Ever wanted to play Mario Kart accompanied by a live jazz band? In Oklahoma, you can

Video game soundtracks don’t come more iconic than Mario Kart. As the characters, circuits and power-ups have evolved from the Super Nintendo Entertainment System(SNES) to the N64, Wii and Switch, so has the music. Each new interpretation comes with the familiar melodies from earlier Mario Karts alongside new tunes. What could enhance the experience further than having a live jazz band playing the familiar Mario Kart tunes as you race?

“There’s always been this really natural pairing between video games and their soundtracks,” explains Mario Kart 8 Live drummer Ethan Neel, who also plays with US alt-rock band Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards and is speaking with his bandmates from Oklahoma.

“Everybody has licks they remember from Mario Kart. Some really quintessential songs have come out of it. Live music played with Mario Kart has been done before, but we wanted to do the newest version of the game and, as far as we could see, no one had done that, at least not in the US. Pairing the two seemed really natural. At the end of the day, everybody loves Mario Kart. It’s always a great time.”

Guitarist Noah Roberts of the Mario Kart 8 Live jazz band and gamers, top right, in action last month in Oklahoma City. Photograph: Joy Neel

As Neel says, live video game music is hardly new – you’ll find a similar Mario Kart ensemble in Melbourne, and several touring orchestras specialising in game music. Playing live alongside unpredictable players in a bar is a particular challenge even for jazz musicians. Saxophone/clarinet player and flautist Collin Ferrell has perhaps the most important task: starting each race with four crucial get-ready-go toots – a B on the clarinet/soprano sax or an A on a flute/Irish whistle, he tells me.

“I don’t want to jack up somebody’s fast start, so I’m laser-focused,” he says. “The band play until the first player hits the final lap and we up the tempo. When the first person finishes, we switch to the winning theme, a more of a chill vibe groove.”

Neel’s first step in putting the band on the road was texting his old gigging pal, Venezuelan bassist Nelson Gonzalez who plays with US indie rock group Bee & the Hive and Latina pop artist Lincka.

Mario Kart 8 Live Photograph: Angel Jacome

“I texted him to try to get our ducks in a row, thinking: ‘What would it take to put a live band with this?” continues Neel. Gonzalez brought Ferrell along, whom he’d met at the University of Oklahoma and who has played with the Temptations and the Four Tops. Bee & the Hive guitarist Noah Roberts and keyboard player Kendrick McKinney complete the lineup.

“We all work as professional musicians, so it was a process of arranging and learning the songs,” says Gonzalez. “The songs are for full big bands, so it took a bit of time to work out the logistics of how we could recreate them between the five of us.”

The first Mario Kart was released on the SNES in 1992, with 20 circuits, and beepy 16-bit music. Since then there have been nine games in the series, culminating in 2017’s Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which received its most recent package of new tracks just a few months ago.

“The new Mario Kart has a lot of the retro circuits and music redone for the new games,” says Ferrell. “Rainbow Road from the Super Nintendo, Rainbow Road from the N64 … Nintendo does a pretty cool job of bringing that nostalgia back to their new games along with innovating new tracks.”

The band’s Mario Kart 8 repertoire currently stands at 32 songs out of 48, but they plan to learn the rest as soon as they can.

“We had a date for the first tournament, so we needed to get what we could ready in time,” says Ferrell. The band have so far played two gigs, in December 2023 and last month, both at The 51st Street Speakeasy in Oklahoma City. More dates have been announced for March.

From the Instagram footage of the band in action, the live music certainly makes playing Mario Kart seem like an event. So, how does it actually feel to play in a Mario Kart tournament with a live band providing the music?

Mario Kart 8 Live drummer Ethan Neel at the 51st Street Speakeasy. Photograph: Joy Neel

“It adds to the experience because you can feel the sound all around you,” says Michelle Cao, a student from Oklahoma who competed in both Mario Kart 8 Live events and won the second. “I’d never heard the guitar part on Toad Harbor or the saxophone part in Dolphin Shoals before. They mute the game so you don’t hear the sound effects, but it’s exciting because you have the energy of the crowd behind you, cheering you on when you pull off a shortcut or something fancy, and going “oooh” if you get hit by a power-up.”

“That was certainly the overarching goal,” says Neel. “How to do something really cool, new and competitive that’s not super intense, but still have this really cool music that’s very much beyond the 8-bit do-dee-do video game music that some people imagine.”

One thing the band haven’t quite decided on is a name, although by the time you read this, they may have settled on a proper, still-to-be-legally-cleared band name. “Right now, our handle is just Mario Kart 8 Live because we haven’t done any other games,” says Ferrell.

It’s a good point. Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda and even Tetris have all been covered by live musicians. What other games could they do? “We’ve been asked to do Super Smash Brothers a lot,” says Ferrell. “That would be really cool.”

But perhaps this perennially successful party game is the one that’s best suited to what Ferrell and his band do. “Anyone can play Mario Kart,” he says. “It’s super approachable. It’s not incredibly technical. You don’t have to press 8,000 buttons. You hold the A button and you’re set. Anyone who’s interested can sit down and then do their best.”


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