The first installment of the ever-popular Diablo franchise has captivated the minds and souls of gamers worldwide, and so has its sequel. If you are among those who enjoyed the unforgettable music created by Matt Uelmen, you definitely should read our interview with this composer!
If you are among those who enjoyed the unforgettable music created by Matt Uelmen.
This was the same era when Blizzard was roughly a similar profile, 10-20 people developing for consoles and doing ports with very young teams.
gamemusic.net: Firstly, I would like to say that it is a huge honor for me to do an interview with you. I have been a fan of Diablo series since my childhood, and especially of the music from Lord of Destruction. Without further ado, let us start from Diablo in this case.
Matt Uelmen: Thanks, that is very flattering and I appreciate it.
gamemusic.net: Your career was kickstarted together with the release of the first Diablo. The game was an enormous success, and it was the same with it’s sequel. But how exactly did you end up working with Blizzard in the first place?
Matt Uelmen: I bothered the Schaefer brothers and David Brevik when I spotted them by tracking down development studios for consoles in the Bay Area. This was the same era when Blizzard was roughly a similar profile, 10-20 people developing for consoles and doing ports with very young teams. Irvine’s teams were always about twice the size as we grew in relative terms in those years, and their ownership bought the company in a similar manner as to the Blizzard founders around the same time.
gamemusic.net: Careful listening reveals multiple references to Wagner, Holst, Debussy and Stravinsky in your music created for Diablo and Torchlight. How did you come up with the idea to gather inspiration from these composers? You are among the few who manage to do so in a skillful way.
Matt Uelmen: Thanks, I appreciate that. In all those cases, I’m being a little obvious and ham-fisted, but I kind of felt a window to be really didactic by leaning heavily on Tristan and the Debussy’s opera piece, which is a really, really important milestone in Western art, and part of that great tradition of the giants who only did one opera. There was some Stravinsky material which I subsequently didn’t intend to release, but that wasn’t under my control. Obviously, though, I love the Stravinsky stuff from a century ago, but that’s hard not to do. Who doesn’t? ‘Rite‘ does polytonal melodies really well, in an entertaining way. I love it when I get a chance to use the classics, I’ve also leaned on Scriabin a bit lately. I feel a bit lazy with the original Torchlight menu, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have leaned on Traviata, but it’s a great moment in psychological history. I love that character, the fading beauty’s last bloom.
I love the Stravinsky stuff from a century ago, but that’s hard not to do. Who doesn’t?
gamemusic.net: How do you recall the recording sessions with orchestra for Lord of Destruction? I have always been curious about the feelings of composers who receive such opportunity for the first time. You went from experimental sounds and the fan favorite twelve-string guitar to a completely different kind of music back then.
Matt Uelmen: They were really fun, even if they were nerve-wracking, just because some of my cues sounded really really horrible on our first day. Still, it was an awesome experience, I love that studio. I feel a strong sentimental attachment to Central Europe for whatever reason, despite being too stupid and lazy to learn German or a Slavic language.
gamemusic.net: During the works behind Diablo II and Lord of Destruction, was there any direct cooperation between yourself and Jason Hayes who did the cutscene music? In Lord of Destruction your almost Wagnerian tracks made for the gameplay are very different from his Middle-Eastern sounds with bagpipes and rock elements made for cinematics.
Matt Uelmen: That’s a great question! Yes, I didn’t do much or any work at all on the Diablo II cinematic sequences. That was all (I think but am not sure) a mix of Glenn Stafford and Jason Hayes with possibly some Derek Duke’s.
gamemusic.net: Please tell us a bit about the creative process behind the music of Torchlight. I admit that it resembles Diablo, especially Town brings back memories of Tristram and Sisters.
Matt Uelmen: It was basically a more family-friendly version of the “Diablo” approach in some ways, though we tried to stick to RPG themes that are fairly universal. The music reflected that, I used nylon string and gibson-y guitar tones in Torchlight I to help differentiate it from that series, though I couldn’t resist using some mandolin and twelve-string textures in the later parts of Torchlight II. That sound just goes great with forest-y vistas. In general, the music was laid out in a fairly linear wallpaper-y way, area by area, though that isn’t far from the conventions of the genre, even if my team happened to capture that kind of game with some atmosphere fairly early in gaming history. The creative process was strange, but it always is.
(…) I couldn’t resist using some mandolin and twelve-string textures in the later parts of Torchlight II.
gamemusic.net: What do you think was the biggest challenge so far in your career as a video game composer?
Matt Uelmen: It’s impossible to seperate personal challenges from professional challenges, because they’re kind of the same thing. I think the toughest moment was not letting myself feel too burned when Blizzard had a very rough moment very early in its history twenty years ago. If you can not over-personalize things that are out of people’s control, events like these can be endured and not make one too bitter, or forgetful of what drew them to a career path.
gamemusic.net: People who compose music for video games often face many constraints. When you worked on Diablo and Diablo II, hiring an orchestra was aluxury, and sampling was in its early stages. How did you manage to find the right balance while working under those difficulties?
Matt Uelmen: Well, it would have been difficult to have had the focus to do my first orchestral stuff on my own if I had more pressures, like kids, etc. I was lucky in that I had a couple of chances to work on that kind of material before I had those pressures, and that experience was invaluable in terms of helping me mature.
gamemusic.net: Which of your tracks makes you the proudest and could be considered a magnum opus? Consecutively, with hindsight, are there any ones that you are not satisfied with?
Matt Uelmen: I think I’m proudest of the more successful lyrical moments I just did with Kirk Trevor and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra six or so years ago. I’ve recently listened to it, and they just did some pretty stuff, and you feel spoiled when you get that real intonation out of players, with the fifths that glow in a way that even tempered samples never do. I’m also really proud of doing the Tristram theme straight, even if that might objectively seem to be me at my laziest and most derivative. It’s just a great moment, and I’m glad it made it onto a bigger stage via games. I guess I’d like a do over on the menu theme of the first Torchlight. I just dig the mid 19th century too much.
I’m also really proud of doing the Tristram theme straight, even if that might objectively seem to be me at my laziest and most derivative.
gamemusic.net: Let us assume for a moment that Blizzard Entertainment creates Diablo IV and decides to hire you for the whole project. Which direction would you choose initially, given that Diablo III and Reaper of Souls were very different from their predecessors?
Matt Uelmen: That scenario would be very unlikely. I would say that if I was trying to recreate what I think worked best in my late 90s stuff, I would try to build a traditional rock power quartet, with that Young brothers Gibson + Gretsch sound on top of flatpicked p-bass, if I had the resources to rehearse and record a real pro band, and then I’d want to build around dubb-ish versions of that.
gamemusic.net: The fifteenth anniversary of Diablo series marks the release of a compilation with selected tracks which include Hydra and Lord – the concept music of Diablo III. Diablo III Overture and And the Heavens Shall Tremble seem to originate from Hydra, while Lord contains references to Stravinsky and Holst. Thus, my question is: how would your soundtrack for Diablo III sound if the initial game idea was not cancelled?
Matt Uelmen: Well, the initial idea was never cancelled. It was effectively shut down for a year or so around my time in Irvine. I think Jay Wilson is and was a very talented designer and his vision of a more robotron-ish game was a natural progression from what Dave had designed earlier. I wouldn’t speculate on alternative histories, you never know what strange things happen in alternate timelines. I did not think the Stravinksy-ish material would be released as of when I left Blizzard. But, sure, if I had the environment to write for another few years of orchestral stuff, I would probably gravitate towards styles resembling that era of Russians, who were a summit of color and imagination.