I’d say it was probably a year and a half ago on a Sunday morning I happened across this little documentary called ‘Indie Game: The Movie’. It was a great little doc about the struggles of independent video game developers and everything they go through to create their art. One of the games they featured was called Fez. Now, at this point in my life I don’t really play video games. I don’t have enough time in the day to sit down and get lost in a good game. But, if I were still into playing Fez seemed like one I’d dig. It had the look of a new age Mario Brothers. It was filled with clouds, bright colors, and there always seemed to be the possibility of something darker underneath. It seemed at times to be downright existential in it’s on-the-surface lightness. Besides its look, another draw to Fez was the enigmatic music that accompanied it. I’d never really thought about the guy or gal that scores a video game, but it’s no different that someone scoring a film or television show. You need some kind of musical narrative to push the game’s narrative along. Some are better than others. In my opinion, the score for Fez is one of the best.
This past summer my cousin told me about Disasterpeace. We were sitting around listening to records and I played him Jakob Skott’s Doppler. He immediately told me about Disasterpeace. He told me Skott reminded him a lot of Disasterpeace’s music. My cousin is a huge video game guy and had played many games that Disasterpeace had done the scores for. One of those games? Fez. I was ready to dig in and check this Disasterpeace out, but that didn’t happen until much later.
A few weeks ago I’d read about the new indie horror film ‘It Follows’, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. It’s got quite a buzz around it for its old school scares, great cinematography, and classic synth-y soundtrack. It has that John Carpenter feel that, along with the visuals, keeps you on your toes for the film’s 100 minute run time. Who did the score? Disasterpeace, that’s who.
And who is Disasterpeace? That’s the musical alias of musician Rich Vreeland. I reached out to Rich and asked him a few questions about his craft. He happily obliged.
J. Hubner: So where did you grow up Rich? When did you get the musical bug?
Rich Vreeland: I grew up in a musical household in Staten Island, NY. My step-father was the music director of our church, and he would have the band practice in our basement. I would go down there and play the drums. My mom sings and plays the piano, and my sister has been singing since she could speak. I fooled around for awhile but took up guitar by the time I was in high school.
J. Hubner: So you’re playing guitar in high school. What bands were fueling your guitar playing?
Rich Vreeland: Bands like Tool and Rage Against the Machine were a big inspiration to me as a budding guitar player. I became heavily invested in playing pentatonic, odd-metered power chord riffs. As a teenager playing music for the first time, there was something incredibly spellbinding about distorted guitar. I also had a glorious amp, a Fender Vibrolux Reverb from the 60’s that I was dumb enough to sell about five years ago.
J. Hubner: So when did you make the move from guitars to synthesizers?
Rich Vreeland: I spent a couple of years making lots of guitar recordings before discovering synths and a more digital workflow. I would say those experiences were the foundation of my music education, although I did go to Berklee College of Music later and learned a ton there.
J. Hubner: I wanted to ask you about your music. What is your setup for creating and recording?
Rich Vreeland: I do all of my production work ‘in the box’, as they say. My software tool of choice is Logic. I am a self-professed minimalist, and I don’t like having lots of things around that I don’t use on the regular. I’ve had various instruments and synthesizers over the years, and I’ve sold just about all of them. I keep three MIDI keyboards: a tiny one situated at my desk, a huge one with piano keys and a middle-sized one stored away for the occasional performance. I also have an upright piano, and that is my prized possession. I find the difference between digital and analog synths is not noticeable enough to warrant me owning any keyboards, but I still go to acoustic instruments when that need arises.
J. Hubner: At what point did you start writing music for video games? How did you get into that world?
Rich Vreeland: Not long after I started making recordings in 2003, I began to post my work on the internet. I found that there were many individuals more than happy to listen and provide feedback. Early on, this process was highly addictive; the dopamine/adrenaline of getting feedback hooked me, regardless of its quality or temperament. In 2005, while posting my music on an internet forum, I was contacted by a gentleman who heard and liked my music and happened to be the CEO of a company that made cell phone games. We ended up working on a few projects, and this was my first realization that I could get paid to write music.
J. Hubner: I’d never really put much thought into the music I was hearing as I played games like Castlevania, Kid Icarus, and Super Mario Bros growing up as a kid. But looking back that music was an integral part of the experience.
Rich Vreeland: A great game can be a masterful culmination of many mediums and skills. I am often in awe of the amount of effort and talent that go into making a great game. I will always have a soft spot for games, and they have taken me to many different places creatively. Ultimately though, the driving force for me has been music.
J. Hubner: Can you give me a little insight into the process of scoring a video game? Are you sent videos of scenes? Stills? Are you given certain cues by the developer to hit emotionally?
Rich Vreeland: I have taken a very particular career path even within the niche of writing music for games. I tend only to work with small independent teams because they often make the best games with the fewest restrictions. I love the potential combination of informality and intense auteurism. I also hate red tape and dealing with large companies, because they never have your interests at heart. In dealing with a small team, there are no middle-men, and everyone is directly beholden to each other. It seems harder to strive for these ideals in film, but I do my best to work on projects where I have the utmost freedom. That being said, I’m also not afraid to take direction when someone has a clear vision. David(Robert Mitchell) was unquestionably in the driver’s seat when it came to the music for It Follows, and I was happy to help him channel what he wanted because we have a mutual respect.
J. Hubner: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your work on the game Fez. Watching Indie Game: The Movie, the process of creating that game seemed ripe with drama and disappointment. How was it on your end with the score?
Rich Vreeland: Working on FEZ was cathartic. Phil Fish and I were on the same page aesthetically, and it was smooth sailing the whole way. I also had tons of support from Renaud Bedard, the game’s programmer. Together we designed a music system that allowed us to do things I had only dreamed of doing in games before that point. I came onto the project about a year and a half before its completion, and I tried to stay out of the spotlight that surrounded the game and its past and just focus on the work.
J. Hubner: Listening to your work I can hear so many musical moods and echoes of artists, both old and new, that I’m very fond of. From film composers like John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi, and Walter Rizzati, to newer artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, Com Truise, and Sinoia Caves. Has synth music had a huge impact on you in how you create?
Rich Vreeland: If I didn’t admit that the prevalent use of synths in pop culture affected me growing up, however subconscious, I would be lying. By the time I was working on FEZ, I had a sense of what synths could do and what I wanted them to do. I don’t think that came from any particular artist, but just from a general exposure to synth music over the course of my life. When people told me FEZ sounded like Vangelis, I had to go look him up because I never listened to his music intentionally before. And yet, his style is such a staple of the 80’s that it’s impossible I hadn’t heard his music in some context before then.
J. Hubner: So what do you think the appeal is with synthesizers? How did this synthesizer renaissance come about?
Rich Vreeland: I think there has always been some level of desire for non-orchestral soundtracks for film, but I think synthesizers have crossed the threshold from questions of datedness into potential for timelessness. Granted there is still a lot of 80’s tinge going around, and I am certainly guilty, but I think we are reaching a point where synth soundtracks can stand the test of time. All the waveforms and knobs (among other things) allow for an incredibly deep approach to sound design, and they’re also budget friendly. The barrier to entry is also thousands upon thousands of dollars cheaper than working with a live orchestra, so there’s that.
J. Hubner: So how did you get involved with ‘It Follows’. Was David Robert Mitchell a fan of your work prior to making the film? It looks like a great little horror film, and your score sounds amazing for it.
Rich Vreeland: David loved the music from FEZ and reached out to me via e-mail. Our initial discussions were straightforward; we talked logistics and expressed our interest in working together. David touched base early, right before he started filming I believe, and then we fell out of touch for about a year. When he came back to me, prepared to start scoring, I had a lot of projects on the table and was a bit strapped for time. I think I turned him down a few times, but he could tell that I wanted to work on it, and I eventually gave in. I’m glad I did!
J. Hubner: Who were some influences on the music going in to write? Was there certain instrumentation discussed for the music?
Rich Vreeland: We initially talked about exploring an aesthetic with guitars and other acoustic instruments, but eventually we realized that by using synths we could make the scary parts and the not so scary parts still retain cohesion. David and his editors created a thorough temp score that became my bible for the film. The score featured cues by John Carpenter, Penderecki, John Cage, and even some of my pieces from FEZ. For scary scenes, I tried to make the music as dissonant and weird as possible and pull out all the stops to one-up the temp cues in every way I could. For some of the more melodic, ominous pieces, I was channeling Goblin a bit, especially for tracks like “Detroit”. David had a definite affinity for the music from FEZ, and we took steps to honor that aesthetic but also bring something new to the film. FEZ ended up providing a template for a few of the cues, which was not my favorite idea at the time but in hindsight I think it was a worthwhile and challenging exercise. David developed a serious case of ‘temp love’ for those FEZ cues. It was very difficult to steer him away from those initial pieces that he felt already worked well in capturing emotions he wanted to express. Referencing material from other composers was a satisfying process, but I will say that trying to reference some of my pieces was the most challenging of all. I release all of my music under the name Disasterpeace, so that trend will continue.
J. Hubner: Is film scoring something you’d like to explore further? You seem to have a real knack for it.
Rich Vreeland: Thanks! I don’t discriminate when it comes to the medium. I truly enjoy making music in lots of different ways. I would love to work on another film. I’m also keen to work with live musicians more, and down the line I’d like to write the music to a play.
J. Hubner: I read one of your blog posts recently where you stated you were getting away from physical media, in regards to releasing your work. No CDs or vinyl, just digital platforms. As someone who’s concerned with our carbon footprint and what sort of world my children have to look forward to in 20, 30 years from now I get that and can appreciate that decision. As someone who buys music exclusively on vinyl I’m also a bit disappointed as well(laughs). I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that decision.
Rich Vreeland: I came to a realization that the numbers don’t quite add up right now. There’s no way for me to practice my desire to be respectful towards the environment while also mass producing plastics. If there comes a time when making vinyl is environmentally sustainable, then I will revisit the topic. I should say though that we are releasing CDs and vinyl for this film. I made an exception at the behest of the director, who thought it would be of great benefit to the movie. Sometimes I don’t feel like a decision is mine to make. I felt like I would be doing David a disservice by refusing his wish in this instance.
J. Hubner: So what’s next for Disasterpeace? How does the rest of 2015 look?
Rich Vreeland: Right now, I am working on a guest-directed episode of Adventure Time, and a minimalistic subway layout game called Mini Metro. After that, I’ll be diving into a Miyazaki- inspired dungeon crawler called Hyper Light Drifter, and a Flatland-inspired Japanese garden game called Miegakure. In case you can’t tell, I love how different those all sound and are!