Interview: Michael Epstein of The Motion Sick

It’s not every day that you come across a song that cleverly weaves the venerable Konami code within a sweet love song. Indie band The Motion Sick did just that, and caught my attention while I was perusing the track list on my latest Dance Dance Revolution purchase, DDR X. Intrigued, I made it my goal to track down the creators of this quirky yet adorable love song, “30 Lives”, thinking that if they created a clever song such as this, it must follow that the members were gamers. Vocalist and band member Michael Epstein was kind enough to answer a few of my questions as well as offer up some juicy tidbits of his gaming history. Get ready to spend some time with one-fourth of The Motion Sick!

Molotov Cupcake: I encountered “30 Lives” while playing DDR X. It was a pleasant surprise to find a band cheekily tossing in one of the most widely-known codes in the history of gaming! Tell us about your history as gamers.

Michael Epstein: I’ve had a long history, so bear with me here! When I was quite young, my father had bought a pong system. It wasn’t the very first one that was made, but it was early. It also included the very first gun games. I would shoot at boxes on a 12″ black and white TV. Soon after that, we got a Colecovision with Atari 2600 adapter system, so I could play both Coleco (e.g., Turbo – with steering wheel – and Smurf) and Atari games. Back around then, I also started playing games on a Vic 20, the predecessor to the Commodore 64. You loaded them off a tape drive. It used regular audio cassettes, but they weren’t much fun to listen to and loading a game took about 10 minutes.

When I hit 6th grade, I got seriously into the Commodore 64 – joined a local gaming club and all that. That was probably my heaviest gaming period and the era of my favorite game of all time, M.U.L.E. This was probably also the first major era of cheat codes becoming a regular part of gaming. I subscribed to Commodore Magazine and one of the columns Commodore contained was called Gold Mine (by Louis F. Sander) and it featured gaming tips and tricks – including cheat codes and game hacks. I actually wrote one in for a game called The Last Ninja and it got published both in the magazine (January 1989 issue, page 100 – ) and in a book that collected many of the columns. My tip said, “The Last Ninja: To get past the Dragon throw the smoke bomb right under him. With practice you’ll hit and he’ll cripple down.” I was pretty young, so please pardon my strange phrasing.

A little later on, I got a Sega Master System. I got that over the NES because everyone I knew had an NES. I also actually won a TurboGrafx-16 in a newspaper contest, so I played that for a bit, but it never really grabbed me. My sister started getting into gaming around this time and she got an NES and a Game Boy. I picked up an Atari Lynx, the first color handheld console. It didn’t have a lot of great games, but it was pretty awesome anyway. I still have it around somewhere.

Around ages 12-14, I spent more or less every single day at the mall arcade. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I found that I had to get good at games quickly in order to stay occupied. When I was down to my last 50 cents every day (many days, all I had was 50 cents), I would play one game of Street Fighter and one game of Double Dragon. Street Fighter was tough to consistently beat. The last two guys (Adon and Sagat) in Thailand (spelled incorrectly as Tailand in the game if I recall correctly!) were never easy even if you were pretty good at the game. I could always get up to them if left to play. However, usually, most of the evening was spent with lines of people showing up to try and challenge. I almost always won when I was on the Ryu side. On the Ken side, I was a little slower, but still pretty good. Playing the game every day for a year or so makes you pretty unstoppable.

After I finally lost, I’d head over to Double Dragon, which was less popular by this time, so it was usually available. I got good enough at the game that I always beat it. Every single time. I actually beat the game once without even getting hit. Usually I screwed up something along the way and got offed once before I rescued Marian from Machine-Gun Willy. I found it interesting that my two go-to games were Double Dragon and Street Fighter because I had always heard a rumor that their names were switched in production. I am sure this is not true, but it makes more sense that Street Fighter should be called Double Dragon and Double Dragon should be called Street Fighter.

I was also pretty heavily into PC gaming in my high school years and played a lot of competitive games like Warlords, Doom, and Star Control. We had a network of PCs at our high school and when I took a computer science class, our teacher would sometimes let us get away with playing Doom. It was the first time I had ever played a networked game (apart from playing text MUDs on the pre-web Internet) and it was a pretty amazing experience at the time.

Once I headed off to college, my gaming time decreased significantly and I mostly only played games heavily if someone I lived with had them. Our apartment was heavily into Mortal Kombat 3 for a while. I played it a lot and got pretty good. I would play against people with less experience without looking at the screen and still easily beat them. I played a lot of Halo for a period. My roommate had purchased two Xbox systems so that we could have 4 vs. 4 team Halo in our apartment.

Nowadays, I have very little time for gaming (or any recreation really), so I am pretty limited to games that are quick, can be learned easily, and played with a bunch of friends (so it is part of socializing). Mostly, that means Wii games. Right now, at my house, it’s the only game system I really have. We play Mario Kart, Rock Band, Boom Blox, and Wii Fit mostly. I also bought a PS2 just to play DDR X. I have DDR Universe 3 for Xbox 360, but I don’t own a 360. I’ll most likely get one in the near future.

Molotov Cupcake: So how did you guys get started, anyway?

Michael Epstein: The band formed out of a studio project that I was working on originally just as a last way to document music I had written before I essentially retired from actively pursuing music. Then, a funny thing happened. People started responding really well to it. College radio was all over it, SPIN wrote about it, and it more-or-less immediately felt like something that was worth continuing. So, we all got together and sort of figured out how to make it happen as a real band and how to turn it into a good live show, etc.

It was interesting because the day we played our first show ever, one of the issues of SPIN Magazine that we were featured in came out. We all kind of looked at it and thought damn, we better actually make what we do with this band worthy of the attention we’re getting. So, we worked really hard, especially early on. We videotaped ourselves performing and figured out how to not be boring on stage. Things like that. It actually has worked out that four of us in the band now have just worked really well together. I was certainly afraid of what would happen as we moved forward and operated more collaboratively to arrange the songs and craft them into presentable works, but I think we’re getting better at it every day, so I am enjoying the fact that we are still growing in this area almost 4 years into this.

Molotov Cupcake: How did the DDR deal come about? Were you fans of the game before being featured within them?

Michael Epstein: I brought “30 Lives” to the band and expected some serious eye rolling. It was much sillier, at least on the surface, than anything we had been doing and I kind of wondered if I walked in with that song, how everyone would react. Well, it turned out that they were all into it. Once they all gave it their approval, I pushed it further. I told them we had to do a little dance to it when we performed the song. They were game. Finally, I said, okay, if we make a dance remix of this song, I can get it into DDR. That was literally the explicit goal and motivation for making the dance remix. I loved the DDR series the first time I saw it. I didn’t get to play it much because there are so few arcades these days. I had looked into getting a home version, but I had my heart set on getting a real setup and not just a soft-pad version. So, it never really came together and I never managed to play at home. Whenever I was at an arcade, I was sure to play. The problem with getting good at it was that the game was always swarmed with kids who were amazingly good and it was tough to bring yourself to play in front of them. They had sweatbands and towels and stuff that they had brought for their DDR sessions. I am just some uncoordinated dude. So, while I did always jump at the chance to play, I was never very good at it.

Once we had the dance remix made, I basically sent it in to Konami and they loved it! Music director Stillwind Borenstein, who very sadly passed away recently, sent me an e-mail that said, “I have heard many songs in the past which include references to our games, but I have yet to hear one turn the legendary 30 lives into an undeniably catchy love song. I think it will be a great addition to our game.” Needless to say, I was EXTREMELY excited about this! I had been very cocky telling people about how they’d love the song and we’d get it into DDR, but the reality was, I never thought it would actually happen. When the band first got together and saw the game, we were all jumping up and down with ear-to-ear grins chanting, “We’re in a video game! We’re in a video game!”

Molotov Cupcake: Your music seems to span a wide variety of genres – have you ever thought about experimenting with that of chiptune to match the obvious taste in video game culture?

Michael Epstein: I think that would be a lot of fun. We pride ourselves on playing a pretty wise range of styles within the context of our instrumentation and interests. Right now, we hardly do anything “electronic” in our normal writing and performing, so it would be a pretty grand departure. I’ve done a lot of work with MIDI (and MOD even) in the past, so I do have some experience with similar types of things. Only the future knows…

Molotov Cupcake: Have you noticed much more of a wider response after being featured in such a popular title as DDR? People do seem to overlook it as a marketing tool when it comes to discovering new artists.

Michael Epstein: Absolutely! I think a lot of bands nowadays know that video games are a huge market, particularly with the popularity of music games. It presents us with an interesting problem of sorts. We play mostly 21+ (or at least 18+) shows because that is just what is generally available and a lot of the fans we’ve been getting through DDR are younger. We’ve been trying to figure out how to reach them. We thought about doing an arcade tour or a gaming store tour or something, but it hasn’t yet happened. That is one of the reasons that we’re very excited to be part of Game Unicon this weekend. It will give us a chance to reach out to that audience. We love meeting people and playing shows for all different types in all different settings, so it’s always a joy to expand our audience, particularly into an area where we have such rich personal histories and interests.

Molotov Cupcake: You’re in the music business, so I have to ask – are you all interested in Guitar Hero or Rock Band? Plan on infiltrating the games if possible?

Michael Epstein: I never really loved Guitar Hero. I played it a bit, but it never really struck me as much fun. When Rock Band came out, I was immediately hooked! I love the idea that a group of people can play together and work together as a band. I also really love playing the drums in Rock Band. That may be partly rooted in the fact that I can’t really play an actual drum set. I am terrible at it. The rest of the stuff – guitar, bass, and singing, I do pretty regularly on real instruments, but the fake drums are a lot of fun.

As for getting our stuff into Rock Band…yes! We are in the process of preparing several of our songs for inclusion in the Rock Band store. We’re hoping to get them out to the world before the end of 2009.

Molotov Cupcake: Was “30 Lives” written for anyone special? I know I’d love to be serenaded via video game nods in a song. Come on, you can tell us!

Michael Epstein: I actually appreciate you saying this very much. I wrote “30 Lives” for my wife, who is also a musician – she drums and sings (and I play bass) in the band Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling ( She kept joking with me that I never wrote a love song for her. Neither one of us tends to write songs with very positive messages. So, after she asked me a few times, I decided I would do it. I pondered it while doing some mindless painting – painting walls that is. We’ve all heard so many love songs and it really felt like there was nothing left to say regarding love, so I stepped back and tried to think of something new. While rolling a brush across the ceiling, it hit me…I had never heard a song about reincarnation and spending more than one lifetime together. Great, I had a new angle, but I didn’t want it to seem new agey or something, so I kept thinking. Aha! In video games, you get multiple lives! Almost immediately, it became clear that a song about using the Konami Code to get “30 Lives” to spend with a partner was it and somewhere in the middle, we’d chant the Konami Code with select start at the end to signify two players. My wife hasn’t totally accepted this as fulfilling her demands. She says it’s about video games instead of love, but it was intended as a love song first and a video game song second.

Molotov Cupcake: If you could incorporate any other video game-themed cheat code or meme (such as “all your base…”), what would it be and how would you go about doing it?

Michael Epstein: I actually wrote a song called “Somebody Set Up Us The Bomb (All Your Base Are Belong to [Old Band Name Here])” a long while back. I have it somewhere. I can’t even remember how it goes except that I know it was terrible. Inspiration is funny. If I try too hard to force it – like writing an All Your Base song because All Your Base is popular, it turns out pretty awful. It all just kind of needs to happen naturally like “30 Lives” did. Maybe I need to hang out in some paint fumes for a few days and another game-related song will arise. I’d love to write a song about M.U.L.E. someday. I once knew someone who played in a ska band that covered the theme song.

Molotov Cupcake: Thanks so much! Give us the dates you’ll be appearing at the Game Unicon and we’ll definitely give you some massive pluggage.

Michael Epstein: Thanks a ton! We’re playing the 8/22 Saturday concert with Bang Camaro, PowerGlove, Jesus Candy, and Planetoid. Tickets and info at:

A big thanks goes out to Michael Epstein of The Motion Sick, as well as the rest of the band for agreeing to the interview!

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