Music

The Interview with Jim Guthrie

Jim Guthrie “Head” -er via Noted

Jim Guthrie is a Canadian singer, songwriter, and composer of the brilliant Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP indie hit. Jim is one of my favorite video game composers (even if he might not consider himself one) and it is all thanks to his Sword & Sworcery LP – The Ballad of the Space Babies soundtrack. Before I even played the game, I listened to this incredible soundtrack and was blown away. Never have I heard so many musical ideas in a video game that surprised me.

The more I listened to the Sword & Sworcery LP, the more I wondered about its inspirations and music theory. About a month ago, I contacted Jim for an interview via Twitter. I was ecstatic that he was happy to oblige. To my amazement, within a day of my email, he wrote back answering all my questions about his musical career, his new projects and eye-opening aspirations. Below are the questions I asked him and his reply with little notes thrown in for good measure.

Pretty High Up There by Game Pressure

Casey: Thank you for taking time to read my email and random tweets. It is not everyday you get a chance to talk to people you admire! What made you the musician we see today? Did you go to school for music?

Jim Guthrie: Self-taught. I can’t even really read music but I’ve always heard music in my head like it was playing on the radio. I started playing guitar when I was 16 or 17 years old. I started recording my sloppy ideas on a little pink tape recorder and bought a cassette 4-track (Fostex X-18) soon after. All of my friends (at the time) didn’t play music so I taught myself bass, drums and keyboards etc. I also experimented with writing songs and instrumental music and learned how to arrange it all on the 4-track.

The Fostex X-18 via AVF

Looking at your Bandcamp page, you have an album from your former band In Royal City. I would label your music in the indie genre, but when you were up-and-coming, indie wasn’t a household name like it is now. Did you think you guys would make it big, or were you ahead of the times?

We weren’t “big,” no, but the album ‘Alone At the Microphone’ was nominated for a Juno (Canadian Grammy) and we were signed to Rough Trade in the UK for the album after. We were very ‘DIY’ and didn’t have any outside funding. We booked our own tours and made our own CDs etc. We were all really good friends and we were having the time of our lives booking these scrappy little tours and playing all over North America and Europe. We never got rich but that wasn’t the point. I was making music everyday of my life…and still do.

What led you to writing video game music?

In all honesty it found me. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I wouldn’t even really call what I do “video game music.”  It’s music and it’s in a video game but it’s not “video game music” you know what I mean? I’m speaking in the context of S&S. To further explain: right from the start we described our idea for the game as “an album you can walk through” so that’s partly why the music works as an album.

Music Generator Cover via GameFaqs

Before you worked on the music for Sword & Sworcery, did you have an idea for the music before seeing the game?

I had some instrumental music laying around (that I recorded on Playstation 1 using MTV Music Generator) when I met Craig (creator of the game) and he really liked it so we used a few of those tracks as a launch pad.

Note: The following questions are about specific songs off of the Sword & Sworcery LP.

 

Dark Flute’ is one of my favorite tracks from Sword & Sworcery. It reminds me of the Neverending Story. Where did the inspiration come from? The intro was very different from anything I’ve heard. The rhythm is simplistic and repeating, but that is one of the best parts about it. If you look into music theory a little more, it almost makes no sense to include it with such chords, but you pulled it off masterfully.

Yeah, the bed tracks (the loopy sounding flute at the start) was made on the Playstation and I just loved that sound. That dreamy pulse is the sound that inspired the loop. I just went where it led me. Then I overdubbed the melody in Garageband using bass, guitars and more synths. And I think you’re right – if I knew anything about music theory, I probably wouldn’t have made this music. All the credit goes to my quirky, self-taught nature. That goes for everything I’ve ever written.

Lone Star,’ talk about a great track walking/driving to. It is mellow, clean and upbeat. The song is very catchy. Where did that come from? Did you hit some keys and think, that may work?

That started off as a guitar song back in 2000 and long before the game. I just was playing a simple progression and noodling over top of it. I even home recorded a song with a friend of mine where we both sang on it with those chords and that hook. It wasn’t until a year or two after that I transposed it over to the MTV Music Generator and then it wasn’t until years after S&S came along and I just sort of made it longer, added more instrumentation and found a place for it in the game.

The Prettiest Weed’ is a great title for a powerful song. Your crescendo with the background organ building was perfect. The drum beat is perfect and the synth was entered in after the break was satisfying. When writing music, do you keep in mind all of the dynamics? With this song in particular, how did you go about create the drums?

I play the drums but I’m not exactly John Bonham so I use a mix of my own playing and drum programming with midi to get the performance I want. ‘The Prettiest Weed’ was also a song that just wrote itself once I had that piano part I just heard the rest of song in my head so I spent a week trying to figure out how to replicate it.

‘The Ballad of the Space Babies,’ you knew I was going to have to touch on this song right? Vocals in the beginning, is that you or did you hire a vocalist? Whatever you did, it was an incredible effect that fits perfectly with the ambiance. This may be the most relaxing song on the entire soundtrack. Where did you inspiration come from on this piece?

I like to have lots of different instruments and noise makers around. I used an old keyboard called an Casio SK-1 on this song. I sampled notes from my piano into the SK-1 and looped them to get the pulse. The voice is my voice sampled using the SK-1 and pitch up. I also used the portamento feature to give it a cooler sounding slide up to the note. It all just comes from experimenting with all the sounds I have at my fingertips.

Casio SK-1 via Wikipedia

‘And We Got Older,’ your ideas in the intro is exactly what I was a doing on my ukulele a year or two ago. How did you do it? Where did it come from? I was in shock when I heard this song.

Again, you’ll be shocked to know that I recorded this song in 1997 or ’98? This exact version. I released it on a homemade cassette in the summer of ’98 and then put it on a CD in 1999 called ‘A Thousand Songs’ (which was basically a best of compilation of all the cassettes I put out in the 90s) and then Craig loved the song so much that we made it work with the game. It’s just another weird little tuning I had made up on the uke and then I layered drums and synth strings on a cassette 4-track. I don’t even remember how I managed to pull it off but it’s one of my personal faves as well. But yeah, it’s around 18 years old!

Sword & Sworcery was hugely successful and the soundtrack especially caught gamers’ attention. Did many people try to contact you afterwards? Did you consider doing another project?

I’ve had people email me almost everyday since the game came out. Some asking me to compose for other games, some asking questions for blogs and some just saying how much it all means to them. It’s really quite amazing. Since S&S I’ve done the music for the film Indie Game: The Movie, I’ve also done music for another game called Sound Shapes (one level) for PS3, PS4 and Vita.

If you don’t mind me asking, how has sells been on Bandcamp with the Sword & Sworcery extras that come with it?

The sales have been very good. Between Bandcamp and iTunes it’s sold around 30k digital copies. It’s crazy.

Current and Future Projects

Are you working on any new indie game soundtracks today?

I’m currently working on a game called Below with Capy Games. I have no idea when it will be done but here’s one of the many trailers for it:

Your newest album, One Of These Days I’ll Get It Right, featured many of your tracks remixed by Solid Mas. One reason I really enjoyed this album was because it actually reminded me of The Avalanches and their album Since I Left You. How did this project come to be? Did you overlook the entire process or did Solid Mas roam free? Do you believe this album helped you gain more listenership?

I met Cooper (Solid Mas) last year at a Christmas party and we hit it off. He was a big fan so we decided to do this remix album because he’s an insanely gifted hip hop producer. He sent me ideas and did most of the heavy lifting for each song. I would just give feedback and say ‘it should get choppier here’ or ‘it should blow up here’. I would also hum melodies I heard into my phone and send them to him and he would put them in. It was very fun and easy to work on this album. It hasn’t sold as well but we’ve still managed to sell a few hundred copies so far.

 

Do you have an idea for a video game project with your own music involved? If so, will you pursue?

I’d like to make a little music app of some kind but I’m too busy with Below so it might never happen but maybe…

 

If you want to hear more of Jim Guthrie’s work, please visit his Bandcamp page here. You can listen to his newest album collaboration with Solid Mas here. Also, Jim provided me with two interviews he did with Create Digital Music and The Verge that go into detail about his music process and how he was chosen to compose the Sword & Sworcery soundtrack.

 

The Best Uses Of Music In Video Game Commercials

Gears of Edge via EA and Giant Bomb

Gears of Edge via EA and Giant Bomb

Before a popular video game is released, you will see hundreds of commercial ads promoting the living hell out of them. Any video game commercial you see online or on television would be horrendous without the perfect music to accompany it. I do not want to hear a country song during a Halo commercial or a Mario Bros. commercial featuring a heavy metal artist. There is an art to choosing the correct songs that influence one’s mood, which then makes them more or less willing to buy the game.

After considering the hundreds of video game ads I have seen in my lifetime, there are two that have been the most memorable: the Gears of War commercial that featured Gary Jules version of “Mad World,” and the Mirror’s Edge debut commercial featuring Lisa Miskovsky. It is also worth noting that both of these commercial ads helped boost the artists popularity.

Gears of War – Gary Jules

Gears of War logo via Xbox Wire

Gears of War convinced me to buy an Xbox 360 during my senior year in high school. It had the gory violence I was looking for, a unique cover system that involved sliding into cover while shooting around it and a decent story that would build into one of my favorite video game trilogy’s (not counting Gears of War: Judgement as a part of the main series). The marketing team for Gears of War knew what they were doing by featuring a cover of “Mad World” by Gary Jules when they released this incredible commercial to help promote the game:

Many people have not heard this song since its premier in the classic 2001 movie titled Donnie Darko. You can go even further and say that some people may have not heard this song since the band Tears for Fears released the original back in 1982. While I prefer the original version of the song, the Gary Jules cover of “Mad World” went perfectly with the commercial.

The first face you see in the commercial is the main character, Marcus Fenix. Throughout the commercial, Marcus is running from the Locust, which are a race of reptilian humanoids that lived underground but have now surfaced. Whenever it pans to the water reflection of himself, it made perfect sense when the song mentioned “familiar faces.” In fact, it was hard to find familiar faces in the world of Gears of War. The planet was apocalyptic, everyone you knew and loved died from the Locust invasion, and there was always another enemy around every corner, so it often seemed like there was no such thing as a “familiar face.”

Different Locusts via Gears of War Portal

Next, you see Marcus running away from something that was hidden underground. The Locust are after him and there may be “no tomorrow.” Marcus and what is left of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) soldiers, also known as Gears, are doing everything in their power to save this planet from total destruction.

The lyric, “dreams in which I’m dying are the best I ever had,” fits brilliantly with this commercial. Seeing the main character surrounded by all the destruction and being persued by the hordes of Locust, you could assume that many people living on this desolated planet wish for things to be different. For many of the soldiers fighting for this planet, it is possible that their dreams that involve death are much better than the excruciating pain of seeing a loved one die by these Locust.

Finally, when you hear final two words, “Mad World,” you finally see a Locust called the Corpser; a massive spider-like creature that is 45 feet tall. One thought sinks in, this entire planet is mad. There is nothing left, so why are the humans still fighting? Marcus will never give up the fight, which makes him seem determined to the point of madness. This is his planet and he is not letting the Locust take over.

Corpser via Gearspedia

This commercial blew its audience away. As reported by gaming magazine Joystiq, “Mad World” was propelled to number one on iTunes at the time of the commercial’s release. Strangely enough, this cover saw #1 once in 2003 after it released in the UK, but Tears for Fears never had a number one song in their existence. This shows that artists who link their songs to popular video games will often see positive results.

Mirror’s Edge – Lisa Miskovsky

Faith from Mirror’s Edge via Giant Bomb

There was no video game like Mirror’s Edge when it debuted in 2008. It featured first-person platforming with hardcore parkour. Incase you do not know what parkour is, it is a form of movement that helps you get from point A to point B in the fastest way possible. While thinking on your feet, you will use all of your surroundings to vault, swing, run, jump and roll to reach your destination. Do you need to get from the top of a trailer truck to the inside of a trashcan super fast? Simply hardcore parkour.

The debut trailer for Mirror’s Edge involved a woman running through different obstacles as fast as she could through the use of parkour. You notice how bright the environment is with splashes of red that seemed to guide her to the final destination. She runs, jumps and slides while her faint breathing can be heard in the background. Unless you have your speakers turned up, you can barely hear the song in the commercial. Watch and listen to the trailer below:

Notice how smooth the woman was moving and how the song flowed with her every step. Every move she makes seems to sync with the music, the building she jumps to, the swift wall ride, and transition to the top of a crane is nearly a perfect match with the song in the background.

The song you hear is “Still Alive” by Swedish pop singer Lisa Miskovsky. She first appeared in 2001 with her debut album named after herself. Lisa was very popular in Sweden, but no one really knew of her in America. When people saw the Mirror’s Edge trailer, they wanted to know more about the song. Once EA saw how everyone loved this new single, they decided to do an entire remix album for “Still Alive,” which reached the top 50 on Billboard Dance charts for over 10 weeks.

Still Alive Remix Album Cover via TheUscore

I truly believe that with the help of Mirror’s Edge and EA, Lisa Miskovsky received a new following of fans. During an interview with Billboard, Lisa said, “This is not only a groundbreaking game, but an unprecedented opportunity for me to collaborate with writers and remixers I’ve admired for years.” To this day, I still listen to a few tracks off the Mirror’s Edge Remix album.

Conclusion

Video game commercials are not easy to create. Luckily, I still remember two out of the hundreds I have seen. Gears of War and Mirror’s Edge are two entirely different games, but they both showed me how artistic a video game commercial could be through the use of music. When you connect the right songs to the commercial, the audience gets excited to buy the game and the artist gains publicity and the opportunity to work with other artists they look up to.  I hope that the future of gaming has memorable commercials like these. I leave you with the official “Still Alive” video.

Dying To Your Own Tune

What is the perfect song to die to? A question that could only be revealed to me when driving home in reckless weather listening to my favorite Gorrilaz song. As morbid as this sounds, connecting music to the time of death is key for many video games. You need a well-composed song for a fitting end.

Think back to the video games you love, adore and praise; how many times did you die in a dire situation? Do you remember the music playing in the background? I am not talking about the music after death, I am talking about the penultimate tune upon death. That song can make or break a game for me, because the more mundane the song, the more frustrated I become when dying.

Final Fantasy VII image by PSU.com

A colossal Role-Playing Game (RPG) comes to mind when I think about the music right before I die: Final Fantasy VII. The importance of this game is well-defined by the music in my case. Yes, I enjoyed the story, setting, characters, you name it, but the music had a greater effect on me. What is funny is that I did not play this game when I was first being introduced to the music, my brother was. He was single-handedly the biggest influence when it comes to this game. I watched him play for hours before I picked up the game for myself.

Final Fantasy VII released on the Playstation in late 1997. My brother and I never owned a Playstation, but luckily for gamers, this was the first time seeing a Final Fantasy game coming out on PC. Final Fantasy VII released on PC in 1998. During this time, my brother was in college; three hours away from home. The only time I was able to watch him play is when he came home with his ancient laptop. It should be known that my brother and I were Nintendo fans through and through. We both owned the NES, SNES and N64, but one thing was missing for my brother that the N64 could not offer: a Final Fantasy game. He played every single Final Fantasy game that came out for the SNES and wanted more. I remember watching him play those games as an energetic child who cared more about going outside than ever playing a video game.

When he obtained Final Fantasy VII, I was instantly jealous. I remember looking through old video game magazines that showed off the graphics and character design. It looked like one of the coolest games I have ever seen in my life, but the problem was that I did not own a Playstation or computer that could run it. Once I knew my brother purchased it for his laptop, I watched him the few chances I got. After my first sitting, I could not believe what I was watching and hearing; the music was perfect.

My fondest memory when exploring the music of Final Fantasy VII was when he entered into the Sector 7 Slums. This place is run-down, dank and dark, but the music struck a note with me (pun intended). The mixer of acoustics and heavy bass was intriguing. I found out that the song is called, “Underneath the Rotting Pizza.” The song was catchy and up-beat to the point where I can still hum it by memory.

A little fun fact is that I was beginning to learn how to play the Trumpet during this time. After hearing the song over and over again in my head, it hit me, “I can play this!” From ear, I wrote out the notes on sheet music I obtained from my father, and wrote out the theme of “Underneath the Rotting Pizza.” I transposed my first tidbit of music by ear. Talk about a glorious day for me as a kid who is learning how to read music, not even considering how to write it. I played and played and played that theme over and over again. I was so proud of myself. The best was yet to come though; the music did not stop there.

After my brother beat Final Fantasy VII, he handed down it down to me. I was excited to play it for the first time, but was weary that my computer would not be able to play it. To my dissatisfaction, I was correct. My family’s computer could not play the one game that would truly open my ears up to one of my favorite soundtracks to a video game ever made.

Years passed and I stopped by a local Blockbuster. To my surprise, they had the Greatest Hits version of Final Fantasy VII for $20. I sat on this find for awhile, never appealing to me at the time. I owned a Playstation 2, but did not play on it all the time. I kept going back to Blockbuster, week after week, month after month, and finally decided to buy it. This was easily one of the best video game decisions of my life.

I finally had the game of my dreams. I was not particularly fond of Role-Playing Games at the time, but the combat was and still is one of my favorites. Final Fantasy VII’s turn-based timed combat always sat well with me and part of the reasoning behind that was its theme and victory dance.

The only way you can die in Final Fantasy VII is by losing a battle. With many video games, especially in the Role-Playing genre, the most heard song needs to be the best written piece of music on your video game. Final Fantasy VII composer Nobuo Uematsu wrote the most perfect theme song to die to.

The “Battle Theme” is orchestrated to create a tense moment with drive. As the notes progressively build into a near-chromatic fashion, the music never stops. Even though the theme is repeating on end, I still feel like I am on the edge of my seat. I lose myself in this theme during each battle. Occasionally, I will start singing with it because of its catchy style and components that make me feel excited to do battle. My goal is to defeat the monstrous foe I have in front of me at all costs and this theme never got old for me.

This penultimate theme is the perfect song to die to. You get that rush of adrenaline when you realize, “I am out of potions. I have no magic points. I am going to die.” Yet, you still put up the fight. You never know what could happen. Maybe a critical strike will hit and you win the battle? It is possible for your foe to miss you with their deathblow, and that dodge gave you one more hit that finishes off your opponent. There is a never-knowing sequence of events with the perfect song behind you. The perfect song to die to.

When all is said and done, the Final Fantasy VII “Battle Theme” is the perfect song to die to. To this day, it is still one of my favorite video game songs ever written. The “Battle Theme” and other countless video game songs can sync your death with the most perfect song. No matter how many times I hear this theme, I will always remember the battles I outlasted, died and triumphed in Final Fantasy VII.