Chip Music, Experimental, Game Music

Explore Me, Kind Sir: Eirik “Phlogiston” Suhrke Interview

July 3, 2012 | | 3 Comments Share thison Facebook Explore Me, Kind Sir: Eirik “Phlogiston” Suhrke Interviewon Twitter

Eirik Suhrke might not be a name that rolls off the tongue, but for many years, this young man has been a central part to the chiptune community. In his early teens, Suhrke traversed the internet as Phlogiston, one of the brightest new minds in the chiptune scene. His style was indescribable, his passion undeniable, and his dedication unmatched, within just a few years, Suhrke had been one of the youngest to receive a release on 8bitpeoples, launched his own successful chiptune/video game soundtrack label service and performed live at Blipfest.

Today, he has taken the proper step into video game music, responsible for the music in Derek Yu’s smash hit Spelunky XBLA. So it is for that reason that we took the time to catch up with an old friend, and talk about his rise to fame, and his current projects.

Check out the interview after the jump

OSV: Eirik! Great to speak with you again, thanks for taking the time today.
Suhrke: Pleasure is all mine!

OSV: To start out, tell us a bit where you are from.
Suhrke: I’m from Norway; from the outskirts of our capital, Oslo. A pretty quiet place, but with plenty ways of pursuing cultural interests.

OSV: What video game soundtrack first drew your attention as a kid?
Suhrke: As far as I can remember, the first one that really caught my attention in terms of humming the melodies, recording the BGM to cassettes, learning to play the melodies on piano etc. was Little Nemo: Dream Master on the NES. It’s one of my favorite games and soundtracks still. Fun fact; my big bro tracked out the level 1 music in fast tracker 2 which blew me away. That’s how I got to be interested in trackers in the first place, which is now my preferred way of writing music.

OSV: When did you yourself start playing and creating music?
Suhrke: I come from a pretty musical family, where everyone at some point played an instrument. My weapon of choice was the bass guitar, which I started playing at about age 5. I didn’t get my own bass guitar until my 9th birthday, though, and at that point I wasn’t to far off from switching over to 6 string guitars for good. As for writing video game music and VGM inspired music specifically, that started around year 2000 when I found ways to write midi music. Having been obsessed with Final Fantasy VII since a couple of years prior, all I wanted in life was to become Nobuo Uematsu.

OSV: You became one of the fastest rising names in the chiptune community during the mid 2000’s. What was it that drew you towards the chiptune community in the first place?
Suhrke: At this point I was getting less and less interested in the new games coming out, and I started playing more and more of the old games I had always loved. I was also getting a little tired of the generic PSX RPG music I had been listening to for a long time, and was more interested in listening to NES and SNES platformer music. It was on Castlevania fan-website “The Castlevania Dungeon” that I came across a link – in the guestbook – to The Minibosses’ website. It blew me away how awesome their music was. After lurking the forums for a little while I signed up to ask some questions when I came across the now legendary thread “the chiptune thread”. For the uneducated; so many chiptune composers got their baptism there, I wouldn’t even know where to start if I were to name them all. Anyway, I had no idea people were writing chiptunes, or that it was even possible. I knew I had to get in on it.

OSV: How would you differentiate the process of making original music on video game hardware to making music for video game software?
Suhrke: It can be very similar, or it can be pretty different. Usually the game developers don’t know what they want, so it’s up to me to decide on the soundscape I’ll be using for the specific game. The main factor then is graphics. If I’m lucky the graphics are pixelated enough for me to be able to write straight up NES-chiptunes for the project – that’s what comes easiest to me. In the other end of the spectrum you have games like Spelunky, with HD hand drawn graphics, where I pretty much had to reeducate myself in order to break out of this habit I had gotten into of 3 note polyphony limitations. That’s also tons of fun, though, it just causes me to grow way more gray hairs in the process.

OSV: You released a brilliant album on the renowned label 8bitpeoples, Mode: 3. How was the experience of being selected as a release by 8bp at such a young age for you?
Suhrke: Releasing an EP on 8bp was a big thing for me. As far as I could tell, having your music on 8bp was the pinnacle of what you could achieve as a chiptune composer. I had sent nullsleep some tracks earlier, and had gotten it turned down. Persistent as I am, I sat down and worked on this album; Mode: 3, for a longer time period, and it marked the first musical project for me that I really took the time and patience to optimize. I guess that’s why it was especially satisfying to have it succeed. I felt liberated afterwards. I had proved I was capable, now I was free to experiment with less popular musical ideas. Silly, but I was only in my mid-teens back then.

OSV: Being one of the more popular names in a short amount of time, you went even further with the launch of the net label II Pause, dedicated to original chiptune releases as well as video game soundtracks. Tell us a bit about the concept and goal of II and how you yourself reflect on what the label has contributed to the community.
Suhrke: Pause arose from the rotting carcasses of other failed net-labels. I had wanted to do my own label for several years, but it took a mutual mindset from good friend Rich (disasterpiece) Vreeland to actually put ideas into motion. By creating our own thing we could finally have a stable home for our musical endeavors, and by creating one website instead of individual personal websites we could benefit from eachother’s exposure.

That was the gist of it, really. We asked a handful of friends if they wanted to come on board of us, and it formed the base of what Pause would become. It didn’t take long, though, before people started sending in demos to us, and we figured if we liked the music we might as well go ahead and put that stuff out too. We’ve never had that many long term goals, we’ve always very much just gone with the flow, putting out only the music we think is the best. In that sense Pause feels very organic, in that it’s always naturally evolving. As for what it has contributed to the community – I honestly feel it’s one of the very best places to go if you want some original video game inspired music. I’m sure it has inspired many artists out there, and I’m very proud of what we achieved.

OSV: Before we talk about your current project, could you tell us a bit about how it was being one of the headliners at Blipfest Europe?
Suhrke: Playing at Blipfest was great fun. I brought a friend along and had him play my guitar, whilst I played some FM synth. We played a arrangement of an original NES-medley I have out called “Geif”. We had asked to play first so we could relax and hang out with friends for the remainder of the festival, so the crowd wasn’t that huge, but we got a good response. Minigolf with the majority of the other acts post-festival was one of the highlights.

OSV: Now, in these days you are most known for Spelunky, the Spelunker influenced arcade action game by Derek Yu, Indie game legend. How did you come to know Yu and become the composer for the revamped XBLA game?
Suhrke: Derek and I knew each other somewhat beforehand. We had exchanged some emails in the past regarding potential collaboration projects between our websites; Pause and TIGSource. When he announced there was going to be an XBLA version of Spelunky, I sent him an email asking if he had anyone on board for the music, as I was a fan of the original game. I did a couple of demo tracks for him, and I was brought on board for the project.

OSV: What kind of direction did Yu put upon you when you began your work on Spelunky on the XBLA?
Suhrke: Derek didn’t tell me what to do at all. We both agreed the music should mirror the game in that it has oldschool gameplay and modern graphics etc. That meant a mixture of oldschool VGM and a more modern approach to game music. Beyond that, it was up to me to figure out how to achieve this. We’ve kept close contact throughout the development, though, so it’s not like he didn’t influence the outcome at all. I think the end result is a fair mix between what I like, what Derek and Andy likes, and what the players out there seemed to want.

OSV: Were you familiar with Yu’s other games before beginning work on Spelunky, such as Eternal Daughter?
Suhrke: I definitely was. I recall coming across Eternal Daughter on shareware sites many years before, but as much as I wanted to, I was never really into it. I still think it’s incredible what they achieved, though – at such a young ago too! I had closely followed the development of Aquaria, as well. Such a pretty game.

OSV: What was your equipment for the project, and how did you approach working on each tune?
Suhrke: Oh man, this is a complex one. I’ll have to mention, like I’ve done before, that the music is a mix between FM-synthesis, demoscene influenced sample based tracker music and live band recordings. The Spelunky score sits somehwere in the middle of that triforce. The balance between the different elements differ from track to track, though. As for how this was achieved; the majority of the tracks were tracked out in a sample based tracker, first. Then I would export every channel into my DAW and proceed to record live band elements on top, and mix down. The live band part consists of drum kit, misc. percussion, guitars, sax, a heap of synthesizers, and more. I’ve used almost every major Yamaha FM synth in there somewhere! Ranging from lo-fi 2op FM (listen to the shop music) to hi-fi 6-op FM in the form of the worlds greatest DX-7.

OSV: How much of Buzinkai’s old score did you make use of for your XBLA soundtrack?
Suhrke: I had a couple of arrangements in the pipeline for it, but they just didn’t feel right. In the end it was confined to a little cameo appearance within the death match music. I feel the vibe of this new game is a lot more lush than the original, and that’s why I felt I had to take a different musical approach to it.

OSV: The game has now been released, and your soundtrack has been both praised as brilliant as well as some claims of it being to different from the original. How do you reflect on your work and what do you think of the response for the game so far?
Suhrke: Personally I’m still very happy with the score I wrote. The majority of the music was written over 2 years ago, though, so obviously I would have done things somewhat differently today. That’s the nature of such a big project. You learn so much along the way that the earliest stuff isn’t quite in sync with your present philosophy. I always consciously put some quirky parts in my music too, which some might not appreciate, but I feel it’s important to always try new things and keep experimenting with music. Gladly Derek agreed with me that it was more important to do what felt right for the game, rather than what was currently hip or what was expected. I could have gone the indie game generic route and supplied a pulsewave based chippy soundtrack, and that would probably have caused less controversy and been an easier job for me, but I wouldn’t have been content with that personally. In the end I like to think it’s better that some people love the music, and some people hate it, rather than no one gives a damn. I’ll be honest enough to say that it has scared me a little from working on sequels in the future, though! (laughs)

OSV: And what about a soundtrack release?
Suhrke: Yeah, in about a month or so, for a very cheap price!

OSV: You also worked on Super Crate Box, another famous indie game that made the rounds a few years ago.
Suhrke: Yeah, that’s a groovy 2op FM jazz and metal soundtrack, textured with some basic waveforms and sample-based percussion. I got to release it on Pause in fact.

OSV: And before that I remember you also working on numerous smaller projects
Suhrke: Yes for Perfect Run. Games like Mr. Blocko, Goldeneye SD, good times, good times.

OSV: (Laughs) I do remember them fondly. Well, thank you so much for your time today and we hope to hear more from you in the near future, and wish you and Yu continued success with Spelunky XBLA! It is especially exciting for me to see you succeed as I have known you since your early teens, so keep up the great work.
Suhrke: Cheers, and thank you!

Spelunky is now available on XBLA for 1200 Microsoft Points. Check out II Pause and Suhrke’s personal site for more of his music.

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