Q&A: HEALTH's John Famiglietti On Scoring Max Payne 3
An enfeebling hollowness characterizes HEALTH's dark electronic pop. On 2007's HEALTH and 2009's Get Color, the Los Angeles-based quartet seemed to specialize in what might be described as "Grim Reaper ambient": vocals and tinny synthesizers bled through filters until impossibly brittle, riding a four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse forward-momentum to its doom, drenched in absinthe. Remember the look on Elijah Wood's face in Return of The King, right after he's been impaled and cocooned by that humongous spider? HEALTH embody that expression; there's something hopelessly beyond the pale about the sounds singer/guitarist Jake Duzsik, guitarist/keyboard player Jupiter Keyes, bassist/Zoothorn player John Famiglietti, and drummer B.J. Miller make together.
News that HEALTH were scoring the third Max Payne video game didn't come as a complete shock: there's always been a pointedly cinematic cast to their sickly, undulating pulsations. What's surprising is how easily the group adapted to the soundtracking genre requires, pouring its distinctive echoes and flutters into hair-raising interlude pools largely free of vocals yet as richly evocative as the verse-chorus-verse anti-arias on its studio records. Ironically, in the act of adding dimension to an ultra-violent videogame, HEALTH evolves: "Tears" is a tableau of stuttering cyborg desolation, the sinister "Dead" seethes static and slow-motion explosions, and "Torture" bends plangent guitar figures into a meditation on loneliness, while "Max: Panama" evokes It's All Around You-era Tortoise.
SOTC emailed with Famiglietti about making the Max Payne 3 soundtrack and how HEALTH hooked up with Rockstar Games in the first place.
What was the first time that music stood out for you in a video game?
Streets of Rage 2. It was a side-scroller, beat-'em-up game that was completely driven by its pumping, emotional dance music soundtrack. It's really great music.
How and when was HEALTH approached to score Max Payne 3? Were you fans of the games?
Rockstar came to a show in New York and took us out to dinner late last yeara bit of a "cold call," if you will. I was familiar with the games, but had never played them. Right after the dinner, I grabbed a friend's PS2 and the first two games and beat them immediately.
Have you beaten Max Payne 3 yet?
Oh, most definitely. Twice so far.
Was the game pretty much finished at the point where they brought you in, or was it still a work in progress?
The game was still being worked on when we came on the project. Levels would change pretty radically during the whole time we were composing, and we kept composing and changing things right up to two weeks before the release date.
Were the songs wholly inspired by the game, or did you come into the sessions with prepared pieces and ideas?
Mostly inspired by the game. Most of the time we were finding ways to adapt our sound into "score" form to work with the game, and then getting inspired by the look and mood of each level and where it took place in the story. There were a handful of pieces that were adapted from our own songs or stuff we'd already written, though.
What was it like to hear your own music in a television commercial?
It was cool. I thought the spot was well done, and really featured the music.
Were your friends freaking out about it? Was there anybody who didn't know you were involved with the making of this game who saw the commercial was caught unawares?
We've had a pretty unanimous "What the fuck!?" from friends and fans alike. We've gotten a lot of bewildered since once the commercial started airing. Even now, it's really hard to get fans to realize that we scored the whole game; they think we just did a song or two for it or something.
This soundtrack seems to have given you guys some opportunities to stretch out in intriguing ways; I was especially struck by the thermal-guitar studies of "Torture," the ghastly noise of "Birth," and "The Girl," which feels almost Chinese in its melodic phrasing. Can you tell me about how those songs came together?
"Torture" was originally meant for the beginning of Chapter Fiveonly tiny snippets of it ended up being used in the gameduring Max's long walk through the jungle. It's a rare moment where there's no gunfire, so we wanted something that really stood out and broke with the rest of the score.
With a lot of the music, we wanted to create a weird introspective feel, to make you think about what Max is going through as well as your own role controlling him in the game. We viewed all of the score as a reflection of Max's mental state, and we took the entire story at face value: that Max has literally killed over 10,000 people in his lifetime and suffered untold grief. We also worked with the thought that after all the adventures Max has been through that he's able to survive time and again, that it's a really depressing feeling to be in this situation again later in his life. "The Girl" is meant to create this feeling too, except during an intense boat chase shootout.
"Birth" was one of the last things we did in the game, and one of the few things we made to perfectly sync up with a cut scene; Rockstar really wanted something intense and different to open the game and really signal the new direction of Max Payne 3. The "ghastly noise" is kind of a motif that shows up a handful of times in the story.
When HEALTH emerged from the writing and recording process for this soundtrack, how many hours of music had you created? Will all of it see release in some form?
The music director at Rockstar estimates about six hours counting every possible cue. There's a decent amount of music in game that didn't make the soundtrack that we want to release that will probably be a free download down the line. Compact disc and vinyl versions are coming very soon as well.
In a feature I wrote about you guys a couple years back, around when Get Color came out, I suggested you should be soundtracking a Michael Mann flick. In an email interview with Jake Duzsik, we talked about some of the things you guys took away from touring with Nine Inch Nails. Now you've gone and soundtracked a sort of noir-ish video game; Trent Reznor's sound tracking career started the same way, with the Doom sequels, and now he's scoring major motion pictures and winning Academy Awards. Do you think scoring is something HEALTH will do more of? Have you had any offers?
Well, we never ever expected or anticipated scoring a video game. So who knows; we're definitely open to anything now.
Filtered, poly-harmonic vocals are really key to the HEALTH sound; for this soundtrack, you mostly stepped away from that. Was this a weird departure or transition to make, from formed songs into mood pieces?
It was definitely different, but what made it much easier than our own music is that right after making something, we would sync it up to game-play footage, which was an immediate indicator as to whether it was working or not.
I think the hardest thing to adapt to was the complicated system of how music was used in the game. All in game music had to be endless loops that could be combined to change the mood or to raise or lower the intensity. That was completely different from anything we'd ever done musically. As well as making music connect while constant gunfire is happening over it.
That sounds intense, but in a way it's kind of like having a technological focus group providing you feedback as you're working. Was there any point during this process where you started having Max Payne nightmares?
I've been having Max Payne dreams/nightmares for months. I bought a gun, too.
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