April 14, 2011 10:30 PM | jeriaska
The music for PixelJunk Shooter 1 & 2 is by hip-hop duo Alex Paterson and Dom Beken, writing under the name High Frequency Bandwidth.
The group is the first to partner with independent developer Q-Games on the soundtrack to a Playstation 3 exclusive PixelJunk series installment while working outside of Kyoto, Japan, the studio's base of operations. They follow Takashi Iura and Sachiyo Oshima of Otograph (composers on PixelJunk Monsters) and Baiyon (composer on PixelJunk Eden).
Arrangements of music from PixelJunk Shooter first appeared in album form upon the release of HFB's debut LP, entitled Hell Fire and Brimstone. The addition of vocal performances and other deviations from what was heard in-game led to the demand for a stand-alone soundtrack. The results are HFB: PixelJunked - The Original Soundtrack To Shooter 1 & 2, which includes six tracks from PixelJunk Shooter and an additional six from PixelJunk Shooter 2.
We had the chance to hear from Dom Beken on the album release associated with the BAFTA-nominated soundtrack. The interview offers the musician's perspectives on the making of the hip-hop game score and the numerous collaborations surrounding the creative endeavor.
What is it about Q-Games that has made it worthwhile for you as musicians to write for the PixelJunk Shooter titles?
Dom Beken: Dylan [Cuthbert] has a very open mind to letting people actually express themselves and bring out the best in what they're doing individually. He tends not to nitpick on individual elements, concentrating instead on a vibe of what you're doing. We very easily reach a stage where we're working on a piece of music and have some concept artwork from him, while he's giving us very constructive information and the necessary space to develop. He avoids the worst killer of creativity: of saying, "I don't know what I want, but it's not that! I'll know it when I hear it." Also, Shouichi Tominaga and the design departments at Q-Games have this genius about keeping you informed of the technical limits for assets while figuring out how to incorporate what you want to do into the delivery of the game.
Dynamax with Alex Paterson, Dom Beken and The Corporal
Your album Hell Fire and Brimstone contains arrangements of music found in PixelJunk Shooter, in addition to other hip-hop tracks. What are the primary differences between the album and the separate soundtrack, HFB: PixelJunked?
Making music for the game involved taking music from the album Hell Fire and Brimstone, stripping it back and editing that music so it was dynamic within the game. That ended up with your hearing a completely different version of the music than was present in the album. Hell Fire and Brimstone is very much meant for a musical audience, that's very song-oriented.
HFB: PixelJunked is entirely soundtrack-oriented, with a lot of the pieces re-performed from scratch. To make the soundtrack, we went back to the game and listened for the random, dynamic elements and thought about how to work those into an album that you could listen to when you're not playing the game. We then made new arrangements that were meant as a soundtrack. It probably took more time altogether than the album.
How were you feeling about the length of the production cycles on the PixelJunk Shooter games? Was it too fast for you to be writing enough new music?
No, it's too slow. We're churning it out a lot faster than that.
All the track titles on Shooter start with the letters "HFB," but was there a reason for your discontinuing that trend on Shooter 2?
It was a great idea to have every track have the initials H.F.B. However, it was highly limiting in terms of associating the track name with the concept and message behind the track. We'd go on stage and say to each other: "What's next?" "HFB." "I know, which one?"
What has been your reaction to listening to your music in the context of the games themselves?
Shooter 2, being so much more difficult than Shooter 1, I haven't been able to complete all the levels. I'm seeing if I can hassle Dylan to send me a cheat script so I can see how the music is working on the levels I can't get to.
I do play them and would love to have the chance to sit down and play them more. The problem is that I have two small children and one of them is absolutely addicted to Flower by ThatGameCompany, so I don't get as much time as I'd like to play. I might need to take the Playstation out of the living room and put it in the studio so that I can recategorize "playing time" as "work." But then my son might kill me.
Q-Games has a multicultural staff, with people from all over the world working together at the office, speaking English and Japanese. Does that diversity of backgrounds interest you as part of this collaboration?
Massively. Both Alex and I are really big fans of Japanese culture. We go there a lot, touring to play concerts, and it's probably the place in the world that we enjoy visiting the most. The funny thing is that we've never been to the studio. Our relationship with them so far has been across skype. But that cultural symbiosis is something we enjoy and we love that it's led to their embracing our music.
Are you able to travel as much now that you are working on the PixelJunk Shooter soundtracks as when you were touring with Transit Kings?
I've not been touring as much over the last twelve months as I have before that, just because I've been concentrating on a lot of new projects. HFB has kept me kind of tied into the studio. I've also been working on a hip-hop and rock crossover album called "Years of the Canine" with Dynamax.
Dynamax is the lead vocalist on the track "More or Less," providing some thematic overlap between the two installments of PixelJunk Shooter. What have you found worthwhile about working with the musician during the making of these two games?
He really is a quality hip-hop vocalist. Before he came to us, he was extremely well known as part of Ice T's original Rhyme Syndicate posse. He's done a lot of work with Donald D and New York's hip-hop scene. He's very much a credible voice.
When we first got involved with Dynamax it was one of those moments where we were nervous to see whether the hip-hop we were writing cut the mustard with him. "Hundred Forty Billion" was literally done in one take to see how it worked, and the rest is history.
Were you looking to take "More or Less" in a different direction from the previous vocal track?
I wanted to write something that had a warmer feeling to it and was more simple. I think a lot of the stuff we've done in the past has been overwritten in an attempt to bring together so many aspects of our musical heritage. HFB has been a long time in the making, in terms of working out the collaboration between a guy from East London and a guy from South London who love hip-hop. Alex's background is in techno and ambient house, while my background is in jazz and breakbeat.
It took a long time to develop a sound which we were happy with. I think "More or Less" is one of those tracks where we distilled it down to a few simple essentials. On that, I'm doing the chorus and Dynamax is doing the verses.
You and Alex Paterson are adding your own vocals to a number of tracks on HFB: PixelJunked. Does singing on your records appeal to you creatively?
I used to hate doing vocals because really I'm a back-room boy. I'd much rather be in the background, working as the producer and being well out of the spotlight. With High Frequency Bandwidth there have been more and more occasions where there was room for vocals. The reason why I do them, to be frank and honest with you, is I'm cheap. Alex tends to do the spoken word vocals and I tend to do the singing stuff. We get an idea, record it, look for someone to do it and sometimes they don't quite get it right. So reluctantly your own vocal ends up on the record.
What other vocal performances have made a major impact on High Frequency Bandwidth's songs?
The vocals on "Happy Fucking Birthday" are by Aadesh Shrivastava. If you Google him you'll find he's an incredibly famous film composer in India and very involved with Amitabh Bachchan, one of the biggest film stars there. He came on board because I've done two film soundtracks with him in Bombay. He did three lead vocals on Wyclef Jean's album Carnival II, so he's already been introduced into the hip-hop scene on the American side.
Have you arrived at any new insights as to why the collaboration with Alex Paterson has turned out to be particularly effective for games, for instance earning PixelJunk Shooter's score recognition from BAFTA at the GAME Awards?
That was quite surprising. I'm very into film scoring, so to end up on the same list as Hans Zimmer was extraordinary for me personally. As you begin to build a project, you begin to find out what works and what doesn't work, both for you and other people. "Hidden Foto Banks" was a track that I seriously considered assigning to the trash bin at a very early stage because it wasn't going in the direction I wanted, but it seems that a lot of people like it. If the music becomes simpler, as with "More or Less" as a track, then I think you've identified what works while stripping out a lot of the nonsense.
By this point, do you have a better idea as a musician about what you want to be adding to the gameplay environment?
We got involved with Shooter because what we were writing happened to be suited to this game. We're at a crossover at the moment in gaming between chiptune music, which had to be composed for the instruments available for the platform, and something where the scope of music for gaming is virtually infinite. For musicians we now have the full palette of sounds available to us and are thinking about how to make the music dynamic with the game. That's something very new for music composers that we tried really hard to integrate into Shooter.
How has it been to work with the Kyoto studio creatively and through licensing? Since music from the game is winding up on your records and vice versa, there must be considerations regarding intellectual property.
With Q-Games, the amount of freedom we had to compose soundscapes was phenomenal. Dylan came to us essentially saying that he loved the sound of what we were doing and wanted to incorporate that into these games. That means the freedom was quite phenomenal. I can't fault their approach to music because they are incredibly supportive of us as artists and work with us on a very level playing field.
The scope of what you provide for the game is infinite, so then it's a matter of translating that into the asset sizes allowable within a downloadable game. It's not all that different from when we used to make vinyl albums, in that your creative freedom is virtually unlimited but the delivery medium has constraints. Their approach to licensing is also very refreshing because I think there's a lot of catch up to be done by the game industry in terms of the way intellectual property and production copyright works. They're very open to the concept that music adds huge value to their product and give credit where credit is due.
For more information on the music of High Frequency Bandwidth, visit the official website. Images courtesy of Q-Games and Malicious Damage Records.