Jon Everist’s soundtrack for BattleTech was chosen by our readers as the best soundtrack of 2018. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing the composer and asking him about that score and his upcoming score for Disintegration.
I wanted to paint the feudal family infighting and power struggle with the brush of an almost medieval sound. – Jon Everist
gamemusic.net: Are you a fan of the BattleTech franchise? What brought you to scoring the recent BattleTech game?
Jon Everist: MechWarrior 2 was one of the first PC games I ever played – I didn’t have a computer, so I would play at my friends place. I remember being blown away by it. I’d never seen anything like it before. I never got deep into the lore and world of it all though because I was very much a Super Nintendo kid. I was obsessed with games like Final Fantasy 3 and Chrono Trigger, but a lot of the tabletop and PC games went over my head a bit since I was 10 at the time.
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on Harebrained Schemes games since the first Shadowrun. We’ve established a lot of mutual trust, so I was very happy they asked me to care for the revival of classic BattleTech in video game form. In a lot of ways, I think my naivety about how massive BattleTech was served me well when I was approached to do the score. I was able to take a look at the franchise with fresh eyes that weren’t overwhelmed with this vast sense of nostalgia or adherence to norms in the music that have persisted since the 80’s and 90’s.
What I did have in my toolset was that sense of awe when I got to play MechWarrior, or my first visit to a BattleTech center. As I started to delve deeper into the lore of the universe and the complex characters that the team was writing, it was hard not to be overwhelmingly inspired. Ultimately, we were telling a war story, so I wanted to focus on that first as a base for the music.
My hope was that the music would lead with empathy instead of focusing on the sensational. – Jon Everist
gamemusic.net: BattleTech is a game mainly about the battles between large mechanical warriors. Do you think that an epic, orchestral score is the best option for so called battle music?
Jon Everist: BattleTech is inherently drenched in larger than life action – but for this score I tried my best to take a step back and reframe the notion that the music has to be testosterone-filled or consistently overcharged and over reverential to the sorts of action films that were being made in the 90’s (which I still love by the way).
I think the way I hoped to approach the score for BattleTech was that was with concern for the thoughts and motivations of the person inside the mech. As I said before, I think this is a war story, and it’s a story about a mercenary crew who is barely holding on and struggling to make a living in what is largely an unjust and violent world. These people are doing work for corrupt politicians or mega corporations not because they agree with them or care about their successes or failures, they are just trying to survive.
When they come back to their dropship, they are humans with motivations and fears. Going into battle in a giant mech is extremely dangerous, and they know that the mech is much more valuable than their own life, which is always on their mind. I wanted the player to really feel the weight of these decisions. Of course you can play as a ruthless leader, but I think most players will do the campaign and really feel like they are in charge of a group of people that they genuinely care about and do not want to get killed, but are often forced to put them in terrible situations that can ultimately result in their death. My hope was that the music would lead with empathy instead of focusing on the sensational.
I think the story itself is a pretty sweeping war epic. It was pitched to me as “Game of Thrones in Space” so I felt that an orchestral score was appropriate, but there’s also a frontier Firefly vibe going on there too with your mercenary campaign. I wanted to paint the feudal family infighting and power struggle with the brush of an almost medieval sound, and I wanted to treat the mercenary side with more electronics and some grittiness to show how the “normal” everyday person lives their life and views the political infighting of the ruling class as inconsequential and with a fair amount of disdain.
My job is to enforce what the player is already feeling by other inputs like art and writing. – Jon Everist
gamemusic.net: In this soundtrack we can find lots of beautiful, affecting parts. Is it easy for you as a composer to convey emotions through your music?
Jon Everist: I think it’s only easy when the writing and the characters are fully realized. Harebrained Schemes has amazing writers, and Andrew McIntosh continuously delivers complex and nuanced characters where all I have to do is read a scene or hear about their backstory and the music just starts to write itself. It’s much more difficult to write disingenuously, where a character or scene doesn’t deserve an emotive treatment and you have to try to force the player to feel a certain way about things. My job is to enforce what the player is already feeling by other inputs like art and writing.
gamemusic.net: To record the score, you chose the musical ensembles from Germany, Hungary and Latvia. What was the reason?
Jon Everist: These are world class players and they are also very familiar with classical sounding music. I wanted to approach this score that exuded the feudal qualities of the BattleTech universe. We are far in the future with amazing technology, but in a lot of ways we are still in the dark ages and have gone backwards in terms of politics. I wanted to capture that in many cues by using almost medieval sounding orchestrations and playing, especially when referencing the politics of the era.
European orchestras, especially recently, work a lot in film and games, but tend to adhere to more classical sensibilities. – Jon Everist
gamemusic.net: Did you experience any difference between working with American and European musicians?
Jon Everist: All of these musicians are world class. I see players in America and around the world as true super heroes. The fact that they can sit down with a piece they’ve just looked at and play it beautifully is simply amazing to see. In America, it’s usually easier to nail a ‘Hollywood’ sound simply by the fact that a lot of music in big budget films is recorded in the US. European orchestras, especially recently, work a lot in film and games, but tend to adhere to more classical sensibilities, although that’s a broad generalization.
A good example is that if you show an LA musician a double forte they will usually understand that it means to play extremely loud if the context of the writing suggests it, whereas a double forte in Europe would play that less aggressively unless told otherwise.
gamemusic.net: You used lots of analog sounds in your BattleTech soundtrack. Have you got many analog synthesizers in your studio?
Jon Everist: I have a few. I rely heavily on my modular synth setup and my Prophet synthesizer. I do work a lot with software synths as well. I love the tactile musicality of an analog synth, but they can also be unruly and take a lot of time to dial in good sounds. For output and speed, nothing beats a software synth like Zebra.
Often times in modern scoring, melody takes second fiddle to texture. – Jon Everist
gamemusic.net: Did you build any instrument on your own to use it in the score?
Jon Everist: I built an instrument I lovingly called “The Frankenstring”. BattleTech was all about making due with what you had available, so I thought it would be cool to take a trip to home depot and put together an instrument with various household objects to use as atmosphere, percussion, and textures for the game. It just adds a sense of place and realness to some of the score that is hard to capture with samples. It was a lot of fun too!
gamemusic.net: You’ve just finished scoring the Disintegration game. It is yet another science fiction title, with lots of fighting. What should we expect about the music?
Jon Everist: I’m actually still working on the game. It’s a very interesting and fun title and the music has been a joy to write. It’s a hybrid score that uses a lot of synthetic elements that I really enjoyed creating and mixing with orchestra. This is a very cinematic game with a super cool single player campaign. The acting and cinematics are pretty incredible, which is always a joy to write to. I was able to really focus on ‘melody’ and memorability for this one, which I always enjoy. Often times in modern scoring, melody takes second fiddle to texture, but I find that in Disintegration I get to do both, which is super fun.
I think the goal of a good game score is to make it sound like the whole game is composed linearly. – Jon Everist
gamemusic.net: What difference do you see between scoring for video games and scoring for film?
Jon Everist: There are so many – but of course there are cinematics in games that are scored like films, but the meat of a game needs to be scored in a way that doesn’t break the musical fourth wall, which in my opinion is when someone can clearly tell when the music is shifting gears.
I think the goal of a good game score is to make it sound like the whole game is composed linearly when in fact behind the scenes there’s many levels of randomization and interactivity. I fail at this constantly, but it’s still a good goal to have.