Jim Guthrie got his start within Canada's thriving indie music circuit, where he's rubbed elbows with the likes of Feist, Owen Pallett, and Broken Social Scene. But with the success of his first collaborative video game project, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, he's suddenly found himself a respected and active figure within the indie gaming community. He's been keeping himself fairly busy ever since.
When we met up with Jim last month at Verge headquarters, he was in town supporting filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot during their premiere of Indie Game: The Movie, the game dev docu-drama for which he had provided the soundtrack. He had also just announced that he's working with artist Craig Adams, aka Superbrothers, to make special levels for Queasy Games' upcoming musical platformer, Sound Shapes. To top it off, last week saw the release of The Scythian Steppes, a companion album to Sworcery's Japanese localization featuring remixes from video game music luminaries like Michiru Yamane (Castlevania) and Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill). We chatted about his new game composer lifestyle, a mutual love of vinyl records, and of course, Space Babies.
You can find Jim on Twitter as @jampants.
What has it been like transitioning from indie rock musician to video game composer?
It hasn't been hard at all. I don't really separate the two in terms of how I approach creating music for anything really. In all cases I'm essentially creating something out of nothing and that will always be the biggest challenge regardless of the project. It's about trying to get inspired and getting lost in your own ideas. I've always made instrumental music so having the opportunity to do it for a project like Sword & Sworcery was a dream come true.
"I'm now in a situation where I can afford to noodle all day, everyday. Life ain't so bad."
Take us through your songwriting process — do you approach compositions as a way to execute specific ideas, or do you usually take a more granular / improvised approach?
Every song is different. Sometimes it starts on a guitar and then makes it's way over to the PlayStation or piano or drums etc. Sometimes it's just a pattern that has captured my imagination or a certain chord change that evokes mystery. I generally let it lead me wherever it wants for as long as it lets me follow. There's always a stretch during the process when I know exactly where it should go next but other times I feel lost and confused. In almost every case I have to feel emotionally connected or it won't go far. It doesn't have to be super dramatic but something has to be there. I noodle a lot as well and I'm now in a situation where I can afford to noodle all day, everyday. Life ain't so bad.
A lot of your material since "Morning Noon Night" uses a video game software sequencer for the original PlayStation. What inspired you to start doing that? Do you find it offers enough sonic character and control?
It's one of those things where I started using the PlayStation out of complete necessity and quickly fell in love with its limitations and quirky interface. Back in the early 2000s I found myself without a band and around the same time I got a demo disc in PlayStation Magazine with MTV Music Generator. I used it as a backing band. I had never really made electronic music in a DAW or sequencer before then and it proved very stimulating.
The program is actually really well written with a lot of synth sounds, effects and editing features. Not all of the sounds and loops are cool / usable but if you have the patience to sift through it all and learn how to navigate hundreds of menu screens with a PlayStation controller, I guarantee you'll think so too. You can even sample from a CD source with it! All things considered it's pretty amazing.
What have you learned about adaptive scoring since you began work on Sword & Sworcery? Has it influenced your methods or style?
The biggest thing I learned was if you can think it, you can probably build it and make it work in a game. If your ideas are overly complicated then the code will tell you by crashing the game every time you change or add something. I had no idea how much work went into a game. Also, less is generally more and the simplest way is always the best, but that's not always apparent especially when it's your first game. In most cases the music is the last thing on peoples' list, but if you have the luxury of creating a game around the music and the music around the game then you'll probably achieve something pretty special in any game genre.
Have you ever thought about making a game yourself?
More recently I've thought about making my own game but the biggest obstacle is finding someone to help you code it. Not to mention the 5 million other things you need to do to properly design and market something that isn't a total piece of crap. I'm too busy to put the time in and pursue someone to help but eventually I'd love to make my own game. Most of my game ideas start with the music so it'd be interesting to see what I come up with!?
"Uhhh... ummm... You wanna jam?"
From an audio perspective, what was it like localizing Sword and Sworcery for Japan?
It was really fun and a super great experience. Everyone at 8-4 Studios loves the game and they all worked really hard to make this all happen. The best part for me was trying to learn how to say my lines in the game in Japanese. The good people at 8-4 had sent me a little crash course complete with recordings and everything spelt out phonetically to help me record my lines. I had never really experienced 'sonic dyslexia' like I did when I was trying to repeat and record everything back in Japanese. Such an amazing and different array of hard and soft sounds. I just barely "nailed it," but I had a ton of fun and would love to learn more.
How do you think the Japanese audience is receiving it? Do you think the game's humor and mood translate well?
I had never really thought about it until this project but I think S&S is very Japanese in ways I might have trouble articulating. If I didn't know any better and you told me it was a game made in Japan, I wouldn't blink. The best way I could describe it is to say Craig's art in the game is as beautiful, delicate and intricate as a bonsai tree. The pace of the game and the aesthetic of the writing may not scream Japanese but it definitely doesn't feel like a "western game." Musically, I have no idea how people will respond but I'd be thrilled if they dug it.
"Cosmic friends forever, indeed."
How'd it feel to have your songs remixed by Japanese game composers in 'The Scythian Steppes'? Do you have any fond musical memories from playing Japanese games?
I'm pretty green when it comes to the history of games and game music. I had heard of (and mostly played) all the games the remix artists had previously worked on but I didn't really know their names. I was floored when I realized the caliber of people who'd be remixing my music. It's really a 'once-in-a-lifetime' type thing and I'm so thankful 8-4 made it happen. Cosmic friends forever, indeed.
How did you get involved with Indie Game: The Movie? Have you done film soundtracks before?
The filmmakers James and Lisanne actually contacted me because of my work on S&S. They were listening to the soundtrack for the game and decided to shoot me an email to see if I was interested. I've actually done a few films and a ton of ad music in the last 6 or 7 years. Scoring to picture is not new to me at all. I actually find it easier and in some ways more enjoyable than writing indie rock tunes.
You and Craig Adams are also doing music for some levels in Queasy Games' upcoming PS Vita game, Sound Shapes. What has it been like working on that, and how does it differ from your first game project?
Sound Shapes was a completely different beast and in some ways, even more challenging than Sword & Sworcery. Sound Shapes was more about trying to come up with an abstract pallet of sounds that worked in shorter chunks of time and that could be triggered in 101 different configurations and still sound cool. Queasy made a brilliant music / sequencer engine that handles all of the music and samples in game. I can't say enough good things about it.
Lots of analogue junkies seem to really enjoy having your recent work on vinyl and cassette. What advantages do you think to those formats still hold over digital? Any chance some of your older material might get a re-print as well?
In the context of the game these formats give people the opportunity to experience the project outside of their iPhones, iPads and computers. They're beautiful to look at and fun to hold. I guess I never really thought of why these formats are appealing because where I come from it's never been a question of should or shouldn't I buy the vinyl, ya know? I guess for gamers it's pretty novel but I think most gamers are music lovers as well so it beats me. Vinyl has outlived pretty much every format. I think as long as we are using plastics to make things there will be vinyl records. I probably should press limited runs of my back catalouge on vinyl as well. As a musician there's nothing more satisfying than to have your stuff on vinyl.
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