Matt Gray - Kickstarting a musical (re)vision

by Paul Morrison

I've picked an interesting time to write this book.  In the process of tracking down and interviewing our 8-bit Gods, I've been lucky enough to see some of them return to what we know and love... writing the games and music we've always loved them for.  It was with some excitement that I heard that Matt Gray, composer of brilliant music for games such as Driller, Vendetta, Tusker, Hunter's Moon and, umm, Pogo Stick Olympics, along with the entire Last Ninja 2 soundtrack, was planning to rework some of his classic tracks.

I got in touch with Matt who not only agreed to be interviewed for the book, but also talked to me about the project and why Kickstarter was the way to go.  Here's everything you need to know about the upcoming album, entitled Reformation, and why you should get on board on Sunday 2nd November...

You just know that's going to look lovely on your shelf.

You just know that's going to look lovely on your shelf.

TWOG: For those that might not yet know, can you please explain exactly what the project is that your Kickstarter campaign aims to fund?

Matt Gray: It’s a double album comprising of around twenty or so remakes of my best C64 games tracks. I’ll be retaining SID elements, but the final productions will be much enhanced sonically-speaking using synths and live instruments where needed. Anyone who has heard the Last Ninja 2 Central Park Loader remake I uploaded to Soundcloud and Bandcamp will get the picture. It’s very much on the Bionic/Six Million Dollar Man tip - “better, stronger” but probably not “faster”.

TWOG: Having been in a completely different area of the music industry for years, I can't imagine that the urge to go back to your Commodore 64 music and rework it came on the spur of the moment. How long have you been thinking about this, and what was it that pushed you to finally go for it?

MG: The idea was first aired about 18 months ago in a conversation with Chris Abbott. I’d mentioned that I was really into the idea of producing music for games again given the unlimited boundaries these days, soundwise-speaking. Chris suggested there would be an interest if I was to remix my C64 tracks. I’ve remixed many tracks in the record industry and to me it meant almost completely changing a song’s direction or feel.

After many months thinking about it on and off I decided that I wanted to keep the intended feel and direction of my C64 tracks but enhance them in a way that I simply didn’t have the tools or technology to do nearly 30 years ago. Then finally this summer I decided if I was ever going to do this project then now was the time.

TWOG: Kickstarter has really, for want of a better word, kickstarted in the last couple of years, and especially for games, with loads of high-profile games projects being funded (and many much smaller ones, too). What convinced you that Kickstarter was the way to go with this project?

MG: When I first heard about Kickstarter I must admit I was slightly dubious that enough people would back a project with their money simply to see it happen. But when I saw how the successful projects were presented and aimed at existing fans, I realised that it really was the perfect outlet for fans to effectively pre-order an artistic product they wanted to see or hear. I also loved the idea that everyone pledging could benefit to further extremes via the stretch goals being reached. The more people who supported the project, the more those people would gain from it.

My favourite Last Ninja 2 tune: The Street.  Which is your favourite?

TWOG: There have been other Kickstarter-funded games music projects... as a couple of examples, Chris Huelsbeck released his Turrican Anthology, a reworking of the entire series of Turrican music, and Allister Brimble released his Amiga Works set after a successful Kickstarter. The market is definitely there and people want this stuff. How exciting is it to you to be able to update this music? Do you see it as being able to fulfil the potential of the original tracks or is it more a case of offering a more modern-sounding alternative?

MG: I think it’s a bit of both. Trends come and go in music, but the elements that make up a good track stay basically the same just sonically tailored to the times. Drums are a perfect example. Big reverb enriched snares were all the rage in the 80’ but almost despised in the last decade. But now more and more producers are going back to those sounds of the 80s and everyone’s buying Linn drum plug ins or the original hardware. Piano house chords went completely out for over two decades but they are back in the charts again now. Things just come back eventually but with a twist, sometimes subtle and sometimes not.

TWOG: You have quite a large body of work on the Commodore 64. How much of it do you intend to rework? Will it be hard to pick the tracks you're going to work with and which you will leave out? Or do you already have it set in stone what you're going to work with?

MG: Well there’s going to be a Last Ninja 2 CD on its own. The double album will feature some of this and/or shorter versions of the same and around 14 or so of my other games tracks. However if certain stretch goals are reached then I can make another 10-12 tracks to take in more of my games tracks. Obviously LN2 and Driller will be a given I’d say.

Matt's stunning 'Driller' theme elevated the game. Imagine how a modern reworking might sound...

TWOG: Rewards for different pledge levels can be a big part of any Kickstarter campaign and are sometimes crucial to its success. Do you have any ideas for rewards outside the standard “get CDs when the project is completed”?

MG: Well apart from the double album and the stand alone LN2 disc, there will be a limited special edition presented in a great retro themed box and that’ll be signed and have all discs available. There’s going to a be a T-Shirt tier with the original album artwork on it illustrated by S-I-T and designed by Sam Dyer (Commodore 64: a visual Commpendium). Even a tier where you can get your own Matt Gray composition to use however you wish.

TWOG: Stretch goals can also be an important part of a Kickstarter plan. People can be tempted to pledge more if they see that a project can be bigger and better. Do you have any stretch goals in mind should you manage to pass your goal by a large amount?

MG: It’s the stretch goals that will really change the project's rewards for backers. The first stretch goal is to add in six brand new SID compositions based around imaginary sequels to my games tracks... Driller 2, other levels from LN2 etc. And the second stretch goal is to add in the extra track remakes for another CD. Further stretch goals include a making of DVD.

TWOG: One of the faults of Kickstarter, or more accurately with many backers' understanding of Kickstarter, is that people tend to treat a backed project as a pre-order and then get annoyed if the project slips beyond its target date. What is your target date for the completion of your project and how confident are you of hitting that date? Have you already started work on it (I guess you have, seeing as you've released one track into the wild) or do you have certain things in place to make the completion of it any easier or quicker?

MG: The target date for delivery is next September, but if the stretch goals are reached then it will be another three to four months. We’re talking potentially 30-odd remakes and six new SIDs so it’s a big project, but I’ve no doubt I can deliver it in that time frame. Making the Central Park Loader was a real test of the whole idea really and I was amazed at the response. Everyone was very kind about it and it was clear that I was thinking on the right lines for what was expected. I’ve nearly finished a second remake for the album that accompanies the Hewson Kickstarter book Hints & Tips For Videgame Pioneers.

TWOG: Many people see a project they like but don't back it, thinking they will just pick it up when it is released.  Please tell everyone why they should back the Kickstarter, rather than waiting until the album is released to buy it.

MG: The simple answer to that is if the Kickstarter campaign does not meet the funding target, then I simply won’t be able to spend eight or nine months making the album and it won’t happen. Making this album will require total focus on it for many months, not to mention some fair expense and so I’ll be side stepping other paying work to do it. If anyone wants to hear this album and the more comprehensive bigger album, they need to support it upfront in November via Kickstarter.

So there you have it, Matt Gray's complete rundown on what his Reformation album will feature.  I bought Matt's Central Park Loader reworking while it was available and it's stunning.  It really brings the original piece alive, with the additions being genuine enhancements whilst still keeping all the flavour of the original track.  If that's any indication of what we have to look forward to, and obviously it is, then we're all in for a treat next year.

Back Matt's Kickstarter here: Reformation: C64 track remakes by Matt Gray