Hi Grant, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get into the video game music business?
Hello Oliver, thanks for taking the time to talk to me! I’d studied music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester majoring in classical trumpet and after leaving there spent the next eleven years playing in metal bands on guitar and a couple of other bands on trumpet (most notably the british rock band 'Little Angels'). At the end of this period of time my last band fell to bits and I was left with no form of income and during the eleven years I was on and off unemployment benefit as well. I had met Robin Beanland in a local band that we were both in and had become good friends.
One day he announced that he had got a job at some company called Rare writing music and making sound effects for video games and off he went. He’d been there about a year and a half when I told him that all the bands I played for had fallen to pieces and he suggested that I have a go at what he was doing. He recommended some equipment for me to buy and I started to try and write some music that I thought might be suitable for a game. I sent five cassette tapes to Rare over the course of a year and never got a reply and then out of the blue got a letter asking me to attend an interview, and then much to my amazement I got the job in October 1995.
Let’s talk about your latest project Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. When and how did you get involved in the project?
I moved to Big Huge Games in Baltimore, USA in August of 2008. They had two projects on the go when I got there and I was supposed to oversee them as audio director. I wasn’t hired to compose as they’d already outsourced the music to an external company. One of the games was a big RPG and one was a cute Wii game. Six months after I’d arrived THQ (who owned us) ran into financial difficulties and decided to sell us, this was a very worrying time as I was on a work Visa and if we closed down I would have to be out of the USA in ten days! Luckily for us Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios bought us, we managed to secure a publishing deal with EA and here we are days away from Reckoning’s launch!
How did you first start out writing the music? Could you tell us a bit about the writing process on Reckoning?
I started by trying to write the main theme with a (hopefully!) memorable tune…Heh! When the game was just starting out, the first area that got modeled was a forest area called 'Dalentarth'. This is why the main theme and the early music in the game has that kind of dark fairy tale feel to it. I think the music changes its feel as the game progresses. I like to try and get some music written very early on in development as I think it helps the designers and artists get a good feel for the game when they are running around the levels. After writing some music early on I then concentrate on the sound design as I think that’s much more important to bring the world to life.
My writing process hasn’t changed at all really, I just have a look at the design docs or look at the area I’m writing for and think about how it might sound. Writing music for games is a bit like a conveyor belt: you don’t have the time to wait for the creative juices to flow, you just have to get on with it and then on to the next thing.
How much creative freedom were you given by the developers to find a unique and creative soundscape for the game?
I pretty much had a free hand. I think at first they were a bit wary of what I might come up with so I just wrote some music and hoped that they liked it! Once they started to trust me I just got on with it. I really wanted to come up with a unique sound for Reckoning and I hope I’ve managed it. I guess I’ll find out pretty soon!!
Are there any cues/musical passages in the score that you’re especially proud of?
I’m proud of lots of things in Reckoning, the boss pieces are the largest things I’ve written in terms of scale and complexity and I really pushed myself to make them as exciting as I could so as to match the action in the game. The ambient music really gives each area of the game its own unique feel as I tried to feature different sections of the orchestra in each zone. Mark Cromer composed some additional music for the game and as he has a Masters in guitar I asked him if he would like to write music for all the taverns and inns. He hand played all of these pieces on various stringed instruments using the harmonic structure of the game so it doesn’t sound like that medieval kind of sound that you might expect.
I think I’d have to say that the area of the game called the 'Plains of Erathell' has my favourite music from the game; it’s mainly strings and uses just major chords on the whole, which gives it a very modal feel. The City of Prague Philharmonic played these pieces fantastically well.
You’ve also written music for Viva Pinata. What were your particular goals with the score and are you happy with the end result?
Viva Pinata is probably one of my favourites of my own music. I wanted to write music that sounded like an English country garden and I loved the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams so I tried to emulate them as best I could. Well, I tried anyway! I was really happy with the end result; some of those tunes can still bring me to tears now. I think it’s probably the kind of music I would write if I was just composing for myself. It was also written around the time when I knew that I was going to be leaving Rare which was a very sad time for me.
For Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts you incorporated a real banjo into the score. How much fun was it to record the instrument? Did you play the instrument yourself?
I did play the banjo myself. For 'Spiral Mountain' I played a real banjo, just sat in my office at Rare and recorded it straight into Pro Tools. It’s a bit rough but that was what I wanted. I was thinking about a fat Banjo the bear after a few years off from his adventures…heh! The banjo in the pause music is still me playing but I was using one of the Line 6 Variax guitars as I had to do it quickly and didn’t have the time to learn it on banjo. It was great fun to do and I think the banjo really adds something to those pieces that I used it on.
You’ve worked on the Banjo Kazooie series since the beginning. Did you enjoy returning to the series on the XBox360? Did you weave any thematic or stylistic material from the older games into your score?
It was nice coming back to Banjo as it was my final game at Rare so it was quite fitting as well as sad. It really felt like I was putting on a favourite pair of slippers that I’d lost for a few years. I was hoping to do the whole game, music and sound effects, as I’d done with the previous games but as I was doing Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise at the same time I realized there was no chance I’d get through it all. I asked Robin Beanland and Dave Clynick to give me a hand with the music and they did a fantastic job.
I knew that 'Banjoland' was going to have lots of elements of the old games in it so I thought it would be fun to feature as many of the old themes in the music as I could squeeze in, and in most of the other levels we tried to add some snippets of music from the original games that the diehard Banjo fans would recognize.
You’ve written music for games since the early days of the medium. How do you think game music has changed over the years?
It’s changed immensely. If I think back to my first console game, GoldenEye on the N64, and how I had to compress everything as small as it would go without it sounding terrible to now recording full orchestra it’s just unbelievable; I think my actual process for writing music hasn’t changed at all though, you still have to try and pull a tune out of your head!
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
I would expect the quality and storage capacity to just keep going up and up. There’s still memory restrictions on today’s’ consoles, getting it all to fit in to RAM is still a juggling act and it varies from platform to platform, programmers are still complaining about how much space the audio takes up and how they can’t stream this and that. I’d hope that in the future we’ll be able to have lots more streams from the disk so as we can have more dynamic music, just like in the Banjo games on the N64! At some point we’ll have moved on to SSD for storing data and DVD’s will be a thing of the past, we’ll have access to all of the game data instantly, just like the cartridges on the N64…Hehehehehe! Hmmm, is there a pattern here!!
Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?
It truly amazes me that anything that I’ve done is being discussed in that manner, it really does. I think game soundtracks were considered sub standard by lots of people for a long time. What people missed is that because we had so few resources and we couldn’t rely on huge soundscapes and giant reverbs we had to try and write a good tune with a decent set of chords. It never ceases to surprise me how many people today have old N64 or SNES soundtracks on their iPods next to Lady Gaga or Metallica and the amount of bands that play conventions like MAGFest and just play video game music. It’s just incredible! I think that the movie guys can see extra work in games now as fewer movies are getting made now due to cost and there are only really a handful of composers that get that work. I think that there will be more crossover as times goes on. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all pans out in the coming years.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
I think that composing music for games as a whole is difficult. Not everyone has an opinion about art or design but everyone has a music preference, which can make it hard to get your point across sometimes. I always try to remind people to do what’s right for the game and not what’s right for you. I remember being at Rare and having to talk to a designer on Donkey Kong 64 about what kind of music he wanted for a lava level. He replied he wanted something like Firestarter by The Prodigy, I thought maybe something as loud and in your face as that would probably drive people mad if they were in that level for any period of time; needless to say that was one of those times that I didn’t take his advice!
Getting paid to make audio for games (sound design or music) is unbelievable; I have to keep reminding myself how lucky I am. You’ll still hear me moaning about it though. Ask anyone!!!
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player / on your mp3 player right now?
John Williams is my main influence I’d say; a few years back it would have been more Danny Elfman. I think I’ve had a more intense look at John Williams’ music recently and found lots of things that I didn’t realize were there. I’ve really learned a lot from listening to his music. I have an MP3 CD in my car that I listen to constantly, it has the first three Harry Potter scores by Mr. Williams on it and I’ve just added the score from Tin Tin that he did too. It’s my homework CD! I will say that there is one soundtrack that I think is fantastic that I think people have missed and that’s the score to Stardust by Ilan Eshkeri. I went to see that movie and just fell in love with the music, it’s been a long time since I’ve done that. I could rant and rave for hours about how I think melody is getting overlooked in favour of ambient scores for movies and games these days…but I won’t!!
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
The Viva Pinata games were my favourite games to have worked on but now I think I have to add Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to them. This game has been a long time in the making and it’s been a real privilege to have been a part of it.
What would be your dream project?
To do the score for the next Harry Potter movie … wait … Oh …
What are you currently working on?
Shhhhhh …… I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you … Heh!
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
I do, but not so much at the moment. I do my homework, so I’ve played bits of Dragon Age, Mass Effect 2, Fable etc but I haven’t really played anything avidly of late. I’ve just got Star Wars: The Old Republic so when I have a bit of time I’m going to have a good look at that. I did play World of Warcraft a lot when I lived in the UK and when we were moving over to the USA I called Blizzard to get my character moved over as well, to my horror I was told they didn’t do international transfers. I couldn’t believe it, my poor little Mage that I’d spent years with … heh!
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.
Thanks for the opportunity, it’s been a pleasure!
The soundtrack album to Grant Kirkhope's latest score to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is released through Sumthing Else Musicworks (www.sumthing.com) and will be available February 7.