Interview: Talking awesome 80's music with Double Dragon Neon composer Jake Kaufman
When Double Dragon Neon came out last week for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, it brought back an 80's vibe long missing from most games these days, including bad fashionable choices and even worse hairstyles. But the classic beat-em-up gameplay we've come to know and love is intact, and what's more, it's got a terrific soundtrack, featuring familiar Dragon themes along with some hilariously good 80's riffs.
You can thank Jake Kaufman for that. He's produced a number of soundtracks over the years, including Bloodrayne Betrayal, and with Dragon, he was really able to stretch his wings and fly with his musical choices. If you haven't listened yet, really, you should.
We managed to catch up with Jake for an interview, where he discusses working with the Dragon themes, as well as keytars, bad karaoke nights and Rick Astley. Yep, it's that kind of interview…
So have you been doing game music long? How long have you been doing it? And did any of that work involve previous collaborations with Double Dragon's developer, WayForward?
I've been working on game audio professionally (in various stages of "making a living with music" and "having to work day jobs like some kind of grown-up or something") since I was 18, and I'm 31 now. So, basically, my entire adult life. I made music and sound effects for WayForward's original GBC version of Shantae in 2001, so I've been working with them almost since the beginning of my career! It's pretty crazy that they still liked me enough, ten years later, to offer me a full-time salaried job. Usually I wear out my welcome a lot sooner than that.
What kind of approach did you want to take with Neon? Was it a "I gotta stay true to the game but be totally 80's" sort of vibe?
Honestly, I mostly just let go and did what the muse told me to do (my muse carries nunchaku and says "dude" a lot). Double Dragon, along with other beat-em-ups from Konami and Capcom and SNK, have been a part of my musical identity since I was a kid, so it wasn't much of a stretch. I respectfully disagree with all the folks who think the original Double Dragon was a somber, gritty game -- it might have seemed so when you were 8, but really it was a gratuitous mashup of gang fiction and over-the-top kung fu flicks, with the ridiculousness amped up; whip-wielding afroed women, grotesque strongmen, deadly conveyor belts. Of course, it's just my opinion, but I believe that over-seriousness would be missing the point. The music is meant to bring you back, not just to Double Dragon but also to radio hits, MTV, and that Bon Jovi or Prince tape in your Walkman. I truly adore the series, and working on Neon was unbelievably awesome.
Which 80's artist inspired you the most when you were putting the soundtrack together? Rick Astley, perhaps?
Probably equal parts Yes, Van Halen, and Michael Jackson. The Rick Astley tune was just a one-off gag, but I had to include it in the Mixtape music; there's NO way I'm going to pass up the opportunity to write a brand-new original Rickroll ...and get paid for it. When would that chance come up again?
Is it true that WayForward staffers did the singing for the soundtrack? Did that resemble more of an awesome rock party, or a bad karaoke night?
Funny you should mention Karaoke -- we went out to a Karaoke place in LA to celebrate our completion of BloodRayne: Betrayal, and that's where I discovered that (director) Sean actually has a great singing voice. My friends know that I do an excellent "Skeletor" impression, but Sean's absolutely puts mine to shame. He thus became not only my Dave Gahan on the "Desperation" track, but also the voice of Skullmageddon himself! Of course, the extremely talented Jessie Seely returned to sing on "Neon Jungle" as well as several mixtape tracks, and our new level designer, Jeff Luke, blew me away by belting the hell out of some Rock Band tracks. The rest is history.
As far as the actual vocal sessions, though, those were serious business. We're lucky to have a well-equipped recording studio, with an isolation booth and great equipment, down the street from the WayForward offices. The engineer, Robbie Altschuler, makes the complex recording process look effortless, even though we had to record and splice together dozens of takes and overdubs, and edit everything together. There's a stupid amount of technical work and editing that go into making even professional singers sound smooth and polished!
We heard some classic Double Dragon tunes redone for Neon. How much fun was it rerecording these songs your way?
SO much fun. At the risk (okay, guarantee) of sounding stuck-up and pretentious, "my way" was to arrange them how I truly believe the original composer would have intended for them to sound, had he no technical limitations. That's crazy presumptuous of me, trying to read some other dude's mind, or even assuming that he felt "limited" to begin with in his medium of pulse waves and looped noise... but it's the closest thing to an explanation of my intent as I can give. In general, out of respect and appreciation, I try to amplify and extend what's already there, instead of making it all about myself. I can say with some authority that the original DD music was inspirational to a generation of composers, because I'm one of them, and so are many of my friends!
Do you think video game music in general has gotten better over the years? We're certainly seeing more offered soundtracks and live tours.
I think it hasn't gotten better or worse, but it has gotten far broader in scope and in reach. There have always been companies who get behind technical advancement and envelope-pushing in audio, from Konami in the 80s (on just about every platform they had insanely good music and sound design) to Rare and Nintendo in the 90s (Battletoads? Banjo-Kazooie? Ocarina of Time?) to Rockstar and EA in the 00s (commercial track licensing was a big advancement for the industry, and I'm sorry for any composer who feels threatened by that, but I sure don't) all the way to Supergiant in the 10s (Bastion!!)
As we reach the point in console and PC hardware where streaming full-quality audio tracks is not only commonplace, but barely taxes the system at all, there are few if any limitations in what can be done with composition; creativity is no less important than it ever was, but it's less about cramming stuff into limited space, and more about complementing the ever-more-advanced visuals. I've heard people bitching about all the crappy, forgettable underscore in modern games, but let me remind you that there were a crazy amount of awful, shrill, out-of-tune NES and Game Boy soundtracks too. 90% of everything is shit, then as now. The people I most respect -- both in classic game music and modern stuff -- care deeply about being in the remaining 10%.
Speaking of live tours, what do you think about a live Double Dragon show? Like something along the lines of the Ninja Turtles Coming Out of Our Shelves tour. (Or not.)
I think about it every day. I'm trying not to, because I am already way too busy. I will incorporate some of the tracks into my live chiptune sets, though, so you can probably expect to be dancing to an 8-bit Neon Jungle if you ever make it out to one (such as, say, Magfest in January 2013 -- magfest.org).
Was there any stuff that didn't make it into Neon's soundtrack? Did you simply go, "Nah that's too 80's."
Plenty. Though it wasn't "nah, that's too 80s", it was more like "nah, I have only 2 days left, and four-part backing harmony for the end credits is a higher priority." Once I get into the "zone" and start concentrating, I tend to remain there until I'm physically unable to continue due to lack of food and/or sleep. As you can imagine, this is profoundly damaging to my physical health. I may be fortunate to have the ability to squirt out infinite music on command, but it's unbelievably hard to stop, and once the all-nighters start stacking up, I've gotta chiggity-check myself before I wreck myself.
That was definitely the case here -- although I'm extremely happy with how Double Dragon Neon's soundtrack turned out, I'm frustrated that SCIENCE has yet to cure me of my entrapment within an organic meatbag, which has to be fed, watered, and placed in stasis for 4+ hours a night. Come on, fellas, let's hurry it up, these fucking power ballads aren't going to write themselves.
Now that Neon is available for download, what's next for you? Some Battletoads remixes perhaps? Heh.
As far as WayForward stuff, I just finished the soundtrack to Adventure Time for the 3DS and DS. No word on a soundtrack album yet, but I'm pushing for it. Right now I'm working on a title that would make you wet your pants with glee, and after that, there's an ENORMOUS project that might cause other substances to be expressed, but I can't talk about anything unannounced. Just trust me, WF is signing the amazing projects as fast as I can score them.
Since I also do freelance work outside of WayForward, I can also mention that I'm working with Experimental Gamer on their amazing Spaghetti Western themed RPG, Boot Hill Heroes. The music is 2/3 done now, and I can best describe it as "Imagine if Nobuo Uematsu collaborated with Ennio Morricone" -- it's wild-west music, written under the limitations of the Super Nintendo's sound chip. It's gonna be a blast, and the soundtrack album will be available upon the game's release!
Is there any classic game soundtrack you'd like to rerecord? Even just for the fun of it?
Toejam and Earl. I did an arrangement of the main theme, years ago, but I want to do the entire album in the Parliament / Funkadelic / fresh 90s hip hop style. Hell, I want WayForward to do a reboot of the game itself. Oh my god, that would rule.
We heard some Keytar in Neon. Tell us you actually own one. And bring it to our next birthday party.
I've tried playing with them, but I shred with both hands, so I find it's more hardcore to just tape my regular keyboard to a stand and rock it sideways. Sometimes I rock it right off the stand, at which point one of two equally excellent things happens: Either a helpful audience member hands it back up to me, or the sucker goes crowd surfing. Win-win.
Finally, someone told us this piece of awesome music can actually be bought and blared in mobile devices everywhere. Tell us more.
With the support of the awesome guys and gals at Majesco, I've posted the entire soundtrack up at virt.bandcamp.com -- it's free, though you can optionally donate to my "buy more gear, gearhead" fund, so that I can create ever-fresher jams for you. But don't feel like you have to pay; there is no minimum, and the album is yours to enjoy either way. A different and also-totally-legit way to show support is simply to mention my stuff to your friends, or drop me an email, or come up and introduce yourself at Magfest. I'll be the fat neckbearded Jew wearing cat ears and hugging everyone.
Don't forget to check out Double Dragon Neon now on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. It's 80's-riffic!