Jason Graves is a composer known for his scary horror soundtracks, like for the Dead Space game series or his recent score for Man of Medan. I asked him a few questions not only about horror and here are his funny and brilliant answers.
gamemusic.net: With your recent score for The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan you are back to horror scoring. How was it to do what you’re known most of again?
Jason Graves: It’s funny, because I sometimes feel like my last name has been paving the way for a career in writing horror music for some time now! It’s always fun to go back to something after I’ve had some time away from it. No one wants to eat the same menu for dinner, night after night. And it’s been a few years since I did anything scary. I really do love working in the horror genre and it’s nice to be able to have some “time off” and feel a lot more fresh coming back!
There’s definitely a primal, organic, rhythmic approach to how I compose scary music. – Jason Graves
gamemusic.net: Was working on Man of Medan’s soundtrack similar to working on Until Dawn’s?
Jason Graves: From an interactive standpoint, yes, a little bit. Although the game itself is far more complicated and intertwined with the whole “interactive two player” options. Even the single player mode is a lot more comprehensive and granular, in terms of choices you can make and how they affect the story. Barney Pratt, the Audio Director at Supermassive Games, and I had a lot of the same kinds of conversations about what the gameplay needed in terms of musical support.
But there was also the understanding that this score was going to have to be even more dynamic and interactive than the one for Until Dawn. Basically that means a lot more moving parts for the music and the way it was implemented into the game.
gamemusic.net: Do you empathise with the protagonists of each game you score? The music in Man of Medan conveys their emotions very well.
Jason Graves: That’s great to hear, thank you! When I am creating a score, I would say one of my main goals is to put myself in the player’s shoes and create music that reflects their current situation. One of the things that I’ve always thought of when I think of the ocean is music with three beats in it. There’s something about that “1, 2, 3” kind of feeling that lulls me into a sense of being on the water, moving up and down with the waves. That was my main approach to this entire score – it’s all in some form of triple meter – time signatures that have that strong sense of “1, 2, 3” to them.
And, of course, being stranded and attacked or kidnapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean is about as terrifying as it gets. You’re literally in the middle of nowhere and completely isolated. It’s not like you can run around the corner to the neighbor’s house for help. I tried to play up that aspect of the psychological terror – the feeling of isolation and suspense.
gamemusic.net: Do you see any difference between working for an indie title like Moss and an AAA title like the Dead Space franchise?
Jason Graves: In reality, it always comes down to me and my relationship with the Audio Director. We are the two folks responsible for making the best music for the game possible, regardless of budgets or the scale of the game. I enjoy working on both kinds of projects, and sometimes the smaller games can be more immediately rewarding since they usually are released a lot quicker. But it’s equally fun to take on those epic, larger-than-life games with a multi year music production schedule and a huge scope of assets. I’ve turned around indie titles in a matter of a few months, while the bigger games can be a multi year process. Both methods work, and honestly, it’s refreshing to work on both!
gamemusic.net: Since you’re mostly known of horror soundtracks, how did you end up being asked to write music for Moss, very calm, beautiful and relaxing music?
Jason Graves: It’s funny, because the music I wrote for Moss is the kind of music I would write on my own if I were doing something “for fun.” I really love those kinds of harmonies and themes, the live instruments and sense of wonder and beauty that they convey.
Polyarc contacted my agent looking for a composer. When she suggested me, Stephen Hodde, the Audio Director at Polyarc, literally said, “Oh, no, it’s not that kind of a game!” But she explained that I actually wrote all kinds of music before I became known for horror and assured him I was a good choice. I submitted a suite of music with my ideas for Moss and Polyarc hired me. The main theme of the game and a few other pieces were taken directly from the original suite, note for note.
gamemusic.net: You are a trained percussionist. How does it affect your orchestral soundtracks? Both Dead Space and Man of Medan scores are very rhythmical.
Jason Graves: There’s definitely a primal, organic, rhythmic approach to how I compose scary music. A lot of it has to do with keeping the player off balance by bouncing around with odd rhythms and unexpected changes. Anything different or unusual that can cause the player to feel off guard, like something isn’t quite right! Even a very straightforward, insistent pulse with short strings can feel very driving and maniacal if you place the accents in the right place.
I think mostly it comes down to being so entrenched in rhythm all my life. I started taking snare drum lessons in middle school and had expanded to drum set, timpani, vibes and marimba by high school. I probably think of rhythm and beats as a way of starting a new song the way most people would think of a melody. It’s so ingrained in my psyche!
gamemusic.net: In your soundtrack for Far Cry Primal, you used a wide range of percussion and world instruments. Did you play them yourself?
Jason Graves: Absolutely! I spent a few months researching materials and items that would have existed back in the Stone Age and proceeded to dismiss anything that couldn’t be found back then out of the studio. Metal? Gone. That meant no cymbals or gongs. Or modern drums. Plastic? Nope!
Essentially I had the choice of wood, animal skin (good for drums), stone, clay, dirt, etc. I even employed several large bushes and some rocks from my backyard. I created a Stone Age drum set by arranging all these elements – large shrubs, large stones, big pieces of wood, even a heavy bucket of dirt with a stick to “stir” it around with the tempo of the music. I set up microphones all around it the way you would record a drum set – I think there were eight microphones for all the different “instruments.” That was my main set of percussion sounds for the game.
I also performed recorded sounds with clay pots, wooden whistles, goat hoof bracelets, shell necklaces and bone flutes. I even found an amazing sounding conch shell, which is the epically low and scary horn sound you hear in most of the hunting/tracking cues. It just reminded me of some kind of animal call and I had to use it. Far Cry Primal was a really fun score to work on!
gamemusic.net: Were the screams and vocals in Far Cry Primal soundtrack sampled or were they recorded live?
Jason Graves: The entire soundtrack was live. That wonderfully harrowing woman you can hear screaming throughout the score is Malukah. She actually has an absolutely beautiful voice! She sang “Home To Me” on Moss and also did vocals on my VR score for Lone Echo, so I feel like I redeemed myself for asking her for some meany screams and creepy whispers. I really made her stretch for Primal but I think she totally nailed it! I recorded the rest of the vocals myself.
I think a good horror score musically portrays that idea of “the unknown.” – Jason Graves
gamemusic.net: Is it easy to work with the orchestra on such hard material that was the Dead Space score?
Jason Graves: Ironically, the biggest challenge recording all of those creepy, abstract sounds with the orchestra was keeping them from laughing at the end of every take. It was quite the funny predicament! I had several takes ruined by musicians laughing. And I don’t mean just quietly snickering. I mean LAUGHING out loud.
Musicians dedicate everything they have learning their instrument. They spend their entire lives being taught exactly how to play and exactly what they are supposed to sound like. Then they show up to a recording session where they are told “play any of these notes as fast as you can, but very quietly.” They literally are mentally sent back to when they were little kids, goofing off with their instruments and making funny sounds to make each other laugh. Honestly, those kinds of recording sessions are the most fun ones to conduct!
gamemusic.net: What makes a good horror soundtrack, in your opinion?
Jason Graves: I’ve always felt that the unknown is the scariest thing – the masked killer, the shadow under the bed, the shark fin in the water. Not knowing something forces your mind to fill in the blanks. And our imagination is going to conjure up something a lot more terrifying than a guy with a knife or a rubber (or even less scary, CG) shark. I think a good horror score musically portrays that idea of “the unknown.”