Interview with Journey, The Banner Saga composer
We managed to catch up to composer Austin Wintory (Journey, The Banner Saga, Monaco) following his D.I.C.E. Summit talk on how technology has changed music making, and how this impacts videogame scores.
As a fellow musician and a budding game music composer, I enjoyed chatting with Wintory about how accessible tools and software have brought about the democratization of music making for all genres, even beyond games. We also talk about what it’s like for him to be moving from indie games to big-budget titles and back as a composer.
Despite his accomplishments, including a Grammy nomination for the Journey score, Wintory is refreshingly humble and down-to-earth. I’m happy to have had a chance to talk with such a talented and genuine creator.
Destructoid: I really enjoyed your D.I.C.E. talk on the democratization of music making. As you said, someone could have a crappy $50 Casio keyboard and the pre-installed software on a computer and go to it and…
Wintory: …and make something that actually sounds good. Even ten years ago it was like, that’s clearly amateur stuff.
So I did Monaco, for example; I did a double album release. So one of the ones on there was by Laura Intravia, who worked with Video Games Live as the flute player. She would dress up as Link and do a Zelda medley for solo flute that she arranged. She is an excellent flute player. She’s also a singer, and when we would do Journey for VGL she would sing “I Was Born for This.” The joke was it’s Laura Intravia featuring Video Games Live because she is involved on every single track and every piece they do in their setlist until recently.
I connected with her, love her, and she’s so wonderful. I told her I’m doing this second album with covers of Monaco.
Because she was on tour so much, she decided to get rid of her own place, and I think she moved stuff into her parents’ basement because she was only not on the road for what seemed like a few weeks a year. Between shows, she went into her parents’ basement, and with a laptop, using, like, FruityLoops, made the thing you hear on that album, and it’s unbelievable. She sent it to me asking for production tips. I said that it just needs less reverb, and then it’s perfect. I was like ‘holy shit,’ I couldn’t believe it.
It’s all about knowing your tool, right?
I had a friend show me a video interview with a European electronic dance artist that managed to top the charts with a single. The artist was asked to show his creative process for a magazine, but he couldn’t because he had no idea what he did. That may sound terrible to some, but I think that’s wonderful!
The people that come from a traditional background see that and are threatened by that and I think it’s a bunch of bullshit. People respond to it. What does it matter how it came to be?
That’s nice to hear, coming from you.
Because I am one of those conservatory trained guys. [laughs]
These people obviously tend to gravitate toward electronic music. But you look at someone like Danny Elfman; he writes orchestral music with the best of them and he does not have a background in that at all. I think that makes his music so incredibly rich and amazing.
Even five years ago, it would have felt like a distant wish for any musician to have a chance at making music for a videogame. Now, with this lower barrier of entry, will it be that just about anyone can make music for games?
Look at game jams. People can make ridiculously interesting games in 24 hours that 10 years ago they couldn’t have because of the tools. Things like Unity and Garage Band speed up the process so much. I love that.
So this changes game music for the better, right?
It changes all music for the better. Like you said, there’s a big dance hit made by a guy that has no idea what he’s doing. It’s not restricted to games. I think everything benefits from it, from every angle.
The competition is dramatically bigger now. I’m not part of a select group of 15 guys. I’m part of all of humanity now. Every person is basically a viable composer and competitor to me until proven otherwise. All the rest of humanity has the potential to be viably up for anything I would be, and I actually really love that because that means I have to be all that I can be to stand a chance. There’s no chance for complacency. There’s not a certain level in your career that you’d reach where projects just kind of come and you can kind of cruise control from there.
No, people respond to what’s interesting, different, engaging, and exciting, and if you’re not part of that, then it’s really easy to just sort of go away.
Malcolm Gladwell was once onThe Colbert Report, talking about his book The Outliers, which was his follow-up book to Blink. On it, Colbert asked what Gladwell called himself, as he’s a writer, a researcher… I can’t remember exactly how he prompted him. But Malcolm described himself as being professionally curious. I thought that was fantastic. I stole that, and now on my Twitter it says that I’m professionally curious about music. What’s great is that there are 500 million other people that are the same. We can inspire each other, we can drive each other, and we can just generally sort of rise the tide as one giant entity. I don’t see any downside to that.
On the flip side of toy keyboards and budget tools, how do you get to use a full orchestra on an indie game like The Banner Saga?
Well, it’s all Kickstarter! We said, hey, we’d love to do this the right way. They brought me on in the middle of the campaign, and by this point their thing was this out-of-control steamroller.
I asked that they have tiers. I made a deal with Stoic and said to carve out some specific rewards where the money geared to get those is going to go solely toward the score instead of toward the general pot, which we would then have to figure out. People took to it like crazy, and we ended up with a bigger budget than I had on Journey. I mean, the deal is structured differently, so that’s somewhat of a deceptive statement to make. Without getting into all the minutiae of the finances of it, the takeaway is that there are a lot more musicians on The Banner Saga than on Journey.
I mean, the orchestra is the single most populous department in the whole game. Like, Stoic is three guys, and then a few additional programmers and writers came in here and there. But the orchestra was over 50 people, and I had a whole bunch of soloists as well. And percussion, and three different singers, Taylor Davis on violin… so over 60 people performing on the score.
So that’s the biggest thing you’ve done so far?
I have a few things going on right now that I can’t talk about, but I’m trying to think if they’ll end up being more than that. There are definitely some things coming up that are more elaborate in terms of the production, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are more players.
In film, I’ve worked with 100-plus sized groups, and in concert music as well. But Journey was just strings, and it was a modest sized group, too.
But Journey sounded so big and expensive!
It was not. It was done right, and I don’t feel like we cut corners. It was the first time Sony had done that for a download title.
It’s funny in hindsight to remember that Journey was supposed to be only a download title. It ended up going a lot further than any of us thought it would. But I remember I had to make a kind of “Braveheart” freedom speech to Sony to say to them that we’ve come so far and we just need this extra little bit.
And look at how that turned out! Do you think they’ve learned from that?
Yeah. I don’t need to benefit from that. The produced The Unfinished Swan the same exact way immediately following. I had nothing to do with The Unfinished Swan but I think they felt empowered to go that extra mile from our experience, and it turned out beautifully.
It seems like you’re well-grounded in the indie side of games. Is that where you want to be? I mean, you can probably pick what you’d like to do at this point, right?
No, it’s all over the board. I actually prefer to be in both worlds because they are very different and similar at the same time, and the kind of cross-talk that they make within me is very stimulating and helpful to kind of stay fresh.
It’s funny; doing a game like Monaco, the perception is that Journey is basically triple-A. Talking to my friend, composer Gerard Marino, who worked on God of War and other big titles, in his eyes, Journey is like this little indie. Whichever camp I’m talking to, Journey belonged in the other.
It was a weird middle ground in that sense. But Sony showed it the same love that they showed to The Last of Us and Uncharted. The budget was not anywhere near the size of those games, but they didn’t sort of just try to sneak it out. In other words, we had the full benefit of what the name Sony brings with it. In my mind, that makes it essentially sort of a triple-A title.
Monaco is like pure grass roots. I’ve got another game coming that’s called Gorogoa that’s even more starkly. It’s an even smaller team than The Banner Saga, but a a beautiful, wonderful game. I’m delighted. And there’s bigger stuff as well.
Well, whoever you’re working with is going to be well off…
That’s very generous. I feel very lucky to be gainfully employed in any way.
Well, you got a Grammy nomination. Has that changed things for you?
Obviously I would be stupid to pretend that the phone was ringing more before that than after that. But it wasn’t that specifically so much as it was the general insanity of Journey. And it was every day. Especially around this time last year, every day there was another something happening, and it was blurry and ridiculous. And we had already been through a blurry ridiculousness when the game came out and it was selling so well, and the reviews were just perfect scores, one after another. So I had already had several surreal waves of like, is this actually happening?
The thing that meant the most about that was as a lifelong admirer of John Williams, to be able to have a brief moment of being sort of, in the eyes of somebody, shoulder to shoulder with him. It was unreal to me.
I met him when I was like sixteen years old and it made me realize I could do this. He was just this guy. I had all of his soundtracks already. When I shook his hand I thought that that was the hand that wrote Star Wars and Indiana Jones. That humanized him and made me think that I could do this. I was a profound experience for me. So to be able to circle back and actually sort of share that moment was really personal and meaningful.
But I don’t think it’s some sort of big truth beyond that. And, also, it has a danger hiding beneath it as well. When you have someone offer you a reward nomination or you earn an award of some kind, there’s a tendency to think that you are now validated as a great composer. Which means that the next time you go to write a piece of music, you’ll think ‘this music is great because a great composer wrote it.’ And the moment you start to think that is when the end begins.
So I get very weary when people try to be super effusive of that sort of praise because I don’t actually believe it to be true. I generally don’t think I’m a great composer. I think I’m a terrible composer, but I’m good at making sure that people don’t hear 99% of what I write. [laughs]
I’m a good curator.