Erik Desiderio Interview: Moving to the Forefront
Erik Desiderio has contributed to numerous projects over the years, from Immortals to The Borgias, but it’s only recently that he’s moved to the forefront. Some of his latest projects include the HMMA-nominated This Means War!, an adaptation of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, and even some radical takes on World of Warcraft and Super Mario Bros.
In this interview, Desiderio talks his through his background, approaches, and projects. He reflects that, while he has been involved in a wide range of film and television projects over the years, scoring video games is particularly dear to him as a fan first, creator later…
Interview Subject: Erik Desiderio
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Jayson Napolitano
Chris: Many thanks for talking to us today, Erik Desiderio. First of all, can you tell us about your musical background? What led you on the path to becoming a video game composer?
Erik Desiderio: Thanks for having me! My dad and I got into computer programing when I was a kid, and we would make games on a computer that is so ancient, today it would be in a museum. You had to store the programs on a cassette tape, and play it into the computer that translated the beeps and blips into lines of code. He made a game called Sub Hunt where you control a battleship and blow up submarines with depth charges. He is a physicist who designed submarines, so it came naturally to him. He would program simple melodies for when you destroyed a submarine, or when they torpedoed you and your ship blew up. It was the coolest thing in the world, and it always stuck with me.
I started playing music when I was 8, influenced by my grandfather who was a guitarist. Later I took piano lessons, and started playing music with my friends. I was always writing and playing music as a kid and into my teenage years. Growing up with the worlds of Super Mario Brothers and Zelda, it was natural for me to figure out the melodies on piano or bass. Later, in high school, I started making stop motion animated films, and would write music for my own weird videos. So I guess I was a fan first, and creator later.
Chris: Over the years, you have worked on over 40 game projects mostly for casual games. Can you tell us about how you have developed this niche? How have you established and cultivated links with so many developers over the years?
Erik Desiderio: It was so difficult to get my foot in the door! I had composed music for five or six features and written hours of TV music, but since the music I was writing wasn’t interactive, no one wanted to give me a chance. I got my first casual game gig by meeting the designer in a bar five years ago, and I’ve worked with him ever since. From there, it was a lot easier to get the attention of a few other game companies, and now they consistently hire me for all of their games.
It’s a great place to be, one month I’m writing epic Viking music, the next month it is Mariachi music for singing peppers, followed by electronic space exploration music. It’s great to be challenged to write so many different types of music. That diversity helps me develop my own unique sound. It’s also helping to keep my film and TV work sounding fresh, which tends to be more serious with less variety of styles.
Chris: Games-wise, you’ve worked on numerous casual titles such as Stick to It, This Means War! and SMS Racing. Could you tell us more about how you would approach these titles? Do you get very specific briefs or is there room for creativity?
Erik Desiderio: It really depends on the project. When I was demoing for This Means War! I developed a fun sound palette of spaghetti western guitar, trumpet, whistling, and orchestra. It took place in the desert, so the twangy guitar and trumpet evoked a desert vibe. The clients loved it, so we refined it further during the development of the game. Thankfully they had left it pretty open, so I had a lot of room to put my own personal stamp on the game. The score was well received, and it was nominated for a Hollywood Music in Media Award where I competed against Inon Zur (Fallout 4, Dragon Age) and other heavyweights. It’s great when the client leaves a lot of creative direction up to the composer.
Chris: You’ve been able to deliver high quality music regardless of the game’s budget. Can you tell us more about how you achieve this? What hardware, software, and performers help bring your music to life?
Erik Desiderio: I have a nice sized studio in West Hollywood stocked with two computers, tons of stringed instruments, and a few model ships that I made myself. I’m bilingual, using both a Mac and a PC. The Mac runs the sequencer, Cubase, and the PC hosts a lot of the virtual instruments in Vienna Ensemble Pro. They are networked, and it allows the instruments and plugins to stay active as I switch between sessions, so you don’t have to load them up each time. It’s a huge time saver and allows an almost limitless amount of virtual instruments to be loaded simultaneously.
Los Angeles has some of the best musicians in the world; I’m really privileged to have them play on my soundtracks. One time I worked with Damon Zick, a woodwind player, on a film soundtrack, then saw him play at the Hollywood Bowl a few nights later! The trumpet player for This Means War! played on recording sessions for The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Chris: Your latest game score, Adventure Time: Magic Man’s Head Games features a quirky acoustic soundtrack. Could you tell us more about how you matched the visuals and gameplay? What tracks are you most proud of?
Erik Desiderio: The first level takes place in a forest with lots of trees. It just seemed natural to use a woody sounding clarinet melody to capture the vibe of the environment and the pace of the gameplay. I got to have fun and break out my banjo and harmonica for the soundtrack as well; they helped enhance the fast, energetic gameplay. The forest level, and the intro cutscene music are some of the best music in the game. As the game is released on more VR formats, like the Oculus and Sony VR headsets, more levels may be added and the soundtrack will be expanded.
The musicians were filmed performing their parts, and we made a video with split screens where we appeared as the parts were performed. Andy Richter is a huge fan of Adventure Time, he liked the music so much that he tweeted the video, which gave it thousands more views!
Chris: Adventure Time: Magic Man’s Head Games particularly benefits from live performances. Could you tell us more about how you recorded this score? What do you feel the performances brought to the score?
Erik Desiderio: I got to work with some of my long time collaborators, and they each bring their own unique voice to the project. They bring a style and sound that you can’t get from the computer alone. The woodwind player, Damon, can play clarinet with a klezmer tone, so it brings a lot of style and quirkiness to the music. He also helped out by playing flute, bass clarinet, tenor, and baritone sax as well as whistling on the soundtrack.
When I was working with the trumpet player, he suggested that he record the trumpet parts on cornet, an uncommon instrument choice. The cornet is not used much in music anymore, as the trumpet has replaced it, but it has a cool sound, like an old recording by Louis Armstrong. The unique sound works well with the rest of the music. The woodwind player doubled the cornet melody with the baritone saxophone a few octaves lower, making the section sound beefy and original.
Chris: Away from game music, you’ve worked on numerous film and television titles. Looking back, which projects are the biggest highlights for you and why?
Erik Desiderio: I worked as a score producer for the high budget action film, Immortals, where I helped to organize the recording of the score and mixing of the music. It was fun to work on a huge project like that, and amazing to see my name in the credits on the big screen when it was #1 at the Box Office. Another one of my career highlights was writing music for the Emmy Awards Ceremony when Jane Lynch was hosting. It was a lot of fun, funky, celebratory music that would play when people won their award. Also, I also produced the music for The Moon and the Son, which won an Oscar. It was great to see the director that I worked with receive the award and give a speech on national TV!
Chris: Among your scores are tributes to Super Mario Brothers with the television miniseries The Four Players and World of Warcraft with the documentary film WoW MoM. Could you tell us more about these projects? How did you approach them and did you ever homage the games?
Erik Desiderio: Yeah, I’m starting to work on a niche of media like film and TV programs based on video games, and video games based on film/TV. The Four Players is a dark reimagining of the characters from Super Mario Bros. They are twisted and flawed, Mario is a hit man, Luigi is a drug dealer who is addicted to fire flowers, Princess Peach is a lounge singer who has been captured and is being tortured by the Koopas, and Toad is a freedom fighting Kamikaze pilot. It was written and directed by Evan Daugherty, the creator of Snow White and the Huntsman. He’s been really successful in Hollywood, as a screenwriter for Divergent, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the new Tomb Raider movie. He’s working on a series version of Myst for Hulu, so he’s in the same niche.
The project was dark and cinematic. We had a 63 member orchestra in Bulgaria play the music I wrote, and it sounds huge! The music I wrote was completely different from the music from the games. Early on, we tried slowing down the famous Super Mario Bros. themes and tried to make them sound dark and menacing, but no luck. Those melodies are inherently happy. We needed a clean departure, so we started from scratch.
WoW MoM has a heartfelt score that evolves into epic music for different parts as the story progresses. All the music will also be original with no themes from Blizzard. Warcraft music is amazing, but we also want to have our own take on the subject.
Chris: To date, you haven’t released many albums to my knowledge. Would you be interested in producing soundtrack albums of any of your film or game scores? Do you have any plans for any independent music projects?
Erik Desiderio: I released a film score compilation album a few years ago called, Symphonic Electronic that had a variety of music from different projects that I had worked on over the years. I’m currently working on a project with Maker (PewDiePie’s YouTube channel) that will have a soundtrack release. I’ve been so busy with commissioned music projects that I don’t have time for independent work, and I’m happy with that. I love getting hired to write game soundtracks!
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Erik Desiderio. Is there anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your works? Do you have any messages for readers around the world?
Erik Desiderio: I’m incredibly happy and fortunate that I get to do what I love for a living. Writing and producing music all day is the greatest thing in the world for me. No matter how good you are at what you do, there will be a period of time where you are uncertain about the future with the ups and downs of a creative career. Start on small projects, and then build up to bigger ones. Just keep going and growing!
Posted on December 22, 2015 by Chris Greening. Last modified on December 22, 2015.