After years of development, Sony's next big exclusive, Days Gone, is finally here for PlayStation 4. We caught up with the game's composer, Nathan Whitehead, for a chat about the soundtrack to the post-apocalyptic world the Pacific Northwest. Whitehead previously composed the music for the Purge film series and worked on Transformers: Dark of the Moon, among other things.
In our conversation, Whitehead discusses how he came to be attached to the project, the challenges (and opportunities) of working with an interactive medium like video games, the overall tone and inspiration for Days Gone's music, and the task of not repeating himself after working professionally in music for so many years. We also asked what kind of music Deacon St. John and his biker gang would probably listen to--his response is pretty great.
You can find our full interview with Whitehead below.
Q: Can you talk about the origins of music in your life and your inspirations? Where did it all begin and how did you cultivate it into the career you have today?
My parents constantly played music when I was growing up. We weren't a family of musicians but there was always music playing. Lots of The Beatles and folk/rock from the '60s. We even had this film score compilation cassette tape that we nearly wore out. I was eight or nine years old and had never seen old movies like Dr. Zhivago but I knew the music from that tape. I was fascinated by music as far back as I can remember and I was also very curious. I started by just picking out melodies I had heard on the piano in our living room. I remember loving the way music could make me feel and thinking, 'What if I could write my own music?' It felt like having a superpower. A huge part of the inspiration to become a composer was all those powerful experiences I had growing up listening to music, watching movies, playing games, etc. I migrated from piano to guitar and that eventually led to forming a band in high school.
We played mostly punk rock. Punk is great but I always felt the urge to try writing all these different kinds of music that didn’t fit the band. One day it clicked that, as a composer, I could explore all these different genres of music and be a part of films and games and the sort of experiences that had been so special to me. It immediately felt like the perfect job and it still feels that way today. My career path was basically moving from Tennessee to L.A. and working my way up through assistant jobs. I always continued to write music for short films, student projects, anything I could get my hands on. For me, moving to L.A. was really helpful and I was fortunate during this time to have some great mentors like Steve Jablonsky. After several years helping out with programming and arranging for other composers, I started getting some small films on my own and never looked back.
Q: How did you come to be attached to Days Gone?
John Garvin, the creative director at Sony Bend Studio, heard a piece of music I wrote for The Purge: Anarchy that he liked. That led to some meetings with the Sony music team and eventually with John. I was extremely excited by the project from day one and I wrote a couple of ideas for John to check out. Things seemed to click and shortly thereafter I was invited to join the team!
Q: Video games are highly interactive, unlike TV and movies. What were some of the challenges with Days Gone as it relates to making music for the game when you're not necessarily sure how the player will be interacting with the world at any point?
Days Gone is this big, open world experience with a really powerful story. I think combining those two elements is one of the biggest challenges for the music. The story is usually served well by a score that’s more linear but the big, dynamic world means there is even more unpredictability in what could be happening at any moment.
I really wanted the player to have this immersive experience and if there’s a weird music transition, it can take them out of that experience. The Sony team were geniuses at designing the interactive implementation and that informed the way I wrote the score. Rather than simply fading music out, I wrote longer transition pieces that would feel more like a band vamping and ending organically. I also wrote a lot of layered pieces where individual tiers could be turned off or on by the game engine according to what’s happening in-game and it can make those transitions on musical beats. Hopefully, this all results in the unpredictable gameplay feeling much more like it's being scored in a linear fashion, just on the fly.
Q: A lot of music, at least early on, is grimy and spooky--sort of like Alice in Chains-style guitars but darker in a way. Was this something intentional to represent the Pacific Northwest where the game is set and where grunge bands hail from?
I don't think we specifically mentioned grunge but the decision to incorporate guitars and other dark, grimy elements was very much informed by the Pacific Northwest setting. This mix of folk Americana and a touch of rock elements felt right for the place and also for the biker culture. I could see Deacon St. John listening to some classic Alice in Chains from time to time. These rougher textures in the score were also inspired by the way the world is now, two years after the apocalypse. Everything has lost its sheen and the music couldn’t be too shiny and polished, either.
Q: What kind of overall tone and feel is the music for Days Gone trying to evoke?
There's a lot of opposing forces to juggle in Days Gone--hope and tragedy, beautiful nature and a world that will kill you, and Deacon's internal struggle with regrets and fears. My aim was for the music to possess some of the determination and grit we see in Deacon and to also feel a little introspective. And that all needed to be believable in the biker culture Deacon is a part of.
Q: You worked on Days Gone for two years, I think I heard; what was the process like? Is it creatively challenging or freeing to have so much time to work on a project, as compared to TV or movies where you have quicker turnarounds and deadlines?
A little over two years! I found it really creatively freeing to have so much time. I loved being able to really focus on our musical vocabulary and keep iterating until the identity of the score felt right. That is hard to do on any project and you never get that much time on quick TV turnarounds. It's rare with movies. We talked a lot about the various pillars of the score--the various thematic or conceptual elements that help tell the story the music needed to tell. I think of this as musical world-building and I loved having so much time to focus on this phase.
Q: Can you talk about the creative process of working with a game studio and their own music/audio director; how much back and forth was there?
One of the best things about scoring Days Gone was the amazing team I got to work with. I spoke regularly with Sony music producers Pete Scaturro and Keith Leary and also met with John Garvin as much as possible. There was a lot of back and forth and I loved that. I would write some music and we would talk about what worked and what didn’t and new ideas would always arise from those meetings. John was great at immediately articulating his gut response to the music and he spoke in emotional terms.
To me, that is the most effective way to navigate this process – just discuss how the music makes us feel or talk about how we want to feel. A big part of the collaboration was also the tremendous support for my composing process. The team at Sony was phenomenal at managing all the details and logistics of music for a AAA game while also creating space for me to simply focus on writing music. It’s a wonderful spot to be in as a composer and I'm so grateful for the collaboration.
Q: I think some of the best work oftentimes goes unnoticed or underappreciated, and this could apply to music. How do you feel about that, if it's even true?
I think that is true sometimes. What really excites me is storytelling and connecting with people through storytelling. Music has such special powers to do both of these things and a truly great score might be easier to overlook because the player is so engrossed in the game. That’s a huge success in my opinion. I would rather someone be moved by experiencing Days Gone and not remember the music than have them disengage from the story but like the soundtrack.
Q: You have written so much music over the years, for video games, TV, movies, and more; how do you go about not repeating yourself?
I only really know if I’m on the right path if the music I’m writing makes me feel something. That goes a long way to helping me avoid repeating myself because the musical approach I took on one score will almost never feel good to me on another project. But if I feel stuck in a rut one thing that can help is to force some limitations on the project. If I chose to only use a string quartet and an analog synth on a score, it forces me into territory I might not have been before and makes it difficult to repeat past work. That obviously has to be right for the project at hand but that can be a great way to craft a unique sound.
Q: Kind of a weird one, but what kind of music do you think Deacon's biker gang likes?
Well, I think you nailed it earlier with the grunge connection. Alice in Chains and bikers go well together or hard-hitting Tom Morello stuff like Prophets of Rage. But Deacon is also a thinker and not simply an aggro biker. I could see him listening to Bon Iver or The National on occasion, too.
Q: Anything else you want to share about the music for Days Gone?
I’ve quickly learned how passionate and invested the game community is and I just want to say thank you to all the gamers out there for the excitement and anticipation they have already shown for Days Gone and for the music. It’s been such a challenging and rewarding project and I’m so excited to share it with everyone.