Editor’s note: This interview previews The SuperBytes’ album release party Friday, June 3 at Slowdown. Listen to the premiere of “Self Destruct” from its sophomore album The SuperBytes 2 and check them out at the concert, which kicks off with a Super Smash Bros. 4 tournament with cash prizes. RSVP here.
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It’s two in the afternoon and Steve Ponec and Brandon Hahn — bassist and rhythm guitarist of 8-bit punk band The SuperBytes — are sitting around a homemade and ash-filled firepit sprinkled with empty cigarette packets, talking about taking Adderall and playing power chords until they can’t recognize them anymore. We’ve all got shades on even though it’s not that bright out. Memorial Day for these guys means hanging out in the backyard cracking jokes, smoking Marlboros, and chasing cheap energy drinks with Miller High Life tallboys. These gentlemen have the knack for relaxation.
It might not be the scene one immediately imagines when thinking of Nintendo rock, as the band refers to its own genre. In fact, Ponec and Hahn both identify as ska and punk fans more than gamers, and those tendencies definitely accent the overall style of the band on their new album, The Superbytes 2, which releases Friday at Slowdown.
Their pixelated album artwork and referential songs, like the 2015 single “Charizard” as well as “Press Start,” and “In Another Castle” from their 2013 self-titled album, lend themselves to a certain image somewhat like the kids in Weird Science.
The band’s new album holds true to form, while implying that it’s more mature and a touch darker than the first album. Eric Hayes, The SuperBytes’ lead singer, songwriter and GameBoy programmer, says the secret theme to The SuperBytes 2 is the story of best friends falling out. For example, “Self Destruct,” certainly waxes depressing, even though he hands it over on a Lego block USB drive. But the bouncing synths and lyrics keep your spirits up. After all, you don’t need a best friend to play Nintendo.
As for the title: “It’s kind of like Sonic 2. The SuperBytes 2: Age of Ultron,” Ponec says cheekily, cracking up.
“If we can’t decide on album names we’ll just call them SuperBytes 2, 3, 64. SuperBytes World. And so on,” says Hayes.
The frequent reverent homages keep enthusiasts at the core of their crowd.
“We’ve played a lot of cons,” Hahn says, referring to the often gigantic gatherings of video game wizards and sci-fi lovers. “Maybe even more than concerts.”
“You might only have 14 people in the audience, but every one of them is moving their feet,” says Ponec, smiling. To him, it’s better to play to 14 people having fits of joy than 100 people who might only be there to drink. Those convention-goers are taking The SuperBytes’ bait and getting caught on their ska-influenced vocal harmonies, meticulous guitar leads, and cybernetically enhanced melodic charm.
In his Papillion living room, Hayes is tinkering with a lime green 24” TV, setting it up to flash colorful and blocky designs in time with the music. Framed Animal Crossing trading cards hang on a wall opposite the doorway, as do 6 big cartridge Pokemon games for the original Game Boy. A concert poster for pop-punk act Masked Intruder, drawn as the ghosts in a game of Pacman, joins them there.
The TMNT-colored TV is the newest addition to Hayes’s mountain of equipment, all analog, as he’s proud to say. His gear set-up looks like an arcade console – standing around four and a half feet, almost as tall as he is, wires running throughout the layers and busting out the top of the box, connecting at last to one of the three GameBoys Hayes has loaded with songs. He’s taken a mixer and housed it in a NES shell. Sanic, a meme of Sonic the Hedgehog, is painted on the side. It’s a rig that took him years to organize.
“It is like 20-year-old hardware, so there is a definite limit to what you can do with it,” he says.
Once connected, the video game systems function on their own, bleeping and blooping along with perfect rhythm and pitch.
Hayes creates the music using a program called LSDj, a tiny tracker that runs synths using the stock GameBoy hardware. His bandmates wonder how he has time to write so many songs on what he admits to be a clunky and difficult instrument.
“I write a lot of songs in my car on my lunch break,” he says with a lighthearted laugh. “I wouldn’t say hundreds, but we don’t use about a third of what I write.”
photo by Jared Bakewell
There’s so much unused material that Hayes is already trying to get the band pivoting towards a new album, if he can’t convince them of another endeavor – a Tom Petty cover album.
In the backyard, Ponec is spitballing ideas for a SuperBytes video game, laughing the entire time. Theoretical levels like avoiding the cops as you speed around town trying to collect the band members, Crazy Taxi style — or driving home drunk after the show.
“We’re just an All-American rock ’n’ roll band singing about first-world problems,” jokes Ponec sarcastically.
Hahn nods. “Have a beer and play Smash Bros. with us.”