KILL SCREEN 013: For Dustin Davidson of AUGUST BURNS RED, Video Games Are a Family Matter

Photo by Ray Duker

Even for those of us who aren’t hopelessly absorbed by the world of digital entertainment, there are some characters that have outgrown the confines of the gaming world and have comfortably settled into the mainstream. Thanks to industry titan Nintendo, names like Mario, Donkey Kong and Pikachu are all such universal staples that even if you have never so much as touched a controller, you know exactly to whom we are referring. Among these household names are titular heroine Princess Zelda and the hero of time Link from the long running series The Legend of Zelda. First appearing in 1986 on Japan’s Famicom Disk System, the franchise has been a pillar of the gaming community for nearly 40 years with its latest installment, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, selling over 10 million copies worldwide in just three days. Even outlets like The New York Times were covering the latest chapter of Link’s adventures through the land of Hyrule. But chances are if you’re reading this niche column from a niche magazine, you already know all of this.

Unsurprisingly, The Legend of Zelda is no stranger to the metal world, either. Dustin Davidson, bassist for metalcore institution and Grammy nominees August Burns Red, has been a diehard fan of the series long before his love of heavy music. He is so enamored with Nintendo’s legendary roleplaying game that for the band’s 2019 Phantom Sessions EP, he personally composed a high-flying metal medley of two of the game’s most iconic songs: The series’ theme and the much more menacing dungeon theme. The video for the cover saw Davidson donning Link cosplay while handling all axe duties and has amassed a whopping 1.1 million views on YouTube alone at time of writing. On a few lucky occasions, fans of the band are treated to a live rendition of the gaming anthem, leading Davidson to be an unofficial Zelda ambassador for ABR. Despite the song’s success, it’s his time off the stage where he recounts his fondest memories of the game with family and close friends alike. Leading up to the release of Tears of the Kingdom, Kill Screen caught up with Davidson while out on tour supporting August Burns Red’s 20th anniversary as well as their new album, Death Below, to discuss all things Zelda. Hey! Listen! Er, read!

What was your first video game experience?
Honestly, I probably don’t remember it. I’ve been playing video games my whole life and I wasn’t conscious yet. [Laughs] It was definitely original Nintendo and it was probably a Mario game, or it could have been a Zelda game. I remember the Nintendo being in my parents’ room and my mom loves Zelda. I remember watching her play Zelda. That’s a very early memory of mine.

Your parents were video game enthusiasts as well, then?
My mom was, yeah. My dad was not a video game guy. He was, “You better be outside playing sports! Playing football!” And I’m like, “Eh, I’d rather be in here playing video games, man!”

What have you been playing lately?
Lately I’ve been playing Luigi’s Mansion 3 on Switch. Love it, dude. So good. I just finished it a couple of nights ago and now I’m going back and trying to collect all the gems, because that’s the kind of guy that I am in games. I have to try to complete everything, I gotta try to get everything.

Did you play any of the other ones?
No, that was my first one. Everybody told me, “You gotta play Luigi’s Mansion.” I put it off for so long, and then my brother, Paul, he had beaten it was he was like, “You wanna borrow it?” I started it just before this tour and finished it pretty quickly. It was, like, a 12 hour [or] 15 hour game, something like that. It was a light game, but it was awesome, dude. I loved it. It didn’t drag on. I think when I first started playing it, I was like, Is this game gonna get more challenging? The gems and stuff, they get pretty unique with trying to find those collectable items and that’s enough to keep me captivated. But as far as battling bosses and stuff, that was all child’s play. [Laughs] But still enjoyable.

You mentioned that you were playing this on tour. Do you regularly game while you’re on the road? And do you ever play with bandmates or tour mates?
We play Mario Kart almost every day. [Laughs]

And you’re still cool with each other? Nobody’s been kicked out yet?
It’s strengthened our relationships, if you can believe it or not. It’s always like, “Kart at 8 PM?” “Yes, I’ll be there.” “Yeah, I’ll be there!” “I’ll be there at 8:30!”

Last night, we had a day off in Minneapolis. A couple of us were out for dinner. We’re all spread out doing our different things and then I see it in the group chat. Somebody’s like, “Kart tonight?” And then somebody’s like, “Yes, please. I need this.” And then it’s like, “What time?” “9.” And I’m like, “Ah, I won’t be there at 9.” I was playing pool with a buddy. I didn’t get back until 10:30 and I texted as I got back to the bus. “You guys still Karting?” I got an answer in a little bit because they were obviously in something. [Guitarist] J.B. [Brubaker] said, “My eyes are burning, but yes, I’ll play more Kart.”

That game is so fun, though. That’s the constant in my life. We play it here with the touring party and then I go home and I have so many friends that Kart as well, so we’re all playing it at home, too.

Do you get competitive at all or is it always pretty chill?
Oh, it’s super competitive. My friend Stephanie, she’ll get you back. I always hit her with something. Even if I gotta waste something and not have butt protection—throw a shell at her just to hit her—she’ll get you back instantly. She’ll say some things I probably shouldn’t say. [Laughs] Oh, it’s so good, dude. We do yell at each other.

Actually—this is so funny—we got a noise complaint last night for Mario Kart! [Laughs] I’m not making that up! I get back to the hotel, I’m walking in with our tour manager. We’re walking by this guy on a walkie talkie and he’s saying something. He goes, “658 or 659?” And she’s like, “It’s 658. Noise complaint there, they’re being too loud. The room next to them is complaining.” And we look to each other and we’re like, “That’s our room, dude.” And we know they were playing Mario Kart. So we get to the room and we’re like, “What the hell are you guys doing? You gotta calm down!” So then we’re whispering, playing. [Laughs] And it was all because of Mario Kart.

Are you primarily Nintendo or do you play PC, PlayStation, Xbox, any of the other stuff?
These days I am 100% Nintendo and that’s it. I used to be a [Call of Duty] player. I used to do GBs [“Game Battles”] all the time. I was addicted to it. I always told people that it was my kryptonite because it captivated me. Especially during the pandemic, when we couldn’t go anywhere. I’d wake up and I’d be like, “Well… I’ll write some music.” And I’d sit down and try to write music and then I’d be like, “I’m not gonna work through this, I’m gonna get on CoD.”

I kind of used 2020 to get away from CoD because I found that it was interfering with my life in a negative way where when I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m a completionist in a game. There’s no completing CoD. It’s like, I can always get 750 kills with this assault rifle and unlock diamond camo, and stuff like that. There was no end in sight. I just wanted to keep grinding and I kind of felt it just taking up too much of my time. Switch is just the only thing that I was able to be like, These games that I play, they have an end. I didn’t have to keep grinding it and padding my stats and stuff. Yeah, I’m 100% Nintendo now. That’s it.

You mentioned that there was an NES in the household when you were younger. Have you kept up with each console or were there times where you stepped away?
The only console that I missed was GameCube. We didn’t have one growing up. It’s so wild to me to think back to that now. The ones that I remember the most was Super Nintendo and then, of course, N64 because of specifically Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Those two games, playing those side-by-side. And then, for some reason, [we] missed GameCube and then picked back up with Wii. So, I’ve had every Nintendo console except for GameCube. I don’t know why I didn’t have that one.

As I had mentioned, my mom was really into it. I think the last one she had was N64. Whereas my brother—we’re all video game nerds—has, and still has, every single Nintendo system. He has them at his place and he can plug them in and play them. And he was just playing WiiU. I had that one, too, and I loved that. It’s such a cool progression to see how the Switch came to be. It’s like they said, “How can we make this not just better, but more portable, less clunky?” They’re so innovative every step of the way. It’s like they’re always leading the game in being innovative and creating something new and unique. That’s what I love about them.

A game that I love for the WiiU: It was called Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. You were the ghost if you had the WiiU pad and then the other controllers were characters and you were trying to scare them. [The Wii remote] would vibrate and they would turn around and shine a flashlight on you. They couldn’t see where you were on the television, but you could see everything on your pad. I think it was just part of the platform.

It was a mini-game within [Nintendo Wii U launch title] Nintendo Land, but it wasn’t its own stand-alone thing.
Exactly! Dude, it was so cool. I was the only one in my friend group at home who had a WiiU. My brother did, but it was just us two. When I would get together with them, it’d be like, “You have to see this game. We gotta play this game.” Three of my friends bought a WiiU because of that game. And they didn’t sell them, they still have it because they’re like, “I don’t want to get rid of this game. It’s so fun!” And it really is.

And that was the way the Switch was for the same group of friends that I mentioned. I saw my best friends, Christina and Dante, they were like, “We’re not gonna get a Switch.” And then I presented Mario Kart, and they were like, “OK.” I think he Prime’d a Switch the day that we played it. [Laughs] It’s so good how games bring people together, man.

We understand that The Legend of Zelda is a very important series to you. Do you remember the first time that you played it? What is it about the series that still resonates with you today?
The first time that I played it that I can remember would have been A Link to the Past. I can remember playing that with my mom and my brother. I don’t remember too much other than that because I was pretty young. I have a lot more memories of Ocarina of Time. That was the game that we all really bonded over and I was older. And it was also just crazy to see the graphics—how it came from that to that. Far more memories of that, but definitely Link to the Past being the first one that I played that I can remember.

What it means to me, dude? That’s what’s so special about it to me. I can reflect on that for my whole life and see this bonding time that I had my with my mom and my brother. I can remember fighting Ganon in Ocarina of Time and my mom and my brother wanting to be there to watch the whole thing unfold, to see the end of this game. You couldn’t look it up on YouTube to see, “What’s the final boss like?” You had to be there in person. I have a leg sleeve dedicated to Zelda because it reminds me of those great memories of family bonding. My brother as well, he has so many Nintendo tattoos, primarily Zelda tattoos. I was gonna ask my mom when she’s gonna get hers, now that I’m thinking about this out loud.

What’s kept me playing the game is those memories and that bonding time that I had, but also my love for the game. To me, it’s got everything in that game. Everything, everywhere, all at once in that game, especially where we ended up with Breath of the Wild being this ridiculously large game and there’s so much going on. You can spend so much time just exploring and discovering things. It’s so exciting to look at Breath of the Wild—again, me being a completionist—and go, Well, I have the shirt and the pants for that outfit, but where do I find the helmet for that one? I gotta complete it so I can get bonus whatever I need. There’s something in that game for everybody.

The series has captivated me. I really want to go back and play Majora’s Mask. I was so young when it came out, I was frustrated by it. I didn’t really understand it. I haven’t played it since I was that age—11, somewhere around there? I couldn’t even tell you guys much about that game because it’s been so long. I just remember it being frustrating for me as a young kid trying to play that game. So, that’s the one that I have to go back to.

Was it the time limit that was the struggle? Or just the general difficulty of the game?
I remember the time limit being the frustrating thing, and just not understanding it. Which is interesting. I don’t know, I guess because I was so young. I’ve talked to my brother, we’ve talked about it recently. It’s like, “Oh, that sounds like an easy concept.” I mean, it sounds annoying, but it’s like, Well, maybe don’t start the dungeon if you know you’re gonna have to reset and go back to the village. Wait until you restart. And he had told me, “It’s a pretty small world. It doesn’t take you that far to get across,” and stuff like that. I need to revisit that. I really do.

What would you say is your favorite title and least favorite title from the series?
I guess I’ll start with my favorite because I really need to think about my least favorite. My favorite game… I hate to say Ocarina of Time, but it’s gotta be there. At the same time, the most recent game that I played was Skyward Sword and I’m very high on that game right now. I love that game. The only reason I’m not saying Breath of the Wild is because I put 300 hours into it and being 34 years old, I really do like the shorter games and focusing on recording new music and writing new music and stuff. It’s daunting taking on a game that I know I’m gonna put 300 hours into. Skyward Sword was the most recent game that I played. The mechanics—even playing it on the Switch—still felt great. So, long story long, I guess I’m gonna say Ocarina of Time because of the memories of playing it, but also I know that Skyward Sword is a great progression and it’s not quite as long as Breath of the Wild, so it’s up there for me.

I don’t know how to tell you what my least favorite is, man. That’s so difficult. Can I say Wind Waker even though I didn’t play it because of the graphics?

That was the same reason I [James] skipped that one at the time and I do intend to go back to it at one point. But I remember—as someone who is a huge fan of Link to the Past—I liked some of the darker tones of Zelda and Wind Waker seemed just a little too storybook-y for me.
My brother told me what a lot of people didn’t like about the game, too, was how long it took to be on the ship to get somewhere. But he said when they remastered it, you can speed up time or something now. He said it fixed what was wrong with the game and what a lot of people were complaining about. For me personally, I remember when that game came out. Just like you said, you like the darker-themed Zelda games, and I did, too, man. I was floored when Twilight Princess came out. I was so excited how dark that looked. That’s what I want. I felt like it was a regression to go back from Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask to go back to Wind Waker.

I need to play that game, too, man, and I also need to replay Twilight Princess because that’s a game I did not complete. We were touring so heavy when I was into Twilight Princess. Dude, it’s crazy how much we used to be on the road when we were coming up. So, I had a lot of time away from that game. I started it, got a decent amount into it, we went on tour, didn’t bring the Wii on tour, I forgot the controls—the special sword movements you can do and stuff like that. That kind of deterred me from beating the game, so I’ve never finished Twilight Princess, and that’s another one that I’d really like to replay.

Recently, you were quoted in a Polygon article discussing the impact of [Nintendo composer] Koji Kondo’s work on the music world at large. Would you say that video game music helped influence you into becoming a musician?
No, I wouldn’t. Although I was always captivated by his composing specifically for Zelda. It really stood out to me. To get into music, I was more into pop punk. Blink 182, that band really made me want to get into music. But yeah, Koji’s stuff has always stood out to me in the video game world. It’s unreal, man. I did that cover for Zelda where I meshed up the theme with the dungeon theme. When I was learning it and composing it myself and putting it together as a metal song, it’s certain note choices. And it’s not just limited to those two songs, it’s everything. There’s another one in Gerudo Valley, in that song where I transcribe it and I go, Dude, I would never think to do that. This guy is brilliant. He does such unique composition, man. It’s inspiring.

So, you were the driving force behind the medley? Any particular reason you went with that?
I was, yes. So, I took the original theme. I knew I was going to do that. Obviously had to do that. And I was like, How am I gonna make this into a three plus minute song? I worked on it from start to finish. I knew I wanted to start with this clean guitar. And I was like, Let’s see how long I can stretch this. And then I realized very quickly into it that it wasn’t going to work out to just do the original theme. So then I looked at the dungeon theme because I thought there would be a very easy transition to get into that. Dude, that’s straight up metal. That’s a diminished harmonic minor, straight up. So I was like, I gotta put that in there. It fit perfectly, dude. And then I just took it straight back to the original theme and tied it together. It was just because I wanted to stretch the song out. I didn’t want it to be a minute and a half long. I needed to add something else to it. And I thought the dungeon theme was a very recognizable song from the game, too, so it just made sense.

As you were putting it together, were interested it in playing it live immediately?
Yeah, I always wanted to play it live. Again, it’s a very recognizable thing. We’ve played it live on two or three different tours now. The main thing you see when you play it live is [mimes holding up a cellphone]. It’s this sea of cellphones. Some people will recognize it. You see a lot of people sharing it and talking about it. Some people who might have missed it are like, “Wait, what? They covered a Zelda song?” There’s so much content these days, sometimes it gets buried.

We thought it was a cool song to play live. It kind of gives our drummer [Matt Greiner] a break because there’s this minute long intro. These days, we’re playing headlining sets—like an hour and twenty minutes to an hour and a half. It’s a long set, dude. We like to give our singer [Jake Luhrs] and our drummer a break. I think that was the origin of why we threw it in the set for the first time. We’re on a 20 year anniversary tour right now. We talked about playing it but we actually just played it on this Killswitch Engage tour that we did. You look back on it now, it’s like, “Wait, you guys played it on a non-headlining tour? You played it on a Killswitch tour?” And it went over really well, too. It was awesome.

Did you have any fans come up to you after the show wanting to talk about Zelda afterwards?
Almost daily people talk to me about Zelda. We do meet and greets every day. If not daily, it’s almost every other day. You see somebody come through the line with a Triforce hat on or they’re like, “Dustin, check this out. Here’s my Majora’s Mask tattoo. Let me see your tattoos.” It’s crazy, dudes. It’s almost every day I talk to somebody about whether it’s the song we did or the game itself.

Typically, people consider electronic music to be closely associated with chip tune and video game music. But more and more, we’re seeing heavier bands paying homage to The Legend of Zelda. Why do you feel that these games resonate with the heavier side of the musical spectrum?
Two things. I think it’s the nature of the composition. Like I said earlier, the dungeon theme, it’s diminished and harmonic minor. That’s used in a lot of [Kondo’s] stuff. I know he’s all over the place because of different parts of the map where you go and if you’ve got something happy, what are you gonna compose to that? It’s not gonna be diminished. But a lot of the game, you’re battling this evil. And so the composition is fitting into that and metal composition is dark, heavy, evil sometimes. I think that’s one thing that ties it to it.

Secondly, it’s the technicality. If you look at these metal bands and how technical they are and then you look at these video games and how technical they can be. It might take you a couple of times to figure something out. You don’t get it first try like you do with Luigi’s Mansion, you know? These temples take time and they’re very technical. I think that just lends straight to metal.

We’re seeing a new generation of metal musicians more openly embracing video games not just as part of their identity, but also as a direct inspiration to the work that they do. What are your hopes for this new metal and gaming future?
I’d love to see some more bands cover video game songs, honestly. I’ve talked about doing more. I’d love to do more. I’d love to see somebody try a Mario theme. There’s so many different songs you could use from those games. More Zelda songs. Let’s talk about how many different songs could you do. You could do an album! There’s a lo-fi hip hop playlist on Spotify with 20 different Zelda songs. I’d really like to see metal bands delve into that.

At the time of this interview, we’re two weeks away from the release of Tears of the Kingdom. Is that a day one play for you? What are your expectations going into it and what are you hoping to see improved from Breath of the Wild?
It comes out on May 12th. I’ll be a day three player, because we’re still on tour. [Laughs] We have a show on the 12th, a show on the 13th, we’re home on the 14th. I’ll probably take that day off and start it up on the 15th. Super excited to delve into this game. I’m really excited about is this fuse thing. I can’t wait to see what you can do with that, just watching the gameplay trailers and stuff. I can’t wait to mess around with that and see what you can come up with. And the Skyloft area, these floating islands. I would think we’re gonna find out right away what that came from, whether that was destruction or if that would have been sending it up to protect certain things or what it would have been. Maybe we already know and I just missed that detail.

And then as far as what they would have fixed, it’s been a while since I’ve played Breath of the Wild [but] nothing really stood out to me as frustrating, honestly. I loved everything about that game. As I mentioned earlier, the only reason I said it wasn’t my favorite Zelda game was because of the time that I put into it and I was like, I should probably be outside gardening or writing music instead of playing Zelda at 11 AM. I’m like, Dammit, I love this game so much. Why did you have to make it 300 hours? [Laughs]

I’m so excited to delve into this game and play it and then talk to my friends about it. My buddy Aaron sends me videos of gameplay the second it comes out along the way. My brother’s texting me about it. He’s super excited about it. He’s looking forward to bonding with friends again about this new game. It’s been a while. I’m just super excited to jump into a Zelda game again.

The Legend of Zelda has always been an action RPG at its core. Every single game has incorporated those elements, but every single game has also brought some new take on the genre, on the series, the game. Is there anything that you would like to see the series approach in terms of a new mechanic?
Ooo, that’s a great question. Hmm. [Silence] Nothing’s really coming to mind. They’ve always done such a good job adding something to it and fixing mechanics and the game’s always been released finished. You know how you get a lot of games where it’s like, “Oh, we gotta update this because this doesn’t feel right.” I feel like they’ve just always been so consistent with understanding when the game is done and making sure that it plays right. Nothing comes to mind. I’ll know that when they add something, I’m gonna be like, “Yep. That’s what it was missing.”

Something that I could say as far as the story goes, I’d really like to see them delve more into the dark side of things. I think Breath of the Wild was sort of this culmination of everything, whereas Twilight Princess and Majora’s Mask just felt dark. And I’d love to see a dark-themed game again.

Are there any non-Zelda games that you’re looking forward to in the near future? Or is it just 300 hours of Tears of the Kingdom staring you down? [Laughs]
I don’t know if anything is coming out recently. Let’s talk about wanting to go back to Majora’s Mask. I know that that’s on the Switch [virtual console]. That one, for sure, need to do that. As far as a new game that I haven’t played yet, I just picked up Mario Golf the other day. That’s not a new game, but it’s new to me. I was playing Mario Golf 64 before this tour as well, which is incredibly challenging. And then I watched a video about the latest Mario Golf and was like, “Dude, they added a lot to this game. I want to play this.” I literally just downloaded it the other day. I told myself when I was done going through the floors on Luigi’s Mansion and trying to get all these gems, Mario Golf is next. Try to squeeze that in before I get to Tears of the Kingdom. [Laughs]

The success of the Super Mario Bros. movie has prompted [Nintendo game director and The Legend of Zelda series creator] Shigeru Miyamoto to tease that more Nintendo movies are on the way. Would you want to see a Legend of Zelda movie adaptation and, if so, what would you hope to see from it?
I’ll say I want to see an adaptation of it as a T.V. series. I don’t think you can put Zelda to a movie, man. And, if you can, how many are you making? I want to see it so badly. Years ago, I saw a YouTube April Fools’ trailer of the Zelda series coming out for Netflix or something and I was so stoked. I’m like, You got me, you got me. Stupid April Fools. I really do want to see it as a television series. I think it would fill the void a lot of people felt after Game of Thrones went away, honestly. I think it could be similar to that. I wasn’t a Game of Thrones guy, but I could see it filling that void for some people and I think it could be done really well. I think it can be done right. It’s this huge name. We’re gonna see it someday, dude.

When it comes to video games, T.V. series have definitely come a long way. Everybody has been super excited about the Last of Us series. We’ve gotten away from the early ’90s really hokey cartoon shows coming from America, like the Super Mario Bros. cartoon and the Legend of Zelda cartoon.
Absolutely. They could go both ways, when you mentioned the cartoon. They could do that route and they could keep it to a kids’ movie or television series. I think—if you’re gonna do that route—you have to do it as a movie. I really hope that they don’t go that route. It was great for Mario. I saw it, I loved it. I love how they incorporated so many different games. There was something from everything in there. I loved how many details they put into it. I just really hope that—if they’re gonna go there someday—they stay away from making it a kids’ movie and just make it like a Game of Thrones-esque adult T.V. series. I think they would kill it, man. I really do.

And it doesn’t have to be hyper brutal, but—like you said—not specifically something that’s mean to be rated G. Something that is meant for an audience above 6 years old.
Right. And if they need to use a theme song, they can use the ABR one. It’ll fit perfectly, dude! [Laughs] I would love it.

Death Below is out now and can be ordered here.
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