Interview: The Playful Darkness of Composer Jim Guthrie
Who makes the sounds that can excite you equally into joy and terror? For me, it’s Jim Guthrie. The Canadian musician has been behind a number of my later-in-life formative audio projects, ranging from his audio board game to the Dark Souls-inspired Below OST. Guthrie was someone I first discovered because of his work scoring Sword & Sworcery and, around the same time, the documentary Indie Game: The Movie. His mix of human instruments and computer-based digitized spurts, and the thin line he can create between the two, has been a delightful draw for a decade. Recently, his eight-year project scoring the game Below resulted in him being one of the only two names credited at the front of the entire project, and his breakthrough Sword & Sworcery score has more recently been given a ten-year anniversary re-release.
Thanks to iam8bit, Sword & Sworcery will come out on a double vinyl release, accompanied by a remix album and a poster from Scott Benson. It’s about all that you can hope for as an indie musician in the indie game world. And his accompanying latest release is the bleakest score to Below, which is one of the darkest minimalist experiences of the year. (That game is also getting a vinyl release right now. Sorry if this post is breaking your bank.)
I sat down with Guthrie ahead of this vinyl re-release to discuss his career, the score, and the process of moving out into a shed behind your house to make gamey-sounds.
Rely On Horror: First things first, we’ve got the re-release of Sword & Sworcery. I’ve been meaning to talk to you for nearly a decade now because I got a turntable in 2012, and your Indie Game: The Movie, the soundtrack, and Sword & Sworcery were two of my first five albums I ever had. They were the only things I had for, like, a year. So, I am so excited that Sword is getting a re-release, and I would like to have one Indie as well because I have worn down my copy, it’s useless at this point.
Jim Guthrie: Thank you so much! You’re like, O.G. That was a long time ago. I’m so thrilled to that it’s being released in this deluxe package. When I made it, I didn’t even know that people gave a shit about vinyl in games and stuff. I just sort of assumed everybody was doing what I was doing, releasing vinyl like that. But I kind of learned that it was a new thing, and at the time I didn’t have any money and I didn’t really know who was going to buy it. So long story short, I only made a single vinyl version of the soundtracks. I only ever pressed a version that was one slab long, so to have this double version with all of these remixes is just the version I wish I could’ve released all these years. I never thought it was going to work. Then people bought a lot of copies when I released it and so I just sort of kept it the way it was. So it’s cool to have a double version now.
Rely On Horror: It’s also so cost-prohibitive when you’re new to this. Even now, I get questions from people like, “Why the fuck are you buying video game music on vinyl?” which is from people that don’t know that video game soundtracks can be giant orchestral Assassin’s Creed-level things. But also, years ago people would joke when I would buy some sort of vinyl press of a Super Nintendo game, and now Mondo prints their own money by putting the Castlevania soundtrack game on a ten-inch or something like that. That was always going to work, it turns out. Yours is nothing like that, it’s not a bunch of midi music being pressed to vinyl, so I understand that there’s an upward slope there.
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, I came from an indie rock background. If you were in a band and you wanted to make an album, you obviously wanted that album to be on vinyl, because that was the coolest thing that you could do. That made your music a real thing. So when I went to go do game soundtracks, I was still coming from that headspace where I wanted it to be on vinyl because I wanted to treat my music with that sort of respect. I’ve always loved vinyl because I’m just a music guy, so my attitude– I don’t know if I’ve even stopped to think that game soundtracks weren’t real music or something. I was the guy who finally got a chance to do it, and I was like, “I’m just going to make my music.” I didn’t neuter it or sell myself short on the experience of making an album. It’s my music and I really care about it. I’m all about vinyl, it’s the best.
Rely On Horror: This was my introduction to your sort of music and then I got into other things, like all of the other stuff you’ve done but also– I can’t believe that I own Children of the Clone. I remember some of my first attempts at programming music were using the MTV Music Generator on Sony PlayStation.
Jim Guthrie: We’re sort of like long-lost pals or something here! Yeah, I love MTV Music Generator and yeah, Children of the Clone was 99 percent done on that.
Rely On Horror: It was a very limited program on very limited looping, so a lot of the samples you’re using are ones that I’ve used in very different songs at different speeds, and so there’s this sort of nostalgia I have while listening to yours, for songs of mine that I’ve forgotten and/or completely lost. I remember that sort of flute arpeggiator thing; I used that in a different way.
Jim Guthrie: That’s hilarious because when I made that music, I didn’t really have the luxury– I guess when I made it, it was pre-YouTube, and so there wasn’t really a place to go or check stuff out. I didn’t really think to do that anyways. It was late 90’s, early 2000’s before YouTube became a thing, not until about 2005 did things really start much later than that. I do remember having the same sensation as you where, when I finally did get to listen to the stuff other people made online, I was like, “Oh, yeah, there’s that sound that I used in that song, but they’re using it in a totally different way.” It was kind of cool to just remember that it was a very limited set of sounds. Most of the sounds were useless because they were just really bad scratch sample or cheesy stuff, but there was a handful of really useful sounds and I really built it. That was really my first crack at doing sequenced music because I honestly didn’t own a computer until I was 26. I would record on a 4-track with synthesizers and stuff like that, and then when I got the MTV Music Generator– which was a toy, basically– I treated it as a legit platform and it was my first real kick at sample-based music and sequencing and stuff like that.
Rely On Horror: I often wonder if the feeling of me listening to this album is the pain of– well, mine isn’t pain but it reminds me of how many music producers are so frustrated that Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is just the very first drum loop that comes bundled with Garage Band, slowed down to its slowest setting. So we all just had that one song available to us, it’s the first thing we could’ve written, it’s just that drum beat. It was there for everyone, and no one could have it.
Jim Guthrie: That’s hilarious, you’re listing off all these things like– I’ve had this conversation with so many people, it’s crazy. It’s like Funky Drummer #8 or something in the drum loop, or whatever. But yeah, I totally remember when I got Garage Band, my next sort of platform to make music was sorcery: using the PlayStation and then going into Garage Band, that sort of thing. A lot of sound within the game are samples from– there’s one of when you’re charging up your sword that’s a sound I hear all the time online in YouTube videos, but it’s just like a stock sample sting. Back then, it all seemed kind of new. On one level, I’m sort of embarrassed because it’s so overused, but on the other hand, it’s just the Internet. It’s the way things kind of go.
Rely On Horror: Also, in the last decade, we’ve also sort of created our own Wilhelm screams, like just the things that were available to us were available to them at the time.
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, that’s exactly– and I’ve used that sort of sample before, that it’s just this little secret nugget. Either you know it, or you don’t. But the only reason I feel bad is because shortly after somebody in the comments section of something, being like, “Why is everybody so into the soundtrack? He’s just using stock samples from Garage Band.” I always felt like kind of a jerk after that. I was writing my own music, too, so I didn’t feel too guilty. If I used a sample here and there, there was no crime in that.
Rely On Horror: What instrument did you have in your room that was going to make a better sword charge-up sound? It’s a fucking stupid complaint for someone to have.
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, and that was in the early days, and I was just sort of learning how to read the comments or not read the comments. I owe my life to Garage Band, basically. When I started getting work in advertising, and all of the different things I started to do as a musician to try to make a living, I literally used what I had. What I had was Garage Band and PlayStation. So yeah, stuff that has been on TV and a Ford commercial or an Ikea commercial or something, that was just what I had in my bedroom at the time.
Rely On Horror: Well, until you’re in Montreal doing a Chili’s commercial or the unicorns doing a Volkswagen commercial, no one can call you out. There’s a quote from Beck that I often think of when I listen to your music: “I like guitars that sound like keyboards, and I like keyboards that sound like guitars.” I feel like something close is the Jim Sound: you like real instruments that sound fake, and fake instruments that sound real.
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, 100 percent. I would love to have a real string section come in, but I’d also like to have some weird kind of half-sampled, half-live orchestra. It’s like I feel like I’m faking it, but I’m also caught up in creating new sounds that sound familiar but tweaked somehow. There’s all kinds of things like that that I love. I love it when it sounds familiar but it doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard before, I guess.
Rely On Horror: So what was your process here? Did you guys go back and remaster anything, was it a chance to do everything the right way? How did you pick remixes? What was the whole thing here?
Jim Guthrie: Well, I was always talking with iam8bit back in the day and they were always doing amazing things. We had wanted to do it for so long, and then there was kind of a rush, like, “Oh god, who do I want to have remix songs? Who do I not want to remix songs?” I literally just emailed friends that I had made over the years and emailed a bunch of new people. I knew if I just emailed, like fifteen people, around six would get back to me. So it was just based on who was available and who I wanted. They were all really busy too, so they were in a rush but I love what they did. I think it was remastered for this vinyl release, because they have their own remastering guy, so it is remastered from the original wav files. Other than that, it’s just super special to have all 24 tracks on this plus the remixes. I have yet to hold one, I just see it in pictures like everybody else because it doesn’t actually exist yet. But I’m so pumped that I’ll get some free copies. I went online and bought five more copies because I’m so jacked.
Rely On Horror: Is it a weird process to come back and remix yourself from eight, nine years ago?
Jim Guthrie: Yeah. I mean, you definitely hear your past self making these past decisions based upon the gear you had at the time. It’s sort of a bit of a time capsule in a lot of ways to back through it all and to remix it all. It’s the kind of soundtrack that, just because of the popularity, I tend to get a message or two every week from someone, somewhere. So it’s kind of old but it’s never gone away, and that’s not a bad thing. I feel super lucky. I do think about it more than other things I’ve done, just because I’m forced to. But again, that’s not a bad thing. But to really go back, I don’t know if you know, but some of the songs on the Sworcery soundtrack is a real mixed bag; some are things that I made for the game and some are recorded in 1997 on a 4-track, or stuff I did on the Playstation that was from the late 90’s. Those were some of the first tracks that we started with when Craig and I were making the game. So I was always sort of living in that world because Craig liked those tracks early on. Because he liked them so much and because a couple of them showed up on this soundtrack, that’s when I later did Children of the Clone. It has been pretty– it’s mostly just really nice and I feel really lucky that anybody still cares and still listens. It’s had a pretty good run after ten-ish years.
Rely On Horror: I don’t know how involved you are with the game itself; it’s a Switch release and they removed Twitter functionality and they made a big statement about it. Like, “Twitter has become a big fuckhole, we don’t need to participate in that anymore, it’s awful and that’s why we removed that part from the game.” How do you feel about such things?
Jim Guthrie: I think that it’s incredible in the sense that, when they made the game, no one gave a shit. Nobody made Twitter– nobody had a Twitter mechanic in their game at the time. I’m not really a gamer per se, but I love video games. I was pretty new to indie games, and so for them to put Twitter in the game, I’m like, “This is fucking crazy. You guys are like scientists.” I remember being really impressed with so many different choices that were made in the game. I try to be as honest as possible, and I was just really green when it came to video games. I had always tried to be an artist in my music, and I knew that games were art, but I had never worked with a team and lived it, you know? So going back to my original point, putting Twitter in the game was totally out there for the time. I remember everybody started playing the game, and started putting out these crazy tweets and they were super pissed that they were getting all of these crazy Sworcery tweets. We were trending on Twitter, the #Sworcery hashtag, at the time it was happening and we were just in a smaller pond back then. My point is that it was an amazing choice at the time, and now it’s an even more amazing choice to be like, “Fuck Twitter. That whole feature doesn’t serve the lifeforce of the game now.”
Rely On Horror: It was punk rock to come to the party, and when the party was full of Nazis, it was punk rock to leave the party.
Jim Guthrie: I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s just like we’re gonna make it and we’re gonna break it.
Rely On Horror: It’s such an interesting thing to me; you’re getting this re-release sort of on the other end of that, and it means that you’ve made this incredible soundtrack for an incredible cultural indie game moment that lasted longer — with an accultural appreciation — than Twitter. You outlasted Twitter.
Jim Guthrie: That’s hilarious. Yeah, we’re certainly not on as many phones as Twitter is, but I certainly appreciate you saying it. Twitter is so many things. What is Twitter? I’m totally down with it, is what I’ll say on record.
Rely On Horror: It’s incredible to me, on your soundtrack for the game Below, is that you’ve done between five to seven hours of music for this basically at the same time that Sword & Sworcery had come out. So you’ve been working on this game for that long.
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, so when Sworcery ended and they started prototyping ideas for what would turn into Below, they were basically just experimenting with that sort of– just the small character in a big world look and feel, and trying to figure out if that would even work as a concept. So I was asked to come on pretty early, and I made a lot of music. Then the game just took longer than everyone had thought, and I just kept making the music change with the way that the game was changing. Some of it stuck and some of it didn’t, and at the end of six years or however many years it was, I have a crapload of music. I only released an hour and twenty minutes or whatever made the most sense to condense it down, and I’m going to release the other stuff eventually. Not sure exactly how, but I want to share it all eventually. It’s not like it’s five hours of solid gold hits, it’s a lot of ambient drone stuff. The process of making Below after having done Sword & Sworcery was kind of a transformation for me too, because– and I’ve said this before, but Chris, who was the creative director on the game, he was less about beats and melodies and songs. So Below was begging for more of a drone-y atmosphere and it took me a while to kind of figure that out. Through that whole process, I was trying really hard to not be as musical as I was on Sword & Sworcery. I still sort of found a way to please myself while also pleasing the game and Chris, I’m one of those guys, I know that there’s a lot more at play here. That’s the other thing– it’s one thing to be in a band and deal with a drummer or bass player or whatever, and it’s fun to make music with friends and people. But on a game, it’s like being in a band. There’s mostly men making the games and we all like to get drunk and talk about our man feelings, much like band members like to do as well. Everyone’s in it and it’s a creative jam in a way. The’re music, but the music has to play nice with the sound effects and the whole atmosphere. There’s small teams, so it’s like being in a band in a way, with a totally different product at the end.
Rely On Horror: Is dealing with a programmer better than dealing with a drummer?
Jim Guthrie: Definitely.
Rely On Horror: Is making music in a shed behind your house better than touring with a drum kit?
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, 100 percent. I stick to my shed because it’s my little castle.
PR: The shed is the best. I just have to say that the shed is the best.
Jim Guthrie: Lindsay knows. We’ve had parties. Whenever people are in town, it’s like, “Whenever you’re in town, please come to my shed and we’ll drink and dance in an 80-square foot little shed.” That’s where I work and have parties, and we have a great time.
Rely On Horror: In my head it was so much smaller. I was like, “So she came over and the two of you could fit in there, right?”
PR: I think there was a total of five or six of us in the shed at once.
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, and there’s really nowhere to stand, because I have a giant desk and these synthesizers.
Rely On Horror: Everyone just sits on a keyboard somewhere, I’ve had that happen at my house, too. It’s fine.
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, it was great. It’s so much fun to go back there because, yeah, you’re standing there facing the other person. Everyone’s really tight and close, and if you ever want to come hang at the shedquarters, you’re invited.
Rely On Horror: Jim, I would love to because I have to have you sign so many things for me. Before we take off here today, how do you work on something like Below, which is a much darker game than the other work that you’ve done? I know that it’s all drone-centric sort of music, but there’s also a lot about using silence and making the sounds you do include count for something. How do you set a tone? What are you tricks of the trade?
Jim Guthrie: It’s tough with Below, and it’s obviously different for every project. I’m the kind of person who needs to understand the emotional intent somehow. That’s just sort of what gets me when I watch a movie or play a game. Even if the emotion is something like you just need to bang your head to this song, that’s cool, but I just need to sort of understand that. So in Below, I think it was really dark, lonely, pretty, scary, tense, but open and vast, but claustrophobic, and all of these contradictions. So I tried to gdo what the game was, but like I said, it took me a while to figure that out. The other thing is that we didn’t really want to overscore it or overthink it. It was more like creating these blankets that we lay in there. It didn’t always sync up. When I played the game, it was randomly generated cave systems and things. Not everything is in sync all the time. People will play the game and be like, “Oh, this music is fucked up, I bet something fucked up’s gonna happen,” and I know nothing fucked up is going to happen because I know the game. So I just found it interesting that it sort of subverted people’s expectations in a good way, and in a bad way, lots of times, too. It was our experiment this time was to not overcompose, not overthink it, and just create a bunch of atmospheres that would get us most of the way there. It’s just one big long, lonely, scary drone of a game in a way. There’s a lot of combat and a lot of things to take into consideration but it’s really a lonely plate. I was just trying to make music that sounded like that.
Rely On Horror: You have all of these opportunities to do these games, and they’re all over the board in terms of what they’re doing emotionally or within the dynamics of the game itself: what’s your go-to trick to pass onto other people that are entering into game music?
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, here’s a secret: I’m scared shitless every time I open up a new session. Whenever I get a new job, I’m just like, “What in the hell am I going to do? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” I really use that fear– I guess I’ve just done it long enough that I know if I show up and open a session and open a track and I pick a synthesizer and pick a sound, and I just start playing, something eventually happens. I’m making so much music these days that I can’t possibly be inspired and know exactly what I’m doing before I even open up the session, but it does happen. I don’t know if this is a trick, but you’ve got to just start somewhere. It may not always be the right place, but you’ve got to start somewhere. I’ll just look at the art, or look at images and throw a video into the session, and–I’m really just trying not to get in the way and trying not to fuck it up. A lot of times I’m just trying to be a companion to it, and I’m trying to listen more than I make noise, in a way. Especially with Below, it was a real exercise in restraint. I always wanted to do more, but I had to be satisfied with this modulating drone that I had spent hours sculpting, because that’s what the game wanted. I’m a big fan of faking it until you make it. Open up your favorite instrument and just listen to it, and then stack it with another sound, and just keep going until it starts to suck, then try something else.
Rely On Horror: What’s your go-to chord or key to start with?
Jim Guthrie: It’s embarrassingly C, C minor, I’m ashamed to say. I’m a big fan too, of trying to use a simple sound and throwing in a reverb or delay and that sort of gives it a bit more movement that I wouldn’t normally get out of it. I just like to lightly effect things.
Rely On Horror: Live, instead of doing it later?
Jim Guthrie: Yeah, kind of like to start with those atmospheric elements sooner rather than later. I get inspired by spaces and putting sounds in different spaces and contrasting them with each other. Trying to make it a deeper picture than the flat space than music can make space seem. My music is a world like video games, I guess.