While video game music has always had its fans, the appreciation for game soundtracks and the people who create them has arguably never been higher. Part of this is due to the incredible nostalgia attached to some of gaming's most iconic tunes, but it's also because video game music is close to reaching the same level of fame and respect as music created for movies and other mediums.
Red Bull Music Academy has done some excellent work in popularising some of gaming's most talented composers, and ran a radio and documentary video series entitled Diggin' in the Carts not so long ago, which focused on classic music from classic games. Season two of this series is currently in progress, and we were lucky enough to sit down with host Nick Dwyer to talk about how the series was conceived and why he's taking it on the road with a world tour.
Nintendo Life: What inspired you to create Diggin' in the Carts?
Nick Dwyer: The music of video games was definitely an early influence in my life. Growing up we had a Commodore 64 in our household and then when I was around 10 my brother moved to Japan and bought and sent back to New Zealand a Super Famicom (Japanese SNES) for me. At that time in my life we had a lot of Japanese home stays and when it was young boys they would always bring with them the latest Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game, assuming that everyone in the world had a Super Famicom also. They were lucky they came to the one household in New Zealand that had one! I remember being really blown away at the time by the depth of the soundtracks for those Japanese Role Playing games and that lush, ‘not-quite-orchestral’ sound of the Super Famicom sound chip was super impressive to me. Fast forward many years later and I was presenting a TV series about music culture around the world for the National Geographic channel and when it came time to do the Tokyo episode I interviewed Nintendo legend Hirokazu Tanaka and Street Fighter II composer Yoko Shimomura for the series. I was really blown away with how wonderful they were and also how incredible their stories were. I guess my starting to research the era began there. Around the same time I was also working on a music project and I would travel to Tokyo once or twice a year to, amongst other things, go to vintage games stores to go ‘digging’ for Japanese only 16-bit games that I could sample. Naturally I wanted to learn more about the composers who made all this incredible music I was discovering for the first time and I could find very little information about them. I kinda started to realise that I needed to make a documentary series to tell their story and thankfully the Red Bull Music Academy got it and jumped onboard. I really have to thank Torsten and Many at RBMA for believing in it because without them we wouldn’t be here today.
Were you pleased with the response for the first season of the Diggin' in the Carts radio show?
Nick Dwyer: Absolutely. I started working in radio when I was 14 down in New Zealand and presented radio nearly every day for more than 20 years. I love radio and it’s been the greatest to have Diggin’ In The Carts evolve into a radio show. Basically all my life all I’ve ever loved to do is to dive right into new music or new old music and then present my findings to an audience and the audience that has been following the series are super passionate about the genre. A lot of very cool things have been happening within the sphere of video game music since we launched the series now with a number of legendary soundtracks being pressed and released to vinyl for the first time, we now have a Diggin’ In The Carts tour taking Japanese composers who have never performed before all over the world and of course we have just released a compilation on Hyperdub, which is one of the world’s most forward thinking record labels. So I think it’s a great time for that era of video game music being realised as this incredible electronic music, outside of the context of a video game.
Can you tell us a few highlights from this new season - what parts of it were especially enjoyable for you from a personal standpoint?
Nick Dwyer: Off the back of all of the research for the documentary series, the first season of the radio series and for the Hyperdub compilation, I thoroughly listened through the entire history of Japanese video game music from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, including Japanese PC systems like the MSX and PC8801. However, aside from owning and playing the Playstation and N64 when I was younger my musical knowledge of the fifth generation of consoles was pretty limited. So, I did what I did the last time and sat down and, over a period of 4 months, listened through the entire history. Every system, every game, every track. So to be honest the biggest highlight was just getting through it all. There was definitely a lot more music to get through in this era! In terms of discoveries, I found some really really incredible music that was released on the PC-Engine CD-ROM and a system called the FM Towns which was a system released by Japanese company Fujitsu. Music that was found on games that never left Japan and yes, you’ll have to listen through the new series to hear those finds!
Who would you say are your favourite composers working in the field of video gaming, either past or present - and why?
Nick Dwyer: In terms of composers, there’s so so many and all of the composers you’ll hear on the series are my favourites, people like Tamayo Kawamoto and Sizla Okamura. I think though that my favourite discovery since embarking on this project has been discovering the music of a composer called Manabu Saito who we highlight in the second episode in this new series. He composed music for a company called System Sacom for systems like the Sharp X68000, PC-8801 and the FM-Towns. His music has a quality that I’ve rarely heard in video game music, this sadness, this melancholy. I would go so far as to use the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ to describe his music. Sadly he passed away at the age of 22 and so the world didn’t really get a chance to hear his genius and I have no doubt in my mind, should he have lived on, he would of gone on to become one of the greatest video game composers to come out of Japan.
Do you ever find that some of the musicians you interview are surprised by the level of fame they have in the west?
Nick Dwyer: Pretty much all of them! Aside from say Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, most of the composers really had no idea that what they did back then was even thought of and appreciated as music let alone a significant inspiration on millions of young people around the world. It’s only really been in the past decade with the advent of the internet and also with a number of these composers jumping on social media that their fans have had an opportunity to reach out to them. In addition to that I think what the video series of Diggin’ In The Carts showed was just how much of an influence Japanese video game music had been on so many of the worlds most established names in contemporary electronic music. Take for example Yuzo Koshiro. He had some inkling that the music of Streets Of Rage was enjoyed by young kids in the west, but I think it took the series to show him to what level it had influenced people. Since then the series has now been pressed to vinyl and released and, alongside Motohiro Kawashima, the music of Streets of Rage is now being performed live, exactly how it sounded in the game, all over the world. That first show in Los Angeles I think the guys were a little bit unsure if anyone would turn it up at all, but we had a huge crowd going absolutely nuts to their music. And man, it sounded so so incredible hearing those original tracks loud.
How have these people influenced the modern music makers you've spoken to?
Nick Dwyer: In so many ways. As was pointed out in the documentary series, video game music was for so many of us our introduction to electronic music. It was listening to those loops that filled our living rooms day and night that prepared us for a future of listening to electronic beats. In the case of something like the Streets Of Rage soundtracks, those soundtracks were directly responsible for introducing house and techno to millions of kids worldwide. Even moving up a generation there is so much of this lush ambient sound found in a tonne of games in the next generations, be it Michiru Ohshima’s epic work on the ICO soundtrack or even the N64 music created by Mario and Zelda composer Koji Kondo which I think has played a big part in shaping the sound palette of a lot of internet-based electronic music scenes of the past decade. And then there’s sampling, I think 8-bit sounds have infiltrated almost every mutant sub-genre since the birth of sample based culture.
Video game music has arguably never been taken more seriously than it is now; could we eventually see these musicians reach the same level of acclaim as Hollywood composers?
Nick Dwyer: I think that there’s already a lot of crossover happening with US video game composers and Hollywood already with people like Hans Zimmer composing now for video games like Call Of Duty so there’s no doubt as to whether the industry is getting taken seriously or not. In terms of whether Japanese video game composers could achieve the level of fame, I think so. In the past few years the annual top 100 that Classic FM do has been filled with the works of Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and various other Japanese composers over the years. So yes, as a generation who grew up with video game music comes of age, it will only be taken more and more seriously.
What logistic challenges have you faced bringing together artists for the global live show, and what's the reaction been like so far?
Nick Dwyer: Video game music being performed around the world is not a new thing at all but traditionally it’s been orchestras bringing the music to life. The aim of these events though, is to bring the sounds, vibes and era of this music that was created so many many years ago to the live stage in it’s original form. I guess this has never really been done before so the biggest challenge was convincing the artists to perform this music for the very first time and get on a plane and do so all over the world! Luckily Yuzo was a big fan of the series and trusted us and agreed to do so. From there it’s been a lot of months deciding on what the live show will look like and then rehearsing which we were doing right up to launch event in Los Angeles. I think everyone was a little nervous going into it but Yuzo and Motohiro smashed it completely and it sounded incredible. We really can’t wait to take this show to even more places around the world throughout 2018 and we’ll be bringing other composers from Japanese with us also.
What's next for Diggin' in the Carts? Can we expect another season and are there are composers or games you'd like to feature?
Nick Dwyer: We have the Hyperdub album coming soon, so trying to let as many people know about the compilation as we can and also building on the live concept so we can hopefully bring the Diggin’ In The Carts show to as many festival stages and venues around the world as possible. But right now, it’s all about getting the second season of the radio show heard by as many people as possible. With regard to a new season, as I’ve just finished the second season I haven’t even had the opportunity to think about the next season yet. But it will be back and no doubt will involve another deep plunge into some all new depths of video game music history!