Art for (Uncle) Art's sake? An interview with Dave and Holly Lowe!

by Paul Morrison

It seems that barely a month goes by without another retro-themed Kickstarter peeking its head around the corner.  That's fine by me... I love these projects!  Be it a game, book or music project, I'm generally in from day one.

My support isn't just financial though (just as well really, as I'm pretty skint most of the time!).  Oh, no.  I like to interview the people behind the project when I can, and spread their words across the internet like a Town Crier with a giant megaphone.  Or something like that.

The latest project to tickle my fancy, and eardrums, comes from Dave and Holly Jazz Lowe, otherwise known as Uncle Art Music.  You may well know Dave's name from the 80s and 90s.  His programming days originated on the Spectrum, where he co-wrote games such as Thrust and Buggy Blast.

He quickly realised that music was his forte though, and went on to produce a ton of great work across the Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amiga and Atari ST.  You'll recognise his tracks immediately if you play, for example, any of... Power Drift; Night Shift; the 16-bit versions of IK+; Elite 2: Frontier; Starglider 1 and 2; Carrier Command; Midwinter 2... I could go on and on.

You sang this when you played it, didn't you?  Every time.  Admit it!

Nowadays, Dave has added an expansion pack to Uncle Art Music, in the form of his daughter, Holly.  Together, they play a multitude of instruments, and they're going to wield that power and talent to produce stunning reworkings of some of Dave's game tracks.  I've spoken to Dave and Holly to get all the ins-and-outs of the project, such as they are at this time... and also get to know the people behind the project a little bit better.

Here's what they had to say.

TWOG: Who came up with the idea to launch a project on Kickstarter? What prompted the idea?

Dave Lowe: It was actually a guy called Alex Holland who’s a programmer who worked at Argonaut (or Lagernaut as he calls it cos they were always down the pub!) who I’ve been in contact with for quite a few years. He kept asking me when I was going to remake my tracks. I knew I needed to work with someone else in order to do it and now that Holly’s come to work as part of Uncle Art she really pushed Alex’s idea and so here we are!

TWOG: Holly, your passion for the music is evident and really comes across. Personally, I attribute my love of instrumental music to the computer games musicians of the 80s and early 90s. Have you always been a big fan of your dad's music, and did you like other computer games music when you were younger?

Holly Jazz Lowe: Absolutely always been a fan! I mean I grew up with these tunes blasting out of the studio – or garage as it was at first and slowly became the proper studio it is today! I was games testing for a company called The Conversion Company who were based just across the moors (haha Yorkshire localism!) when I was like 9 so I got to play games for sweets which was pretty… sweet!

I was born in 83 so I was pretty young when a lot of the C64 / Atari / Amiga stuff was going on so but I remember moving over to - it must have been the PC - and playing Kings Quest VI because I think my dad was going to be working on a conversion of it. I remember it had a song in it called "Girl In The Tower" which was ridiculously cheesy but I can still sing off by heart today! I also remember the minotaur catacomb level was about the scariest thing I’d ever encountered!

Right, everyone. Just for Holly.  Time to get your lighters out. And sing...

So yeah those games and the music had an enormous effect on me. It was very cool for me growing up in that environment because it meant we had to have every console that came out for my dad’s work! My best friend who lived down the lane thought that my dad must be a burglar because “why else would the Lowes have so many computers in their house?” Computers were not very commonplace in the home back then!

TWOG: Tell us a bit about what the project involves, please.

Dave: Well, we’re proposing a double album of some of my computer game music. OK so obviously the original game pieces are already all over the internet but we thought it’d be good to put them together as a high quality collection on one disc and include it as a sort of free bonus to this project. The real work however is another disc full of remakes of some of my original computer game music. We’re going to release it on download, CD and Vinyl.

TWOG: I always like a cool album title. Often, with projects like this, there's a temptation to just call it something like “The Collected Works”, but “A Temporal Shift” is a cool title! How did you come up with that name?

Holly: Hey thanks! Well because it’s a mix of old and new and obviously the generation divide between me and my dad too, we wanted something that implied a time warp. And dad watches a lot of Stargate (I’m all about Star Trek Next Gen myself and can’t bring myself to even try out Stargate!) and so we’d heard the ‘temporal’ word flung around a lot when they talk about time. So we thought that A Temporal Shift – literally a shifting in time would be a really fitting title!

A remake will probably not be available on cassette.

TWOG: There have been other Kickstarter-funded games music projects... as a few examples, Chris Huelsbeck released his Turrican Anthology (a reworking of the entire series of Turrican music), Allister Brimble released his Amiga Works set and Matt Gray has recently completed a successful Kickstarter for his Reformation project to remake his classic games music. 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?

Dave: Yeah, really exciting to revisit these tracks. To me they were another life ago! I had no idea that there was so much interest in this retro stuff now. It’s really amazing to learn that it meant a lot to a lot of people, I honestly had no idea especially in the days before the internet, I just made the music and sent it off and knew nothing more about it.

And yeah it would be great to get the chance to remake these tracks as they really should sound. There were so many technical limitations back then, and today there really aren’t any. And now having Holly to work with in a proper recording environment too makes it not a job of work but a real creative process that I can really enjoy.

TWOG: How do you plan on recording the remakes? Will they be completely electronic or will they take a band-based approach? Or will it be mostly the two of you playing different instruments?

Holly: There’s one rule in the studio and that’s that there are no rules! We try everything, and we scrap nearly everything! But hopefully we end up with something really great. We like to mix things up a lot, and this means mixing up line ups and sounds. We’re really into fusing sounds. I get bored by things that are always constantly orchestral or constantly electro or constantly an indie band. Music is diverse and it should only ever be about how it makes you feel.

TWOG: Are there any favourite tracks that you feel you must include? Or is the track list completely fluid?

Dave: There are definitely some that have got to go in and these are: Elite Frontier, Carrier Command, Afterburner, ISS - Incredible Shrinking Sphere and Starglider 1 & 2. The rest is quite fluid. We know Street Fighter 2 is huge although it is originated off the arcade machine so I’m not the original composer, I did the Amiga custom conversion. So I don’t know really, we might sort out a license but at the same time it seems there are already so many versions of it around that I don’t know if people would want another one. I think a lot of the remainder of the track list will come down to a poll from the backers.

ISS - Incredible Shrinking Sphere. Great for its time, so imagine what a modern remake could sound like!

TWOG: There's a great clip of Holly on Youtube, playing the Starglider 2 theme on the piano. Are there likely to be any stripped-back renditions of your tunes on the CD, or are you aiming for bigger, fuller sounds?

Holly: Haha I forgot I uploaded that to Youtube! I was away and bored one day so I worked out all of Starglider 2 on the out of tune piano there – the chords are quite ridiculous – lots of different bass notes to the root chords going in that! I think I was so pleased with myself for working it out that I uploaded a VERY shoddy version of it!! Well there might be some stripped back versions. I think again it’s one of those – see what comes out at the end of it things. We may well do a sort of concept album sort of approach to it where you get bits of the same theme coming in and out in different forms and flowing into other bits. It might not be a strict "this track then that track" sort of record.

TWOG: You've said that CD1 will feature original music and CD2 would feature remakes. Would it be the same track list on each CD (which would seem to be the point), or would there be differences?

Dave: Yeah there are differences. On CD1 we will get on as many of the originals as we can so it’s sort of a "Uncle Art collected works" – this is just a bonus CD that’s free with the remakes CD. As Holly says, CD2 may well be a bit more of a concept. There will probably be some that are definite tracks and then others that are a bit more blended or recurring themes in different styles.

TWOG: Dave wrote a lot of music for a lot of games! Recent similar Kickstarters have taken an “Anthology” or “Collected Works” approach... have you given any thought to producing extra discs of tracks, possibly for stretch goals? Or would the extra work and time be too much? Perhaps a “Volume 2” if this is successful?

Dave: Well we have a stretch goal that would be amazing to achieve and that is to record my Elite 2 Frontier main theme and second theme with the Chamber Orchestra of London at Abbey Road studios. So it would sound as it would sound in Elite Dangerous today. I really love both those pieces and this is an instance where a proper live orchestral version of these pieces would be the perfect way to record them.

As far as a volume 2 goes, I don’t know. I don’t dismiss anything but it’s the Kickstarter bit that’s the really hard bit! Let’s see what happens with this one first!

A modern remake of this music?  Oh, yes please. It's in your hands...

TWOG: Following on from that... listening to Dave's back catalogue, there's a lot of variety, from punchy, fast-paced tracks to sweeping orchestral epics. Do you expect this variety to marry well on one CD?

Holly: Yeah it’s very eclectic isn’t it! Reggae breakdowns, pumping tempos, vocals and like you say sweeping orchestral epics! But yeah, that’s the style we work in. I don’t think we ever could produce a record that was just one style all the way through. Even in both of our songwriting careers it’s all about the variety and the scope.

TWOG: Finally... sell this project! Some people see projects they like and don't back them, figuring they'll just buy them later. Tell us why we need to back it on Kickstarter.

Holly: Well it’s quite simple really. 1) We can only make it if it gets backed! 2) You can only buy it if you back it! We’re only pressing as many or as close to as many physical copies as there are backers for it. This is a one off special project, it’s just for the people who want it and are willing to support it. Even if any of the tracks got licensed at a later date to other projects, this physical album will not be for sale. It’s a Kickstarter record only available to the people who back it on Kickstarter!

So there we are.  Very nice people, great project.  I know that sometimes the whole Kickstarter thing can seem like overkill, but great music never gets old or boring, so this is a project well worth backing.  Let's bring it to life and make our ears happy, once again.  Let's make some music and some history, once again!