Mattias Holmgren Interview: Instrumental Versatility (September 2011)

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Mattias Holmgren
Interviewer: Michael Naumenko
Editor: Michael Naumenko, Simon Elchlepp
Coordination: Michael Naumenko

Interview Content

Mattias Holmgren
Mattias Holmgren

Mattias Holmgren
MIchael: When we first saw Luminati and then heard its soundtrack, we were quite surprised by the contrast between the game's simplicity and its lush soundtrack, with many instruments recorded live. But first of all, tell us a bit about yourself.

Mattias Holmgren: Hi. I was born in Sweden in 1978, grew up playing the piano and did tons of hours behind the drum kit. In 1995, I released my debut album Vittra at age 17 with a band called Naglfar, and the album immediately brought us international success in the metal scene. After that I continued releasing albums with my own band Embracing (which we formed in 1992) and I also jumped in on various bands and projects as a session drummer, vocalist, keyboard player or producer. I have played in the studio with quite a few bands like Azure, Skyfire, Nocturnal Rites and live with bands like Supreme Majesty etc. In 2002 I released my first solo album under the name Tired Tree. It was a soft pop-rock album, some weird mixture of Marillion and Chicago, very different from the early metal stuff with roaring guitars. It was a bit of a turn towards more classical music which felt more alluring than the rock/metal I had played for 10 years.


Michael: What was your first musical experience?

Mattias Holmgren: The first recollection I have of actually playing an instrument is from my childhood home, where we had a white piano in the living room and me and my siblings (two brothers and one sister) were playing on it. My first memory of hearing a melody is a bit blurred, but somehow a strong memory is hearing the ELO, Abba and Elton John albums which my parents were listening to while I was a kid. The Muppet Show and Benny Hill signature melodies also ring a strong bell. *laughs* Also the classical music which played on the TV channels when no specific program was broadcasting, and on the classical radio channels, was a strong influence when I was a kid. I also got a small tape-recorder when I was ten, which was kinda hot.

The Shepherd

Michael: When and why did you decide to go into the music industry?

Mattias Holmgren: I guess I was thrown into the music industry at quite a young age, but I think it was a good experience. After working with record labels, playing tons of shows and working in the studio I realized that writing and producing music was my strong suit and also what I liked the most about the whole process. For every album that we did, I wrote more and more of the songs and also started producing. It was around 2002, after releasing my first solo album, that I decided to take the next step and start my own company, Morningdew Media. Since I’ve always been interested in the sound and music of games since playing NES and Sinclair ZX Spectrum games, I wanted to focus on writing songs for different media, games and film. It is very rewarding to write for specific clients, projects and products. It also makes the writing process so varied, since no project is like the next. These last few years I have written music and done sound design for commercial projects courtesy of IKEA, BRIO AB, Fishermans´s Friend, and for a lot of interesting game projects for the exploding iPhone and iPad market.


Michael: Does your experience playing in bands help you in the creation of game, trailer and movie music?

Mattias Holmgren: Yeah, my early career was full of rock/metal bands and playing shows and festivals like Sweden Rock Festival, Tivolirock, Stadsfesten etc. I guess the heavy music gave me a rhythmic base to build upon. Now when I work on music for media projects, now and then I throw in some heavy guitars, or distorted bass with cool rhythms to get this huge effect and impact, like in the audio branding (audio logo) for Ice Game Studios:

But in general I think the most helpful ”tool” I have for writing and producing trailer, game and film music is my classical piano background (and having listened extensively to ELO and ABBA... haha). I guess the interest for rhythms comes from my metal background, and the melodies come from more classical music.


Michael: Tell us about your studio hardware, software and of course about your instruments.

Mattias Holmgren: The standard studio must of course be flooded with hardware, flickering lights and instruments to bring a certain vibe of inspiration to the artist. *grin* To be honest I got rid of a lot of hardware mixers and outboard gear and now I mostly work with just my Mac Book Pro, a small Mackie mixer and a tube amp. I was a PC user for many years, but it was always a problem to get the correct hardware to work with the soundcards etc. PCs really a pain in the a** compared to Macs. Since switching to Apple, I haven't had any problemes regarding glitches, pops and crackles, which were a daily occurrence on my PC. When switching to Apple, I also started using Logic and I was surprised how good the soft synths were that came with Logic. Just amazing what you can do with the basic package, very inspiring. I am also a huge fan of Zebra and of course the powerful Omnisphere and RMX, which are used on the majority of my new productions. I still use Cubase, Pro Tools and Ableton Live in some situations, but most of the time it’s just Logic.

Regarding instruments, I am a greedy collector... and user. I have added plenty of instruments to my collection in the last couple of years. I think the only instrument I ever got rid of was my first drum kit, a LINKO kit, which sucked big time. Oh, and an Ibanez SAS36FM guitar which had some defects. I have kept my second drum kit (bought it in 1995), a gorgeous Pearl Master Custom drum kit, and I still use it on a regular basis, though I think these days, I play it more with brushes than with the sticks, haha. It’s perfect for action cues and thrilling themes to play the kit with brushes.

Mattias' drum kit
Mattias' drum kit

Mattias' drum kit
Sometimes I just rig the kit very small: only a snare, hihat, a cymbal, bassdrum and a deep-tom. But when fully rigged, it comprises four toms, five cymbals, one splash, a TAMA Iron Cobra double-pedal and a ride. Cymbals are of course Zildjian A series, of which I love the cripsness. These days, most of the cues for TV and film are very percussion oriented and have a lot less melodic content than in the 80s/90s. If you listen to CSI and other thriller series and games, you see what I mean. That is the quality customers expect today, so it’s really fun to have a lot of real percussion and drum kit instruments around to work with.

Aside from the kit I mentioned, I have a Yamaha Piano and plenty of woodwind instruments and percussion from Asia and the Middle East. I also have five acoustic and electronic guitars, an awesome electronic drum kit from Heart-Dynamics, bass guitars, Line-6 stuff, Fender and HiWatt amps. I also sample my own voice on many themes, to fatten up choirs or maybe create percussive sounds with my mouth. Just alot of creative fun! =)


Michael: You obviously have plenty of instruments in your collection. Have you mastered them all?

Mattias Holmgren: Well, I am not a master of all instruments, but I can produce sounds with all of them. *laughs* A woodwind instrument like the Bawu has quite a narrow scale, so you have to work with bends and your tonguing technique to bring the tones to life. It is challenging, but very fun and rewarding. You just have to open your mind and get inspired by other players... and YouTube.

You know, percussion is percussion, so if you are a drummer, it’s not that different to bang on a darbuka or a bongo. I played with a really good guitarist in my band Embracing, and I learnt a lot of guitar techniques by looking at his fingering and by listening. And if you have the string technique of a guitar figured out, it’s not that hard to learn how to play a fretless bass. Then it’s not that far to get going on a violin. It’s all about listening and finding the correct pitch.

Making instruments sounds right for your specific idea and your specific song is also a very different thing from really mastering the instruments. I guess I can say that I've mastered drums and piano, but for the other instruments, I just achieve what's necessary for my tracks. As a composer, it’s not really necessary to be an instrumental master, but rather to be able to achieve the tones and qualities that you are after for your ”sound” and songs. For example, on some songs I play the bass guitar with a small stone to achieve a haunting, fretless sound where the tone bends between the scale tones. It’s just a matter of imagination and inspiration. I also like to play percussion rhythms on the acoustic guitar body, and to tap overtones on the electric guitar.

Michael: Let's talk about Luminati. The music for puzzle games is usually ambient and abstract, but for Luminati, you wrote an emotional soundtrack that was recorded live. Who was responsible for the game's audio concept?

Mattias Holmgren: Luminati is the first game released by my company Morningdew Media, developed by myself and two other team members (my friend Hans Rönnbäck did the AI and my brother Nicklas Holmgren helped out with some of bugs and physics). All the content assets for the game like graphics, sounds and of course the music were produced by myself, so I was also responsible for the audio concept. The game initially begun as a small idea for an international contest which was hosted by Come2Play. I asked two friends of mine if they wanted to participate and for about three months, we worked on the game during the evenings. We were awarded $1000 for the game and later also sold the single-player version to SPIL games and translated the game into 18 languages. It’s now available on tons of flash game sites worldwide. There are also iPhone and iPod ports, and soon there will also be a specific Luminati HD edition for the iPad.

Luminati Main Theme

I wanted a really cinematic feel for both the graphics and the music / sound to make this simple game more enjoyable. I also added an online mode and power ups, which really give the game some new and fresh aspects. I have worked on tons of games and commercial projects for other clients, so I know that graphics and sound are an important factor of a game, and players have been very positive about Luminati. When porting the game to the iPhone, I played with the idea of releasing the songs alongside the game as a soundtrack album, since it is a really good marketing channel. A lot of players have wanted to buy the music that I composed for other games, so I thought this was the perfect moment to release my first OST with the Luminati iPhone game, and it has worked out really well, a lot of people comment on the music in the game and then check out the album on iTunes. It is possible to buy the soundtrack directly through the game.

Also, check out the Luminati website:


Michael: On many video game scores, it can be really hard to tell which instruments have been recorded live and which ones are sampled. Could you give us some insight into which live instruments you used for Luminati?

Mattias Holmgren: All the guitars are real, approx. 60% of the percussion is real stuff (blended with samples), most of the bass is real, all acoustic guitars etc. Strings, woodwinds and brass are samples though. =) For example, listen to the ending theme "Fewskip": real acoustic guitar, real bass, real shakers, the congas are sampled but the wood-clacks are real.
«In the actual game, you will hear four tracks from the OST album, but for the album release, I wanted to include the trailer music and other music that I wrote while producing the game»
"End of what we know":
The lead melody (which opens the song) is me playing the high strings of the bass with a small stone (so it sounds almost like a fretless bass). This way, it's possible to bend between notes, which creates this really lovely haunting tone and timbre. The bass on this track is real, of course. Most effects on this track are stuff that I recorded with a mic and then processed in a sampler (Kontakt) with delays and various molding processes.
Real guitars, bass and most of the percussion and claps etc. It's just processed a lot so that it sounds wicked and splashy... =)
"My sacred journey":
It's a real piano.
"Tie your shoes":
Lots of real brushed percussion / drums. The Rhodes (electric piano) is played on keyboard (sampled stuff). The bass and all guitars are real. The piano is sampled on this track.
The hand percussion are my tablas and dardukas etc., mixed with some sampled percussion and some ambience that I recorded abroad a few years back. The acoustic guitar is my Seagull Acoustic Guitar... lovely sound.
"Curse Of Kahala": 
All sampled stuff, except some shakers and clacks.
"Green starlight": 
Some percussion / shakers are real.
In the actual game, you will hear four tracks from the OST album, but for the album release, I wanted to include the trailer music and other music that I wrote while producing the game. I also changed the background music of the initial prototype flash game for the final iPhone game, and both versions are included on the album. It’s a great mixture, but the overall feel is very cinematic and film score oriented. Someone mentioned Twilight as an inspiration, haha, I guess that's because of the werewolves and the gothic feel of the graphics.

Michael: How long did it take you to write the Luminati soundtrack?

Mattias Holmgren: I can’t really say for sure, since the production of the soundtrack was spread out over about a year - but maybe two weeks in total for writing and producing the songs. Each song took about 1-2 days to complete.


Michael: Where there any funny moments while working on the soundtrack?

Mattias Holmgren: Yeah, I had a blast when I was recording the Bawu, since I was new to the instrument and had to make the most of its narrow scale. I guess I was driving my family crazy when practising, haha. But I think the most fun moment was when I was beginning the song ”Tie your shoes”. I had this soft percussion and melody / chord progression going and I needed to find a suitable ambient sound for the background. I searched the house for some new sounds and found this old toy box my son had around. I sampled it and set up a few controllers so I could adjust the sample start, loop length and other parameters of the sound in realtime. This sound turned out to be amazingly cool to play with, while I was able to control all these subtleties and make the sound come alive and create a really joyful background. Somehow it became the lead melody of the track, it comes and goes and sings like a little bird. That’s what I do, playing around with sound sources to create instruments from them.


Dreampop: Fewskip

Michael: Let's move on to more general questions. Do you like playing games? If yes, what games have you played recently?

Mattias Holmgren: Yeah, I play a lot of games. I love the God Of War series, Fable, Zelda, Bioshock, Might and Magic (spent tons of hours on this RPG series). I still play The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, although it is quite old now - can’t wait for Skyrim to be released. It’s also fun to just download new iPhone apps and games on a daily basis to see what is new and maybe find a gem or two in there. At the moment I am playing Torchlight - I love the old Diablo games. The old Sierra and Lucas Arts games are also favourites. As you can see, I am really into RPGs and adventure games. =) They also have good soundtracks to get inspired by. Ahh, and Planescape: Torment, probably the best soundtrack ever made for a game, courtesy of Mark Morgan. Check it out now if you haven’t already!


Michael: What music genres do you prefer? What recent albums / groups have influenced you the most?

Mattias Holmgren: Currently, I am listening to Justin Currie, Imogen Heap, Regina Spektor, Jonsi and Sigur Ros. Also arty music and film scores, but I am also really into old progressive rock bands like Steely Dan, Yes, Marillion, Camel, Asia, ELO and also some regular rock and metal like Symphony X, Dream Theater and Pain of Salvation. I also listen to more commercial stuff to keep myself up-to-date with the latest beats and hooks.


Michael: With which of these artists would you like to work together?

Mattias Holmgren: I definitely would like to work with Imogen Heap or Jonsi, maybe write a song or just discuss sounds. I would love to meet James Horner or James Newton Howard and talk about what inspires them and how they approach certain projects and scenes.


Michael: Speaking of movies: do you prefer to go to the cinema to watch Hollywood blockbusters or to dive into arthouse movies?

Thriller: End of what we know

Mattias Holmgren: Both, I think. I am a big blockbuster fan who really enjoys Transformers, Eagle Eye, Avatar, Aliens, The Lord of the Rings etc. I'm also a big fan of most Tim Burton movies. I love to watch new movies - it’s not that I prefer one specific genre. There is some sort of quality in most films: actors, story, lighting, colors, music or the sound atmosphere. Sometimes I can get really thrilled by just the coloring of a movie, or its specific ambience. One of my all time favourites has to be A Beautiful Mind - excellent score by James Horner and the whole concept and everything is just so perfectly crafted. I’ve also grown to love music DVDs, so I am trying to expand that category on our shelf. Swing When You're Winning by Robbie Williams is a favourite, also Metropolis 2000: Scenes From New York by Dream Theater - amazing.


Michael: Can you tell us a bit about your plans for the future?

Mattias Holmgren: I recently finished the music for some upcoming games: 1950s Lawnmower Kids (Nintendo DSi), iDamaged (iPhone) and Unicorn Rush (iPhone). At the moment I am working on the sound design and music for various other commercial projects. I've got a dark ambient Daft Punk-kinda style album in the making, and I’m also working on this dream-pop style album which will feature a bunch of guest musicians like Allison Allain, who also played cello on my song "For You", which was featured in the short film Rough Draft - check it out on YouTube. I would really, really love to finish the piano album I started working on a few years back too, but that has kind of fallen down the list of priorities.

Michael: What advice can you give to aspiring composers?

Mattias Holmgren: Choose an instrument that you really like (or want to like... haha) and practise hard. Listen to a lot of music to get inspiration, watch instruction videos of your favourite instrumentalist (Yngwe Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Mike Portnoy or whomever it might be... YouTube and Google are your friends). Also, learn from the masters, and when I am talking about the masters I am of course talking about Chopin, Haydn, Schumann, Schubert, Mozart, Stravinski, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven etc. Their melodies and arrangements can really open up your eyes. The classical genre is important for your compositional backbone when scoring different moods in games and film. And finally, have a listen to Gustav Holst's The Planets, it’s a masterpiece in every way.


Michael: Finally, some words for the Russian game music community. You can say "Hi, Russia!" or "Hey people of the cold winter country!" or anything you want. Of course, then we say "Hoorah" and drink some vodka! :)

Mattias Holmgren: Thanks for reading and have a listen to Luminati - it has an amazingly deep atmosphere. Check out my websites where you can read more about my music, sound design, new projects, instruments ’n stuff. Oh, and also don’t forget following me on Twitter and likes at my Facebook. =)

SALUT fellow friends of the cold country Russia!