An interview with Peter McConnell

by Domenico "Diduz" Misciagna

(Click here for the Italian version)

There's no need to introduce Peter McConnell to you. You may ignore his name, but you've heard his music. It's impossible to forget many of his achievements, from the creation of iMUSE for Monkey Island 2 up to his recent wonderful score for Double Fine's Psychonauts. This bunch of simple questions is a lite (and perhaps lame? ;-) ) attempt to cover his videogame career. Let's go!


You don't have an amateurish background. I've read on your website that you've an A.B. magna cum laude in Music, Harvard University. At what extent did this help you in creating your music?

Quite a bit, in that it gave me access to the classical music language, which comes in handy all the time when you are doing any kind of underscoring for picture. That said, there are plenty of folks who do great work in this industry without formal musical training.


What led you and Michael Land to create the iMUSE system? Have you both some kind of programming background too?

It was really Michael’s idea. He came to LucasArts before I did, and they needed new music drivers for their PC games. He saw an opportunity to create something really new, and got me interested in the project. We both have similar programming backgrounds, having learned mostly on the job when we worked at Lexicon, the pro audio company that makes signal processors.


In your opinion, has the iMUSE system lost some of its flexibility after the demise of the old MIDI playback in favour of digital music?

I’ll trade a little flexibility for live music played by real musicians any time. Besides, we were able to keep most of the flexibility we really wanted.


I remember that you and Michael Land founded a web-based company called Coolernet. Is it still active? What was its purpose?

The company is now called SparkPoint, and is still under wraps. I can say that our site will launch this year, and it has something to do with creating and sharing media. The site is at www.sparkpoint.com and is still protected by a password. Stay tuned…


Considering the recent cancellations and the internal change of the company, do you think you'll still work with Lucasarts in the future?

I certainly look forward to any opportunity to work with them. They have always been good to me.


I think Monkey Island 2 was the first Lucasarts game to pioneer a complete and continuous soundtrack. Weren't you worried that gamers could be bored? What strategies did you adopt to avoid that risk?

I think Monkey I also had pretty continuous music, although that was developed just before I came to LucasArts. In Monkey II, interactivity was the be tool we used to keep up the interest. I think it worked pretty well.


Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is beautifully scored. For some reason I prefer the AdLib version of the soundtrack. How did you work on the different sound card versions of the same tracks? Would you create the music for the best wavetable first, downgrading it for AdLib and Pc Speaker afterwards?

That’s pretty much right, but we spent a LOT of time making the Adlib versions sound good, because we knew that was 90% of the audience. Thanks for noticing that, by the way; it was really hard work and we always felt it was a little “unsung,” so to speak.


How deep was your contribution to Day Of The Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit The Road? Do you remember some tracks that you wrote and / or you're particularly proud of?

I did about a third of Day of the tentacle, and if I remember right, it was mostly in the “present” part of the game (although I did do Dr. Fred’s music everywhere if I remember right). My favorite piece of mine from that game was the theme for the IRS guys, and maybe Dr. Fred. I did a lot of the themes in Sam & Max, but not a lot of the full pieces. My favorite piece of mine from that game is definitely the Doug the Moleman music, and I did do the full production on that one.


Full Throttle offers a sophisticated soundtrack, marking the debut of digital music. Did you base your original music on The Gone Jackal's style? Or did you choose them after composing your own score?

Well really the debut of digital music at LucasArts was Rebel Assault. Kudos to Vince Lee for pulling off that huge technical feat. The beginnings of my work on Full Throttle took shape before I had chosen the band. But as I worked with the Gone Jackals I was conscious of blending the two types of music as much as possible.


Much of the tracks for Full Throttle are not melodic. There's a lot of ambient sound in the game. Why did you choose to loose the melodic style in some parts of the game?

To me, Throttle was all about the vibe and the mood. And that mood comes from the wide open desert spaces in the game. So I wanted a spare, lonely sound. I used a lot of echo effects to suggest being alone in a desolate environment. And actually there is lots of melody in the ambient tracks, but the melodies are just short gestures that paint a picture really quickly. I figured that Ben Throttle wasn't long-winded, so neither should I be.


You've often said that the Grim Fandango soundtrack is your most beloved work. Could you share some memories of the game's development?

Probably my favorite memories are of the various recording sessions from beginning to end. One kind of unusual technique I used was to record Tim Schafer talking about every location in the game before I had written a note of music. I even had Larry the O (sound designer) playing on bongos, so it was sort of like Tim doing beat poetry about the whole game. Then I set up this interactive map using the iMUSE system that was a diagram of the whole game, and when you clicked on a spot, you heard Tim talking about it. It was not only entertaining, but hugely valuable. Then there were the sessions at the end with all those great San Francisco musicians. They were pretty much the high point for me of my years at LucasArts.


Grim Fandango is a perfect homogeneous blend of story, dialogues, art and sound. Sometimes I even had the feeling that Manny walked and ran following the music pace (or viceversa!!!). Was this intentional, I mean - did you work with animators to achieve this effect? Perhaps I'm just going mad.

I hate to say it, but I think that was serendipity -- at least as far as I can remember. In a way it wasn't accidental, though, because I think the animators did a really good job of making Manny move in a way that is human and natural, and the grooves I chose for the music were chosen to feel good to walk to, so it's not surprising that they should line up. Also sketches of those tunes were in the game for many months, so the animators could have tweaked things a bit.


I remember the first time I heard the menu music of Star Wars Force Commander. I went like: "What the hell-?" It was something unique and original. Why did you decide to remix the classic John Williams' score using a "groove" approach?

For two reasons. First, because we had done quite a few traditional Star Wars games that played drop-the-needle with the movie sound track CDs, so I thought it was really time for something different. Secondly, because the game is essentially a strategy game, it called for a different kind of pace. The movie cues alternate between ambient, scary, meditative, and high-pitched action. But a lot of the gameplay in Force Commander falls into a sort of constant groove, so I thought the remix idea was kind of a natural one. I have to admit, not everyone agreed with me, but I’m glad I did it. Besides, I always wanted to hear a heavy tech-metal version of The Imperial March. Boy, it was fun doing that session with Dave Levison playing guitar through my Marshall stack. People two floors up and on the other side of the building were asking their neighbors to turn down the music.


Full Throttle : Hell On Wheels. You said you had been working with Roy Rogers on the soundtrack of the game. Who is he?

He is one of the best slide guitar players in the country and he lives right here in the Bay area. He worked for years with John Lee Hooker and produced Hooker’s immortal album, The Healer. I do hope our Throttle sessions see the light of day someday.


Just by looking at FT2 screenshots and trailer, the game looked more lighthearted that the first part. Were you writing the music considering this slightly different tone?

There was some comic relief in FT2, but there was also plenty in the original (“Help me Ben, you’re my only hope!”). I handled the music pretty similarly for both titles.


Did you ask The Gone Jackals to get back?

The design team decided they wanted some different band music for FT2, so we didn’t end up working with the Gone Jackals on this one.


There's an urban legend about you singing in the FT2 soundtrack. ;-)

It’s all true, on two cues, in fact. I hear that was one of the reasons the game was canceled. ;)


Considering that the game's been cancelled, will we ever have a chance to listen to the tracks you had already recorded? How much of the soundtrack had been completed?

About 70% of the sound track was completed. I hope people get to hear it someday.


Since you had already left Lucasarts, how did you interact with FT2 team? Would you visit them on a regular basis....? What is the dynamic of this kind of freelance work?

I was there all the time. It was pretty much like the old days, since I knew most of the folks I was working with from way back.


What did you like best of Full Throttle : Hell On Wheels?

I liked the way it integrated story and action. It took a novel approach to solving that problem, and I hope to see another game that takes this approach.


In Psychonauts every character generates his/her own personal world. Probably this is the ultimate challenge for a videogame composer. How did you work with Tim Schafer this time around, considering that this is also the first non-adventure game you do together?

I worked with Tim pretty much the same way I have always worked with him – by starting with really rough versions of the basic themes really early on in the process. I read as much as I could about the characters from the very beginning of their design, and the music sort of grew with them. There were lots of “re-dos” over the development cycle, but they were all worth it.


One can find a bizarre mixture of humor and strong dark tones in Psychonauts. IMO this already happened in the final moments of Monkey Island 2. The atmosphere becomes more and more disturbing, retaining a comedic flavour. As a musician, what do you think of such a creative acrobatics?

I love it. It’s my favorite thing to score.


Funny games like Psychonauts never become hits, especially nowadays. Do you think the core of the videogame industry is "creatively stuck" on serious games?

I think Double Fine is pretty happy with how Psychonauts has done, so I wouldn’t be quite so bleak about it. Besides, you could look at the fact that there can be two or three hits at a time that are, say World War II games, as a good thing. It means story and execution matter. Gone are the days when there is just one shooter that takes all the marbles. That said, I’d like to see a little more imagination out there. E3 has become a bit predictable.


I read that the Sly Cooper soundtrack is inspired by Henry Mancini's work. Did you choose him for the "stealth" nature of many of his works (i.e.: "The Pink Panther")?

Absolutely. And he has a kind of classic sound, which I think goes well with the look of Sly. There are other influences, too, by the way, including plenty of John Williams and just my own general weirdness.


Thank you for the interview, Peter!

Your welcome – thank you!