Andrew Skeet and The Greatest Video Game Music – Interview

250x200_AndrewSkeetAndrew Skeet is definitely not one of the first names that come to your head when you hear the term „game music”. Still, the British composer and producer, who normally devotes himself to film scores, was in charge of The Greatest Video Game Music, one of the industry’s most important projects in the past 2 years. It is enough to say that  the first compilation (out of two, so far) reached #23 in the Billboard 200 chart: a feat that no symphonic album since John William’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Original Soundtrack had managed to achieve. It was thanks to him that such unusual productions as FEZ, Angry Birds or Little Big Planet had some of their tracks made into concert arrangements. Skeet tells about all of that and much more in his interview for Gamers Listeners.

Gamers Listeners: Welcome to Gracze Słuchacze (Gamers Listeners)! For starters, why don’t you tell us something about yourself? What is it that you normally do for a living? What’s it like to sing in a boys’ choir on the set of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life? And, of course, how did you become the producer and arranger of the The Greatest Video Game Music albums (later referred to as TGVGM)?

Andrew Skeet: I normally write music for TV shows and commercials, or I work with other composers on feature films arranging and conducting the score (new Ridley Scott movie The Counsellor for example).  Also I am writing my own album of instrumental/electronic/ambient/classical music and I sometimes play with bands doing keyboards and arranging (The Divine Comedy for example) and last year I worked on an opera at the Royal Opera House and a musical – so it’s very eclectic.  When I did Monty Python I didn’t know what it was – we were always going off to record something or other.  All I remember is being embarrassed because the engineer kept telling me the microphone was popping on the word “sperm”.

I was offered the job producing the TGVGM I think because I am experienced with orchestras from doing films and TV recordings but also able to do drums, bass and guitar from my rock/pop days.  I don’t know how my name came up with them but it’s quite a small world the London music business.

Gamers Listeners: To what extent were you able to influence the final selection of the tracks featured on those two albums? Was it entirely up to you as long as it was “the best game music ever” or maybe some of the tracks were chosen by your superiors?

Andrew Skeet: It was my choice entirely with the proviso that obviously I run it past the record label and also they needed four or five of the “A list” games on there to help them sell it.  So I suppose so long as something from Assassin’s Creed, Halo, Mass Effect, GTA, Zelda etc. was there I was able to also explore other things too.  The second album is quite different from the first – I feel it has a bit more personality and was a bit less greatest hits – but of course the first album sold more!

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Gamer Listeners: Many pieces from the TGVGM repertoire were completely new to you, but you’ve known some of the themes since you were a kid (e.g. Super Metroid). How did you find those musical reminiscences: did your old time favorites stand the test of time or maybe they don’t sound the way you remember them?

Andrew Skeet: I didn’t really remember them to be honest – I never took much notice of the music other than the fact it just obviously gets into your head when you’re playing the games.

Gamers Listeners: Could you explain to us how a typical arrangement is created, either an old school chiptune one or a more modern one? When working on the TGVGM music, were you taking the context in which it functioned in the game into consideration or were you treating the music as a separate entity? Did you consult the authors of the original versions?

Andrew Skeet: I definitely treat them as separate entities, as a starting point for me to do something with. With an old chiptune one I treat them like folk music almost; music where the tune is so familiar and “timeless” that I can do almost anything with it and re-contextualise it to make something new.

What I would normally do with them is to make a piano piece first that I can play around with and develop before even thinking about the orchestration so that I don’t allow myself to just resort to orchestral “tricks”.  It has to work as a piece and then I can arrange it and hopefully make it richer and more three-dimensional.  Also although I use technology a lot and I’m a fan of new musical developments, I am also quite traditional and prefer to have the piano version there to work off just as say Mahler, Korngold or John Williams would have done (not that I’m putting myself in that sort of exalted company!). I don’t consult the original composers although I did have to clear all the (Nintendo) arrangements with Nintendo’s head of music Koji Kondo for album two.

Gamers Listeners: Don’t you find arranging modern video game music more creatively restrictive than working with older material? The original Chrono Trigger or Super Metroid pieces seem to offer much greater freedom of interpretation (with the synthesizers merely suggesting certain solutions) than it is the case with today’s fully orchestral soundtracks. Have you ever faced a situation in which you felt an arrangement didn’t introduce anything new to the original composition?

Andrew Skeet: You’re right to say it is more restrictive with the modern material because often if you take away the production (by which I mean the exact way the sounds are constructed) or do anything different you’ve often lost the essence whereas with the older chip-tunes perhaps they had to work a little bit harder with the restrictions they had and they can also take a bit more re-working.  Also it’s just the sound of today – there’s nothing wrong with it but the “Zimmer” sound from COD or etc. is pretty limited in terms of notes, and musical material but of course sounds incredible. Really big layered orchestral samples and well done sound design – so with those we mainly tried to re-create that in our own way and perhaps bring it a little more to life if we could but yes not much to work with in terms of a “new arrangement” there.

Gamers Listeners: Did you listen to other popular arrangements released by the competition or did you choose to create music without comparing it to similar projects?

Andrew Skeet: Not really. If I did early on when researching I usually put those away. To be honest most of the arrangements for the big franchises are rather different anyway to what I like – they often seem to be more “rock orchestra” – guys pretending to be rock stars on stage in front of orchestras with full-on kit drums on stage with the orchestra – blurghh.  The way we did the albums was either to be fairly traditionally orchestral or to be like a movie score so I really wasn’t very influenced by other projects.  There are some really good arrangements out there but I like the ones that people have done on their own at home – like a classical guitar and a flautist playing Legend of Zelda or something.  The way Play or Video Games Live does it is not my thing (although it’s incredibly successful and some very talented people work on it so I’m not attacking it).

Gamers Listeners: In your everyday life, you don’t deal with game music very often, although when working on this particular project, you got to know the greatest (or at least the most popular) melodies in the genre. How did you find this new experience? Were you positively surprised or perhaps it wasn’t anything you hadn’t already heard in, say, movie scores?

Andrew Skeet: I was surprised by how popular video game scores are!  I wasn’t particularly surprised by the music itself – by definition it’s big, mainstream, popular stuff and as such unlikely to be particularly innovative.  But then we were also  mainly choosing the more traditional scores that might suit being played by an orchestra – there may be more innovation going on in non-orchestral scored games.

 

Gamers Listeners: Let’s say you are offered a job as a game music composer; would you accept it? You regularly collaborate with Daniel Pemberton, who composed music for, among other titles, Little Big Planet. How about a similar, collaborative project?

Andrew Skeet: I would accept it yes!  At the moment no-one is twisting my arm to make me do one…

Gamers Listeners: Tell us something about the TGVGM concert. Was it very different from you typical projects? You wrote about how lively the audience’s reactions were. Do you often see such an enthusiastic attitude during the concerts you conduct?

Andrew Skeet: It was great – there were a lot of people there who had never been to an orchestral concert and it was more similar to rock gigs I’ve done in that there was a lot of cheering everytime a piece came up that they knew and it was a bit unusual for an orchestral concert yes.  But we planned it to be a larger than life experience so it was the sort of atmosphere we wanted and we didn’t need to rely on lots of special effects and video screens or characters dressed up as Mario either.  We just let the music do the talking.

Gamers Listeners: Rolling Stone magazine called TGVGM “weirdest hit album” of 2011. How do you, from a producer’s perspective, perceive this series of albums? Did you expect it to be so successful?

Andrew Skeet: I don’t know for sure that it will be a series of albums but my intention was always that we would arrange, perform and record this new music as well as we possibly could with a fine orchestra, with one of the world’s best engineers Steve Price and that we would give it the best chance possible to be appreciated.  My opinion is that new music needs to be played with the same degree of involvement and commitment as old established music and then we see whether it’s any good.

It was a big surprise when it ended up at 20 in the Billboard 100 but a good surprise.

Gamers Listeners: Very few game music compilations enjoy a popularity comparable with that of the TGVGM series. In the light of this, can we expect part 3 anytime soon? Would you undertake such a task once again? Or perhaps you already have some tracks in mind that could appear on the new album?

Andrew Skeet: I would do another one but there are no definite plans yet.  There are a lot of tracks that we could do and people helpfully send me suggestions all the time.

Gamers Listeners: Thanks for the interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Andrew Skeet: Thanks to everyone who bought the record and supports the project in whatever way.  (Guess what you need to pay for these things not file-share them because otherwise the people who put the money in quickly get bored with making no money back and we can’t do another one!)

Interview was conducted by Arkadiusz Haratym. Special thanks to Marcin Moń (FTL Translation).

 

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