A Rare Breed Part 1 – Nintendo Nation talks to Grant Kirkhope

Goldeneye. Banjo-Kazooie. Banjo-Tooie. Perfect Dark. Donkey Kong 64. Five games from Rare’s formidable N64 library, five games that have left an indelible mark on Nintendo fans memories, and five games that bear the musical finger-stamps of one Grant Kirkhope.

Quirky and tuneful Mr Kirkhope’s soundtracks are some of the best in gaming history, and while recent ventures have seen his unique brand of ear candy hosted on Other Formats it’s never a bad time, or indeed the wrong place, to celebrate such an artist. So join us as we prod Grant’s squidgy memory matter over everything from landing his job composing Bond music to just what it takes to be a video-game composer – he has a hell of a lot say.

Oh and if you’re here to see him talk about the DK Rap, that’s in part 2.

Page 1 – Landing the job, how to compose and inspirations.
Page 2 – Musical styles and Microsoft’s takeover.
Page 3 – Goldeneye, Banjo-Kazooie and modern game composition.

Nintendo Nation – How did you first get involved with creating music for games?
Grant Kirkhope – I’d been playing in lots of dodgy rock bands etc. for years, I went to University and studied a music degree, very close to you guys in Manchester, and then I spent ten years on and off the dole, unemployed, playing in bands and doing lots of different bits and pieces. All through this I had a friend, Robin Beanland – we’d played in bands together and we were good friends – and he got the gig at Rare and I was like ‘oh wow, that’s cool, what a great job’ and after about a year he said to me – because, well, my bands weren’t doing very well – ‘why don’t you try and do what I do?’ So I said ‘well what do I need to do?’ And he recommended me buying an Atari ST computer with a meg of RAM – which was pretty special in those days -and a copy of Cubase, and I got an E proteus FX synthesiser as well. Then I just sat in my bedroom in my mum’s house and tried to write some tunes, really, in a game-y style.

I mean I already liked playing games so it was great fun to do, and then I sent five cassette tapes to Rare over the course of about a year, and never heard a single reply, and then out of the blue I got a reply saying ‘please come for an interview, and could you bring with you a tune you’ve written, I think it was a fighting game tune, a Mario type platformer game, and something else. I always forget the third one. So I kind of madly wrote some tunes, went to my local studio – Blue Stripe studios in Harrogate – and then brought the tunes with me and went down for the interview. I sat in a room with Simon Farmer who was the general manager there, composer David Wise who, of course, is famous for Donkey Kong etc. and they listened to the tunes, asked me a couple of questions and sort of said ‘alright, thanks. Off you go’. So I went home and just thought ‘oh well, I wonder…’

Then that Friday I got the letter saying I’d got the job. I was completely stunned really and started October 15th 1995.

NN – What was your Platforming piece like?
GK – It was a little jolly ditty in a Mario sort of style. I’ve got it somewhere but I really can’t remember what it was like! Just a jolly ditty I think…

I remember they wanted something that was like guitar based fighting music because one of the first things I was doing when I got there was putting guitar on Killer Instinct 2. Robin was doing Killer Instinct for the arcade machine so my first job when I got there was to play guitar for him on all the metal tracks for Killer Instinct 2. Then it all got converted to SNES by Grahame Norgate so I did all that with him as well.

So I did a Rachmanni type piece which was a bit of an epic orchestral piece, a fighting piece with the guitar, and a jolly platforming tune for the cassette. That’s what I did.

NN – What is your normal process when it comes to scoring a game?
GK – I get asked that loads of times from people wanting to know about composing for games and, really, it’s not very special. I just look at the game or talk to the designer or read some docs. For example the desert level in Banjo Kazooie, I’ll already have that kind of sand dance musical style in my head the moment someone said desert level, but when it was Bubblegloop Swamp I just got a different feel straight away. I think any composer who gets given some kind of visual stimulation or hears some people talk about something then you pretty much get an idea in the first ten seconds of what it’s going to be like.

So I just literally sit down and fiddle around with a sample, so a Clarinet, a Bass Guitar or whatever else I’m thinking of at the time, until I hear something that I like. I think that with certain things you just know. With movies you come to expect certain sounds for certain things, so over the years people have come to expect a certain sound for that sort of Arabian/Egyptian sort of thing, which is called an Harmonic Minor scale. A lot of people use that for the sort of thing I did in Gobi’s Valley.

“I just literally sit down and fiddle around with a sample until I hear something that I like.”

So I certainly hear something in my head when somebody first mentions the concept – I know which chords will fit that, or which kind of sequence, or which kind of theme I’ll need – and then I just fiddle around with it until it’s something I’d like to hear. So it really isn’t that ‘wait for the hand of the lord to hand you a song’, it isn’t like that at all, so don’t sit in a room waiting for inspiration to strike like lightning. For me it’s quite a workmanlike procedure, having sat in companies for years it’s sort of like conveyor belt composing where you’ve just got to sit and do it, but I’m used to doing that and it’s all part of the job so that’s how it works for me – I do it in a very workmanlike fashion.

NN – Who are your key inspirations? Or do you take ideas from absolutely everywhere?
GK – I do steal a bit, I’m a bit like a magpie I suppose, but John Williams is a massive inspiration for me, and Danny Elfman certainly was in the past, certainly in my Rare days. John Williams has been more of an inspiration recently as Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning was a very epic, magical game so I drew a lot of inspiration from the Harry Potter soundtracks that John Williams did, so I listened to those a lot when I was writing the Reckoning stuff.

But the lightning moment when I was working on the Banjo Kazooie stuff was when I listened to Beetlejuice by Danny Elfman. It was when I came to writing Mad Monster Mansion that I thought ‘hmm, I want something that’s quirky, but I want it to be dark harmonically’, so I wanted to make sure I could get the dark chords in there without scaring kids, which is quite difficult to do. I scratched my head for a while but then I listened to the Beetlejuice soundtrack and it shows a very good way of using dark chords but in a jolly fashion. So I got that kind of ‘um pah um pah um pah’ thing and thought rather than just write the ‘um pah um pah’ in a nice happy key, write ‘um pah um pah’ in a nice dark key and that’s how it kind of worked. So that spurred me on, I thought ‘oh yeah, this is gonna work!’ So that’s how I got that kind of sound for Mad Monster Mansion.

So I guess those two guys are still my main inspiration. I still listen to rock a lot and Queensryche were quite a bit inspiration to me early on, because I felt there was a comparable darkness to their music that was in the Danny Elfman stuff but in a rock fashion. There’s an album called ‘Rage for Order’ by Queensryche that’s a very dark record and I like the way they presented the harmonic feeling of it all. That album and Operation: Mindcrime were big albums that I really liked to listen to and got a lot of inspiration from. I kind of converted that from the heavy rock thing to the orchestral sort of thing. So those are my biggest influences I suppose.

NN – Queensryche?
GK – Yeah, they’re a very technically brilliant metal band that also write great tunes, and wrote some great dark music that isn’t completely death metal-y, it isn’t like that, it’s tunefully dark.

Rage for Order is a really great record of theirs. That album to me is almost like a concept album, even though it isn’t, you have to listen to all of it in its entirety and it gets to a massive climax at the end with a track called “Screaming in Digital” which goes to this sort of sedate, dark ballad right at the end called ‘I Will Remember’ and those two pieces just fit together so fantastically well. I mean I guess it’s horses for courses and I just like that kind of music but I did find that to be very good to listen to.

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