This is a transcript of my interview with Grant Kirkhope. If you would like to listen to it, please visit my podcast show, ARGcast – Another Retro Gaming Podcast.
Very few music composers in gaming are known by name alone. Tommy Tallarico has had a long and storied career with over 300 game soundtracks under his belt. Koji Kondo is the man responsible for almost everything musically by Nintendo. And, of course, there’s Grant Kirkhope, who made a name for himself at Rare.
For 12 years, Kirkhope provided instant classic tunes for beloved titles during Rare’s golden age. Some of the more prolific titles include Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, and Viva Piñata. And his body of work has only continued to become more impressive after leaving the studio. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Yooka-Laylee, and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle have added to his growing legacy.
So please enjoy this chat with Grant Kirkhope on his career, what happened during the Rare years, and where video game music stands today.
You grew up around music at an early age with your dad exposing you to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller. Would you say a career in music was something you were pushed into or that you simply had a natural inclination towards?
At the start, I definitely had a natural inclination towards it. In the UK when you turn 14, you have to choose your subjects in school. So you go through school and do all the general stuff. Then when it was time to choose, I decided to follow my dad and pick carpentry. I was later asked, ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit daft that you’re not doing music?’ I just wasn’t thinking about it at the time. But that’s the only time I ever felt pushed into it.
I was playing in rock bands even back then. I wanted to play guitar ’cause that was my favorite thing to do. When I turned 18, my music teacher at the time was a huge influence on me. He was pushing for me to go to university for music. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea at the time. My parents were even saying how music is going to get you nowhere. Since I was already a pretty good trumpet player, I decided to go to the college of music and did four years of that.
You first joined Rare in the mid-nineties working on music for major titles such as Killer Instinct 2, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and Perfect Dark. What was that transition like for you, going from playing in bands to working on these projects?
It was amazing! I think I spent like 11 years of my life from 22 to 33 playing in bands. It’s all I did. I never got a job. I lived with my mother thinking I was just going to be a failure playing in crappy bands forever. By the time I was 33, I was just playing in cover bands in my local area to make a living.
So then my friend, Robin Beanland, he played in one of the bands I played in. He was putting together these little demos off of computer music. And he said, ‘I’m gonna try to get a job.’ I just ignored it thinking it was nonsense. And then one day he announced that he got a job at this company called Rare in the UK. I never heard of them.
About a year and a half went by and Robin said, ‘You know, Grant, you’ve been on unemployment benefit for about 11 years. Don’t you think it’s time to get a job?’ I asked what I could even do, and he responded, ‘Why not do what I do?’ He recommended some gear for me to buy so as to write some tunes I thought would be appropriate for video games. I sent Rare five cassette tapes over the course of that year. I never got a reply. Then out of the blue, I got a letter asking me to come in for an interview. I sat down with David Wise and the general manager and I got the job. I couldn’t believe it.
To be working at a company that was so prestigious, it was… I mean, it made the news in the UK that Nintendo bought half the company. For me, going there was like doing to Disneyland. It was just incredible.
Many Nintendo fans still hold fond memories of Rare. In your opinion, what made Rare so special back then?
Honestly, I think it was Tim and Chris Stamper. They were like lightning rods. They originally started [game studio] Ultimate Play the Game, making lots of games for the Spectrum. Then they just stopped doing that and reverse-engineered the NES, sent a game to Nintendo, and they couldn’t believe it. They never once looked at a Western developer for anything at the time. To do that [and] then have Nintendo ask to make games for them, I mean, it’s incredible.
I worked more closely with Tim just because of the teams we were on at the time. Whatever we did, he’d say, ‘That’s great, but what about this?’ He always had a great idea in the back of his mind.
It’s hard to put into words how creative that period of Rare was. That’s why Rare was so great back then. Everyone was firing on all cylinders. Everyone was really going for it, and it just bled into the games.
Tim and Chris were like big kids in some respects. They always had that insight which made kids love what they made. Being at the top of the company, everything bled down from them. Everything.
You have been nominated for awards by BAFTA, ASCAP, and IFMCA for your work on Viva Piñata, Civilization: Beyond Earth, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning respectively. Would you say that respect for video game music has gone up lately?
Definitely. That’s another thing I never expected actually. I started out with a Game Boy that could only play three mono notes, and then within 10 years, I’m writing for a full live orchestra. It’s incredible.
My first realization that video game music was big was through the MAGfest guys. I met those guys and they asked me to check it out when it was still in its early years. It was just incredible how many people there were massive on video game music. I did panels and people were going crazy. And it’s only gotten bigger and bigger since then. In the UK, there is a video game radio show hosted by Jessica Curry who composed the music for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The London Philharmonic Orchestra do video game concerts.
My son is 16 and he doesn’t listen to anything vaguely in the pop charts. His entire playlist is just video game tunes from all the games that he likes. I think people have gotten way more eclectic taste. They’ll have their Metallica next to The Legend of Zelda.
To the uneducated person, they still think video game music is just bleeps and bloops. They don’t understand where it’s gotten to now. I think there’s no real difference between movie soundtracks and game soundtracks these days. They’re just as epic, just as big, and just as orchestral. And games also still have that chiptune style. There’s a massive wealth of great music out there.
After Rare went through its transition period in 2010, you left the company to work freelance. You also had some choice words towards Microsoft, stating, “I think Rare have completely fucked themselves. And it isn’t their fault; it’s Microsoft’s fault. They have completely ruined that company, and it makes me cry every day of my life.” Do you still harbor resentment towards Microsoft for their handling of Rare?
That’s a tough question. I think at the time I was pretty pissed off. Tim and Chris (Stamper) left the company shortly before I left. I kinda felt that the magic had gone at that point. It was such a fantastic experience, and for me to see it not do as well for whatever reason was hugely upsetting to me. I never thought I would ever leave that place. I thought I’d be there forever.
Microsoft bought Rare for a reason. They wanted to get broad appeal content onto the original Xbox. We couldn’t possibly create enough games to completely champion the broad appeal content. We just didn’t have enough staff to do that. Grabbed by the Ghoulies came out and there was a massive backlash from all the Nintendo guys who didn’t want to hear from Rare anymore. It just went downhill from there.
A lot of internal fighting started before Microsoft got interested. It was an undercurrent of unhappiness. I loved everything about Rare, and I couldn’t believe people were speaking badly about it. I think Microsoft bought something that was on the way down and they didn’t know it. Then they compounded the problem.
On the walls, we had framed pictures of all the games we worked on. There was a huge Nintendo tapestry in the foyer, like 20 feet tall. But then Microsoft took it all down. They took all the pictures off the wall. They took the tapestry down. It was almost like they didn’t want to be associated with what Rare did in the past.
We were used to being an agile company. You might have a meeting to talk over what to do and just do it. With Microsoft, if you had an idea, then you would have to send it up the chain and wait a week. When you’re dealing with a bunch of hippies, that production line way of doing things doesn’t work.
You have also stated that video game music composers could do a movie score as well as any of the current movie composers. What would you say has kept you invested in creating video game music for over 20 years now? Why not create music for movies, or release your own music as original albums?
No one has asked me! Part of the reason why I moved to Los Angeles was so as to try and get into the movie industry. I am actively doing that. I’ve done quite a lot of short films so far.
Seeing that they’re making a Mario movie, I would love to do that. I kinda feel like I’m the only guy in the Western world who has touched Mario. I had just done Mario + Rabbids for the past three years. I’ve got all the cinematic sequences for it. If you put them together, it would be a movie.
I would love to work on some movies, but at the same time, I do love working on video games. I wouldn’t want to stop that. I’d just like to do a bit of both. That would be great.
Do you have a soundtrack or piece of music you take the most pride in creating? Donkey Kong Rap perhaps?
I think that would be the bottom of the list probably. *laughs*
No, I honestly do love the ‘DK Rap.’ It was fun to do back then. At the time, people really didn’t like it. The press didn’t care for it, saying, “Oh, great. Grant’s trying to be a rapper.” It was just meant to be a joke. I just had to wait 20 years for people to like it.
I’ve got a soft spot for Banjo-Kazooie, of course, because that was the first game where I did all the effects and music myself. GoldenEye 007 as well, especially working on the Bond theme. Working on Viva Piñata was great too because it was my first time working with a live orchestra. There’s a track in there called ‘Tranquil Hours’ which I really like.
But working on Mario + Rabbids was so special. When I first started working on that title, I had no idea what it was going to be. I had such a fantastic time working with those guys [Ubisoft] the past three years. They’re like my best friends now. If someone told me in 1995 that I was going to work on Mario, I would never have believed it. I mean, Koji Kondo is such a legend, so how on Earth am I supposed to follow in his footsteps? He’s the man with total brilliance, and I’m just this bloke who hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing half the time.
You’re still going strong today having recently worked on the music for Yooka-Laylee, Mario + Rabbids, and A Hat in Time. What are you currently working on that you can tell us about? How does the future of video game music look to you?
Oooooh, well I can’t say that, now can I? I’ve done some little stuff like music for a small game called Chicken Wiggle. I’ve done some tunes for a game called Interstellar Space Genesis. It’s like an indie space exploration game with a Civilization feel. I also did some pieces here and there for the Playtonic game, Yooka-Laylee.
Honestly, I’ve been feeling pretty tired! This year was hectic. Doing all the Donkey Kong DLC music for Mario + Rabbids was a big deal. Same with conducting a live band during E3. I did a trombone concerto with a friend of mine who is a very famous trombone player. And I’m writing another trombone piece for a friend of mine at the Chicago Philharmonic Symphony.
I’m anticipating working on video game stuff again very soon. I’m pretty much locked into the next project, but I can’t say what that is at this moment.
The future of video game music is looking very bright. It may become the new classical music of the future. That’s what I think. A lot of the time, orchestras worry about funding and keeping afloat. If they just did a few video game concerts, that would float them for the year because they know they’re going to sell out. It would be a guaranteed income source for them.
Thanks to Grant Kirkhope for taking the time to chat! Be sure to check out his work at GrantKirkhope.com.