Throughout the Nintendo Life Video Game Music Festival we're speaking to a range of composers and musicians for a mixture of in-depth interviews and shorter, sharper (and perhaps a little goofier) Q&As where we ask just ten rapid-fire personal questions; we're calling these shorter features 'Quick Beats'.
Today we're talking with a musical maestro and personal hero, Mr Grant Kirkhope of Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007, Viva Piñata, and Mario + Rabbids fame — and much more, of course. This veteran of Rare during its golden N64 years has an enviable back catalogue, but began his career in VGM after several years playing in bands and touring with some of the biggest names in the history of rock.
You may notice that this Quick Beats is a little longer than the average — that's because it's taken from a longer conversation we had with Grant a few weeks ago. We go a little off-piste here discussing film scores and more, but Grant is such good company we think you'll enjoy this particular slightly longer beat.
And you can look forward to even more from our conversation soon. In the meantime let's find out what treasured item Kirkhope would save from his house, and much more...
What was the first song or album you remember buying?
What was the last music you listened to?
It was yesterday and it was Jurassic Park by John Williams. [laughs]
What was the very first video game you wrote music for, and how do you feel listening back now?
It was GoldenEye, the very first game I and worked on. And I like it. The sample quality is a bit rough and all that because it was such small memory. But considering I’d only been two or three months at Rare to get to work on the Bond game, and for it to be so ridiculously successful, it’s an absolute fluke. I count my lucky stars!
Which piece of yours are you most proud of?
I always change my mind. I always used to say Bedtime Story from Viva Piñata 2, because that’s the last piece the orchestra played when we did the recording session. I knew I was going to be leaving Rare. It was super sad. It’s a sad tune. I poured my heart into the Viva Piñata games, especially the last one because I was going to be leaving Rare. I remember coming out of the recording studio — I tried to go and thank the orchestra and I remember saying — and they’re all Czech, from Prague — "I just want to say thanks so much" and I just burst into tears. Like you know, [blubbers] kind of thing.
But things like Mid Boss Mayhem from Rabbids Kingdom Battle – that’s always top of my Spotify playlist when I look at my results. I remember that because it’s very Banjo-Kazooie and Davide [Soliani] is a big Banjo fan. I wanted to write something that was quite Banjo-Kazooie-esque.
There’s lots of other ones that I could pick, I’ll say those two for now.
Which piece by someone else do you wish you had written?
Anything by John Williams probably, because he’d just an absolute legend. But I guess something like... I love all the Harry Potter soundtracks, those three soundtracks. They’re just head and shoulders above anybody else for that stuff.
Yeah. I’d say probably Harry Potter, the first one. The music is just breath-taking, fantastic. When I was doing the Kingdom of Amalur, I listened to those three soundtracks in my car – I’m not lying – every day for four years with doing that game. Every morning, going to working in the morning, leaving work at night, I listened to those soundtracks. My wife was just pulling her hair out going, "Just turn the f*****g Harry Potter off, will you? I’m sick of listening". I was trying to learn how to get that John Williams magic into the Amalur music. Because for the big boss pieces they’re quite elaborate, I was trying to work out... I’m not saying I did it, but I tried my best.
What do you listen to while you’re driving?
I’ve just bought a Tesla Model 3 — finally bought a new car! — and it’s got Spotify, so I’ve got a little playlist in there. It’s kind of a mixture of metal, pop, and orchestral soundtracks. That’s what I’m listening to most of the time. I love AC/DC. As I say, the first AC/DC album. Queen, Sheer Heart Attack is a big album for me. Judas Priest. All that is in there. John Williams. Alan Silvestri’s Avengers stuff, I like the Avengers stuff. Back to the Future – fantastic. Things like that.
You get to a certain age and your music taste doesn’t grow any more... I’m really bad at liking new music. I’ll hate it almost on principle
That’s kind of my playlist. I think we’re all the same. You get to a certain age and your music taste doesn’t grow any more. I feel like most people are the same way. You stick in your teenage, early-20s years in some respects. I’m really bad at liking new music. I’ll hate it almost on principle and I will like it five years later. A friend of mine used to love Queensrÿche and I used to just go, ‘s***, s***. s***!’, but I love them. Same thing with Nightwish; ‘Ah rubbish!’ Love them now. It’s got to be five years later before I listen to it and I’ll go ‘Oh yeah, he’s good.’ I’m always like that.
And my daughter is 15. She listens to pop music, but she’s definitely under the alternative side because me and my wife are that way. She likes Tyler the Creator. He’s a rapper, but I have no idea what he sounds like. But she also like '80s rock. [laughs] That’s our fault. She likes heavy metal. She likes Billie Eilish. I think Billie Eilish is talented, she writes some different music, it’s different.
But your poppier stuff, I feel like the chorus has just died. There’s no choruses anymore. It’s kind of like a meander-y track with a groove, but there’s no actual 'here come the chorus'. I’m sort of known for writing melodies because I like to write catchy choruses. That’s what I like to do. It’s weird, I feel like it’s just vanished. It just doesn’t happen anymore. Where have the hooks gone?
Do you have a musical hero?
I remember when I first went to Rare, I was so massively on the Elfman kick that it bled into Banjo
John Williams for definite. Danny Elfman. I feel like over the years I’ve had... like Eddie Van Halen is a musical hero of mine, and then to get to meet him which was fantastic... When he died it was just super sad. I really felt that because in those six weeks that we spent [on tour with Van Halen] he made a difference to my life. He changed my life in those six weeks just talking to me, just acknowledging that I existed.
I saw something on Twitter that Wolf, his son, was saying something. Eddie gave guitars to quite a lot of people, because he was a super nice man. He really was. And a lot of people were selling their guitars to make money [following his death in October 2020] because they’d gone up like 10 grand nearly instantly. It had just set him off and I tweeted at him saying, ‘Hey Wolf, you don’t know who I am. Your dad made a massive difference to my life’ [see tweets below]... and he replied back saying, ‘I had no idea. You made a big difference to my life!’
I just sort of nearly burst into tears. I couldn't believe it. His son — little Wolf Van Halen — was playing my stuff while I was loving his dad! I just felt it's got this perfect symmetry to it. I just thought, Eddie Van Halen must have heard Wolf play the game occasionally. Maybe some of the music I wrote went into Eddie’s ears. It’s just brilliant for me.
Which decade had the best music?
I feel like film scores, '80s '90s probably. Because you’ve got all the works of John Williams in Star Wars, Alan Silvestri's Back to the Future, Rambo, Rocky. All those massive scenes that we cannot forget. You look at the time we’re in right now, which of the movie themes can you remember? Probably none. I can remember the Avengers because Alan Silvestri is an old school writing-a-tune composer. I can’t remember any of the other Marvel stuff.
[NL blabbers about admiring Batman Begins but not being able to remember any theme from it.] I think Hans Zimmer did... he did Nolan Batman?
Yeah, he did the three.
It’s Hans Zimmer, he’s massive! But I just... I just miss some of that Elfman sort of...
The first orchestral score that I bought was a Batman soundtrack. When I went to see that first Batman film with Michael Keaton, when that flick starts up and the camera is going around the logo, and you get that durrr-duh-duh-durrrrr-duh [hums the 1989 Batman theme], I just s*** myself. Like, ‘F*****g hell!’. Blew my balls off, that. I went to watch that movie five times in the theatre because I absolutely adored it. His score was unbelievably breathtakingly brilliant.
when that flick starts up and the camera is going around the logo, and you get that durrr-duh-duh-durrrrr-duh [hums the 1989 Batman theme], I just s*** myself...
I remember when I first went to Rare, I was so massively on the Elfman kick that it bled into Banjo. Like the Mad Monster Mansion chord sequence, I just nicked that from Danny Elfman because I loved it. It’s the bit when in the first Batman movie when he crashes the Batwing and it slides up to the steps of the cathedral. There’s a little chord sequence — it only happens twice in that movie, I’ve never heard him use it ever again — I was like, ‘This is a fantastic chord sequence!’ He plays it as he’s walking up towards the cathedral and he plays it when he’s inside going up the steps. The chords, I just thought ‘Oh my god!’ and I’ve used them a gazillion times. It’s in everything that I write, that little chord sequence.
The one that trumps them all! Yeah... in the last 20 years, the scores sometimes seem just functional rather than memorable.
They’re gigantic and massive and epic, right? But unremarkable. That’s what I find. You enter the theatre, it’s exciting. And when you walk out you can’t remember a note of it. When I’m up watching Pirates of the Caribbean, ah fantastic! There’s a billion tunes in Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s big and hefty, but there’s tonnes of tunes in it you can remember. Why isn’t that happening anymore? You’ve got this Marvel franchise. It should be bleeding themes you can remember. It really should be...
Everyone can sing Back to the Future — these are proper tunes that are going to last forever. Why have we not got that now? The [soundtrack] doesn’t just have to contain wall-to-wall tunes, but on the key moments let’s have it! Let’s have that triumphant thing when it happens.
Ocarina, harp or bongos — which magical instrument do you take on an epic adventure?
I have to choose one of those three or anything?
You’re Grant Kirkhope; if you want something else I’m sure we can accommodate you.
It would have to be harp because you can play more notes on it. You can do more with it. Bongos, you got to bang them. Ocarina has got not that many notes, but a harp has got a lot of notes so you can write more stuff
If your house were on fire and you only had time to grab one keepsake before you flee to safety with your family, what would you take?
I’d have to take my Eddie guitar I think. That would be the one I take. Also, I want the family photos and such, but I’ve got them all online now. I’ve backed them all up. But I think Eddie’s guitar would be my pride and joy.
The interview has been lightly edited and one instance of 'Queen' corrected to 'Queensrÿche'. Let's blame what one on NL's dodgy WiFi, shall we?
Many thanks to Grant for speaking with us — you can look forward to more from our interview soon. In the meantime, follow him on Twitter @grantkirkhope.
Be sure to check out our other Quick Beats interviews with the likes of fellow Rare legend David Wise, Austin Wintory, Yuzo Koshiro, Darren Korb, Manami Matsumae, Jake Kaufman, Lena Raine, Harumi Fujita, and more, and be sure to read more interviews and features that have been part of the Nintendo Life VGM Fest.