Frank Klepacki Interview: Command & Conquer and Beyond (April 2011)
Frank Klepacki has appealed to a legion of fans with his action-packed contemporary scores for the Command & Conquer series. However, the composer is actually experienced in composing music in a wide variety of styles and moods. He has worked on numerous other games over his two decade career — spanning The Legend of Kyrandia to Star Wars: Empire at War — between releasing six acclaimed solo albums and making live guitar performances.
In this interview, Frank Klepacki offers a comprehensive insight into his scores at Westwood Studios and Petroglyph Games, placing the Command & Conquer series in the context of his other works. He also shares his story of coming to fame, his inspirations for his solo albums, and his thoughts on the changes in the industry. Finally he gives some insight into his upcoming projects, including End of Nations and Rise of Immortals. It is an essential read for fans of the composer and Command & Conquer.
Interview Subject: Frank Klepacki
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Frank Klepacki, many thanks for talking to us today. While you're principally known as a rock composer, your music is actually incredibly diverse. How have you come to develop such a rich and individual musicality over the years? Do you pride yourself on being versatile?
Frank Klepacki: Thanks for having me. Yes, I do pride myself on being diverse, and a lot of that has do with my growth over the years as a composer. I had a unique opportunity at a young age to start in the game industry, and I was open to everything I could learn including researching and dissecting different styles of music that would pertain to any given project I would work on.
I would say a combination of my diverse tastes in music and exposure to other music either through the team or my audio director had a lot to do with my diversity in composing in my early years. After that I started to develop more of my own style or approach to composing that became more prevalent in my later work.
Chris: The scores for Command & Conquer and Command & Conquer: Red Alert were your breakthrough works. Looking back, what do you think made these scores so fresh and enjoyable for so many gamers?
Frank Klepacki: What made these scores fresh in my opinion was that, first of all, streamed music was a new technology and we took advantage of it. With that in mind, I had the privilege to work on modern synths for the time period that allowed me to create something a bit more sophisticated than the "general midi" scores that were common in games at the time.
After a meeting with the president and audio director, creativity and diversity was actually encouraged. I was able to draw influences from anything across the board and experiment to see what would work and what wouldn't. This seems to be a trait not found as often in today's world of development.
Chris: Do you think these scores helped to define your musical personality, or do you feel you have sometimes been typecast as a result of them?
Frank Klepacki: Working on those games did come to associate me with that type of scoring, and most people probably think of me as more of a rock / contemporary composer. But they wouldn't have to look far to discover I do a ton more from full orchestra, to funk, to techno, to medieval, I can rise to the call of what the project needs, and have done so now going on 20 years.
That being said, I don't mind when I'm typecast either. I enjoy doing my C&C style music all day long, so it's always fun no matter how often it's asked of me.
Chris: The scores for Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun and Command & Conquer: Renegade were particularly richly styled and impressively implemented. How do you feel you developed the series' sound on these titles? While the experimental former received some criticism, do you stand by the approach you took?
Frank Klepacki: With Tiberian Sun, I had started off with a few pieces that were in line with what I'd done in the previous titles, and I was looking forward to beefing up quality on the basis of the original, since this was the sequel. However, I was given a strict direction change that made me have to re-think the approach to more ambient and post-apocalyptic.
At the time, I was spreading myself very thin between a few projects and I was a bit spent creatively. So I had Jarrid Mendelson brought in to help contribute and I think the collaboration went well. I particularly enjoyed the tracks we composed together in the same room — bouncing ideas back and forth and tracking on the fly was fun.
I can see why the music got a mixed reaction when comparing it to the past games at that point — because it was a bit of a redirect, but it wasn't my decision. After the game shipped, It was quite apparent to the team, when doing its expansion pack Firestorm, that the adrenaline pumping tunes were missed and they needed to be brought back for the expansion.
Chris: I imagine these developments subsequently influenced your approach on Command & Conquer: Renegade?
Frank Klepacki: It's funny that you tied that question in with Renegade, because I had actually brought in my early concept ideas for Tiberian Sun that were rejected and put them in Renegade. Particularly the theme "Stomp" — an early version of this theme was used in early Tiberian Sun trailers.
Renegade was a fun project to work on. I was a fan of FPS games and liked the fact that we were doing one in the C&C universe. It also gave me the opportunity to write a theme for the character Havoc, "Got A Present For Ya". I had done the original commando voice for Command & Conquer, and Havoc was a similar character, so I identified with it right away and used the melodic hook quite a bit throughout the game, particularly in the cinematic scenes.
Naturally the project gave me the chance to rework some of the classic C&C themes as well and incorporate those in the mix, since the story took place in that setting. The C&C mode in that game was a ton of fun.
Chris: Westwood Studios were involved in pioneering RPG projects too, including the Legend of Kyrandia series and Lands of Lore series. Having scored many of these titles simultaneously with the Command & Conquer series, how far do you feel they influenced you and your music? Do you consider any of these projects particular landmarks to you?
Frank Klepacki: They are all so completely different from each other. I can tell you that working on Kyrandia and Lands of Lore series were very much part of my musical growth.
Kyrandia allowed for and encouraged a lot of musical creativity, all at the request from the team no less. While the original game was primarily new-age inspired, The Legend of Kyrandia II was a mix of more contemporary and whimsical themes. The third game was more funky with influence from the previous two. So I think that in the end, the whole series was this fun quirky fantasy with a lot of personality due to the creativity nurtured by the team. At a glance you may think its a bit all over the place. But taking the time to play it through, you find that it breaks up repetition and keeps things new and interesting.
The original Lands of Lore was very much traditional medieval fantasy, mixed with the influence of new-age that bled over from working on Kyrandia simultaneously. But I wrote a few gems in that one I was pretty proud of. When Lands of Lore 2 came around, not only did it feel good to be working with streaming music and higher quality instruments, we had also brought on David Arkenstone to contribute to the soundtrack as well; our two styles gave the game some different personalities, especially in certain areas of the game. We did the same thing in Lands of Lore 3.
Chris: In contrast, Earth and Beyond was released a decade after The Legend of Kyrandia. How do you think your development as a composer influenced this project?
Frank Klepacki: By the time I worked on Earth and Beyond — as it was one of the last projects we did at Westwood before it was closed — I was more confident in my approach and skills as well as my ability to switch my brain to different styles more easily.
I approached the Terran music as the type of music that those people might listen to (since you do quite a lot of travelling) in addition to using it as a basis of their more cinematic or battle moments. A lot of Blade Runner influence there, but with more modern synths allowing for more groove in the mix. With the Progen race, the music is very militant, proud and classically-influenced, while still being in a sci-fi setting. Of course, it isn't anything new but I rather enjoyed the two distinct styles.
It was really a shame it didn't get to have a longer online life. It was very atmospheric — this game could have very well fit as a precursor to Mass Effect, as the mood of that game strikes me similarly.
Chris: You mentioned Blade Runner there... You have also been celebrated for appropriately scoring video game adaptations of this franchise, as well as Dune. Could you elaborate on how you preserved the sound of their film counterparts while adding your distinctive touches? Was it enjoyable to homage some of your favourite scores on these projects?
Frank Klepacki: Lets start with Dune II. I got to be part of some great history there with the first real-time strategy game. I drew some influence from the movie and from the other Cryo Dune game at the time, though I was encouraged to be creative and do my own thing with it. So I had fun with it.
Working with FM synthesis cards back in those days was limiting in the sense that you only had a hand full of monophonic voices to work with, so in order to create a more interesting score, I would push the limitations of the software. I was inputting by hand all the constant instruments changes, tempo changes, time signature changes, and trying to cleverly segue themes in to each other so that the player would really feel like the music was changing with the action.
I can't tell you how delighted I was to revisit those themes and make them what I always envisioned them to be when we remade the game as Dune 2000. I consider that score to be my definitive Dune work.
Blade Runner was great to work on and, since it was one of my favourite sci-fi movies, I spent a lot of effort hand-picking and dialling in each synth instrument custom to sound like the ones used in the original film. I re-created from scratch and by ear the main themes from the film, and added my own to the mix in the same style. Some around the office commented they preferred my versions of the themes because they sounded cleaner, since it was re-created with digital recording technology. I was happy it won a GDC award for best soundtrack for that game that year.
Chris: At Westwood Studios, you pioneered physical album releases of many of your projects. How did you compose and produce the music for such releases so that they still stood up well on a stand-alone level, much like studio albums would? Do you think such releases were important for giving video game music credibility as art and entertainment?
Frank Klepacki: I can't take credit for pioneering the physical album releases — my audio director Paul Mudra and Westwood's marketing department started that off. Producing CDs independently was a newer concept at the time, and I never thought video game music would merit its own official soundtrack release. I think it was intended initially as more of a fun bonus — to have an extra promotional item for the game, and of course I was flattered and on board with it right away.
As far as how it held up musically on a stand alone level, I can credit that to my approach to the music. It was a contemporary approach, as if I was writing stand-alone songs but with a soundtrack sensibility that complemented the gameplay.
What I don't think anyone expected was how popular the soundtracks would really become. I dismissed the idea of a game soundtrack as something only die-hards would enjoy, but when Red Alert came out, it really took off, and the soundtrack had become staggeringly popular and to a much larger audience. The constant fan mail was overwhelming. Of course the game certainly was an instant classic itself, but I was floored that the soundtrack was held in equally high regard to the point of winning awards. It blew my mind.
Then I realized I was on to something stylistically here — I was connecting with the game's audience, and the idea of a meaningful game soundtrack obviously had become relevant. So in the end I think it was a great idea in general and I love the fact that so many games see releases of soundtracks now. Westwood certainly had a hand in pioneering that.
Chris: Since leaving Westwood Studios, you have gone on to produce numerous original albums of your own too. How did your approach for such albums differ from soundtrack releases? Did you find them more creatively liberating than your game scores?
Frank Klepacki: It was starting to become more apparent to me that the popularity of several C&C soundtracks had given me a name and a style people were identifying with me. And by the time I was working on Renegade, I had massed over time a collection of different songs that I composed for fun, ideas I never finished, or themes I'd brought in from home thinking they might fit one of our games but was rejected, etc. I thought I've got enough here to put out an album of my own, so why don't I?
So I put out Morphscape as my first solo album and a good friend of mine helped me greatly with getting my first website together. In the early 2000's the Internet had really blossomed into a place where I felt you could connect more easily to an audience if you had the right tools in place. Buying things on the Internet was feeling like a more stable concept. Businesses that specialized in helping independent artists sell their own merchandise had emerged and I watched this over time to make sure I knew it was reputable. The website, album, and signing up with an indie distributer was my launching pad.
Chris: Focusing in on your original albums, it would be wonderful to learn about your favourites. Which of your albums do you feel is your most significant achievement? Are there any tracks that you are particularly fond of?
Frank Klepacki: I'd say Infiltrator is my favourite complete album. Front to back the tracks all flow very well from beginning to end. I was hot off the heels of working on Red Alert 3 at the time so I was in that frame of mind and feeling inspired. It might be safe to say that, if I were commissioned to contribute more music to that project — and had more input in bringing back some of my signature Red Alert style — some of that album could have been candidate for it.
I'm also fond of Viratia for the comic story part of it. That was something I always wanted to try my hand at, and I thought it would be a unique idea to score to my own comic story.
I'm fond of several tracks on all my albums. Some of my favourites are Machines Collide, Blaster, Construct, Ownage, Krung Kick, Decible, Smack Dat, He Lives. Many of them are featured in The Ultimate Fighting Championship programs on Spike and Pay Per View.
Chris: To coincide with your long-awaited return on Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, you memorably brought "Hell March 3" to the live stage. Having come from a band background, was this a natural transition? Would you enjoy doing more live performances in the future?
Frank Klepacki: It was a natural thing for me. I've been a performer most of my life. The difference though, is that there is nothing like a real live symphony. And the coolest thing is that you don't see that every day, so it's more special of an event. And the fact that video game music is being played more thanks to organizations like Video Games Live and Games In Concert, brings more awareness to not only the viability of game soundtracks, but also to the symphony itself.
There's a whole new generation of young people whose memorable experiences are with video games as their top choice of entertainment. And to be able to experience the beauty of that music live performed by a symphony is just as relevant as classical enthusiasts wanting to hear Bach and Beethoven, or movie score buffs wanting to hear John Williams, etc. I would totally enjoy doing more performances, and I'm planning on another guest appearance in the near future.
Chris: You are one of the few American game composers to have remained in the industry since the NES days, way back with DragonStrike. How would you compare the game music of then and now? Are you satisfied with the current state of the industry or do you prefer the music of past eras?
Frank Klepacki: It was more simple back then. You had fewer options, so you utilized those options and made the best of it. Now that there are no limits, the expectation is that music will be on par with all other forms of media. And it is.
However, the one thing I miss in the industry in general is the nurturing of creativity — not being afraid to trying new things or give a different spin. I wish more devs and or publishers would allow their composers to bring more creativity and experimentation to the table with the titles of today. The more you ask people to sound like something else, the more you homogenize the music scores in games to the point that they don't seem special because they sound like everything else. Granted everything has basically been done nowadays, but there is still interpretation that can be unique if given the chance.
I'm a little rebellious that way. I don't have any issue with doing what a client wants, but if I can offer an example or suggestion of a little something extra to show where we can be little different, I will.
Chris: You continue to pursue game scoring through collaborations with Petroglyph Games, made of former Westwood employees. Could you share your experiences collaborating with them on titles such as Universe at War and Panzer General: Allied Assault? Is such work reminiscent of Westwood days or are the circumstances to different?
Frank Klepacki: The similarities are that Petroglyph has carried over some of the company culture that Westwood had, though it really has its own identity for sure. I work well with the teams and I enjoy all aspects of my job.
Working on Universe at War was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the vision of the game and the three totally different factions and styles of play. I think it was underrated and totally under-marketed — it could have really blossomed if we were able to do an expansion.
It was a reminder of Westwood days for me in that I got to be creative and had no real restrictions. I took feedback from the team on smaller details but, for the most part, I had free reign. And Sci-Fi is one of my favourite types of genres, so creating the sound effects were very fun and enjoyable coming up with unique sounds, even alien languages. And the music was a bit of an ode to my C&C days in some tracks — that was intentional.
With Panzer General: Allied Assault, that was a different type of game. It was turn based, so I focused more on drama and mood; the music was more in the background and not as tense, which I think really suited the game well. It was a different style game than I had worked on before so that was a nice change of pace, and I had fun playing it.
Chris: At Petroglyph, you also received the opportunity to score another movie adaptation: Empire At War. As a fan of the Star Wars movies, what was it to score its video game adaptation?
Frank Klepacki: Star Wars: Empire At War was my dream project. It was also fitting that its the first project I got be an audio director on, which meant I'd be responsible for the quality and implementation of all audio content from the sound effects, to the music, to the voice casting.
I must say it was also the smoothest project I have ever worked on in terms of development from the audio perspective. As a life long fan of the films, I knew the audio and music like the back of my hand. So every attention to detail was on my radar and I made sure everything I wanted made it in the game. Working with LucasArts audio and voice department was also fantastic. They were very supportive and I was honoured that they were happy with my work.
Even after working on the expansion Forces of Corruption, I was not ready to stop working on Star Wars. I feel as though I could work on those forever and never get tired of it. I still watch the movies regularly, as well as the Clone Wars series. I'm enjoying playing The Force Unleashed 2 as we speak. I could talk Star Wars all day long!
The most meaningful thing for me, naturally though, was being able to contribute my original music to the series. With that in mind, I was adamant that I not let my eagerness in the way of authenticity. So I approached it with the idea that I would contribute new themes to areas of the game that were new and not featured in the films, and I would absolutely have the John Williams music where it was in the films and otherwise felt appropriate.
The first piece of music I can ever remember impacting me in a big way was the Main Theme to Star Wars as a young kid. I knew I was watching something special and all I could see so far were a bunch of words scrolling up the screen. THAT is the kind of impact of great music can have. I felt as though I'd been subconsciously grooming myself to achieve that ever since... low and behold, dream come true.
Chris: You're working on several new projects, including End of Nations, Rise of Immortals, and a new charity project. Could you give us a glimpse into what to expect from you in the future? How have you approached these various projects?
Frank Klepacki: End of Nations is going to musically feel a combination of epic, fun, thematic, and adrenaline pumping. My signature approach applied to orchestra aggression and mood, combined with contemporary and worldly elements mixed throughout. We've already recorded the main theme with a live orchestra and I've debuted it with Video Games Live, which I will probably guest appear with this year once again.
Rise of Immortals is a fun more action-arcade style MOBA game. It has a variety of different fun characters and so the music is more suited to that, combining a bit of fantasy and contemporary sound. Emphasis on the fun.
The charity project I'm part of is for One Big Album, coordinated by the Game Music Initiative and features several prominent composers in the industry. It's a cool idea that allows all of us to contribute a unique track not associated with any game — enabling us to be as creative as we want. Of course, I'm all about championing that sort of thing, so I was happy to be a part of it. Not to mention it can only help spread awareness of the composers in our industry and showcase a good cause.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Frank Klepacki. Do you have anything else you'd like to say about your life and works? In addition, is there any message you'd like to send to your ever-strong fanbase? Best wishes for the future.
Frank Klepacki: Sure thing. I feel very appreciative of where I am today in career and life, and the fans are a big part of that. Thanks so much for the ongoing support through the years, it really means a lot and motivates me to keep creating.
My website will be re-launched soon, possibly in May, (that's why it hasn't been updated in a long time) so I'm looking forward to that. Once that happens, news will be more frequent as I do have quite a bit planned this year.
And finally, a big thanks to all who legally purchase my albums. You are the ones who really respect the music by fully supporting it and I am grateful. I will certainly "Keep 'em coming!" - Frank Klepacki