Banjo Guy Ollie Interview: A Renaissance Man

Banjo Guy Ollie

Banjo Guy Ollie is a Renaissance man. Not content to make incredible folk music covers, he also surfs, trains in Judo, paints, and restores retro consoles and arcades. If you’ve watched many of his covers, you know that his name is a bit of a misnomer these days as he’s expanded his musical arsenal to include instruments from all over the world. I was fortunate enough to speak with this polymath and learn his secrets—for instance, how many instruments does he own?

Let's start with an easy question. How many instruments do you own?

I honestly have no idea. Let's see, there's all my strings instruments you see on the wall in my vids: one classical guitar, two acoustic guitars, one electric guitar and an electric bass, a 4-string tenor banjo and my 5-string custom tenor banjo, the Mandolin, uke and ubass. There's also the egyptian oud, the violin, a puerto rican cuatro, and the bouzouki...I think that's 13.

I've got a couple of toy guitars stored away in the attic. Then, there's the concertina and the piano accordion. Oh, and I've got a wooden flute and a low whistle in D and about a dozen tin whistles in various keys. For percussion, there’s the Irish Bodhrán that I use a lot for the kick, but I've got about 20+ odd bits of percussion--things like tablas, bongos, darbuka, and various frame drums. Then, there's stuff like those table harps, kalimbas, glockenspiel, and more exotic stuff like a small balafon.

I've also made my own stuff like bells, rainsticks, and custom sounds, and there's more in my attic storage. I get a lot of these at flea markets. If it makes a sound, and it's under €10, I'll grab it.

Why Banjo Guy Ollie? Why not Mandolin Guy Ollie?

Haha, yeah, I use the mandolin a lot more these days. When I started, I was exclusively using the banjo so the name sort of fit better back then. But the name stuck, and it's probably too late to change it I suppose. Also by now, people just call me BGO or just Ollie so I sort of forgot about the Banjo part.

It was a good name, though, at first. It said a lot about me and the channel just with the name and is still somewhat generic enough (as long as I keep that acoustic/banjo sound) to allow me to introduce other elements without the name being too outlandishly misleading.

Dune painting

Aside from VGM, what are some of your other hobbies?

Surfing is my number one hobby, and I do a good bit of that whenever the conditions suit. Music, and VGM music in particular, is probably second to that, but just about even if I'm honest. Also, I still train in Judo. I used to teach, but that took too much time, and I didn't quite enjoy it as much so I just reverted back to training. I don't compete anymore though; I gave that up a couple of years ago as recovering from  inevitable injury gets harder and harder each passing year. I'm getting old.

If I'm not doing one of those hobbies, then I'll probably be fixing one of my arcade boards or cabs for my 8 Bit Manshed channel. That or painting a piece for yet another channel. It's a lot of hobbies for sure, and ironically, gaming doesn't get much time in there at all. I'll be lucky if I can play two or three hours a week these days. 

Is there such a thing as too many hobbies?

Haha, maybe, but I don't know. I just like being busy, really. I think the fine line is when you never finish projects you're working on. It's happened once or twice with me, and it's usually the point where I have to drop one so I can finish some of the others (like teaching judo for instance). At times, it does feel like I'm spreading myself a bit thin, but I'm never bored or looking "for something to do" so that's a good thing. I just really like having something to work on .

What is your philosophy when it comes to creating covers? Do you try to stick close to the original?

I stick as much as I can to the original composition. I know there's a different school of thought on this, but it all comes down to personal vision. My philosophy is that I serve the tune first. So, I never try to insert my ego into the process or the end result. What I do is sort of "me" enough as it is, really, but I don't really do solos or expand on a tune. If something is difficult or flashy to play, I don't just show it in the video or bring it forward in the mix for the sake of it. It has to make musical sense, and since it rarely does to me, I just leave it where it belongs in the mix.

I sometimes try to craft a small timeline and dynamic progression in the orchestration, but that's about it. It's all about the tune first and me way last. But once again, that's one point of view. It's worked out well for me, but it's not more or less valid than any another approach.

What makes video game music so special?

Because it's not a genre per se. It borrows from so many registers and genres without burdening itself with being strictly within the confines of that style. Stuff like Suikoden can borrow from Eastern AND Celtic musical backgrounds. Something like that would be frowned upon in traditional Irish or Scottish folk circles. There's a freedom of expression that no other type of music can claim to have.

Then, there's all the older, pre-16 bit era music where everything was chip-generated. That era allowed for even greater forms of personal interpretation. A lot of these tunes can be covered with voice, banjo, electric guitar, saxophone, you name it. We're incredibly lucky to have access to this unrestricted pool of very legitimate music composition. When I get my Irish traditional music friends to listen to these arrangements, some of them are actually quite envious of the freedom of composition and styles we enjoy.

What's your favorite soundtrack?

If I had to pick a top 3 in no particular order it would be:

  • Turrican 2 on the Amiga. A fantastic soundtrack by Chris Huelsbeck.

  • Dune (the first point-and-click game with rts elements, not the full RTS second game) by Stephane Picq.

  • Castlevania 1

  • ...and probably 100 more after that.

When you're a musician, you make music, whether you have a full-time job or not.

You tend to cover a lot of older soundtracks. Do you think that attracts a particular audience?

Yeah, old, balding dudes like myself! Joking aside, I don't look at YouTube analytics or anything like that, so I don't know who's watching my videos. I don't obsess over statistics, and what type of vids I "should" make or who I should be making them for. I just make them.

What's been your favorite VGM experience?

Definitely, the first Dune game soundtrack. I was in my very early teens, and it was the first time I realized how music was such an amazing medium for storytelling. I mean, I knew that in some way because of films and TV in general, but it's the first time I realized this for a video game. In fact, I remember reviews mentioning the same thing at the time. This was a very intense moment for a lot of gamers because many of us realized how much video games had shifted from being a simple entertainment medium to a very legitimate art form where all elements combine with each other to craft a story that will affect the player’s emotion. Games like Undertale have done that for a lot of players in recent years, but back in 1992, for a few of us at least, it was Dune.

What's been the biggest challenge for you as a musician on YouTube?

I'd be a hypocrite if I said it's been difficult or a challenging time. It's been rather smooth-sailing for me. But, I suppose not having concrete goals makes it simple in a way. I spent a lot of my 20s as a full or part-time musician and that was certainly challenging. I did become a full-time musician for a year or so, and the focus was simply putting food on the table and having a place to stay; I can't say this was a pleasant experience. 

When you're a musician, you make music, whether you have a full-time job or not. YouTube offers me the luxury of making music from my room, in my own time, at my own pace, and under my own terms. So my philosophy is that if you're going to make music, you might as well put it out on YouTube. 

I've no interest in playing live concerts or touring anymore. I've done that for too long. So, YouTube is a Godsent luxury as far as I'm concerned, and quite possibly the best gig I've ever had. I understand that some people approach it as a way to get traction and be seen, and that's valid too, but for me, it's all a bonus in my life. I'd love to go full-time doing it, of course, but it's definitely not a goal I have. 

Who are some other artists in the VGM community whom you admire?  

Alina Gingertail is probably the best in the genre in my opinion. She does fantastic acoustic covers using traditional instruments, kinda like what I do, but with more modern games, and she can sing too. She's quite popular, and I'm still surprised I don't see her covers mentioned more often.

Mariachi Entertainment System is another one I love. I just wish they uploaded more often, but keeping an entire band going must be tricky. There are many others, and I regularly do shout outs on twitter for other artists.

If you could change one thing about the VGM community, what would it be?

Nothing; it's perfect just the way it is!! 

If you could compose for any game series, what would it be?

The Wonderboy series, which, incidentally, I've already done.

I made seven covers for Monsterboy, a sequel to the Wonderboy games, which launched last year. I had to keep this quiet for four years, which was torture really,  but I got to share the credits along with Yuzo Koshiro, Michiru Yamane, and others.  And I got featured as an NPC in the game! I'd love to do more soundtracks for sure, and I've been in discussions with a couple of dev studios since then, but nothing has materialized yet. Still, this is exciting times!