No Man’s Sky Interview: Making Music for an Infinite Universe with 65daysofstatic’s Joe Shrewsbury
For nearly three years, Hello Games’ ambitious space exploration game No Man’s Sky has been one of the most anticipated titles coming to both the PS4 and PC for the coming year, and for plenty of good reasons.
One of the biggest reasons, however, is how No Man’s Sky and its procedurally-generated universe are promising to deliver players a nearly infinite universe to explore, find new planets, lifeforms, and more; all the more ambitious given its size and scope are coming from the small, English team at Hello Games. Part of that devotion and experience in crafting a nearly limitless universe is also coming from the sound and audio, which is aiming to convey the expanse of No Man’s Sky and its universe far beyond what players will actually see.
To learn more about what has gone in to creating the music and atmosphere of No Man’s Sky, we had the chance to talk with 65daysofstatic’s Joe Shrewsbury, one of the band’s members and one of the minds helping to craft and write the music that will aim to make No Man’s Sky feel truly infinite.
The transcript of our interview with Joe Shrewsbury can be found below, along with an audio version of the interview that includes some samples from the upcoming soundtrack, No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe*:
Ryan Meitzler: Thanks Joe for talking to us, we’re really, really excited to hear more about the game and hear what you guys have been working on with the game. Can you start out by introducing yourself and talk about 65daysofstatic?
Joe Shrewsbury: I play guitar in [65daysofstatic] and a little bit of synth, and we’re a mainly instrumental band from the north of England. We formed, I guess, almost 15 years ago now: 2001. I guess we’ve been releasing records since about 2004, and we’ve done a whole bunch of albums and stuff that people can check out on their own time.
But, in 2010, which was sort of around the 10-year mark of us being a band that toured – I guess being a “professional” band – we had a short hiatus and we decided when we came back that we wanted to investigate some other forms that the band could operate in outside of a standard “write a record, record the record, release the record, tour” model. And so we started to pursue soundtrack work, and we also did some sort of audio-visual conceptual art installations.
And in 2013, we were lucky enough to meet Hello Games – who were developing No Man’s Sky – and the rest is history.
RM: You guys have a pretty diverse range of work where you have a ton of albums, a ton of touring experience: I also looked into the “Silent Running” alternative score that you guys did as well. I was just curious: as I understand it this is your first video game project that you guys have been working on, correct?
JS: That’s right, yeah. So, we’ve always made music that has been fairly “cinematic,” but in the early days we were, I suppose, quite energetic, naive, quite punky young kids who were sort of trying to smash electronic music into the best bits of the guitar music that was around at the time. So we were listening to other bands like At the Drive-In, …And You Will Know by the Trail of Dead, and other bands like this: I don’t know if people are still aware of those bands.
And then there was a bunch of great electronic music that we listened to in our formative years like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Bands like New Order we thought were doing something really interesting with the live band that had the “electronic element” to it. You know, that sounds really obvious today, but it was really different back then and it was a big deal: it was strange. It was a notable thing that people hadn’t done before if you were sort of making real “punky” music, and then you had all these laptops and glitchbeats going on and stuff on stage.
I suppose we grew up and grew into something else. We got lumped in with a lot of what is called “post-rock” still, which I guess was useful for people. But we didn’t really identify with that genre, or at least it seemed to have limitations that we existed outside of. I suppose in the last seven or eight years, we’ve been developing. We’ve just been pursuing a unique sound, pursuing a feeling of progression over our albums: we’re not really a band that likes to master one thing and then keep doing it.
We always wanted to push how we feel that our musical vocabulary worked between each other. So part of that was doing, as you mentioned, “Silent Running,” which is a great piece of late 70s sci-fi – if anyone hasn’t seen it – with a really “stubborn” plot that probably wouldn’t get made these days.
We were invited by a film festival in Glasgow to “re-soundtrack” that – which is a thing that, I don’t know about it in the States, but in the UK and Northern Europe as well that’s been quite a popular thing for instrumental bands or bands out of left-field to do, to sort of break in to the arts festival scene. There’s a big crossover there. So live soundtracking is a big deal – I think it still goes on a lot today.
But it’s not the same as doing an actual soundtrack: No Man’s Sky and the size of it was huge, so it was a big deal for us to get that. But “Silent Running” was one of the things that we did that fed into doing No Man’s Sky and to having the confidence to sign up: to say “this is something that we can do.”
RM: I mean just looking at “Silent Running”: No Man’s Sky seems to share a lot of that aesthetic where it has sort of a “70s sci-fi” tinge to it, just the way it looks and what we’ve heard from the soundtrack so far, and how it sounds as well.
JS: “Silent Running” was a really interesting project. It was made very quickly: we didn’t know we were going to make a record of that: at the time, it was literally a sort of two-night festival appearance. And so, we were quite brisk and were quite confident, and we just sort of went with soundtracking that was a lot more abstracted than the care we’d take over an album. So, I think doing that gave us the confidence to sort of trust our first idea rather than our thousandth idea, which was what we were doing making a record: we’d really get rid of a lot of material before we’d decide where the album was heading.
But that was really useful for No Man’s Sky because of course, one of the main pressures with No Man’s Sky was the time constraints, so we had to write music really fast. I can appreciate that obviously they’re both [65daysofstatic] records so they have some stuff in common – I hope No Man’s Sky is in a higher definition and has a wider feel to it than “Silent Running,” because certainly of the techniques. The band that made [the No Man’s Sky soundtrack] was very different to the band that made “Silent Running.” But there’s a lot of the first one in the No Man’s Sky record, if that makes sense.
RM: The sort of main idea of No Man’s Sky is that it’s this huge, expansive universe for players to explore. Even the album is called “Music for an Infinite Universe”: what were the challenges of making music for an “infinite universe” that players will be experiencing very differently?
JS: Yeah – it’s huge. What we realized early on is that what we needed to do was to soundtrack not the “aesthetic” of the game, but the size of the game. Because, we felt that No Man’s Sky and the beautiful sort of retro sci-fi design that that game I suppose nods to, would be very easily soundtracked by some quite, I guess, “prog rock” spacey, quite whacked out stuff. But we were given the creative freedom, really, to do whatever we wanted, and I think one of the things we wanted to do was subvert that and bring a more contemporary, malevolent, a more visceral sound to the game. Rather than to adhere to what we thought maybe it was “supposed” to do, but instead to hopefully make it even better by I guess doing what [65daysofstatic] do best, rather than sort of second-guessing what Hello Games wanted.
The procedural nature of the audio is a unique part of the project, and I think that – and a lot of this is said with the benefit of hindsight – a different band wouldn’t really have been able to be involved at the level that we were. Or, at least there are not a great deal of bands that I can think of that would have been able to step up, purely because half of us are involved in programming, coding, actually building modular synths from scratch, and the actual workings of procedural music itself: without actually making procedural music in the band.
So, we were able to mock up a system using freely-available software to test a lot of this out. And we’re also all familiar enough with working with loop-based, repetitive music as opposed to linear composition, to be free enough to feel that we’re able to explore that side of things. We haven’t done a lot of repetitive music, or at least we only used it as a thought experiment to come up with other compositions which we would then harvest into actual arrangements, but we’d done enough to be quite free within that paradigm.
What was then even more interesting is that it was clear that what we actually had to do was not do that, but to write a record that did work as an album, as a series of compositions that were arranged temporally if you want: with a start, a beginning, and an end, with hooks and melodies. But we also had to at all times hold in our head that we would then take that album and reinvestigate its component parts and use them as the jump off for this more upwardly scaled, “rhythmatic” way of composing things, where the instances of music relate to each other.
So the first year was spent writing that record, and the second – you know, once that record was recorded and mixed and mastered to the degree that you would any album – we then went back into the Pro Tools files and just carved up the audio, and then added a great deal more. And that’s what we’ve been doing really since the last year – the record was finished in 2015, and it’s taken us ’til now to work with the game’s audio director, Paul Weir, to feed that music in.
RM: Comparing No Man’s Sky to your previous work, what has that experience been like? Has it been a different process compared to how you and the rest of the band normally write music?
JS: Totally. Although, the thing is you build up a way of working and then you discard stuff that doesn’t work and you retain techniques that do work. Every project teaches you those lessons: you know, you never feel like you stop learning. So, No Man’s Sky is unique for so many reasons – because it’s a computer game, because it’s procedural, because we had to write this record – but it would have been unique anyway. It’s hard to sort of pinpoint exactly where one project ends and the other begins.
I guess the album that we’ve made – which is more of a double-album, really – is one that we’re really proud of and we feel fits next to the back catalog: it feels like a logical progression. It’s also a record, I suppose, that leans more on previous work simply because we knew which aspects of our previous work the Hello Games guys had used to pre-visualize: to sort of pre-imagine what the soundtrack would be like. So we took a lot of that on board like the track “Debutante” that they licensed very early on: that would’ve been in 2010.
But you know, “Supermoon” – the first single from the No Man’s Sky record – I think has a lot in common with that track because we knew that [Sean Murray, game director] had liked the vocals, we knew he liked the sort of “hopeful” way that the chord progression was used as opposed to the darker stuff that we’ve written subsequently. But, in the end you know, we’re really happy with how that worked out because it feels like, even though it does nod to earlier stuff, it also sort of forges forward into the future in its own right.
The first gameplay trailer for No Man’s Sky from VGX 2013, featuring 65daysofstatic’s track “Debutante”.
So, yeah, that’s definitely a real positive: we’re really happy with the album, we’re really happy that our name’s on it. At the same time, having recently been able to play the game for a few hours, which wasn’t something that we had access to during the writing process, it’s better than I could have imagined it would be but more than that the music engine that we built.
You know, there are a few compromises, there are a few hiccups, there are some problems that had to be overcome to make it work. But it does work and it’s amazing to actually be in the game and hearing the music in that environment – and obviously no one’s got to do that yet. But when they do and if they’re fans of the album, I think what they’ll find really interesting is that the in-game music, while it’s creating these sort of unique moments of music, the human brain also does something really interesting in that it recognizes those component parts that are from the record.
So, they have a really nice, symbiotic relationship where you’re not hearing the album, but you’re sort of hearing an “echo” of it. And that’s really interesting, and obviously something that we didn’t know would happen right up until the last minute. It’s really exciting, and I hope that we’ll be used as a guide for people making procedural music in games and whatever in the future. It’s part of the wider conversation that’s happening with the technology.
RM: Did you guys have any hands-on time with the game, either before you had written the music or while you were writing the music, and how might that have influenced or changed what you were writing?
JS: I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or not but we pretty much saw what everyone else saw in those early days of the game, which was a small amount of gameplay. There were a couple of times where we saw either Sean or Paul Weir, the audio director, like “in the game” but we were never allowed, I suppose, to explore at that point.
We then went into a period of writing that was really high pressure – we’re not based where Hello Games is based, so we didn’t see those guys and we didn’t have access to the game. And I don’t know if that was a conscious decision, but it turned out to be a very useful parameter, actually, because not being able to actually reference the game meant that we sort of had to imagine something much bigger. You know, the human imagination is, however good these games get, they don’t match what the human imagination is capable of, and that’s a much better point to be writing music from than the actual limitations of what a game looks like. So, that was really cool.
I think then when we did get to play the game, after the album was finished about six months ago, at that point we were just so concerned with how the music would work we actually spent most of our time in the game ignoring what the game wanted us to do – all the possibilities in the game – and just make music happen so that we could test it out.
So it wasn’t really until about two weeks ago, when No Man’s Sky was I guess “finished,” it was the day after that we actually got to play for about six hours, and that was just amazing. It was amazing. Because you know, we’ve been waiting for this just the same as everybody else, and well I’m certainly willing to say that it is so good. It’s really good.
And I understand that there’s maybe this confusion out there about what you actually have to do in the game, but it’s great and I don’t think people are going to be disappointed.
RM: Yeah, that’s awesome. People have been looking forward to the game for three years now almost, and I know it’s one that’s definitely been on everyone’s radar.
JS: Yeah, and you know I don’t think [Hello Games] wanted everybody to wait three years. I think they just genuinely had this moment a year ago or eighteen months ago where they said, “This can be amazing but we need more time to do it.” Since that game was hyped – it was really hyped up like two years ago – we went out to Las Vegas to play at Sony’s [PlayStation Experience].
You know, the hype was huge, and it was almost too early because you know, there’s clearly some frustration with the wait. But I think it will be worth it: it’s definitely worth the wait for our record. [Laughs]
65daysofstatic performing live at PlayStation Experience 2014 in the special “A Night Under No Man’s Sky” concert event.
RM: With the game, [Hello Games] said it should have about 18 quintillion planets altogether – just the scope of the game is huge. Did you guys have to write 18 quintillion songs to go with it?
JS: No, not at all and I mean, yeah that’s an interesting one. I was in the game for five hours and I went to three planets: I was blown away. The size of the game is brilliant. That’s not quite how people are going to interact in the game.
I think we will add more music to the game though: I think there’s going to be an ongoing relationship with the game. Which again, is like so far out to me as a musician that you write the music, and then you capture it when you think it’s at its best, and then you release it as an album. And of course, those compositions continue to evolve in the live arena, but in terms of records, they’re snapshots of a time and place. But games are sort of different, you know, they’re updating stuff: it’s such an interesting concept.
I think we will add some content over the next year if we’re given the chance. But you know, the procedural side of that is more a part of that conversation happening in that technology – like, it does something that I think hasn’t been done before, but I think there’s stuff people are gonna achieve in the future. I think Paul Weir, whose written the software for the game, has achieved something really, really special, but we all are aware that, you know, it’s not about making the definitive thing. It’s just about being part of the ongoing journey, I suppose, into some human future.
RM: Will there be any variations on the music and style depending on where players explore?
JS: Oh totally, yes. Depending on what’s happening in the game, the music will respond: the music will also be making fairly unique iterations. There’s stuff in there that has echoes of other pieces of music, but for the most part, the music will be reacting to what you’re doing and it will also be fairly unique. In that sense, it succeeded: it’s pretty cool.
RM: Can you talk about the soundtrack’s CD/vinyl release and the European tour, and what the experience will be compared to what we’ll hear in the game?
JS: Well we’re working on the live show now. We’re not playing ALL of the music from the game because we have a bunch of other music to play, and I guess you know the album proper is much more within our capabilities as a live band. But a lot of the soundscape stuff is much more abstract, much more studio based, much more experimental. So we haven’t really decided how much of that we’re gonna put into the live show: the first half of the album will all translate.
It’s always exciting to play new music live, it’s always super, super cool, and it’s always nice to see how that fits into the live show. And so far, you know, we’ve played tracks like “Supermoon” and “Asimov” a few times and it’s just great, it slots right in: it brings something new to the show.
The first single track released from the upcoming soundtrack to No Man’s Sky, “Supermoon”
I think we’d like to do something more “procedural” live, and we’d like to do something with some of the visual elements from No Man’s Sky, but right now we need to see. We need to get the record out, we need to tour really hard, and get to a point where we might have more of a budget to do that.
We do have plans to come to the States but they haven’t come to fruition yet. As I guess people can appreciate, it’s getting harder and harder to travel the world. I don’t know what people’s perception of us is: there’s a lot of new people paying attention to 65days because of No Man’s Sky, but you know we’re not a big band.
We haven’t sold a lot of records, we’re a pretty strange, weird band so all of this is a huge, exciting journey for us. We don’t know how it’s going to end up, but No Man’s Sky has been an amazing thing to be a part of. The main reason is that it’s been a chance to do something huge but that has a real creative nobility to it – that has gone through a lot to get made, and has been protected from being compromised, I think.
I think that the guys at Hello Games have set out to make something with a vision, and they have stuck to that vision through thick and thin. And they’ve also created an environment where we have been able to pursue a vision for the music that no one has been allowed to dilute. So that’s what I’m most proud of them for and I guess that’s what’s really made it a pleasure, even with all the pressure and the hard times and the deadlines, and all the stress of “is it gonna work?”: it’s never been anything but creatively fantastic.
RM: Awesome – well, I’ll officially put in the request for a New York concert if you guys do wind up coming out West!
JS: [Laughs] Of course!
RM: What do you and the rest of 65daysofstatic hope players will sort of react or feel while playing the game, and while listening to what you’ve created for the game?
JS: At the end of the day, I hope people hear music that makes the game more compelling and more exciting than it already is. I think that the game, having played it, is very interesting in that you can really express yourself in the game, and you can dictate what you want the game to be: so if you want the game to be aggressive, and violent, and quite tense then that’s the sort of game it will be.
But there is a space in that game for something more profound, more interesting, and I hope that we have written music that comes halfway to expressing those intangible aspects of the human condition that you can’t put into words.
No Man’s Sky will release for PS4 and PC on August 9th, 2016 in the US, following on August 10th for the UK and Europe.
65daysofstatic will be performing the music of No Man’s Sky starting with a performance at the Bluedot Festival in Jodrell Bank, UK on July 24th, while the European tour will begin performances starting October 2016. Details on performances outside of Europe haven’t been officially confirmed/announced at this time.
The soundtrack album, No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe, will release on August 10th in North America, August 11th in Europe, and August 12th in the UK and is available to pre-order now.
* The tracks “Supermoon” and “Red Parallax” have been included with the permission of 65daysofstatic.