An Unexpected Journey: Our Interview With 65daysofstatic

Infinity is a useful mathematical concept but in practice, it’s a much trickier proposition – how is it possible to envision something that, by definition, has no beginning and no end? Instead, it’s usually lumped in place of things so vast that humans would have trouble comprehending but in the case of No Man’s Sky, the forthcoming explore-‘em-up from Hello Games, and the accompanying soundtrack Music For An Infinite Universe from Sheffield instrumentalists 65daysofstatic, both definitions can find some footing. For a game that has a longer lifespan than the universe (depending on who you ask), the accompanying music would have to be equally awe-inspiring and nebulous, and that is exactly what has been delivered. We spoke to 65days’ guitarist Joe Shrewsbury in order to find out how to soundtrack the limitless.

How did you end up working with the development team for No Man’s Sky? I believe that they initially just wanted to use one of your songs for the trailer.
That’s right; it came totally out of the blue. We were on tour somewhere in Europe and we got a bunch of emails saying they wanted to license the thing, but there was something about the way they presented it to us that was quite intriguing so we chased it up, which we wouldn’t always do with a license like that; for a piece of music, you just check that it’s not being used for something that you find abhorrent and then you just move on, but there was something about it we found quite intriguing. We emailed them back and said, “Of course you can use the music but what are you doing here?” They sent us back a bunch of screenshots of a really early rendering of what the game looks like now and described it to us. We were trying to play it pretty cool but privately we thought we had to work on this. We had to try and see if they had anyone and crowbar our way in, convince them that we were the right people to do this. Luckily for us, they were having a similar conversation. Sean (Murray, managing director) from Hello Games had been playing 65days’ back catalogue in their weekly meetings. At the end of each week, they’d be watching a bunch of squares, triangles and circles moving around this universe they were building that was unfinished and he was using our music to keep the atmosphere of the game alive and keep the team feeling positive about it. So that whole part of it came really easily because when we finally met up, both parties wanted the same thing.

How much was given to you after you agreed to work on it as far as concept art and the bare bones of the game?
Nothing, really – we saw some gameplay that wasn’t available to the public, but we were only ever two or three weeks ahead of what was released into the public domain. I think they very consciously left us to our own devices; they didn’t use what they were building as a mechanism to influence what we were writing. I like to think that was a conscious decision, given that we had to rely on what we imagined the game was like and what we imagined we were soundtracking, so that’s quite a useful exercise in itself. I think it’s much better than having loops of gameplay in front of you on a screen and trying to score them in a more traditional way. It was more a thought experiment in that “Okay, they’re making this game, we’ve seen the artwork, we’ve seen what the aesthetic is – how can we bring something unique, something that only 65days could bring to the table to alter and enhance how this game is going to be?” rather than “Okay, we need to back off on the band that we are and act like composers. We need to score this game in a more traditional way.” We were left to our own creative devices in a much greater extent. Very difficult, though, not to see something like that because there’s a lot of pressure.

Did you have any say in how the music was implemented within the game?
We knew they were going to use the compositions for these ‘event moments’ in the game, but we didn’t know what those events were going to be. We sort of knew – we imagined what those moments were going to be so we wrote some music that we thought might fit into these various elements of the gameplay, but we knew that we had to write the record and there would be this whole other element of the work which was to begin working with the audio director, Paul Weir, who has designed the software for the audio engine of the game. We had to hold these two ideas in our heads – on one hand, we wanted a cohesive body of work that fit into an album or double-album form, we wanted that to be recognisably accessible for those that weren’t interested in the game at all and we wanted the music on it to be at least related to what 65days has created in the past, but at the same time we knew after we’d done that, recorded and mixed it, we would be going back into various studios and our studio and we would be essentially using that music as a jump-off for a much bigger library of audio that didn’t behave in the same way compositionally, that could be fed into the game in much smaller pieces, but would have this resonance which echoes the textures on the album. We wrote for a year, recorded and put these two albums together, and then moved to another year’s worth of work which has only recently finished and is possibly not going to finish, even after the game comes out, because they’re now talking about continuing to add music and raw audio for the game’s release because you can do that with these sorts of things.

Based on the little information you were given, what were your impressions of how you wanted this to sound as far as tone and instrumentation?
What we realised was that No Man’s Sky has that element of classic 70’s paperback sci-fi covers in there – that classic era of sci-fi design. Our jump-off was not to make something that might be equally as 70’s – bombastic, even proggy – because that’s not really what we’re about. It was to try and subvert that though we were definitely coming from a much more Kubrick angle, like the way that he uses that piece of Ligetti’s symphony in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think we wanted to bring something much darker, and much sadder, to the game. We felt there was scope for that from the little direction we had that we were being asked to interpret in whatever way we see fit, so we definitely tried to steer away from strings and bombast, and head for much more visceral stuff – like, whacked-out sonic textures that suggested science rather than space in itself. It was more a question of suggesting the scope of the game. We didn’t want to use too many obvious band sounds; we were looking for a cohesive sound that transcended all of those individual elements. There is some guitar on there that sounds quite guitar-y, but for the most part it’s all a combination. We did a lot of work feeding guitars and synths through the same guitar rigs in recording so that the gap between the two instruments was non-existent – they sort of became a different sound when the two things were playing at the same time so they blurred into each other.


“… it doesn’t matter how complex any of this is in terms of technology. If your end project has no soul, no-one’s going to care that it’s groundbreaking. That was something that we kept in our heads”

Where did the idea to have a double-album of Soundscapes and Music For An Infinite Universe come about?
The nature of the project meant that there was a lot of material and because we concentrated both on making compositions that worked in album form, but also on material that was going to be able to be applied to many different instances. What we found was that approximately a third of the work, compositionally, had more obvious end points and middle points – I hesitate to use the words ‘verse, chorus and verse’ – but you had these recognisable moments that built the momentum to a peak then gave way to something was perhaps more hummable, or more like a hook. We were working in a paradigm that we’re more used to working in, but the game gave us this license to also do stuff that was coming from a more sound-design discipline and was inherently more minimal, that relied on less aspects to do more, but also lasted for longer without changing. It was more based on repetition. Those two sides of the work were fairly indistinct because we didn’t know ‘til quite a long way through the process which of those pieces we were going to push on to the album and which of them we were going to back off and just use in the game, because we worked on them all to such a degree they just felt like the same body of work. I find it difficult to listen to one without the other because they were all done at the same time so they all come from the same place. We needed a method of articulating to people what it was we were releasing, but we couldn’t release a two-hour album – I don’t really like that, I think that an album’s nicer at a 45 or 50-minute length, it’s much easier to digest and it feels like a journey. I think instrumental music makes more sense if you put it in an album form. It might be a form that is becoming more obsolete, but it’s certainly one that we’re used to working with. So we had the album, that was about 50 minutes long, and then we had this extra hour of music which is harder to explain what it is, but I think that works as a piece. It was just trying to adjust this to everything that we’ve done and present it in a way that was useful.

You’ve said that your touchstones for this were things like 2001, but as far as video game soundtracks are there any that you hold in high regard, or that perform their role particularly well?
I can think of things that I like, but I don’t think are the same as this project, other than that the procedural nature of this has a slightly different slant. We consciously didn’t come at the project by comparing or thinking too much about what had been done before in video games. I know that Eno did a generative game quite early on, I think in the last 10 years, that we certainly checked out and I think that’s a really great example of granular procedurality, but that was only a method of educating yourself as to what conversation you were a part of and where you might want to take things. Knowing what Paul Weir was working on with the software, we knew there was scope to do something that was more compelling, musically; that was able to go through more moods from calm ambience to more ballistic stuff with rhythm. Knitting together time signatures and keys and rhythmic stuff with procedural techniques has traditionally been the stumbling block, whereas people like Paul Weir are starting to find ways to make software that can handle that and still produce something that’s cohesive and compelling. Really, it doesn’t matter how complex any of this is in terms of technology. If your end project has no soul, no-one’s going to care that it’s groundbreaking. That was something that we kept in our heads.

One of the most interesting things about the game is that it is procedurally generated, making its content almost infinite. I believe that it would take 500 million years to experience everything in it? Was that epic scale in your mind at any point?
The scale of the game is absolutely key to how it works as a creative entity. It is huge. I got to play it recently and I hadn’t had access to it for perhaps six months prior to that and it really is amazing. I don’t play games, I’m too busy being in a band and making music and making sure that that is kept going so it’s not my idea of relaxation. I’m not super in-touch with what’s happening but playing that, you really can move across this environment which is huge and ultimately, you’re not going to play this game for 500 million years. You’re going to play it for x amount of hours and so the music doesn’t have to provide 500 million years of audio, it just has to be responsive in a way that’s exciting while you’re in it. But writing it was completely about that scale and also about soundtracking the moments in the game where you do go from these very widescreen, large vistas to much smaller, more human environments and I think that’s what the game does – it goes from one-to-one scale of humanity to this huge scale and fulfilling the needs of that movement musically was key. I don’t know if we pulled it off, but we tried.


“We worked six days a week, we put the hours in, we just wanted to bring our most grown-up and professional creative game to the game and really do it justice.”

Obviously they are both very different beasts, but how did you find this experience in comparison to the work you did on Silent Running?
They’re really different projects. The thing about Silent Running is that we were really fed up with the same old tour-write a record-argue with incompetent label-tour model of doing things. We were at this sort of ten-year crossroads in the band’s existence and we knew we had to push the band into something new because we wanted to do it for another ten years, and we’re not the same people we were when we started the band. Creatively, we felt that we had to be challenged more. We weren’t getting offered soundtrack work and we didn’t know how to break into it, and so Silent Running was just a way of proving that we could do it to ourselves and finding a mechanism to create to. You are soundtracking to something that’s already been edited. A lot of the time it already has music which you are undermining or superseding and there’s no dialogue between you and someone who is making a film, so it’s quite a rigid thing to do. In that sense it’s really quite a singular undertaking and it’s not one with a lot of precedent. That was a really successful and interesting project for us for a lot of reasons, not least that we were working outside of being with a label and we ended up crowdfunding a recording and vinyl release of that soundtrack, which we never planned to do at the start. That was just based on the response to the live shows. I guess No Man’s Sky was equally singular, but for completely different reasons. It was, at the time, a big idea from a small independent game’s company and we were a small instrumental band but even then, when we signed up to do the soundtrack, there was a level of excitement about the game that made it, by far, one of the most important things we’d ever been involved in. Since then, it’s gone to Sony – it’s going to be a very big game, no matter what happens to our record so we tried to be as totally professional as we could. We worked six days a week, we put the hours in, we just wanted to bring our most grown-up and professional creative game to the game and really do it justice. We took Silent Running no less seriously, but it was this weird art project that we did in an attic in 2012. It set us up for No Man’s Sky in really useful ways in that became apparent later, but I think that’s true of every project that you do. Writing and recording No Man’s Sky and then working with the audio software has again moved us forwards to another jumping-off point and I think the game, and software and using repetition and loops and programming in that way, will inform what we do next, whatever that might be.

How are you feeling about playing this material live?
Oh, unbelievably excited to play this live. The project has been fantastic and very rewarding. It’s also been very frustrating, very scary and it’s taken twice as long as we expected to have this music out. We finished writing a lot of this over a year ago and there’s absolutely no issue about that, it’s just the nature of working on something of this size, but we are a band who are used to writing music and putting out when we feel like it so this has been a real test of our patience. We haven’t toured properly for a good while now and we are a band that started to play live and it’s something that we miss doing. Actually, interpreting the two albums to live, which is what we’re doing this summer, is going to be really interesting. Certainly the bits that lend themselves to the live show are going to be amongst the most exciting things we’re going to get to play live on an evening, so I think a lot of the first half of the first record really complements the material from the last record, Wild Light, which is again some of our favourite stuff to play live. We’re really lucky as a band or in a good place in that we’re feeling healthier and better at what we do. Rather than running out of ideas, we feel like we’re doing our best work now and I think that’s really important. It only ever gets more exciting to play that stuff live.

Words: Dave Bowes // Photos: Danny Payne – No Man’s Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe arrives August 12th on iam8bit.
You can also read the interview here:

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