When SCEA (Sony Computer Entertainment America) Music Manager Jonathan Mayer discovered that the sequel to the video game inFamous would take place in a fictional New Orleans, he turned to a group of musicians steeped in the city’s unique musical culture—Galactic. Set in the fictional bayou town of New Marais, the story’s hero Cole MacGrath is free to explore a world representative of post-Katrina New Orleans. In a recent interview, Mayer [whose name is indeed quite similar to Superfly Presents’ Jonathan Mayer, who is part of the team that manages Galactic] and drummer Stanton Moore discuss the score for inFamous 2, the process used to create it, and the future of video game soundtracks.
Can you give a brief overview of the game for our readers who are unfamiliar with it?
Jonathan Mayer: Sure, so inFamous 1 was a project that Jim Dooley, Amon Tobin and myself all collaborated on the score for. The reason we did that is because inFamous is a modern-day graphic novel superhero tale and in inFamous 1 the setting for the story was a fictitious city called Empire City which was very much modeled after a New York, Chicago kind of thing. When we first discussed the score with our director Nate Fox at Sucker Punch productions, he felt very strongly and gave us the sense that in addition to all the human characters in the story, the city itself was a big character in this world they were trying to create because it’s the type of game where you’re free to explore the world a lot. It’s got a fairly open approach to gaming.
We decided early on that we were going to incorporate the city itself into the score from an attitude standpoint. And so, because of the city we had in inFamous 1, very early on we got Amon Tobin on the project and it had this very industrial, slightly electronic approach to the score. We were using sound objects a lot, and making things sound like instruments that weren’t instruments and that kind of thing.
So when we sat down to do inFamous 2 they told us right off the bat that the new city that the hero was going to be hanging out in was New Orleans. We immediately decided that was going to drastically change our approach, but at the same time we wanted to keep some of the things we liked about it.
One of the things that worked really well on inFamous 1 was a groove and percussion driven style. So, as the music producer for the score I started thinking about New Orleans and groove and I immediately thought of Galactic.
Were you personally a fan of Galactic before you asked them to be a part of the project?
JM: Oh yeah, big time. [Laughs]. I’m pretty familiar with their music so, for me, it was really exciting and rewarding to hear what they did with their demo—it was completely unlike anything I would have expected from them.
We didn’t know if we would have them contribute as players or what, but we knew we really wanted some guys who really knew New Orleans. When we talked about the grooves that are representative of New Orleans style of music, or just the vibe and the attitude, we knew we didn’t want to just be a bunch of guys from the West Coast putting together what we thought New Orleans should be musically. So we knew on that level they were going to be able to contribute if nothing else as session players or consultants. But we were just blown away with what they did with just straight up original composition.
Stanton, how did you approach this score differently from your other projects? What was the main difference?
Stanton Moore: We were very encouraged to be very experimental and, kind of, step outside of what we do. When we make a record for Galactic, we have to stay within the parameter of what is Galactic. So, working on the soundtrack we didn’t have to worry about how people perceived us or being too out-there or too experimental or too distorted—we didn’t have to worry about that at all. We kind of had this free reign to be as creative as we wanted. We were experimenting with instruments and distortion and things we kind of dabble with, but sometimes you can’t push it too far. But with this, we could push it as far as we wanted, and if they wanted to dial it back we could do that too.
It was a very fun process for us and we also came up with lots of ideas for what we could do on our own as well. I set up different kinds of kits that I normally would not have experimented with—calf skin headed things and all kinds of metal percussion. I just set up some different things that enabled me to come up with some different ideas that I can now bring back to Galactic or other projects as well.
Can you tell us about the extent of each of your video gaming backgrounds going into this project?
SM: I’ve played a lot of video games over time. I haven’t been playing as much lately, because I’ve been so busy with the music. But we all play video games on the bus a lot. Some of the guys are more gamers than me, even though I have played off and on over the years. In more recent years, Ben Ellman our saxophone player and Jeff Raines our guitar player—they play a lot of video games on the bus. The bus is pretty tight quarters so a lot of the time I’ll just be relaxing and some of the other guys will be playing video games. I’ve seen a lot of video games lately and I’ve heard a lot of soundtracks. I’d say being in the proximity of those guys playing, I’ve stayed aware of that and kind of know, with the soundtracks, what’s been done and what could be done differently.
So, they approached us about doing this and we knew that it took place in a fictitious, destroyed New Orleans. So we pretty much had a really good idea of what to do right off the bat. It was very natural for us because we felt comfortable doing it all and we felt comfortable experimenting and coming up with something that was going to fit.
JM: My background was in the record business and I was a crazy video game addict. So overtime, I kind of morphed into having this position where I produce and write music for video games. My impression of things is that we’re kind of on the cusp of music in video games starting to become known in more of a mainstream way. I think it’s tough because film music, which has been around forever, still struggles to be popular music. I think that film soundtracks tend to have trouble getting that notoriety.
I think, and this is one of the things that drew me to work on games in the first place, the fact that there’s more experimentation and more creative freedom in the video game industry seems that it will be pushing it in a direction where there will be more crossover, or there already is more crossover.
There are things happening within the games industry, and music for games, that are making it more and more popular each year. Game companies are publishing more and more soundtracks to go along with their games now. The production quality of the scores in games is really high now—I think it’s on par in most cases with film—when it comes to the AAA video game titles. So bigger artists are more attracted to working on video games, and we see that pretty regularly.
When Galactic agreed to do the project, knowing their New Orleans background, did the designers leave them to their own devices or did they have specific criteria for them to fill?
JM: That’s an awesome question because that’s one of the things that we were most excited to see was how it played out on the project. We’re very specific with our composers and a huge function of my job is to provide that bridge between the team making the game and the contractors we bring in to score it and making sure the communication is clear. A lot of times the language that musicians need to get their feedback in may be very different from the language that I hear day to day from the folks making the game. The guys in Galactic kind of blew our minds in terms of how detail oriented and thorough they were with that direction.
So we would provide fairly specific concept art, like “here’s a gang of enemies you may encounter and here’s the part of town they control and here’s the kind of scenario, intensity-wise.” We’d get as specific as we could and they were overwhelmingly exacting in how they responded to that stuff. Not only that, but when they had to iterate on those pieces they always nailed it. I don’t think they ever did more than one revision of anything because they were always hyper-specific about addressing our notes—which in and of itself is a phenomenal skill. Sometimes really, really experienced film composers, who are used to that kind of feedback on a regular basis, have trouble with that kind of stuff. But the Galactic guys were just spot on every time.
Was the soundtrack largely charted out or did it rely more on improvisation?
SM: Improvisation played a huge role. Luckily, with Galactic when we make a record I go in and play a bunch of grooves I’ve been working on and they pick what they like and they start writing. So when they gave us actual drawings of the scenes and paintings of some of the characters they told us what they were looking for—some were themes for some of the characters. So when we saw all this, we were able to envision what we thought should go with it.
Sometimes, I would start improvising based off one of the pictures I’d seen—just improvising a one and a half minute episode based off what I’d see on the paper. So it would start off pretty ambient and open and let the tension build to pick up the momentum to where it was getting pretty brutal in the middle, and then let it resolve itself. And there were different kinds of confrontations between the characters or the monsters. So I was just kind of improvising and imagining these things, and they dug it. And then Jonathan Meyer would come in with string quartet pieces that he had already written and had already been composed. So those were fixed, but I would go in and just improvise on top of those.
Stanton, what was your knowledge of previous video game music? Bands like Green Jelly are largely believed to be the pioneers of single band video game soundtracks. Did that type of music influence the soundtrack you created?
SM: Yeah, nothing specifically. We did listen to the previous inFamous soundtrack. We had an idea of what they were looking for and they described what they wanted us to do. We didn’t want to be too aware, to tell you the truth, of what other people were doing. We wanted it to be different, so we didn’t want to be too informed and then have that influence what we were doing.
So we felt like we were comfortable having seen thousands of movies and heard hundreds of video game soundtracks, to go do our own interpretation of what we thought would fit this video game. Especially with it being [based in] New Orleans, we feel like we have a strong understanding the traditional New Orleans stuff but also what could be done to make it really experimental.
Some of the stuff I was doing was Mardi Gras Indian grooves after seeing the Mardi Gras Indians in the street. I’d take a cowbell pattern that one guy was playing and try and combine that with a tambourine pattern [that] another guy was playing and then play something on the bass drum that would be similar to what the guys in the streets are playing. You’ve usually got one guy on each of these instruments so I would try to incorporate it into the drum set.
How much of your decision to be a part of the game was based on the concept that the game took place in a fictional destroyed New Orleans?
SM: We would have been just as willing no matter where it was based. But being based in a fictional New Orleans, that just made it that much easier. We knew that we’d be able to do it and that it would be something we’d be very comfortable with.
How representative of New Orleans was New Marais?
SM: It was very representative to me. I mean, some of the stuff was paintings of a post-apocalyptic French Quarter, and then there’s also the outer lying swamps and all that, too. Having been to the swamps, we said we needed some stuff that was the theme for this swamp monster cat. So I knew what to do with that. It reminded me of New Orleans and the outer lying swamps. So that was cool.
Is this something you’d consider doing again?
SM: We would absolutely do it again. Nobody has approached us as of yet, but we’re hoping to get more calls to do more stuff. We definitely enjoyed it.
This article was originally written on 27 July 2011 by Sam Davis, and published on jambands.com.