An Interview with Video Game Music Composer, Musician and Educator Karl Brueggemann
Karl Brueggemann is a composer, musician and music teacher with a passion for classic (and modern) video game music. He and his brother Will host the Super Marcato Bros. podcast that delves into the best video game music from the past and the present. I talk to him about the roots of his musical passion, his creative process as a composer and why he’s so passionate about video game music.
Interview With Karl Brueggemann
Karl Magi: What first sparked your passion for making music?
Karl Brueggemann: Both of my parents are very musical. My dad played in bands growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He’s always loved music and he played a lot of music around the house and in the car. My mom is a wonderful singer who has been singing most of her life. Music was always around and it was just part of life. I didn’t really feel like I had a choice, it was just something that was inside of me. Since I was a really little kid, I was always tapping on things and drumming. It was the way I would express myself. I got bored a lot when I was in school and my mind would wander, so I would come up with beats, rhythms or little melodies in my head.
I took piano lessons when I was young. I loved playing around on this old Yamaha keyboard we had from the early 90’s. I’d mess around, making my own songs and my own beats. When I took piano lessons, I actually didn’t enjoy them at first because I didn’t want to play the pieces that the teacher told me to play and I didn’t want to practice. I just wanted to come up with my own stuff.
When I got my first drum set at age nine, I just took to it like a duck to water and played it all the time. I had so many ideas in my head of what I wanted to do. My older brother Marty was at the perfect age at that time too. He’s quite a few years older than me, so he started to play guitar at the same time. We started to jam and that was when I first felt the magic of making music with another person. We’d be in his room for hours jamming and playing covers of ‘90s alternative and punk bands.
I started writing my own music and I would make these terrible MIDI songs in the mid-90’s. I was 11 or 12 and I had no idea what I was doing, but it was just so much fun to make music. The next level for me was in high school. I started a pretty terrible rock band and I wanted to write music for it. We had another person in the band who was singing, but they were a bad singer so I started to sing. After that, I started to write songs and it just went from there.
KM: What was the next step towards a career in music?
KB: My first idea was not to pursue music, but to pursue animation instead. Animation was another, in some ways bigger, passion for me as a child. I made countless flip books and I was very much into drawing. At a young age, I got an early version of After Effects, so I started to learn how to use that. We made these terrible Star Wars animations on it!
I thought really seriously about going to an animation school, but for some reason I felt it would be wiser to go to a regular university and start with music because that was another huge passion of mine. I stuck to that decision and went to Winona State University which is a couple of hours outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. As soon as I started there, I met so many people who had the same passion, so it basically just escalated from there.
As I started to play in more bands and write more instrumental music, I realized how important video game music has always been to my entire life. In late high school and early college, I would find myself writing and recording these really cheesy instrumental songs on the Yamaha keyboard. I was basically making video game music and I didn’t even realize it.
KM: How did you start making music on a more professional basis?
KB: That wasn’t something I thought about doing, it was something I dreamed about doing. I was always doing it, so I didn’t feel like I had a choice. After college, I had that dream. When I made the first Sonicesque album back in 2011, it was just an experiment. At the time, me and Marty found this VOPM* plugin and it was like, “Oh my god! I can make original Genesis music!”
It was so fun and so successful that I started thinking it was something that I’d love to do for a living. At the time, I had a day job at a bank. We started the Super Marcato Bros. podcast a year later. Through the podcast and through having opportunities to compose for various projects with Will and Marty, it became clear that it was something that I wanted to pursue seriously. It was born out of a passion for a hobby and turned into something more serious.
*VOPM: VOPM is an emulation of the Yamaha YM2151 (OPM) 4 operator FM sound chip.
KM: Talk to me about why you love video game music and why it inspires you.
KB: It’s always been around me and had a significant role in my life. I remember Marty getting a Sega Genesis for Christmas in 1993 or so. I remember that day very clearly and starting up Sonic 1 for the first time. It was such a joyous experience. It looked amazing, the music was unlike anything I’d ever heard and I just fell in love with it. I played Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 every day for years and listened to the music non-stop.
When my older brother showed me all these cool new games that I’d never discovered before, like the LucasArts PC games, Mario games or Sonic games, I started to realize how much that music was an important factor in my enjoyment of the games. I noticed that all of my favourite games had great music. Although I didn’t realize it right away, when I started getting interested in composing my own music, video game music was probably the biggest source of inspiration for me.
Even when I was trying to write in other styles, so many people would tell me it sounded so videogame-y. Once I embraced that style for something like Sonicesque or later projects, I realized just how natural it was for me. It’s so clear to me that it’s something that I have to do.
KM: Who are some of the songwriters and composers that you find inspirational?
KB: The music of John Williams was always around. Marty was always a huge John Williams fan. He was ahead of the curve because he’d get John Williams soundtrack CDs when he was 15 or 16. I definitely always appreciated that music.
I fell in love with a lot of the bands and the music from the '90s that Marty would listen to. For example, one of my favourite bands was Sublime. I always really appreciated their reggae grooves and Brad Nowell’s really strong melodies and songwriting.
As far as video game music goes, obviously Masato Nakamura is a name that I have to mention. His music for the Sonic games was the first video game music that I noticed and fell in love with. When I was very young, we played the LucasArts adventure games starting with The Secret of Monkey Island followed by Monkey Island II, Sam & Max and Day of the Tentacle. The composers for those games like Peter McConnell, Michael Land and Clint Bajakian are very important to me as well.
I didn’t have a Super Nintendo at the time but my best friend did. We would play Super Mario World and some of the Mario games, so that’s when I first realized how joyous and magical the music of Koji Kondo was. I also played a lot of the Mario games on the ZSNES emulator and the music continued to captivate me.
Marty had a friend with an N64 and he brought it over one day and turned on Mario 64. It was a turning point because everything about that experience was unforgettable. The music was so catchy, so fun and I just felt it in my bones.
David Wise is another really important name because I first played the DKC games on ZSNES when I was 14 or 15. I absolutely adored the music.
KM: Talk about the approaches you take to the process of composition.
KB: For things I do on my own, whether it’s a chiptune album or an homage album like Sonicesque, I’ll start with some sort of clear creative hook. It might be a chord progression, it might be a specific rhythm or a bassline, but it’s some small kernel that is memorable to me. I’ll record that on a voice memo right away because it’s crazy how quickly you can lose ideas, even if it’s as simple as remembering the notes but not the exact rhythms. I’ll keep building on that and get a clear idea. It’ll be a clear enough idea that I’ll be able to take it and run with it. The rest of it feels like I’m not even working, it’s just going where I want it to go.
Every piece of music is different. Sometimes it’s really difficult and it doesn’t come easily, so I have to spend hours doing trial and error, especially if it’s more complex. If I’m writing a piece of fusion music that I want to be very wandering with a lot of modulation, sometimes I might go through 100 different options for chords and changes.
It’s the best when things come to you really easily. I almost don’t remember composing some of my favourite pieces of music because it was so easy and quick. It’s really fun to listen to the finished project because it almost feels like it wasn’t even me composing it.
KM: How do you see video game music fitting into the broader spectrum of contemporary music?
KB: Video game music is becoming increasingly more vital as an art form, especially for younger kids who might not have any knowledge of or experience with older forms of music whether it’s classical music, ragtime, blues or Dixieland. It’s possible that they might not hear that music at home or at school, so video games are the one arena where those traditions are still being upheld and explored in new, creative ways. Cuphead is a great example of this. Kristofer Maddigan uses the traditions of big band jazz but is still able to say something new with it after all these years.
You could say that about a lot of the Mario soundtracks composed by Koji Kondo. This nine year old kid who has no experience listening to ragtime, but he listens to Mario 2 and knows he loves it. He doesn’t really know what it is, so he dives into it and if it’s someone who has musical ability and interest, he starts learning about that music and wanting to explore it more.
Video game music has its own set of traditions and its own sound. It really is an art form and there’s something very special about it. It’s a lot more entertaining and instantly appealing, in my opinion, than any other genre of music. It can be the most delightful and happy music that I’ve ever heard. It’s also so diverse. There’s game score that, when you listen to it, you’d have no idea you weren’t listening to film score. It really can be whatever the game requires.
My favourite kind of video game music is the kind that has this signature VGM sound with a melody that’s immediate and iconic, a sense of groove and a really interesting combination of influences.
I’m an instructor and I use video game music for so many of my students and it’s always so successful. The pieces are so fun to play, sound so good and in many cases are easy to play. It’s such a great tool because you can see them light up with this music.
KM: Is there any VGM that you’ve discovered recently that’s really made you sit up and take notice of it?
KB: By far the most exciting video game score in the last ten years has been Shovel Knight as well as its subsequent DLC releases. It feels like its carrying the torch of classic VGM while also being incredibly daring, fresh and bold. Xenoblade Chronicles II is phenomenal. NieR has been very moving to me. Gravity Rush I and II definitely stand out. This past year has been incredible. I was blown away by the Mario Odyssey score, particularly the pieces that Koji Kondo composed. They were so different and risky. He took bold risks and went where you wouldn’t expect the music to go.
KM: What are the current projects on which you’re working that excite you?
KB: The most excitiing thing I’m working on now is Hero of Legend which is a Super Marcato Bros. project. It’s the most ambitious, exciting and daunting project that we’ve ever done. If anybody’s familiar with our homage projects, we basically write music in the style of a classic series or composer. We really study the music, dissect it and try to find out what it is about this music that’s special. We want to capture what it is that people love about it, while still doing something new and exploring things that weren’t explored in the original game and series.
Our goal with these projects is to make something that feels familiar, that feels like some sort of lost game. This is a series of three albums inspired by the Legend of Zelda series. The idea is that each of the albums is going to represent one era of Zelda music.
Without giving too much away, the first album is going to be 8-bit in presentation, but one really exciting thing is that just because an album has a particular presentation doesn’t mean we'll just stick to those games for influences. You might hear some cross-pollination and influence from other eras of Zelda games.
KM: How do you stoke your creative fires?
KB: I like having multiple projects because it definitely motivates me and gets my creativity going. I love having something at the end of the day that I can’t wait to go home and work on.
I’m really fortunate that I’m able to wear many hats when it comes to creativity whether it has anything to do with music or not. It could be working on artwork or our episode logos for our website.
Within music, I love to wear different hats. I have a jazz/funk/fusion band called Karl B and the Soul Surgeons, so when I play with them it gets me more recharged. I always come back with a higher level of energy after shows. Playing more music gets me more recharged. I don’t ever get sick of music, but I just change up what I’m doing when I get frustrated with it.