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May the Fab Force be with you

May 24, 2017
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May the Fab Force be with you (all photos/images courtesy Palette-Swap Ninja/Katrin Auch)

Parody duo Palette-Swap Ninja produces Star Wars/Beatles mashup

Some of the greatest combinations we experience are the unexpected ones. When two seemingly completely disparate things are brought together in a form that is not only substantive, but stylish as well, the listener/viewer/reader can’t help but be engaged and impressed.

So when Fab Four become one with the Force, well – prepare yourselves.

Geek music parody duo Palette-Swap Ninja – made up of Dan Amrich and Cherryfield native Jude Kelley - has created a concept album called “Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans,” a meticulously-detailed and marvelously-executed mashup of “Star Wars” and the seminal Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” released on May 1.

(Editor’s note: in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Jude Kelley is the writer’s brother-in-law.)

From “Luke is in the Desert” to “Being from the Spaceport of Mos Eisley” to “A Day in the Life of Red Five,” this album reinvents the classic Beatles album with charm and flair. There’s a devotion to authenticity that is rare to find in parody; the result is an album that is not only lyrically clever but also musically engaging.

The timing of the release is no coincidence. Not only did it land just a few days before May 4 – our unofficial Star Wars Day – but it also winds up in proximity to two very important anniversaries for the two halves of its source material. You see, May 25 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of “Star Wars,” while June 1 – just one week later – is the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The band has spent the last few years constructing an ode to two of the most enduring and iconic pop culture institutions in American history, bringing them together almost seamlessly. Just finishing such a project would be worthy of our admiration.

But here’s the thing – it’s also good. REALLY good.

Amrich (who handles singing and guitar duties) and Kelley (keyboards and digital drums) were kind enough to take time to speak to The Maine Edge about the genesis of the album, the years-long process of making it and the wildly positive response it has thus far received.

The two met in California in 2003 when both joined a 1980s cover band called Fast Times – Amrich the lead singer, Kelley the keyboard player. It was during that time that they discovered the wealth of specific geekery that would lead to their future collaboration.

“We were the only two gamers in the band,” Amrich said. “We were basically the biggest nerds in the band.”

“Which is saying a lot, considering the company,” Kelley added.

Both eventually left the band, but a few years later decided they wanted to continue their collaboration. And of course, one of the first things you need when forming a band is the right name.

“We really missed working with each other,” Amrich said. “And we wanted to be a very video game-specific band that was all about in-joke references. So we were looking for some kind of major in-joke for our name.”

And Palette-Swap Ninja was born.

(An aside for those who don’t get the reference, the phrase “palette-swap ninja” springs from the old “Mortal Kombat” game. The characters Scorpion and Sub-Zero looked precisely the same except for a swapped color palette – one character becomes two very easily (and lazily). They became known in gamer circles as “palette-swap ninjas.” The more you know…)

Those early songs – video game parodies – came as random songs as the two had time to work on them. Every few months – first three, then six and so on – they’d release a new song. Their timelines certainly weren’t helped by the fact that Kelley had moved east and they were operating on different coasts.  

Still, they eventually had an album. Well, an “album,” according to Kelley.

“We sort of retconned those songs into an album,” he said. “We basically circled them all and said it was an album. We called it ‘Still in Beta.’”

But it was only in 2011 that the groundwork was truly laid for this particular effort.

“The lightning bolt moment came when we were at Pax East,” said Amrich. “My wife Katrin [Auch, who built the videos that accompanied “PLSDSP”] and I went out to lunch with Jude; with us living so far apart, we didn’t see each other much, so it was nice to catch up.”

It would turn out that this would be the time when the seed was planted – though Amrich initially was concerned with a very different project.

“I thought we’d do something with [the video game documentary] ‘King of Kong,’” he said. “I had latched onto The Who and I decided I wanted to take ‘Tommy’ and retell ‘King of Kong.’ Unfortunately, that [idea] was as far as I got in a year.”

But during that lunch, the idea for a different project sprang up.

“Katrin did that wonderful thing that wives will do and talked sense,” said Amrich. “She said that I was going about it all wrong and that I needed to find two things that people REALLY cared about. Two things that people love.

“Just offhandedly she said ‘Do “Star Wars” and “Sgt. Pepper’s.”’ Now that wasn’t meant literally, but we just jumped on it. By the end of that lunch, we had sketched out a bunch of ideas about what we wanted to do.

“We knew that this was a mountain we were about to climb,” he continued. “But that idea from Katrin pulled us out of the rut. That was the beginning of what was then called ‘Pepper Wars.’”

Again, both were aware of the burden that comes with addressing such deeply committed fan bases.

“When you play in sacred waters, you better not gargle,” Amrich said with a laugh. “I’m a huge Beatles fan; I’ve got a lot of love for both of these sources. And we knew going in that if we did this and screwed it up, the fans would never forgive us.

“I’m one of those people who wants it all to be right,” he continued. “It was a real challenge. We had to sweat the cadences and the meter so that it sounds familiar. Parody is always funnier with familiarity – the closer to the original, the funnier it is.”

“Dan wanted to have the lyrics fleshed out before we started filling our hard drives with recording time,” Kelley said. “I’d just wait for lyric updates before any more orchestration.”

Those lyrics didn’t always come quickly.

“I was finicky about it,” said Amrich. “I’d spend hours on four lines, six lines. Then I’d leave it for two weeks; letting it simmer helped refine a lot. Plus, I wasn’t in a hurry – I just wanted to give it my best effort.”

“One of the things I’ve learned from this whole thing is the word ‘scansion,’” added Kelley. “Getting the rhythms right is huge. And the problem with people and parodies is that everyone thinks they’re good at it. Dan’s gotten lots of kudos.”

But some of these songs came together more easily than others. One in particular proved trying, but also accentuates the depths of their collaborative spirits.

“One of the moments where I was scared for the fate of the project was ‘Imperial Holes’ [from ‘Fixing a Hole’],” Kelley said. “I was working on the guide tracks and Dan was really stuck on this one; he reached out and said he wasn’t sure what to do.

“And here I thought my job was just to read hilarious things. But we didn’t know what to do this time. Where are we in the movie? It’s a Death Star scene, but we’re not sure who’s singing and it isn’t clear who to choose. I tried coming up with some stuff from the perspective of the anonymous guys sitting in the worst board meeting ever, people getting Force choked and all that.

“I think some of those lines might have even survived,” he added with a chuckle.

Another trying tune was “The Force Within You,” based on the George Harrison-penned “Within You Without You.”

“Neither one of us is a big fan of that song,” Amrich said. “We wanted to stay as accurate as possible, but maybe we could cut some of the sitar solo.”

“We tried a digital sitar on track four [“Never Better,” based on “Getting Better”] and it just sounded awful,” said Kelley. “Some things just have to be organic. Dan made it all happen on guitar.”

“We tried to replicate the sounds we heard,” said Amrich. “I had five or six guitar effects pedals and an electronic bow, trying to mimic the swoopy sound of the instrument and still sound organic and flowing. And adding R2D2 for the call and response was the lucky break.”

“That’s when it went from the dullest song to a spit-your-coffee moment,” Kelley added.

The organic nature of that moment also served another purpose with regards to the album experience as a whole.

“A lot of the orchestration was digital,” Kelley said. “Dan’s guitar kind of resets you in terms of digital fatigue. It’s a nice little analog nugget that’s a great way to refresh your palate.”

It was a lengthy process to be sure, but the final push for “Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans” really began this past winter.

“The lyrics were done in 2014,” said Amrich. “But the last big push was from last December to April of this year. We had the ability, we just had to commit. There was no set deadline; we just wanted the material to be as good as it could be.

“Those last five months were a coordinated burn,” Kelley added. “We’d had a rolling deadline – when ‘The Force Awakens’ comes out. Or ‘Rogue One.’”

But when they realized that those two significant anniversaries – 40 for “Star Wars,” 50 for “Sgt. Pepper’s” – they knew that the stars were aligning.

“That’s our zeitgeist moment in literally one week,” Amrich said. “We need to get this out by then.”

Of course, after spending so much time devoted to the project, loss of objectivity was all but certain. Amrich took a rhetorical tone.

“What if we’re the only two people that this matters to?”

“Even if it’s just us, we’re going to do this,” Kelley responded.

Initially, their doubts seemed somewhat founded. They reached out to numerous people, content creators and the like, for help building a video component to the album. The response was usually positive, but no one would bite. That’s when Katrin Auch stepped in once again.

“Katrin basically told us that she was going to recut the entire film to match the album,” Amrich said. “She cut it down to match and it turned out to be the perfect thing.”

“That was the second aha moment that Katrin brought to the project,” added Kelley. “We realized that it’s not 1998 anymore; the ways people consume music have changed. They consume it visually through YouTube and the like. The connection [via the YouTube videos] has been just massive.”

When the release finally happened on May 1, Amrich and Kelley were hopeful and optimistic that the album would generate a good response. However, the overwhelming and widespread positive response was far more than either of them could ever have anticipated.

“There were things we hoped for, obviously,” Kelley said. “It would be disingenuous to say we didn’t. But we had no idea that the response would be so big; we were definitely caught off guard.

“We thought we had made something special, but we were so deep in it, we lost perspective on the sheer magnitude of what we had done,” he continued. “So we were overwhelmed by the response – especially from media outlets. We knew we’d have some nerd appeal, but we wound up with a lot more mass appeal than we thought.”

“It was up less than a day before the first major media outlet reached out,” said Amrich. “We were not expecting that. We hoped to connect with our fellow fans, that we had built something fun and worthwhile. But we didn’t anticipate just how much people would like it.

“Like, people were comparing what we did to Weird Al. That’s the guy who is our inspiration – we’d ask ourselves ‘What does he get that no one else gets?’ as far as parody. And for people to compare our stuff to that level? Wow. We cared about the details; we just didn’t think other people would.”

But while the comparisons to Weird Al were welcome, there was another pop culture icon that Palette-Swap Ninja was hoping would weigh in.

“Every band has delusions of grandeur,” said Kelley. “But the cherry on top of all of this was Mark Hamill retweeting the album and saying that he liked it. Him mentioning it was something we were really hoping for.”

“After that, it doesn’t matter,” Amrich said. “Luke Skywalker liked our jokes about Luke Skywalker. We’ve already won.”

In the end, “Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans” was a labor of love from two guys who carry deep affection for this pair of pop culture classics. Ultimately, Palette-Swap Ninja wanted to share their love of both with the world in the best way they know how.

“These things elevated us,” said Amrich. “We wanted to elevate them right back in our own way.”

(To download “Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans,” visit the Palette-Swap Ninja website at www.paletteswapninja.com. The videos can also be found on Palette-Swap Ninja’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/PaletteSwapNinja/videos.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 24 May 2017 10:59

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