Banjo Kazooie, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong 64, Viva Pinata – what do these games all have in common? For one, they were all incredibly addictive and memorable titles but more importantly, Grant Kirkhope.
Grant Kirkhope has composed the music for a lot games you all know and love. I know I’m not the only one that still gets the melody for Treasure Trove Cove from Banjo Kazooie stuck in their head since the late 90’s.
CrotchetsAndChocobos were lucky enough to interview this very talented video-game composer. So without further adieu..
Rosalie: How did your career in video-game composition take off? Was it something you knew you always wanted to do?
Grant: It was pure luck. After leaving the Royal Northern College of Music in 1984 I just played in various bands to make money on and off for the next 11 years or so. It was playing in one of these bands where I met and became good friends with Robin Beanland. One day he announced he had got a job with some company I’d never heard of called Rare writing music for video games and off he went. After about a year and a half my band playing days were sort of falling to pieces and he suggested I had a go at what he was doing, he recommended some equipment for me to buy and I spent the next year or so writing music that I thought sounded like video games music and sending cassette tapes off to Rare and never hearing anything. Then out of the blue I got a letter asking me to attend an interview and I got the job!
Rosalie: When you first started out, were there any music software’s or instruments that you swore by?
Grant: Cubase was all I knew and I really liked it. I’d only ever bought one synth of my own as I’m a guitar player really so it was all a bit techy for me! All I had at Rare was an Ensoniq sampler a Roland JV1080 and that was about it.
Rosalie: Is there any instruments or music software that you still use from when you first started composing?
Grant: I used Cubase up until a few years ago when I switched to Pro Tools. I am considering moving back to Cubase as Pro Tools is expensive and they charge you extra for every little bit you add on. I used to swear by Gigastudio too but that all came to an end and I switched to Kontakt.
Rosalie: Being a fan of your work I was pleasantly surprised to discover that you’re from Edinburgh, Scotland, where I currently live myself. Despite you now living in L.A, do you believe the Edinburgh music scene is beneficial to those wanting a career in video-game composition?
Grant: I don’t know that much about the Edinburgh scene these days, I haven’t really spent very much time there in my adult years so I don’t think I can really comment. Needless to say with all the festival activity alone I would imagine there’s lots going on and let’s forget that everything in Scotland is best!
Rosalie: As a composer, when do you find you’re most creative?
First thing in the morning and then late afternoon, I’m useless after lunch …. Heh!
Rosalie: Could you list any instruments, specific music software’s, sound modules/VST instruments that you use when composing?
Grant: Honestly I just load up a sample in Kontakt whether that be a clariniet or flute or string patch or whatever and then sit at a keyboard and mess around ‘til I hear something I like. I’m very workmanlike when it comes to composing, I think it’s because I’ve been a staff composer for almost my entire career and you just have to get on with it, it’s no good waiting for the magical inspiration … heh!
I use VSL, Hollywood Strings that kind of thing.
Rosalie: What’s your thought process when composing for a new game?
Grant: I’ll have a good look at it and maybe read some design docs but really I think any composer worth their salt will get instant ideas when someone says to them, it’s set in a desert or an ice kingdom or a creepy forest ….. you know the kind of thing.
Rosalie: You’ve composed for some amazingly memorable titles for Rare. What was your time composing for Rare like?
Grant: Why thank you!! Being at Rare at that time was just amazing and I was so lucky to be around. I got to work on some fantastic titles with a team of people that I loved, they created such amazing worlds and characters that I couldn’t fail to be excited about writing music for. It really felt like it was us against the world and we wanted to take on the giants like Mario and the like. I don’t think that kind of experience comes along too many times in our lives.
Rosalie: Banjo Kazooie is such a beloved game from my childhood and your music is one of the main reasons I have to thank for that.
I noticed from a young age that some of the music in Banjo Kazooie sounds based off the nursery rhyme, the ‘teddy bears picnic’. Was that deliberate with the main character, Banjo, being a bear?
Grant: I do get asked that quite a lot and I really can’t remember if that was in my head or not, I think it must’ve been really as there’s a clear reference to it.
Rosalie: You’ve done a bit of sound design as well as composing for video games, lending your voice to some Banjo Kazooie characters. What was that experience like? Is voice acting something you’d want to do more of?
Grant: I have done most of the sound effects on the games I’ve worked on, when I started out it was just expected that you had a game to yourself and you were responsible for all the sound on that game whatever it was.
The team members and me made the vocal effects because there wasn’t anyone else to do them, it was just the way it was then. We’d just mess around and make each other laugh until we had something that we thought others would find funny as well.
Rosalie: What was your most memorable experience when composing for Banjo Kazooie?
Hmmm …. Good question. I think when I hit on that C maj, F# maj oompah thing that really matched the oddball-ness of the characters. It felt like I’d managed to find something that wasn’t in other platformers as they were mostly cute sounding …. Or at least that’s what I thought, there were probably lots of games that I just hadn’t heard …. Heh!
Rosalie: Were they any challenges you faced when composing for Banjo Kazooie?
Grant: Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles were the lead people on that game and they were huge fans of the Nintendo way of doing things and loved the music from those blockbusters. They always preached that any music had to be memorable but not annoying so as you can listen to it for a long time whilst trying to complete a level. They also really loved the Lucas Arts games like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle and had me play them all to hear the channel fade thing (especially in Monkey Island).
It sounds easy but it’s a pretty tall order and they were super critical, I just tried to do my best to hopefully write a good tune that they’d like. Then getting all the channel fading going with just 16 midi channels that would have to cover variations throughout the levels was pretty difficult.
Rosalie: Was there anything you wanted to do with the music for Banjo Kazooie but didn’t due to any limitations that you later did with its sequels, Banjo Tooie (2000) and Nuts and Bolts (2008)?
Grant: Actually it was sort of the other way around. When we moved onto discs instead of cartridges of course the sound quality improved dramatically but we lost the immediate interactivity that midi and no seek time that solid state memory access gives you. It’s much harder to do all that interactive stuff when it’s stereo streams.
In Nuts and Bolts there’s a level called Banjoland that has bits of all the old games all stuck together. I really wanted the music to change to the tune that the piece came from but it just wasn’t possible, plus you could run through the different sections really quickly so it would’ve been switching music all over the place. I ended up writing a piece that had as many of the old tunes stuck together as I could.
Rosalie: You mention on your website that Nintendo didn’t know that Golden-Eye would be the success that it was, and that they nearly scrapped it entirely. Did you expect it to be as successful as it was or did you share the same views as Nintendo?
Grant: It was so far behind its schedule that none of us thought it would ever make it out and it was pretty ropey right the way through development. It was supposed to come out when the movie did but I remember we were all invited down to watch the filming of the next movie and it still wasn’t out! The multiplayer came in right at the end and wasn’t really asked for by Rare and Nintendo, the team just thought it would be great so they secretly added it in …… fortunate eh!! I’d moved on to Dream before it was finished and had sort of forgotten about it.
Rosalie: For Golden-Eye, the rights of Monty Norman’s theme were bought to be used within the music. What was it like composing around another composers work? Did you feel that it was difficult to be truly creative or did you have fun with incorporating the theme into your own music?
Grant: It was fantastic to be able to use that theme, I mean, how can it be Bond without it!! I would listen to the score and all the songs that preceded the movies over and over again, and try and think of ways I could incorporate bits and pieces. I have to say I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, it was my first game besides DK2 on the Gameboy, I just gave it my best shot and hoped that everyone liked it.
Rosalie: What was your favourite piece of music that you composed for Golden-eye and why?
Grant: Definitely Bunker, I dunno why really, I just like the atmosphere and I love it when the kit comes in near the end. I had a pretty heavy metal background so for me to write something that I thought sounded cool was quite an achievement for me .. heh!
Rosalie: As a composer, what were the benefits and challenges you faced when composing from consoles such as the N64, to the current gen consoles, such as the Xbox 360 and PS3?
Grant: It’s not all that different really. The sound quality is obviously better but the actual composing process is exactly the same, it’s still me messing around on a keyboard until I hear something I like. You have to make it sound better than the old days, people would forgive you for things sounding a bit rough as we were resampling things as low as we could. In GoldenEye I don’t think there was anything above 16Khz and if we could get it down to 11Khz or 8Khz we would to save on space. The production values have gone through the roof now and people expect to hear the same quality that you hear in commercially released music.
Rosalie: With Nuts and Bolts, did you keep any musical ideas from the past Banjo titles that you then incorporated into the game or did you want the music to be entirely different from the other games?
Grant: I wanted to reference as much stuff from the earlier games as possible by adding little bits and pieces of it into the new music. There are so many die hard Banjo fans out there that I thought they’d like to hear some little things that would make them smile…… whether they did or not I can only hope!!
Rosalie: You leant your voice to one of the most iconic video game characters, Donkey Kong, in DK64 (1999), which you also composed the music for. My friends and I used to sing one track you composed for particularly over and over, we knew all the words and loved when it was later used in the Super Smash Bros series, that track being the DK rap. Was it your idea initially to come up with the DK rap? Is it a track of yours you remember favourably?
Grant: Ha! Hmmmm …. The good old DK Rap. That was the idea of the designer George Andreas. He gave me a set of lyrics and said he wanted a funny rap that would suit DK, so off I went and set about having a go at it. I didn’t realize that he had that Run DMC track that Jason Nevins covered in mind so when he heard what I’d done he wasn’t too sure … but I talked him into it … heh! It was great fun to do and I thought that everyone would get the joke but alas no ….. you can’t win ‘em all can you!
Rosalie: With a lot of the Rare titles you worked with the likes of Robin Beanland and Graeme Norgate. What was it like working with them and what’s it like working with other composers on video-game projects in general?
Grant: They are fantastic people to work with and great friends. Actually we didn’t really work together as much as people think. Graeme gave me GoldenEye, as he was so busy with Blastcorps, and then when I went off to start on Dream he returned to finish it off. When Robin, Dave Clynick and me were doing Nuts and Bolts together we pretty much just did our own thing really. Robin and Graeme were both a huge help to me when I first started, I really hadn’t a clue what I was doing.
Rosalie: You’re not only a composer but a sound designer too. Which do you prefer doing the most?
Grant: I like a bit of both really. It’s nice to be able to have a bit of variation, sound design is great fun!
Rosalie: Are there any other video-game composers which you admire?
Grant: Robin and Graeme, Dave Wise and Dave Clynick of course, I do like some of the newer World of Warcraft stuff, Austin Wintory, Danny Baranowski and of course you can’t beat that Zelda main theme can you eh!!!
Rosalie: here’s been an increase in recent years in live performances of video game music (e.g., Video Games Live, Distant Worlds) is this something you’d like to see more of? Will we be seeing Grant Kirkhope concerts in the future?
Grant: Yeah it’s great isn’t it! Parents can’t believe that their kids want to go to see a symphony orchestra, who would have thought it. I’ve had some of my stuff done by a few orchestras in far and distant places like Finland. Last time Video Games Live were in LA they did a Banjo Kazooie/DK medley that was played by the video games pianist and it was really great. I’d love to get Mr. Tommy Tallerico to do some more of my stuff …. We’ll have to see!!!
Rosalie: With game soundtracks like the soundtrack for Journey, composed by Austin Wintory, being nominated for a Grammy, what do you think the future holds for video-game music?
Grant: I think it’s really going to become a force to be reckoned with. It wasn’t until I moved to the states that I realized just how big it was getting. You can hear it in so many of the popular artists these days, that kind of chiptune sound. I don’t think it’s going to be long until you’ll hear some huge rockstar saying that games stuff is their biggest influence.
There’s an event in Washington called MAGFest that some friends of mine run and it’s more or less dedicated to music from games, lots of bands turn up and just play music from games and everyone goes mad. They just started it off as a little small thing that they loved and now 10,000 people show up! They’ve had to move venue to this giant hotel to accommodate everyone.
Rosalie: I’ve recently discovered that core members of the original Rare team, under the name of Mingy Jongo, are joining together to work on a new game. Are you involved?
I am, but it’s very early days. All of us have got other jobs now so it’s difficult, we may not manage to do anything but we are talking about it and we do have a new main character that I think could be really great fun ….. but don’t hold your breath.
Rosalie: Do those working on it plan to start a Kickstarter, which has helped a lot of game developers make their projects a reality, in the future?
Grant: We haven’t thought that far ahead yet.
Rosalie: Finally, these are my last two questions:
What is your own, personal favourite video-game music track, which you haven’t composed for and why?
Grant: Zelda: A link to the past!!!!!! That tune is just great, I remember playing that game on the SNES and just loving all the music, it was probably the first time that it made a real difference to my game play experience.
Rosalie: And do you have any tips or tricks for aspiring video-game composers such as myself?
Grant: Make sure you can write in as many different styles as possible. Games designers can and will just ask you for the first thing that pops into their head and will just expect you to be able to do it. Practice listening to different kinds of music (whether you like it or not!) and taking it to bits and reassembling it with your ideas, it’s a great way to understand how it works. Being a one trick pony will get you nowhere.
Don’t get too attached to what you write because they may just not like it and no amount of protesting will change that, you can swear under your breath but you should just say ok I’ll do it again with a smile ….. heh!
Crotchets&Chocobos would like to thank Grant Kirkhope for taking his time to have this interview with us! He’s such an inspiration to composers and gamers alike!
To find about more about Grant and his work, click here to visit his official website.