Video Game Music Composer Spotlight: Grant Kirkhope
If you were ever a fan of the Nintendo 64, you most likely spent hours and hours listening to our spotlight composer’s music on loop, whether in Goldeneye or Perfect Dark, Banjo Kazooie or Banjo Tooie, and even that infamous yellow cartridge, DK64. Grant Kirkhope is someone who defined the sound of my youth, and still today, going on 30 years old, I replay the above classics even if just to hear that iconic music and those Rare (now Playtonic Games) sound effects. In 2016 he scored the very popular Ghostbusters game, while the movie did not fare as well. In 2017, Grant scored the modern 3D platform and spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee, along with Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Starting with a project of converting the music from the SNES Diddy Kong’s Quest to the Gameboy game, Donkey Kong Land 2, then jumping right into the still-classic Goldeneye on N64. Kirkhope’s first credits are among some of his most notable titles! He has had no trouble getting work as a composer for video games, as he rarely (haha, get it?) takes a break. Below are a mix of interview questions he’s received and answered over the years to give you more insight into this musical genius!
Graeme Norgate asked Grant to finish scoring Goldeneye 007, so that Norgate could focus on the music for Blast Corps. In this process, Grant learned how to get the music and sound FX into the N64 hardware. After working on 007 for a bit, his work was noticed by Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles, who re-assigned him to work on Project Dream (also known as Banjo Kazooie) with David Wise. After this he worked on Perfect Dark, Banjo-Tooie, and more popular N64 titles! On July 14th, 2008, Grant, in frustration, resigned from Rare to become a freelance composer, as the company was bought out by Microsoft. This buyout led to much less love and care being put into their titles, as many members of the smaller teams that worked on those games from 1995-2000 had left previous to Kirkhope. He then ended up at Big Huge Games (acquired by 38 Studios) until May 24th, 2012 when the entire staff was laid off. This time off gave Grant the opportunity in June 2012 to play some live festivals with former band mates Little Angels. In August 2012, Grant moved to Los Angeles get deeper into film scoring, and less than a year after that in June 2013, he signed with one of the top composer agency’s Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency.
Here are a handful of interesting questions compiled into one super interview. Enjoy!
Q: How did you become a video game music composer? Was it more by chance, or was it something you always aspired to do?
Definitely by chance! I’d been playing in lots of different kinds of bands for 10 years or so since leaving the RNCM. The last band I played for broke up and I was left with nothing to do. Robin Beanland was already working at Rare and suggested I might have a go at what he was doing. I was down to my last bit of money and he recommended a synth module, a keyboard, an Atari ST and a copy of Cubase. I started writing some pieces and sent five cassettes to Rare over the course of a year and heard nothing back. Then, out of the blue, I got an interview and they gave me the job!
Q: What lessons did you take away from it that helped you on future projects?
I didn’t really have time to think as I was moved from GoldenEye before it finished and onto Project Dream, which eventually turned into Banjo-Kazooie.
Q: Have you collaborated with other composers on scores or do you work alone?
I do really prefer working alone for the most part, but it’s just not possible today, the games are far too big to take it on alone.
Q: What was the first week on the job like?
Hehe! Tuff! When I first arrived I was given Donkey Kong [Land] 2 on the Game Boy to do. I had to convert all of Dave Wise‘s tunes from the SNES version. He showed me how to do it but it was all in Hex, I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. I thought I was going to have to resign, as there was no way I would be able to do it!
Q: What is the process of converting the music from the SNES to the Game Boy like?
It was tricky. In that time, Rare did all their Game Boy games in hex, no MIDI file or anything. I was like “how the hell am I going to do this?” So, Dave Wise came across and showed me how it worked (very quickly) on my first day, and it was really hard. I actually said to Robin “I’m going to have to resign, this is too hard, I can’t actually do it”. However, he said to ask Dave back tomorrow and write down every step that he tells you to do. So, I did this, wrote down every step-in order (like number 1, press Alt 4, number 2, type this, etc) in real parrot fashion and then I kind of understood it then. Heck, I quite enjoyed it in the end, and thought it was quite fun to get the music to work on the Game Boy. So yeah, I liked it in the end, but the start was super scary.
Q: To get the attention of Rare, you sent in five tapes to the company over the course of a year before you heard back. How close to quitting were you after tape four? Any advice for those who may be facing a similar situation?
Ha! I really had no idea whatsoever about trying to get a job. I’d never tried to do it before, I’d always been playing in bands, etc. Because Robin Beanland worked there and because we’d been in bands together, I didn’t really consider trying to get a job anywhere else. He spoke so highly of Rare that I just wanted to be there so badly. I remember I did apply to Eurocom in Derby, but they turned me down flat! I was getting a bit worried by tape 4… hehe. They never replied at all… not even a “thanks, but no thanks” letter. I really was down to the last bit of money I’d saved up from touring. I was on unemployment benefit and I applied for work training at a tiny games company called Twilight Games in Harrogate. They took me on for the 6 weeks and actually did offer me a job at the end of it, but I’d literally just got the job offer from Rare.
I think breaking into the industry now is very hard. I guess the best way is to try and get onto some kind of intern job; we have two guys here at BHG who are very good indeed. Just trying to get a job as a composer is the hardest of all. I always tell people to make sure they are good sound designers as well. Despite the fact I’m known for being a composer, I have always done sound design on the games I’ve worked on. I like having the variety.
Q: One of the things you like to drill into aspiring composers is that they need to have range, they need to be able to produce pieces in all sorts of styles. You’ve spoken before on working within the technical limitations of older platforms, but have you had any particular challenges in embracing certain musical styles? How often have you been presented with opportunities that test your range?
I really can manage most styles of music, apart from dance music, I’m pretty terrible at that! I got asked to write in a lot of different styles for the Piñata games. It was great fun, getting to write 20 second snippets of music was just enough before I ran out of ideas (as Dave Clynickalways used to say!)… hehe! I think both of those games tested my range. When I was asked for some cool jazz for the Penguin (I think), I got Robin to do it. He did a great job, but I think I managed the rest!
Q: What were some ways you prepped for the GoldenEye 007 score? Did you and Graeme Norgate study GoldenEye’s film score or other 007 scores to get the style down?
Nozzer (Mr. Norgate!) and me did listen to all the Bond theme songs constantly during composing for GoldenEye. He started the game and was doing Blast Corps before I got the job, then, when I started, he asked me to take over from him on GoldenEye as he was snowed under. I listened to the GoldenEye soundtrack quite a lot too, it was fantastic to get to use THE Bond theme. I didn’t finish that game, so Nozzer returned to finish it off, as I got dragged off by Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles to start work on Dream. I did do some sound design on that game, but I think it got replaced in the end.
Q: What is your advice for writers block? What is your experience with it?
I’ve had it loads of times, but I really can’t offer any advice. I’ve spent days looking out of my office window at Rare and not written a note. It’s tough when you’re an in-house audio guy. You just have to write and write and write like it’s a conveyor belt. That’s why I like to do sound design too; it’s a nice break from composing and good fun. I think when it gets really bad, I try and listen to some music that I really like and let it get me going again.
Q: What are your thoughts on the evolution of video game music going from 8-bit to full orchestral scores for some modern games?
I think it’s a good thing, it has to evolve. I do agree that back then you had to write a good tune as you had very limited resources and the tune was everything. It’s easy these days to write lots of big chords and ambiances without actually having much musical knowledge. For me it’s all about the harmony and melody, people like John Williams are unbelievable. I mean, how many of his tunes can you sing back right now? Probably all of ’em… Incredible!
Q: What was the transition of going from playing in bands to working on video game projects like for you personally?
It was amazing! I think I spent like 11 years of my life from 22 to 33 playing in bands. It’s all I did. I never got a job. I lived with my mother thinking I was just going to be a failure playing in crappy bands forever. By the time I was 33, I was just playing in cover bands in my local area to make a living. So then my friend, Robin Beanland, he played in one of the bands I played in. He was putting together these little demos off of computer music. And he said, ‘I’m gonna try to get a job.’ I just ignored it thinking it was nonsense. And then one day he announced that he got a job at this company called Rare in the UK. I never heard of them. About a year and a half went by and Robin said, ‘You know, Grant, you’ve been on unemployment benefit for about 11 years. Don’t you think it’s time to get a job?’ I asked what I could even do, and he responded, ‘Why not do what I do?’ He recommended some gear for me to buy so as to write some tunes I thought would be appropriate for video games. I sent Rare five cassette tapes over the course of that year. I never got a reply. Then out of the blue, I got a letter asking me to come in for an interview. I sat down with David Wise and the general manager and I got the job. I couldn’t believe it.
To be working at a company that was so prestigious, it was… I mean, it made the news in the UK that Nintendo bought half the company. For me, going there was like doing to Disneyland. It was just incredible.
Q: Could you go into more detail about the 2010 transition from Rare to Microsoft? How did that affect you at the time?
That’s a tough question. I think at the time I was pretty pissed off. Tim and Chris (Stamper) left the company shortly before I left. I kinda felt that the magic had gone at that point. It was such a fantastic experience, and for me to see it not do as well for whatever reason was hugely upsetting to me. I never thought I would ever leave that place. I thought I’d be there forever.
Microsoft bought Rare for a reason. They wanted to get broad appeal content onto the original Xbox. We couldn’t possibly create enough games to completely champion the broad appeal content. We just didn’t have enough staff to do that. Grabbed by the Ghoulies came out and there was a massive backlash from all the Nintendo guys who didn’t want to hear from Rare anymore. It just went downhill from there.
A lot of internal fighting started before Microsoft got interested. It was an undercurrent of unhappiness. I loved everything about Rare, and I couldn’t believe people were speaking badly about it. I think Microsoft bought something that was on the way down and they didn’t know it. Then they compounded the problem.
On the walls, we had framed pictures of all the games we worked on. There was a huge Nintendo tapestry in the foyer, like 20 feet tall. But then Microsoft took it all down. They took all the pictures off the wall. They took the tapestry down. It was almost like they didn’t want to be associated with what Rare did in the past.
We were used to being an agile company. You might have a meeting to talk over what to do and just do it. With Microsoft, if you had an idea, then you would have to send it up the chain and wait a week. When you’re dealing with a bunch of hippies, that production line way of doing things doesn’t work.
Q: You have stated that video game composers could do a movie score as well as any of the current film composers. Why haven’t you jumped into the film scoring industry yet?
No one has asked me! Part of the reason why I moved to Los Angeles was so as to try and get into the movie industry. I am actively doing that. I’ve done quite a lot of short films so far.
Seeing that they’re making a Mario movie, I would love to do that. I kinda feel like I’m the only guy in the Western world who has touched Mario. I had just done Mario + Rabbids for the past three years. I’ve got all the cinematic sequences for it. If you put them together, it would be a movie.
I would love to work on some movies, but at the same time, I do love working on video games. I wouldn’t want to stop that. I’d just like to do a bit of both. That would be great.
Q: Some feel that video game music is underrated from a certain point of view. From your perspective do you think there’s an issue with video game music recognition?
Video game music is getting bigger all the time. My son’s 14 and an avid game player, but he doesn’t really listen to anything apart from game music. His playlists are all game music. At his age you’re normally getting into pop music or something like that, but he isn’t. He loves Undertale, thankfully some of my stuff too! I think it’s definitely changing.
My generation has a lot of people that haven’t really played a game, but once you go down a generation it gets less like that. Everyone you know my son’s age or even into their 20s has played a game; it’s seeping into culture everywhere. You get these live concert tours all the time, selling out venues all the time. It’s a real big thing now; even Classic FM votes in stuff like Banjo-Kazooie! Game music is played on the radio, it’s getting everywhere, so I think in some respects video games still do melodic themes very well. I think of movie music and it’s not as prevalent as it used to be; I think of movies and the music can be very big and epic but not always memorable or remarkable. So it’s exciting but you can’t remember a note of it.
In video games you can usually remember the tunes, as you might be in a level a long time and hear it a lot. So you’ve got to make sure the music’s not repetitive and getting on the player’s nerves, and make it likeable. It’s a hard task. I remember when I first worked at Rare, Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles constantly trooped out the Mario themes and said ‘these tunes can play for three hours and you don’t get bored of it.’ You’ve got to do that, and it was hammered home day after day, so we had to learn that skill or get fired!
Video game music is a wealth of diversity, and there’s so much of it. People love it, too, it’s everywhere. I think people still think it’s a bit of an underground thing but I don’t think it is. It’s permeating everywhere, you hear GameBoy sounds in dance music, for example. It’s completely embedded into the culture. I think it’s super cool when you hear those references in pop, rap, whatever.
Game music goes from massive orchestras to chiptunes, right from top to bottom. It’s all great. My son loves Undertale and that’s chiptune stuff and he adores it, and he also loves orchestral parts in Super Mario Galaxy. I feel that video game music has re-introduced people to instrumental music, because people are so used to songs with vocalists. You remove that and you’ve just got the melody, no hook line to catch onto, so it has to be a good tune. Parents have 10-year-old kids saying they want to see a symphony orchestra, because they’re playing game tunes. For me that’s fantastic.
Q: Did you work on any other games between GoldenEye and Banjo?
No, that was it. I just worked on GoldenEye, then one day Tim Stamper (who was the boss of Rare) and Greg Mayles (who was the lead designer) showed up and just said “could you please play your GoldenEye music”
I was like “alright, I’m gonna get fired because they think it’s crap”. So, they sat listening, I played the tunes and then they said “right, you’re gonna come work on Dream with us”
To which I was like “yeah, that’s fine, just need to finish on GoldenEye” and they were like “no no, you’re finishing GoldenEye right now”.
So, I moved to the barn where the Dream team was and started working with them.
Q: Speaking of Project Dream, could you dive more into that? Was Banjo originally going to be on the SNES?
Yeah, I never worked on the SNES, just the GameBoy and N64. So originally it was gonna be on the SNES, then just about when I switched to Dream it got switched to the N64. It was going to be a very Zelda like open world 3d exploration game, then I just changed to Banjo.
Q: How did you approach the sound and music palette for Banjo-Kazooie?
I thought that Banjo-Kazooie were very odd characters, being opposites (like Banjo’s a bit dumb and Kazooie’s a bit snazzy and sarcastic) so I tried to get the music to match that.
I hit on the idea of this tritone thing. It’s the furthest point in a musical scale, so I wondered if I could work it in somehow.
At the time, I’d been listening to quite a bit of Danny Elfman, and so that kind of gave me the idea for the direction here. I just stumbled upon it really.
And as it worked well, I just used it through both of the games.
Q: I love how when you venture into different parts of a level, the music changes in style but stays the same notes-wise. What was the inspiration behind that move?
Yeah, we did the whole channel fade thing. When I first got to Rare, Greg and Tim were very keen for me to play the Lucasarts games (especially Monkey Island) since they loved said games a whole lot. And in the early Secret of Monkey Island games, they had that channel fade thing working like in FM synthesis; not quite MIDI files but just using the FM chip on the sound card. They loved how it worked with the IMUSE system and said they’d love that to work in Banjo. So, when you wander around, the music would change (same tune but a different arrangement based on the area).
That meant I had to work out how to make that happen, figured out how it’d sound in my head and then have the coders figure out how to get the software to support it afterwards. Hence all the music for one level would be in one MIDI file, and different channels would play to change the feel of the song in different areas.
Q: Donkey Kong 64 now. What was it like composing music for that game? Obviously, you had a lot to live up to given the great soundtracks in past games.
Yeah for me I guess I was doing Banjo-Tooie, DK 64 and Perfect Dark at the same time…
It was a hectic time that was.
So, my main thing was to try and keep DK different from Banjo-Tooie. Wanted to make sure it didn’t sound the same.
And in general, I always thought DK was a darker sounding game. David Wise’s Donkey Kong soundtracks are amazing, but they are quite dark. So, I felt I made DK 64 a bit darker than Banjo, with the toy factory level being quite haunting and the spooky level being quite haunting too. That and Gloomy Galleon.
Q: Could you talk about Perfect Dark? How did it compare to scoring for GoldenEye since it was a spiritual sequel?
I thought that was different. It was more electronic. The X-Files was very big, and I kept thinking of that and Blade Runner when composing. I mixed orchestra and synth back then, and I tried to make it as good as I could. I really enjoyed working on it really.
Q: Speaking of spiritual sequels, what was your thought process during the composing for Yooka-Laylee, the Banjo Kazooie cousin? You worked with David Wise as well on this correct?
I think with Yooka-Laylee, the very first track I wrote (the jungle track which they put on Kickstarter), I wanted to make sure that had all the bits from Banjo-Kazooie rolled into one. For the rest of it… well hopefully I’m a better composer than I was back then, so I tried to keep the best bits from 1 and 2 while adding some new stuff to mix it up.
David Wise and I have been friends for a very long time, so it was very easy to divide up the music here, and it was obvious which bits would be Dave and which would be me here. Don’t forget Steve Burke did music here too.
So, we all had a bit of a chat about it, and it was just obvious that since it was in a Banjo style, I should handle the majority of the music. However, for the next games Playtonic do, Dave might do more or Steve might do more, depending on the type of game.
But yeah, because it was a very Banjo like game, it was very easy to work out the bits I should do and the bits Dave should do there.
Q: Who is your favorite composer? Video games or film.
I guess video game wise that’s a tough one, but movie wise it’s John Williams. He’s a great one. Like, I’ve listened to his three Harry Potter soundtracks over and over. They’re my textbook that I learn from, he’s such an amazing composer.
Just for fun, here’s a couple video interviews with Grant!
About the Author
Adam Robert Galloway
Adam is a content creator for Compozly and a fellow music composer. He has been scoring films since 2012 and releasing original & cover songs as Muzikm4n since 2017. Despite no formal training in composition, Adam has spent many years learning how to produce and compose music that provides filmmakers with effective and unique scores.