An Interview With Legendary Composer Grant Kirkhope
The former Rare songwriter reflects on his ever-growing catalog of music and its impact on gamers worldwide
Grant Kirkhope has been a composer in the gaming industry since the mid-1990s. He is most famous for iconic soundtracks to Rare classics for the Nintendo 64. Titles composed by Grant include Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel, Donkey Kong 64, GoldenEye 007, and Perfect Dark. He most recently composed Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, and has been working freelance for over a decade now, lending his talents to various other projects. With so much to reflect on now, Grant was kind enough to sit down with us and give his thoughts on the impact of his music on gaming and the medium at large.
SUPERJUMP: You’ve been making music for video games for decades now. How do you find the creativity to come up with new compositions? What are your sources of inspiration after all this time?
GRANT: I don’t know really. That’s one of the questions I often ask myself. I keep thinking every time I start a new project I’m not going to be able to manage it. I think that I’m never going to get through it. I just get started and then it goes from there. I notice that process. I’m not a really intellectual composer, just that type of guy who messes around with stuff until it sounds good. I might sample a french horn, a clarinet, or some synthesizer. Try to get some chords going or the melody. That sparks my inspiration to get going.
Also, I might listen to my favorite composers, like John Williams or (Edward) Elgar, maybe Danny Elfman to try and get some inspiration. I think because I was a staff composer at Rare for 12 years, I went in and wrote music from 9 to 5. It was just like anybody else’s job. It’s a great regiment to get into. I don’t get that writer’s block because I’m used to hammering away until I get something. I know some composers wait for that hand of inspiration to drop to them, but I’m not like that. I’m very workmanlike. That staff composer mentality has really helped me, I think.
SUPERJUMP: I know from my experience writing that my favorite work and my best work are usually different items. Do you feel there is a difference between what is your favorite work and what is your best work?
GRANT: I don’t know about that. I’ve got a Spotify account now and it’s funny that the pieces that I think are my best pieces aren’t the ones that people are picking to play. I think as a composer you may take the technicalities of a piece and go “oh, that’s technically great, I think that’s my best piece”. But some people may not get it. It may be too busy, too much is going on. You may feel the average man on the streets doesn’t want to hear that technical stuff. They want to hear the big Star Wars scene, the Darth Vader, or the Harry Potter theme. I think us composers pride ourselves on being intricate and elaborate, but the average person doesn’t care about that.
Having access to my Spotify and streaming accounts has really opened my eyes to what people like that I don’t think are my best pieces.
SUPERJUMP: I think your best-ever piece is for Hideout Helm in Donkey Kong 64. That level’s entire structure and atmosphere only work with your track. Do you remember what your thought process was for that composition?
GRANT: Right, so I think it was obviously a darker piece. I’m trying to set the scene for that final battle. You know that this is real now, you’ve done the whole game. You’ve given that gradual tension to the player that this is different than the rest of the game.
SUPERJUMP: When you are asked to compose for a game, how often is the level designed first, and then you compose the music afterward? How often does the reverse happen where you compose the music before the level is designed?
GRANT: It can be both of those options. It depends on what the development team wants at the time. I’ve certainly worked before without seeing anything at all. I’ll get videos or other information you may need, sometimes I’ll get a text document of what they want to hear.
I’ve just been working on World of Warcraft: Shadowlands. They sent out lots of artwork and a big description of what they want. They really want you to go to the mood of the area, the law of the story at what point in the game they are at. So I feel it can be nothing at all, a brief conversation on the phone, or lots (of information). It’s always somewhere on that spectrum.
SUPERJUMP: You have a colorful collection of fan tweets littered across your social media accounts. Gamers send you their own compositions and artwork from the works you’ve been involved with through the years. Do you have a favorite item a fan has sent you?
GRANT: There’s just so many of them it’s hard to pick them out. I really try to interact with people on Twitter. I’m not really an egotistical guy, it’s just not my thing. I just like to be an ordinary guy who writes music. That’s my job, right? The guys who dig the road, they’re no different than me. I just think we’re all friends on Twitter.
And I was thinking, if I could reach out to John Williams, and say “John, I love that piece of music” and he responds saying “Thanks, Grant”, I’d keep that on my wall forever. Even though I’m not as exalted as John Williams by any means, but when people try to talk to me on Twitter, it’s the least I could do. I read everything people put on there because I think it’s super humbling that people want to know what I’m up to. When I first started my account, I thought I would have like five friends and family, and now I’m at 90K followers. That’s ridiculous, I never thought I’d have 900 followers, much less what I have now.
So I really appreciate that people take the time to reach out, and if they give me music I’ll try to retweet it. If there’s artwork I’ll do the same because there’s just so many fantastically talented people out there. If I can help them get noticed, that’s the least I can do.
SUPERJUMP: Banjo-Kazooie is what takes up over half of the artwork on there, so I am wondering what comes to your mind when you think about the franchise all these years later? Why do you think it has stuck with so many people over two decades later?
GRANT: I think it’s so hard to know that. We just put our hearts and souls into that game. When a development team puts their all into a game, there is this passion that translates into the pixels and the notes, and you can’t fake that.
When I did Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, everyone was a little leery, but then they loved it when it came out. People kept saying there was so much passion in the game. Knowing that development team in London and Paris, they put their hearts and souls into the game. It’s just like with Banjo and I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s a sum of all the parts, everyone trying their hardest to do something.
And then especially with the Mario game, it’s such an honor to get to touch a Nintendo property, no one gets to touch Mario. It’s amazing that we got that chance. To get to touch Donkey Kong back in the Rare days, that’s amazing. I feel it’s the right people at the right time. Banjo kind of disappeared after Banjo-Tooie. There was Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, but it didn’t feel like the right game, and I get that. That’s why getting him back in Super Smash Bros. last year was amazing. Those fan reactions from the reveal were amazing! People were literally crying and I was crying, too! It’s such an emotional thing and it really hammered home what video games are becoming in the world. People have a real, emotional connection to these games. That sit there for hours and hours, listening to my music, watching the game, it’s this gigantic thing that really touches people. It’s not just bloops like in the olden days. It genuinely touches people!
SUPERJUMP: When I was a kid, it was pretty jarring for me when Rare was bought by Microsoft because I was and still am a Nintendo fanatic. How did this affect your career and what did you think of the change at the time?
GRANT: I thought it was going to be alright because Ed Fries was the head of Microsoft Game Studios at the time of the buyout, and he’s a real gamer. He left right after the purchase so I didn’t think it was going to go too well after that. I felt like Microsoft started to interfere too much, which is bad because Rare just needed to be left alone to make the games. It wasn’t for me anymore, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be for others.
I think it just took them a while to settle in. They have that great new game, Everwild. It’s just taken some time for both parties to get incorporated with one another and now I think they’re doing great. I know Rare got going on Kinect Sports, and the first couple were great, the last one was not as good. I know there’s not many people left at the company from when I was there. I know I never wanted to leave, I loved it so much, but it just didn’t suit me any longer.
SUPERJUMP: Now that you’ve been freelancing for a long time, do you enjoy that more than being with one developer, or do you miss those days?
GRANT: I do love being a freelancer more now. You get to set your own hours, and I know when and where I work best. I get to do so many different projects, as opposed to getting stuck with the same one for three or four years with one developer. To get to do Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which is a big Lord of the Rings-type RPG, and then Civilization, World of Warcraft and Mario, I never got to do those types of games before.
But it’s certainly a double-edged sword. When you’re a freelancer, you never know where your next money is going to come from. You could have a great year, and the next year could be terrible. Just cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Out here in Los Angeles, I get to see my kids growing up a lot more. Before I missed so much of them, but now I get to bring them to school, pick them up, all of that.
SUPERJUMP: Do your kids enjoy all of your work and understand the scope of your career accomplishments? Do they play any of the older Rare games you composed?
GRANT: They definitely get who I am. My oldest son loved playing Viva Piñata when the game came out, and he’s played the Banjo games, of course, along with Mario + Rabbids. His friends at school know some of the other games I’ve done. He had a birthday party a couple years back where we had the kids over to the house for pizza and they all start doing the DK Rap! He wore a Golden Eye shirt to school and one of the kids asked him if he even knew what he was wearing on his shirt. He responded “My dad did the music for the game!” It gives him a little street cred I suppose. He enjoys when someone might recognize me in the grocery store or somewhere of that nature.
My daughter’s more into Minecraft, but she played Grabbed by the Ghoulies quite a bit. She enjoys social media more than her brother, she’s 14, so she likes the attention I may get on there. I think in general they find it cool that it’s a different sort of job than what others may have.
SUPERJUMP: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your state of mind while trying to accomplish your work goals?
GRANT: My life hasn’t changed all that much. My day consisted of taking the kids to school, writing music, getting the kids, and maybe going to the store. The only thing I’m not doing now is taking the kids to school, and they obviously are doing online classes right now. Their lives have changed quite a bit, but mine has pretty much stayed the same.
SUPERJUMP: What projects are you working on at the moment? Any hints to anything that hasn’t been publicized already? I know you said in a different interview you wanted to work on the upcoming Mario movie, but that might be a long shot.
GRANT: Yeah, that would be my dream job, but probably not in the cards. It’s the same old story where you can’t talk about any game that hasn’t already been mentioned yet, so it’s all under wraps. I am working on two movies currently. One of them is Bringing Back Golden Eye. It’s a comedy and a sequel to a previous movie which a fictitious Golden Eye tournament. Really funny and I plan on going all out for those guys. I’m also working on a movie called The Handler. I worked on Shadows last year.
SUPERJUMP: What advice would you give to someone trying to get into video game composition? Where do you start?
GRANT: I get asked this quite a lot. You need to have more than just talent. You need to be able to get yourself in front of the right people. There are a lot of great composers who post their music on YouTube or somewhere else, but it’s hard to get noticed.
You need to go to conventions, to game jams, wherever you think you can get in front of the game makers. Networking is just as important as talent, because otherwise, you’ll never be able to gain enough traction.
I’m friends with Danny Baranowsky (composer of indie hits like Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac). He was just a guy who worked at Home Depot and Lowe’s before he remixed a track from Perfect Dark. He was recognized by the team that made Canabalt and his career snowballed from there. Daniel Rosenfeld (C418) was in a chatroom where he volunteered to do the soundtrack for Minecraft, now he might be the most famous composer in the industry.
You have to get into that circle. Just being good and sitting at home is not going to be good enough. These days, people can make games in their bedrooms again. These small developers need sound effects people and soundtrack folks.
SUPERJUMP: You sometimes tweet pictures of you performing in rock bands before you began game compositions. How did you transition from that lifestyle to composing video games?
GRANT: I really became a composer by a complete fluke. I went to college and got a proper music degree. I went the four years and played trumpet. I failed my harmony exam three out of the four years, it was just so much of a struggle for me.
One of the guys that played keyboard in one of my local bands ended up getting a job at Rare. I was like him in that I kept going on unemployment between gigs at local pubs throughout my 20’s. I have a signed guitar from Eddie Van Halen, we performed behind Bon Jovi, just crazy stuff. And he told me after he had been with Rare for about a year and a half that I should apply there, too. I got myself a synthesizer with the small sum of money I had and started testing out tunes that I thought would fit games. I sent in my sample tapes to Rare about five different times in 1994 before I finally got a request for an interview. I was interviewed by David Wise (Donkey Kong Country fame), among others, and got the job. All of this would have never happened without Robin (the friend from the local band) getting the job there first.
SUPERJUMP: Why do you think music has such a transformative role in the memories people have of playing video games? For example, your scores are a huge reason people remember Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64.
GRANT: It just adds so much atmosphere. The pictures tell the story, but the music tells you how to feel. The same goes with movies. The music tells you whether to be happy, sad, or something in between. I was playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild finally and was a little disappointed in the lack of music. I understand what they were going for, but it was a stark contrast to my favorite game of all time, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I just really felt the music was missing. If you have a fantastic score, it’s like the cherry on top of the sundae. For people to still remember my scores for Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 twenty-plus years later, I would have never imagined anyone even remembering them six months after the fact. It’s crazy!
SUPERJUMP: Thank you so much for your time, Grant. It was a huge pleasure! Best of luck in all of your future projects!
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