Jonathan Geer Interview: Rising Star of Indie Game Music (August 2012)
Jonathan Geer is one of indie game music's rising stars. Starting out only some years ago as a professional game music composer, Geer has already accumulated a diverse and impressive portfolio, including Kablooey!, The Oil Blue, and Dragon Portal. This year, Geer released his most impressive and ambitious works to date, Azkend 2 and Neptune Gasoline.
In this extensive interview, Geer reflects on the ins and outs of being an independent game music composer: the challenges young composers face when they try to get into the industry, the role of online music stores like Bandcamp, and what it takes to remain competitive in the market. He discusses his various scores, live performance work, and provides insight into upcoming his upcoming projects, including the much-awaited Owlboy.
Interview Subject: Jonathan Geer
Interviewer: Simon Elchlepp
Editor: Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Simon Elchlepp
Simon: Jonathan Geer, thanks for taking the time today to talk about your work. To start things off, could you give us some information about your musical background and education?
Jonathan Geer: I got started in music at the age of ten when I had an interest in the piano. My mother was a very good amateur musician and taught me a few basics, before deciding I really needed a teacher for private lessons. Once I started playing piano, it became a huge part of my life and ever since I had started playing I was composing as well. I could sit and just noodle on the piano for hours at a time, much to my younger brother's dismay.
I developed a love for film music a little later on and thought it was something I might like to seriously pursue. I ended up majoring in Film Scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. After graduating I returned to Texas. (Surprisingly, I could not afford to live in Boston on my post-graduate composer's salary.) After a few years of teaching lots of private piano lessons and working as a church musician, I decided I really wanted to make a living composing music. I sent out about a million emails to various game developers, filmmakers, and music libraries and approximately three of them showed some interest in my work. From that scattershot beginning, I developed some good relationships and regular clients.
Simon: Did you first write music for films before moving into professional game soundtracks?
Jonathan Geer: I actually haven't ended up doing a lot of scoring directly to film. I ended up writing more for music libraries. My music ends up in lots of different TV shows, films and documentaries, but I'm never scoring them directly.
Simon: Your earliest involvement in game music seems to be your work on Project Majestic Mix, a remix project that paid homage to Nobuo Uematsu's works. As this was one of the earliest game music remix projects outside of Japan — long before the proliferation of OCR fan-mix albums, for example — it would be very interesting to hear your recollections about how your involvement with Majestic Mix. What inspired your cover of "Elia, Maiden of Water"?
Jonathan Geer: I think I met Stephen Kennedy (the director of Project Majestic Mix) just by researching online and discovering projects that looked interesting to me. I emailed him and expressed my interest in what he was doing and, fortunately for me, he invited me on board.
"Elia, Maiden of Water" had a very nice melody and I thought I could do some fun things with it. I made two very different arrangements of the piece. One is purely orchestral and very lush and romantic. I just wanted to let the melody shine and write some interesting things around it with the harmonies. Going back and listening to it, I'm tempted to remake it with some of the amazing new string samples I have now. We've come so far in terms of sampling instruments since I created that and it would be fun to re-work it.
The other arrangement of the piece goes in a completely different direction with much more electronic elements and drumbeats.
Simon: Your first professional game scores were created for a number of titles by indie developer Vertigo Gaming, with whom you've collaborated regularly since. How did this collaboration come about? How do you generally scout for projects?
Jonathan Geer: I met David Galindo, the man behind Vertigo Gaming, online like I've met most of the people I work with. I've been very fortunate to find really wonderful independent developers to work with over the years. David is just an amazing guy who comes up with these incredibly inventive games and I'm really happy that I get to be a part of that. I think we've developed a great working relationship over the years and I'm hoping to collaborate with him on many future projects. He actually has a game coming out this month called Cook, Serve, Delicious! It features the most extensive soundtrack I've done for him yet.
In terms of scoring gigs in general, almost all of it is based on building up personal relationships, all of which came about because I contacted developers online. Very rarely does someone just find me out of the blue and ask for music. It has happened, but it's most certainly not the norm. You gotta work hard for the money!
Simon: In general, in how far do you think it is easier these days for young aspiring game composers to get their first scoring gigs, considering the rise of independent games in the past few years?
Jonathan Geer: Considering the indie gaming boom, there are definitely a LOT of opportunities out there for young, aspiring game composers. On the flip side, there are a LOT of young, aspiring game composers out there. And a lot of them are willing to work for free or next to nothing.
I did my share of composing for free and it's really hard. You can meet some great people and forge lasting connections, but sometimes it's kind of a crapshoot. I think you just have to be incredibly careful about what you decide to invest your time and talents in, especially when you're doing it for free. Every once in a while, I do something as a labor of love, but you have to really believe in something because you're giving a lot of yourself up to do that.
Simon: From the start of your career as a video game composer, your works were quite diverse — the jazzy swing of Kablooey! was followed by the soothing ambience of Liquisity 2 and the industrial-laced atmospherics of The Oil Blue. How easy do you find it to jump between musical genres and in how far does your academic musical education and performing in various bands help your music versatility?
Jonathan Geer: I find it incredibly fun to jump between different musical genres. I think I would get bored if I had to write in the same genre all the time. I've always loved music that crosses through many different genres or is just hard to pin down.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to play in a great high school band and an even more amazing jazz band. I had absolutely no experience with jazz at all until the bass player for my high school jazz band failed and the director asked me to step in just playing the bass part on the keyboard. I was incredibly nervous, but it was a good way to ease me into the world of jazz. After that, I stuck with it and really started learning how to read chord symbols and leads sheets and how to improvise. I ended up really enjoying it, and though I don't play much jazz these days, that experience definitely helped shape me as a musician and composer.
Simon: Many of your soundtracks are written for titles where gamers need to constantly focus and stay on their toes, either on a strategy game like The Oil Blue or fast-paced match-3 puzzlers like Dragon Portals. In such a setting, what role do you think does a game's soundtrack play — how much attention is it allowed to attract to itself and in how far does it have to stay in the background to not distract gamers? Generally, is there something about writing music for these kinds of genres that attracts you, or is this career focus so far more a result of which projects you've been hired for?
Jonathan Geer: You've really hit on something that is personally probably my biggest challenge in writing soundtracks for games. I always struggle with my music getting too overwhelming for a game and I usually have to reign myself in a bit. I know it's an issue for me though, so I try to anticipate it and find ways around it.
As far as the role that a game's soundtrack plays, that can vary from game to game. In the three games you mentioned, the music is definitely setting a particular mood appropriate to the game. But it's not really telling the player they need to hurry up and match a bunch of tiles. It's not nearly as frantic as the gameplay itself. Especially in the case of something like The Oil Blue, the music is completely setting the mood and providing an atmosphere. The gameplay can be tense and force players to stay on their toes at all times, but the music doesn't necessarily need to mimic that. The music can add another character to the game, and in that sense, give it more depth.
My career focus definitely wasn't specifically on match-3 or puzzle games, but that is what I got hired for. And I've been able to write a surprisingly varied set of soundtracks within that gaming genre. Match-3 games became so huge and developers had to think of new and different ways to put a spin on that same basic idea, but that leads to more variety and interest in the soundtracks for those games too, so it's good for composers.
Simon: Another game that you scored was Sparkle, and its orchestral soundtrack has quite a bit of Danny Elfman's whimsy à la The Nightmare Before Christmas about it — something the developers themselves acknowledged in a Facebook post. Where did this inspiration for Sparkle come from, and how close did you stay to this stylistic template? How difficult did you find it to channel Elfman's distinctive style of music?
Jonathan Geer: In this instance, I was already so familiar with Danny Elfman and his sound that it really was not difficult to channel that into the soundtrack. Sometimes it makes it easier when you have that kind of template and palette of sound to work with. Then you're not starting with a completely blank slate. I feel like I managed to emulate Elfman's style, but still add my own personal touches to come up with something unique but recognizable at the same time.
Simon: Earlier this year, you released your two most ambitious game soundtracks to date, Azkend 2 and Neptune Gasoline. Azkend 2 (which we reviewed here) received a sweeping, exuberant orchestral sound that not many would expect in a match-3 puzzler. Why was the decision made to go with this type of music and what kind of atmosphere did you try to evoke through the use of a full (synth) orchestra? Did you have any particular musical influences on this score or composers that inspired you?
Jonathan Geer: I think the developer, 10tons, really wanted the game to feel like a grand adventure. They had professional voiceovers for the story scenes and gorgeous hand drawn backgrounds throughout the game. They've always been known for their high level of polish and they just took it to a new level with Azkend 2. And this kind of big, lush, adventurous soundtrack is really right up my alley and probably my strongest genre as a composer. My goal was to just write something very romantic and big. Sampling has come so far in recent years that it's possible to get a really amazing orchestral sound.
Simon: Like Sparkle, Azkend 2 is an unusually symphonic score for an indie game, which more often work with electronic or chiptune stylings. What motivates you to write in this idiom and in how far does your formal education in film scoring help you to create these quiet dense orchestral pieces? Did it feel like a big step up, given that Sparkle was somewhat smaller in scale and sound?
Jonathan Geer: Ever since I started getting into film scores as a teenager, I've always loved that huge, lush orchestral sound. I think most of my ability to write in that style comes from all the listening I did growing up. It's a sound I'm very comfortable with, so composing the soundtrack to Azkend 2 was very fluid and enjoyable.
I think it is a step up from Sparkle in terms of the richness and fullness of sound. A lot of that, like I've mentioned before, has to do with the quality of orchestral samples today. The more the samples improve, the less limitations I have as a composer. It is really amazing how quickly things have progressed in the sampling world.
Simon: On that note, how much time and effort goes into maintaining and updating your sample libraries for like these and do you think that it's a necessary process to remain competitive amongst the many other independent game composers out there? Is maintaining your sound libraries more of a burden or something that enables you to even better express your creative ideas through improved samples?
Jonathan Geer: A LOT of time and effort goes into the technology as well as the business side of things. I feel like I'm lucky if even half of my work-day is spent actually writing music. For the kind of work I'm doing, it is an absolute necessity to have a cutting-edge library of sounds. If you're using anything that sounds outdated or cheap, you just can't be competitive. It is a lot of work, especially when things don't run perfectly like you want them too. I definitely wouldn't say it's a burden, but it can be frustrating when you have one of those days you feel like you've wasted away just fiddling with the technology side of things. It's actually really exciting as far as just the sheer amount of incredibly high-quality samples being released these days. It's kind of insane. In a good way. I find myself saying "Well... I can write it off on my taxes at least..." way too often.
Simon: Neptune Gasoline is a curious product, in the sense that it's a score for a game that had been shelved before it was finished. What design assets were you given by Vertigo Gaming to get an idea of what the game would look like, and how were you able to get a good idea of what your music was supposed to underscore, given that developer David Galindo apparently changed the game's genre several times? Are the pieces that we hear on the Neptune Gasoline album finished compositions ready to be inserted into the game, or might they have changed if David had tweaked the game further?
Jonathan Geer: David had sent me a few screenshots and described some of the game to me before I started working on the music. There wasn't an incredibly clear direction for the music, but that left me open for some experimentation, which can be fun. This was one of the hardest soundtracks I've written so far. I'm not sure if it's because of the troubles with the game itself or because I was trying to be too experimental in some of my first attempts for the music.
I definitely had some grand ambitions of creating something really unique for the game and I did do a lot of experimenting in the beginning. At first I was trying to go with a kind of minimalist approach reminiscent of John Adams music. I was writing some very thick, dense arrangements in the beginning and it was not quite right for the game. Eventually I settled on a kind of orchestral/electronic hybrid sound that was more accessible. I did include some of my earlier failed attempts on the soundtrack though. I always think it's interesting to hear the things that don't make the final cut.
So most of the album that's available on Bandcamp are tracks that are finished compositions ready to fit into the game. Of course, there might have been some changes once they made it into the game, but for the most part they are complete. The last two tracks are some of my original ideas that were discarded, so they would not have been in the game at all.
Simon: Speaking a bit more about Neptune Gasoline's music, it is one of your most multi-faceted scores so far, while its semi-ambient, futuristic synths show some parallels with The Oil Blue. Do you feel that there is a musical evolution that occurred between these two scores? Given that many soundtracks for sci-fi games go with an atmospheric, synth-based sound, how influenced were you by other works in this genre and what do you think sets Neptune Gasoline apart?
Jonathan Geer: I don't think it was so much an evolution between the two scores as it was different music requirements for each game, but since there are some definite similarities between the music, it's a good comparison to make. I definitely wanted to have more rhythmic elements in Neptune Gasoline. A lot of The Oil Blue was very still and moody, and while there are definitely those elements in Neptune Gasoline, I wanted to give the overall sound just a little more drive.
I guess I didn't really look specifically to other sci-fi game scores before working on this soundtrack. The one very conscious decision in my failed beginning attempts was to go for a minimalist style that included orchestral and electronic elements. I looked to composers like John Adams and Phillip Glass to shape that sound, but it was maybe a bit too academic or esoteric for the game. It was fun to try something different though.
Simon: Your music was first released as a number of choose-your-price albums on music online store Bandcamp. What made you choose this particular website to release your music and what was your motivation behind offering your albums for free? Given that Azkend 2 and Neptune Gasoline sell on Bandcamp for a set price, how do you decide which scores to charge for?
Jonathan Geer: I like Bandcamp's aesthetic and simplicity. It's a very clean, elegant layout and there's not a lot of clutter. It's also very simple to setup albums there and there's no upfront cost. It takes a little more work to get something up on iTunes and there is a cost to that as well. Since most of my soundtracks are for relatively small independent games, it just didn't seem worth it to put them on iTunes or any other similar services. I offer most of the soundtracks for free because I mainly just want to get the music to as many people as possible. I also figured if somebody got an iOS game for free or paid 99 cents for it, then they probably won't want to shell out much more than that for just the soundtrack.
There wasn't any deep thought process that went into the decision to charge for Azkend 2 and Neptune Gasoline. I guess it was really just an experiment to see if people would be willing to pay for the music. And those two soundtracks did feel a bit bigger in scope than the music I was offering for free.
Simon: Lastly, considering the discussions that have been going on for years about whether digital music sales actually deliver any significant benefits for artists, it would be interesting to hear your take on the situation. Do you think that a website like Bandcamp is a meaningful way for independent artists — and game composers specifically — to earn money?
Jonathan Geer: If I had to rely solely on income from digital music sales on sites like Bandcamp, I have no idea what I'd do. I'd probably be living under a bridge somewhere in Austin. Keeping it weird and homeless. The amount of money I make on Bandcamp is so miniscule. It's like "Oh awesome! That will pay for my 2-liter of Mountain Dew this month!". This is not really too unexpected or strange though. And I mean no ill will towards Bandcamp. I think Bandcamp is great and I'm glad it exists. I'm just an unknown artist selling very small game soundtracks and making a couple bucks here and there. Thank you Bandcamp. No, seriously, thank you.
I think it's really hard to make a living solely off digital sales from sites like Bandcamp. You just have to be in that top tier of musicians who are more widely known and that's always going to be a very small percentage of the working musicians out there. There is so much music and content out there that it's hard to get people's attention. Fortunately, there are other ways to make money as a musician these days. The majority of my income comes from all the writing for libraries I've done. I have a pretty extensive collection of music in both royalty-free libraries as well as more exclusive higher-end libraries. Having all that music out there generates a passive income for me that I can actually live on. And that's awesome.
Simon: One of your upcoming projects is Owlboy, a 2D sidescroller with gorgeous art design and a steampunk feel. In an earlier conversation, you've mentioned that you've been working on this game for a few years now and that it's probably the biggest title you've worked on so far. What caused this long gestation process and to what extent did you have to update tracks on Owlboy? What made this the biggest project in your career so far and is it a work that you're particularly proud of?
Jonathan Geer: The long gestation process is an issue with a lot of the more ambitious indie games, I think. Owlboy is a relatively large game considering how small the team is. And as exciting as it is to be able to work remotely with people all over the world, it does make things more difficult sometimes. The rest of the team is in Norway and I'm in Texas. I'm always going back and tweaking tracks I've written, so that's always a process regardless of the long development time.
Most of the video game soundtracks I've done are much smaller in scope than Owlboy and they just don't require as much audio. I'm also doing all the sound effects for Owlboy, which I very rarely do on most of the other games I've worked on. I'm definitely proud of what I've done so far with Owlboy and I think it's going to be a really special game once it's finished.
Simon: Last year, you performed music from Owlboy during a live gig in Austin, Texas. Was this the first time that you performed music from your game soundtracks at a concert, and can you reminisce a bit about this special occasion? How much work went re-arranging the music for the ensemble that performed on the day (violin, viola, cello, piano)?
Jonathan Geer: I think this was indeed the first time I'd performed my game soundtracks at a concert. It definitely took a little time to re-arrange the music for piano quartet. It was all very last minute. I think I only had about a week to come up with all the arrangements. I am failing to mention that I brought it all on myself though.
Owlboy was being featured at Fantastic Fest and they wanted the developers of all the featured games to participate in an hour-long discussion about the game and the development process. The rest of the team was in Norway, so it was left to me and Julie Royce (the artist's girlfriend who also lives in Austin) to come up with something. I was a bit nervous about the idea of just sitting and talking on stage about the game for an hour, so I asked the organizers if I could do a concert of sorts. They were actually really excited about the idea, so as soon as I got the go-ahead, I went full-steam ahead on the arrangements. I had just started playing with the cellist, Tony Rogers, in a piano trio the week before and thankfully, he was gung-ho to do it.
It was definitely one of the most surreal, strange gigs I've ever played, but it was loads of fun. It took place at The Highball (a bowling alley / live music / karaoke venue) in Austin. Everything was setup for Fantastic Fest, so the place was filled with old arcade cabinets and tables full of people gaming on laptops. My best friend was playing Owlboy on one of the laptops and they were projecting that onto a huge screen behind us on stage while we performed the music. It was a unique experience for sure.
Simon: Can we maybe expect to hear more live renditions of your game soundtracks sometime in the future?
Jonathan Geer: I'd love to do more live game music from my soundtracks as well as other composers'. It's one of those back-burner ideas that doesn't get too much attention unfortunately. Once my ASCAP royalties start ramping up, I'll be all over it though. Just you wait.
Simon: To close the interview, we would love to hear a bit about your current non-gaming related musical ventures, for example the Austin Piazzolla Quintet. How do you juggle all your different activities such as performing and scoring? Is there any particular area that you look to focus on at some stage?
Jonathan Geer: I actually love having the variety of different things to do. It's really refreshing to work as a musician and composer in all these different ways. Playing with the Austin Piazzolla Quintet (APQ) is incredibly rewarding and it's also fun to have such a fantastic group of musicians to write music for. I've also been playing with a piano trio recently, the Waterloo Trio, and that has been a blast as well. We do a bit of classical music, but then we also branch out into pop, jazz, fiddle tunes and lots of originals I've written.
There are some different things I'd probably focus on if money weren't a concern. I'm hoping my royalties and library sales/placements will get to a point where I have a little more freedom to focus on different projects that I'm interested in. Like more live video game soundtracks!
Simon: Lastly, there's an interesting bit on your website that your music has appeared on American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Access Hollywood, and numerous other shows — a claim not many independent game composers can make. Can you elaborate a bit on how your music made it into these prime-time shows?
Jonathan Geer: Those placements all came as a result of writing for different music libraries. It's really a great way for a modern composer to actually make a living. And it can be creatively rewarding if you just find the right people to work with.
Simon: Many thanks for your time today, Jonathan Geer. Is there anything else you'd like to say about Azkend 2, Neptune Gasoline, or your work in general? Do you have any messages to readers from around the world?
Jonathan Geer: Gosh, I feel like I've said way too much already! If any of you out there are still reading, bless you. I'd say if you made it this far, you've got what it takes.