A quick note before we begin: The following interview was conducted prior to the news that lead designer Robert Kurvitz, artist Aleksander Rostov, and writer Helen Hindpere had all departed from developer ZA/UM, apparently under involuntary circumstances. This feature is focused entirely on Sea Power's work on Disco Elysium, but if you want more context around the recent news regarding ZA/UM, you can check out our coverage for more details.
It’s been a year since Disco Elysium: The Final Cut launched on the Nintendo Switch to rave reviews (including our own, in case you were wondering!), but the game originally launched a couple of years earlier for Windows, on 15th October 2019.
Designed by Estonian novelist Robert Kurvitz, Disco Elysium takes place in the poverty-stricken district of Martinaise, nestled within the fictional city of Revachol. You take on the role of a detective who wakes up in a trashed hotel room with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing in Martinaise. After meeting with his esteemed partner Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, the two embark on a grisly homicide case, leading them to explore the city and interrogate its eccentric citizens.
Disco Elysium is perhaps one of the most unique RPG games to grace the Switch, casting aside combat mechanics for skill checks and dialogue trees, allowing the player to craft their own story and shape the main protagonist in whichever way they see fit. Such a unique premise and setting required a soundtrack that would transport the player to the city of Revachol and present a truly well-realised sense of place. As such, ZA/UM recruited British alternative rock band ‘Sea Power’ (then known as British Sea Power), utilising the band’s sweeping catalogue to bring the world of Elysium to life.
Sea Power started creating music in the early ‘00s and released their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, in Summer 2003. They have since gone on to release a total of eight studio albums and four soundtrack albums, one of which is, of course, Disco Elysium. Currently, the band consists of Jan Wilkinson on vocals, Neil Hamilton Wilkinson on bass guitar, Martin Nobel on guitar, Matthew Wood on drums, Phil Sumner on the keyboard, and Abi Fry on the violin.
To dive a bit deeper into the band’s work with Disco Elysium, we spoke to Sea Power's Yan Wilkinson to delve into how they came to work on the game, how they celebrated their 2020 BAFTA win, and whether they would return for a potential sequel.
Nintendo Life: How did you wind up working with developer ZA/UM and Robert Kurvitz on Disco Elysium?
Jan Wilkinson, Sea Power: We really have Robert to thank for this; he sought us out. On first meeting him it was obvious that he had enthusiasm, intelligence and a unique energy in abundance. He was quite an impressive character. Also, his knowledge of our music was encyclopedic.
It was clear he believed passionately in what he was creating and had already / was in the process of forming a very interesting team that had an unusual and detailed approach to creating a world rather than just another game. He had some prototype artwork by the very talented Aleksander Rostov. It was very beautiful and showed they were taking a very imaginative angle.
From then on I would look forward to meetings with Robert who would always surprise us with where he was willing to go artistically. He would also offer helpful advice like how we had the tracklisting wrong on some of our past albums and how they could be improved! He may have had a point. Later we would meet other members of the core team like Helen Hindpere. They were a close-knitted bunch of talented artists and writers.
What approach did you take when creating music for the game? What kind of direction did ZA/UM provide?
Robert began by giving some specific ideas of songs that already existed from our catalogue of albums and film soundtracks that could be adapted to fit certain “scenes” and areas of their landscape. He also would occasionally go off on a kind of abstract descriptive free-flowing monologue of how he imagined things. This would flit between visual, sonic, geographical and literary ideas. I think we understood him quite well.
He would say pieces were missing for important or even minor encounters and we would decide who would come up with ideas for each. There was a lot of music needed so we often worked individually at first and then sometimes asked each other to provide help or extra instrumentation. We would also just get into the atmosphere of the game and come up with our own takes on things. We would sometimes be given glitchy video of an area / piece of gameplay which really helped too.
Later in the process, there was an element of fine-tuning between us and Robert which was even in the later stages very creative and full of leftfield ideas. It surprised some people that the band are very capable technically behind the scenes. We recorded and engineered the whole project ourselves. We mixed the whole thing also. The creativity is as much in the sonics and the production as the songwriting and instrument playing and we love and thrive in all of these aspects.
We recorded and engineered the whole project ourselves. We mixed the whole thing also. The creativity is as much in the sonics and the production as the song writing and instrument playing.
You mentioned Robert suggested some of your existing songs for the soundtrack; how much of your existing music did you incorporate into it? For example, the song Red Rock Riviera sounds like it was directly implemented to depict the district of Martinaise.
Yes. There were a handful of tracks that were quite directly incorporated. Even these were re-recorded and usually became more minimal and atmospheric. Some of these were easy to see why Robert had asked for them. They had a certain mysterious iodine-laced mood. Others were quite obscure tracks from rare eps like Up Against It which became the instrumental Whirling In Rags.
With the Whirling In Rags theme specifically, how did you go about incorporating Up Against It into the game? I noticed it's since been used in your most recent album under the title 'Fire Escape in the Sea'.
Some songs seem to carve out their own journey and this is one of them. The song was originally on a rare EP in a series of six EPs (and mostly unnoticed) that we released around 10 years or so ago. It wasn’t an obvious song to choose, but Robert asked for an instrumental version. 'Whirling in Rags' as a title was not only an obscure reference to a Sea Power song but also to be a hostel/bar he had created, a central building in the game's structure. There are countless hard to spot Sea Power references teasingly hidden through the game which was funny and also flattering.
The first new version was fairly similar to the original track. A bit more relaxing and open and a little more beautiful. Then to fit the brief of different moods for the Whirling in rags bar it needed different moods for different times of the day. I love deconstructing songs and getting lost in the more abstract moods of music. So the late-night version took this approach; very dreamy and innocent and magical.
Next a party vibe was needed. What kind of party? For a laugh I came up with a reggae-dancehall version which was quick and a lot of fun to do. To my surprise the team loved it and reportedly had a dance around the office to it one night. The game gave the track a new life and it ended up on our latest album in a form which pulled on elements from its various incarnations.
To be honest we don’t win very often. So it was quite a surprise and a blow to my pessimistic nature. Ha. I was very proud of what we had done and the game had won countless prizes around the world and even been the cover of Time magazine by then, but I thought one of the other games would get the Bafta. So I went to bed early and heard in the morning before breakfast.
I celebrated with a tastier than normal breakfast including three perfectly poached eggs and by feeling slightly happier than normal!
Have you played Disco Elysium or its more recent ‘Final Cut’ update? What did you make of it?
I think it is an amazing work acting on many levels simultaneously. The visual side of it combined with the music are very successful and create a very strong sense of place, which to me allows the incredible writing and the superb characters to come to life. I think these three elements all interact and feed each other to create something powerful and memorable.
The visual side of it combined with the music are very successful and create a very strong sense of place, which to me allows the incredible writing and the superb characters to come to life.
It's pretty far out to be fair. Which is somewhere we are happy to be. So yeah, I liked it a lot! It’s a strange game that I never saw coming.
If ZA/UM were to create a new entry in the Disco Elysium world — whether it be a sequel or spin-off — would you want to return to compose the soundtrack?
Like I said earlier I’m not a massive optimist. These things don’t have a habit of turning up too often. I guess you never know. Mostly though, I do miss the creative side of working with Robert and his team. It was really interesting and occasionally cathartic.
Soundtracks for games and/or film is an artistic area which I and the others really enjoy and will be doing more of in the future. At this point I’m not sure if this is a parallel career to Sea Power for us or just a part of the band's output alongside albums and playing live.