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iMuse Island
Interview
with Peter McConnell



 
 
 
 
Peter McConnell worked for about 10 years as an in house musician at LucasArts. He has been co-composer on Monkey Island 2, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and he has been lead composer on Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. After his departure from LucasArts, he has also been hired as a freelancer to contribute to the score of Monkey Island 4, and is currently working for Doublefine Productions on Tim Schaferís upcoming Psychonauts.

Special thanks to the LucasArts PR team for their support... and of course to Peter McConnell for taking the time to share so many details with us!

A German translation of the interview can be found at Adventure-Treff.


 

A) General questions
 

Hello! Could you briefly introduce yourself? How did you end up in the world of music?

I think I started in the world of music, since my mother tells me I was singing before I could talk. I've been interested in science, too, so I've always done music stuff and technology stuff ever since switching from physics to music in college.

How did you get the job at LucasArts in the first place?

Michael Land and I had been working on projects together since we were at Harvard in the 80's. He really started the Sound Department at LucasArts, and was looking for someone who could both compose and design code, and I guess he figured I would fit the job pretty well. He must have been right, since I ended up working there for nearly 10 years.

Together with Michael Land, you have "invented" the iMuse music system for Monkey Island 2. Can you tell us how it came to this major achievement in interactive music and how difficult that was in those days?

Well Michael was really the main inventor, but we've always been a good design team, since I'm pretty good with abstract structures and he has an iron grasp on the detailed way in which different components in a system fit together. In the Monkey Island(tm) 2:  Le Chuck's Revenge days, folks were just looking for a new sound driver that would support a bunch of hardware that was coming out, but Michael saw that you could do more, that you could make music respond to the changes in a game according to a composer's design, if you were willing to roll up your sleeves and make it happen. We met with some resistance at the very beginning, and frankly the system started out being pretty hard to use. It took a lot of programmer overhead. But when people saw what it could do, and as we smoothed out the programmer interface, everyone wanted to use it. I'm still proud of it.
 
 

B) The classics

The names of Clint Bajakian, Michael Land and Peter McConnell are often named in the same sentence. How was it like to work together with these two musicians? Was the work clearly separated, or did you make most of the music together?

Actually one of the strengths that we had was that we could all work together on one project, even to the point of swapping the same music pieces back and forth in the beginning.  I think this helped us to be versatile, and to develop among us a kind of "LucasArts music aesthetic" -- a cohesive sound that people seemed to like. As time went on, we tended to work more on our own separate projects.  But even when one of us was lead composer on a project, the others might chip in an occasional piece.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's revenge, was one of the first adventures that did not only use music in some key scenes, but had non-stop music throughout the whole game. It also worked with a lot of themes (e.g. for LeChuck, for Largo, for the Voodoo Lady). What can you tell us about this game?

If I'm not mistaken The Secret of Monkey Island® also had non-stop music, but that was Michael's project, before my time, so to speak. He did a lot of the original themes then: LeChuck, the Voodoo Lady, Guybrush and Governor Marley's love music.  Largo's theme is interesting because it's an example of our collaboration: I wrote the "head" of the theme and Michael did the bridge.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis continued in this tradition of theme based, interactive music, but also had to be inspired by the themes from John Williams. How was it like to work on this franchise?

Like learning at the feet of a great master musician and getting paid for it.  I learned so much from arranging and editing his music.

Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max: Hit the Road were quite different in style. Any fond memories about the work on these titles?

Day of the Tentacle was split evenly between Michael, Clint and me.  For Sam and Max, I did a bunch of the basic theme material (with notable exceptions such as the main theme of the game, which was Clint's) and Clint really made it all into a score. My favorite tune from Sam & Max is the Doug the Moleman music.  We did a bonus audio version of it on the CD using MIDI samples, but I've always wanted to a version with live musicians.  Sam & Max was also my first chance to work closely with Sean Clark, and we used to swap stories about vacation road trips, and those peanut log things you get at "Snuckey's."
 
 

C) Full Throttle

In Full Throttle, you didn't work together with Michael Land and Clint Bajakian anymore, but you were the unique lead composer. How did it come to this change in organization?

It was a logical development for us.  Having had the experience of collaborating, of coming up with an approach to scoring interactive titles, we were ready to set out on our own.

In Full Throttle, there have been several songs from the biker band called "The Gone Jackals". Who took the decision to work together with this band?

It was ultimately Tim Schafer's decision, but I brought the demo tape to him from a stack of tapes I had gotten from various sources. I remember plugging it into my car stereo on the way to rehearsal and wanting to "head-bang" right away, because it was so much better than the other stuff.  When I called up band leader Keith Karloff and he showed up at LucasArts on a bike, I knew he'd be the guy.

Were the Gone Jackals told in advance which songs they should come up with for the game or did you write some of the songs? Or were the songs already "finished" and you simply selected those that would fit the game?

It was all stuff they had recorded before, specially re-mixed for the game.

You have composed the more ambient music in the game (lonely piano tunes, atmospheric strings.). Was it hard to come up with something that would be ambient, but still wouldn't break too much with the Gone Jackals' style?

For some reason it's never been hard for me to come up with that Full Throttle ambient sound and fit it in with the other music; it just seems to write itself. I think it's because the visual world is so evocative - you just look at it and you hear a certain sound. And that sound happens to be dark and gestural, which both contrasts to and fits with the rock n' roll nicely.
 
 

D) Grim Fandango

Grim Fandango was a brilliant mixture of different styles: Big Band Jazz in Rubacava, Mexican Folklore at the Day of the Dead festival, orchestral music at the End of the World. How did you manage to get it to work with so many different styles and still make the soundtrack coherent?

Again I think it was just a matter of fitting the sonic world to the visual world, which was incredibly varied and rich.  I'm very visually oriented.

Did you get a lot of input from Tim Schafer?

Yes. For one thing, he brought in music from Mexican folk bands for me to listen to. In addition, I did a whole recording session of just Tim talking about the different areas of the game.  We even had a guy (sound designer Larry the O) playing bongos while Tim talked to make it sort of like a beat poetry reading.  I kept a big interactive iMUSE score on my computer of just Tim talking.  You could click on a button corresponding to a location and hear Tim talk about it.  I was constantly referring to this score as I composed.

Especially the Big Band cues sound really authentic. Did you use lots of live players to perform this score?

As many as possible, including bass, drums, trumpet, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, slide clarinet, trombone, tenor and bari saxes, tabla, cello, saranghi (an East Indian bowed instrument), hand drums, a bunch of mariachi players, a quena (Andean flute) player, Clint on electric guitar, and me playing everything from violin to acoustic guitar to charango (Andean mandolin thing that's made out of an armadillo shell).  I tried to get as many players as I could from the San Francisco swing scene.

In the jazzy cues, how much of the music has been written by yourself, and how much freedom did the live musicians have to improvise?

There was a lot of give and take there. Some of the solos were composed by me -- the trombone solos, for example, and some of the sax and trumpet parts in the Rubacava Outside music that sound improvised, but aren't. And the garage music is scored note for note. But most of the other trumpet solos and much of the bass clarinet stuff was improvised.  Sometimes I would give someone a melody to jam on, and them compose other parts to the jam later. The muted trumpet music for the Rooftop in Nuevo Morrow was a good example there.  It really depended on the piece and which musicians I was working with.  I just wanted to find the way to get the best sound for the situation.

What cue in Grim Fandango are you most proud of?

I really like the music in Maximino's office.  I think I got a nice dark take on the 20's gangster vibe there.

Grim Fandango was one of the (unfortunately) few LucasArts titles where a soundtrack CD was released. Have you been involved in taking this decision and in selecting the tracks?

It was Marketing and PR's idea to do the CD and I was very grateful for it. It was a tremendous opportunity to get the music out there. I selected the tracks and the order.

Has the soundtrack been selling well? Why wasn't it sold outside America?

Those are questions for LucasArts. I'm not really on top of those figures.


Peter McConnell on his e-violin.

E) The departure

Michael Land and you have left LucasArts to start a software development company. Isn't that a strange thing for such professional musicians to do?

Yes.

Even so, you have worked / are working on Bombad Racer, Escape from Monkey Island, Psychonauts and Full Throttle II as a freelancer. Did you like being "back in the game business"?

Absolutely.  I'm still doing composition projects in the industry, and will continue to do so in the future.

Were there any other projects you have been working on since you left LucasArts?

You've hit some good ones. I've done some work on scattered titles for other composers as well, plus a tiny bit of independent film work, and of course there are upcoming projects to be announced.
 
 

F) Escape from Monkey Island

How was it to work together with Clint Bajakian and Michael Land once more?

It was a pleasure, as always. They are like my brothers.  We always jump at the chance to work with each other.

Was working for Clintís company C.B. Studios (now renamed to The Bay Area Sound Department) just the same as working for LucasArts, or were there some differences?

Oh man, it was much harder! Clint is such a slave driver compared to LucasArts! Just kidding... Clint, you're not reading this are you?

According to Clint Bajakian, you have mostly written the music for the back of Lucre Island (the swamp, Pegnose Pete.). What cue are you most proud of?

I like the lagoon music both above and below.  The music above has a wonderful oboe solo by a great player from around here, and the underwater music has a reprise of the B section of the old treasure diving theme from Monkey 2.  I like the humor in Pegnose Pete too.

How would you compare the music of the two Monkey Island games you have been involved with (part 2 and 4)?

I can't. In Monkey 2 the themes were still brand new and the technology was new.  With Monkey 4 we really had a chance to get a good live sound.  It was a nice finale.
 
 

G) Psychonauts

I suppose Tim Schafer has contacted you because of the work you have done for Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. Correct?

I think we've always liked working together. For me, it's always been a privilege.

How far has music production already got on?

It's well on its way at this point.

The music in the trailer reminds me a little bit of Day of the Tentacle in terms of style. What other styles will be used in the game?

Everything from Bernard Herrmann to Carl Stalling & Danny Elfmann (that's where you hear the resemblance to Tentacle).  Also there's the kind of sound you hear in David Lynch movies, plus a certain influence of real folk music from Transylvania.

Will some live musicians also be used?

As many as possible. I've already recorded some.
 
 

H) Final words

What are your future plans? Will we hear more music from you (CDs, games, movies)?

Yes, absolutely.  I'm looking forward to some very cool projects. You can always check into my website www.petermc.com as things get announced.

Any amusing behind the scenes anecdotes?

Yes, quite a few, but some people might shoot me if I told them.

Any last words to the fans?

Thanks for the kind emails, and thanks for not turning off the music when you play! I hope I've made one or two games a little more enjoyable for you.

Thank you for taking the time to answer this long interview!

Any time.
 
 

Luc Gilbertz

 

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