Peter McConnell Interview: Eclectic Industry Favourite (March 2011)
Industry veteran Peter McConnell has shown himself to be one of the most creative and versatile musicians scoring video games. Having studied at Harvard and scored various popular adventures and Star Wars titles at LucasArts, he is now a successful freelancer.
With Sly 2, Sly 3, Grim Fandango, and Psychonauts loved by many fans across the world, his recent work scoring (and performing on!) the rock soundtrack for Brütal Legend and creating the warm orchestrations for Kinectemals has shown a musical range that few other composers possess.
Matt Diener had the opportunity to interview Peter McConnell to discuss his career to date, musical influences, and work on iMUSE. With a laugh and a genuine air of refreshing humility, Peter Mc reveals how he went from performing in subway stations to working for LucasArts and how there's no substitute for doing what you love for a living.
Interview Subject: Peter McConnell
Interviewer: Matt Diener
Editor: Matt Diener, Chris Greening
Coordination: Matt Diener, Pierre Langer
Matt: You have been described as one of the most extensively trained composers in the games industry, with your education at Harvard University. Do you think these experiences influenced both your music and your circumstances today? In what respects were these experiences either useful or detrimental for you?
Peter McConnell: First of all, I don't think I'm one of the most educated composers in the industry. There are a lot of guys with master's degrees and even a few with doctorates out there doing this.
I had a great experience at Harvard and studied with a guy named Ivan Tcherepnin. He had a very singular approach toward electronic music that has influenced me a lot. Michael Land, who is from my generation of video game composers and who first hired me at LucasArts, also studied with Ivan.
In terms of my education, it is strongly grounded in old-fashioned keyboard school of writing music and I think it has been a big help because it gives me a certain language that I can draw on. When you have that classical background you have access to the world of operatic scoring, which is the world from which film scoring comes from, and games of course draw on that world heavily. Having access to that is cool because, if I want to do a classic underscore for a moment, I can do it and I'm not faking it.
But, I am really glad that I spent a lot of years playing in bands because game music is drawing on a lot of other areas other than the great "holy grail" traditions that people point to. It has a kind of pop aesthetic that you need to be in touch with.
Matt: That's why I asked about Harvard being a detriment. One of my friends earned her degree from Harvard would mention dreading the moment that she would have to "drop the H Bomb" on a guy that she was dating.
Peter McConnell: (laughs) I always mitigate it by saying that I was on the six year plan (laughs again) But certainly it's possible to either be a snob or be considered one, and I am sure I've done both.
All in all, I am glad that I took the particular education route that I did. I went in planning to be a physics major and I had a conversion experience in an electronics class that was very profound. I realized "I really don't want to be here. I thought this is what I wanted to do, and it's not." I pulled all-nighters during the week to finish problem sets and lived for the moment when I could pick up my guitar. What's wrong with that picture? At that point, I took some time off (which accounts for the six year plan). I think that to have exposure to some things that aren't music worked great for me, and I'm glad I did it that way. However, I'm a crappy piano player as a result!
Matt: Your introduction to game scoring came through the Monkey Island series. Could you share some of your experiences scoring this franchise alongside Michael Land and Clint Bajakian? Given you came into an existing franchise, how much freedom did you have with the music?
Peter McConnell: Well, that was Michael's aesthetic baby and he came up with the major themes. But, in the early days of LucasArts, we did projects that we split between the three of us and divided things up into strict spheres of influence. In Monkey Island 2, it was geographical: I had an island, Mike had an island, and Clint had an island. There were certain themes that were Michael's themes that we all employed, but then there were tracks we did ourselves that were our own themes. It was very communitarian that way. Once, Michael and I had a dispute over my arrangement of one of his pieces and we settled it by going to the project leader rather than have Michael say "that's my music, you have to do it this way".
Later on, we went on to a primary composer model and in that case, generally speaking, one guy would handle the whole score. Grim Fandango was all me, Outlaws was all Clint, and The Curse of Monkey Island was all Michael. But in the early days we all had equal voices in our own zones. It just seemed like the natural thing to do.
Matt: You mentioned Grim Fandango, another popular LucasArts adventure. Was it satisfying for you to compose a more thematically cohesive album, with its swing jazz approach. How did you ensure the music still fitted the game despite its unusual nature?
Peter McConnell: That was a great project. Tim Schafer's singular vision really shone in Grim Fandango in a way that still resonates. Tim gave me some Mexican folk music to listen to, and he also gave me a collection of Bogey films that I kept for way too long (laughs), so I listened to those old Max Steiner and Adolph Deutsch film noir scores.
In college, there wasn't a jazz department but there was a jazz course in the afro-American studies department. Great musicians would talk about their experiences, come in and play. So, I got to see Al Hirt play trumpet and talk about playing trumpet. There was also John Scofield, Milt Hinton, and Illinois Jacquet. That course really influenced me a lot, musically.
Finally, San Francisco has this sort of swing revival scene and there's a section of town where, on a given Friday night, you could listen to someone who played with Tom Waits, go across the street to get a taco and there'd be a mariachi band playing. So I had access to both of those crowds of people — it was a great resource.
Matt: Let's talk about that diverse range a little more. One of my favorite games that you've composed for is Psychonauts, which has an astonishing variety of styles and ensembles featured. Could you discuss how you developed such musical versatility over the years? Is it safe to assume that you listen to a wide variety of music?
Peter McConnell: Absolutely I do! Some guys say "I listen to all kinds of music" really mean everything from AC/DC to Led Zeppelin, both of which are bands that I love, by the way (laughs). I've gone through a lot of phases in my life: I was classically trained on the violin. That got me interested in fiddle, which got me interested in folk music, in turn getting me into singing a lot of Simon and Garfunkel kind of stuff. One of the things I did when I took time off from school was sing in the subways. Then, back in school I studied electronic music and the classical, "holy grail" iconic composer. I've also been a huge classical music fan, but later on I played in rock bands.
If I had to have a main instrument, it would be electric violin. That hasn't made it into a lot of my game stuff, though I did play some of the violin in Grim Fandango. I've really been in a lot of musical worlds, and I pride myself on being versatile.
Matt: And it shows. If we can talk about Star Wars for a bit, you have also been involved in numerous adaptations of the Star Wars series. Was it an enjoyable experience to be involved with the music of such an esteemed and well-established franchise, or are there many creative limitations too?
Peter McConnell: That's a good question. I'll start with the obvious negatives first: you're dealing with someone else's musical vision. Also, you're dealing with what can be an unforgiving fanbase that wants to hear things a certain way. And when you do enough of the titles they all start to get mixed up in your mind and you'll think "The Dark what? Which one was that again?" Finally, there's the one that I managed to avoid, which is to become known as the guy who does John Williams.
In my book, he (John Williams) is one of the very, very best. His control over what sound does to human emotion is absolutely unmatched. So, having the opportunity to look at his scores was incredible. It was like being in graduate school, but you're getting paid for it (laughs). I still jump at the opportunity to do any John Williams inspired project because, every time I do, I learn something.
Matt: Are you satisfied with the way the series' music has evolved over the years from MIDI incarnations to orchestral?
Peter McConnell: Well, I haven't been involved in the more recent versions, except for a tiny bit on The Force Unleashed and the Cantina music in The Old Republic. However, I love what Mark Griskey has done in this realm. I think current Star Wars scores are trying to do is to bring elements of the game music world, which is more rock and roll based, into the more classic John Williams sound.
The thing is, you can't do exactly John Williams forever and ever. They want to explore new areas of the universe, and I think it's great. I'm in favor of pushing the boundaries on that a little bit. Games are different from movies — they're more violent and tougher and the music needs to reflect that. John Williams' music is more whimsical.
Matt: On the majority of these LucasArts adventures, you synchronised the music with the gameplay using iMUSE. Could you elaborate on the concept of this program, which you co-developed with Michael Land? What do you think this interactivity brought to the in-game experience?
Peter McConnell: In its day, it was new and exciting. To me, it made the job of doing music for games extra fun. Who had ever written music before that looped, transposed and branched off in many different directions? I'm glad that the more useful parts of that have caught on and become standard in the industry, but I no longer consider myself to be an expert in interactive music (laughs). Though, they call it adaptive music now which is an interesting terminology change.
Matt: How so?
Peter McConnell: Well, the reason the phrase was changed to adaptive music is that it reflected the software fact that the music changes in response to what happens in the game. But, that leaves out a component of the picture out. It's a little fanciful, but to me it's a complete loop: the music changes in response to the game, and the listener changes in response to the music and then the listener does something different in the game. In that sense, it's truly interactive. Adaptive is (affects an over-the-top evil villain voice)... too subservient of a term in my humble opinion.
Matt: In your Harvard opinion, you mean...
Peter McConnell: (laughs) You got me. What I mean is too subservient of a term, in my humble opinion... but undoubtedly more correct (laughs again). I don't think I'm an expert any more.
Matt: Beyond LucasArts' titles, many gamers look back fondly at the music for the Sly series. Do you look back on those games fondly? Were these scores also enjoyable experiences for you? How did you add to the personality of the game with your distinctively styled scores for this series?
Peter McConnell: Hugely. I loved Sly! It takes me instantly back to being about nine or ten and it has such a handle on what a little person thinks is cool or fun. There are secret agents sneaking around, the little guy can overcome the big guy, there's flying... God, I love that about it.
When I had done a little of the music for the game, I realized I was in Henry Mancini's world. So, there's this other kind of jazz for Sly, and the Pink Panther cartoons were a huge influence on what I did for it.
Matt: Did you use that feeling for the music you composed for life simulation game Kinectimals. How did you produce suitably colored orchestral music for this title? Was it enjoyable to record the score with full orchestra?
Peter McConnell: Kinectimals had a pretty crazy schedule, but boy was it a fun project. Being able to do things with better production values is always great. Kinectimals has these elements of wonderment — "gee whiz" and "wow, that's amazing" — so it's a little different sort of message and it is a message that lends itself, and really asks for, a big orchestra. It was wonderful that Microsoft was willing to foot the bill for 2 hours and 23 minutes of orchestral music.
That was done in Europe with a German outfit called Dynamedion. They were a crack bunch of guys with engineers, orchestrators and access to a number of European orchestras and we really put them through the wringer (laughs). I'm extremely pleased with how it came out.
Kinectimals is a different thing than, say, Sly. It's more of an experience than a game. The gaming press seemed to be somewhat mixed about the game, but what I notice, though, is if you go on Amazon and look at the user reviews what you'll see is "my daughter loves this!" Now... let me tell you, that's something our business hasn't really been doing a lot of lately!
I'm a bit of a dark morose guy — I've played in a goth band and played all sorts of loud music — but what I really love is music for kids. Sly, Grim Fandango... they have those elements of fantasy, but they're not dark fantasies: they're rich fantasies from childhood. I really like to do the whimsical stuff. Oddly enough, I would even put Brütal Legend in that category despite it being an ostensibly violent game; it has this wonderful quality of loving the metal world that takes me back to being fourteen.
Matt: About Brütal Legend... you're a guitarist yourself. Was it satisfying to be so closely involved with the recording sessions? What were your musical inspirations for this project?
Peter McConnell: Most of my inspirations were classic stuff, especially Ozzy. But there is quite a range. for example, in Bladehenge where the music has this meditative Pink Floyd-inspired style. That really took me back to being in high school to when I'd say, "I'm going to do something really deep on my guitar, man." (laughs)
In terms of how the score came about, it evolved over a long period of time. It ultimately started with me playing guitar and getting in touch with that inner 14-year-old, then as the project progressed and it was picked up by EA, there was suddenly a more handsome budget to work with. We could actually do things like record at Skywalker Ranch, and it was fantastic to use that level of musicians.
For a lot of music, I started playing myself and we later tracked over them... but a lot of what I played stayed in there! A number of the non-screaming leads are me, and all of the acoustic stuff (that is in the non-licensed stuff) is me.
I brought in a guy named Bill Storkson and he's the real deal on guitar, and all of the stuff that had to be really huge we tracked over together. He played the rippin' leads and then we mixed it in his studio, which is calibrated for film work; that really kicked that score up to where it needed to be.
Matt: It must be gratifying, and appeal to your versatility, to do the soundtracks for Brütal Legend and Kinectimals within a two-year span.
Peter McConnell: That is what I call a great job (laughs). The business that I'm in is very stressful because you don't know when you're going to have work, and especially when you're supporting a family that can lead to some stress. The year I did Brütal Legend I was battling Lyme Disease. It had progressed pretty far and I had trouble walking. I had the IV treatment hanging out of my arm, and insurance wouldn't pay for it... it was a nightmare, but seems to be much better now.
I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that you deal with the vicissitudes of life as an independent musician and it can be tough, but at the same time when you do have work and your kids are there and you can be with them and play great music... wow. I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet.
Matt: I can understand that. To start to wrap up, I'd like to talk about your live performances. You mentioned that the electric violin is sort of your instrument but I saw on your Wikipedia Page that you play drums for the Australian band REXKRAMER. Given you're based in the United States, is this really the case?
Peter McConnell: I don't know much about REXKRAMER, and I'm not the drummer for them! They're an Australian band and I've never been to Australia, so I don't know about that Peter McConnell and it must be quite a pain for him to have people ask him about the score he did for Grim Fandango (laughs).
Anyway, that's not me, but I have done live performing. I've done a tiny bit of touring with my own band, an alternative group, up the west coast in the '90s and in Europe with a goth band. I really do love playing live — and I do miss it — but I don't do it much these days because I'm focused on composition and staying home with my family.
Matt: Many thanks for your time today, Peter. Do you have anything else you'd like to say about works, both past and upcoming? In addition, do you have anything you'd like to say to your fans around the world?
Peter McConnell: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write music. It is the most wonderful thing to do and if people didn't like it, I wouldn't be able to do it. I'm very, very grateful to everyone who enjoys it. I'm working on a bunch of stuff right now, and have a very busy year ahead of me.
Matt: Well, we look forward to hearing what you come up with. Once again, thank you Peter!
Many thanks to Pierre Langer for kindly introducing us to Peter McConnell, and Matt Diener for taking the time to coordinate this interview.