Grant Kirkhope

Part 2

After his time at Rare, Grant Kirkhope has written the music for numerous games from other publishers. Again, he managed to give the games a very special atmosphere with his music. In the second part of our in-depth interview, we talked to him about his first steps as a film composer, his love for Zelda and World of Warcraft, and his work on Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Furthermore, Grant Kirkhope reveals his own favourite tracks and tells us about the big project he has to realize before his death!

Did you miss the first part of our interview?

In the first part of our interview, Grant Kirkhope talks about his first steps as a musician, how he landed the gig at Rare and what’s needed to become a videogame composer today. Read more.

Now without further ado, let’s continue with the second part of the interview with Grant Kirkhope!

Wall Jump: You composed the music for the films “The King’s Daughter”, “Shadows” and some short movies, too. What’s the difference between working on a soundtrack for a film in comparison to a video game?

Grant Kirkhope: It’s different in different ways. In video games, you can’t really adjust the music to the action, because the action is influenced by the players and also happens apart from the cinematic sequences. When you have to write a boss fight piece, you have to see what’s going to happen and it is big massive music that is very present. In movies the dialogues are the most important part and when people are talking, you need to get out of the way – so a lot of the time you are writing sort of general background music that doesn’t really have to say very much. Another difference is, that you might write one or two themes that you reuse over the entire course of the movie. When I wrote the music for Mario + Rabbid: Kingdom Battle, it was almost two and a half hours of music, and nearly every piece was a different theme. That’s a massive amount of brainwork. In movies, it’s not that intense, because you can reuse things because it’s expected. So that’s what I mean with “different in different ways”. But my process is still the same, I sit at the keyboard and play around until there is something I like.

Wall Jump: Have you ever noticed contemptuous looks by composers who work for other media like film / TV? Or is the work for a video game respected the same in the industry?

Grant Kirkhope: I still feel that some film guys think that composing video game music requires a lower level of skill. Movies still come first, so I feel that some people are looking down a little bit from above. But I notice that there is a slow change, because many film guys are also passionate video game players. So the older ones tend to look down on video game music because they still think it sounds like Game Boy music. They just don’t know that video game composers write huge orchestral soundtracks that sound just like movies. They don’t play games and have no idea – but the younger ones who come through know all about how big it is because they play video games. Video games are such a big thing now that everyone is playing. And more film guys are making video game scores now – it’s not massive, but the crossover is increasing, so I think that will change as the years go on. And there are so many fantastic video game scores out there – they easily rival movie scores. And sometimes I have more melody in than these movie scores, because a lot of movie scores these days don’t contain a lot of melody. And even if the score is fantastic and very epic, it often does not stay in your head for long, because you won’t watch a movie more than a couple of times. Quite different from video game music, because players spend 30-40 hours playing a game and listen to the tracks over and over again, so video game music often remains much more present in players’ minds. So all in all, I think that the view on video game music will continue to change because video games will become even bigger.

I still feel that some film guys think that composing video game music requires a lower level of skill. They just don’t know that video game composers write huge orchestral soundtracks that sound just like movies.

Grant Kirkhope

Wall Jump: I won’t be so rude now and ask for the actual budgets, but it would be interesting to know how important the budget for a successful soundtrack actually is. Let’s say you have an absolutely suitable and stunning piece, ready on paper: Do you accept the fact that you can’t get the perfect sound because you’re not able to afford a huge orchestra with a low budget? So do your ideas as a composer adopt to the budget or do you try to realize your ideas even with a low budget – as good as possible?

Grant Kirkhope: The bigger games can afford to hire an orchestra if that’s the kind of soundtrack they want. If it’s synthesizer you just do it at home, so that’s easy. And sometimes only a part of an orchestral soundtrack is played by a live orchestra and sample libraries are used for the other part. Sample libraries are extremely good these days and you can buy high quality stuff there that has been recorded by real orchestra players. You can make it sound pretty realistic and some people are really good at it, and you can’t tell the difference. So it can be done without a live orchestra, because the sample libraries and the technology are getting better and better. I still think it sounds better when played by humans, but you can do a really great job without a live orchestra. Fellow composers might notice it, but the average person on the street probably doesn’t. I have played demos to people and they thought they were listening to live recordings – so it is possible to create an orchestral soundtrack without a live orchestra.


Wall Jump: You worked with a live orchestra for the Mario + Rabbid: Kingdom Battle soundtrack, and you were also the first Western composer to compose for the Nintendo legend. What was the work like and how strict were Nintendo’s instructions?

Grant Kirkhope: I had to rearrange a few pieces from Kōji Kondō because there’s Peach’s Castle in the game, for example, and they wanted me to use the theme from the Castle in Super Mario 64. I love that theme, it’s fantastic music. So I was pretty scared of having to rearrange some of Kondō’s music. He is fantastic, and I’m not as good as him, so I was afraid whether they liked it or not. But they really liked it, and I was lucky that it went well. I also had to rearrange the famous game over sound for the orchestra, and Nintendo sent me a piece of sheet music and said “Can you switch these two parts?” That was one of the moments when I thought, “Oh my God, I just got some sheet music from Nintendo!” It was just amazing for me to get that because Kōji Kondō’s such a legend, and working with his music was amazing. So Nintendo was really good to me, and I had no problems with them at all.

Wall Jump: How was the relationship between Ubisoft and Nintendo – did Nintendo take a closer look at what they were doing to their legend?

Grant Kirkhope: They were nice to Ubisoft! Mr. Miyamoto had several meetings with Davide Soliani, the creative director of Ubisoft Milan, and at one of these meetings he said: “We don’t need another platform game – do something different. You can break Mario in a way that we can’t.” So giving guns and weapons to Mario and his friends was amazing, and having the opera boss in the game who really roasts Mario with lyrics that make fun of him is something that wasn’t seen before, and there are many other things that haven’t been done before. And I remember Davide showing Mr. Miyamoto a demo of the game in San Francisco, and Mr. Miyamoto asking him: “How did you get the animations from Nintendo?” But they didn’t get them from Nintendo! They did the animations so well that Mr. Miyamoto thought they were actually Nintendo animations! The developers at Ubisoft Milan and Ubisoft Paris are really massive Nintendo fans. The fact that they got the chance to work on Mario was so special to them that they put all their heart into it.

That team was the right team to make the game. It’s a bit like the Banjo team at Rare. I think sometimes lightning strikes. It was a really great pairing, and Nintendo was really excited about the game. I think at the start, people said Mario and Rabbids,… oh no, that’s a terrible idea! And maybe it is a terrible idea until you play it, because it’s a perfect match! It’s funny, the Rabbids are crazy, and it gives a chance for a lot of comedy between Mario, Princess Peach and Rabbid Peach. It was a great idea!

Wall Jump: Rare, Nintendo, Ubisoft, Playtonic… you actually had a lot of luck with the teams you worked with!

Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, I feel that I have been very lucky. I don’t know why people keep asking me to write music. (laughs) I really enjoyed working an every game I made – except for one game. There was one game I really didn’t like. (laughs) If you had told me in 1995, when I started at Rare, that I was going to work on a soundtrack for Mario, I would have never believed it. And making Super Smash Bros… I mean, that’s ridiculous! Sometimes I think I’m dreaming and it’s not really happening. Yeah, I’ve been very lucky!

Wall Jump: Is there a video game soundtrack that you’re jealous of because it’s not yours?

Grant Kirkhope: Zelda: A Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo. I love that score! When I started playing games, I had a Gameboy, but my first console was the Super Nintendo – I was a little late. My first games for it were Super Mario World and Zelda: A Link to the Past. And I just couldn’t believe how amazing Zelda was. I’d never heard of it before, and I just couldn’t believe how fantastic it was – and the music is so fantastic! For me, that’s my favourite game of all time.

Wall Jump: You have worked on many video games and written countless tracks. Is there one that you would call your favorite track?

Grant Kirkhope: This is a difficult question, and the answer varies from day to day. I like to think back to Viva Pinata because it was the first time I worked with a live orchestra. I especially like the track “Bedtime Story”. Otherwise, “Mad Monster Mansion” from Banjo-Kazooie and “Atlantis” from Banjo-Tooie are definitely among my personal favorites. Also the work on the soundtrack for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is something I have very good memories of. And of course the soundtrack for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle has a very special place in my heart. Come on, it’s Mario! While I was working on the soundtrack, I also made some really good friends – and since I find it hard to choose a particular song here, I’d say that all the songs on the soundtrack are personal favourites. (laughs)

Wall Jump: What games are you currently playing?

Grant Kirkhope: Not much, because I have a lot of work at the moment. But if I find the time, I’ll play World of Warcraft Classic. Back in the 00’s, I really liked playing World of Warcraft! A lot of the Rare guys were playing back then, and we played a lot together. When my children were born, I stopped playing because it was too time-consuming. Funnily enough, I now play WoW Classic with my now 17-year-old son, and we have a lot of fun. At the same time, it also brought back memories of the time at Rare. Before that I had played Star Wars Galaxies, but I switched to World of Warcraft during the time at Rare because of Chris Seavor and Shawn Pile. And we really played a lot!

Wall Jump: World of Warcraft Classic is a recreation of the original – do you sometimes feel like you need to revise some of your old pieces? Or do you notice things about them that you would like to change now?

Grant Kirkhope: I don’t really want to change any of it. I’m not really good at polishing. I’m a bad polisher. My first idea is usually the best idea I can get. So I don’t really want to change anything. I mean, it would be nice to get better sound quality on early Nintendo 64 games, but sometimes that makes it sound worse! A big part of the process was to make the tracks sound good, and that had an impact on the final result. Trying to make Goldeneye 007 sound good was hard, trying to make Banjo-Kazooie sound good was hard, and Perfect Dark was hard. I’m happy with the way it is, I really am. When you play as a child, you remember things in a certain way. I can remember every TV theme song, like Scooby Doo, Thunderbirds and all those things. And the kids who played the stuff I did want to remember it the way it was. Their hearts still belong to the old sound, the old graphics and the way it was played.

I don’t really want to change anything. The kids who played the stuff I did want to remember it the way it was. Their hearts still belong to the old sound […].

Grant Kirkhope

Wall Jump: You mentioned you had a lot of work to do right now. What projects are you currently working on?

Grant Kirkhope: I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about the games I’m working on yet. Lately I have been working on some trombone concerts. A good friend of mine, Ian Bousfield, is a world famous trombone player and I wrote a piece for him called KirkFeld. I also wrote a piece for Charlie Vernon, he is the bass trombone player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was nice to do that, because normally as a media composer like me, you work for somebody. So they keep saying, “I don’t like it, can you change it?” But when you write concert piece music, I just write what I want. It’s an unfamiliar process, but a nice change of pace. And I am determined to write a symphony! I don’t know when I’ll write it, but I’m determined to write it before I die!

Wall Jump: One last closing question: Is there anything you always wanted to say but never had the chance to?

Grant Kirkhope: Not really, I just think – and I know I say it often – that it’s massively humbling that there are people like you who interview me and write about me. So thank you very much. And I am also super thankful that people on Twitter write and communicate with me. It’s funny, we often have good laughs and it’s always pretty good-natured. I often have the feeling that we are all just friends on Twitter. I like that very much, I like the community and I hope that we will continue to do so for a long time.

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.

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Grant Kirkhope on Spotify

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