Far Cry Primal composer Jason Graves on death whistles and prehistoric drumsets

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Jason Graves is a composer known for his work on many hit video games such as the Dead Space trilogy, Tomb Raider (2013), The Order: 1886 and most recently Far Cry Primal. Considering this game takes place in 10,000 BCE, the soundtrack has a unique flair to it that most other games don’t necessarily have. We sat down with him to talk more about the creative process of composing such a unique score.

NR: How did you get your start in the music industry?

JG: Well, in a broad sense of the word, my folks never told me I had to get a real job. So, I went to college and graduate school for music and was out in LA doing film, TV, and advertising work. I ended up finding some jobs in my hometown of North Carolina, so I came back here and did a lot of corporate stuff for maybe 5 years (this was about 8 years in my career) and I fell into video games after about 10 years. It was one of those situations where I just knew someone who knew someone who knew someone that needed music for a game, and I never really considered it. But it was such a creative difference, in a good way, from all the work that I’ve done in LA. I think I spent 4 weeks on 45 minutes of music where in LA I would spend 6 or 8 weeks on 30 seconds of music. So, that sort of revelation was what turned me on to games and I never looked back.

NR: What game was that?

JG: That was a game called King Arthur. It was based on a movie that came out 12 years ago.

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NR: One of the most recognizable franchises you’ve composed the music for is the Dead Space trilogy. You also worked on the popular PS4 horror game Until Dawn. What, in your opinion, makes the best kind of horror music?

JG: I think the scariest music is the kind of music that you don’t necessarily recognize or can’t figure out what it is. And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the instruments or if it’s the harmony and melody and the musical sort of structure that we’re used to hearing especially as Westerners. When those rules are all broken and you can’t figure out what the cord is or what the melody is. That’s a really boring answer, but it’s actually so true because it’s all that tension and unfamiliarity that gets under your skin.

NR: Alright, now let’s get to the juicy stuff with your most recent work being the Far Cry Primal soundtrack. What first came to your mind when they told you the game takes place in 10,000 BCE?

JG: First of all “Oh my gosh, I’m working on a Far Cry game!” That was the first thing that came into my head! But then after that I thought about how unique the last two sets of scores were, I mean even that last three sets of scores if you want to include Blood Dragon in there, just SO diverse and really standalone. The only way you would identify them as Far Cry scores is the fact that they’re so unique, and I was thinking how far we can take this kind of caveman idea. Can we put it through with the music as well and do a prehistoric score, or are they going to want the exact opposite to play against the picture? But we were all just right in line with each other. They actually pushed me even more for those kinds of weird, custom, organic sort of sounds, so it was a REALLY fun score to work on.

NR: In 2012, you gave Polygon a tour of your studio and you showed how you use instruments in different ways to produce different sounds. Can you tell us some examples of what you did for the music in Far Cry Primal?

JG: Probably the biggest unique sort of thing (I was convinced it wouldn’t work because it would be too much fun if it did), I got some paving stones and bricks from the hardware store along with a bucket of dirt and some plants (two different kinds: long, skinny fronds and fat, wide fronds which made different kinds of sounds) some red clay pots, anything I could get my hands on. Bamboo tiki torches, which I took the torch part out so there were some netting and some bamboo to play with and I cut a bunch of pieces of wood and firewood. Basically, anything that looked like “modern-day caveman” essentially, but it was still stone and wood. I’m a drummer, so I subconsciously built this prehistoric drum set with cymbals, toms, the kick and the snare, just like I would with drums, so I just put a bunch of microphones on them and played them all! There’s a lot of that stuff, especially the tracks on the album that say “Udam” which is one of the tribes you encounter in the game, and the Udam were definitely that natural sort of sound. What sounds like rocks, sticks, bones and grunts, it really is. It’s just done in a musical sort of way as if they were real instruments.

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NR: What was your favorite track that you worked on in this game?

JG: That’s like asking who your favorite kid is! The one that I love to listen to the most because it came together really well is Track 4, “The Fires of Conquest”. What’s interesting about that track is that I was about 80 percent through the writing stage and I was doing lots and lots of combat tracks; those are really hard. There’s a lot of notes and you’ve probably noticed that my music doesn’t really compete. It kind of keeps going and changing and I was getting tired. There was this slave-pit section of the game that all I had was a description for that was 2 or 3 sentences that said, “You enter the slave pit and rescue the slaves.” I thought, “Oh man, maybe I could do a half-time feel instead of this constant, super-fast action.” I didn’t know if Ubisoft would go for it because it’s not going to feel as fast and they definitely wanted to have the action-music feel to it. But I did the track and I got Malukah [pictured below], the wonderful female vocalist, doing all the shrieks and screams. That track really came to together and her vocals just totally made it! I still love listening to that track.

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NR: You mentioned vocals, which reminds me of certain parts in the game where you randomly encounter a tribe called the Izila. There is a very particular sound that plays during encounters that sounds like someone chanting/yelling, you would think it’s one of the enemies but it plays every time. Can you tell us more about these kinds of sounds?

JG: So there are two things with the Izila that you could be referring to: one of them is Malukah. Basically, the idea was that you have the Izila Queen incarnate in musical form, essentially. So she’s chanting, whispering, screaming, and doing all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s very easy to spot her vocals in the game. The second vocal-esque sort of thing is the wind instrument for the Izila, it’s called an Aztec death whistle, which is just as badass as it sounds! They’re from Aztec warriors; they would blow these things and it sounds like people screaming at the top of their lungs. I had a couple of those that I would play and they’re very textural. There was a big one and a small one so one was always in the left speaker. The other one was always in the right speaker and sometimes you can hear them going back and forth a little bit, but it’s a very cool sort of sound. I think they would literally just blow it as hard as they could, and I played it a little more like a flute. Not traditionally correct, but it made a neat sound in the score, that’s what I was looking for.

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NR: Did you take a lot of inspiration from ancient civilization music? Did any of this require research on your part?

JG: The real research was trying to find instruments or find things that would sound like instruments. A bullroar was something else that I used. It’s bands of cloth that you spin and they make this “wow, wow, wow” kind of sound, but that’s an aboriginal thing from Australia. The biggest concern of all the music was that it didn’t have any particular geographic setting musically speaking. We didn’t want anything to sound like it was Middle-Eastern, Indian, or Australian so I had to be careful whenever I used something. Now the great thing about an Aztec Death Whistle is that no one listens to that and goes “Oh, I feel like I’m in South America!” It’s a very abstract sound and as long as I took the more conventional sorts of flutes and drums and didn’t play them the way that they would traditionally be played, any sort of reference in your mind disappears.

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NR: When working with Ubisoft, did they provide you with any more references than the short sentence descriptions that you mentioned earlier?

JG: I got lots of references, and before we started in earnest, I went up to Montreal and visited with them. I got to meet the whole team, they gave me the game pitch, I got to see all the concept art, I came home with a couple hours worth of footage and they kept sending me more as they came online. For the most part, it wasn’t that little 2-lined description; that was just towards the end when things start getting tight. There’s not enough time to capture things and you need to sort of use your imagination. But that’s what we used to do all the time. I NEVER got to see the gameplay 10 years ago, because nothing was online until the very end. This is great because it’s an ongoing experience, as the game’s coming online, I get to see it and make the music for it.

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NR: Is there any known franchise (game, movie, TV show) that you would like to make music for?

JG: I’m not even franchise-specific as much as I would be DEVELOPER-specific, which is probably drilling down even more than you ask. I want to work with Naughty Dog sometime. I mean, the way that they put their games together with the story, the characters, the setting and the gameplay is just so well done; it’s the whole package. Even a lot of the developers I work with now, THEY want to work with Naughty Dog sometime! It’s like they’re their competition, but they’re also so inspired by them. They’ve just really done a good job. They’re kind of like the Pixar of the game world, you know. Story, story, story, and then you end up asking “Was it a video game or was it a film?” Well, it could be either one and, in this case, we’ll never know.

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NR: What advice would you give to aspiring music composers or someone who wants to make their living in the music industry?

JG: Don’t.

NR: Cool. [Laughs]

JG: [Laughs] You know, now more than ever today, it’s a challenge because everyone has access to so many tools that you could just hit a button and actually sound really great. The problem is you sound just like the other 800,000 people that are hitting the same button. So the real trick is forming some sort of an identity for yourself and you can’t really do that unless you’ve been writing a lot of music. So I would say, even if you have a full-time job doing something else, write music in your spare time as much as you possibly can and play it for as many people as you can. Exercise those creative muscles, so when you do get a chance to potentially work on a job, a pitch for a job or assist someone, you’re not playing catch-up trying to figure out “what am I going to use” or “what sounds do I need.” That’s what happened to me with my first game, that King Arthur game. They literally needed something in 3-4 weeks and I already had everything put together and ready to go because I was working on whatever a couple days before then. It was like the baton being passed off to the next runner, they had to pick up the pace and there was really no break in stride, where if you have to start from scratch and try to get things going, a lot of times you end up missing your chance.

We would like to thank Jason Graves for this fun and informative interview! If you’d like to download the original soundtrack for Far Cry Primal, you can do so on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon. Check out the samples below!

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Joey Ferris
Joey Ferris 260 posts

l love to play games and write stuff about them. I can't play something and not tell anyone how I feel about it. Call it a sickness, because it is.