Detroit trio and synth/rock/prog titans Voyag3r have been putting out forward-thinking synth-heavy rock and roll for a few years now. Steve Greene(synthesizers, piano, saxophone), Greg Mastin(drums and percussion), and Aaron Greene(guitars) have built a discography that is both a solid collection of standalone heavy electronic rock albums, but also imagined worlds of both sci-fi, dystopian, and horror narratives. In other words, albums like Doom Fortress, Are You Synthetic?, and War Mask are like stepping into some Cannon or Vestron Video film from the early 80s. The kind of fare you mom frowned upon but your older brother would gladly bring home late some Friday or Saturday night. Or if you had cable you could catch it late at night on The Movie Channel or Cinemax, if you were lucky.
Recently Voyag3r got the opportunity to score a classic 80s ninja action film that never was. Here’s the story courtesy of film company Vinegar Syndrome: “Originally directed by and starring martial arts actor John Liu (The Secret Rivals, Invincible Armor) in his only American production, New York Ninja was filmed entirely on 35mm in 1984, but the project was abandoned during production resulting in all original sound materials being lost over time. 35 years later, Vinegar Syndrome acquired the original unedited camera negative and painstakingly constructed and completed the film. Enlisting the voice talents of genre favorites: Don “The Dragon” Wilson (Bloodfist, Whatever It Takes), Linnea Quigley (Return of the Living Dead, Nightmare Sisters), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes, Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies), Vince Murdocco (Night Hunter, LA Wars), Matt Mitler (The Mutilator, Battle for the Lost Planet), Leon Isaac Kennedy (Lone Wolf McQuade, Penitentiary), Ginger Lynn Allen (The Devil’s Rejects, Vice Academy), and Cynthia Rothrock (China O’Brien, Martial Law) Vinegar Syndrome Pictures is extremely proud to present this truly one of kind film experience. Restored in 4K from the original camera elements, New York Ninja is finally available in all of its ridiculous over-the-top glory for the first time ever after spending nearly four decades in film obscurity.”
The band received an email from Vinegar Syndrome about scoring the film that never was. Of course being kids of the 80s they jumped at the chance to score a classic 80s ninja flick.
I recently talked to the band about how they got involved with the project, their approach to scoring a lost 80s ninja exploitation flick, and what the band has in store for us next.
J Hubner: So tell me how the band got involved with Vinegar Syndrome’s ‘New York Ninja’ project? Listening to the massive score I can tell Voyag3r committed to the era. It’s fantastic.
Steve G: Thanks very much! An email came over from Vinegar Syndrome that was trying to explain this unique situation, without giving any too much info. Right away, I was interested and brought it up to the guys and after having a brief conversation with KurtismSpeiler, from Vinegar Syndrome. I tried to explain to the rest of the band what was on the table. This was when we were on the road as support for Cybertronic Spree, so we had some time to discuss. This is truly what this band was meant to do.
Aaron G: When Steve first told us about the initial conversation with VS, we
were on the road, headed to Chicago to play with Cybertronic Spree. Steve’s getting
through the sentence and I really can’t believe my ears. A lost Ninja Movie… from 1984…titled New York Ninja? We could write this before we get to Chicago! Like if we had to go into a Battle Royale against 10 other bands and the winner gets to do the soundtrack, dude, we would’ve shown no mercy. Blood everywhere. We were born to make this record.
J Hubner: Growing up in the 80s with a Betamax VCR I was constantly bringing home martial arts films, and Enter The Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Ninja III: The Domination were the trifecta of 80s action exploitation. New York Ninja would have been a favorite of mine, I just know it. Were you guys into the ninja genre as well?
Steve G: 100% the same. My top VHS rentals were Revenge of the Ninja and 9 Deaths of the Ninja. Always had at least one ninja film at the house and would watch often.
Greg M: When I was growing up, in the 80’s, ninja fever was in full effect. My friends and I would religiously buy Black Belt magazine (the ads in the back were great!), compete to see who could draw the best ninja and watch any ninja/martial arts films that we could get our hands on. There was even a store in our local mall (Universal Mall) that carried all of the ninja gear you could ever want. We used to just loiter inside the store, wishing we could afford the whole ninja suit.
Our goal, to score a real film, predates Voyag3r. Aaron, Steve and I were in previous bands together and have always talked about getting an opportunity like this. To say we were meant for this project is an understatement. The Vinegar Syndrome team was an absolute pleasure to work with and we are humbled that they entrusted us with this.
Aaron G: That’s the thing, I actually had the ninja suit! For my birthday or
something. The problem was, I was about 11, and too dumb to know how fast I was
gonna grow out of the thing. I struggled and failed to fit into it for the next couple years.
J Hubner: How did Voyag3r approach scoring New York Ninja. It had to be a lot of fun, but also stressful knowing you were putting music to possibly a future cult classic.
Steve G: We knew right away that we were going to score this film as if we were in 1984 and were trying to sincerely and honestly score a low budget action/ninja film. Sure there are parts that are a little cheesy or funny, but not necessarily trying to be, that’s OK… we were just not going to help that out or wink at the audience, if you know what I mean.
Greg M: The pandemic had a huge impact on our standard writing process. Instead of
banging it out in a practice room, we had to rely on emailed demo’s and ideas. When it
finally came time to record, we were lucky enough to have free reign of Steve’s Battle
Chamber studio. At this point, we were all very familiar with what had been shared but
remained open to improv or “on the fly” changes and enhancements.
We felt pretty confident that what we delivered would be well received. We focused on the fact that Vinegar Syndrome had chosen us based on our credentials. We played to our strengths and applied our formula to this film. It was all fun but we’ve never worked with a strict deadline before. I guess that might have been the most stressful part.
Aaron G: I remember feeling a little overwhelmed early on, cause Steve was coming up with a ton of material, as he laid things out to the film. I sat there at first, looking at the big picture, wondering where to begin. After a while I just realized, it doesn’t even matter. Tackle it scene by scene, and feel my way through it, never forcing anything. After about a week, I had a ton of riffs to go along with what was already written. Once I had some core rhythms, I concentrated on doing my part to help establish themes and motifs. I didn’t want to be repetitive, but certainly hammer the points home when needed. There were also a bunch of pieces that I improvised as Greg was recording his drums. I’d lay down a scratch track and listen to it a week later and say, “I’m sticking with that”. There was inspiration flying all over the place. It was like being a kid on the best playground ever.
J Hubner: Who or what were some influences on the sound and vibe of the music? 80s film score composers? TV shows? Equipment that begged to be used for the recording process?
Steve Greene: With such a unique opportunity, as this was, we knew we had to really focus and basically put ourselves back in 1984 and really craft something fitting, honest but not a pastiche. Something that could still hold its own and that maybe added something to the genre.
Aaron G: A little Enter the Dragon, assorted Sho Kosugi movies, Lethal Weapon, even some Rocky flavors. And a ton more. We lived in that era, so a lot of it seeped into our musical DNA long ago, and it tends to come out in all our stuff. We just turned it up a few notches for this. As far as equipment, I knew I wanted to only use one guitar for this album, my Fender Strat American Deluxe. It just felt appropriate. And I wanted to use fewer effects this time around. Of course they had guitar effects back then and long before, but I didn’t want to overload it. I felt that would be more authentic in helping tell this kind of story.
J Hubner: Did Vinegar Syndrome have notes for you guys? Or did they leave the creative process up to the band completely?
Steve Greene: Not really, just a couple little tweaks after the first send and that was it. After the first couple of conversations that Kurtis and I had we knew the direction and approach we were all taking for this project. They trusted us to do our thing.
Aaron G: They definitely left it up to us. We handed them about an hour and 15 minutes worth of music upon deadline, and fortunately they were happy. They asked for a few repeated queues here and there, to reinforce some character themes. But we basically did our thing in the bubble.
J Hubner: The film had its premiere recently at Beyond Fest. Was Voyag3r in attendance? If so, how did the premiere go? What has the reaction been so far regarding the movie?
Steve G: Absolutely, we were all there and it was a very special and fantastic night for so many reasons. This was the first film we had been to in a year and a half and we got to see and hear it on a big screen to a packed house. Great energy and vibe in the air and the audience was really enjoying it. We got to meet a lot of the voice actors and we all signed a few hundred NYN promo posters. Earlier in the day, we visited a few famous filming locations from Halloween, Back to the Future and Poltergeist. We even enjoyed a dinner and hang at the Rainbow. Definitely a special and memorable trip.
Greg M: Yes! We were there! We all decided, early on, that this wasn’t something we were going to miss. Sitting in the audience while a theater full of people experienced it, for the first time, was amazing. The response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive and for good reason. Its journey from a forgotten pallet of reels to the big screen is nothing short of incredible. We had a blast being involved and love that people are enjoying it so much. I honestly can’t say enough about the passion that Vinegar Syndrome (Kurtis/Brad) had for making this film a reality.
We also seized upon the opportunity to “nerd out” by visiting some iconic movie locations: Halloween (the hedge, Michael Myers’ house and Laurie Strode’s house), Back To The Future (Doc Brown’s house) and, finally, the Poltergeist house. Ironically, we didn’t learn until we returned home that we had accidentally visited one additional location, The Aero Theatre. This was where Beyond Fest screened New York Ninja but also just happens to be the same theatre where that famous Donnie Darko scene was shot. So much fun.
J Hubner: Will Voyag3r be doing any promotional gigs to support the film? Any live accompaniments to the film in the works?
Steve G: As many as possible. We did the world premiere at Beyond fest and there are some more theatrical dates planned, we’ll definitely be at some of those. We’ll definitely be working songs from NYN into the Voyag3r live set.
J Hubner: Is the score getting a physical release? If so, can you give any details?
Steve G: Yes indeed! CD and Cassette for now and as soon as there is more info, we’ll let everyone know. I would also like to give a shout out to Suspiria, the artist who did the New York Ninja album cover. She did such and amazing job making her art look so much like the characters. All the art for this whole project is really next level. The blu-ray box, that the film comes in, is one of the most deluxe packages I have ever seen. Those artists are The Dude Designs and Kung-Fu Bob.
J Hubner: How has Voyag3r fared over the last year and a half? Has the New York Ninja project kept you busy in the Battle Chamber during the lockdowns?
Steve G: NYN definitely gave us something to focus on, artistically. It probably was a very valuable opportunity to help keep our sanity. We just played out first show back in over a year and a half and it was great to get back out.
Aaron G: I believe that any band worth their salt has a responsibility to put out a covid record. Whether it came out in 2020, 21, early 22, there’s no way a band should be sitting around that long, unable to tour, and not produce an album. And right now, all my favorite bands have new stuff out. So I’m grateful that we had such an amazing project to focus on during quarantine. We’re sitting down there, tracking songs with masks on. That is, hopefully, a once in a lifetime experience, and a great way to mark the strange times we’re in. New York Ninja definitely saved us from covid depression.
J Hubner: So what’s next for Voyag3r?
Steve Greene: We’ll be back out in 2022 to fully promote the NYN album, which is our 4th full length album and we look forward to many shows, conventions and even more writing.
Aaron G: We’re always working. We’re already tossing ideas and demos around to each other for the next album. Other than that, we want more movies.