Now five studio albums in, they’re enjoying unprecedented recognition and column inches.
Having created a gloriously languorous soundtrack to the Sony Entertainment PlayStation 4 game No Man’s Sky, they’ve turned a whole new audience on to their music.
For our Sound Chip Symphonies feature in the latest issue of M magazine, we chat to the band’s Joe Shrewsbury about how they got into gaming and what it means for their future sound…
How did the initial interest from the No Man’s Sky developers come about?
It came out of the blue, really. The developers contacted us to license a track that we’d written years ago called Debutant, for a trailer. We were cool with that, but were intrigued by the wider project so we asked to know more about it.
We were at the point where we were actively looking for soundtrack work, and it just felt almost too perfect, really. So, we pursued them and luckily for us, they were having a similar conversation in their offices, so it all just came together quite naturally after that.
What attracted you to look for gaming score work?
There seems to be a developing relationship between bands and musicians. It was definitely an area we had identified. We’re not gamers particularly; we’re sort of too busy being a band and stuff.
What was the project like for you?
I think we were given quite a unique brief for No Man’s Sky. I don’t know if other bands have had similar experiences, but we were definitely asked to do it as a band, as opposed to soundtrack writers. We were told to concentrate on making a 65daysofstatic album, which was great.
There’s a reason bands are well placed to do game score work, and I think that’s often because they approach music from a less disciplined rulebook. Composers maybe produce music that’s more polished, whereas bands create stuff from a vocabulary they’ve developed between themselves.
Well, I don’t think coming from a composition angle is a bad thing. In fact, it’s something we’d aspire to, but we’re not trained composers. We’re just this weird noise band coming from a punky, thrashy, outsider place…
To come into soundtracking from that place gives you a different perspective. I think maybe that’s why gaming programmers use bands - because it produces different results.
Weren’t you tempted to put on a soundtrack hat or to change your sound?
Yes, that’s interesting. I think we did; I think the whole project was pushed forward on dual fronts. We were going for business as usual, but we were also holding in our heads the idea of a soundtrack, and holding in our heads the idea of the procedural element of the game.
It wasn’t really just doing the same old thing; I supposed we were using the band as a vehicle to push the game somewhere and the music somewhere.
How did the process differ to normal?
The main difference was the pressure and the timescale. We tend to dictate our own schedule. If a record like that took two years to write, then we’d take two years to write it. But we knew we were getting into a position where we had a responsibility to the game to work to their schedule, which is fine, but it just meant that we just had to get our heads down and start throwing out material.
I don’t think 65 has a formulaic process, but one of the things that we do tend to do is write a lot of music and then throw it away – in the early stages of writing an album – as a way of getting rid of lots of residual ideas from previous projects.
We didn’t really have that luxury this time, so we had to use everything that came about. That’s how a lot of the soundscape stuff was able to gestate and develop in the way it did, because we had to be brave enough to use more minimal pieces, more minimal ideas.
Will the experience influence your future sound, do you think?
Certainly No Man’s Sky has pushed us away from our usual sound a bit, mainly because the second record is much more reflective. It doesn’t care quite as much about fitting into an album format and so it can do stuff that’s more repetitive and more zoned out.
I think that might have an influence on whatever we do next, because we’ve enjoyed that freedom and we have been pleased with the results.
I’d answer that in two ways. It didn’t feel like we were out of our comfort zone; in fact, if anything, it felt really liberating not to have to put those textures and ideas into that more traditional layout, that linear layout that we’re normally more interested in.
The real challenge was thinking more like sound designers, and paying more attention to the individual sounds and the qualities they had. We thought more about melodies, and hooks, and how these ideas were represented and on what instruments. I suppose we tried to free ourselves from being the guitarist or the piano player, and instead tried to follow what the needed, if that makes sense.
With hindsight, what were the main benefits of the experience?
There’s the very obvious… The last few weeks since the album and game came out have been crazy. There’s very obviously a profile to this project which transcends anything we’ve ever done before.
Suddenly, there’s a lot of people listening to us that haven’t before. It’s really nice to be part of something that thrusts our music into a greater number of people’s lives, in a way that the music industry, and I guess, popular culture, was never going to.
Do you think there are more opportunities in the gaming world, then?
Yes. I do think the gaming world is slightly more democratic for musicians. People are looking for music that actively does different things - whereas the music business is perhaps often looking for music that does the same thing that’s been done before. There’s a lot of pressure, especially in a contracting music industry, to make money out of diminishing returns, which can sometimes impact on a willingness to experiment.
Yes, there are plenty of amazing independent labels and amazing people working in music, trying to get new things heard. Nevertheless, gaming is more of an open ground for musicians.
There is also a lot more money in the games industry than there is in music. So there’s definitely work to be had in gaming, and if you are a musician or a group of musicians who are interested in making music, opportunities to do so are what you’re looking for.
Tell us about your upcoming No Man’s Sky tour…
Most of the main record is totally playable live but I think the tour in the autumn won’t be exclusively No Man’s Sky stuff. We are touring the record and so a proportion of it will be represented, but we’ve got too much previous music that we love playing live to ignore!
65daysofstatic embark on a No Man's Sky tour this autumn. For dates, see http://65daysofstatic.com