Grant Kirkhope Ukelele
Image: Grant Kirkhope

Grant Kirkhope is an interviewer's dream, and not just because he's responsible for some all-time great video game soundtracks. He’s great company — frank, funny, and loquacious.

We spoke to him most recently for our Nintendo Life VGM Fest back in 2021 and only ended up publishing a small fraction of our chat in our Quick Beats series. Since then, we've been waiting for the right time to publish more of our conversation, and the arrival of the 25th anniversary of Banjo-Kazooie — a game that means an awful lot to many a Nintendo fan, and this writer in particular — seems like the perfect occasion to finally delve into the story of our favourite 'big noise maker'.

In fact, we've decided to split this substantial, career-spanning interview across two parts. In Part One, he discusses his musical journey, from playing a recorder at school through tours with some of the biggest names of metal and rock in the ‘80s and ‘90s — and beyond all that trivial success into the wonderful world of video games, up to his decision to leave Rare.

So, grab a tasty beverage and sit back as we delve into the stories and influences that led to some of our most treasured musical memories in gaming. Please enjoy the company of Mr. Grant 'Clanker' Kirkhope…

Nintendo Life: To start, I wanted to go over how you began composing music in general. You started playing the trumpet. Is that correct?

Grant Kirkhope: I did recorder when I was four. I went to junior school in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. They brought around recorders and said, ‘Anyone want to play recorder?’. I bought my recorder for 15 shillings and played that for a few years. I went to the next school and someone brought a cornet in a shopping bag. They said, ‘Who wants to play this?’ I put my hand up first, so I got the cornet. I did the proper Associated Board exams in the UK, did that right the way through school.

I started playing guitar about 12. A mate of mine [who] had a crappy little band said, ‘Do you want to come up play guitar?’ and taught me a couple of chords. I started getting better than them because I practised really hard. That was my school years, really. I did the recorder. I stopped playing that after a while, then just did trumpet. Joined the local Harrogate and Skipton Schools Symphony Orchestra on a Saturday morning. Then I got into the North Yorkshire School Symphony Orchestra, which, to me, was like the LSO. We did two courses, one week each, at Scarborough. One at Easter, one in the Summer. You stayed away for a whole week and just did the orchestra. I really couldn’t believe how fantastic it was, you know, playing music all day long, and then you used to go and tit about down Scarborough on the amusements in the afternoons, which was brilliant.

I was good at music. It was all I was good at really. I did all [UK school exams] O Levels and A Levels, and [when it got to] college time my teacher said to me, ‘You should really try going to music college.’ So, I went off to the Royal College of Music and did a four-year course there – classical trumpet and you had to do piano as well. All the time I had long hair, playing in metal bands. I didn’t want to play trumpet really, but I just went because it was four more years of not getting a job, right?

It was a means to an end then, the trumpet.

Absolutely. I just wanted to be in Judas Priest or Iron Maiden – that’s what I wanted to do. I had no interest in doing trumpet at all really.

You can catch young Grant here performing in 1987.

But you had ability.

Yeah, I was good at it. I had a natural ability for trumpet, bizarrely enough. So, I finished that and went round to Knaresborough to live with my mother and just signed on the dole straight away. I ended up playing in lots of local bands over the next 11 years, until about 32. Some of the bands did well. Some of the bands did crap. I played in a band called Zoot and the Roots, who were quite a popular sort of uni band on trumpet. They were like a soul-funk sort of band. We did some quite cool stuff, like we played Saturday Live when Ben Elton was doing it and stuff like that. We played the Palladium when Ben E. King was number one with Stand by Me; we were his backing band for the night. We played Europe quite a lot. You know, they were very popular.

You’re kind of [self-deprecating and] ‘Oh yeah, it was alright’, but those seem like quite big things.

They were. Zoot were the kind of band that everybody liked. We were playing three or four nights a week forever — six, seven years — a proper working band. Lots of times bands would turn up to support us who became famous later. Like Curiosity Killed the Cat supported us a couple of times. Record companies knew we’d pull the crowd, so they put the new bands out with us that no one had heard of, so they could learn to play in front of a crowd without anybody knowing who they are. There are a few bands like that who turned up. Deacon Blue, I think, were another one. The La’s, remember There She Goes? They’d have loads of new gear and [we would think], ‘Oh yeah, record company band’.

Zoot really never ‘made it’. Great live band, we did lots of massive gigs all over the place. We got offered a deal once from IRS Records. That’s Miles Copeland, Stewart Copeland’s brother. And they’d just done a hit, Doctor and the Medics had a number one hit with Spirit in the Sky. They wanted to sign us, but the people that ran the band – two main guys – didn’t want to do it so they never got signed.

I was trapped playing [with] bands all the time. I kept thinking that it’s all very well being in a working band making money, because I was, but I wanted to be in a metal band. That’s all I wanted to do. I tried with my own metal bands, but never really got anywhere. I had a band called Syar. We had an album out called Death Before Dishonour on a little Belgium label. That did alright. Then I joined a band called Maineeaxe – a proper ‘80s metal band. We had a couple of albums out that did alright. We did a tour with a band called Magnum. That was it.

But then I joined a band called Little Angels, who were quite a big UK rock band in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. A friend of mine managed the band. I knew the band from years before, I used to play trumpet for them. They had proper success. They [had a] number-one album in the UK, so we did some pretty gigantic tours. We opened up for Bon Jovi on the I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead tour six weeks around Europe. That was fantastic. Played open air, like 90,000 people, crazy stuff.

How old were you when this was happening?

I must have been 30-ish. It was us, Billy Idol, and Bon Jovi. Can you believe that? Unbelievable. Incredible. Then we also got a Van Halen tour. We did six weeks with Van Halen around Europe. That was the Right Here, Right Now tour. Obviously, as a guitar player Eddie Van Halen was my hero. He was absolutely the nicest man in the world. Honestly, six weeks with him, I talked to him every day and I just thought, ‘I might never ever, ever meet him ever again in my life.’ He gave me this [points to a guitar]. His signature guitar that he designed at the time. That’s the one he played. Absolutely unbelievable to get to do that with them!

We did the Bryan Adams tour when he was number one with Everything I Do (I Do it for You), when that was number one for 16 weeks. We played Wembley Stadium, the old Wembley Stadium to 77,000 people. It was us, Squeeze, Extreme, and Bryan Adams. We did, I think, six football stadiums in the UK. Cardiff Arms Park, Ipswich, Man City, Wembley, and the Glasgow one. Milton Keynes Bowl for two nights with Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi. Two days with Bon Jovi at the Milton Keynes Bowl sold out 80,000 people! These are proper massive gigs, so to do that was just fantastic. I couldn’t believe it. We had a great laugh because I knew the band, we were mates. To tit about Europe for six weeks in a rock band playing those gigantic shows was pretty spectacular.

Grant Kirkhope
Image: Grant Kirkhope

You could’ve quite happily just stopped there and gone, ‘Yeah okay, now I’ll go and work on a [construction] site’ or do anything and you’d have already ‘made it’, but you’ve gone on much beyond that.

That came to an end. Little Angels split up, so I was back to playing in pubs again, punk rock-like covers bands. I was doing it all the time in between going on tour with them anyway. I’d sign on the dole, go on tour, come back, sign on the dole. It was always like that over that 11-year period from 22 to 33.

I had a mate called Robin Beanland, who played in one of the local bands that I played for. He’s a keyboard player and one day he announced he’d got a job. No one that I knew had got a job. He said, “Yeah I’m going to look at a place called Rare and write music for video games.” I was like, ‘Wow!’, couldn’t believe it.

Were you a big gamer at that time?

I was. I’d played a lot of games at that point. I played the SNES a lot, so I was just astonished. We stayed in touch. He’d been there about a year and a half and he said, “You know, Grant, if you’ve been on and off the dole for 11 years. Don’t you think it’s time you got a job?” I said Robin, what the bloody hell can I do? All I can do is play this bloody guitar and play this trumpet, and that was about it.

And playing with Bon Jovi and all the...

Well, I know but it’s not a career. It’s not going to last the rest of your life. It’s great fun, but it’s not massively well-paid or anything like that. He said, “Why don’t you try what I’m doing, writing music for video games?" I was like, “Well, I don’t think I could do it.” Because when I was at college we had to pass the harmony exam at some point. I failed it three years out of four and I only just scraped by in the last year by the skin of my teeth. I was terrible at harmony. Understanding music, I was terrible at it. I just didn’t get it at all. I wrote songs for the metal band that I played for. But that was it, so thinking about being a composer never once entered my head. Not once. It was like a mystic art.

So I said, “Alright I’ll have a go. I’ve got bugger all else to do.” He recommended I buy an Atari ST and probably Cubase, which is a sequencing program. I bought a little synth module that had sounds in it and I sat in my bedroom in my mum’s house in Knaresborough writing some tunes that I thought were appropriate for video games.

I sent Rare five cassette tapes over the course of that year. Never got a reply. That must have been 1994. Then out of the blue I got a letter saying, ‘Please come and interview’ and I couldn’t believe it. So, I went down to Rare in the Midlands, in Twycross, middle of nowhere. Dave Wise and Simon Farmer, who was the general manager, interviewed me on the Friday. And I got a letter saying I got the job on the Monday. I couldn’t believe it, absolutely astonished. So, off I went. I started with Rare October 15th, 1995. Complete fluke.

Super Famicom
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

So you didn’t go there full of confidence going, ‘Okay, well I’ve played those stadiums, I’ve done this, I’ve done that — I can do this.’?

No way. None of that matters at all. I think you’re only as good as the next thing you do. You might have done a great gig yesterday, but you might do a s**t gig from now on until the day you die and you’re rubbish. It’s got to sustain a career. You’ve got to be consistently good. I’d done all these big gigs and played in bands for years, and so I was a good musician, but a billion people do that.

I had to write three tracks to take down on cassette. I had to get a Batman-style orchestral piece, a guitar-based fighting piece because they were doing Killer Instinct at the time, and a platform-y Mario-style piece — I wrote those in the week between getting the letter and the interview. But I was in touch with Robin all the time he was there, so I knew they were working on Killer Instinct 2 because they’d done the arcade machine. And they’d made the news at Rare, because the Donkey Kong had done amazingly well, like 10 million sales and Nintendo bought it. I remember that made the News at 10 in the UK. It was a spectacular thing. I felt like I was going to royalty. I really felt like, ‘What chance do I stand? Really none at all.’ And I really didn’t know who Dave Wise was. I knew he was the boss, he was the head of music at the time, but I didn’t know much about him. And I just sat there not really knowing what’s going on in this mad farmhouse where Rare were at the time in Twycross.

And I got the job on the Monday. Couldn’t believe it. So I packed my stuff, went to live in Coalville just off the M1, and started working at Rare. If Robin had not done it, I’d never have done it. If he hadn’t had the forethought to think I could do that and say to me, ‘Why don’t you have a go?’, I would never have done it. It would never have entered my head. It was an absolute fluke.

You said about having to write those three pieces, different genres. Did you find it easy to jump between genres?

Yeah, I do. It’s such an absurd thing because I was so bad at harmony at college. I found that I only understood it by ear. Obviously, I’m better at it now but I think trying to do it properly, like working the notes out and what the chords are, and all that stuff wasn’t really me. I wasn’t interested in that. I didn’t find it really interesting, but doing it by ear was easy-peasy. So bizarre how my brain works. These days when I have to do orchestral stuff I have to get involved in it. I have to get up and make sure it’s all right and I know what I’m doing. But certainly when I started at Rare it was just done by ear. And I like it like that.

Moving forward a bit... I mean I could blow smoke up your ass all day about Banjo, so I won’t. But one thing I do want to ask you about is the pause screen music. It’s just burned in my brain, it’s genius. I play it to my kids if they’re doing something slowly. Do you remember anything about whose idea it was that it needed music there?

I just felt like most games had music on the pause screen. I felt like they did so I just wrote it. I did it on GoldenEye. I just felt like we needed music on the pause screen. And usually those things take you literally three, four minutes to write. Honestly. It’s just the main theme with the Banjo, isn’t it?


Then the base part, that’s about it right?

Yeah, slowed down. It’s strange how something that was so natural and quick [to write] I’ve had [buried in my brain for 25 years].

A lot of the time [the ones] you write quicker are the things that stick in people’s heads more. It’s funny, the things you toss off and don’t think about are the ones that everyone loves. Like on Spotify I can see what people are playing on my Spotify. And all the things that I think are my spectacular pieces are right at the bottom of the list because no one gives a s**t. [laughs] But the ones that I wouldn’t expect are the ones that always come top. It just shows you the composers don’t really know what their best work is, because you think of the most technical thing you’ve written, the most intricate, or the most inventive thing... And most people just go, ‘I think that’s s**t. What I like is this thing over here, which just goes do-di-do-do-doo’. [Spotify has] been a real insight to show what people like that I write.

Okay, so going forward a little bit, how did you find the transition moving from the restrictions of the N64 to the later consoles where, if you had the budget for a full orchestra, you could have a fully orchestrated piece? Did you find it intimidating in any way, the fidelity and the possibilities? Or was it just kind of ‘great, more’?

Yeah, it was that. I feel like when I was at college. The College orchestra rehearsed every Tuesday and Thursday morning in the big concert hall, and I never missed that in four years. I used to sit there as a nobody in the orchestra. It’s just great watching them rehearse, play some big pieces, stuff like that. Also, I sat in an orchestra playing in orchestras myself, so when I have to write for orchestra it was like, ‘Ah! I know how it sounds, I know how it works.’

It’s handy having that metal side then the orchestra’s classical side is kind of opposites. It was useful for me to draw from both of those things. Like for GoldenEye it was pretty rock-y. Later games like Viva Piñata were super orchestral. I was just lucky that it turned out that way. I couldn’t wait to write for live orchestra. My first game for that was Viva Piñata. Steve Burke had joined Rare a couple of years before that and he did orchestra for Kameo. We never really thought about that until that point. Because he’d done it before when he worked at his previous job, we were all like, ‘Oh!’ We didn’t think about that. I was doing Grabbed by the Ghoulies. I was too late to get that for orchestra, but I think I would have done if we’d done it a bit sooner. It came to be with Viva Piñata.

When you decided to leave Rare and moved to America, was that an easy decision? Or did that take some time to arrive at?

Me and my missus, before we were married and had kids, we always vacationed over here. We always went to LA, Vegas, or New York. That was our favourite place to go. We would always think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could work in America?’ I half-arsed applied for jobs over the years, never got anywhere. A did get an interview for Rockstar San Diego, who do Red Dead. They flew me out twice to interview with them. I think I interviewed for Microsoft internally to go and work in Seattle. I don’t think [Rare] were real happy about that, but they knew I was doing it. I didn’t get the job for that either. I applied for other places, never got a look in.

But then Big Huge Games pops up in Baltimore. They flew me over and interviewed me and offered me the job! Me and the missus always thought there’s no point worrying until you actually get a firm offer and go, ‘Are we going to go or not?’. That was the first firm offer that we got. I thought Baltimore was alright, and they flew us over again with my wife and we had two kids at that point – a daughter, two, and son, five. We all flew over across for a week to try and find somewhere to live and see if it was going to work. That was it. I said, ‘Yeah we’re going to go and do it.’

I think Rare were a bit shocked. Tim and Chris had left at that point, and I wasn’t as enamoured with the company. I absolutely adored being at Rare. They call it Rare’s Golden Years, I suppose, and I adored being there at that time. Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Conker – all those fantastic games that Rare made. I was at Rare 12 years and I absolutely loved it. But Microsoft over, it got a little bit more corporate, that I didn’t like. I really liked the fact that Rare was an agile family-run company. You’d have a little meeting in the morning and do it in the afternoon. There were no focus groups or producers or that big layer of administration that exists in corporate companies these days. [Today’s] indie studios are what Rare used to be like, now. We just messed around and we got it right, no one really knew what we were doing. You think on the GoldenEye team, none of us had made a game before. No one knew what we were doing. We just guessed and go, ‘Well, I think that...’ And I feel like that’s why it’s so good.

You go back and you read Making Of articles and it is crazy how such a big name licence [was given to an unproven team]. You’ve got Nintendo involved, you’ve got the Bond people. It’s kind of seat-of-your-pants stuff.

Yeah, we had no idea. You literally thought, ‘I think that’s a good idea so let’s just do that.’ And everyone went, ‘I suppose so. We don’t know. Just do what you think.’ That’s what we all did. I kind of feel like the more focus group-y corporate-y it becomes, the more watered-down the idea becomes in games. It has to please lots of people, so it pleases everybody a bit, but nobody a lot. I don’t like games like that...

And we'll leave it there for today. Part Two of this interview is now live, where Grant delves into the big huge troubles at Big Huge Games, touches on some other studios he almost worked for before composing for Firaxis and Sega, and details his reaction to landing a hallowed Mario game gig. Continue the story below…