'It Follows' from Video Gaming: An interview with Soundtrack Composer Disasterpeace
We talked to the composer about writing to film vs video games, referencing John Carpenter, and why he's anti-vinyl.
Nowadays, it seems rare for a horror film with any artistic merit to open in more than a handful of theaters. Audiences are, or at least are being lead by mass marketing campaigns to believe that they are, more interested in hyperactive blockbusters with CGI-laden gore and because of this, few would have suspected that David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows would be able to generate much of a mainstream response. However, in the past month, the film has jumped from opening at four theaters to over a thousand, and ranked in the top five grossing films during its third week. While a great deal of the success is owed to Mitchell’s vision, it is hard to deny that much of the film’s effectiveness is rooted in its soundtrack. Evoking the sounds of John Carpenter’s horror-synth, Disasterpeace manages to create a score that skirts the lines between original work and homage.
So where did Mitchell find him? Surely, through another horror film, right? Mitchell actually learned about Disasterpeace through the computer game Fez. Yes, prior to working on It Follows, Disasterpeace carved his name in the niche world of computer games, where he managed to generate quite a loyal fan base. In light of the release of the It Follows soundtrack on vinyl this Tuesday via Milan Records, we talked with Disasterpeace about scoring the film, his transition from video games to film, and the ethics of digital creation and consumption.
NOISEY: You have an interesting past, a lot different than most of composers because you got your start/ made your name in video games. What was your trajectory, how did you eventually get into composing music for games?
Disasterpeace: I grew up in a musical family. My mom played the piano and my stepfather was the music instructor at the church, and they’d have band practice in the basement. So I was surrounded by that stuff. I didn’t really get into music, though, until high school when I started to play guitar. As a teenager, I was big into Led Zeppelin, Tool, Rage Against Machine, and bands like that. That sort of set me off in a certain direction, doing lots of riff-oriented guitar-type music. I started posting my music online and, at some point, someone who made cell phone games reached out and asked me if I wanted to write music for them. At the time, that was a totally foreign idea to me. It sounded really cool, so I gave it a shot. I was probably about 18 or 19 and I kind of got hooked after that, so I just kept doing that sort of thing.
This is kind of a large question, so answer it the best way you know how, but I think people — at least a part of them — understand the process of writing music for movies because of the idea of writing to an image or linear story, but this isn’t always the case with a game. How do you approach working on the score for a game?
I think working on video games strokes the intellectual side of my brain, because there are added dimensions to writing music to games that are not present in other mediums. One of those is that games are often non-linear, and there may be some sort of sandbox approach to it that will work well. So, in the beginning of a project I can look at a game and there are so many different ways that I can approach that creatively. I can approach it like a film, where I am writing to the image, in the sense that I might just write certain pieces of music for different locations — if the game is where you explore a world — but there are other approaches for writing music for games. For instance, I am in Wellington, New Zealand right now and I am working with these guys on a game called Mini Metro. It is like a subway layout game and for this project I am not writing any traditional music. Everything is creating sound and creating musical behaviors that have to do with the subways systems that you are designing. Everything little thing that happens — like a passenger appears, goes on a train, goes from A to B, ect — all of those things are part of these little musical machines that we are programming from scratch.
One aspect that really intrigues me about your work, and something that sets you aside from a lot of other composers, is that you are 100% digital and that stance is a very political one. It’s something that you have openly shared on your blog but, for those unaware, can you work us through your philosophy on digital creation and consumption?
It stems from a couple of different places. One of the places, for me, is that I am definitely a bit of a minimalist and I like the simplicity that comes with that. I find that having lots of gear can be overwhelming. Especially when it is physical and around you; it’s kind of looming. Having everything on a laptop, for me, is a way to simplify the space where I work and where I live, and give me more space to think and reflect, to just kind of be present and not distracted. As far as some of the more ethical concerns, in the last couple of years I am starting to find that the systems are good for being able to consume music and lots of products digitally. So I find that having CDs and vinyl and that kind of stuff around, in some ways, is obsolete. The experience of putting on a vinyl record and listening to it, I feel that the sound is not really that different. I think it is more about the experience, the culture, the tradition, the tangible quality, but I think all of those things are psychological. You can have that same experience with digital music, it just has to be cultivated and it hasn’t be cultivated as strongly at this point.
And you had to sort of break with that with the release of the It Follows soundtrack. Did you find yourself struggling with this?
Well, I definitely have environmental concerns about the sustainability of vinyl and CDs, but I think in certain situations, the decision to make or not make something may not be my decision to make. I think that, in the case of It Follows I am involved in the film, but it is not my film. It is really the child of the director David Robert Mitchell, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he thinks about what is going to be best for the film. I certainly have really strong opinions about those sorts of things but I don’t like to impose my will in those sorts of situations. So, I’ve been happy to go along with doing vinyl in this case, and of course the by product of that is that people who like to collect vinyl will be able to buy the soundtrack.
I think there are definitely a lot of aspects from Fez that can be seen on It Follows but in a great deal of ways the work for It Follows is much different than your game scores. Did you find the transition to film difficult?
As far as the actual writing, the transition was pretty fluid because we decided to do a synth soundtrack and I am very comfortable making synth music. So that part came natural to me, even though it was horror, which is something new to me. I found that what that requires, creating these really dissonant, wild sounds, for me, was license to just go crazy and do experimental stuff. That was a freeing experience.
But, there were other aspects that were definitely more difficult. One of the biggest things was that we expected to have months to do the soundtrack but we only ended having three weeks. I had to write the whole soundtrack in three weeks and that was pretty tough. [laughs] It was definitely a little bit stressful, but one of the things that helped with that was that the director and his editors put together a temp score for the film that had reference material from people like John Carpenter, John Cage, [Krzysztof] Penderecki, and also music from Fez as well. In terms of creating music in a short period of time, having the temp score for reference was huge. It did, though, create some problems for me personally. Especially in trying to use music from Fez as reference material and then do something new at the same time, because David kind of fell in love with some of the pieces that he temped in that were from Fez. I had a bit of a hard time trying to do something new that was working as well in his eyes that was also different enough for me that I didn’t feel like I was treading old ground.
I think that is a common concern for composers, that because a film is cut to the temp score they feel trapped by the constraints of making something new that also fits that tempo and mood.
I think that as a freelancer, I always have something going on so it can be hard to get involved in the process of filmmaking early enough to be delivering temp material or concepts that the director or editors can use early on in the editing process. In my experience, I was brought on pretty late in the process — and I think I could have been brought on earlier, but it’s always a matter of time and all that —, and I think it is a tough thing to do. David and I have talked about working together in the future and talked about doing something without using a temp score so we are not put in that position again. But, I think that a big part of that is that I would need to be involved early on, and I would have to be willing to write a lot of throwaway material.
It seems that no matter what people think about the film, they are generally complimentary when it comes to talking about your contribution. How have you reacted to the response, especially in hearing people’s enjoyment of the score as a separate entity to be enjoyed?
Yeah it is always interesting because, like you said, it is a different experience. I think based on the success of Fez and the Fez soundtrack, I had a certain idea about certain aspects of the It Follows soundtrack carrying over well into a listening environment, but, since it is also a horror score and there is a bunch of really dark, intense, and scary sort of music, I wasn’t sure that it’d be as palatable to people. I’ve already had people that have bought the soundtrack and told me they were trying to listen to it while they were sleeping or when they were working and that they love it but its not always appropriate for the types of listening that most people like to do.
Based on the response of the film, I imagine that people will be coming out in droves to try and book you as the composer for their next film. Do you have any reservations to continue working on films, or even horror films? Or do you see yourself trying to stay within the gaming world?
Well, I’ve already had to turn down quite a few film opportunities because just the nature of how I work. I’ve always got stuff going on. I’m currently working on a guest episode of Adventure Time and four or five game projects, and talking about working with David, so my next two years are booked at this point. Me personally, I don’t look at myself as a film composer or a game composer. It’s so contextual for me. I’m really specific about the kinds of projects that I work on that I couldn’t tell you what I’ll do or where I’ll go after these projects are done.