Karl is a longtime freelancer who's passionate about music, art, and writing.
Interview with Tommy Norris and Chalmers Croft
Karl Magi: How did you each first get interested in music?
Tommy Norris: I started out in middle school band, playing drums which was my very first experience with an instrument. My dad had a guitar laying around, so in high school I started playing guitar and that led to electric guitar. I started playing classic rock and joining rock bands after that.
I met my current wife, who I play music with for a living, and she had a mandolin. I started playing her mandolin and fell in love with it. When I went to college, I devoted all my time to mandolin and that’s how it all started.
Chalmers Croft: My dad started teaching me acoustic guitar at 6 years old! He was heavily involved in the church music team and had me strumming along with them shortly after learning some basic chords. After he passed away from illness during my teen years, I inherited his guitars and really fell in love with the acoustic guitar and various types of acoustic music!
KM: Where did your interests in video game music start?
TN: I’ve always loved soundtrack music. My first emotive reaction to music that I can remember was watching Star Wars: A New Hope. There’s a scene where Luke is standing, looking at the two suns setting and the theme that plays, the Binary Sunset Theme, it kind of gave me chills. I’ve played video games all my life and just fell in love with some of the video game soundtracks.
CC: My mom and I used to play a Super Nintendo classic called Super Metroid. I was so intrigued by the music in that game and how it made me feel when playing it. From that point on, I started to pay a lot more attention to the music in various games. With Nintendo games in particular, the majority of the music is so creative and really opens up your mind to limitless possibilities in terms of composing.
KM: How did you meet Chalmers Croft?
TN: I went to college at Western Carolina University and majored in recording there. It’s a music school and you can focus on audio engineering and technology, but you do have to play an instrument so its like a traditional music school in that sense. They don’t have a mandolin program there, so I was playing classical guitar and I went and auditioned. Chalmers was also auditioning for jazz guitar and I met him there. During orientation, I heard someone yelling, “Hey! Guitar Guy!” It was Chalmers. We ended up rooming together because we both didn’t like the roommates we had, so we moved in together and started playing bluegrass and lots of of video games. It was college after all!
KM: Tell me about how you got the idea for Box Monkey Studios.
TN: The name comes from playing Super Smash Bros. I hate to say it but we probably played that game three to four hours every day after class. It was right when Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out and I’d always play as Donkey Kong. I’d hoard all the boxes so they started calling me Box Monkey. As far as the business goes, I moved to Nashville after college to pursue music and Chalmers eventually also moved to Nashville. He spent a while playing with country acts and touring, but he got tired of it and we both decided that because we’re huge video game nerds, we love video game music and we both went to school to study music.
Chalmers would play guitar while we were playing Smash Bros. He’d either play along to the music or write his own music to the game. The stuff we were writing was kind of goofy video game music anyway, so we decided to try and start this business. We started by posting some covers on YouTube. We just started in January. It’s been slow moving because I tour a lot and Chalmers has a full time job, so it’s kind of a side project for now.
KM: Talk about some of your influences as musicians.
TN: Film music is a huge influence on me along with classic rock. I am a huge Led Zeppelin fan. I think that playing all of these different genres of music and learning music theory has shaped me. I love the mandolin because it has the rhythmic aspect of drums but you can also play chords and melody on it, so it’s kind of like everything I love in one instrument. It’s a pretty technical instrument and learning traditional bluegrass has also influenced my playing.
CC: It’s funny how when you start out getting into music, you develop some extremely deep rooted influences that you always seem to come back to at some point along your musical journey! For me, extremely virtuosic players like Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Julian Lage, Frank Vignola, and Bryan Sutton just inspire me to no end. Those guys are creating such incredibly beautiful music and they are truly a gift to the music of this era. I love music of all kinds including ‘90s country, jazz, fusion, film music, and rock but my heart has always been with the acoustic stuff because of its purity and honesty.
KM: What are some of the characteristics of video game music that stand out for you and make it special?
TN: I really like the way that you hear a bunch of different musical styles in a video game. For example, if you’re playing in a desert area, you’ll often hear some Middle Eastern sounding scales and musical ideas. Movie scores are similar in that they’ll paint the setting with the music. In video game music, when there’s a prominent melody, it has to be really catchy and really good because if its not, it’ll drive you crazy after a while.
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A lot of people can’t get past the sounds of earlier MIDI, 16 bit or 32 bit music but if you really break it down and listen to what’s happening, it’s pretty sophisticated and it ranks right up there with film music and classical music.
In the mainstream, all of the genres are kind of turning into one, but in video games you hear a little bit of everything. People accept that, people love it and there’s a huge fan base for video game music.
CC: For me, great video game music is all about the marriage of melody and setting and how it really brings the gaming experience to life. A video game composer has a vast arsenal of techniques at his/her disposal and the great ones almost always instinctively know what setting calls for a specific layer of sound. Like Tommy mentioned above, the Phrygian tonality is very common in a Middle Eastern/desert setting whereas a game with a very goofy feel like Banjo-Kazooie is going to have a lot of emphasis on blues notes and wacky chromaticism. Any game soundtrack that really brings a certain setting to life is very powerful and memorable and I think there is a huge audience for that!
KM: I’m curious to know about the different elements on your YouTube channel like your video game music covers, your soundtrack analyses and your live play alongs.
TN: We’re kind of experimenting right now and trying a bunch of different things. Our first videos were just cover videos because we figured there weren’t a lot of video game music covers featuring mandolin and all acoustic instruments on YouTube. Chalmers and I have worked really hard on our instruments and practiced so much that it’s also a way for us to show our playing abilities.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with recording a bunch of different parts of songs and combining them all on one screen, so you’ll see four of me on one screen. The video I posted of me playing four parts of the Super Mario World overworld theme has actually been our most viewed video so far! It has been interesting to see what’s working and what isn’t.
The whole composing on the spot idea where I play a game and Chalmers writes the music as we go along hasn’t really taken off, but I think that might be something that would be cool for more of a livestreaming thing once we get more of a fan base.
My wife narrates our Top Ten song videos. We’re doing it by game rather than by series because there are way too many songs otherwise.
In the soundtrack analysis, we talk more technically about the music and why it works with the game. Some of those videos have been doing really well too.The general idea is that we love video game music and we want the channel to be about everything to do with video game music.
KM: How do you each approach the compositional process?
TN: I don’t write a lot on the mandolin. I will write a few songs on it but I’m sort of stuck in my ways on the mandolin, so I tend to play similar things. I write most of my music on the piano and I have a few different methods. I want to practice for when we actually get a project, so I’ll think of an idea or even a phrase. I wrote a song called Abandoned Theatre and those two words just popped into my head. I pictured this old, empty theatre and just sat at the piano, let those words resonate and wrote the music.
It’ll start with piano and then I’ll think about how I want to arrange it. I think about what instruments I want, if I want it to be a piano piece or not and from there I’ll go and record it. I have ProTools in the studio where I have virtual instruments and we also do some live instrument recording.
I wrote the Heroes Overture completely notation-first. I think I wrote a little bit of a melody on the piano and then pulled up the virtual instruments for the whole orchestra and just let my ear lead me.
CC: Tommy and I try to continuously add to our “library” of compositional ideas. To keep our ideas diverse and fresh, we may think of various phrases like “Misty Waterfall” or “Snowy Plateau” and actually try to come up with musical phrases that tend to bring out those ideas.
I might try to come up with a guitar or mandolin lick that gives a sense of “Misty Waterfall” and then record different parts that complement each other until it evolves into a full piece! I have a completely over the top electric guitar pedalboard which is capable of an incredible amount of sounds. If I need to branch out and really get outside of my box, I’ll toy with certain delays or modulation effects through my electric board that I wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. Tommy is certainly onto something with the piano and i’d like to also dive into that for arranging purposes!
KM: Who are some of the video game music composers that you find particularly interesting or compelling?
TN: My two favourite composers of video game music are Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo. I love Nobuo Uematsu’s work and he’s probably inspired me the most as a composer. Koji Kondo is the most famous of the two. He’s just done so much great work.
I just played the game Celeste that has some pretty interesting music composed by Lena Raine. I also played the game Child of Light (composed by Coeur De Pirate) recently which has some great music too.
CC: One of my absolute favorites is Kenji Yamamato who worked on Super Metroid, Kenji is an extremely versatile composer and has that gift that I referred to earlier of knowing exactly what music needs to fit what setting. His creativity is astounding to me and it certainly knows no bounds.
KM: Where would you like to see Box Monkey Studios go in the future?
TN: The original idea was to build up a YouTube channel first. The way I look at it is that there’s a lot of VGM fans and there’s not really a huge connection between the composers and the fans. We started out wanting to build a fan base on YouTube so that we go could to video game companies and say, “We have these subscribers so we’ll promote the game on our channel.” It also buys us some time to experiment with composing. I think this fall we’d like to pursue some actual composing work.
CC: We both certainly want to build a prominent YouTube presence first and really find our audience and build our brand! The idea is that we can also use the momentum we gain from that to support any composing work that we would acquire. We are in the digital age and there are endless opportunities for marketing and building an audience or fan base. We are very much enjoying exploring what ideas are and are not working for us!
KM: What do you do to charge your creative batteries?
TN: I don’t have to do much, I’m pretty charged all the time but I listen to game music all the time. Another big thing is listening to movie scores because they’re in the same vein. I’m lucky that music is my job right now. I play mandolin for a living so I’m always immersed in music. I would say the biggest one outside of game music is film music. I really pay attention to the scores when I watch films.
CC: I’m also usually pretty inspired by something or another. Now since I am no longer touring, the time that I have for music is all the more enjoyable for me and I can truly focus on the music that resonates with me. The times that I have found myself unmotivated or in a dry spot is when I am not listening to or learning something new! Learning & listening to new material is so crucial to making continual progress as a musician!