[Interview] The Man Behind the Music (Grant Kirkhope is in the House!)


Let me say the names of 4 games, A Hat in Time, Yooka-Laylee, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Banjo Kazooie. Do you know what they all have in common? Besides the obvious of them being fantastic games, they are also games that feature music composed by Grant Kirkhope!

Having been a huge fan of his creations for so long, thanks to Skype, I finally had the chance to talk to Grant about various things and today, I get to share everything, so here is a complete written transcript:

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Miketendo64: To dive right into it in typical interview fashion, would you be so kind to introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a little bit about your history in the videogames industry.

Grant Kirkhope: My name is Grant Kirkhope, I’m a composer. I started at RARE back in 1995 with games like Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, all that good stuff.

Miketendo64: Yeah, those games were absolutely perfect. I grew up listening to Mumbo, he was my favorite character in the Banjo Games, and you voiced him didn’t you? Mumbo?

Grant Kirkhope: I did, I did indeed.

Miketendo64: So how was that? Being a composer for a game and being a voice actor at the same time?

Grant Kirkhope: Well it was a bit like, back in the day no one wanted to do it right? So to save time, I did it. Just to be quick.

Miketendo64: With Mario and Rabbids being two iconic series, each with their own distinct soundtracks. How did you find trying to do a balance between the two for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle?

Grant Kirkhope: That was just a bit like, umm, there was no point me trying to do that classic ‘Nintendo’ Jazzy poppy sound thing they did because I am just really bad at it and they are really good at it. There was no point in me doing that. So I tried to find a balance between a bit of me, a bit of crazy rabbids and safe Mario and put it altogether. There was no point in me trying to emulate what they did (Nintendo) because I would not be able to do it very well. So I had to do it my own way but keep it NOT Banjo-Kazooie. So trying to find that middle ground with a bit of me, a bit of them and the Rabbids and stick it altogether. So that was what I was trying to do.

Miketendo64: Although Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is not solely a Nintendo game as there was involvement from Ubisoft, after all your time at RARE and the Perfect Dark games, how does it feel to be actually involved with a Mario related title?

Grant Kirkhope: That was pretty spectacular I’ll admit. You never think you are gonna touch that kind of mega scape character of the world type of thing. So it was equal parts scary and equal parts exciting. I was bit scared at the start, thinking “Oh my god, how can I do it? Koji Kondo is the master and I gonna make a complete mess of it. And then you just have to take the first step. So the first tune I did was the Ancient Garden theme and every seemed to like that, so I felt like I was off to a really good start and it seemed to have gone well from there. You never know right, you have to wait until it gets into the hands of the people who buy the game. You can work with the development team and they can say it all sounds great and it’s working great but it’s not until the fans get their hands on it do you know whether they like it or not. You have to wait that long two years to find out if you have made a mistake or have got it right. You have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Miketendo64: That’s understandable. Since you now have Mario under your belt, is there any other iconic or established series you want to try your hand at next? Zelda, Final Fantasy or even Xenoblade? Any of that take your interest?

Grant Kirkhope: I would like to have a go at Zelda, even Final Fantasy would be great but I just feel like that would never happen because Zelda is so iconically Nintendo and Koji Kondo and Final Fantasy is Nobuo Uematso who is like the god of that game. Though it would be fun to tackle it, I probably wouldn’t mind have a go at Assassin’s Creed.

Miketendo64: Well you never know, Ubisoft might do Zelda and Assassin’s Creed as the next collab. It would be weird but it would work.

Grant: You never know, right?

Miketendo64: Yes. Even if you never get to work on a Zelda game per se, there is always the Zelda Symphony? You could always go up and say “Hey, I’m available, let me work for one tour.”

Grant Kirkhope: I guess for me, my ultimate thing right now is to get involved with the movie scene, like in the Harry Potter universe. Harry Potter is my absolute favourite thing I would kill to write the four bars of music for Harry Potter for the joy of it because I just love the series so much. That would be my absolute pinnacle.

Miketendo64: Fair enough. Since you have gone from working with others to working for yourself as freelance, how have you found the experience and how would you advise those that want to follow in your footsteps?

Grant Kirkhope: It’s very different right? Working as a staff composer you wanna kind of get in from scratch, from the word go on games as you have a lot of time to work it out. Sometimes when you get brought in at the end, you have got a short amount time to write all the music. Mario + Rabbids, I was on it for about two years but Ubisoft have been working on it for three years at least. So I got in relatively early and I wrote about two and a half hours of music for that the game, I wrote an awful lot of music for that game. I worked literally every day for that game for two years. I suppose for people writing music for indie games, it’s different now. When I did it, there wasn’t that many people doing it but now it’s like the new rock star, everyone wants to write music for videogames, so it’s hard. If I was to start now, I really don’t know how I would do it. I guess I would say look towards the indie guys as there are lots of guys out there now making indie games but need music so maybe offer to write the music for free and get 5% of the game royalties when it comes out. There are plenty of people out there doing that stuff. A friend of mine Danny Baranowsky, he wrote the music for Super Meat Boy. He just did that thing where the guy who made Canabalt asked him to write a piece of the gaming and it got his career started. That C418 Daniel guy that did the music for minecraft was just in a chat room when Notch was looking for a composer and he said “I can compose!” and he got the gig. Its very important that you have to know the people and be in the right situation to get that offer or to put your name forward, its super difficult.

Miketendo64: Because you touched on Indie games, one indie game that you were involved with was Hex Heroes by Prismatic Games…

Grant Kirkhope: That’s right, yes and also Desktop Dungeons as well.

Miketendo64: How did that one come about, Working with Hex Heroes because the game is yet to release, having some issues, last I heard. How did you get approached to do the music on that one?

Grant Kirkhope: Mario Casteñeda, the head guy of the game. We were friends and he asked if I would write music for them and I said “Yeah, sure I’ll do it.” He liked Banjo-Kazooie and the games of the past and said that I would be great for it did I want to do it and I said “Of course I will.” As with Desktop Dungeons, Danny Baranowsky was working with them and again asked how would I like to come in and write some music for the game so I said yeah and we did it together. I love the indie people, right? What I like with indie guys is that it is all about the gameplay which is the most important part. So many AAA games these days, look great, sounds great, plays like S***! The indie guys really care about the most important part which probably is the gameplay, it’s a game afterall. They’ve got that “indie-esque” attitude like “let’s get together and make a game and it will be fun” not like that AAA big publisher breathing down their neck because they’ve got shareholders to satisfy and stuff. It’s nice to work on both sides. I enjoy working with the indies guys because they are really great fun and I enjoy working with the AAA guys because the Dev teams usually are super great fun like on the Mario + Rabbids Team in Milan and Paris were great fun to work for.

Miketendo64: Because you have mentioned indies, are there any indie games out there that has music you absolutely adore yourself?

Grant Kirkhope: Let me think about that. I like what Danny Baranowsky does, Jimmy Hinderson, I think he’s called big dancer. He has done a ton of games and music. I guess I have two favourites, I like those guys a lot. I don’t get to play a lot of games, I’ve got to say because being a freelancer, you’re kind of busy a lot of the time so I tend to watch my son playing games a lot rather than play them myself. I do research the games I am working on until they are out and that kind of stuff but I don’t have the time to play games like I used to.

Miketendo64: Although you didn’t get much time to play games, did you at least get time to play Mario + Rabbids whilst you were composing it?

Grant Kirkhope: Not much because I needed a dev kit to play it so I had no dev kit to play it. Davide and some of the other guys did some videos of the gameplay so I could see what was going on but I had no actual game that I could physically play because I didn’t have a dev kit and they were quite hard to come by, even in the last few years. The first time I played it was this summer when I was in the UK on vacation and I had two days in Milan where it was the first time I actually played it. Everyone was laughing at me because I was so bad at it but I really enjoyed it. The game came out in August so when it released was one the first times I actually got to play it and it was in the Studio.

Miketendo64: Whilst working on Mario + Rabbids, you were also working on Yooka-Laylee as well?

Grant Kirkhope: … and Drop zone and Ghostbusters and all the rest of it yeah.

Miketendo64: Yeah, I have seen what you have worked on this past year alone. How did you manage to balance a heavy load like that?

Grant Kirkhope: When I was at RARE, I always felt like I was infallible, it never used to phase me like I wouldn’t be able to do it, I’ll be fine, I will always get through it. Last year was the first time I realised I wasn’t as infallible as I thought I was. There was a lot of stuff to get through and I did get through it. I think there was one part where I didn’t think I was gonna make it but I did make it. I did feel like Mario + Rabbids & Yooka Laylee were different things. Yooka- Laylee was a different game to Mario, Drop Zone was a different game again. Ghostbuster had that classic Haunch House-y kind of bass from the first movie so I felt like they had different equal spaces that they could occupy. It wasn’t like two platformers together so it felt like they had a bit of space. So I had the year to have them all planned out. As it happens, games get put back a little bit. And some got but back at the same time like Yooka-Laylee and Mario + Rabbids.

Miketendo64: And Hang Time as well, that got put back a bit.

Grant Kirkhope: Yeah but I did that about three years ago and then it was just hard to get the game out. So it all got cruised up to the end of the year there were about three hard games, I have probably got a few more grey hairs now.

Miketendo64: One question I have and it is about Banjo-Kazooie and that it was originally Project Dream. Was there any music composed for it when it was Project Dream that made it into Banjo-Kazooie instead or was it a complete reworking.

Grant Kirkhope: Not really, because Dream was more of a Zelda RPG, a wander around type game. The theme to Mad Monster Mansion (Starts humming Mad Monster Mansion Theme) that did come from Dream. It was under a different setting. It wasn’t a haunted house piece, it was set differently but I liked the theme so when it came to doing Mad Monster Mansion I thought “Oh, I wonder if that will fit in there?” Most of the music from Dream made it into Viva Piñata later on. Nothing else really made it from Dream to Banjo-Kazooie because it was more of an open world game as opposed to a platformer. I think Mad Monster Mansion was probably it.

Miketendo64: As far as your voice acting career goes, you voiced Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong 64 as well. How was that? Being the Voice of Donkey Kong?

Grant Kirkhope: It was the same old thing, no one else wanted to do it so I did, just to be quick. Nintendo even asked me for some voice samples for some later games as well which was bizarre. During my time at RARE, more and more people then thought it was more fun to get into the voice acting and got into it a lot later and making the noises for the animals and we had really good fun doing that. But to start with, it was like “well we’ve got a sound guy so we will just let him get on with that.

Miketendo64: How did the voices actually come about? It is quite a distinct mumbling sound, like Mumbo, the Jinjos and Bottles.

Grant: We didn’t actually have the memory space for real speech, there was no space at all. So we had to try and find a solution to make a noise and write the talking. So I came up with the idea of people going “oh ah, ie ah,” and I would then take the samples and give them a random pitch between two numbers. I would take 5 samples at random and then play them at that pitch. We learned that the human voice couldn’t make the more than one noise at the same time and that you could only say one word at the same time so the samples couldn’t overlap so we linked the sounds to the syllables of the words. So we looked at the syllable, looked at the text and then chose a voice actor and played it and if the first syllable started before the last one ended we would cut the sample off.

Miketendo64: Out of everything you have composed over the years, do you have a particularly favourite piece or is it hard to choose?

Grant Kirkhope: It’s hard but I would say there is a piece called ‘Bedtime Story’ from Viva Piñata which I really like. I was just about to quit RARE then which I was really sad and it was a sad song I wrote to sum up my feelings about leaving RARE. I also loved doing ‘Peach’s Castle’ for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, that was a really great one to do, I got that from Super Mario 64. That was awesome!

Miketendo64: Thought you don’t get to play many games, what games have you played? Is there any particular series that’s a favourite?

Grant Kirkhope: My Definite Favourite has got to be The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Miketendo64: A Link To The Past is always a good choice.

Grant Kirkhope: That is my favourite game of all time. I really do like Super Mario 64. I was a really big World of Warcraft player for a while before I moved to the US. I played Cataclysm, I liked that game a lot. The Half-Life games were good.

Miketendo64: With Super Mario Odyssey now out, did you get a chance to play that or has your family?

Grant Kirkhope: My Son’s got it. I haven’t played it yet but I will play it (up to the time of interview). I just have to find the time. I have seen it and it looks fantastic, it looks exciting, you can’t beat Nintendo. For all the years that go on, we learned at Rare to never under estimate Nintendo. They always innovate, they always have something up their sleeve that you don’t expect. The Switch is a pure delight, it’s so cool. You can plug it into your TV and its instant, you then can pick it up, it’s just fantastic. They always do great things at Nintendo.

Miketendo64: Yeah, Nintendo are always the ace in the hole, the Wild card you should always keep an eye on. One thing we are asking developers these days is about amiibo. Do you partake in collecting them or is it something you have missed out on?

Grant Kirkhope: I’ve got some like my son Max, he’s got some. I have about a handful, about 10 or 12, or 15, something like that. They are cool things, they look great. They are cool things aren’t they?

Miketendo64: Yeah, some of them are cool. For example the Guardian amiibo from Zelda: Breath of the Wild with the moveable limbs. That’s quite cool.

Grant Kirkhope: I think they are great as collectibles.

Miketendo64: Yes! Definitely great as collectibles. If not more so. Other than Music, what other passions do you have?

Grant Kirkhope: None, nothing.

Miketendo64: Just Music?

Grant Kirkhope: Yeah, because before I became a composer, I used to play in metal bands and writing music was my hobby. When it turned into my career it ceased to be my hobby, I don’t have a hobby anymore. My kids are a bit older now, like 15 and 11 or so when they were younger most of the time was spent with them so there were no time for hobbies, so I just wrote music and exist as a parent. That’s all I do.

Miketendo64: There are worst things. Given your time at Ubisoft and Nintendo, How did you find the companies because we always always hear from Developers working for them but we never hear from outside composers and how they found working with the “Big Guys?”

Grant Kirkhope: I’ve got to say my experience has been fantastic. Working with Davide Soliane and working with the guys at Milan and Paris on Mario + Rabbids Kingodom Battle has been amazing. We’re best mates now, we talked to each other every day for two years. Ubisoft even flew me out to launch the game at the Nintendo Store in New York. It was me and Davide with two guys to launch the game. I felt guilty because there was a whole team and I was just the composer. It has been absolutely fantastic.

Miketendo64: Has there been any game that you have seen this year that you have thought “Man I would loved to have done the soundtrack to that!” Something like Mass Effect maybe?

Grant Kirkhope: I don’t know about that. It’s a tough one because I really like what I do and I have had a good variety. I get to write from Drop Zone last year which was pretty heavy, dark Sci-Fi to Super Jolly Mario which Mario gets really dark towards the end. I get to do lots of different stuff so I have a bit of variety. I get asked that quite a lot but I am just happy to write and it is nice to get asked to do different things. I enjoy whatever it is.

Miketendo64: Well that’s a great way to do it and it pretty much answers my question. For my final question as not to take up any more of your time, do you have anything that you would like to say to your loyal supporters that just love your music?

Grant Kirkhope: I have never taken it for granted. People that really like my music is just amazing to me. I always say to any artist of any persuasion, a writer, a photographer, a playwright, whatever. If one person in the world likes something that has come out of your head, that is absolutely phenomenal. Just one person, let alone a few people. That never gets wasted on me. I can’t believe that people actually like the music that I write, it seems like such a strange thing. People go like “Grant Kirkhope Veteran Composer” and I don’ really like the ego thing. I just like to write tunes for people. I don’t like the word “fans” either, I just think we’re all mates.

Miketendo64: Mates?! Okay, I will remember that. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. It has been great chatting with you and best of luck with your next endeavour.

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Grant, you are an absolute legend, so thank you for being able to take the time for our interview and Happy Holidays. We wish you the best of luck and look forward to seeing what you have to offer next. It’s bound to be great!

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