An Interview with Video Game Composer Grahm Nesbitt
Grahm Nesbitt is a Seattle-based composer of video game soundtracks and music inspired by the classic sounds of 8 and 16-bit consoles. I talked to him about how he became passionate about video game music, his creative process and some of the games on which he's worked.
Karl Magi: How did you first become interested in making music?
Grahm Nesbitt: I started making music when I got a guitar. I was 10 or 11 and I really wanted to be in a punk band. I did that sort of thing with my friends for a while and started a couple of cover bands. My basic foundation of music came from learning classic rock songs. I experimented with different instruments as I went through high school. I picked up the piano and drums. I basically got my hands on whatever I could and would create my own music on my computer.
KM: How did you first get into video game music?
GN: I would say that video game music has always been around in my life. I grew up with a brother that’s ten years older than me and he had all the consoles and a huge library of games. I would just sit around and watch him play, so a lot of the music from those games (a lot of JRPGs) really stuck with me. It’s always been something I thought about a lot. I always thought a lot about soundtracks, but I didn’t think a lot about the people behind them at first. The music itself definitely stuck with me. My first iPod had music from bands like Weezer on it but it also had Donkey Kong Country. It was a rip that my friend gave me and I was always listening to it.
KM: Tell me about how you started making music full time.
GN: While I was learning guitar and piano, I tried to pick out and play certain songs from games like the boss battle theme from Final Fantasy VII or Aquatic Ambiance from Donkey Kong Country. I always looked at the music from those games as something I could appreciate, but not necessarily something that I had the means of doing. When I was in college five years ago, I heard about indie game development and that people were making games on their home computers, so I got really interested in making chiptune music at the same time. The two things crossed over really well. I was going to school with some people who were making a game in RPGMaker and I made a couple of tracks for them. From there, I started learning about how to get into indie games.
KM: Talk about some of the artists you’ve found inspirational and why?
GN: When I started making game music, I was really into Disasterpeace’s concept albums. His work put me onto the idea of making my own chiptune stuff in a conceptual way. A lot of the JRPG composers were also huge for me like Nobuo Uematsu and Yoko Shimomura. They always stuck with me. I’m also really into Joe Hisaishi’s music for the Studio Ghibli movies. It was pivotal for me.
Actually I’m into a lot of film score stuff because I wanted to be a film composer before I got into games. At the time, I thought film composition was more of a tangible thing for people to do. I had this whole plan to set out to go to Berklee and study film composition, but that was before I found out about indie game development. John Williams was obviously a huge influence for me. Johnny Greenwood’s work in film score as well as Radiohead was a big influence for me, especially as a guitar player. All of those things lined up really well.
When I started making my own concept stuff, I was listening to a lot of Shannon Mason’s chiptune stuff opened me up to the possibility of making more retro soundng stuff in more of a 16-bit style.
KM: Walk me through the process you use when coming up with new music.
GN: It’s always different. I try to approach things from an aesthetic standpoint first and foremost. It also helps a lot if I spend time thinking about what very specific tools I’m to use when I’m writing something. I start from there and pick which synths and instruments I’m going to use. After that, I tend to think of harmony since I’m a guitarist. I actually don’t start with melodies from the get go. I think the melody evolves from whatever mood I’m trying to evoke with chords etc; I’ll lay down a chord progression and the rest of the elements evolve out of that.
KM: What are some of the projects that you’ve been working on lately of which you are especially proud?
GN: Right now, I am slated to work on a game called Garden Story. It’s very cute and clean looking top down RPG. It’s kind of like Harvest Moon meets Zelda. It’s like a town building/management game with action RPG elements. It garnered a lot of attention over Twitter. It’s done by a game dev who goes by Picogram. They posted a lot of the artwork for the game which got a lot of attention. They found me because they heard a concept album that I did last which is in a style that complements that artwork. I’m doing music in the vein of SNES-style games for them. That’s the main thing I’m looking forward to right now.
I’m also finishing up this vignette game with my friend Tony Blando. It’s a very abstract, funny, weird game. We both have a surreal sense of humor so we wanted to communicate that in game form. We’d never done that before, we’d always done animation and wrote music together, but this will be our first foray into making a game together. It’s going to be coming out within the month.
I’m working on some video game cover stuff. I got opened up into that world not too long ago. I have a friend named Braxton Burks who does Pokémon Reorchestrated. Being friends with him and talking to him about how to launch into the world of doing video game music arrangements got me interested in all that. I did a Pokémon jazz cover of Goldenrod City last year that got me some attention. It’s an arrangement in the style of Bill Evans. I’m pouring a lot of energy into a piano trio video game cover album right now
KM: Where do you think video game music fits into the world of contemporary music?
GN: Nowadays a lot of what you would call game music has transcended beyond being used for games. I think there are a lot of artists out there incorporating chiptune ideas and video game style composing in electronic music. I think a lot of that is more retro style and it’s cyclically coming back.
What’s really cool to me about game music and what appeals a lot is that we have an extra element to music that we didn’t have before. We now have a lot of tools that make it an option for the player to be really involved with the experience of music. That’s sort of why I think game music is almost a whole different entity than other genres of music. You can’t really do that with any other kind of music. You can play the same game with interactive music 30 different times and you won’t get the same experience.
KM: Where do you see yourself taking your music in the future?
GN: Most of the stuff that I’ve done is retro-style chiptune music and I’ve been thinking that, down the line, I’d like to do a soundtrack that’s just organic rock instruments. I think it would be fun to do a really moody alternative rock soundtrack. I don’t really get to utilize that style of music in games. I’m in a band with my fellow composer Andrew Nyte and I am able to delegate all of that stuff there, but I would like to bring more of it back into my composing for games.
KM: What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
GN: I think that keeping my interests pretty diverse is important. On top of writing game music, I also do a lot of visual art. I feel like switching my brain to a different state really helps me come back to writing music with a different perspective. I’m doing a lot of commisoned art pieces now. I’ve been doing a lot of album cover designs. I’m feeling that once I get into the groove of doing that, I always get more eager to make music. Doing that definitely helps me a lot.