Interview: Composer Mattias Häggström Gerdt
By Eric Stuckart
Ambassador to the Mushroom Kingdom
When playing video games, one of the most noticeable (and oftentimes memorable) aspects is the music. Sometimes, the music can be so iconic that you end up remembering the songs without even realizing it, and other times, they’re good for setting the mood or tone of a video game.
While you might not have heard of him yet, Mattias Häggström Gerdt is a promising composer of video game music, as well as being obsessed with music—both video game and otherwise—and gaming. On top of that, he also remixes video game music tracks for compilations and serves on the judges panel over at Overclocked Remix, a community “dedicated to the appreciation and promotion of video game music as an art form,” as well as one of the best places to find some of the greatest fan-made arrangements of video game music, period.
Mattias has contributed a number of tracks to some high profile arrangement compilations, such as the Final Fantasy VII tribute album Voices of the Lifestream and Serious Monkey Business, a tribute to the music of Donkey Kong Country 2. Most recently, you could hear his work on The Answer: Armored Core Tribute Album, and one of his remixes found its way onto the Super Meat Boy Soundtrack.
This is all on top of his pretty hectic schedule composing original works for a number of independent games, such as the still in-development Cobalt, along with Kaleidoscope and Artoon. Luckily, Mattias had a little bit of time to correspond with Primary Ignition via email to discuss the ins and outs of video games and music, as well as the combination of the two.
1. What inspired you to compose video game music? Do you create any non-video game related music?
I’ve played video games more or less frequently since I was around…4, or maybe 5. I’ve enjoyed and played music for even longer. There’s almost a sense of nostalgia for music and games, which is rather strange considering how extremely broad it is to just say “music” or “games.” I think I just wanted to combine my two biggest interests and composing game music was the absolute best way to do it.
I also compose non-game music but much less frequently. I was in a “deathrock” band for a few years and toured a bit in Europe (even though we were only 17-18!) and I’ve written a lot of original music. The game music is always there in the back of my head though…even on original albums I imagine them as being game music, just without a game.
2. You’ve said that your work on the Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix soundtrack really got you into composing for games. That’s a pretty high profile first gig. How’d that even happen ?
Well I had been involved in the OverClocked ReMix community since…2006? Or maybe 2007. OCR was my way in to make computer-based music really. I got involved when I applied for the Voices of the Lifestream album and [OCR remixer, composer and producer] Andrew “Zircon” Aversa really took me under his wing and helped me improve; maybe he saw something in my music or just wanted to help out, but in any case I’m eternally grateful for that. After that I got quite a few arrangements posted on the site and joined the judges panel, I even got a bit of a reputation for finishing tracks extremely fast.
When OCR got asked by Capcom/Backbone Entertainment to use an improved and expanded version of their Street Fighter II album as the soundtrack for a new HD SFII remake they were quick to accept. Nearing the end of the project though, they realized that some tracks hadn’t been spoken for and that they needed these tracks really quick because of the approaching deadline. They contacted me, I accepted and went on to crank out the credits theme and the “Here Comes a New Challenger!” jingle. I’m still rather happy with those even though it was a LONG time ago in “music years.”
Things kind of went from there. I thought “Ok, I’ve got a really high-profile game music gig on my resumé,” and began posting at some forums (among others, the XNA dev forum). I got some small jobs from this and it was essentially the beginning of my career as it were. It was really surreal for me, like, I didn’t take it very seriously. In my mind I was still a huge beginner and I couldn’t understand why they’d want my music in their games. I even did it while studying full-time and working part-time at a grocery store… But yeah, I’m rambling a bit. SSFIITHDR and OCR basically brought me to where I am today. I’ve wanted to do music for games for a much longer time but that really made me realize that it was a possibility.
3. How did you get on board for the Super Meat Boy soundtrack? Have you played the game? If so, what did you think?
Danny Baranowsky also has a background as an artist at OCR and he was on the judges panel too, like myself. I was familiar with his work, Canabalt especially, and decided to just chat for a bit one day. If I remember it correctly (chances are I really don’t) I hunted down his AIM or MSN Messenger account.. or maybe it was on IRC? In any case we talked a bit and started talking about Super Meat Boy and that he wanted arrangements for the soundtrack release. Before I know what hit me he had sent me the in-game tracks (unmastered!!!) so I could start jamming. I think it took me one or two days and then I sent him the pretty-much-final version of “Mattias’ Manmeat Mix” that’s now on the album.
Danny’s a real friendly guy and a composer I truly respect so I’m happy to have had that opportunity. Collaborating with other indie game composers are really fun and interesting since it brings more awareness to everyone involved, something game composers in general don’t get enough of, especially indie game composers. Since then I’ve gotten to know quite a few awesome guys in the same field as me (Josh Whelchel, Chris from HyperDuck, C418, SoulEye etc. etc.) and I’m looking forward to appear on their soundtracks too and hopefully vice versa! Spread the love or something like that.
Oh and I have played Super Meat Boy (who hasn’t?) on 360 and it’s quite spectacular. I’ve always been really bad at platform games though, I’ve never finished a Mario game for example, so I quickly wanted to slam my head against a wall. I guess my patience isn’t what it used to be and neither is the time I can spend on gaming. What I did play was great though and the soundtrack really works amazingly well in context.
4. Who are some of your favorite composers? Have any particular video game composers influenced your work? If you could work with any one, who would it be and why?
This is always a really hard question for me. I listen to a LOT of game music and my favorite soundtracks vary pretty much daily. Some of the top composers (and my favorite works of theirs) are: Manabu Namiki (Mushihimesama Futari, Espgaluda II), Kimitaka Matsumae (Jade Cocoon, Kileak the Blood), Kota Hoshino (Armored Core series, Evergrace), GUST Sound Team (Ar Tonelico series), Ryu Umemoto (EVE burst error, Espgaluda II Black Label), Yoshitaka Hirota (Shadow Hearts series), Kou Hayashi & Daisuke Nagata (ChaosField, Radirgy), Yasuhisa Watanabe (Senko no Ronde), Nobuyoshi Sano (Tekken, Ridge Racer) and…wow, there are so many more I want to mention. I’ll stop now though, can’t make the interview just namedropping!
Composers that have really influenced my work though…that’s a bit easier. Kimitaka Matsumae’s low-key, ambient style with simple melodies and lush sounds has really influenced me. The soundtrack for Jade Cocoon is utterly brilliant, I even wrote a paper on it, and Kileak the Blood is intense in its minimalist style. Nobuo Uematsu is the composer I’ve most likely listened the most to, even though it’s less nowadays, and I think he’s influenced me a lot indirectly…just like styles of music that fit certain environments and such. Finally SuperSweep and the Namco Sound Team have influenced me a lot since they are making some of the best electronic game music ever made.
If I could work with one composer I think it would be Ryu Umemoto. He visited me in Stockholm last December and stayed at my place for a night. He’s an incredibly talented composer that was very easy to get along with and I consider him a good friend. Umemoto’s passion for his work, music or otherwise, is incredible too! He’s got a thought behind pretty much everything and genuinely pours his heart and soul into everything. I think we would work well together too because our styles are quite different but would complement each other well. While he does amazing melodies and very complex pieces of music I tend to gravitate more towards a mood or “sound”. If you combine these you basically have the best of both worlds!
5. You mention on your website your vast love of video game soundtracks and how you collect them. What are some of your most prized soundtracks, and why?
Hmm.. I have a pretty good collection of Cave (developer of games such as DoDonPachi) soundtracks that I really treasure! Most soundtracks for Cave’s games are printed in VERY limited amounts, never released outside Japan and often only at their offline event called “Cave Matsuri” that happens once or twice a year. Thanks to some great connections and buying used albums at VGMdb’s marketplace I currently have 15 Cave releases when writing this. Some of the more rare stuff there includes the first print limited edition of Mushihimesama Futari and a signed copy of Akai-Katana by Ryu Umemoto.
My other “holy grail” is my collection of Kimitaka Matsumae soundtracks. I have his compilations of original music, You Are The Fox 1-4, and other rarities, all signed by the man himself!
6. Aside from the video game stuff, what kind of music are you into? How does that affect your compositions?
Hmm…this also varies a LOT but I have some artists/bands/composers that have stuck with me. I’m completely in love with everything Steve Reich does and his music has really influenced a lot of mine. While it might not be obvious, his minimalist style and thoughts about music made ME think about music in a completely different way. I always come back to these thoughts when composing. Like, for example, you can create much more tension and “action” by restraining yourself musically than trying to overdo it with tons of instrument and really advanced writing.
On the other end of the spectrum though we find the french progressive rock/jazz constellation Magma. While Steve Reich can most likely be enjoyed by everyone, Magma feels to me like music for musicians. Their compositions are like these amazing 45 minute space operas with influences ranging from Stravinsky (who I also love) to Miles Davis. Their leader, Christian Vander, even made up an original language to sing in and this incredible semi-religious story that all their works are based around. This kind of elaborate creation of a musical “world” has really inspired me and made me think about what’s cohesive in a completely new way. Their use of thematic material (that’s not always super obvious) has also made their mark on my music.
Just to prove I’m not a snob on a high horse I’ll mention I also love Blink-182, Soundgarden, Tool, Shpongle, Plaid, Xploding Plastix, Underworld, Andrew W.K. Perfume and SO many other artists. They all probably have influenced my way to compose too but it’s harder for me to state exactly how.
7. I’ve noticed that your remixes tend to use a very wide range of styles and instruments, with some being very electronic sounding, and others having more of a rock influence. Do you have a preference between electronic-based music and more traditional instrumentation?
I think my preference IS this mix of things. I love finding/making synth sounds. There’s something amazing about using sounds that most people don’t already have a connection to. That way you can make sure a certain synth sound is used at a certain place or in a certain context and the player/listener will have no problem associating these elements. There’s much less chance of an existing social and cultural meaning, or some kind of association, with “new” (or at least to the listener) synth sounds.
This is exactly the reason why I like “traditional” instrumentation too. People WILL think “jungle” when you start using handdrums, kalimbas and marimbas for example. They WILL sub-consciously associate a lone oboe with love or sadness (depending on context). It’s very effective to use these instruments that everyone is familiar with when the context calls for them. Combining these with synth sounds really gives you the whole palette.
8. Let’s talk about video games a little bit. What are some of your favorites? Have any of them inspired your work?
Again with the favorites…so hard! I’m partial to JRPGs, both unique ones like the Shin Megami Tensei series, “plain” ones like Atelier Iris and good ‘ol Final Fantasy. I’m also very fond of shmups. For example I love the bullet hell games by previously mentioned company Cave, I love R-Type and I completely adore Space Giraffe by Jeff Minter. Then I really fancy a gazillion other games… I have like 400+ games sitting in the shelf beside me while I’m answering this question! And before you ask, I’m not rich at all, I just happen to have been working steadily while studying since I was 15 and I lived at home until just recently.
All the games I’ve played have in some way shaped my work I think. As soon as I play a game I consciously (and subconsciously) think about the music and how it’s used. I get new ideas for how to use music myself (imitation is the highest form of flattery), I discover conventions and even learn what you just should not do. I think the more games you play, the more comfortable you get with the gaming medium and that really helps when you end up behind a game in a creative position. How many movie stars haven’t grown up watching movies? That’s the same thing!
9. What’s the typical process like for creating new music for a game? Does the game’s experience play into your compositions? If so, how?
I typically get a briefing with the developer, most often with a following discussion, on what kind of game he/she is making and what he/she thinks the music should accomplish and sound like. I’ll most likely get some screenshots or maybe even an early demonstration video which gives me a relatively good idea of what the game’s about and how it behaves. Then it kind of depends on the project, what really catches my attention and becomes the main “inspiration” for the music.
For example, with Cobalt, one of the developers, Daniel “thewreck” Brynolf, really took a lot of time to just talk about his visions for the game and everything related to it with me. He talked about the story, the mood, the gameplay, deep philosophical discussions and tons of interesting thoughts on the game. After this he basically said “do exactly what you want”. This lead to me really getting to figure out the most important aspects I wanted to “musically enhance” by myself, but with a great source of information. I think working this way, and working really closely with the developers on a daily basis online, was one of the reasons the music became quite good and earned the Excellence in Audio nomination at IGF [Independent Games Festival]. For other projects, for example Blind Edge (in development) I might just get some level mock-ups and some tracks the developer thought would fit and take it from there. That’s also a great way to work!
I must admit though, I tend to first and foremost think of the game as a game. I try to pinpoint what the main features are, how is the gameplay, the speed of the game etc. Having this in the back of my head, especially considering all games I’ve played and soundtracks I’ve heard, really helps and serves as kind of a “frame” for it all. After that it’s more about the “experience” as you put it. Inside the “game frame”, to use that analogy, I paint much more freely than I would if I just painted on the wall.
10. What do you find more fun and/or enjoyable, remixing/recreating songs or composing your own pieces for games?
Definitely composing my own pieces for games, no contest. Arranging is really fun and often very educational in a way but going through the process I outlined above and being a part of a greater context is so incredibly rewarding. This might sound a bit self-centered but there are few things I enjoy more than hearing my music in context of the game when everything is said and done, regardless of if the game turned out amazing or just decent.
11. What was your favorite project you’ve worked on?
That’s hard to answer and by answering it I feel like I’m being rude to the developers of the projects I’m NOT mentioning…but okay, it has to be Cobalt. Like I said before it was great to work so closely with the developers. We had a period before the IGF deadline where we stayed at [Cobalt developer] Kinten’s place and worked on the game together in the same room until the middle of the night. I ended up sleeping on his couch. That was very rewarding and inspiring in a way, to have a team in the same room working together on a project. Then when Cobalt got nominated for Excellence in Audio at IGF (with honorable mentions in Technical Excellence and Excellence in Visual Art) it was basically one of the best moments in my life (thus far).
12. You also serve on the Judges Panel over at Overclocked Remix. What exactly do you do there and how did that come about? How long have you been working with them?
The judges panel is a group of selected people that applies a set of “standards” to arrangements submitted to OverClocked ReMix. The purpose of these standards is to keep quality relatively high and encourage more developed arrangements of game music compared to for example straight covers. What we do is basically vote YES or NO (with an optional “resubmit”) on tracks that are candidates to be posted on the site and write out why it was/wasn’t accepted and try to give some constructive feedback in the process. I’ve been a judge since summer 2008 I think.
13. People who frequent OCRemix might only recognize you under your alias, Another Soundscape, or AnoSou. Are there any other names that listeners might know you as?
Well, I’ve officially left “Another Soundscape” behind me. I never particularly liked that alias except in the very beginning. At OCR I know officially go by my real name, as with basically all game/album credits, while Anosou is used by my company/label “Anosou Music”. I’ve also adopted Anosou as my online name pretty much everywhere too. It’s short, it’s super Google-able and it has no umlauts.
14. What should we expect from you in the future?
Hopefully lots and lots of game music, original or arrangements. Right this moment I’m finishing up the score to game I can’t yet reveal and I recently finished two arrangements for two really cool game arrangement albums. There is also some more cool stuff in the works, including finishing Cobalt one day! We’re currently working on a new-and-improved build for the IGF exhibit at GDC [Game Developers Conference], taking the game in an entirely different direction, and I’m reworking some of the music and planning some new tracks.
I really just want to write as much music as possible for as many different games/things as possible and hopefully be able to make a living by only doing that. I hope some people will appreciate my music while I continue to follow my dream. As a huge game music fan myself I will do my absolute best to release as much music as possible for everyone to enjoy at will.
Front page photo from ocremix.org.