Q&A: Junkie XL's Need for Speed

World-famous Dutch techno DJ talks about laying down the tracks for EA's latest racer, as well as how he sees games and music merging in the future.

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Though it never quite became the "next big thing" some predicted it would in the 1990s, the electronic music scene is alive and well. It's also more balkanized than the former Yugoslavia, with various genres (house, techno, drum & bass) splintering into subgenres (deep house, trance, techstep) and into sub-subgenres (chicago house, hard trance, dark techstep).

Junkie XL
Junkie XL

One of the more widely known purveyors of the sort of "anthem" techno favored in the world's biggest clubs is Junkie XL. Born Tom Holkenborg in the Netherlands in 1967, the DJ and producer released his first solo recordings in the mid-1990s. Since then, he has released five proper albums and one EP, as well as scored several films.

For gamers, though, Junkie XL is best known for his series of game soundtracks, including five for Electronic Arts. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for SSX Blur was released as a stand-alone album on iTunes. A current resident of Venice, California, he is also a signed artist on the Artwerk record label, a joint venture between EA Trax and the record label Nettwerk.

Last month EA released Need for Speed ProStreet, the latest game scored by Junkie XL. The busy producer and DJ took some time out of his current world tour to speak with GameSpot about his involvement in the industry.

GameSpot:So how many game soundtracks have you contributed to?

Junkie XL: I’ve been involved with game soundtracks and doing scores since 1995, and I lost track of how many I have done now. I've done five for EA--an early Need For Speed, SSX Blur, the Sims, Burnout, and the latest Need for Speed.

GS:Why do you keep coming back to game soundtracks?

JXL: It’s not really that I keep going back, it’s just a part of my life. I found that I have a very suitable audience for my music in video games. It’s much better than relying on traditional TV and radio.

GS:Are you a gamer yourself? If so, which games do you play? What consoles do you own or prefer?

JXL: I used to be a big gamer; now I don’t play as much as I used to. But, yeah, I played intensely up until 1997. Then my career took off and I didn’t have as much time to play anymore. I have an Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2, and I still play now and then. I definitely check out the games I’ve worked on.

GS:Besides your own, what are your favorite game soundtracks?

JXL: I really like Splinter Cell. I also like Destroy All Humans--I know I was involved there, but lead composer [Garry Schyman] did something very good. I like when somebody tries to do something completely different.

GS:If you could score any game, what would it be?

JXL: In the near future, I would love to work on a suspense game or horror game.

GS:Some consider game soundtracks either an afterthought or a resting place for tracks that couldn't make it into proper albums or other media. What is your response to that?

JXL: I totally disagree. Of course, that has to do with who put out the soundtrack and their reason for putting it out. But the games that I have been involved with have all been interactive games, and if there is a demand from the consumer side for good music in the game, I think the music stands on its own. SSX Blur is a great example of a successful game soundtrack; it sold great on iTunes.

GS:Do you think that--like film and television soundtracks--game soundtracks are becoming a prime method of getting your music to the public?

JXL: I think it’s equally important--the traditional way and the new way. Obviously the video game industry is growing, and for me, it’s an amazing way to present myself as an artist. It always generates interest in one way or the other.

GS:You've also scored films. How does the process differ from scoring game soundtracks?

JXL: It’s a big difference. A movie is linear medium: The picture is set and "locked." You have to come up with music that fits to that picture. With video games, it’s interactive music, which means there will be an interactive experience. The music needs to be altered with how the player is playing the game. Kind of difficult to explain, but I guess the similarity is that you need to come up with music that fits a story.

GS:Which medium offers you more flexibility for creative expression? Which medium offers you less?

JXL: It’s hard to tell. Obviously, as an artist, you do what you feel like doing when you are creating something. When you work with video games or a movie, you always work more in a team spirit. In the beginning, you set up some boundaries together, but after that, I do have a lot of freedom while I’m creating the music. When you work with an artist, you talk with the record label, the manager, and the artist about boundaries. Usually I have no complaints when working on video games or movies. I know from the beginning what the company is looking for, and then I have the creative freedom to experiment and come up with the best I can.

GS:Which pays better: film or game soundtracks?

JXL: At this point, film pays better, but I am sure that will change in the future when video game budgets become bigger.

GS:As an artist, do you think games will eventually be as accepted an art form as films or television? If so, when? If not, what do you think it will take for the medium to be accepted?

JXL: This totally depends on who you talk to. The new generation would most likely say that the game is an art form. Many of the older people can’t relate sometimes with video games as an art form. Believe it or not, but I still meet journalists all over the world who don’t know what a video game is!

GS:Now you've worked with Microsoft on Forza, but you've most often worked with EA. Need for Speed ProStreet marks your fifth collaboration with the publisher--what brought you back?

JXL: Well, in general, EA is happy with the games I have worked on. If they are looking for a music approach within a certain style, they know I am the guy for it. I’d love to point out that this feels very natural for me. Sometimes people ask me, "How can EA have tricked you into doing music for video games?" But it’s not like that. It fits my style of music and my audience very well.

GS:Often racing game soundtracks just sound like music you'd be listening to on the radio while driving. However, you've composed original electronic tracks for racing games--how do you try to convey a sense of speed in a song?

JXL: It’s not easy. When you make music in these types of games, it needs to have a certain vibe and it should work on your nerves so that the experience becomes very intense. It’s always hard to come up with a score that makes everybody happy, but I believe that since the music is interactive and is there to enhance the game experience, it’s not really a problem if the music doesn’t fit the gamer's music taste exactly.

GS:Would you consider doing a soundtrack for a more story-driven game, as Amon Tobin did with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory? If so, what kind of soundtrack would you construct?

JXL: Yes, I would! It would depend on what type of game, the settings, and the atmosphere of the game, but I really like the organic blend of acoustic instruments and mixing that with electronic music and samples. That combination really appeals to me, and it works well in those games.

GS:Do you see it as the first of many record labels that will integrate games and music? Or is this merely an offshoot of EA Trax?

JXL: It’s a completely different thing; it’s a traditional record company. I mean, sure, EA games is a partner in it so they have the first chance to use the music in a game. But at the end of the day, Artwerk is a traditional record label.

GS:How are Nettwerk and EA collaborating on the project?

JXL: The release of my albums--which have nothing to do with the score work I do--are handled by Nettwerk, which does all the day-to-day business.

GS:What other artists are participating with Artwerk?

JXL: They have five bands signed. It’s Datarock from Norway, Airbourne from Australia, Jupiter One from the U.S, and me.

GS:How do you see the relationship between games and electronic music evolving?

JXL: Well, electronic music needs to be creative and good, but no one knows how the winds will flow in the future. I think it will very much depend on what people like--what is working well with the games. In general, I think music as a medium and video games as a medium will grow closer. There will be more integration into one thing. We have not seen all the possibilities yet. In five years, it will be very interesting to see where we will be.

GS:What's your take on Guitar Hero and Rock Band?

JXL: I love it! It’s totally fun and a great experience. People can have fun with instruments and play around with it. However, I don’t see that as an example of how music and games are integrating. It’s more in the genre of teaching programs and teaching DVDs, but it’s definitely fun.

GS:Do you foresee an equivalent for electronic music (DJ Hero) coming out? If such a project were to come out, would you want to be part of it?

JXL: Hey, I’m fine being part of everything...

GS:Do you foresee a time when a player can buy tracks for regular games as they do in Rock Band? Do you foresee some kind of iTunes-like store where players can buy tracks individually for custom in-game soundtracks?

JXL: Absolutely, it’s part of the development of music and video games. There will be a better and bigger integration the further we go. Maybe in the future when you pick up a new game, you can pick between two or three different soundtracks.

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