Frank Klepacki is an award winning Music Composer/ Artist who has been a long associate of Westwood Studios, Lucasarts, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft among so many other Video Game companies. He is known for composing music for some of the Star Wars Games/ Movies, the infamous Command & Conquer series, UFC to name a few. At times when technology is rapidly changing, Frank has made sure that he stays up to date with current trends and the ever changing entertainment industry. He is currently the audio director at Petroglyph. We speak with him in this in-depth interview about a life and what’s in store. Excerpts:
MJM. First of all, thank you so much for speaking with us. How’s it going with you?
Frank: Going great thanks! 2016 was extremely productive.
MJM. Tell us about your early exposure to music.
Frank: Early exposure was that my parents were musicians and always played in their own bands, so that was just absorbed through osmosis. But the first major impact outside of that was seeing Star Wars for the first time and hearing that robust John Williams main theme while seeing nothing but scrolling text. From that moment I was hooked and new nothing about the movie yet.
MJM. You started composing for video games early in the 90’s just after your interest in Game Testing, right? How has the use of sophisticated methods for composing changed since then?
Frank: It was a very fast evolving industry, that is for sure. Basically it began with extreme limitations, and those limitations slowly increased in options as the years went on, and platforms changed and progressed. For example the NES only allowed me 3 monophonic channels of melody and a white noise channel for anything percussive, while the early FM synthesis on say the Sega Genesis and Soundblaster PC cards allowed to use 6 channels and customizable instruments, (saving a few other channels for sound effect use) on up to audio streaming with compressed wavs, mp3s, or straight off the disc. Which at that point meant we were only limited by the budget per project whether I created it with synths, or hired live players, eventually orchestras.
MJM. What was the idea behind incorporating more modern and electronic sound? Where do you find your inspiration from?
Frank: Really it starts with the developer allowing you to be creative and try a lot of different things. I always talk about this because its important to find a musical unique identity to your game as opposed to just copying something else. I think a lot of games in the past decade musically suffered from that mentality when composers are not only asked to copy a style, but the same style over and over. For me, incorporating modern and electronic music was natural to me because I could just picture how it could work together in different ways. Genres have long been established, so why not hybridize them?
MJM. The Command & Conquer series was a milestone indeed! How did elements of Heavy Metal/ Industrial Music influence the song writing? To this day, people enjoy the soundtrack and call it one of the best so far for a video game.
Frank: I am eternally grateful for the way those soundtracks resonated with that audience and created a fan base. It’s a great example of how simply doing what you love first and foremost is authentic and genuine to the point that others recognize it and reward it by claiming it among their favorites. Again, hybridizing styles was a big part of that and encouragement to experiment from my bosses allowed that to shine through so I could draw from all kinds of influences and make it happen. For me, metal / industrial were elements that I thought worked well in a future military fight with the factions style-guides clearly defined. As a gamer myself, if I was playing a game like that, I’d want the intensity of the music to match the feeling I get playing it – I wanted to put some “adrenaline” in, as I call it.
MJM. You also did many compositions for the Petroglyph Games; tell us about that.
Frank: Petroglyph carried on some of the traditions of the Westwood days, so it was like continuing to work with family to me. Not to mention I could not have been more thrilled to work on the Star Wars titles we did, Empire at War, and Forces of Corruption. I had come full circle from having that impact me as a child, to working on all aspects of audio for it as an adult. I could work on Star Wars titles forever and never get tired of it. I still watch all the movies regularly and look forward to the new ones!
Petroglyph of course has done several titles since, from our own crazy sci-fi RTS Universe at War which was very much a C&C spirited style game, to Grey Goo which had a ton of production quality and a massive variety soundtrack with live orchestra, to Mytheon which was an atmospheric diablo-style MMO set in mythology, to the simplified fast paced 8-bit series we did this past year with 8-bit Armies, 8-bit Hordes, and 8-bit Invaders, which are available on Steam as a bundle and all are interoperable.
MJM. Over the years, how have things been for you? In terms of technology and softwares, considering the style of music you compose.
Frank: I’m always keeping up with new technology and audio gear as it becomes available to see what might be useful for me in the future, or even if something stands out as useful for a specific project. It’s endless, but also exciting when you find the thing that speaks to you that you can make full use of. I try to keep up with modern music trends as well in order to “pull” the elements from it that I might like even if it’s a genre I don’t typically listen to – as a composer you have to be as open-minded as possible, you never know what someone will hire you to do.
MJM. What are the bands or artists you listen to?
Frank: All kinds. Metallica, Anthrax, Nine Inch Nails, to Sly & The Family Stone, Prince, James Brown, to John Williams, Vince Dicola, to Calvin Harris, Nero, Daft Punk, to The Police, Rush, Frank Zappa.
MJM. You released your solo album, ‘Rocktronic’ about ten years ago. Considering, the album was rather heavy, edgy with a lot of Electronic music fused with it. How did this transition go about?
Frank: Really it was just a focused extension of my C&C style in that genre.
MJM. How do you see the current music industry? With the internet, Piracy, sales and so on.
Frank: Its broken and needs change. Particularly with streaming. Proper compensation is not there, when you consider radio plays, 6 cents when a song is played, but streaming pays a tenth of a cent when a song is played. It makes no sense when advertisers and subscriptions are the model that pays for it. The issue is that it isn’t based on the exact content that is streamed – it’s a blanket thing where access to a labels catalog is a big fee and then the overhead for operations is a big fee, and then it’s just all diluted out. What I think should happen is that streaming data should only pay based on what people are actually streaming. It’s not like they don’t have that data. And labels should not charge a fee for access to their catalogs, they should just reap the rewards per stream like the artist. When you consider labels actually pay independent radio promoters to push their artists on mainstream radio, it doesn’t make sense to then take money for that same access for streaming companies. Piracy is something else – people need to realize that an artist they like exists and creates content because they are depending on support to continue to do so. If that is reduced, then either they make content less often, or possibly stop all together because they have to find another means of income.
MJM. A lot of upcoming metal bands have taken aback due to the expenses incurred for recording, selling, touring, and logistics and so on. Promoters/ Organizers on the other hand, struggle to raise their budget and meet ends. What do you think can be made at a very regional/ local level to build a sustaining environment for both?
Frank: Well this is largely due to how times have changed based partially on what I said above. When there isn’t enough money to go around, it gets tougher to not only tour and support your band, but labels can’t afford to advance the financial support either. Back in the day that was part of the “holy grail” of a band getting signed, you’d have backing, marketing, tour support, and it was covered by the label as their investment so that a band could have the opportunity to develop and possibly have a hit within 2 to 3 albums. That doesn’t happen anymore. Bands are on their own now to find their own way more than ever. It requires you to be more business savvy which most bands aren’t so they’re forced to evolve with the state of things as well.
MJM. Even Video Games are taking a huge hit due to illegal downloads and misuse of softwares. How do you think can these issues be minimized?
Frank: It’s turning into too much content with no filter, and thus a demotivation to discover. When you go on Steam or somewhere else to buy a game, chances are its because you heard your friends are playing / word of mouth, because other then television ads, or maybe podcasts or your favorite streamer personality, you’re probably not going to zero in on a random new game that might interest you because there’s literally hundreds of releases every month digitally and there is no way you can sift through all that – where as in the physical store days there was a quality standard that had to be met before it even shipped, there was a package you could pick up and read and connect with, and far less selection to help you narrow your decision.
MJM. Over time, you have also made a strong stance against commercial music and record labels. What could be the reason behind it?
Frank: I have taken issue with the fact that really great talent is sidelined in favor of predictable manufactured pop stars. Whether its selling an image more than music (as was popularized in the heyday of MTV), or labels putting all their focus on their top performing artists while shelving their latest ones when the artist relations rep for them leaves, or bringing in a songwriter group to write the hits of 10 different pop stars who’s music then all sounds the same, or getting whatever hot producer of the month to make the artists that year have the same sound, these are some of the reasons for music getting diluted and dumbed-down because it becomes about creating a formula for cashing in rather that creating art. Nowadays, music videos are more of an after-thought, and as stated above, newer artists are struggling more to succeed while pop stars still seem to do ok. It’s a reflection on society too unfortunately; the middle class has shrunk, including music artists & game developers.
MJM. What are some of the future projects in store?
Frank: Just finished 8-bit Invaders which launched in December, now wrapping up a new Virtual Reality title that should be done soon.
MJM. What comes to your mind, when you think of the following-?
Favorite Movie/ Series- Star Wars
Favorite band/ artist- Sly & the Family Stone
Favorite Video Game- 720 degrees
Favorite Sport- UFC / Hockey
Favorite Place- Skywalker Ranch
Favorite Food- Italian
MJM. What would you like to add to the upcoming artists, bands or producers?
Frank: Be as creative as possible, try to think outside the box, control your own destiny, don’t wait for it to come knocking, research what will get you the results you’re looking for, and don’t let yourself care about social media approval – love what you do first, let the world react as it will. Make sure it’s good quality – do your best to hit the bar of quality compared to what you like listening to. The most gratifying thing is seeing people enjoying your creations in person. You tube seems to be a way for great talent to surface and have a chance to get noticed, such as Dirty Loops, or Fredrico Malaman for example.
MJM. Thank you so much for speaking with us Mr. Frank! It was indeed a pleasure to have you on board. All the best!
Frank: Thanks, and Keep rockin!
Connect with Frank Klepacki–
Harsha Vardhan (Metaljesus Magazine- Chief Editor/ Owner)