The lights are on
His real name is Max Gleason, and his cat’s name is Charl but you probably know him better as Smooth McGroove, the acapella YouTube phenomenon with long hair and a huge beard.
Max posted his first acapella video game song back in January with a nine-part rendition of "Zelda’s Lullaby". He enjoyed the process so much that he began posting new videos every week. He posted a video with his cover of Ocarina of Time’s “Song of Storms” that was picked up by Nintendo’s official Facebook page. “That shot me from having 100 subscribers to about 1,000 in about 24 hours,” Gleason says. It wasn’t until he posted his covers of Mega Man X’s "Spark Mandrill's Theme" and Street Fighter II’s "Guile's Theme" two months later that things really changed.
Before Gleason was Mr. McGroove, he was a private music teacher. He taught drum and guitar lessons for eight years before becoming a viral sensation. “I quit that and kind of took the jump,” Gleason says, “It’s what I’ve been doing since pretty much early May.”
Gleason quit his day job in order to record acapella covers of notable video game songs full time. “I remember when I started my YouTube channel, looking around to see if anyone was doing anything else similar and I was like, ‘Oh man! This guy has 40,000 subscribers! If I could do that, maybe in two years I’ll hit that, and I’ll be able to spend more time recording.’” Gleason says, “Three months later, here I am way past 40,000 subscribers in April, and just really kind of going, ‘Man, this is unbelievable!’”
Check out Smooth McGroove's arrangement of of the "Spark Mandrill" theme from Mega Man X.
With the exception of the gameplay seen in the videos, which he sometimes farms out to more-skilled friends, Gleason does everything himself. He releases a new video every week, but that doesn’t mean his videos are simple to put together, or that he even has a backlog of videos waiting in the wings. Before his Spark Mandrill video, Gleason was pumping out the videos as fast as he could as a challenge to himself. “The quality wasn’t quite as good. I didn’t spend as much time on the tracking, the arranging, or the recording”, Gleason says. The quality of his videos wasn't as good as he wanted them to be. “Spark Mandrill was the first one where I was like, ‘Okay, this is going to be a weekly thing. I’m going to put a lot into this,'” he says. Now he spends between four and seven days on each video.
Gleason begins by picking the song he wants to cover, finds the best available version of the song, and listens to it over and over. He picks out the most obvious tracks first, like bass and percussion, and records scratch tracks. Recording the scratch track gives him rehearsal opportunity as well as the chance to pick the songs apart. After that, it’s a matter of recording, re-recording and adjusting the music to his personal high standards.
The complexity of the song dictates how much time is necessary. “Golden Sun, I got that one done in six days, because I worked hard on that," he says. "I knew it was going to be a difficult one, so I hit the ground running on Tuesday and started arranging and recording and re-recording, doing some nights as well.” Gleason’s insistence on perfection and sticking to his rigid schedule means that he has avoided certain songs with the knowledge that there is no way they could be completed in a week.
Check out Smooth McGroove's arrangement of of "Isaac Battle Theme" from Golden Sun.
When it comes to deciding songs, personal passion is important. “I get so many requests now, which helps,” Gleason says. “I look and get to kind of see what people like to hear and every once in a while, some guy will request something like Golden Sun.” Gleason has memories of playing Golden Sun, but it is a game generally not well known for its soundtrack. “Golden Sun doesn’t have a super wide audience, it was never super mainstream, even though it was a successful game,” Gleason says, but he wanted to do it anyway. “This will be an opportunity to do a song that I like, a challenging song, and it will expose some people to an amazing game that they may have not played,” he says.
Gleason has tried tackling requested songs that he’s not personally a fan of, but just finds it unfulfilling. During the premiere of the third season of Game of Thrones in March, Gleason saw the show’s theme heavily requested. Gleason started the recording process, arranging the music and planning everything out, but having only watched a single episode of the show and not considering himself a fan, he decided he just couldn’t do it. “When I started recording it I was just like, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t care about Game of Thrones because I’ve never watched it,’” Gleason says. “I started doing this because there were songs that I loved from games that I wanted to cover.”
There are a few occasions where Gleason has covered a requested song because he wanted to take on a challenge, or he wants to go back and listen to a soundtrack to a game he never got around to finishing. It also gives him a good excuse to go back and finish those games. “It helps me get emotionally invested in what I am doing,” Gleason says, “Just like the Game of the Thrones theme, if I do song that I just don’t care about, it’s either going to come through that I don’t care about it, or I am not even going to complete it.”
Check out the interview clip below to hear what Gleason sounds like when he's not singing.Click here to play this audio clip
Gleason’s YouTube page is made up almost entirely of music of video games from cartridge-based consoles. The dearth of modern music is not because Gleason doesn’t like modern video game music, but rather a result of his personal nostalgia and the nature of modern video game music. “A lot of people suggest modern stuff, and some people take it upon themselves to say, ‘That’s not what this channel is about. This channel is about this! And that!’” Gleason says. Music for video games today serve a more atmospheric role with less of a focus on memorable melodies. “It’s not limited in the amount of tracks anymore, so the composers can be lazy. They can do whatever they want.” he says. “Back in those NES and Sega Genesis days, you had maybe eight tracks to work with, so you really had to make them count.”
“I’ll load in a modern game and it will have a huge orchestral soundtrack with full reverberations, and maybe even real audio recorded. I’m like, ‘This is neat. This is atmospheric. But I am not going to go to work humming this the next day.’ Whereas in a Sonic game, there’s that main melody that is just in your head, it’s there, and it’s done.”
Gleason does cite exceptions, however, pointing specifically to the soundtracks for The Elder Scrolls games. “People know the Oblivion melody. People remember the Morrowind melodies, and the Skyrim melodies,” Gleason says. “Because of that, I’ve considered doing some of those. That’s just one example of modern video game music that I really do enjoy. It is complex and orchestral, but memorable.”
The Introverted Acapella YouTube Artist
It wasn’t until Gleason had become Smooth McGroove that he realized why his output level is typically unmatched by other YouTubers. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a very dedicated process, and it can get very tiring after a few projects.” But that doesn’t dissuade Gleason. He is a self-described weirdo, and the opportunity to work on projects by himself is exactly what he wants to do. Today, it’s recording video game music, but in school and in the past Gleason was and continues to have an introverted personality that made him most comfortable working by himself. Whether he was playing video games or making chain-mail shirts, Gleason always liked working by himself. He grew up with musical parents who were so dedicated to the art that their garage was a converted band room. “Music has always been a part of what I’ve done and for me to be able to put a lot of time and energy into being by myself and producing a project that is based on music is like the perfect mix for me,” says Gleason.
Life as Smooth McGroove hasn’t changed Gleason’s personal life in a significant way. “I am a very introverted guy. I never really got out a lot. Still don’t get out a whole lot,” Gleason says. He has branched out to gaming conventions, attending E3 this year, as well as the ScrewAttack convention, where he is readily recognized. He hasn’t reached a level of celebrity where he gets stopped by the general public.
The Beard, The Mustache, and Charl The Cat
Charl is Gleason’s cat, and he makes frequent appearances in all of Smooth McGroove videos. His favorite food is dehydrated wheatgrass powder, and his name is accidentally Dutch. “Charl is the singular of Charles. I just thought it was funny so I named my cat Charl,” Gleason says. After learning that a man named Charl won the Master’s Golf Tournament, Gleason looked up the name to find it was actually an uncommon Dutch name.
Charl has never ruined a take with his meowing but he did bite Gleason’s hand during a take. “That was a blooper that I was going to put up, but I accidentally deleted it,” Gleason says.
"I’m 28 now. When I was playing these games, I was young. I was impressionable. Kids are more emotional than adults. This stuff was hitting me hard. I go back and listen to the stuff and it brings me back to those times."
When asked point blank, “Think you will ever get a haircut or shave your beard?” Gleason laughs and says, “Oh man, I don’t know.” He’s had long hair since his sophomore year of high school, and has been curating his beard for almost three years. “My beard isn’t itchy. If you keep your beard clean, it’s a nice thing to have,” Gleason says. “It’s gotten long enough to where putting on a t-shirt is a little more challenging than it was before. Besides that, I am going to keep the beard and hair for the foreseeable future.”
Check out Smooth McGroove's arrangement of of the "Bloody Tears" from Castlevania.
Gleason has been approached to create video game music anywhere from small single-person independent developers working on their first game to large publishers. “I haven’t committed fully to any of them, but there are some that have been interesting enough where I’m like, ‘Tell me more,’” Gleason says.
For the moment, Gleason is more than content doing his own arrangements of the video game music he loves. Original music opens a whole Pandora’s box of creative difficulties. “It gets kind of creatively draining to do that kind of stuff,” Gleason says. “Unless, you’re like Nobuo Uematsu and you’re being paid x-amount of money and you’re getting paid to go to work every day for eight hours and that’s all you do is write music.”
“It really makes me respect these video game composers. Like super respect. I am analyzing their tunes every week. I get to get into their heads and see what they’re doing, what they did, and how they did it.” Gleason says. “Sometimes I am just in complete awe like, ‘How did you write this!?’ I would rather bow to them right now then write my own video game music.”
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