[Interview - Interview with Garry Schyman]

SoundtrackNet recently had the opportunity to talk with composer Garry Schyman about his latest score for "Destroy All Humans III : Path of the Furon" as well as some of his previous work, including his award winning music for "Bioshock".

So, when you're spotting, say a game, versus a film or the television show, do they have an expert gamer come in an play the game in front of you, expertly, to show you what it's like? Do they show you some reels of what you're expected to write music for?

It depends on the project. Of late, most of the projects that I've been working on are in a fairly primitive state, in terms of being able to show me game play when I start working. Usually these schedules can last for a number of months. It gets better over time. Very often I get an asset list that they've developed and here's the music we need and a description of what it is, and of course, discussions about developing the music and the style and the feel for various levels. Games have levels, and each level has its own feel and sense.

In any event, very often I'm going just on description and screen captures and artwork from their art department of what something is going to look like. But, on other games, such as "Path of the Furon", I did get video of gameplay. They will actually have someone play the game in the section that I'm scoring and they'll send me a movie and pick a movie that I can watch and lock the picture, and really sort of score it.

Bearing in mind video game music is different from film score. The music unfolds, and it may be triggered by an event that all players will experience. But then, what the player does and how, such as the combat cue where you are battling someone, or sneaking around, your experience is going to be unique or somewhat unique from player to player.

Therefore, the music has to be able to, in some sense, generaly and not necessarily catch the moment, because other than perhaps the initial trigger that combating or fighting someone, like the police in "The Path of the Furon" or the army, or something or some alien, whatever it is; how you play, how any one player plays will be different. So the music has to generally capture the feel for that.

Of course, if the play changes, then the music has to segue to either another piece of music or just peel out to get out of music if you are getting away from fighting someone or whatever.

It is very vastly different between television and film where you have hopefully a fully edited asset that you are basically locked down and you can score for. So, it's been a while since we spoke, you, just finished the first "Destroy all Humans", now you are on to the third in the series. Is there a fourth planned?

I have no idea. I finished the third over a year ago. The game is now being finished for release, so I have no idea. It will depend on how this one does, how sales go.

It would be similar to a film franchise, in the sense that if the box office is good, there is a good chance they will make another one. If the box office is not good, there's a chance that that is the end of that franchise. They'll look at the numbers.

Having done a franchise, does each successive iterations of writing the music for the game becomes easier or are there special little challenges that show up, or do you approach it with a clean slate when you start?

I think, it's probably a little easier. I had not really been deeply involved in games at that time. So, a lot of the technical issues had to be overcome and understood. Not that they are difficult, but that of course, made me nervous. Just a sense of like, "Wow, is this going to work for a game," and then the second-guessing of myself. There was a lot less second-guessing on the third one. Not that I wasn't challenged to write music. I think, it's one of my best scores for the series and there're a lot of really good cues in this score.

I think I was just more confident that this is going to work. I think that the people I was working with, because of the success of the other scores, were just confident in my work as well. So, there was a sense that I was going to produce something of quality.

It was smooth sailing, I would say. Not that I didn't work hard on it, but I wasn't distressed. The first one was more stressful from the standpoint that I was new at writing for the video games of today. I had done some video game work in the '90s, but it was very different from what video game work is like now.

You have to have had to grab onto the technology as well as your confidence writing music for that technology then.

Yeah, and there are techniques, and I worked with a nice sound designer on the game. The first one was really walked me through it and helped me a lot. But, like I said, all the people I have worked with on the Destroy All Humans series have been great. It's just when you gain confidence in that you know what you are doing, it just takes a level of anxiety out of the process. I had a lot of confidence that I knew what I was doing, particularly on this series because it was the third one. So, from that standpoint, all those issues were gone. I just challenged myself to write interesting music.

I've noticed that the music in the series was originally based in the 1950’s and 1960’s while still maintaining the sci fi roots, and for this game you're able to give it that funky 70s sound, that sleazy funk and lounge feel. Was one of the previous games in the series set in Vegas?

No, Vegas wasn’t in the previous ones. This was a new opportunity to destroy Vegas in the 70s. [laughs] The cool thing is... I mean, this has been... from a composer’s standpoint, "Destroy all Humans" has been wonderful. Just to be able to go and emulate the styles of the 50s, then the 60s for the second one and then the 70s for the third is just so... I hate to use the word "cool" because it's a cliché, but it's just really an amazingly wonderful opportunity. I just loved doing it.

And of course if you listen to the scores of sci-fi movies in the 70s, they had funk in them. It really permeated every nook and cranny almost of every score in that period. The funk guitar was everywhere... well, not every cue, by the way, has funk guitar in it, a good percentage of them do. But, it's just amazing how even Jerry Goldsmith would be writing these serious scores and would have funky guitar in it. You know? [laughs] I'm talking about, he did a score for, he did Planet of the Apes of course in the 60s.

But then, he did I think it was "Return to Planet of the Apes", or something like that, and that had, it was very different from the original "Planet of the Apes" and it had a lot of funk guitar in it. It's just sort of amazing. It sort of sounds wrong when you first hear it... you know, you kind of wince a little bit. But then if you embrace it, it's a lot of fun. Of course the "Destroy all Humans" series of games, humor is at the core of them.

So, it doesn't end up being anachronistic where it just seems out of place? It's just like, "Well, this fits with everything we're trying to get at?"

So that, the funky stuff... it helps set the mood of the time period and adds to how ridiculous the situation is.

Does any of your previous incarnations as a composer for such 80s TV shows as "Magnum, P.I." and "A-Team" help get you in the right mindset for doing the work?

Well, of course, those are the early series that I worked on when I first got into the business were in the 80s. But, in the sense that they were sort of like an evolution. I mean, we were just talking about the history of scoring. It was an evolution. The one innovation that Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, who were the composers and I worked with them and I was one of their team who was producing, writing a lot of music for those scores was to have an orchestra and then a rock rhythm section. Now, the 70s was more about funk, and was more jazz focused with some rock. But, the 80s which was very much the post Carpenter era had these additions.

But, that aspect, of having an orchestra and then having a rhythm section within the orchestra, was something that I definitely gained a lot of experience writing for in the 80s. That was what those gigs were. Every week I was turning in cues, writing cues and had an orchestra to record it. Of course it had this rhythm section of drums, guitar, keyboard and bass that had that feel.

So, that certainly and I know this is a long winded answer - but certainly that prepared me. This was not an unfamiliar territory for me. Let's put it that way. Even though stylistically, ultimately it is different.

I figured with Mike and Pete would say to you, "O.K., we need you to write this score, and make sure you include the rhythm section because we're paying for them."[laughter]

No, that was just part of the sound. Not every cue had to have rhythm section, but a good smattering of them. Maybe 70% 80% had something. You know, you'd write for electric, it just was part of the sound to throw in 70s or 80s rock band elements.

So, what else besides kind of bringing it up a decade from the previous game and obviously two decades from the first one; what else did you try differently with the music here that maybe an astute listener or a casual listener might be able to take away from it and go, "Hey, that's pretty cool"?

I just tried to infuse that sense of 70s, I really did. Before I started, I listened to a lot of music from that period to just sort of get myself in that headspace.

So, you channeled your inner John Travolta, huh?

Yeah, yeah. Or maybe the Jerry Goldsmith or Elmer [Bernstein] actually wrote some kind of cool stuff from that period as well. It was Roy Budd was also very 70s and very cool, you know? He was a real great talent who died way too young.

Yeah, Get Carter is one of my favorite themes. I love the bass and the percussion. Just how he plays around with it's really, really cool.

Yep, those kinds of guys. Then, a smattering of some of the stuff is kind of straight orchestral. I was trying to do it with the mentality of composers in the 70s. There are a couple of synthesizer sounds in it, but they were very much the sense of that time. The ARP or maybe a Moog, or something like that, that sort of started to appear in the 70s.

Very much everything was organic and orchestral sounding, and there were lots of little clichés of that period. The types of grooves that were shaker grooves, and those sorts of things that borrowed heavily from pop music and... I mean, film composers are always borrowing, as are game composers. You're always listening and finding something cool and then infusing your music with the spirit or techniques or sounds or whatever it is, such as orchestration, which you hear around you. Your employers are temping with something that's from that period, or from a style, and they want you to do something similar.

So now, you have the three under your belt, it looks like you've got a serious series going on. Which out of the three has been your favorite to work on?

Oh gosh. You know, they were all a pleasure to work on. I think the first one (was my favorite to work on)... and I think, the third one may be the best score of the three. I think the first one was a great, like I said, because of all the reasons I reiterated earlier… was the most challenging but then also the most satisfying. It also got some really nice recognition, which sort of launched my opportunities, a lot of opportunities for me in game music.

So, the first one sort of has aspects of it that really make it my favorite to work on. The third one I think may musically kind of be the hippest.

So like the first one is like your sense of accomplishment that you were really proud of that… Like "I nailed it," you know?

Yeah, I think maybe that’s the third one, but I don't know. If others ever care to analyze it they'll listen to all three and maybe have an opinion. I think not to pat myself on the back I think I did a nice job on all three. All three are different similar and yet different. You know?

So, you mentioned that "Destroy all Humans" had really kind of launched your career, and it seems this year you're getting lauded from your work on "Bioshock", such as the Hollywood Music Award.

The Hollywood Music Award was for a song I did that had nothing to do with video games. It was a video that went up on YouTube. Kind of a rock song, really, so it's completely unique. I've been doing these songs for Matt Harding, who dances all around the world. This one so far, had like almost 20 million streams. People really love his videos. I was nominated for "Bioshock," but did not win. I did win a lot of awards last year for "Bioshock." I won like six awards for "Bioshock." But, not the Hollywood Music Award. I won the Spike TV award, I won four G.A.N.G. awards, and probably the most important, was the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences for "Best Original Music".

So, I noticed you mentioned you did the song for the video. Besides your game work, what other stuff have you been kind of playing around with or doing in your spare time, or even obviously under employ of somebody else?

Well, you mentioned that video. I'm very busy right now with, as it turns out, video games. So, I don't have a lot of time, and I have a seven year old son who would like to spend a lot of time with me, or whatever time I can afford to spend with them.

So I'm working very steadily right now and on some really cool stuff, titles of which, I cannot share with you yet.

That's totally fine. I was just seeing if there was stuff you've just been kind of doing for the shear pleasure of doing.

I wish I had more time to do that, but I don't at the moment. I don't. I mean, I'm both happy to have all the work I have, but also wishing I had more spare time. I don't.

Speaking of your background, you'd mentioned you'd grown up in the film music industry doing TV. Do you miss that? Do you miss the underlying mechanics behind it? You go in, you write cues and it's kind of cut, set, and pretty dry as it would be.. and it was kind of steady? Or with the new stuff, such as games, is that something your always going to be in and just kind of give up on film and TV?

Well, I'm not giving up on film and TV. If the right project comes along, I'd definitely be interested. I mean, television itself is not as interesting I think as it used to be. At least at the moment, there's a lot of very ambient music being written for television. I have to say creatively, video games at least the ones that I'm being offered and working on are much, much more interesting from a creative standpoint and from a stylistic standpoint. I'm being asked to write really strong, intense, really interesting music.

The two things I miss of TV; one, is the business aspect of it, which is you get back end. I hate to be crass about it, but it's really nice to get performing rights and ASCAP for your work, particularly if you ever have a down time. Those performing rights can save you. I still get a nice amount of it from older stuff and good stuff that I've done in the past. So, I miss the royalties.

I don't miss the schedules, because the schedules were really not good. I think creatively these days, very few scoring opportunities have live instrumentals; orchestrally there's very little going on in television… a little bit, but not much. I do enjoy playing to picture, and I get that opportunity in games because there are "in-game" opportunities. There's something very satisfying about it. Those are the only aspects I really miss, you know? But, I would say there's more "good" about video games versus TV than the other way around. From a creative standpoint, from an upfront money standpoint, it's much, much better and much fairer because they pay you by the minute.

From the schedule standpoint, video games are... If you're making two lists… the video game list would be a longer list of cool, good things. Those are the things I do miss. I really do love playing to picture and get to do that. Just really locking in a score into a picture and the music working in sync that's a very satisfying thing where it's just really working. I miss that, because all TV and film, of course, is that.

You mentioned about people doing the reverse. I think, Michael Giacchino went from the "Medal of Honor" series and the like, and is now doing big time scores and Pixar animation and stuff like that. There's always a chance to go back.

Yeah, no, there are opportunities coming my way, and that may indeed come to fruition. We'll see.

I look forward to seeing it in the large screen film credits crawl.

If it happens, yeah, you will find out.

Thanks to Garry Schyman and Gary O'Connor Reed from Top Dollar PR for their assistance with this interview.