Composer Interview: Jason Graves

Jason Graves Headshot TR

Jason Graves is a classical percussionist with a knack for creating rich and varied music out of chicken coop wire and trash cans. He’s a veteran game composer and has even won two British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for his work on the original Dead Space soundtrack. Graves also comes off as the hardest working man in video game composition. 

GamesBeat: What was the direction for the Tomb Raider score? Did Crystal Dynamics want to harken back to the original game’s sound?

Jason Graves: There was specific direction from Crystal that they didn’t want to rehash anything that had been done before. I can respect that from a development standpoint.


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Since the original Tomb Raider had come out such a long time ago, I didn’t have much emotional baggage that I might have had if it had just released. Since there is quite a lot of distance from the first game to now, so creating a fresh perspective for the score was easy.

GamesBeat: What was your inspiration?

Graves: I found in the last three years that the combination of how much music I’ve written and how much music I have to write, meaning the deadlines, I haven’t done a lot of sound mining. I haven’t done a lot of musical investigation. I’m a big fan of originality, and I’ve been spoiled by developers encouraging me to be as original as possible.

If I see an action film and anything like that, I intentionally steer away from it in my own music. Some developers request things sound like Hans Zimmer, and I try to avoid doing “sound alikes.” Crystal wanted a new score, an original sound, and a new main theme. Their ideas were very branded and specific.

GamesBeat: Often times, composers have very little footage to work from while writing. What do you like to work from? 

Graves: Everything a developer can give me, like concept art and gameplay. It’s all very helpful. With big titles, I usually fly out and meet with the developer. With Tomb Raider, I didn’t even have to request it. Crystal set up a two-hour meeting to explain the story arc and how Lara’s character develops. That’s the kind of stuff that may not give me the immediate thought of “I know exactly what kind of instrument I’m going to use,” but it informs as to what direction I’ll take with the rest of the score.

Tomb Raider is an emotional story tracking Lara’s transformation from a girl out of her depth to the self-reliant character we’re all familiar with. The  music is able to sit up and do the same thing. It becomes more aggressive and more sure of itself as the story progresses. Those are general terms, but if I hadn’t had that to start from I might have led with a more aggressive beginning.

GamesBeat: So, what theme was Crystal Dynamics looking for, and what is the overall tonal theme of Tomb Raider?

Graves: They wanted the emotion. They wanted Lara to feel emotionally vulnerable.

As for the tonal theme, there are three elements that form the backbone of the score. One is “Lara’s Theme” which evolves at her character does. At first it is timid and unsure, but as the game unfolds it grows more involved and pronounced.

The second element is texture. For this project, I commissioned a large sculpture that I can make musical sounds with, but it’s made from non-musical components. That “instrument” generates a lot of the unusual sounds in the game that put you on edge.

The third element is percussion. I’m a classical percussionist, and I also perform in a lot of world music ensembles. Since Tomb Raider takes place on an island off the coast of Japan, I also allowed a bit of Japanese taiko drums in the score, but more for their heft and weight than their geographical significance. The percussion writing doesn’t fall into your traditional four-bar loops. Every single instrument was performed and recorded with love, and it inspired me to do even more percussion.

This doesn’t fall into your traditional four-bar loop of percussion. Every single instrument used was done with love, and it inspired me to do more percussion. It was almost like I had a jam band.

GamesBeat: What does a textural approach to music entail?

Graves: A textural approach to music has become a bit of an obsession. I do it whenever I can because it is so satisfying. You have an unlimited resource of sounds to experiment with, but of course using them all depends on the type of game you’re scoring. I end up getting hired for the more mature 18 plus shooter projects. There’s a lot more material to mine and explore in them, and often more emotional depth. If the music I was composing was for a kid’s game, it would need to be much more comfortable.

Textures can sometimes feel more part of the atmosphere in a game.  It’s still doing what it needs to while fading in and out at key moments and intensifying scenes. I started out doing a lot of sound design for cinematics and trailers, like grunty monster sounds. Textural sound design is much more fun for me.

GamesBeat: What sort of non-musical sources do you use?

Graves: As a percussion player, there’s all kinds of stuff I can use. I think it’s worth mentioning that there’s a fine line between tasteful non-musical sources and getting close to Stomp. You know, like using pipes and garbage cans to clang around.

The key is to not overuse it. I used a lot of my garbage can for Tomb Raider – both the top and the side. The most interesting sound I found was actually using a cello bow on chicken coop wire. I would tap it and smack it on the ground, but bowing it was really unique.

Tomb Raider InstrumentGamesBeat: What are a few of your favorite pieces from the score?

Graves: The nice thing about Tomb Raider was that there was no shortage of tracks that I enjoyed doing.

L really liked “A Survivor is Born” because it puts all three of the major themes through their paces. It goes from quiet and sad to big and epic. It runs the gambit for percussion and orchestra.

“The Oni” starts out with me recording in my studio, soft yarn mallets on lots of things. It’s this very warm, misty and damp forest. On the second half, more percussion and things come into it. I love the difference in all of that percussion.

In “The Scavenger’s Camp” you can hear the chicken fence. You can hear me bowing it, hitting it, making obnoxious mosquito sounds. Then the orchestra comes in, and the parts play together. For the first three minutes of the piece build solely from the instrument built for the game.

GamesBeat: Can you tell us more about the instrument made for Tomb Raider?

Graves: That is something Matt McConnell and I spent about a year on. Matt is a metalsmith and sculptor who lives a block away from my house.

This was unique situation because I’d kind of gone through all my usual sounds. I found a couple of cool things, but they were only one-note instruments, and I was looking for something a little more expressive than a trash can. So it made common sense to find someone who could help me build something. That’s when the idea took off to build an instrument. Crystal Dynamics also loved the idea. They even want to put in their lobby so people can play it. We just wanted to just use the instrument sounds.

Crystal was giving me a lot of responsibility to do something unique. That’s why Matt and I spent a year thinking of the best materials to put into it. He designed the visual aspect to go along with the game.

GamesBeat: How did you use the sculpture?

Graves: You can see from the picture that the sculpture has glass bowls hanging from it. Originally, I didn’t know what to do with them. So, I brought in a bunch of mallets and I started hitting things. I brought the instrument back to my studio and start hitting the bowls and recording it. It sounds like buddhist monks are playing glass bells.

The bowls are the sound of the island. I used them a lot as I got further into the game because the island is definitely a character. It’s the same three bowls all the time, and the same three people will be able to play in the Crystal Dynamics lobby.

That was a big part of the soul-searching I did for Tomb Raider. It’s a big title and I wanted to set it apart.

I’m very excited about this soundtrack because the developer let me run wild and do what I wanted. It’s the longest I’ve ever spent on a game: on and off over a 2 and a half-year period. It is the culmination of everything that I love, soft quiet stuff, big action stuff, it’s my favorite thing that I’ve done, and I’m very proud of it.

Any new score I work on, I try to learn something new. I’m happiest when I try to learn something new. This will inform what I do on the next title. Some things work and some things don’t, but you keep perfecting and honing your skills.

GamesBeat: You won two BAFTAs for your work on Dead Space. Was the appeal of such a dissonant score surprising to you?

Graves: I knew it was nominated in the five major awards in video games, but awards are tricky. That music especially, I didn’t expect to get much attention. It’s so hard to listen to if you’re not used to listening to that sort of thing. I didn’t see it as potential award fodder because it was so nasty.

The British Academy Awards were the icing on the cake because it won two. What I appreciate about the BAFTAs is that they seem to make their judgement outside of the view that only the biggest names get awards.

That’s the only reason I won two BAFTAs. I think Dead Space in and of itself was a sleeper hit. It seems like it took a while to catch on. I’ve done more than a hundred games, but everyone who knows me and recognizes my name does so because of Dead Space.

GamesBeat: What do you think it will take for games to receive more award recognition? 

Graves: Time. It’s going to take another couple of years. At least we have a way to be recognized in the Grammys. It’s going to take more and more well-known composers working on games. You can get a film composer to work on a game, and it gets more recognition because of his name.

I focus on games. I don’t use that as a stepping stone for films or TV. It’s all going to take time. I personally don’t put too much emphasis on award recognition. By the time award shows happen, you’ve moved on to something else.

My objective is to make the developer as happy as possible. Anything outside of that is nice, but not necessary.

GamesBeat: Are you working on any future projects you can talk about?

Graves: I’m working on a space game right now. You’re flying through space shooting things, so that’s not really a great time for the chicken wire! That calls for something more orchestral.

You know, games are funny because they are super, ultra-secret with their non-disclosure agreement. I did an hour’s worth of content for the Devil May Cry DLC “Vergil’s Downfall,” but I can’t say much about it. The neat thing about DLC, though, is that it’s a little bit of composing here and a little bit there without the commitment of working on a full-length project.

I’m also working on a really cool new kind of horror IP that’s coming out later this year and a couple of mystery/sci-fi projects coming out next year.

Required Listening is a recurring feature that started in January 2013.
January 2013

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