65daysofstatic is a critically acclaimed post-rock band that’s produced some incredibly great albums over the years. Their next album challenges the band to create a score for a video game. But it’s not just any old video game—it’s No Man’s Sky. The challenge is to make a soundtrack that fits right in with the procedurally generated nature of the space-exploration game that’s been on the lips of every game journalist since its reveal three years ago due to its ambitious nature.
From alien geography to the flora and fauna that populates the game’s innumerable planets, almost everything about No Man’s Sky is procedurally generated—created by computer algorithms. The soundtrack is set to be just as similar, generating new music based the band’s signature sound and melodies created by them.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to 65daysfostatic’s Joe Shrewsbury about the band’s contributions to No Man’s Sky. Read on!
No Man’s Sky was hardly on anyone’s radar before it was announced. How did you get in contact with the developers at Hello Games?
Prior to that original announcement, Hello Games contacted us to license a track we wrote in 2010 called ‘Debutante’ (which can be found on a record we made called ‘We Were Exploding Anyway’). They wanted to use the track in the trailer they were cutting for the No Man’s Sky announcement. We agreed to all this, of course, but we also asked to see a bit more information about the game, as it sounded really interesting.
Hello Games got back to us with some screenshots and a more detailed description of what the game would comprise. At that point, we realised that we had to convince them to let us be involved in the soundtrack somehow. As it turned out, they were considering this anyway. After we got to know Sean (Murray) a little bit, he told us that in the early stages of the game, when it was very rudimentary and required a leap of imagination to envisage how amazing it would one day look, he played 65dos music at the Hello Games weekly meetings. So maybe our involvement was inevitable.
You’ve worked on a soundtrack before, with the live re-scoring of the 1972 science fiction film Silent Running. By comparison, what’s it like to work on a video game?
The live re-score was commissioned by Glasgow Film Festival, and was a very different project from NMS. Firstly, it was only ever supposed to be a couple of performances, so even though we ended up playing it all over Europe, and crowdfunding a studio version and vinyl release of our score, when we wrote it, it was only one project in many things we were developing. So we wrote it quite quickly, and we allowed ourselves to write far less polished arrangements than we usually would. Due to the constraints associated with soundtracking an already edited and finished film, some of those arrangements were quite unusual also, but in the end, the whole project taught us a bunch of valuable lessons and gave us a reinvigorated trust in our abilities to write music together that couldn’t have come at a better time.
Conversely, No Man’s Sky was a much bigger project that we knew was going to be our sole focus for a while. There was a sort of doublethink to No Man’s Sky – we knew we had to write a lot of music, but we also knew we’d need to deconstruct those compositions and reiterate them and expand upon them via a great deal of variation and counterpoint and so on. So we began by concentrating on the record for about ten months, and then we moved on, using a lot of that material as well as the soundscape material to generate the audio we wanted to use in the game. At the moment, we’re finishing up our contribution to the in-game audio, working with Paul Weir, the audio director of No Man’s Sky who is curating that audio and putting it in the game. That’s been a great experience, and a new one for us, but we can see how a different game with a less receptive audio director might be very difficult.
What’s it like, exactly, to create a procedurally generated soundtrack? What are the challenges it poses when composing and playing the melodies? Does the music ever come out in ways you don’t intend?
The process of feeding audio into the game is a lengthy one, and there’s a lot of work that has to be done before you can even test if what you’re providing musically is working. On top of this, we don’t enjoy on demand access to No Man’s Sky, for obvious reasons, one being that we’d end up playing it all day instead of working. But we found a way quite early on to sort of ‘fake’ instances that might occur in-game, using software like FMOD and Max, just to check things were gelling.
Ultimately, however, we can only control so much of this, and likewise, there must be a point when Paul Weir will have to let the game’s audio engine fend for itself. The whole point however, is to create music we didn’t intend, the core idea being that the game have some agency in the music that is created. We’re happy to be part of the conversation around that, though I’m sure the game audio will fail to live up to some people’s expectations, just as it will exceed others. But I think we just feel really lucky to have been given the opportunity to contribute, and I think there’s something about our approach to writing music that has made us well suited to the experience. I think a lot of the things we’ve learnt will feed back into the next album we make, whenever that will be. Particularly the randomisation of phrases, allowing technology to dictate what direction you might take.
The only exposure that many gamers might have to your music would be the song featured in its world premiere, “Debutante.” How would you describe the sound of the actual soundtrack?
I don’t know, I think music is better experienced than described, and if it needs to be described, then probably not by me. It’s…it’s brave I think, we didn’t try to tone down what we do. We also tried I suppose to push what we’ve been doing a bit further. There’s some electronic elements that I think are used differently to our more recent output.
I think we’re gradually starting to see sound more texturally, not really making a distinction between electronics and guitars for instance, so I think the level of sound design we’re demanding from ourselves is a lot better. A lot of this came from our last record ‘Wild Light’ where we really worked on the detail of the sound palette we wanted and pushed ourselves to try and make new sounds and combinations of sounds in a way we hadn’t previously. The No Man’s Sky stuff is pretty full on, quite menacing at times, but there’s lots of melody I hope.
Were you given any direction or provided any requirements by Hello Games when composing the soundtrack?
They simply told us to ‘write the next 65daysofstatic record’. And that was about it. We definitely checked in with them with a big batch of early demos, and they seemed pretty into it. I think we were more worried about it than them. They definitely gave us some ideas at that point though. I know they really liked the vocal stuff on Debutante, so we worked with the same singer, Debbie-Clare, who provided vocals for a couple of other tracks on the NMS record, ‘Supermoon’ and Heliosphere’. I think Supermoon is a really interesting 65 track, because we wrote it really fast, there was a lot of pressure to complete it, and we really concerned that we that we were somehow repeating ourselves, and had been persuaded to rip off a track we’d written some years before. But in hindsight, while it clearly makes a nod to Debutante, Supermoon is audibly it’s own thing, and it’s one of the most accessible things we’ve done.
Other than that, though, I think they pretty much left us to it.
Before the world premiere of No Man’s Sky, many gamers might not have had the opportunity to listen to your music. What’s it like to have your music introduced to an all new audience?
I think it’s great! I think it’s going to continue to be great. We’d love it if a whole lot of new people started coming to see us live.
You’re releasing two albums on the soundtrack. What sets them apart?
The first record is more ‘normal’ arrangement wise. We wanted a normal length record that had music on it that made sense out side of the game, particularly for people who weren’t into games, but also just so we had an album that worked. Sometimes I think soundtrack records are little more than collections of all the odd pieces of music that were written to be in a film, and don’t flow particularly well, or require more context than is available in album form only. Because the NMS process was so different from writing for film or something, because we wrote the music first and then deconstructed it for inclusion in the game, we had the ability to put an album together that resembled a normal 65record.
The second record of sound design and soundscapes is, I think, equally engaging, but it contains music that we allowed to remain a lot more freeform, with more explicit forays into ambience, experimentation, repetition and so on. But when we were actually immersed in the project, we perceived all of this music as the same single body of work, and I think we still do.
What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened while you were working the No Man’s Sky soundtrack?
Well, we took the work very seriously, and it’s been almost two years of our lives since we began work on the soundtrack. So the whole project has been very immersive and very all encompassing, and we’ve tried really hard to stay focused and bring our best, most professional, most creative selves to the project. Recording the album last year was a high point – we’d written it relatively fast, particularly compared to the sort of time it usually takes us to write a record, so it was great to get back into the studio and hear it coming together.
One of the things 65 has done on recent records is to leave some tracks unfinished prior to the studio. That is to say, while all tracks are necessarily unfinished before the actual final studio session, and then need to be mixed and so on after, we often have a couple of pieces that feel like they need a more formal studio situation to reveal what they’re truly capable of. This is really exciting, as away from the context of our own rehearsal space, in a studio in the middle of nowhere, the focus is really really good between the four of us. And collectively working on music in that environment feels like a real luxury, while at the same time can be a bit scary, because you can hear things coming together, but also how close they often are to falling apart. So we did that with a track from the album called ‘Blueprint for a Slow Machine’ and that was a great days work, I think we worked well into the night, in this studio in the middle of nowhere, no phone signal, just trying to make this music work.
More recently, working with Paul Weir, No Man’s Sky’s audio director, we’ve been feeding a great deal of raw audio into the game. This comprises quite painstakingly rendering variations of a melody into a game in sections, and that process, while it has it’s creative side, also has an administrative aspect that can be really dull, and requires a lot of patience. So when Weir visited and we heard our music in the game for the first time, and got to move around in the game and see how the music reacted, that was really exciting.
After No Man’s Sky, do you plan on creating any more music for video games in the future?
Yes please. And films. We’re up for anything.
For more details on where you can get the game’s soundtrack, be sure to check out our write-up.