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INTERVIEW: Composer Jon Everist talks to us about BattleTech, and scoring for video games

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With the late summer release date quickly approaching for the upcoming Harebrained Schemes BattleTech, we took some time to talk to composer Jon Everist his work on the music for the game. He has also composed music for the games Shadowrun: Dragonfall, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, Necropolis and Planetstorm: Fallen Horizon which recently came to Android. In the interview the composer shares details about his musical background, how he approached scoring Battletech, working with the Budapest Scoring Symphony and more. Read on for our full interview:

Photo Details: Jon Everist conducting his piece “Vokzal” with Hollywood Scoring on November 17, 2016. Photo Credit: Ricky Chavez of Bucket’s Moving Company – at Eastwood Scoring Stage – Warner Bros. Studio.

What can you tell us about your musical background, and training. Did you start off playing a particular instrument, and can you tell us how you got into composing music for video games?

I was in band in middle school, played the drums and then caught the analog synth and sampler bug after being exposed to groups like Radiohead, Aphex Twin, MF Doom, and Aesop Rock. The late 90’s was a really cool time for experimentation in hip hop, electronic and rock music. I took all of those influences and tried my best to emulate what I thought was cool at the time. I was producing music on an old Ensoniq ASR 10 sampler that I had saved up for 2 years to get, sampling and making beats and recording everything in a free version of Acid (still using floppy disks!). I wanted to go the professional music route, but I felt pushed in other directions because I was told there was no money or stability in music (which of course is false), and we didn’t have a lot of money growing up. So I majored in Economics and sold copiers during the day and made music at night.

I was lucky enough to be able to do some small tours and stuff but I always kept music separate from work. After getting what should have been a dream job at Amazon, I slowly realized that if I continued to do the ‘safe’ thing and stay at a job I could barely get myself out of bed for, I might have stability in a basic sense but I would be a worthless human and a sulking husk of wasted talent and potential. I remember hearing Amon Tobin’s score for Chaos Theory and thinking “holy shit, music in games is getting really interesting”. I loved the film-score approach to making game music, but I didn’t have the chops to do something like that back then. When I played Chaos Theory, I kind of thought to myself, “Hey I think I could do a really cool score like this for a game”. Even though I was a big fan of games since I was young, I had never thought of writing music for games as an option until that moment. I slowly built up my production skills and worked on it a lot, still suffering at Amazon, then after hearing Disasterpeace’s score for FEZ in 2012, I felt inspired and ready to have a go at it and I decided to quit my job and cash out my retirement and go back to school to study music and sound for video games at the ripe old age of 28. I got the training I had lacked in music theory and composition and drove for Lyft at night to pay my bills.

I went all in, I had no other options at that point, I put every single penny I had and devoted all my time to music and I think I got really lucky, mostly by being relentless (and maybe reckless).

Can you tell us about your relationship with Harebrained Schemes?

I’m a freelance composer, but I’ve done most of my bigger project work for Harebrained Schemes on contract. I initially got a gig with them while still in school at DigiPen. I had done music for some student games that Jenn Tran (now concept artist for Harebrained Schemes) was working on. She brought me up in a meeting when HBS was looking for composers, and they brought me in to do a trailer for Shadowrun: Returns, which eventually opened up the door for me to work on Golem Arcana and Shadowrun: Dragonfall. It happened at the best time possible because I was out of money, so I ended up leaving school and did music full-time as well as some part time sound design work. Luckily, HBS has been asking me back for each project. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their trust, so I’m quite lucky. If you deliver on time and budget and aren’t a jerk I think that can go a long way.

I know that you are based in Seattle, have you always been based there? Did you have any musical influences growing up?

Yes, I was born here in Seattle. I grew up amid the whole grunge movement so I listened to a lot of that stuff. I also listened to a lot of independent hip hop when I was younger, it was a really interesting time for music and music production. I loved El P and Aesop Rock, Anticon, MF Doom…so many others. I was fascinated with sampling and producing, which led me to get that ASR 10, which was my first keyboard sampler. I’m still surrounded by keyboards today. I was also really inspired by scores to the Final Fantasy and Squaresoft games, I don’t think anything in my childhood inspired me more musically than them. I think I got some of my compositional sensibility from Nobuo Uematsu because I had listened to his scores so much when I was younger.

Was Shadowrun: Dragonfall the first video game you worked on?

I composed the music for the trailer to Shadowrun: Returns, that was my first paid gig in the video game music business. That led to Golem Arcana which led to Shadowrun: Dragonfall which lead to everything else! I only did I think 15 tracks on the Dragonfall soundtrack though, they already had a huge batch of music for Returns and Dragonfall, but I was stoked nonetheless.

The score to Shadowrun: Hong Kong was a score of yours that truly impressed me as it really created a dark cyberpunk soundscape. Can you tell us a little bit about how you created that score?

First, thank you! I put a lot of time into that score. It was my first “full score”. I was also doing all the sound design (some of which was kept from previous games) so I was not sleeping a lot during that project. I really loved that ‘old meets new’ angle to the story and the lore of Shadowrun. Hong Kong and China are such rich and inspiring locations already, so it was fairly easy for me to get rolling. I knew I wanted to take a different approach than what had been done before and what people might expect from a ‘cyberpunk’ game. I didn’t want to make cyberpunk music throughout or cater to the vocal minority of people who just wanted 80s synth music. All good art can adapt and change with the times. I made a few cyberpunk-ish cues for the game but they were all diegetic, so they were actually playing out of speakers inside the game world. I wanted my score to match the old meets new themes from the story, and mix traditional Chinese instrumentation with western orchestral/film music and analog synths. My goal was to capture the “man meets magic meets machine” concept that permeates Shadowrun and really focus on the pathos first and then surround those textures and melodies with the ‘machine’, which is my digital and analog synths and instruments. I also wanted the instruments to sound as live as possible, even though they were all samples.

Your score to Necropolis received an impressive vinyl release last year and you’ve hinted on twitter that your scores from the Shadowrun series have vinyl releases in the works. Are you able to tell us any more about these releases?

Yes, I am releasing my scores for Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Shadowrun: Hong Kong on vinyl later this year with Black Screen Records. There’s a little more to be said about this at a later time, but it should be really cool. I’ve seen the artwork already and its incredible stuff. BattleTech will also be coming to vinyl this year.

I just finished watching BattleTech: Behind the Music 3  which features Erika Kadi on cello in Budapest, and transitions to your studio in in Seattle ending on a high note of excitement. What can you tell about how you approached the music for BattleTech?

The history and lore in BattleTech is fascinating. It’s this super complex high science fiction universe and a taught political drama all at once. To a passerby, its easy to dumb down BattleTech to just ‘stompy mechs blowing each other up’, but it goes much much (infinitely it seems) deeper. I always ask for as much art and as much story as I can get, and then I just immerse myself in it. My approach to music is always about treating characters with empathy and seriousness, and highlighting their arcs in a way that can reflect their faults and virtues in ourselves. Your crew in BattleTech is a motley crew of complex people, all with different hopes and dreams, all struggling. Nothing is easy, and they feel like futuristic frontiersman and women just trying to survive. It’s that age old idea of the more things change the more they stay the exact same sort of thing. I knew I needed to do a true orchestral hybrid with soloists and vocalist to really capture this feeling correctly.

At times, I wanted the score to be very small, which is where I relied on soloists like Erika Kadi. Working with an orchestra gives you an amazing amount of flexibility, which you’ll be able to hear in the combat tracks that we’ll have in the game, starting out very small and then slowly adapting and growing as the combat gets more intense, then drawing back again as tensions start to lower. There’s also this idea in BattleTech that everything is kind of falling apart and held together with duct tape. I took a bunch of junk and random items from my local hardware store and created a few instruments that I peppered throughout the whole soundtrack. I wanted the scrappiness of the people to be reflected in the music in that way. One man’s trash is another man’s instrument.

The score for BattleTech brought you to Budapest, Hungary to record with the Budapest Scoring Symphony. What can you tell us about that experience?

It was an amazing experience for me. It was an insane moment to hear them play music I had been working on for over a year. Its like this moment of truth where you see if all your work will pay off or if you’re a complete idiot. Once the first few takes happen there’s sort of this collective exhale and looks around the room like “Okay this sounds good”, and then its heads down serious work to get through the amount of music we had in our time slot. We did two 9 hour days with them and it turned out very nicely. It is definitely one of the highlights of my life thus far. I got a bit emotional thinking about where I had come from and where I was in that moment, it is truly mind boggling to think that the me deciding to leave his job is the same person who is sitting in this control room in Budapest about to record with these amazing musicians. It was surreal. And Budapest is beautiful and the people are lovely. The previous session we did was in Germany with the Brandenburg State Orchestra (which is fantastic), but I did that one virtually so it felt a bit less real. It was still very weird though.

How much music was recorded with live orchestra, and how will it be incorporated into the score?

We recorded about 50 minutes of music with live orchestra/choir, some full orchestra, some just strings. I am also adding about 60 minutes of digital music overlaid with live recordings of soloists (voice and cello) as well as me playing some instruments I’ve hobbled together myself. Some songs are all live. Some are a mix of live recordings with digital instruments and my synths. Certain recordings are done in layers that allow us to swap and combine them in different ways in the game. These are all then implemented in Wwise and controlled by signals from the game engine.

Are you able to tell us a bit about how you come up with musical ideas?

I have a piano in my studio and I usually just sit and noodle around a bit until I come up with an interesting melody or chord progression, then I move to my DAW and start laying down tracks using templates that I have setup. It usually builds from there. I also record ideas in my phone too. If I know I’m writing for live orchestra or real people my approach is a bit different, I have a large orchestral template with hundreds of tracks, and I move back and forth from piano to Sibelius to Cubase to make sure that what I’m writing can be done with the instrumentation that I have.

I also noticed that recently you worked on an Android game called Planetstorm: Fallen Horizon, what can you tell us about that experience?

This was a short project I worked on by European developer Aykiro. Its a free to play mobile strategy game. I love taking on new and interesting projects, big or small! It was pretty neat to correspond with someone over Skype in another part of the world and contribute music. I also did some music for a game team in Russia. Its fascinating all the people out there who are making games, I love it.

“Ruby” was an electronic single that you released last month. Listening to is I was struck by the wonderful chorales throughout the track. What can you tell us about that?

I made this track to be used in a Nokia spot for their virtual reality camera, OZO. It was a cool experience. I got to make an entirely electronic cue for this one. The choir is actually all digital, and was written to accompany a part where they go inside a huge church in San Francisco. I’m always trying to branch out a bit and do more work with TV and film projects if I have time to spare.

Are you working on any other games or the projects at the moment?

Not at the moment! I’m always on the lookout for interesting gigs.


OSV would like to thank Jon Everist for taking the time to talk to us about his music. For updates on his latest efforts you can visit his website, follow him on twitter. You can purchase his music on bandcamp. Check back with OSV later this summer for more on Jon Everist’s soundtrack to BattleTech!

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