An Interview with Percussionist, Composer and Music Educator Doug Perry
Doug Perry is a percussionist, composer and music educator based in Connecticut. His musical passions and abilities span a wide range of genres from jazz to classical, traveling down many other musical avenues along the way. He also has a particular love for video game music in multiple forms. I talked to him about the genesis of his love of music, the various strands of his life as a musician and where he finds inspiration.
Interview With Doug Perry
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in making music?
Doug Perry: For me, music was always going to be in the cards. Both of my parents are professional musicians who play with the Hartford Symphony. I was always surrounded by music growing up. I always liked hearing them practice and going to their rehearsals, but I wasn’t necessarily sold on being a musician myself until I was in high school.
I started playing percussion when I was around 10 years old. We had to pick our instruments if we wanted to be in band. As soon as I started expressing an interest in playing percussion in band, my parents got very concerned. My dad would come home with a whole bunch of different instruments from the school he taught at in Connecticut. He kept asking me to try the flute or the trumpet or any other instrument. Eventually my parents succumbed to the will of a 10 year old and let me play percussion.
My parents did make me take piano lessons as a kid. I think it helped me a lot because it gave me a tonal palette and helped me to learn how to think melodically.
In high school, I realized that I really liked being a musician and I didn’t see what else I could do with my life. I’d thought about other career opportunities, but nothing really seemed to resonate with me as much as playing music did. I thought, “Let’s do this then!” and I’m glad that I stuck with it. I’ve really enjoyed it.
KM: I’m curious about why you chose to play the marimba.
DP: Yeah, I am too. As a percussionist, you’re expected to play many different instruments. I have a friend who once told me that he doesn’t think of percussion as being an instrument, he thinks of it as being a philosophy. It’s the idea that we have to make sound on a bunch of different things and make them sound good.
When I started, I was playing drum set in jazz band and orchestral percussion like snare drum, bass drum and xylophone. I was playing a lot of mallet percussion in high school band because nobody else had learned how to do that in my school system. I was also really getting into jazz at the time, so I started playing jazz vibraphone like Milt Jackson or Lionel Hampton. I think that was my gateway drug to marimba.
Once I started college, I did a double major between classical music and jazz music. I discovered quickly that because I had played so much jazz in high school, it was pretty easy for me to do all of the requirements expected of me earlier on in college. The classical program there was really difficult for me because I didn’t have as much experience with it. I stubbornly decided that I wanted to focus on classical music which is what I ended up getting all of my degrees in.
In classical percussion, marimba is a huge part of that course of study. Marimba is where you learn how to play all your solo repertoire and all of your melodic repertoire. I had always played a little marimba up until that point, but once I got through school it really stuck with me.
KM: Where did your interest in jazz originate?
DP: That’s pretty easy. I’m incredibly lazy. When I was taking piano lessons as a kid, I didn’t really want to practice. I was a rambunctious kid with way too much energy, so sitting behind a piano for even half an hour to learn a piece of music was such a boring idea. I’d tinkle around with the piece for a little bit, but then I would start to mess around. I’d figure out how to play a chord and then try to play a melody over it. Unbeknownst to me, I was learning to improvise.
As a freshman in high school, I’d just gotten into one of the school’s jazz bands. I played auxiliary percussion which means I was messing around with bongos or shaking a shaker once in a while. We were doing this one tune that was pretty easy to improvise over and I just thought that I should take a solo. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it and it went pretty well. The band director said, “I didn’t know that you knew how to take solos!” I didn’t know it either at the time!
After that moment, I started doing it a lot more. I realized it wasn’t so different to what I’d already been doing. I started listening to tons of jazz and started to emulate players that I really liked. From there, I was so hooked.
KM: Talk about your approach to composition.
DP: Composing is implicit within improv. Improvising is basically like spontaneous composition. I found that, for myself, composition and improvisation are both symptoms of the desire to create something. If I get an idea, I’ll start improvising on it and if I like the idea enough, I’ll start writing it down.
When I was studying classical music, I was playing all of these really great masterpieces and listening to all of this really great music and I started to learn a ton about why these pieces were so great. I didn’t just learn how to play them or the history of them, but I started to learn compositionally what made them masterpieces. If anything, that’s why I don’t compose as much as I would like, it’s incredibly intimidating. I really like performing music, but I also want to contribute to the repertoire, so that’s what drives me to compose.
KM: How did you first get interested in the video game music community?
DP: When I was five years old, my parents got me a Sega Genesis. They told me later that it was the worst parenting decision they ever made. I was way too young for it and I would get mad when I couldn’t figure out how to play Sonic, but that was it. After the Genesis, I had a Nintendo 64 and then a GameCube.
In high school, I had a close knit group of gamer friends. After school, we’d go over to somebody’s house and play Street Fighter. It was around the same time that I was like, “Okay! What are the two things that I like the most?” It was music and video games, so I thought that I should put those two things together. I started to try to learn to play music from the games I liked to play.
At that time, it wasn’t exclusively games. I’d mess around with anime and stuff like that. I also started to get into music games like Dance Dance Revolution. I was exploring the idea of playing music from video games and really getting into it. I discovered Overclocked Remix in the middle of high school and kind of freaked out. I realized that there were other people who did the same thing as me. I’ve been on OCRemix ever since I joined in 2003. I think that was what really nurtured my passion for game music.
KM: How does video game music fit into the broader musical/cultural context in which it exists?
DP: I have a few friends who’ve talked about the notion that the gamer lifestyle is a culture that doesn’t have a geographical boundary. It’s sort of like a meta-culture that exists all over the world. Like any culture, it has it’s folk music as well. Video game music is the folk music of the gamer culture. This is the music that we can all nostalgically reflect on and bond over. We don’t necessarily live in the same place, but we’ve all shared those experiences.
In terms of the music, a great theme in a movie score happens exactly when it’s supposed to happen and then it passes. A great theme in a video game is something you hear a couple of times because you’re going to stay in that area for a while or keep going back to it, so you get to be intimately familiar with this music.
For me, it’s a great opportunity to use that affection to try and create “nutritious music.” It’s like getting kids to eat their vegetables. You have to come up with creative ways to get them to enjoy the experience. You know it’s good for them but they won’t like it if you stuff them down their throats. You want to get them to enjoy their vegetables so that not only are they healthy, but they’re having a great time too.
Something that I’m interested in doing with video game music is working with great performers or great arrangers to come up with really musically well put together performances of this music that’s already appealing to an audience. I want to try and create a musical experience that will open their eyes or give them something unexpected.
KM: Talk about your work with Materia Collective.
DP: I directed an Undertale tribute album called Fallen for them. There were 97 tracks on it. Fallen, for me, was definitely a tribute album in the sense that I wanted to get as many people who liked this game on it as possible and give as many people as I could the chance to celebrate the game as well, so that’s why there’s so many tracks on it. There was a question early on if this was going to be a carefully curated album or a big old party. We decided to go for a big old party!
I spent a year working on that. It’s definitely one of the biggest undertakings of my life. I’ve never done anything like that before. I learned a lot in the process. There are a lot of tracks on there that I thought ended up being really special, so I was pleased with the end result.
Something that most people don’t know about it is that it was supposed to be a seven disc release if we could have had it on CD. The theme of virtues runs through the whole game. Each disc was meant to themed around one virtue and one character who had fallen down into the world and tried to get through it. Each disc was arranged so that the music you were hearing would’ve been the music of each character shaded by their personality. Each disc would start with “once upon a time” and go in order until you get to one of the final boss themes. I hope that one day it can get a physical release because that would be really cool.
KM: Which video game music composers are you impressed with lately?
DP: Definitely Disasterpeace aka Rich Vreeland. I was impressed enough with him that I actually asked him if he’d write me a marimba solo and work with me on it. We spent a week at an artist’s retreat called Avaloch Farm Music Institute and he wrote me a piece. He had never written for marimba before and I had never had a video game composer write for marimba before. It was a learning experience for both of us.
I reached out to him because of his soundtrack to Hyper Light Drifter. It had a really unusual, unique and effective approach to harmony as well as an incredible amount of detail in its sound design. The way he uses synthesizers is really detailed and effective.
To put it in really nerdy musical terms, it’s very contrapuntally driven. There are multiple lines of melody that intersect each other to create harmony, but that harmony isn’t necessarily pre-determined, it results from the way those lines intersect. It’s a good example of something a player will hear over and over that will open up their ears to new and interesting sounds.
KM: What are your future plans for music projects.
DP: In general, I’m trying to find more ways to perform video game music as a player. I’ve actually got a recital coming up that I’m currently freaking out over because I haven’t played a program this long by myself in quite a while. I’m going to be programming a lot of video game music into it. I want to program concert music so that video game music can fit in comfortably and seamlessly.
I’m hoping to try and record an album with my band DiscoCactus. We’re hoping to record an album this summer. We’re hoping to get our first actual release out there. DiscoCactus is another example of a group where I’m trying to play music that people love, but I want to arrange it in a really interesting way. I choose the people I invite to the group based not on what instruments they play, but the kinds of musicians that they are. They’re all people I really want to showcase on a release like that.
I’m also trying to be more consistent in my YouTube presence and trying to create more videos of either video game music not related to percussion or percussion not related to video game music. I want to create threads that weave through all of those things.
KM: What are the ways in which you recharge your creative batteries?
DP: Sometimes I don’t know if I do! I think my lifestyle is pretty chaotic right now. I’m always running around doing these different projects. Some of them are very creative, some of them are not creative at all. I think I have a weird system where I’ll get stuck doing a project that doesn’t involve any creative energy from me, so by the time I’m done the project, I really crave creativity. At that point, I’ll make a cover, make an arrangement or write something and hit it really hard. I’ll try to get it ready before the next non-creative endeavour I have to do. It’s a cycle that occurs for me naturally.