The quirky melodies of Banjo-Kazooie, the infamous “DK Rap” and the award-winning epics heard in Civilization Beyond Earth can all be traced back to one man: Grant Kirkhope. A video game composer who found his start with Rare in the late ’90s, Kirkhope is still going strong in the industry today.
After Playtonic Games announced Kirkhope will be involved in its upcoming Banjo-Kazooie-inspired title Project Ukulele, we got in touch with Grant to ask him a few questions about his musical past, present, and future.
Hi, Grant. To begin, can you briefly tell Nintendo News readers who this Kirkhope guy is and what he does?
I’m a composer! I worked at Rare from 1995–2008 and made noises for Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong 64, Viva Piñata, Grabbed by the Ghoulies and more. Since then, I’ve worked on games such as Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Yaiba Ninja Gaiden Z, Civilization Beyond Earth, and Hex Heroes.
Out of all the directions you could have went in the music industry, what led you to video games?
It wasn’t what led me but who! I played in tons of rock bands after leaving the Royal Northern College of Music for around eleven years. Some did well, some didn’t. I met Robin Beanland in one of these bands and we became good friends. One day he announced that he’d got a job at some company called Rare writing music and off he went; I was stunned. After about a year and a half he suggested to me that eleven years on and off unemployment benefits was enough for anyone. He said I should try to get a job; after all, I was 33! He said why not have a go at what I’m doing. He recommended some gear for me to buy and I made a start.
I sent five cassette tapes in to Rare over the course of about a year and heard nothing. Then out of the blue I got a letter asking me for an interview and to my surprise I got the job.
Playtonic Games recently announced your involvement with Project Ukulele. How does it feel to reunite with former colleagues from Rare, including composers David Wise and Steve Burke?
It feels great. All the guys at Playtonic are the people that are my best friends from back then. They’re the people that I spent every day with making those games.
Having Dave and Steve on board too is fantastic. It’s just like old times!
What themes and emotions do you hope to bring out with Project Ukulele? Will you be trying anything new?
I’m hoping to make something more Banjo-Kazooie than Banjo-Kazooie. I want people to turn the game on, hear the music and just go “Ahhhhhhhh” and hear something so recognizable they burst into tears!
Obviously it’s all going to be new music but it will have that BK sound. The game isn’t fully designed yet so I’ve just done one tune for the Kickstarter campaign. There may be things that pop up later on down the line that will require something different. We’ll see.
Will there be an actual ukulele to listen for?
I don’t know about that. Maybe. The game is only called that for a code name; Rare used to always have code names for projects so if anyone outside the company got hold of an email they wouldn’t know what game we were talking about.
I want people to turn the game on, hear the music and just go “Ahhhhhhhh” and hear something so recognizable they burst into tears!
Do you think you’ll be working anytime soon on a Wii U or Nintendo 3DS project? Any desire to return to Donkey Kong if given the opportunity?
I have just done Hex Heroes and that’s going to be out on Wii U, hopefully later this year. I’d love to work for Nintendo on another DK, or anything else! They’ve just never called me, heh!
What kind of music do you listen to?
Hmm, mostly heavy metal and movie scores.
Mumbo Jumbo from Banjo-Kazooie is probably best known for his line “eekum bokum,” one of many lines you voiced for the character. Was that noise improvised in the moment of recording or was there a lot of thought that went into its creation?
No thought at all! I just sampled myself saying “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” to be used for the background chant in Mayahem Temple, cut each word up separately and then messed around with the order and “eekum-bokum” came out!
When I think of the Civilization series, I think of a ton of content seeped in real-world history. This is especially evident in the soundtracks. What was your goal when composing for Beyond Earth, a game with a bold thematic departure from the series’ traditional roots?
When I was talking to the designer Will Miller about the kind of music he was looking for he kept saying he wanted epic but always with a sense of hope. I think the music on CBE really has those qualities and then some! Getting to write music like that is a composer’s dream; there was no one saying “Whoa, too big, scale it back, you’re distracting people from the action.” (Something I bet Steven Spielberg never said to John Williams!)
Obviously CBE is a very different game to the rest of the Civ franchise so the music had to be too. We’ve been very lucky to have had the music nominated for quite a few awards and won some too which has just been amazing.
I’ve always loved the “DK Rap” for its absurd humor, but I know it isn’t as popular with others. If you could go back, would you still do the “DK Rap”? Would you make any changes, or would you leave it untouched in all its “take it to the bridge” glory?
Ah, the good old “DK Rap”! I wouldn’t change it a bit; it was supposed to be funny and not an attempt at real rap. It’s strange: it wasn’t very popular at the time but it seems to have got a new lease of life of late and people seem to be having fun with it. Shame it’s taken twenty years, heh!
Which Kong are you most like?
None of them. I’m Grumpy Kong!
How would you describe your musical style? Where do you draw inspiration from?
Hmm, I don’t about that one. I always try to write a good melody with a decent set of chords and I always try to look for that unusual note that gives it a little bit of something … I don’t know what! It may not sound like that to anyone else but that’s what’s in my head. I’ve written so much music in such a wide variety of styles I don’t know what I’d say my thing was. It’s usually best to get other people to tell you what your style is, and it’s not always complimentary, heh!
What software programs do you use to work your magic?
Just a wand for the magic stuff: Expecto Patronum! For music I use Pro Tools as my DAW (digital audio workstation). Kontakt is my sample holder. I also use Hollywood Strings for woodwinds and brass, True Strike for percussion, Omnisphere, Damage — that kind of thing.
While the music is perhaps the most memorable, you’ve developed other kinds of audio for video games as well. What project was the most difficult to design audio for and why?
Viva Piñata was hard on the sound design front. There were so many animals to make voices for. I did so many of them I lost count. Steve Mayles, Ed Bryan and lots of others from the team did too.
Are there any video game scores from other composers that you are particularly fond of?
You can’t beat The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past — just perfect!
It was a sad time for me as I knew I was going to be leaving Rare. I just sat down and poured my heart into it.
Which song/composition of yours are you most proud of? What was your inspiration for it?
I think it’s “Bedtime Story” from Viva Piñata. I loved writing that one. It was a sad time for me as I knew I was going to be leaving Rare. I just sat down and poured my heart into it.
Is it more rewarding to hear an entire orchestra perform the songs you’ve written or to hear the final product in the game once it releases?
A bit of both, really. But as a composer there is nothing greater than being in a studio listening to 100 people playing your music. It’s just breathtaking.
What’s your favorite Nintendo game?
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past!
You just so happen to be the second trumpet player I’ve interviewed. As a trumpeter myself, I must ask: pinky in the ring or on the ring?
In the ring always!
How often do you get to step away from composing and actually jam out or perform for others?
Never! I have thought about doing a gig now and then like my good old band days, but I’ve never got ’round to it.
What’s next for you?
Composing, composing and more composing! As usual, I’m doing some stuff that I can’t talk about. I’ll be getting into lots more stuff for Playtonic very soon. Doing some stuff for the marvelous William Pugh of The Stanley Parable fame too.
Anything else you want to say to the Nintendo fans of the world?
Keep flying the flag!
We would like to thank Grant Kirkhope for his time and enthusiasm with his responses. Stick to Nintendo News for the latest on Project Ukelele.