Friday, December 26, 2008

Little Big Brilliance: A talk with Daniel Pemberton

Ever play Little Big Planet? Then you’ve heard of Daniel Pemberton – or rather, you’ve heard him. Daniel Pemberton is a composer. He has been nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Award. He has scored everything from documentaries like “Hiroshima,” “George Orwell – A Life in Pictures,” to British comedy favorites “Peep Show,” and “Suburban Shootout.” He has recorded himself singing through a drain and yawning. He has written for The Guardian, Wired, and Esquire. He is the unstrung savant between Little Big Planet’s tweeting, squawking, ragged sonic brilliance.

But really – who the hell is Daniel Pemberton? We were curious, so we asked.

Charge Shot!!!: How did you approach writing music for Little Big Planet? Given that much of the game's appeal was the opportunity for endless user creativity, did you find it difficult to score for levels that had yet to be made?

Daniel Pemberton: Well yes and no... I didn't really write specifically for the levels... I gave Kenny [Young] – the fabulous audio bigwig at Media Molecule – a load of tracks I'd written that felt in tune with the game's sensibilities and he chose where they'd work best. They already had a load of great music from Mat Clark, so I was sort of plugging the extra holes. I think one of the reasons I got hired was that there's a whole load of my music that is really in keeping with the LittleBigPlanet ethos. That is, making music with it's own unique quirky personality rather than the super slick you hear rather a lot today. I often think a really badly recorded piano in the corner of the room can have more emotion in it that another orchestral piece playing long held chords and it was great to work on a project that embraced this. There's a place for everything but with so many games they just want it to sound 'BIG'. I guess it's like an indie film rather than a big Hollywood blockbuster.

The best thing about this was they wanted the music to have it's own personality. A lot of my fav composers – people like Morricone, Jon Brion, Mark Mothersbaugh – all seem to embrace making music that can be a bit rough round the edges but have heaps of personality and I try to do that too – when it makes sense.

CS: You've mentioned in other interviews the importance of making unique noise on your tracks. What was the weirdest thing you did to make sound for LBP? What's the weirdest thing you've done for any project?

DP: Erm… I dunno. My proudest moment was getting myself singing through a drainpipe onto prime time ITV a few years back. With LBP there's things like me yawning reprocessed though autotune, some retwisted didgeridoos and bird calls, poppy noises I make with my mouth and some record scratching that I tried to make sound really musical.

CS: If one listened to "The End" from the George Orwell documentary you scored, and "Horny Old Man" from Little Big Music, they'd envision two different composers: the first, studious and solemn; the second, unhinged and talkative. How do you reconcile the different impulses? Do you?

DP: I think there are loads of different sides to most composers, they just get typecast so you don't hear it so much. I love being stupid and I love being serious. If I've spent all year writing serious music I will start to get very bored with it so I'll try and move onto something a bit more silly. I think my silly stuff is more unique though.

CS: Has composing for games changed the way you write music for other media?

DP: Not really as I don't think I've actually yet written a really detailed gamescore that is affected by the action, which is something I'd like to do in the future.

CS: Little Big Music includes tracks "inspired by" the game. Did your creative cup runneth over? What distinguishes this set of tracks?

DP: I wanted to get the LittleBigPlanet stuff I did out there but at the same time I didn't want to make anyone who actually forked out for a download feel ripped off – so I stuck a load of the other tracks in there too to make it more of a fun listening experience… Some of those tracks ended up not making the final game due to space constraints and things like that but I thought people might like to hear them anyway… If I put out an album I always want to make it good value for those few people who still actually buy them!

CS: You've said that many of your favorite tunes growing up were from television shows - is there any single artist who has had a huge influence on your body of work, or do you draw your inspiration from a wide variety of sources?

DP: I dunno... Anyone who writes a great piece of music with it's own distinct identity normally does it for me. There's a thing on my website of my top ten TV themes which should help...

CS: How is scoring a game different from scoring a television show? Are you given more freedom to stretch your creative muscles?

DP: Yes and no. It all depends who you are dealing with. I always write the best stuff when people just trust me. With LBP I had originally written a different theme for the opening but after a while I decided it wasn't that good. The final track - The Orb Of Dreamers – came together in about five minutes. It just sort of happened – I played along and it wrote itself. It was really spooky. By the time I'd run through the sequence for the first time with that tune I had massive goosebumps up my arm and I knew it was a zillion times better than what I'd done before which was to try and establish more of a distinctive melodic tune... so I went with what made me feel the most emotional and I think it's worked really well.

CS: Do you play any games yourself? If so, have any favorites?

DP: Years ago I used to be a videogame reviewer. I played shit loads of games and wrote about them for defunct mags like ZERO and Game Zone and then also things like Esquire and The Daily Telegraph. I was super duper into them. I did work experience for Peter Molyneux in the 90's when he only had seven people working at Bullfrog, and I got the job on The Movies 'cos I bumped into him in a toilet at an XBOX conference about fifteen years later! Very very random. But I do so much music now I don't have much free time. I love Metal Gear Solid, I just think if they only made storylines that weren't SO bizzaro it could be completely amazing. I also love things you can just pick up and put down in 25 minutes. Not a big fan of really intense games cos they take up too much time that I don't have. Some of my fav games are all pretty old school – things like Bomberman, Time Crisis and Speedball 2.

CS: Almost every project you list on your website includes a comment along the lines of "I hadn't really done anything like this before." How do you keep finding such new, challenging work and what's next after Little Big Music?

DP: I think you just try and pick projects that are different to the last ones or approach them in a different way. Im writing a score for a BBC drama at the moment on the Iraq war. It's the fourth project in two years I've done on Iraq. I don't want to write the same thing so we've come up with a rule – no eastern instruments. I'm trying to write it for classical guitar and string quartet and by giving myself those limitations hopefully I can come up with something fresh rather than just tread the same old ground.

Daniel Pemberton's album, Little Big Music: Musical Oddities From and Inspired By Little Big Planet, dropped on December 15th and can be found on iTunes. You can also check out his Web site,