Twenty years is quite a long time, especially for a video game fansite. It’s a good point to look back at what’s been accomplished and what’s been experienced in that time. With that in mind, we approached one of the key people who made our experiences with most of the Command & Conquer franchise enjoyable and memorable. Our beloved composer Frank Klepacki took some time from his busy schedule for an interview in which we asked him about his work at Westwood Studios and his current projects.
While we are celebrating our 20th anniversary, Command & Conquer itself had its 22nd anniversary recently. How did you think things would go in terms of popularity and sales back in 1995?
Like any hit, you really don’t have any idea how well it will do, you just hope it turns a profit and keeps you going. In this case, we knew we had something special and fun, because we had a blast playing it ourselves during development. But it was a surprise to see how huge it became.
How did the average thought process of composing new tracks go in your Westwood days, and how does it go now? How do you determine a style for a particular game?
It really starts with the team, having meetings and figuring out the vision, the style that would best compliment the game. Some games are more obvious to know what to do with than others. C&C was very experimental and I was encouraged to do that with the music. To try as much crazy things as I want and see what sticks. It was allowed to be diverse as it was because of that. Not everything made the cut, but that was expected.
How did you choose the voice samples for some of your tracks (e.g. Radio 2 Remix, We Will Stop Them, Brain Freeze…), and how did you determine which were appropriate for which track?
Hearing samples in music was still kind of a new thing back then when working on the original C&C, so I was including stuff like that for effect, for setting the mood of the battlefield. Again, part of experimenting. I had gotten ideas and random quotes from members of the team, and we had some actors come in and record the lines. How I determined which to use with which track, was just sort of seeing what fit with whatever groove I was working on at the time. In the end, we took some of that out of the in-game music because it was thought to be causing confusion with unit responses and announcements. It was left in for the soundtrack release, though. In Yuri’s Revenge you mentioned Brain Freeze, those songs’ samples were from licensed sound libraries that had real vintage B-movie samples and I thought that would fit nicely with the subject matter of Yuri’s Revenge.
Do you prefer composing hard-hitting rock/metal tracks or the moody, atmospheric ones, and why?
Hard rock and metal are one of my favorite genres, but I compose many styles and I enjoy them all. It’s about what best suits the game. My favorite style to compose for myself actually is funk.
You’ve composed for various TV shows and fighting/wrestling franchises. How does this differ to the process of creating music for video games?
It’s about knowing what the songs will be used for, and how long they need to last. With video editing they sometimes have already cut a sequence to a certain beats-per-minute timing, so then I’ll be asked to compose something in that tempo and it has to end at an exact time. Other cues, it’s just to set a mood, for a montage, or when they’re walking in. Then there are show openers and closers which should have good energy. But a TV show or film is linear. It plays the same way every time you watch it. Games do not. So composing for games is more of a challenge because you don’t know when the player might choose to do something, so a lot of music is made to be “event” based, where a cue will trigger when the player gets to it. And then deciding if you’re ok with an immediate transition or if you need to have a gradual one. There’s more technical work under the hood at play via programming or audio middleware and so those implementation methods are considered in the approach to composing.
You’ve recently contributed to the soundtrack of Twisted Insurrection, a fan-made modification for a game you worked on many years ago. This isn’t seen often in the gaming scene, so how was this arranged and what got you interested about the mod?
I had known about it and followed it for some time, along with other mods – I keep my ears open and appreciate the communities for keeping things going. In this case, TI contacted me and asked if I was avail for hire to do a couple track remixes for them (I basically chose two of their existing songs that were already written, and covered them my own way). Since I’ve been freelancing for the past year and a half, it worked out. Another mod had hired me to do some voice acting as well.
What do you think of the soundtracks for C&C games you did not compose for?
I’m too biased lol!
Have you considered making a larger career as a voice actor?
Yes actually, I’ve actually been doing more of that lately for different games, I enjoy it.
When explaining the background of your solo album Viratia, you mentioned that you had an interest for drawing comics before discovering your music talent. Do you still create visual art in one form or another?
I dabble from time to time, but I’ve been spoiled knowing great artists who’ve done great work for me.
What’s it like to play at HBO’s Emmy Party, for three years in a row no less? What sort of music do you play there?
It’s the most over the top star-studded party I’ve ever seen. Every time it’s so much fun. The band is hand-picked and so is the music, so it’s usually a variety of material, but it’s more about gradually changing the evening from a cocktail hour to a dance party, so we start off with more mellow stuff and work our way to play more danceable stuff, then the DJ takes over. We are presented in a very classy and elegant manner as well as the staging. It’s a first rate production all the way.
What are your current projects, in the gaming industry and outside it?
So far this year, I had done all audio for a VR experience called Cursed Sanctum, then done some voice-over casting and acting myself for War Commander: Rogue Assault, and I was cast to perform some voices for a new VR game coming soon recently announced called Skyworld. Right now I’m working on all audio for an unannounced game which I’m sure will reveal in the near future. Outside the game industry I’m working on new solo albums I hope to be finishing this year. I’ve been performing quite a bit in the Las Vegas area with my different original bands Face The Funk, The Bitters, and Home Cookin’. I fill in on drums for several other acts in town, and coming up, going to be drumming in Manchester, England on October 30th and London on November 1st for the amazing cellist Tina Guo.
What sort of music do you enjoy listening to the most?
Quality music. Something that had thought put into it and is well written. No matter what genre, this becomes harder to find because you have to sift through a lot of mediocrity to discover it. Which means you have to actually spend some time caring about discovering music. Which a lot of people don’t do or allow themselves time and patience for. If we’re just talking genres as I said I love funk probably the most.
Which games do you enjoy playing these days?
I’m probably more of a casual gamer, I have a love for arcade classics. Though I also tend to enjoy games that have vast worlds I can immerse myself in. I enjoyed Horizon: Zero Dawn most recently, while on the flip side I love playing the browser game Bomby.io on a regular basis. I’m looking forward to the recently announced Red Dead Redemption 2.
Do you fire up a game you composed for and play it for nostalgia’s sake from time to time?
Not very often. When EA put Red Alert 2 back on Origin, I played it again for a while. But Star Wars: Empire at War recently got a patch that brought back multiplayer to Steam which is exciting. I loved working on that game and its expansion so much. It still holds up wonderfully when I play it. I also really enjoy the 8-Bit Armies series – RTS back to the roots.
Do you have any messages for the community?
Just would like to say thanks for the continued interest and support over the years. It’s great to have been part of something that was not only special to us for working on it, but clearly so special to the fans that revere it to this day. The longevity of that has truly been remarkable.
We would like to thank Frank Klepacki for his time, as well as all his contributions for Command & Conquer and gaming in general!