Thank you Eveline for this unique interview opportunity. Today, I’d like to go back in time and revisit your career as a video game composer. Before that point though, could you please tell us how your love for music started?
Music has been part of me for as long as I can remember. Memories of my dad sitting for hours at the piano, listening to some of the jazz greats – Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Fats Waller – breaking down the notes, repeating the parts until he’d unpicked the pieces for himself, he had an amazing ear!
My love of classical music began later. Learning the piano, violin and (slightly randomly) the church organ gave me the opportunity to discover different types of music. My time with a youth orchestra, church choir and symphony chorus consolidated this. Encouraged by my mum, I was able to get the most out of these experiences, with concerts in some of the great venues in London and trips playing abroad all serving to fire up my enthusiasm. Singing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana for a concert with a stinking cold is a memory that has stuck with me .. I still feel goosebumps when I hear that piece performed now.
This was followed up with five fantastic years at uni; first studying music at Durham, then a Masters in medieval music at Newcastle and, the eventual stepping stone to my position at Rare, a PG Dip in Electroacoustic Composition at Bournemouth. During this time I was able to broaden my musical tastes, immersing myself in as varied a musical background as possible – inevitably I developed not only a deep love of music but also a pretty eclectic taste. Jazz and blues greats rubbed shoulders with some of the classical giants, throw in an unexpected affinity for medieval music and a chance encounter with fantastic percussion group, Amadinda, and you have me in a nutshell. Rachmaninov, Poulenc, Fauré, Liszt, J.S.Bach, Widor, Carl Orff, César Franck, Marie Claire Alain, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, John Williams and Hans Zimmer, just some of the artists and composers who have shaped what music is to me today.
Your first work as a composer in the video game industry dates back to Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo (1994). I’m sure there were plenty of challenges to overcome back then: how did you approach the medium?
Getting the music onto the SNES was the initial challenge! In those days it had to be programmed in Hex. That messed with my mind (8+8 = 1 0). However, it was a system that I felt favoured a less rigid approach to composition. We weren’t tied to notes on a page, it was composition that concentrated purely on the audible experience .. the best music was not shoehorned to fit the medium, instead it worked with the strengths and the quirks of the SNES itself. David’s underwater music in DKc was a revelation to me, it was a perfect example of music and SNES working together.
One of the reasons I was so eager for this interview is because you’ve often been overshadowed — at least in my opinion — by David Wise & Robin Beanland. What can you tell us about working at Rare and such a great pool of talented individuals in the 90s?
Being part of the music department at Rare was a fantastic experience, we were a close knit team and we worked pretty well together. Each one of us brought something different to the department and we each had our own quirky style and our own strengths. When I first joined as an in-house musician, David had already been collaborating with them for a while, I looked to him as my senior. I think once the team grew and Robin joined we finally settled into our different team roles, finding our own niche, be it sound design, composition, vocal ‘talent’ etc.
You produced most of the music heard in Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble. To this day, people have mixed opinions on the soundtrack. I’m in the camp that thinks it was very refreshing with its own merits. Hot Pursuit is still one of my favourites after all these years. Can you enlighten us as to how you created music for this third entry in the series?
I’m stunned that years after this game launched, the conversation about the soundtrack for DKC3 remains as current as ever. I always wrote instinctively and my style tended to lean towards the atmospheric. I tried to paint a picture, a sense of where, combined with a drive to keep the player moving on. Writing in the early days was a steep learning curve though, catchy didn’t come easily to me.
After the Donkey Kong trilogy, you worked on the soundtrack for baseball game Ken Griffey Jr.’s Winning Run, also released on the Super Nintendo (1996). What was your experience like working in a totally different genre from what you had done before?
Ken Griffey Jr. was a chance to try something different musically. It was also the first game where I really started to think about how I should work the in-game audio to further enhance the gamer’s experience. I had some fun with it at the time.
One year later, in 1997, Donkey Kong Land III released on the Game Boy. This time, you were faced with the challenge of composing 8-bit music, also known as chiptune. I think it’s really interesting to listen to both soundtracks and notice how well the transition went. What can you tell us about composing music across different platforms?
Working across the platforms could be a real challenge but I enjoyed it. I know not everyone felt the same but, as far as I was concerned, taking the original music and putting it onto a different platform was simply part of the process, part of my work in the department. It could be hugely frustrating at times but so satisfying when you got it right!
After your first foray into 8-bit music, it seems you distanced yourself from composition. Indeed, from 1997 to 2005, you’ve only worked on voices and sound effects for various games including Diddy Kong Racing, Perfect Dark and Conker. I think a lot of people are curious to know what happened exactly?
I loved being part of the wider creative process during the development of a game. The music was such an important part of what we did as a department, however I gradually began to appreciate that game audio wasn’t about the music alone. As musicians we had the opportunity to immerse the player in a world of sound, a world where sound and music would work hand in hand. Towards the end of my time at Rare I had naturally started to gravitate more towards sound effects and ambiences/soundscapes. This culminated in my collaboration with Steve Burke on Kameo, my final Rare game. A fantastic project and one I was so proud to be part of. Steve’s score was larger than life and hugely ambitious, it was an amazing opportunity to create the sound that helped knit the audio together.
Since you’ve stopped composing music many years ago, do you have a new passion?
Music has never stopped being a passion for me and is never far from my life. Whilst composition may have taken a back seat for now, the ideas are still there, they’re just on hold. In the meantime, it’s my turn to do all the to-ing and fro-ing involved with having a musical child. A great little percussionist, he has taken my love of music and is running with it!!
Is there any chance you’d go back to composing video game music in the future?
At the moment my priorities are different, in the future who knows. The use of music and sound in video games still gives me a buzz though, it’s progressed hugely since I first walked through the doors at Rare. The variety and scope, the endless possibilities musicians have these days is great to see. I hope there will always be a place for the in-house musician, for the music department which lives and breathes the games alongside the teams developing them .. it really can’t be beaten.
What’s the favourite song you’ve composed?
I’ve never really stopped to think about what my favourite might be. Some of my music never saw the light of day, games that never made it into development, prototypes. My style had matured by the time I left Rare, I felt more comfortable in my skin, maybe I’d go for one of these.
Are there any games you worked on as a composer and wasn’t credited for?
I don’t think so…
In the early days of development, Mr Pants on Gameboy had The Nutcracker as its temporary soundtrack. Converting the suite was a massive challenge but great fun.
My son picked up Sea of Thieves at his cousin’s the other day, playing it I heard “Mum? Rare, isn’t that who you used to work for?!” .. I’ve finally arrived 🙂