing to do. That’s something I have to contend with. [Laughs]

Well, now you’ve [turned] gaming [into] work.
Yes. Which I did with music years ago, too. It’s a double-edged sword.

This stopped being an interview and became a therapy session for me [Michael], because this is all the same shit that I feel.
It’s hard! Video games are just a really good analogy for the self-care thing. When things are bad, it’s easier to say you need self-care. But even when things are good, you need to recognize that you need time. You need to relax, you need to do things you like. I’ve attempted to make video games into a job-type thing, like music, because, I don’t know, maybe it’s because our society is awful and we have to monetize everything we like because there’s no other way to be happy or live. But video games are a great thing to be like, I’m going to sit down and do something that’s not productive. It’s only enjoyable. Nothing comes from a video game other than enjoyment–until you put it on Twitch. [Laughs]

Any final thoughts before Zoom kicks us off?
I’m pumped you guys are doing this. I look forward to seeing more people talk about games. I want to see older dudes come out and talk about games. Corpsegrinder, when he told me about playing Final Fantasy VIII, when we were talking about games on tour once, I was like, I want to talk to you about this for hours! Finding out that George was into video games—and obviously everybody already knows he likes World of Warcraft—I was like, This is fucking awesome! That was probably, 2007 when we toured with them, I think? Yeah. That’s fun.

Follow Mike on Twitch, Twitter, Instagram and Bandcamp.
Purchase tickets for Umbra Vitae’s upcoming shows here.