Games have become a major outlet for composers showcasing their immense and at times, severely underappreciated talents. There are many that deserve great attention and then there are others that have really thrived and become the best in this genre. Jason Graves, the BAFTA award-winning winning composer is definitely a case of being one of the best.
Jason is a multitalented composer whose gifts for melody and memorable thematic work have really brought out the best in what these video games have to offer its die hard players. Creating a musical world that is both compelling and also thematically fascinating, Jason has really gone beyond the call of duty to make his own personal masterpiece for Square Enix's Murdered: Soul Suspect.
For this very special interview with this awesome composer, Jason happily shares his thoughts on the game as well as his latest film, "Adrenaline", his favorite games and thoughts working as composer for video games and the difficulties that may occur while writing the music. So please sit back and enjoy my great conversation with the excellent Jason Graves.
Hi Jason, how are you and thank you very much for granting me the time to conduct this interview with you today. It really is an honor to do so. Please tell the readers about what made you become interested in music and composing.
JG: Totally my pleasure! Things are great and I’m happy to hang for a bit and talk shop. I’ve always loved music. I wasn't one of those “composing since I was five” kids, but I was definitely involved with music since I was that age - singing in musicals and taking lessons. Lots of lessons! Singing, dancing, acting, drums set, marimba. My mom pretty much had a full-time job carting me all over town six days a week. I had the wonderful benefit of growing up with parents that not only encouraged me to follow my dreams, but supported my aspirations through school and beyond.
Let’s talk about your recent work on the Airtight Games and SQUARE ENIX supernatural mystery thriller, Murdered: Soul Suspect. How did you get involved with the project?
JG: I got a call from the Audio Director about three years ago. They were still in early game development but I got to fly to Seattle and see their studio, play the game and hang out with the team for a few days. It really came down to my schedule and if I was interested in the project, which of course I was!
The game has the feel from reading about it like an episode of “Law & Order” combined with films like “Constantine” and “Ghost” only in even darker forms. Is that feeling what you got when you took the job? How difficult was it for you to come up with thematic material for the game considering the fits and starts that most games go through?
JG: I got the same vibe as well. Even from the beginning, the key to the score was figuring out the sound of Dusk - the world you are trapped in as a ghost. I usually start with a main theme. In this case, I wanted something that would sound ghostly and mysterious while being slightly apprehensive and foreboding at the same time.
How long did it take you to write the score? All told, how much music did you record for the game?
JG: There was almost two hours of music spread out over a three and half year period.
Will a soundtrack album be released?
JG: Not that I’m aware of, which is unfortunate. I wish I had more control over official soundtrack albums but the decision rests with the publisher. Sometimes they are willing to release it and other times their interests lie elsewhere.
Let’s talk about your two films that you’re doing, starting with “Adrenaline” which is coming out in September. How did you get involved with the film? After viewing the film, did you get a sense of how you wanted to approach the film musically? How long did it take you to come up with the right tone and themes that you wanted for the film?
JG: I already knew the director, having worked on his previous three films. All he had to do was say “drag racing” and I knew I wanted to do a rock-based score, like a band was hired to score the entire thing, as opposed to having an orchestral score. Except, of course, it’s just me recording everything one instrument at a time. But that’s what makes it so fun!
Did Director Joseph Simpkins give you an idea of what he wanted musically for the film from the beginning?
JG: He was more interested in what I thought the music should sound like. But that’s just an extension of our previous films - he’s very gracious and gives me a lot of creative freedom with the music.
What were the recording sessions like? How much music did you record and end up in the film?
JG: I did plenty of research before I started on the actual music, plus about nine months of equipment purchases and practicing. Lots of practicing! I wanted to play and record everything myself and not have to rely on other musicians to come in multiple times for the whole score. So I outfitted the studio with another 20 channels of microphones, preamplifiers and tie lines, plus plenty more drums, cymbals, guitars and amps. I started each cue with scratch guitar parts and would layer drums and bass on top of them, then record the final guitars by the end of the day. I usually finished 2-3 minutes a day with that plan. The total score weighs in around 45 minutes.
You also worked on the film “Unknown Caller”. Was this project different than what you did for “Adrenaline”? How did you come up with the sound for this film?
JG: Unknown Caller was a completely different project. The main character ends up trapped in his house as a victim of his own home security system. Lots of claustrophobic textures and electric, ticking synthesizers. Again, no orchestra in this one - it felt like a huge orchestra was simply too grandiose for such a close-quartered, personal film. Most of the music is live - mistreated things from the studio, guitars, drums, things re-amped through the guitar rig.
Do you usually orchestrate your own scores?
JG: It’s something I’ve been interested in since school and I keep learning more and more with every score I orchestrate. Even the Dead Space games, which are very experimental and textural, were orchestrated with pencil and paper then sent to my copyist.
Let’s talk about your legendary video game work on “Tomb Raider” and “Dead Space” to name a few. Please talk about your involvement in each project.
JG: I was brought in early for both games, which I think is important for a composer. Having time to absorb and reflect goes a long way. Each project needs to have its own vibe to it, at least to my ears. The heavy use of strings in the Dead Space games is a result of all the fantastic textures and effects a large string ensemble can provide. It fit the game’s atmosphere and really branded the entire series through music.
The first piece I submitted for Tomb Raider was Lara’s theme on solo piano. I wanted to focus on the melody - I didn’t want orchestral mockups or bombastic percussion distracting from the core elements of the piece. This was, after all, to be the new theme for Lara and I thought it best to start simple and work my way up from there, especially given Lara’s younger age and inexperience.
Do you find it difficult to go from one project to another?
JG: Actually, it’s quite refreshing to be able to move between different projects and styles on a daily basis. Although there were several occasions when the deadlines for Dead Space 3 and Tomb Raider were, quite literally, the exact same day. That can obviously be a bit of a challenge! I usually think in terms of a project a day. Then it’s just a matter of prioritizing by respective due dates.
Which of these scores did you enjoy writing the most and why?
JG: They were both so different from each other. It’s really hard to pick favorites but I would have to say Tomb Raider nudges out Dead Space in this case, but only because of the live percussion and “The Instrument” that was created for the score. I really had a lot of fun playing so many percussion sounds and recording them in my new studio. Plus I had complete autonomy over the final soundtrack release for Tomb Raider, so I was able to assemble the score and produce all the tracks exactly the way I wanted, which was very satisfying.
Do you think it’s difficult for most composers to write music for video games? Is it harder for you to work on a video game than a film?
JG: Aside from their productions schedules, film and television are fairly similar. The biggest difference is the non-linear aspect of games - the interactive music and how a composer goes about delivering his score to the developer. As far as approach goes, I honestly treat them all the same way. In general, it’s about the emotion and how it relates to what is going onscreen. Music is music is music, whether it’s film or games. Really it just comes down to how the final music is delivered.
Most big games these days have a one to two year production cycle for the music. And there’s a LOT of music. Cinematics alone can total a few hours and the interactive gameplay usually adds a few hours to that. I would estimate most games have at least twice as much music as film, and that would be a low estimate at best.
What was the most challenging video game you’ve had to score?
JG: The one I am currently working on today! And if you asked tomorrow I would reply with the same answer, only it would be a different project. For me, the reality is each new day and each project is another opportunity to learn, experiment and try something I haven't done before. I’ve found that’s what keeps me motivated and moving forward - learning new things and challenging myself on a daily basis to improve as a composer, recording engineer, percussionist, guitarist, producer…the list goes on and on!
If you had the opportunity to chose a movie to score, what would it be and why?
JG: I would love to compose more fantasy music, whether it’s for a film or a game. That genre has so much opportunity for harmonic experimentation, not to mention all the interesting instruments that become available when composing music for alien species and other worlds.
Please tell the readers about your latest upcoming projects you have.
JG: There are two new iOs games being released in the next few months - both all-acoustic and recorded in my studio. One is a prohibition era title and the other is more country and bluegrass- oriented…needless to say, very different from live orchestra or rock guitar, which is exactly why I chose them in the first place! I worked on a beautifully shot Scottish bank commercial a few weeks ago, plus I just wrapped up a really fun classical piece for an African telecommunications company. There are always the usual trailer pieces needed for libraries - I work with EMI in London for music library tracks. And then the inevitable mystery surrounding unreleased game scores - lots of amazing projects that I am, unfortunately, sworn to secrecy about! One is all live orchestra recorded over six days at Abbey Road - very classically-based. Another is completely textural, but again mostly live, recorded in my studio with plenty of experimental techniques and found sound ideas. There’s another fun live orchestral project that I had the pleasure of recording at Ocean Way studio in Nashville and augmenting with instruments in my studio. That one’s very dark and brooding yet at the same time melodic.
Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. For me, that counts tenfold in the world of music!
I really want to thank you once again Jason for granting me this interview and I’m looking forward to your future projects.
JG: It was a blast! Thanks for your interest and all the thought-provoking questions.
An extra special thanks to Jason for being so gracious with his time in doing this interview with him and being such a cool guy! Let's do this again!
Square Enix's Murder: Soul Suspect is now available on PlayStation®4, Xbox One, Windows PC, PlayStation®3 and Xbox 360. Please check out the game's official site @ http://murdered.com/agegate/
Please feel free to visit Jason's official website @ http://www.jasongraves.com for updates on his current and future projects as well as very cool music samples of his work.
Here's Jason's Biography:
"Jason Graves is an Academy Award-winning (BAFTA) composer who has brought his passion for
music to franchises such as TOMB RAIDER (SQUARE ENIX) and DEAD SPACE (EA). He is
particularly enthusiastic about illustrating a project’s story and character arcs through the power of
music. His sophisticated composition style has made his music synonymous with unique musical
textures and cinematic orchestral writing.
Crystal Dynamics entrusted Jason with their innovative reboot of the iconic TOMB RAIDER
franchise, giving him creative freedom to infuse atmosphere, emotion and authenticity to Lara’s
origins story through his score. The end result combines found sounds, authentic percussion and a
truly unique custom instrument interwoven with orchestral themes and textures.
Jason was solely responsible for creating an innovative, unique soundtrack for DEAD SPACE,
which has become Electronic Arts’ best-selling original title and called “the scariest game ever
made.” Jason’s groundbreaking score has been hailed by critics as a “truly original soundtrack”
and “the best score of the year.” It was recognized with a myriad of worldwide nominations and
won two BAFTA awards – one for Original Score and one for Use of Audio. For the latter, the
Academy stated, “It’s the music soundtrack that boasts horror and tension.”
Jason’s diverse musical background as a classically-trained composer, drummer, keyboardist,
guitarist and world percussionist allow him to expertly compose in many different genres of music.
As a result, his game credits alone include more than one hundred titles, ranging from electronic
and rock to full symphonic scores. He performs world percussion, drums and guitar on many of his
own tracks and has conducted and recorded his live orchestral scores at Abbey Road Studios, Air
Studios London, Capitol Records, FOX, Paramount Pictures and Skywalker Sound.
Jason also composes for film and television, including the upcoming feature films ADRENALINE
and UNKNOWN CALLER. His music has been licensed for television shows such as AMERICAN
IDOL and THE AMAZING RACE.
Recently, Jason provided a immersive orchestral score for EA’s highly anticipated DEAD SPACE 3,
recorded at Abbey Road Studios and performed by the London Philharmonia. He recorded
RESISTANCE: BURNING SKIES at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville and composed a blues-based
score for the documentary film THE CARDBOARD BERNINI.
In addition to two BAFTA wins, Jason’s music has been honored with two BAFTA nominations for
DEAD SPACE 2 and TOMB RAIDER, plus three Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Award
(AIAS) nominations, winning “Outstanding Achievement in Audio” for DEAD SPACE. He has
received twenty one G.A.N.G. nominations and four wins, including “Audio of the Year” for DEAD
SPACE and DEAD SPACE 2, “Best Original Theme” nominations for DEAD SPACE 2, STAR TREK:
LEGACY and BLAZING ANGELS 2 and “Music of the Year” nominations for DEAD SPACE and
Jason Graves is represented by the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency."