Composer Interview: Grant Kirkhope
At this stage in his career, it's safe to say Grant Kirkhope is not a complacent man. Having started with Rare back in 1995, Kirkhope's proficiency as a composer and sound designer steadily grew, initially navigating the hexadecimal hell of writing for the Game Boy, then moving on to the Nintendo 64 with GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie & Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, and Perfect Dark. Grant graduated to CD-quality audio after Rare's 2002 acquisition by Microsoft, and subsequently reached his latest apex, having his three most recent scores (Viva Piñata, Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise and the upcoming Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts) brought to life by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. After more than 12 fulfilling years working on big, huge games with Rare, Kirkhope recently switched sides of the Atlantic, joining THQ studio Big Huge Games for his latest challenge as its audio director.
New country, new company, new responsibilities -- at the moment, Grant has to keep quiet on what's in store, but reflecting on his success so far, his spirits are unmistakably high as he prepares to take his talents to yet another level.
- Real Name: Grant Kirkhope
- Aliases: Monkey Boy
- Date of Birth: 1962/07/10
- Birthplace: Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
- Websites: Grant Kirkhope @ MySpace
- Family: 1 Brother, Wife, 2 Kids
- Education: King James' Comprehensive School (Knaresborough), Royal Northern College of Music (Manchester)
- Tools: Guitar, Keyboard, Cubase 4, Pro Tools HD, GigaStudio, Sound Forge, etc.
- Conducted September 11, 2008 by David "djpretzel" Lloyd, 'Ili "CHz" Butterfield & Larry "Liontamer" Oji:
djpretzel: First off, welcome to the United States! How was the move? Any horror stories, or smooth sailing?
Thank you! It was stressful to say the least... I'm getting "plumbed" into America slowly but surely... it's not been without its headaches shall we say!
CHz: How have you been adjusting to and getting to know your new team at Big Huge Games after working with the same people at Rare for twelve years? What experiences and which colleagues at Rare best prepared you for becoming Big Huge Games' audio director?
I have, and fine bunch they are too! Hmmm... I don't know about getting me prepared, I think I knew it was time for me to take on more responsibility. I still wanted to provide assets for the games, but wanted to have more control over the general direction of the audio. I've worked with some with fantastic people over the last twelve years at Rare. They're what inspired to me write the stuff I have.
Liontamer: You've said that the music of Viva Piñata is the kind of music that you'd gravitate to making just for your own pleasure. Meanwhile your new company, Big Huge Games, is best known for real-time and turn-based strategy games, which seems like a far cry from music like Viva's. Dave Wise mentioned in a Music 4 Games interview that you joined Big Huge Games as audio director for the opportunity to seek new challenges, but how has the move fulfilled your needs and goals as a composer?
Initially, I won't be doing any composing here at BHG. My role here is to provide the overall direction for how the audio will sound in the games we have going. I will still be providing assets for the game, as I always have, but I will also be trying to steer the bigger picture of the audio signature. The most important part of the move here was for me to feel excited about games again, that "can't wait to get to work in the morning" feel that I had at Rare all those years ago... and I've got it! The projects here are very exciting and I really am enjoying working on them along with the rest of the audio team. I'm sure I'll be back to composing as well as sound design in the future.
djpretzel: One of the coolest but most humbling aspects of your start at Rare was that you sent in 5 tapes to the company over the course of a year before you heard back. How close to quitting were you after tape four? How far would you have gone before deciding that, regardless of your own ability, the industry was just too difficult to break into, and what guidance could you offer those facing similar hurdles?
Ha! I really had no idea whatsoever about trying to get a job. I'd never tried to do it before, I'd always been playing in bands, etc. Because Robin Beanland worked there and because we'd been in bands together, I didn't really consider trying to get a job anywhere else. He spoke so highly of Rare that I just wanted to be there so badly. I remember I did apply to Eurocom in Derby, but they turned me down flat! I was getting a bit worried by tape 4... hehe. They never replied at all... not even a "thanks, but no thanks" letter. I really was down to the last bit of money I'd saved up from touring. I was on unemployment benefit and I applied for work training at a tiny games company called Twilight Games in Harrogate. They took me on for the 6 weeks and actually did offer me a job at the end of it, but I'd literally just got the job offer from Rare.
I think breaking into the industry now is very hard. I guess the best way is to try and get onto some kind of intern job; we have two guys here at BHG who are very good indeed. Just trying to get a job as a composer is the hardest of all. I always tell people to make sure they are good sound designers as well. Despite the fact I'm known for being a composer, I have always done sound design on the games I've worked on. I like having the variety.
Liontamer: You've mentioned that you started teaching yourself guitar around age 11 or 12 and gotten into heavy metal, playing in several bands. Did your family ever question your life's direction compared to when you played trumpet for local orchestras?
Too right! My Mum always said I'd never make it in music and to do it as a hobby and to get a proper job! After getting my music degree, I just played in bands solidly for 10 or more years. I think my Mum just despaired... hehe! Playing in all those different bands was really good training, I got to become familiar with all sorts of different styles and instruments.
CHz: You've got a background with guitar and metal, but, apart from a few tracks here and there, none of the games you've written music for have really featured guitar work. If you had the opportunity, would you like to compose a rock soundtrack for a game, or would you prefer to avoid that and stick with writing music like you did for the Banjo series and Viva Piñata?
That's true. The kind of games I've worked on didn't really call for that kind of music. All the Piñata Romance Dances that have guitar are me playing, and bass guitar too; I only programmed the drums. I wouldn't rule out writing for any instrument if a game called for it, it's just the way it's been. I think there are lots of rock soundtracks out there, but not too many good ones.
Liontamer: One of the things you like to drill into aspiring composers is that they need to have range, they need to be able to produce pieces in all sorts of styles. You've spoken before on working within the technical limitations of older platforms, but have you had any particular challenges in embracing certain musical styles? How often have you been presented with opportunities that test your range?
I really can manage most styles of music, apart from dance music, I'm pretty terrible at that! I got asked to write in a lot of different styles for the Piñata games. It was great fun, getting to write 20 second snippets of music was just enough before I ran out of ideas (as Dave Clynick always used to say!)... hehe! I think both of those games tested my range. When I was asked for some cool jazz for the Penguin (I think), I got Robin to do it. He did a great job, but I think I managed the rest!
Liontamer: In what ways did you need to prepare for the GoldenEye 007 soundtrack? Did you and Graeme Norgate study the GoldenEye film score or other James Bond scores to get the mood down? Not to assume anything since you're from the UK, but do you have an affinity for the Bond films?
Nozzer (Mr. Norgate!) and me did listen to all the Bond theme songs constantly during composing for GoldenEye. He started the game and was doing Blast Corps before I got the job, then, when I started, he asked me to take over from him on GoldenEye as he was snowed under. I listened to the GoldenEye soundtrack quite a lot too, it was fantastic to get to use THE Bond theme. I didn't finish that game, so Nozzer returned to finish it off, as I got dragged off by Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles to start work on Dream. I did do some sound design on that game, but I think it got replaced in the end.
CHz: What do your children think about your being a video game composer? Have they ever played any of the games that you've composed music for? Do you ever get their opinions on tracks that you write?
Max, 6, loves it and loves playing Viva Piñata, I just got him a Wii so he's completely addicted to Mario Galaxy now. He does keep saying he wants to work with me though... heh! Holly, 2, hasn't grasped the concept yet...ha! I do play them stuff; kids are so honest, they just say it like it is. Thankfully, they do like the Piñata stuff.
Liontamer: Now that you've experienced your music performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, what about having orchestras perform the pieces at a game music concert like Video Games Live or PLAY!: A Game Music Symphony? It seems like the next level could be having fans experience your compositions live...
djpretzel: Every artist has had to deal with it at some point: do you have any good stories of writer's block on a particular project and how you snapped out of it?
I've had it loads of times, but I really can't offer any advice. I've spent days looking out of my office window at Rare and not written a note. It's tough when you're an in-house audio guy. You just have to write and write and write like it's a conveyor belt. That's why I like to do sound design too; it's a nice break from composing and good fun. I think when it gets really bad, I try and listen to some music that I really like and let it get me going again.
- The following are standard questions asked of all interviewed composers:
What was the first video game you remember playing?
Space Invaders arcade.
Did you have any formal musical training or education prior to becoming a video game music composer?
Yup, classically trained trumpet player, degree from the Royal Northern College of Music.
How did you become a video game music composer?
Was it more by chance, or was it something you knew you wanted and had to fight for?
Definitely by chance! I'd been playing in lots of different kinds of bands for 10 years or so since leaving the RNCM. The last band I played for broke up and I was left with nothing to do. Robin Beanland was already working at Rare and suggested I might have a go at what he was doing. I was down to my last bit of money and he recommended a synth module, a keyboard, an Atari ST and a copy of Cubase. I started writing some pieces and sent five cassettes to Rare over the course of a year and heard nothing back. Then, out of the blue, I got an interview and they gave me the job!
Was there a specific inspiration that lead you towards the profession?
I needed a job and I'd never had one before... all I could do was try to have a go at composing!
Was breaking into the industry easy or difficult?
It was easy I suppose, but it was 1995. It's way harder now.
What was the first week on the job like?
Hehe! Tuff! When I first arrived I was given Donkey Kong [Land] 2 on the Game Boy to do. I had to convert all of Dave Wise's tunes from the SNES version. He showed me how to do it but it was all in Hex, I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. I thought I was going to have to resign, as there was no way I would be able to do it!
What was the most difficult thing to learn?
Learning how to actually add music and SFX to the N64. It was nothing like friendly old Cubase. Having to learn to sample instruments and loop them to as small as possible to save memory... those were the days!
What was your first official video game soundtrack?
Were you happy with it at the time? Now?
GoldenEye was my first along with Mr. Graeme Norgate (Nozzer!!). I was over the moon with it, I couldn't believe I'd actually managed to get on a game. Looking back, I wish I'd made the tunes a bit longer; they loop at around a minute. This was because Martin Hollis said a minute was easily long enough... bah! It's all his fault... hehe!
What lessons did you take away from it that helped you on future projects?
Have you collaborated with other composers on soundtracks, and if so, what was it like?
Do you prefer working alone?
I do really, but it's just not possible today, the games are far too big to take it on alone.
How does collaborating change your creative process?
Usually it's a composer and sound designers, but on Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, it was me and Robin and Dave Clynick composing and Martin Penny, Jamie Hughes and Steve Burke on SFX... everyone at Rare really! I don't think it changes too much, it just takes a bit of sorting out who does what.
What was the last project you worked on? Are you working on anything currently?
My last project before leaving Rare was Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, and just before that Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise. I am working on some new games at my new job at Big Huge Games, but it's all a bit secret... shhhhhh!
Based on your experience as a video game composer, what advice would you give those aspiring to succeed in the field?
The one thing I would say is make sure you listen to as many different styles of music as possible. You can be asked to write anything at all. In Viva Piñata, I had 60+ Romance Dances to do, all in a different musical style... keeps you on your toes!
Who/what are your inspirations in terms of composing video game music?
To keep writing better and better stuff. Don't forget I'm a sound designer too as well! I don't think you can ever truly get to where you want to be. There's always something bubbling away in the back of my head.
Of the video game soundtracks that you have worked on, which is your favorite? Why?
It has to be the Viva Piñata games. Getting to use full orchestra was absolutely amazing. I really let my emotions out for those two soundtracks and I'm sooooooo proud of them. Getting a BAFTA nomination for the score to Viva Piñata 1 was just unbelievable. Still can't believe it now!
Which game composers and soundtracks do you admire the most?
Hmmm, that's a tough one... It's been a while since I've heard something that really tugs at my heart strings. I'd have to say that some of the pieces in World of Warcraft really are excellent. I couldn't tell you which ones, but I think they've been very overlooked.
What's one of your best or most enjoyable memories from working on a game soundtrack? Worst?
That's easy... Banjo-Kazooie, without a doubt. Being part of that team with Gregg Mayles, Steve Mayles, Ed Bryan, Steve Hurst to name but a few was fantastic fun. We really felt we were on to something special! I've really not had a bad experience... maybe Hex and the Game Boy... hehe!
What's the most difficult thing about being a video game music composer?
To keep coming up with stuff. We all sit in our offices and have to write music and author SFX all day every day... it can be hard. I've often had three days or more go by and not written a note or touched an SFX, it's just the way it is.
Over the years, video game music has evolved from chiptunes to full orchestral scores. Some still prefer music from the 8-bit and 16-bit era due to its simplicity and melodic emphasis, while others appreciate newer, more cinematic scores.
How do you view this evolution?
I think it's a good thing, it has to evolve. I do agree that back then you had to write a good tune as you had very limited resources and the tune was everything. It's easy these days to write lots of big chords and ambiances without actually having much musical knowledge. For me it's all about the harmony and melody, people like John Williams are unbelievable. I mean, how many of his tunes can you sing back right now? Probably all of 'em... Incredible!
Are there pros and cons to both types, or have things clearly gotten better as technology has progressed?
I guess there are pros and cons, but it had to change, and it'll keep on changing.
How has your work been received by fans? Is fan appreciation a rewarding aspect of the job?
My stuff seems to get received pretty well I have to say, and I'm soooooo lucky to have people like my stuff. I have a MySpace page and I get a lot of people writing to me saying such nice things... it's very humbling. I think it is a rewarding aspect of the job, there's nothing like feeling appreciated!
What are your opinions of fan-created video game music arrangements or "ReMixes" (www.ocremix.org)?
They're brilliant! They make even my stuff sound good... hehe! There's a guy who writes to me at my MySpace page who does heavy metal versions of the Banjo-Kazooie tunes and they sound fantastic! Long may it continue!!!