Video Game Music, Beards, And Metal – Who Is Viking Jesus?
The imposing figure clad in a denim vest, a scruffy beard, and jagged guitar was an odd sight for the more symphonic Video Games Live’s stage. But there he was, standing at six feet and four inches tall, per VGL creator Tommy Tallarico’s introduction. His appearance quickly earned him the moniker “Viking Jesus.” He wore the Mandalorian symbol, Pokémon badges, and more pinned to his chest. Even from twenty rows back it was clear that games and geek culture filled this metal warrior’s blood.
No doubt, thousands of music and video game lovers dream of having the chance to perform or create alongside their idols. In 2012, one such man found himself thrust into this daunting scene thanks to an absurd level of passion and an even more absurd beard, and his life has never been quite the same since.
Tallarico wasted little time in setting Viking Jesus up, demanding to know what this brute would be playing that night.
“This song is a tribute to the almighty helix fossil,” Viking Jesus roared in a typical metal fashion. “This is music from Pokémon.”
“Now I know that’s not your real voice,” Tallarico said.
And like a proud lion turned kitten, all the viking had to mew was “But nobody likes my real voice,” and the crowd busted out laughing.
Video Games Live, created in 2005, has a history for bringing the best of gaming soundtracks with world class talent, pulling in numerous legendary performers and composers to rock the house over the last decade-and-a-half. Now, a young performer has had his life irrevocably altered thanks to just such an opportunity.
In The Mortal Realm
His name is Mike Niemietz, he’s 25, and he works a day job maintaining Redbox rental kiosks in the suburbs of Chicago. Before that, it was working security at Best Buy. Aside from a life devoted to video games and enjoying metal classics, there’s little to suggest how significantly his life would change thanks to the world of professional video game music.
“None of us, myself especially, thought that I would become a ‘thing,’” Niemietz says. “We thought this would be one cool show, one neat experience I would keep with me for the rest of my life, and then that’s it. Then I’d go back to writing and whatever dull day job I had. Four years later, I still can’t believe I’m at where I’m at.”
Niemietz’ journey to minor stardom began with a simple interaction on Facebook with VGL creator Tommy Tallarico. An ardent fan of VGL, he attended shows when they happened to be in the area and scored the occasional interview with Tallarico for the Examiner, a news blogging site.
Mike "Viking Jesus" Niemietz posing with Video Games Live creator Tommy Tallarico.
“With VGL, one of my goals is proving to the world how artistically significant video games are, and usher a new generation of game musicians into the world,” Tallarico says. “If there are fans that are talented, I love putting them onstage.”
It was a minor VGL performance in 2012 at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, Illinois – Niemietz’ hometown – that gave him the chance to prove his worth.
It wasn’t as if Niemietz was a well-known entity, though, especially considering the talent that had already shared VGL’s spotlight, including YouTube stars Maluka, “Video Game Pianist” Martin Leung, and Peter Hollens. He’d never even considered music as a career up to that point. Despite that, Niemietz had the guitar chops to impress even Tallarico, and thus a tenuous partnership was born for a performance.
“I always teased him, not expecting him to ever actually take me up on it because he’s Tommy Tallarico. He plays guitar pretty well himself,” Niemietz says.
Despite the fact that he wouldn’t stand out in a Slayer video, Niemietz’ affable nature lent a considerable amount of goodwill towards any project associated with his name in the local music scene. Tommy made the agreement on the basis that Niemietz would help promote the relatively small-scale show using his network around the community.
Niemietz would finally get to shred onstage with the orchestra. The Viking Jesus persona, however, had yet to be born. In fact, Niemietz had no hand in its creation. It was a group of dedicated VGL fans viewing the show through a Twitch live stream who’d never seen Niemietz before that came up with the name, and bestowed the appropriately metal title upon him.
“Tommy didn’t tell me about [the stream]. No one told me. I wasn’t even 100 percent sure what Twitch was at that point because I’m not big on online gaming,” Niemietz said. “People all over the world can see it, so during the day of the show, if I wasn’t in soundcheck or rehearsing, I was on the chat having fun with people. Every once in awhile I’d appear on camera and the diehard VGL community would go “Who’s that? I don’t know who that guy is.” Slowly over the course of the day, that’s when people started coming up with the name. “He looks like a Viking! He looks like Jesus!”
Being a hometown performance, Niemietz knew no shortage of familiar faces in the crowd. Old teachers, neighbors, and childhood peers he hadn’t seen in years filled the theater. What better way to wow them than with a little nostalgia from Doom and Pokémon?
But that wasn’t it for Niemietz; not by a long shot. With the success of St. Charles behind him, Niemietz found himself invited by Tallarico to the E3 VGL performance just a few months later in Los Angeles.
It would be just his second live performance ever, and quite a bit larger than the 900-seat Arcade Theatre back home. Over 6,000 seats larger, to be exact.
It was this performance that truly launched Niemietz into the world of professional game music and beyond. There was sharing a dressing room with Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka and Leisure Suit Larry creator/composer Al Lowe. There was the sharing of the stage with immensely popular performers like YouTube star Lindsey Stirling. And of course, not two songs after Niemietz left the stage, there was the legendary Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine Productions, snapping a selfie and jokingly offering him a place on a Brutal Legend sequel.
But it wasn’t just epic bouts of fanboying that Niemietz was thrust into. The performance put him in the good graces of composers like Austin Wintory, known for his work on Journey, the Banner Saga, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Wintory hired Niemietz for the specific task of adding a unique ambiance to his soundtrack for the Banner Saga, all through a subtly brutal style of music called “prepared guitar.”
“So you take a guitar, you strap it to a workbench, and I’m just making sounds by hitting it with rope, nerf darts, a power sander,” Niemietz says. “I was just given a list of emotions like ‘nostalgia’ and ‘tension’ and told to go for it. I recorded myself sawing a guitar in half just because. Wintory took a chunk of it and has it in his studio. We joke that one day the two halves will be joined once again.”
The Man, The Viking, The Helping Hand
Being so young, a high level of professional stress is expected for Niemietz, who still balances performances and album contributions with his day job. With friends and peers in high places, it can be difficult keeping one’s spirits up and jealousy low. Were it not for Niemietz’s warm personality, things might be quite different for the musician.
“[Video Games Live] never plays the same show twice. We go all day with rehearsals, so I’m on my hands and knees shuffling music around,” Tallarico says. “It’s not like we show up in limousines. I remember a time when Mike came in with a couple of friends. He knows me. The first thing he always says is ‘Hey, is there any way I can help?’ I was in tears. He makes the impossible possible because he cares.”
But things aren’t always their brightest for Niemietz. The young performer often feels the crunch of more talented and more experienced professionals outclassing his own work.
“I’m proud of myself and the niche I’ve created, I just see a different kind of path YouTube stars and myself are taking,” Niemietz said. “A lot might try to make music their career on the internet. What I manage is I’m semi-popular on the internet and I’ve met a lot of people in games and who make them. I don’t even mind taking a backseat with a live performance if it means getting to do something like working on a soundtrack to a game.”
Laura Intravia, another professional performer who got her start with Video Games Live performing as “Flute Link,” first met Niemietz at the St. Charles performance. It was a friendship that would later bloom into multiple collaborations, including Intravia’s latest music video “Clocktown.”
“He just wants to make things happen,” Intravia says. “The rest of us, when we’re traveling to multiple shows, we might take a bus or a plane. He will just drive himself all night to get places and show up not looking exhausted at all.”
“It’s especially hard to put your guitar on a plane, particularly when they’re as pointy as mine,” Niemietz says.
Much remains to be seen of where Niemietz will take the Viking Jesus name. Another Video Games Live performance in April in Calgary means the stage presence continues to live on for now, and special projects are just a lucky side effect of working those long nights. The latest project, a collaboration with Shinesparkers, known for fan tribute albums of classic gaming music, is giving Niemietz’ treatment of Pokemon metal a proper evolution due in early 2016.
Almost four years into developing the career, it’s still just a matter of doing right by others while doing the best he can.
“Every morning, as I’m getting ready for work, I still can’t believe I do this,” Niemietz says.
Even onstage, surrounded by world class performers and fans, it’s one exchange between friends that keeps Niemietz grounded and believing in the long journey of Viking Jesus.
“I asked Laura [Intravia], ‘is there anything I can do to just get through this?’” Niemietz says. “Even though I was so nervous that my hands were shaking enough to drop my pick six times, Laura told me ‘you didn’t seem nervous at all. You commanded that stage.’ I was like, ‘really? I didn’t seem nervous?’ And she said ‘No, you seemed like you were supposed to be there.” Wow….Maybe I actually can do this.”