For its next album, British band 65daysofstatic faces an interesting challenge: creating the soundtrack to one of the most ambitious games ever made. The electro-rockers are scoring the upcoming No Man’s Sky, a space-exploration game with an astounding 18 quintillion planets to explore.
Much has been made about the game’s procedural nature — everything in it, from planets to aliens, is generated by computer algorithms — and the soundtrack will work in much the same way. While there’s a two-album collection of new 65daysofstatic music from No Man's Sky that you can buy in June, when you actually play the game you’ll be hearing music generated by a computer from sounds and melodies created by the band. It’s 65daysofstatic’s first game project, and one its first forays into the world of soundtracks (the band has done one soundtrack prior, a live re-scoring of the 1972 sci-fi film Silent Running).
I had the chance to talk to Paul Wolinski and Joe Shrewsbury from 65days about working on the game, why it’s fun to destroy music, and whether or not they plan to play No Man’s Sky with the sound on.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrew Webster: How did you get involved with the game in the first place?
Paul Wolinski: We were on tour in the States actually, and [Hello Games] emailed us asking if they could use our song "Debutante" for their launch trailer, which was going to be premiering. We asked them for some more info about the game, and they sent us some concept art which was incredibly impressive, and it was immediately clear that this was going to be an interesting project. So we emailed them back and said, "Yep, you can use 'Debutante,' by the way, do you have anyone to do the soundtrack yet? Because if not we should talk." And they were like, "Yeah, cool, we don’t, let’s talk."
Then we came back off tour and had a meeting with [Hello Games’ Sean Murray] and it was the best meeting, because I went to meet him in London ready to pitch 65 to this project, because we’d been looking for a soundtrack project for a while and this one seemed perfect for us. He came to the meeting, I think wanting to pitch the exact same thing; he really wanted 65 to do the soundtrack. It was a really easy meeting. We just agreed to do it in the first five minutes and then talked about sci-fi for a bit.
Why did you want to get into soundtracks? What’s appealing to you about that compared to a regular record?
Wolinski: We’ve always been described as cinematic, our music seems to lend itself to scoring projects. Also the fact that it was a computer game was really intriguing because our last proper record had been in 2013, it was called Wild Light, and along with that we did a lot of things in parallel to that record — some sound installations, and an interactive remix engine using Unity — because we were sort of getting the feeling that there should be more forms that we should explore. Bands are always touring, and they’re always making records, and both of those two things are great, but we didn’t see any reason why there couldn’t be more types of things that a band could do. You see bands scoring films a bit more often, and we’d love to do that as well, but that’s still quite a linear, offline process. You’re writing music for fixed pieces of media. Whereas a computer game, you’re writing in a much less linear fashion, and that was something that really intrigued us.
Given that your first two soundtracks were this and Silent Running, do you think you’re more attracted to the sort of offbeat kind of soundtracks?
Joe Shrewsbury: With Silent Running, that sort of live soundtrack stuff seems to have been quite a cool thing to over the last six or seven years. Like Paul said, we were trying to think of ways to widen the scope of what we did. The main crutch for that was to get soundtrack work, and we weren’t really being offered any. Glasgow Film Festival wanted us to soundtrack a sci-fi film of our choice, and we went ahead with Silent Running as an experiment in doing that sort of work quite fast.
Of course, with hindsight, having worked on the game, a bigger project, it’s really different. Soundtracking a film from its inception would be different again. It’s all a learning curve. Silent Running turned into something much more interesting in terms of our relationship with making records, and reclaiming some autonomy back from really boring record labels that have not so much imagination. We ended up crowdfunding an official recording of that score and then releasing it on vinyl. It just became something else.
Do you think that there’s something about your sound that’s particularly sci-fi?
Wolinski: I think that because of Silent Running and because of No Man’s Sky we’ve developed a musical palette that has that about it, but I think if we were given a project with less of a sci-fi thrust, I don’t think we would find it hard to develop in that direction either. That said, I think sci-fi has been quite influential on us.
Shrewsbury: We’re certainly fans of sci-fi. But I hope we have more strings to our bow than that. I feel more closely tied with No Man’s Sky in soundtracking the scale of it, rather than the sci-finess of it. We’re good at making lots of noise, and that feels quite big. Sci-fi is great but it depends on the project.
Wolinski: I think No Man’s Sky is particularly interesting because they are trying to achieve something, technology-wise, that’s pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, as far as I understand it. While at the same time making a game that’s enjoyable and playable is the priority. I think that their relationship with us and what they’ve asked us to do reflects a sort of emerging relationship between bands, as opposed to composers, and the games industry. That’s why it had an extra element of excitement to it, because we were being asked to be 65days, not to be a set of composers for hire.
Shrewsbury: That’s such a huge distinction for us. It was so flattering.
Wolinski: And we’ve been so much more hands-on in the post-album process, of actually tearing the audio apart and putting the elements into the game.
Shrewsbury: We’re not coders or anything, and we’re looking at a lot of these systems that they’ve built for us from a different angle. The audio director of the game, Paul Weir, is a very, very clever man who has built this amazing system and the collaborating we’ve done with him has been really rewarding, definitely for us and hopefully for them, too.
What kind of direction were you given from Hello when you first started working on the soundtrack?
Shrewsbury: They asked us to write a 65days record and to push what we were doing forward and do the next thing that we would do. But of course we approached it more seriously than that. We didn’t just go away and do that, we wanted to be thinking about the game and how we wanted the game to sound. But the instructions we were given were very, very, very simple. I’m sure that was a purposeful move on Sean’s part, because we went off to the north of England and were in our bubble of writing music and we didn’t really have that much contact with Hello, we just wrote lots of music. A lot of trust was placed with us, I suppose.
When it comes to the procedural elements, did that change how you approached writing the music?
Shrewsbury: We’re actually working on that now with Paul. We’re taking the sessions from the record, which were mixed and mastered some time ago, and we’re diving back into those and pulling elements out, and then re-recording more variation, more complimentary sounds. We’re basically undertaking a long period of sound design, which is curated by both us and Paul Weir. I think if you look at the project as a whole, it’s almost an act of doublethink. You know that you have to make a record and that the record has to make sense and be accessible, and at the same time you know that all of that music is totally destroyable and it’s going to be atomized and rendered in a great number of variations. You have to just do both of those things at once and not worry too much.
Wolinski: To be clear, I don’t want to imply that we built the system. Paul Weir was definitely the brains behind actually building the in-game audio brain, we advised on some of the rules of logic so that it would work better with the music that we’d written, but I don’t want to take too much credit for that.
Shrewsbury: We’re actively chopping up our own music.
Wolinski: It was written in the first place with that in mind. Every time we decided on the main melody of a song, we’d be cataloging the variations, even if they didn’t make it onto the album, they still existed because we know that this is where we’d be heading.
What’s the experience been like hearing the music in this different form, sort of chopped up in different ways?
Shrewsbury: It’s great. We haven’t had a great deal of access to that, since we’re still working quite hard at the moment, but from what we have seen it’s really, really exciting. We’ve got quite a healthy attitude to tearing our songs to pieces that has developed over the years. We’re not too precious about musical elements. We stopped being a band like that six or seven years ago when we decided that it didn’t really matter who played what or how a sound was made, as long as it contributed to the emotional integrity of the music. We really take a lot of joy in totally destroying and ruining things, because often in that destruction you come up with much better ideas anyway. So in that sense the project really suited us.
Wolinski: What I would say as well is that this is as advanced as anything I’ve ever seen in terms of generative music, but at the same time it feels really exciting to be at the start of something that has so much untapped potential. It feels like Paul Weir has broken new ground while putting this together, and at the same time there are so many ideas that we would have for the next project. It’s an unusual feeling for us because the music industry does not give you that feeling generally, day in, day out. It feels like something that’s at the end of its good days.
Shrewsbury: It's run out of new forms, it’s run out of new ideas in which to present music, whereas this is completely new.
Could you explain the differences between the two albums on the soundtrack?
Shrewsbury: Part of that holding two ideas in our head, of writing proper 65 compositions as opposed to more indulgent ambient pieces that didn’t have to fit a more normal arrangement style, was that in the end we wrote a great deal of music. And we pushed some of that music forward into a form that would fit on a record, and that is something that we would do normally when writing a 65 record if there were no game involved. We would write a bunch of music, and some of that music would make it, and some of it wouldn’t, but it would still have a value and point us in a direction.
Really, the distinction is that the [first] record we’ve tried to make run as an album for someone who has no idea what the computer game is, who has no interest in games, who just wants a 65 record. The extra body of stuff is more freeform.
Wolinski: It was like finding a middle ground.
Shrewsbury: A lot of it is the issues with how music is consumed. The album format is the accepted way, and we needed to find a way for all of that music to make sense. We could’ve made a 120-minute-long album, but it’s the same thing in the end.
Also, the second album, now that we’ve put it together, it’s really one body of work. I think the second collection is some of the most interesting stuff we’ve done, it just doesn’t adhere to a six-minute arrangement. It just does what it wants to do. But I think we really see the whole thing as just one piece of work.
I know you guys don’t necessarily play a lot of games, but do you plan to play this game when it comes out?
Shrewsbury: Definitely have to play this one, yeah.
Wolinski: I do think that as exciting as the style and form of No Man’s Sky is, just coming to grips with the back-end process of the non-linear aspect of music that has to react, a video game is the perfect form for that, it’s not really replicate-able in any other form that I can think of. Sound installations can be a little bit reactive, but there’s something very unique about a video game in terms of what the music can do that feels so unexplored, that I’m becoming very interested in the potential of the games world.
Will you play with the music on, or do you think you’ll be sick of it by that point?
Shrewsbury: Might give it five minutes.
No Man's Sky is launching on the PS4 and PC on June 21st, while the soundtrack will be available on June 17th.