We chat with Peter McConnell, a music-composing veteran whose latest work is on the recent Sly Cooper entry on the PS3.
If you were a fan of LucasArt’s '90s adventure games like Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, and Full Throttle, chances are you’ve heard of Peter McConnell. He has worked on the soundtracks for a ton of LucasArt titles from the '90s until he left the company in 2000 and worked with other companies like Sucker Punch, Double Fine, and Sony.
Because of his musical ties with the Sly Cooper series on the PS2, he was a natural fit for working with Sanzaru Games for the latest in the franchise, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. We managed to have a quick chat with the composer about his most recent work, as well as his history with LucasArts.
Tell us about your background in music.
I’ve loved music ever since I can remember. As an infant, I had a condition that forced me to breathe through a tube in my throat, so that I could only make whispering noises. My mother tells me I would “sing” Mozart tunes to the doctors and nurses; we lived in Switzerland at the time. When they took out the tube I started singing really loudly and haven’t stopped since.
In grade school I learned violin and taught myself banjo and guitar. Later I studied music at Harvard under Ivan Tcherepnin who combined his experience of coming from an old European musical family with a unique sense of pop music and the avant-garde.
How did you meet with Michael Land, who would then be LucasArts' major composer in the '90s? Was it a partnership made in heaven?
Michael and I were housemates in college. He helped me record my senior thesis. We were in bands together and I helped him get a job at Lexicon before he helped me get the position at LucasArts. We had a working relationship in music and technology that lasted over 30 years.
On the tech side, we created LucasArts’ iMUSE adaptive music system along with programmer extraordinaire Michael McMahon and later on our own produced an online multimedia authoring system called SmashMash. In music, we wrote some scores along with Clint Bajakian that I was very fond of.
I think our working relationship has thrived on the fact that we have complementary ways of thinking; his is exacting and mine is intuitive.
Who are your major influences in music?
Carl Stalling and Lalo Shifrin come to mind. Also Henry Mancini, Bernard Hermann, Raymond Scott, Duke Ellington and of course John Williams. There are players, too – Jimi Hendrix, Lester Young, Pinkas Zukermann, Taj Mahal, the list goes on. I’m a guy who grew up loving classical and folk music and then fell in love with jazz and rock n’ roll. I lived in a lot of places growing up – Switzerland, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey – and all those places influenced my music as well.
Among all your LucasArts music projects, which was the toughest you had to compose in your personal experience, and why?
Probably Grim Fandango, since it drew influence from so many styles and sources. Then there was finding the players – all the San Francisco jazz guys, plus the Mariachi band and the Andean flute player. It was also probably the most fun for all the same reasons.
How did you end up working with Sucker Punch on the second and third Sly Cooper games?
It was kind of serendipity, because I was connected with them through a mutual friend who is a visual artist. They sent me some video of Sly in Paris and I sent them the tune that became the main theme for Sly 2 & 3, and is also prominent in Thieves in Time.
What's the thought process behind the overall music of the Sly Cooper games? You seem to channel a lot of Henry Mancini in the game's OST.
How could I not? Henry Mancini is the essence of the retro-cool tongue-in-cheek spy sound. There’s a lot of other influence as well: Lalo Schifrin, Carl Stalling, John Williams, even Charlie Mingus.
I wanted to have a sound that is melodic and rich with complexity, yet with a kind of simple, larger-than-life sense of humor. An old school sound with both lightness and depth. When it comes to humor, I get pretty serious.
What instruments and tech did you use for Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time?
Thieves in Time was two and a half hours of music, every bit of it recorded with live players. We did two weeks of recording sessions in Nashville with winds, double reeds, horn, brass, drums, piano, guitar and 30 strings. We were able to record some amazing players. The music team from Sony put the sessions together and handled and made everything run smoothly, then did all the editing and mixing.
Could you give a short description to the following tracks?
"Thieves in Time" – This is an homage to Dr. Who and the original Star Trek TV theme. That’s my voice in the track. I think we were going to replace that part, but the sound of me imitating a theremin kind of grew on people.
"Whoa Camel, Whoa" – I was influenced by Carl Stalling, Max Steiner’s themes from Casablanca and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Bim Ska La Bim while composing this. We had a lot of fun recording this one; the trombone players got into it so much they appeared to be riding on camels in the session.
"Clan of the Cave Raccoon" – The idea was to make the sound of music being invented. If there is any influence on this one I would say it’s Mingus, and maybe Sun Ra, both of whom used a kind of roughness to convey emotion.
Oh yes, and Sesame Street, but that’s a long story. In any case, I wanted to go as far as possible to get a crude sound, and we had to constantly tell the players not to sound too good.
"Tavern Tomfoolery" – Ever since Sly 2: Band of Thieves, I’ve wanted to pull out the stops on some action swing music. This was my big opportunity to do just that.
Was there any particular track you had trouble perfecting during the making of the OST?
The entire Ice Age level was a challenge; I mean, what kind of music sounds like the Ice Age? How do you evoke pre-history? I think Clan of the Cave Raccoon was the piece in which I found this idea of music being invented. Then I got to take that idea and run with it: throw out every rule you can, just revel in the idea of playing sounds together, or not even completely together.
For some of the mallet parts I would urge the players not to play the parts as written, but just to choose random notes with roughly the same pitch range and melodic shape as what was written. In the end I really felt like we’d accomplished something cool.
What will you be working on in the future? Could you tell us in a few words what fans can expect in your next project?
One project is Tim Schafer’s new Double Fine adventure game. It’s pretty hard to describe. The story is quite fantastical and unusual. The music comes from two entirely different realms: earth and sky. I imagine we’ll be hearing more about it soon.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is out now on PS3. Check out GameSpot’s full review here.
Awesome songs, my 1 and a half year old and I just had a good time rocking out to them. I'm a music teacher, so I always find these meet the composer articles interesting. I wish I could be a video game composer.
Fun tunes! The songs each reminded me of other bands/artists, who probably drew on similar influences.
"Thieves in Time" reminds me of the Secret Chiefs 3 -- although SC3 leans more toward Arabic scales and instruments.
"Whoa Camel Whoa" reminds me of Estradasphere -- genre-shifting jams with multiple-instrument musicians
"Clan of the Cave Raccoon" reminds me of Tom Waits --- stumbly, like a drunk who just manages to stand upright
"Tavern Tomfoolery" seems to invoke the Glenn Miller Orchestra -- happy, energetic and smooth swing
The former two are a bit obscure; the latter are definitely more well-known. Either way, all are meant as compliments. : )