Horse Jumper of Love is a rock band from Boston that makes the kind of music you might want playing in your hyperbaric chamber if you were stuck in there for a while and really wanted to lean into the experience. One of their best tracks, 2019’s “DIRT,” is built around a piercingly plonking guitar riff and the phrase “And there is dirt and there is juice / and I am mixing up the two.” I don’t know what it means. I’m not sure I’m supposed to. The strange slowcore formulations of their new album, Natural Part, is full of similarly perplexing songwriting.
In a recent interview with The Fader’s Jordan Darville, the band’s frontman, Dimitri Giannopoulos, explained the album’s title track by saying: “The tone of the guitar always reminds me of playing The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.” Again, baffling, but it felt like a curious glimpse into their process. Was that the key to this great band’s alchemy? Video game music?
From the bed of a nondescript chain hotel room somewhere in the South, Giannopoulos and HJOL bassist John Margaris try to explain themselves via Zoom. They both have nice long hair and easy smiles. (Margaris also has a strong moustache.) They’re both stoked to chat about game music.
For Giannopoulos, it all started when he was around 8 years old with a classic: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Giannopoulos says it wasn’t one of the mallpunk songs that THPS is best known for but AC/DC’s “TNT,” off THPS4, that he loved so much he made his mom take him to the CD store to buy High Voltage. “My childhood playing video games did maybe start my music career,” he says. “Without AC/DC’s High Voltage I wouldn’t have gotten into rock ‘n’ roll.”
For Margaris, it was N64’s Mario 64 and Mario Party 3. “You don’t realize you’re listening to almost fusion-y kind of music. Being able to listen to something over and over and not get bored—that was a new experience.” The score writers were “using such limited technology, it’s insane what they were able to do.” Which reminds Giannopoulos of a favorite meme, about the underwater level from Donkey Kong. Beaming just at the thought, he paraphrases: “Guy hired to write score for swimming gorilla accidentally writes best ambient album of all time.” Which then leads them to talk about various subterranean video game levels and how trippy the music cues in those shifting landscapes can be. “They’re huge mood changers,” Margaris says, intentionally or not, echoing what his band does so well.
They both grew up in Boston and reminisce fondly about “split-screen hangs,” days playing games like Goldeneye in friends’ basements and living rooms. Now, that’s a big chunk of their shared musical language. “I don’t know a lot of music theory,” Giannopoulos says, “but I do know a lot of pop culture stuff. Straight up I’ll be like, ‘John, do a bass line that sounds like’ [insert something from their youth].” There’s also an Instagram account that Giannopoulos loves that posts songs from “really weird and rare Japanese video games from the ’90s, lots of cool crazy acid house stuff or rave-ish music, and some of them are insanely good,” Giannopoulos says. He sends them to Margalis all the time. Sums up Margalis: “They’re wicked bizarre.”
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Which brings Giannopoulos back to his point about Zelda and “The Natural Part.”
“The tone of the guitar has that shimmering chorus effect and that always makes me feel nostalgic. There’s some song in Ocarina of Time, and that exact tone reminded me of it … maybe that, or when Link is, like, in the village in the beginning?” Jauntily, Margalis starts humming the Zelda bit, as he remembers it: “Dun dun dun, dun dun dun, dun-dun-dun-dun.”
“Yeah, that!” Giannopoulos says. “The melody I don’t think is the same, but the tone of that little line and the guitar. For some reason”—he points two index fingers to his head—“that clicked in my mind. I didn’t go into the song being like, ‘I wanna write a song that sounds like Legend of Zelda,’ but after it’s done it just connects to all different kinds of memories.” Adds Margalis, “It might not necessarily sound like the score, but it felt like that.”
Video games were a trusty cultural steward for a lot of their childhood, but both fellows now are more of dilettantes in the space. Giannopoulos had a moment with Skyrim. Margalis had one with Mass Effect. They’ve been talking about getting a Nintendo Switch for tours. But to be honest, their relationships with video games had an inverse connection to their relationships with music. Video games were a secret inspiration for the tunes. Right around high school, when they got serious about their craft, the games got replaced by the tunes, too.
“Once I started getting really into music,” Giannapolous says, “I stopped playing video games. You’re always looking for something to lose yourself in. And music has been that for me ever since.”