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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.