The music in video games is more than just a nice addition to the graphics and gameplay. It creates atmosphere, it lets players dive deeper into the virtual worlds and special tracks often stick in our minds forever. Grant Kirkhope is one of these composers who has created very special music. Music that allows players to remember virtual experiences and stories even years later. In the first part of our in-depth interview with Grant Kirkhope, we talk about his career as a composer, his time with Rare, and the opportunities for young musicians in today’s video game industry.
Wall Jump: You have a degree in music with a focus on classical trumpet, you have played in rock bands, and you have composed soundtracks in various styles, such as orchestral and electronic tunes, for numerous video games of various genres. Did you acquire this large musical range during your studies?
Grant Kirkhope: No, I was bad at harmony when I was at university, I couldn’t to it – actually I failed the harmony exam. I had to pass it within the four years I was there, but I failed it three years out of four and only passed it by the skin of my teeth in the fourth year. Even in school, I was bad at harmony. So I never dreamt about being a composer and it never entered my head.
Wall Jump: But in the end, the idea still seems to have crept into your head somehow…
Grant Kirkhope: …it was only because of my friend Robin Beanland, who is still at Rare. He was a keyboard player in one of the bands I played for in my local area in North Yorkshire and once he said: “I’ve got a job, I am going to work at a company called Rare.” That was exciting! No one I knew got a job – everyone just played in bands and was unemployed. From the age of 22 to 33, I never had a job, just played in bands and made a living out of that. I kept playing in rock bands for another year and a half when Robin said something like: “You have been on the dole for 11 years now. Don’t you think it’s time to get a job?” I was like, “What can I do? I’ve got no skills…” – and when Robin suggested I should try to become a composer like him, it sounded extremely unrealistic to me. But he recommended me some equipment like a copy of Cubase (a MIDI sequencer), some synthesizers and an Atari ST. I played a lot of games at the time, so I focused on music for video games – I sat at home for a year learning how to do it, and I sent Rare five cassette tapes over the course of one year. I never got a reply,… but out of the blue, after the fifth cassette tape, I got a letter sent and was invited to an interview. David Wise interviewed me and I got a job,… – I couldn’t believe it. I never for a minute thought that I would become a composer.
Grant Kirkhope in a Skype interview with Joshua Hampf
Wall Jump: So it was kind of learning by doing…
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah! Well, I knew what it must sound like and I had Cubase and a synthesizer. I recorded a couple of demos and things, but… yeah. It was just trial and error.
Wall Jump: Were there any classical or contemporary composers who served you as an example?
Grant Kirkhope: At that time I was a fan of Danny Elfman and John Williams, but mainly I listened to a lot of rock music, like Judas Priest, and played a lot of video games. It was just about writing music that I felt was appropriate to video games. So I heard a Mario platform tune – and I wrote actually a bit like a Mario platform tune. I heard a bit of Batman – and I wrote a tune a bit like Batman. I heard a tune of Killer Instinct – and I wrote a tune like that. I really just messed around and wrote one minute, two minute demos, I thought were like video game tunes – and that’s what took to the interview with Rare.
Wall Jump: So you didn’t specifically decide to become a composer for video games – it was more like the last chance to get a job. But what kind of advice would you give to young creative musicians trying to get into the business? The times have changed and you probably can’t send cassette tapes to publishers anymore…
Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, in those days a lot of companies had in-house composers and that’s kind of changed these days. Most companies now have in-house sound designers, but they don’t have any composers under contract like me in the old days. Of course, some of the big companies like Blizzard and Rare still have composers at work in-house, but most of the companies don’t do that anymore. So just being a good composer isn’t enough. To write music and put it on YouTube or on your website somewhere,… no one’s going to hear it. It doesn’t matter. You have to have a network of people that you know, you have to go out there and meet people – that’s the most important thing. You have to go to game jams, go to conventions – you have to meet people who make games, because they’re not going to knock on your door. You have to go and find those people and that’s the only way to do it. Having a talent means 50%, the other 50% is having a network.
You have to meet people who make games, because […] having a talent means 50%, the other 50% is having a network.Grant Kirkhope
Wall Jump: Do you know a recent example where the path to becoming a video game composer was also unexpected but successful?
Grant Kirkhope: I really like the example of Danny Baranowsky, a good friend of mine. He has gathered music to Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac and Crypt of the Necrodancer. Danny is one of those guys who just worked at hardware stores, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, but he was hoping to become a composer. His big breakthrough came when he covered one of the Perfect Dark themes. It got onto OC ReMix, an online game remix community, and a guy that was making a game called Canabalt heard it, liked Danny’s tune and got to Danny: “I like your music – do you want to write music for my game?” So Danny did Canabalt and the Super Meat Boy guys heard Canabalt,… and that what’s got him the Super Meat Boy gig. That’s how it works, right? So you have to find a path through and everybody’s path is a bit different. But just sitting at home writing fantastic music and put it on YouTube is just not going to get you anywhere. You might be lucky, but I think it would get you nowhere – you have to meet the people. You have to get out there – and I think a lot of the composers are introvert guys, don’t like to meet people or don’t like to talk to anybody, but you have to get over there. It’s the only way because being at home by yourself is not going to work.
Wall Jump: Let’s talk about some of your work. You have just mentioned Perfect Dark, and I personally love the soundtrack of Perfect Dark because of its diversity. I especially liked those pieces which combined slow/sneaky and dramatic moments in themselves, but which were nevertheless absolutely coherent because of their repeating patterns. I don’t want to get into all your composer’s secrets, but how do you create a piece of music like this? When you are seeing / playing a game for the first time, to which you are supposed to write the music, do you already hear certain sounds in your head?
Grant Kirkhope: A little bit. A lot of the times I wouldn’t even see the level. I got a little description which would say something like “this is Area 51” or “you’re in the streets of Chicago, it’s raining and it’s a dreary night” and you can then close your eyes and imagine what it would sound like. If I am told that it is about a lovely warm forest, I would immediately think about woodwinds and bassoons and flutes. Referring to Perfect Dark: It’s a Sci-Fi game, so you think of electronics, synthesizers, but also about mixing some orchestral strings in – and I think about X-Files…
Wall Jump: …can this process be learned? When I see a film where the music fits perfectly, I notice that. But if the film would run without music, I would never be able to create a suitable soundtrack…
Grant Kirkhope: …yeah, but just do what you think is right! Sit around with a keyboard and play around with it. That’s what I do. I’m not a very intellectual composer. I sit down and I’ll load up a sample – might be a synthesizer or a clarinet or a French horn or a flute,… whatever it is – and I just sit down and play with it until I hear something that I like. So it’s as simple as that! My interpretation of the film music would be different than yours, because you have a different idea than I do, but you have a vision of how it could sound,… but you don’t really know until you play around with it. You have to get your hands on it,… it’s like making a clay model – you have to get your hands on the clay and start to put it into a form, right? And music is no different, you have to get your hands on it to start, and you start to hear something that you like and expand on that – that’s the way it works. I don’t feel like that there is a formula like: “I do this and do this and do this and do this.” You just make a start and mess around with it until you think it sounds good. That’s just what I do. It’s no magic, it’s work.
Wall Jump: I got my hands on Perfect Dark when I was 14 years old – too young – and forced my eleven-year old brother – way too young – to play the co-op campaign with me. Till this day the Perfect Dark score is kind of our benchmark when it comes to video game music. Did you know at the end of composing that you have created such a special score?
Grant Kirkhope: No, you never know that. I think that you just do your best,… and I’m only really ever 80% happy with the scores that I wrote – I never get to 100%. I’ll try my best, but you never know what comes out. You never know if it sticks out until people start playing it,… you don’t know, if a gazillion people talk about it even 20 years later – you know, I never thought anybody would mention Banjo-Kazooie even 20 days later! So no, you have no idea! You do your best, you try your hardest, but until people are playing and listening to it, you don’t know how it’s going to be – and so you just cross your fingers.
Wall Jump: Do you get tired of people talking about your “old hits” even 20 years later? Like some musicians state, they hate it, when they play some of their new songs, but the crowd is only interested in their old stuff.
Grant Kirkhope: No, not at all. I’m very grateful that anybody likes anything that I’ve done. I think if you are known in the world as a composer for one thing, for something you have done, it’s amazing. Even if only one person likes something that came out of my head, that’s amazing! I never get tired of it, I never get tired of it. I always kind of think that I am a very workmanlike composer. I don’t like egos, I don’t like that stuff at all. I just feel like I am just a bloke that writes music like the other guy that cleans swimming pools or does the gardening or is a mechanic or whatever. That’s just my job, right? I’ll never get used to that thing about how people are sometimes obsessed about my music. I’ll never get used to that and it’s really gratifying and it’s very humbling.
I am just a bloke that writes music like the other guy that cleans swimming pools […]. That’s just my job, right?Grant Kirkhope
Wall Jump: This coincides with the fact that you share a lot of fan art and fan fiction through your social media accounts. Do these things find their way to you or are you actively looking for them?
Grant Kirkhope: People usually link me to it, and I like to retweet and share it. I think that’s a good thing, and I like to do that. If I could help somebody out, I’ll do it. And some people do amazing remixes, it’s just incredible what they do,… the work it takes to make these pieces of music! Some of these remixes are just spectacular and often better than mine. I also found it really humbling that people work with my music. When I am busy, I might miss some things, but when I see it, I always try to retweet it so that other people can hear it. I think that’s helpful and nice for the community. I am very grateful that 87,000 people think I am worth following because,… because I don’t think I am worth following. (laughs)
GRANT KIRKHOPE INTERVIEW – PART 2
In part 2 of our interview, we are talking to Grant Kirkhope about his first steps as a film composer, his work on Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and his love for Zelda. Make sure not to miss the second part of this interview, only on WALL JUMP!
Grant Kirkhope is a British video game composer best known for his work at Rare, where he created the music for games like Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark. More recently, he has demonstrated his wide musical range for games such as Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, Viva Pinata and Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond the Earth.
This post is also available in: German