Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in April 2020.
Last month music label Materia Collective put out the original soundtracks to both Yooka-Laylee and its sequel Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair on a host of digital storefronts and streaming platforms. The music from both of Playtonic Games’ love letters to platformers past was relatively hard-to-find thanks to limited releases, but they are both now available online in all the places you’d expect to find and/or stream them.
Both games revel in players’ nostalgia for vintage Rareware platformers like the Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country series, and enlisting the composers behind those classics was no small part of nailing the feel Playtonic was aiming for. The textured melodies of Grant Kirkhope and David Wise (along with fellow Rareware alumni Steve Burke) recaptured that joyous, mischievous spirit and played a significant role in Yooka-Laylee’s success.
David Wise began composing at Rare in the late ’80s for a number of NES titles including Slalom, RC Pro-AM and Battletoads. Grant Kirkhope started at the company around a decade later working on games like Killer Instinct Gold and was responsible for several soundtracks during Rare’s N64 golden years, including GoldenEye 007 (alongside Graeme Norgate and Robin Beanland). With nearly six decades composing experience between them, we wondered if their writing process has changed much since the start of their VGM careers. Do they end up with lots of unused bits and bobs or is it a more economic process these days?
“Actually, I don’t really have much that doesn’t get used,” Kirkhope tells us via email. “I think because I’m in constant contact with whoever I’m working for so I’m making changes all the time. Also, I try to always send the first 32 bars or so to check if I’m heading in the right direction, that way it saves me spending time writing a whole piece and it getting rejected and then having to start back at square one.”
Wise takes a similar approach to nailing the basic idea before wasting time on refining something that doesn’t quite fit. “I learnt a long time ago at Rare when presenting a track to Tim Stamper (one of the brothers who founded Rare as Artistic Director) that if a track didn’t work, it would take far longer to fix it than to scrap it and simply start over again. I tend to sketch for the first hour every day, just to get initial ideas down to work on at a later date. Due to this process, if I’m not happy with an idea – I won’t present it until I find an idea, I am happy with. I’m sure there are many thousands of ideas I’ve scrapped, however, it’s all part of the process in finding a better idea to run with.”
I learnt a long time ago at Rare … that if a track didn’t work, it would take far longer to fix it than to scrap it and simply start over again.
As Kirkhope mentions, feedback still forms a large part of the process for both composers. “I still get lots of feedback and I still have to make lots of changes. I don’t think there’s a composer out there that doesn’t have to deal with that. I think there was a piece on Mario + Rabbids that I did 20 versions of before that moaner Davide Soliani [Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle game director and Grant’s pal] was happy!”
“We’re hired to have a certain sound and character,” Wise agrees, “and with that comes certain preconceived expectations. Which is both good and also somewhat challenging at times. However, I still push myself to find a new angle to work with.”
The Yooka-Laylee projects forced the composers to recall and echo their own past work in a very specific way, without repeating themselves or falling into parody. We imagine it must be a tough brief to consciously strive for something fresh while taking influence so openly from your own past.
“Definitely, I think you can’t escape that.” Kirkhope confirms. “With the first Yooka game it was obvious that it needed that Banjo-Kazooie-ness so I had to find a way to not make it exactly like BK but just enough that people got that flavour. With Yooka 2 it wasn’t so much of an issue as they didn’t want it to sound like that.”
Walking that tightrope between old and new worlds while keeping them separate is a challenge, and keeping track of familiar melodies can be tough, too, especially after several decades in the composing business. “When I was working on Desktop Dungeons I’d written a piece that I kept thinking sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it, luckily I spotted that I’d written the exact same melody for one of the pieces I did for Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse, so I changed it!”
With such a wealth experience under their belts you might assume that writing comes more easily nowadays. Surely it’s just a case of first note, drop a third, and – bish-bash-bosh – another winner, no? “Haha! I so wish it was that easy,” says Wise. “No, every composition I strive to find something new and or unique to add a sense of excitement to the composition process. Remember all of those unfinished sketches I talked about earlier? Well, I keep going until I connect with the composition I’m aiming to achieve. It definitely doesn’t get easier, but hopefully sounds a little more developed in compositional style.”
Wherever we work, as [work-from-home] composers, it’s very much like being in quarantine and lockdown all the time
Kirkhope credits avoiding writer’s block to a strict daily routine. “I have Rare to thank for that. Because I spent 12 years there as a staff composer it got me into the habit of starting to write at 9:00am and finish at 5:00pm, it’s such a great regime to get into. I couldn’t just sit there in a darkened room and wait for the hand of the Lord to hand me tune, I had to get on with it! I still work like that today.”
As external contractors, we wonder if they miss the team dynamic or heading to work at the office (or barn in the case of old-school Twycross Rare). Perhaps the peace and quiet of home is more conducive to writing and recording? “I really like being freelance,” Kirkhope tells us. “I find it’s made me much more productive as I can set my own work hours. I know when I work best and when it’s like pulling teeth!”
“Wherever we work, as composers, it’s very much like being in quarantine and lockdown all the time,” says Wise. “Fortunately, we let out every now and again to go talk to other humans.”
While the music for the original Yooka-Laylee was written entirely by Grant, David and Steve Burke, the lion’s share of The Impossible Lair’s soundtrack was composed by in-house Playtonic composers Dan Murdoch and Matt Griffin. ” I only took more of a back seat because Gavin [Price, Playtonic co-founder] wouldn’t pay any money!” Kirkhope jokes. Despite taking reduced roles on the sequel, their presence arguably tended to draw attention from the work of Playtonic’s talented in-house team. We wondered if this was a source of frustration.
“It was inevitable that our names would be the focus,” Kirkhope continues, “so I did my best to always tell people that Matt and Dan did most of the music and I only did a tiny bit. It’s not frustrating for me I just feel bad that Matt and Dan don’t get the credit they deserve.”
“I think Matt and Dan did an incredible job with their compositions,” says Wise. “I don’t think that either myself or Grant were credited for other people’s work as we made it clear from day one we were not the main composers. I think the use of our names were used to help give kudos to the game and help with marketing, but this is not unusual.”
Playtonic was after something a little different from the chameleon and bat’s debut for the sequel. “During the first game, I was adding specific tracks to give a change of pace and different colours to the wonderful tracks that Grant had produced,” says Wise. “For the second game, it was far more about experimenting with different or unexpected ways I could use a ukulele.”
“Playtonic were asking for a different sound for the second game, they wanted it to be smaller and not as big as the first game,” Kirkhope agrees. The move from expansive 3D platformer to still-expansive 2D platformer might have resulted in something less ‘grand’, but the different flavour of The Impossible Lair’s OST is certainly no less brilliant.
As with any creative endeavour, whatever you digest naturally has an effect on your own work. “There are always very influential pieces of music that have inspired us both” says Wise. “Whilst learning our craft, there were pieces I painstakingly worked through to recreate in order to learn the process of composition. These can’t help but influence a composer’s style.”
To have people still talk about things that I wrote 20 years ago is crazy to me.
We ask what they have been listening to recently. “Hmmmm ….. lots of John Williams as usual,” says Kirkhope. “I’ve been playing World of Warcraft Classic and it’s been great to hear that music again. I spent a lot of time playing WoW when I was at Rare and I’d forgotten just how good the music is.” Wise, too, has been listening to games music. “Spyro the Dragon on Switch featuring remixed compositions by Stewart Copeland.”
While there are obvious similarities between the composers’ approaches and career backgrounds, their work is idiosyncratic, yet varied. “I think both Grant and I have our own styles […] it’s fairly easy to pick out a composition by Grant as I’m sure it probably is too for my compositions.” When asked if there is a piece of music in their back catalogue they wish they could go back to to change or tweak, Kirkhope thinks not: “Not really, I’m not a very good polisher, if I go back I’d probably just make it worse!”
On the other hand, Wise could go on tweaking forever. “I always have to force myself to stop. Given the time, I’d still be tweaking songs from years ago […] I’m constantly thinking: a bit too much reverb at this bit, the drums should have more weight here and there’s a cymbal crash missing that really should have been included. Some strings at this bit would soften the flute and so on. It doesn’t stop.”
The affection and emotion Wise and Kirkhope’s melodies continue to evoke in gamers many years later is something both of them find heartening and humbling. Their music has had a profound effect on many gamers who have listened to their work for hours on end.
“That’s something that I’m never going to get used to,” Kirkhope muses. “I don’t really like all that ego thing. I always say that for any artist of any persuasion–be that a composer, photographer or writer, etc.–to have one person in the world like something that came out of their head is just amazing. To have people still talk about things that I wrote 20 years ago is crazy to me, I thought it’d get forgotten in a few months!”
“It’s always very humbling when people react so favourably and emotionally to our compositions,” Wise agrees. “Fans are indeed extremely kind with their comments. But that feedback also helps drives us as composers too.”
We used the term ‘elder statesmen’ in our correspondence regarding Kirkhope and Wise’s position in the world of composing for games. It seemed appropriate given their decade-spanning careers which combined run from 8-bit right up to whatever-bit we’re up to now. However, with John Williams still working well into his late 80s, these guys are barely halfway into their careers and there’s no sign of them slowing down anytime soon. Kirkhope plays down the idea that some sort of concert tour could be a tidy earner (“I would like to do that, but I don’t think anyone would come!”), but Wise has a combo featuring other ex-Rare luminaries which plays regularly with a set featuring classics from his back catalogue.
“The Dave Wise Five played at MAGfest in Washington DC this year. We were jet lagged and incredibly tired having played on New Year’s Eve in the UK – then travelled immediately after this down to Heathrow to got on a transatlantic plane for nine hours. Couldn’t sleep on there as it was too uncomfortable. We then stayed up to get in sync with the new time zone. Then after around six hours of sleep – we eventually got on stage just before midnight. Crazy.”
Coming later this year is a new project, too–a concept album called Salamandos. In addition to the Spyro soundtrack, Wise has been revisiting and listening to tracks from the ’80s for inspiration. “Musically, I’ve been listening to lots of ‘80s rock and pop, as our forthcoming concept album is based on the decade when Kevin Bayliss and I started working together.”
Rareware fans will recognise Bayliss’ name. “Kevin created the first 3D DK models, Killer Instinct characters and so many more. He’s also a fantastic singer. By around May/June we’ll have the album finished – and it features a fully art-ed book – in the style of games Kevin and myself have worked on at our time at Rare. Then we’ll take the Dave Wise Five on tour in Europe.”
Current world events will obviously have an effect on touring plans (“We’ve already had to put back our shows in Norway, Sweden, UK and Germany until the coronavirus is under control.”) but Wise hopes to continue with live shows when things return to relative normality. Regardless of delays, it’s fantastic to hear the enthusiasm these two composers still have after so many years – both for their classic material and for new stuff in the pipeline.
Many thanks to David and Grant. The Yooka-Laylee and Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair soundtracks are available now on a range of digital storefronts and streaming platforms including Apple, Spotify and Amazon. Let us know your favourite Wise and Kirkhope tracks, both new and vintage, below.