Jason Graves, Composer of Breach and Clear: Deadline
SEMW: Let’s talk a little bit about methodology on your work for Breach and Clear: Deadline. This record is quite vicious. Fans like myself would have it no other way, but the physicality, the sheer blunt force of this LP is incredible. It’s one of the best scores I’ve heard in the last 5 years, and artistic statements like these rarely come with such potency. What sort of initial goals did you have from the outset of composing this material, and did you feel particularly adamant about what exactly you wanted the record to communicate? What was your driving force during those recording sessions, if you could nail it down?
JASON GRAVES: Well, first off, wow and thanks for the compliments! The approach was fairly straightforward, as this is an indie release and I had complete control over the music. The guys at Mighty Rabbit are so much fun to work with – they give me as much latitude as I need and honestly think that the best score they can receive is the one I’m the happiest with.
So the biggest goal, between Mighty Rabbit and myself, was to capture the emotion of look-down, team-coordinated military planning and execution. I wanted the suspense and teamwork to interplay with each other – those are the two juxtaposing gameplay elements. The pacing needed to be exacting and plodding but not feel too bogged down.
If there was one word I had to pick to encapsulate the album it would probably be “control.” It may feel like the music is about to explode at any moment, like there are horrors all around you and you’re going to be attacked at any moment, but listeners can also hopefully feel the control and discipline of a professional military team working together, fighting to protect each other against all odds.
SEMW: It’s a very rare thing to be able to capture the sound of fear and then in the same breath create the distinct rhythm of an action cue. While they may share an odd disparate strand of DNA, the approach in creating either one, requires an understanding of the difference between the two, be it subtle or outright. Breach And Clear: Deadline, unequivocally paints you as a master of this craft. Some perfect examples of this for me were “Strangers In The Night” and “Against All Odds” where you layer action on top of fear, part them, give them distinct passages and do so without a single fault in the onslaught of cues. How do you know when to separate the two, or when to have them intersect? How do you define both fear and action respectively in terms of sound?
JASON GRAVES: Again, thank you very much! It’s funny you mention “fear and action” – those are pretty much the same as “suspense and teamwork” where the music is concerned. It comes down to finding a balance between the two that feels right. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but the “feels right” is really the important thing for me.
For this soundtrack, the fear element comes in the guise of ambient electric guitar…lots of slow bends and pitches shifting around to put the listener on guard. It makes people raise their eyebrows and think, “Ok, what’s going on?”
Then it’s a matter of adding some movement and drive, which gives the listener a feeling of action or moving forward. Making things sound a lot more simple than they are again, but that’s basically the idea!
SEMW: Apocalypse Now has this gorgeous lyrical quality to it. Beautiful! Can you tell me a little bit about the creation of this composition in particular and what sort of ideas you may have used as touchstones to reach that final cut? I feel like it’s the unofficial theme of this work.
JASON GRAVES: It was definitely my favorite cue on the album. Most of the score was already finished and Mighty Rabbit needed a few Boss tracks. Their main request was for something epic and memorable, which is really the opposite of most of the album! So I literally pulled out all the stops and made something that was a lot bigger, in terms of instruments, than anything else. That’s the nice thing about holding back on a large portion of a project – being able to contrast it with letting everything rip every once in a while.
I had my first musical experience doing something along those lines with the Tomb Raider reboot in 2013 – most of the score was quiet, tense passages until the last few acts when all the giant percussion and epic brass came out to play, beginning with Lara climbing a mountainside. And it made a huge difference, in both the musical presentation of Lara’s character arc and the player’s experience. I’ve had more people tell me that was their favorite bit of gameplay than any other game I’ve scored, and I think it’s the musical restraint that came before that made that scene really pop in players’ minds.
I wanted the track to have some memorable hooks and definitely a nice push-pull feel to it. The bulk of the work really came down to mixing everything together, since the tune and chord progression worked themselves out very quickly in the beginning. I remember spending a lot of time on the big drums that play on the choruses – sending the kick and snare to the Distressor compressors and then through the Manley Massive Passive tube EQ. I processed the drums parallel to the original sounds so everything I did to squash and fatten them up was mixed in with the original drums and just became ever bigger, but not too over the top or squashed.
Once the drums felt good it was just a matter of balancing the live guitar parts with the synths. They actually do a lot of overlapping in this piece, so synth sounds are complementing the big guitar riffs and making the power chords even fatter.
SEMW: Breach and Clear: Deadline plays masterfully with space. Your construction of this pitch-perfect murky ebb and flow feels wholly unmanufactured and utterly terrifying. These stretches of silence, dissonance, and dotted melody: are they more difficult to properly cultivate since they seem to require so much more restraint, than say a more prominently placed composition used for a commercial or trailer? Between the two, do you have a scoring preference?
JASON GRAVES: I really love doing both. In fact, it’s the yin-yang aspect of it that keeps me interested and on my toes. But composing more simple, restrained music isn’t any easier than working on more dense, complicated mixes – it just takes less time. If not for any other reason, there are simply less notes to work with and things just go faster. So for me the idea of “restraint” is actually the same as “keep it simple, stupid,” or K.I.S.S. – a mantra that is chanted a lot around here!
SEMW: Sessions for Breach and Clear: Deadline, must have been a very rigorous and demanding process and something I imagine demanded a certain mindset, complete with daily rituals et cetera. Was it something you scored visually with pictures and concept art? Did you lock yourself away in a studio for days, sleep deprivation? It’s such an intense work. Are there any stories you’d like to share with us about the making of this record?
JASON GRAVES: Haha, well it’s definitely funny…and a lot more entertaining…to imagine a composer locked away in his bunker, lights dimmed, candles lit at 3 AM, murky shadows on the walls and atmosphere dripping everywhere as dramatic lights flicker across the computer monitors and the game plays on a huge TV monitor.
Reality, of course, is slightly different! I did have a little bit of gameplay as a visual reference, but the bulk of the music was written based on conversations and ideas. And that’s totally fine for me, especially when I’m working with a developer like Might Rabbit. We’ve worked together on many projects now and have a great relationship so many times the music direction is “do what you think will work and be fun to compose.”
So it simply came down to me spending a day on each cue and focusing in on the six tracks of instruments. The guitars were mostly very ambient and usually the first things I played. The synths were mostly used for low, pulsing sounds and the kick drums were run through all kinds of guitar pedals to give them movement and energy.
Of course, there’s plenty of artist choice and sculpting that happens as the day, and track, progresses. But it pretty much comes down to playing some things on the guitars, layering in some synth sounds and adding the kick drums here and there for a bit of energy.
SEMW: This album feels like the culmination of years of your own work in this particular genre. Having scored countless horror titles from the likes of the entire Dead Space trilogy, Until Dawn, Murdered: Soul Suspect, and The Order 1886, (all of which I loved, by the way), you know instinctively how to formulate palpable dread. What is it about this genre, for you, that makes it something worth returning to? Does it still present challenges and yield enough personally satisfying rewards for you as a composer?
JASON GRAVES: As long as I can keep trying new things and experimenting with different sounds I’ll be a happy composer. Horror and suspense are definitely tricky things to pull off properly, but the same thing could be said for comedy or drama. It’s always easy to overdo it – add way more music than is really needed, almost like a musical crutch or band-aid. The art lies in the subtle shades of emotion and hints of different textures and colors. In that respect, suspense and horror music needs to be especially nuanced because the music is providing a lot more of the atmosphere than it would be in other genres.
SEMW: I’m fascinated with your sound on this LP. Breach and Clear: Deadline presents a world saturated in noxious toxins where the only (yet still incredibly strenuous) physical action is that of a highly debilitating low crawl. I’m curious as to what sort of set-up you used. Do you have a particular array of instruments or gear that you prefer: a specific brand of amplifier, classic guitars, moog synthesizers, B3 organs? What physically lies behind the sound of this world?
JASON GRAVES: I love that description, thanks! I had already done my fair share of scary/horror games and was interested in trying something different, from an instrumentation standpoint. So I thought the idea of really limiting myself to a small amount of instruments sounded interesting. I basically built the entire score around three pairs of instruments – two synthesizers, two guitars and two kick drums. There are a few boss tracks that employ a slightly bigger setup, but 90% of the score is literally just six instruments.
I love limited instrumentation because it automatically creates its own sound. So in the case of Deadline I used two guitars – a Les Paul going through a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and a Fender Strat going through an Orange Rockerverb 100. Both setups also ran through a fairly intense pedal chain of choruses, delays and reverbs and have their own 4×12 stack of amps. Any sort of pad or ambient lead sounds you hear are actually the live electric guitars.
The two synths are a Moog Sub Phatty and the u-he Diva synth, which I used sounds programmed by Matt Bowdler, aka The Unfinished. The synth sounds are fairly dry and untreated. I wanted the synths to sound like analog synths!
And the kick drums are electronic kicks from a VST called Metrum, which lets you build kick drums from scratch and easily play them in any key. There was a lot performance-oriented modulation with the delays of the kick drums so what you hear on the tracks may sound like different drums and rhythms, but it’s actually just the two kick drum sounds.
SEMW: Your body of work is so vast, and your catalog continually expanding, has there ever been a moment where you’ve been tempted to take your albums on the road into a live setting? What sort of material would you be most anxious to play out?
JASON GRAVES:I really enjoy the chance to perform/conduct live and I’ve been privileged enough to be invited to conduct all over the world. So far everything that has been performed is live orchestra. I think that’s just the natural extension of the usual “classical music concert” idea, and it’s a lot of fun to do. Albums like Deadline or Far Cry: Primal would definitely be more challenging, given their unique instrumentation – they are really more like a band setup than orchestra. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done! I’m definitely up for anything.
SEMW: Thanks so much for sitting down with me today; it is a true honor for me as a long-time fan of yours. Before you head back to the studio, can you tell me a little bit about any upcoming projects, or ideas you have for your next album? Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Breach and Clear: Deadline? It’s certainly on my short-list for record of the year.
JASON GRAVES:Thanks so much for all the amazing compliments and great questions! There are currently plenty of projects in the works, but of course I am forbidden to speak of any of them under pain of death. Let’s just say they are all very different! Hopefully we will be talking about one of them sometime in the future.
Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.