What do strippers, Spider-Man, and the God of War games have in common? If you said “boobs” or “Gerard Marino” you’d be right twice over (I’m sure there’s some cleavage in a Spider-Man comic somewhere). What does women’s anatomy and the man behind the music for one of the most well know game franchises in the past seven years have anything to do with each other? Not to mention Marvel’s arguably most loved superhero.
These are things I talked about when I spoke to Gerard not that long ago.
Gerard: Hello, how do you do?
Pretty good, yourself?
I’m pretty good, man.
You’re out there in… L.A.? Is it hot an sunny or are you somewhere else?
I am in Los Angeles and it is indeed hot and sunny.
It’s a whole different world up here in Seattle [laughs].
Oh, it must be raining.
It’s overcast, but I don’t know if it’ll rain or not.
I say it’s a bright and sunny day, but I’ll be inside the whole time playing Spider-Man.
Ah ok, well let’s get to it. The first question I’ve got here is something that I got while reading your bio on your website. It says that you started out by working at a strip club?
So, uh, how do you go from that to working on the God of War series? I mean, sure, there’s some stuff in the games I’ve seen that makes sense there, but how do you make that jump?
[Laughing] Yeah, there’s lots of boobs. I was right at home. But really, I put myself through college as a strip club DJ. So, you know, I’d played in rock ‘n’ roll bands and whatever all the way up to that point. I was planning on being a rock-star, first and foremost. But, you know, bands break up for all the same reasons they always do. So I decided to try and take things into my own hands and be a film composer. While I was in college is when it became possible to be a composer and not need to be a programmer as well. You started being able to have full blown audio going into games. It wasn’t like just spinning records at the strip club.
And someone walks in and says, “Hey, I like your style! Wanna make a video game?”
Yeah [laughs] that hasn’t happened yet. I keep putting the feelers out there, because I know somewhere some game Duke Nukem 7 or something there is going to be a call for a strip club DJ and that’s going to be me. That’s what put me through college, being a strip club DJ. I studied music and composition. I came out into the USC program after that and then, then it was onward and upwards.
As far as how I got the God of War gig was kind of a thing where I knew a guy that knew a guy. Typical Hollywood story. I had music in a music library, Riptide Music, and the guy there knew what I was made of and knew the guys at Sony. They were looking for someone to do what would become God of War. He vouched for me, they gave me a shot, and the rest is history.
Huh, wild. Still on God of War. Is it difficult coming up with new ideas? They’re all Greek mythology and you’ve got the same protagonist throughout. Is that hard? Coming up with new stuff?
Well it’s always hard coming up with new stuff. Even if it was… I don’t know [laughs] Strip Club DJ Hero. It’s hard coming up with new stuff because… you know, new stuff is new stuff. But, it might even be easier in an ongoing franchise since you’ve got some of the ground-work taken out of it. Say with that one, I knew it was Greek mythology and part of the thing that really made the score hum was using Greek lyrics for the choir. Even if a choir wasn’t going to sing writing the lyrics in Greek and then setting those rhythms to melodies. So in a certain way it’s easier. The elements that go into the story is what I try to draw from to come up with themes. In God of War there’s big time themes all over the place. So I’d get with my Greek composer pal and get some translated lyrics and start going to town.
Ok, so right there you’re talking about these different themes. Do you get to see much of the game that you’re making music for? Or is it sight unseen, “Hey, we need a romance theme here. Show us what you’ve got.” Or do they show you… uh, concept art or animation or– What do you get to see if anything?
It all depends on where in the stage I come in and where they are with their ideas. So with God of War it was all about the concept art and scripts and some gameplay capture. And, you know, they developed that in Santa Monica, so we’d just drive down and take a look at it. They didn’t let us take it out. With the last two Spider-Man games I actually had a development kit they let me barrow to download the latest builds of the game. Sometimes with my music in it and sometimes I’d try music against it. Like, I’ll just play it on my studio system and play the game and see how it’s working.
Ah ok, I see.
So that was more organic in terms of being able to check it out right away. God of War was a little more conceptual based.
Now was that case case with all the God of War games? Or just some of them?
Yep, each one of them.
Ok. And how did you go from God of War to Spider-Man? The two of those games that you worked on? Another friend-of-a-friend type thing?
Well God of War put me on the map and so then my calls were being returned and I tried out for three Spider-Man games before I landed Edge of Time. Multiple demos each time. I was getting closer and closer and then they finally gave me a shot. Then I got to do the next one after that which was nice.
Now, you said you tried out for three. Where trying out for other things, other franchises, or were you … Was it ‘I really want to work on a Spider-Man game.’
Well I’m a freelance guy so I’m always trying to do different things.
Ok. I didn’t know if maybe you had an idea in your head. ’Oh man, I’ve got this music and it just has to be in a Spider-Man game. I’ve never heard it and it needs this.’
Well, sort of. It’s almost like that. When I first had an inkling… When my Agent said, “Spider-Man 3 is up for bid and we’re going to put you up for it” I went and rented a few Spider-Man games and played them. Then when I went into that meeting I had some definite ideas about what was missing, musically, from those games. I hadn’t actually played a Spider-Man game–although I’d seen all the movies and read some comics when I was younger–but, of course, who doesn’t love Spider-Man? What kid doesn’t want to be Spider-Man at some point? So I had that going, but also Christopher Young was scoring Spider-Man 3 and I worked for Christopher for a year. It was my first Hollywood job. I got out of school at USC and got hired to do his synth work for a year. So I was thinking, Oh, this is a match made in heaven. I can just… He’s going to be working on the film, he knows me, this’ll be awesome! But, they went another way on that one then finally came around and gave me a shot.
I think half the reason I managed to land that is because I wrote 80 minutes of hero music for DC Universe Online. So when I was chasing after Spider-Man: Edge of Time I had a whole ton of superhero music under my belt. That sounded really superhero-ish [laughs], perhaps more-so than most of my other things. And so I think that particular demo made them listen up and say, “Yeah, ok, let’s give the guy a shot now.”
It was actually one of my favorite moments in life when I found out I got the job. Because I was in Brazil fifteen or twenty minute away from going on stage to conduct my God of War suite and I finally got WiFi access to my email and had one from my agent saying, “You got Spider-Man.” So I was on cloud 9 and then I walked out there and I don’t know if you know, but the Brazilian people are so passionate about things they love or… hate. But they love God of War down there so when I came out I got a standing ovation just for walking out. So I’ve just landed a big job and then I got the heroes welcome from the Brazilian people. One of the happiest days of my life.
Wow, that sounds pretty incredible. Now you talked a bit there about the Spider-Man movie and knowing the guy that did the music and now that you’ve worked on the games; do you think there’s a whole lot of a difference or maybe a vast difference–you’ll be the one to tell me–between what makes a good game soundtrack and what do you on a movie?
Well, good music is good music and you can’t get away from what good music is. So sometimes I’m fighting tooth-and-nail to ensure we’re writing good music first-and-foremost and serving what the perceived needs of the game, in particular, films less so, because you can really get bogged down in the details of trying to make something that changes as the player plays. So in order to make that work the music can get watered down and watered down just to make sure it’s not so jarring to switch back and forth on the fly. It takes a long time to really dial that in. Often, I’ve found, the more you do to try and make those things work the less interesting the music becomes. So I’d rather… when I was in college the first game music that wasn’t programmed soundchip kind of stuff was, ah–that I heard–was Quake which was written by Trent Reznor.
And those were just big pieces that streamed off the CD-ROM as you played the game. Get to different parts and a different track would come up. Certain tracks when you’re just sneaking around and others for when you’re definitely going to be in the thick of it for a while. But that whole game felt like it was scored like a movie. It felt adaptive, but it wasn’t. It’s because the music was good. So I always go back to that. It’s got to be good music and if it’s good music that’ll cover up any interactive ideas you might have had.
My theory on all this–that I argue all the time–is good music first and good music is good music.
It makes sense. I imagine that applies to a lot of things in art. A good story is a good story and if you try and mash it into where it doesn’t really work then you’re going to have some problems.
Yeah, and all the special effects in the world aren’t going to make a great movie that stands the test of time.
Yeah, yeah, totally. You can take a terrible story and slap all the whatever you want on it. The best actors in the world and it’ll still be a garbage story.
I think we’ve seen a few of those this year [laughs]!
[Laughing] I think we get a few of those every year.
Now speaking of good music I remember when trailers for movies had some great music. Sometimes it’d be a track straight out of the film other times it’d be a song made specifically for the trailer. And… this is something some of the other guys came up with, but we’re wondering what you think of this fad–at least I hope it’s a fad on it’s way out. But from what I can tell started with the movie Inception where you have these pauses in the music and then… BROOOUUUUMMMMM … BRRROOOOOOOUUUUUMMMNNNN.
These big dramatic, booming, I don’t even know what you call them, but it sounds like an electronic dinosaur roar or something. I’ve seen it in games, movies, and it’s always trailers. What is the deal with this? What’s your take on it?
I guess I kind of have a love-hate relationship with the trailer music. I had music in a production library being licensed to trailers left and right and it’s that guy who introduced me and vouched for me to the game industry. So it’s trailer music that put me on the map. But trailer music has become such a caricature of itself. Epicness for the sake of it. It’s the most important sounding music in the world, but it’s not about anything. Some guy just wrote it so that it would sound important. It isn’t actually important at all. It’s almost like… I started to come up with a new word for it. I think it should be called generepic [laughing]. It’s, I mean, really? How much bigger can it get? I think they’ll have to record a thousand people in an auditorium just screaming at the top of their lungs if they want to make it anymore epic than it already is.
Didn’t Nolan kind of kind of do that with the latest Dark Knight Rises trailer? Right? Wasn’t their a whole choir just chanting?
Yeah, it’s taking a page out of Eric Whitacre’s book, but [laughs]. ’You too can be in the Dark Knight Rises trailer!’ It’s actually kind of a brilliant marketing idea to pull people in with the whole social media thing. It’s actually a brilliant idea, but yeah. When they get them all to just scream at the top of their lungs. So, you know, right when you cut to the plane exploding you just have a million people going, “AAAHHHHHH!” That’s the only way it could be anymore epic.
So also it has ruined epic music, you know? How can anything– Now it’s just so regular. One of the dudes on the Spider-Man team– I went up to Quebec to celebrate at the release party–the last one–and met this guy who said, “I love your music! It’s just so epic! I buy all those trailer music CDs, they’re so… I just love it! What do you think of it?” And basically said the same thing, “Oh it’s! …” I was drunk when I said it, “I hate that stuff! It’s just screaming loud for the sake of screaming loud.” It doesn’t mean anything. It has watered down the idea of what epic could be. You know, in a game or a film where the universe is falling apart and the superhero has to save it. You can’t even touch the trailer for epicness. I don’t know. It’s like crack cocaine, it’s really not good for you in the long run. [Laughs]
[Laughing] I’ll take your word for it on that one. Um, so obviously you’re not buying trailer CDs and the mixes of epicness for epic sake, but what kind of music do you pop in when you’re driving around L.A. or in a plane or in your iPod or what-have-you?
I actually don’t listen to a lot of music that way just because I don’t want to hear stuff all the time. Especially if I’m working on a gig. I don’t even listen to talk radio, I just drive when I have to drive in Los Angeles. When I do I’ll listen to 80′s death metal, hair metal, or new-wave. That’s my roots, that’s where I got born as a musician and, I don’t know. When I listen to newer stuff… There’s some cool new stuff, but I don’t have a ton of time so I commonly don’t even bother with it.
I’m old. I’m more of the generation that wants to listen to music to listen to it. Not to have it going in the background. That’s something I rail on all the time with games and films. Like, “Let’s not have music all over the damn place.” Then it just doesn’t mean anything after a while. Let’s put it where it needs to be. If you did that there could be way less music in games and films and it’d still feel good. Probably better. The big moments would actually feel bigger because the whole movie wasn’t on 10 the whole damn time. It wasn’t a trailer for two hours.
You already answered what you’re inspiration is, that you go back to your roots. But are there any games, or franchises, games or otherwise, that you’ve wanted to score for? Or even a type of game?
Well [pauses] yeah. I really lucked out landing in the God of War universe because all through college I was writing Ben Hur type stuff. So it was really nice to be able to do a sweeping sword and sandal type thing. So now though, yeah, I’d actually like to do something a little more quiet. Like a Journey or something. Or Flower.
Funny you’d mention Journey because I interviewed Austin Wintory before yourself.
Oh, no shit? He’s actually a good pal of mine!
It was really interesting talking to him too. You’ve done these really big superhero things and he… I don’t like saying it, but his music is almost not there. Just really, really quiet in the background. ’Yes I’m here, but just so.’ Very different.
Some subtlety. Yeah. It’s nice when you can do it. But, it’s got to be the right game. Most games it is the end of the world so you do have to be big and loud. You know what else I’d like to do? Some kind of cute little platformer where I get to be a goofball for awhile.
Oh yeah! Something like Little Big Planet or whatever? Just fun stuff.
Yeah! A Little Big Planet maybe a Super Mario Kart or something. Maybe Katamari Damacy.
For sure. Some of the tracks in Little Big Planet, the first–I didn’t play the second–were really catchy. Tapping your toe to it type stuff.
Well yeah, even way back when on the Super Mario Brothers games when you just had one line of music and it had to be a melody essentially that you could listen to for hours and hours and not hate [laughs]. Once again I think that goes back to good music. Those were good melodies, you know? You could listen to that a long, long time. All our grandmothers even know that theme.
Alright, well I’ll finish up with one last question. The same question I ended on with Austin Wintory was what’s a game that’s come out in the past year that you’ve really enjoyed? Music wise, or maybe not even musically, but something you really enjoyed.
Well… this year I was in the weeds with Spider-Man from January through March, maybe April 1st, so I didn’t play anything else in that time. I have a few stacked up in plastic here, and one of them that I’ve been dying to play that–it’s even from last year I think–was Brutal Legend, but it didn’t work! It’s defective. So let’s see, what did I like? Score wise or gameplay? Honestly I don’t think I can answer that question.
Ok, then let’s take it out of the time frame. What’s a game that’s really stuck with you through the years? You mentioned Quake earlier, but that was for music reasons. Is there some other game you’ve really enjoyed?
Well if you mean the game itself I think I’ve never had more fun playing a game than I did Guitar Hero. I think that’s the most fun, hands down, that I’ve had with a game. Maybe ever. I did get a song into it, in Guitar Hero III. We did a metal version of the God of War II theme and that one, that’s given me some more fun too. Because A; it is still the most downloaded song on the Playstion Network, for Guitar Hero, to this day. And the other one is that I’ve had it preformed by an orchestra a couple of times. Sometimes conducted by me and sometimes me playing Guitar Hero live with an orchestral accompaniment. So that’s been an ongoing source of fun.
Music though? Well… going way back, some of the coolest music I ever heard in a game was what Pete McConnell did for Grim Fandango. That guy, man. He’s an underrated composer. More people should know about him, he’s a good guy. Anyway, that’s probably favorite music wise and it’s off the beaten path too.
But let me pop back to that question you kind of almost asked about my inspiration. I have found that… It’s so funny and almost ironic, but I went to college to learn how to properly make music instead of all that funky rock ‘n’ roll stuff I was doing. But I’ve found that if I apply all that stuff I was learning, and feeling, and wanting in my 80′s rock band and punk band days that I can take those sensibilities, apply them to the orchestra, and then it’s interesting orchestra music that people wouldn’t normally think to do. So I thought I had to unlearn all that stuff, but that’s what makes me who I am. So you listen to anyone of my cello lines from Spider-Man or God of War and it could easily be played by Kirk Hammet or James Hetfield. And then in this newer Spider-Man there’s some sort of new-wave, sort of, percolating things in the woodwinds and the bass that sounds sort of arpeggiated, like they used to do back in Duran Duran. So I’ve found you have to embrace who you are. That’s where I was born as a musician–as I’ve said–and whenever I speak to a college I tell them you’ve got to find who you are. Then be that person. Otherwise you’ll sound like someone else and if you’re going to do this long term and be satisfied and be in that group of people that’s seen as groundbreaking, the only way to do that is to take the sum of your life and try to tie that all up in what it is you do. At least put some layer, some injection of your DNA, in what it is you do. Because they’ll come to you and say, “Yeah we liked that Inception mix” and do get the job you’ll have to show you can have those elements, but you have to infuse it with your DNA so it mutates.
For sure. That applies to a lot of things I think. Saying, “I’m going to be a painter and copy Picasso” will only get you so far. I mean, yeah, you might really like his style, but that’ll just come out in what you do.
Yeah, bring that love of cubism to your love of… you know, stamp collecting or whatever it is. Every person is walking talking combination of stuff. Hopes and dreams and traumas and everyone is unique like a snowflake. But also you kind of have to go out and live your life a little. You can’t just sit at home and play video games all day. Go out and get your heart broken a few times, you know? Get shot at.
I’m a method composer. I mean if you’re going to write a theme for a tortured character with deep regrets how can you do that if you have no reference? You can write something, sad, sure, but if you’ve actually experience regret and loss I can guarantee it’ll be better.
Well thank you so much for your time. I hope you can stay cool out there. In your car or house or wherever you’re going.
Oh yeah. We’ve always got those ACs primed and ready to go out here.
Alright, thanks for your time and hopefully you get something fun and goofy to do.