Disasterpeace | Rich Vreeland
Rich Vreeland, best known for his work under the moniker Disasterpeace, is the imaginative composer and independent artist behind dynamic feature films, such as David Robert Mitchell’s psychological thriller, It Follows and modern noir fever dream, Under The Silver Lake, as well as J.C. Chandon’s high-octane heist drama, Triple Frontier. An aficionado of chiptune and computer-driven music production, Rich has cultivated intricate musical worlds for numerous popular video games including Fez, Hyper Light Drifter, Mini Metro, Reigns, KRUNCH, Bonk: Brink of Extinction, and Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake. In our intriguing conversation, Rich shares about the introspective process of refinement that underpins his novel creations and the ‘wanted’ ad that served as the catalyst for his career.
Growing up in Staten Island, what were the defining records of your childhood?
Growing up, my step-father was in a Beatles cover band called ‘The Blue Meanies.’ At Christmas, we always played Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts Christmas album, and my birth parents used to go to George Winston concerts. My family was in the music ministry at our church, so I grew up with that, and classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Queen. When I was a teenager, I started getting into more guitar oriented music — bands like King Crimson, Tool, and Rage Against The Machine. And my mom’s love for Joni Mitchell started to rub off on me. That's where I was at, at that time.
Can you describe your musical training and what inspired you to begin self-releasing original music? How did you first discover chiptune and 8-bit music?
In high school, I bought a guitar and started messing around. Shortly after that, I started taking lessons. I was mostly coming up with riffs and recording them on cassette tape, but I also was getting into music software, starting with GarageBand for Mac. In my late teens, I started trying to put together fully produced tracks, mostly in a nü metal style. I wanted to emulate the sound of a band, but I ran into a lot of trouble because I didn’t really know what I was doing at all. Around the same time, I also discovered these online communities of people who were creating covers and writing new music inspired by video games. Some were using the actual video game hardware to create music, while others mimicked the sounds using contemporary software.
I found all of this very fascinating, and it definitely pushed me into a different direction. It got me to start using basic synthesizer sounds to improve the rate at which I could write music. I basically went from laboring over a track for months to being able to get my ideas down quickly. I would have a concept, and I would jot it down in guitar tablature software, and then dress it up with some simple synthesizers. The process was really inspiring for me. Starting to use the computer to write music allowed me to decouple my limitations as a performer and musician. I was able to write more complex music, and as a young person, the possibility space was so enormous that I just wanted to try everything.
I ended up releasing a lot of music that was all over the place. Very much inspired by prog rock — a lot of athletic and crazy music with lots of changes and runs.
What was your first opportunity to compose music for games?
It was a random thing. I had been making Chiptune stuff, and a friend of mine had seen a wanted ad on a message board, looking for music for a cell phone game. He actually just posted my music on this thread, and then I followed up with the developer over email. A few months later, I heard back, and they wanted to hire me. This was at the beginning of 2006, so it was before smartphones. I had to use the General MIDI soundbank — a standardized set of 127 generic sounds and instruments that were available at the time. I had to create music and sound effects with that, and it was fun and challenging. One of my projects was this zombie game that never got released, and I had to make all of the sounds using musical instruments and a handful of canned sound effects: cheesy sounding distorted fake guitars as chainsaws and lots of weird stuff. It was pretty bizarre, but it was a really great first experience for me, getting hired to make music for a game. There was very little resistance as far as what I made. It was pretty open, and they didn’t give a lot of notes.
What events led you to work on the indie puzzle-platform video game, Fez?
At that point, I had been working on games for about three or four years, and I was just wrapping up college. Throughout that period, I had been performing live, playing guitar over my tracks. I was in Boston at the time, and I was part of a music scene there called Boston8Bit. We mostly played shows in Boston, but we would occasionally be invited to come and play somewhere else. So, when I performed at a show in Montreal, I got to meet the programmer for Fez. They were interested in bringing me on board to contribute to the score. They had plans to do a compilation soundtrack, but I made a case for why they should hire a single person to give it a more focused sound. That’s what happened, and luckily it worked out well.
The critically acclaimed supernatural horror film, It Follows marked your foray into feature film scoring. Coming onto the project, director, David Robert Mitchell was a fan of your work on Fez, temping the film with your music. What did you learn about yourself as a musician through the process of executing your first film score in under a month? What were the challenges of fashioning a musical treatment on the basis of your previous work?
I think I learned something about my ability to work under pressure. I think the thought of doing an entire score in such a short period of time was fairly daunting. When you’re under the gun like that, you have to be decisive and use the tools you know well to get it done.
Triple Frontier follows a group of former Special Forces operatives who set a plan in motion to steal a drug lord's fortune from a remote multi-border zone in South America. How were you recruited to compose for the film? Can you tell us about the initial conversations that served as a jumping off point for your score?
Ron Patane was the editor of that film and a fan of my music. They were looking for a composer, so Ron brought my material to J.C, the director. I think they put some of it into the movie and then decided that I would be a good fit for the project. It was surprising to get asked to do Triple Frontier, but I was definitely intrigued.
In our early conversations, we talked about using electric guitars in an orchestral way with lots of snare drums, toms, active rhythms, and syncopation. Through the process, we refined the direction and incorporated more orchestra into that sound. We used brass, and lots of different kinds of string textures — both traditional and unusual. This approach was good for the film because there's definitely an arc where things are generally taking a turn for the worse, but there are times that required a sense of optimism. I think we wanted there to be room for the characters to think of themselves in a positive light. There had to be some way for them to psychologize their behavior in order to carry on.
Your stylized musical treatment for Triple Frontier features foreboding synths, triumphant orchestral arrangements, and moody guitar work. At times, it channels the spirit of Ennio Morricone. Can you describe the essential tools and resources that you harnessed for this rugged and deadly adventure?
Guitar was super essential. For the thematic guitar stuff we did, it was a blend of sampled guitar, and DI guitar with modeling and various kinds of in-the-box effects. That Morricone influence in there always happens naturally for some reason. When I lay down a reverberant guitar melody, it ends up having that feel to it. There was this almost country-style guitar sound I found, and I thought it just had the right attitude for the movie. It had a bit of a macho quality to it.
There’s certainly an ambient nature to much of the score. A lot of it relied on using a diverse palette of string textures. We used samples and also recorded a lot of different extended techniques, and developed some software approaches to help make the sounds more diverse, playing with pitch and how things can modulate as you build out a structure. I mean, nothing earth-shattering, but there are definitely some unorthodox textures in there. I wanted to use things that would be identifiable as string sounds, but would not always be immediately recognizable as a particular sound or instrument. Once we settled into a style, we could do a whole lot.
The roaring and propulsive drums within the score were provided by none other than Lars Ulrich of Metallica. I gathered that J.C. Chandor brought him in to provide militaristic flavor and thunderous intensity to the musical atmosphere of the film. What insights did you derive from Lars' contributions that informed the final score we experience in the film?
Lars made a very valuable contribution to the score. We had him record some pulsing drums, mostly kicks, and toms. I would say probably somewhere between 10-20% of the drums on the score is Lars. My drum work compositionally was a little bit all over the place — very active and syncopated, and Lars’ style was a great counterpart to that.
Along the way, we found that the score needed something driving, something pulsing throughout. The low end sounds Lars contributed helped glue some of the cues together, and I think they made the score more accessible. There are a lot of sound effects and dialogue in this movie, so it oftentimes helps when you have a consistent, stable element to support that.
Can you elaborate on your experience at Metallica Headquarters?
They flew me out to the HQ, and they recorded for two days. It’s like a warehouse, studio, hang out space, office, and museum of amazing Metallica memorabilia all in one. This was right towards the end of the project. We were recording orchestra the next day, so I just went in for a couple of hours to hang out with Lars, his producer, Greg Fidelman, and their whole team. It was really fun. Lars is a super nice guy. We ate protein pancakes, and I pet his cats. Overall, I let them do their thing. Honestly, they didn’t need too much direction. I gave them some feedback about what I thought was working well, but they had a pretty good idea about what was needed, and JC also contributed to the direction that we set out to achieve. A lot of what was recorded worked well.
You reunited with director, David Robert Mitchell for Under The Silver Lake, a neo-noir thriller revolving around one man's mission to solve the mystery of his alluring neighbor's disappearance. Along the way, he uncovers a chain of scandals, murders, and conspiracies in Los Angeles. How did you begin to piece together the musical identity for the film and what do you identify as the key musical motifs?
The screenplay for Under The Silver Lake was written before It Follows, but the film was made later. It Follows came out in 2014 and Under The Silver Lake was filmed in late 2016, early 2017. I worked on Under The Silver Lake from August 2016 pretty much to the first quarter of 2018.
It’s a very elaborate movie with a lot of music, and so it took a lot of time to put together. It was actually my first project writing for a live orchestra, so it was a major learning experience. It threw a lot of challenges my way, and I had a ton of help. There was additionally a lot of complexity beyond the score, one example being the pre-production music that needed to be written.
There are multiple scenes in the movie with music playing out on screen. So, I was writing music to be performed, and the music team was working with the actors, trying to help with making sure things looked believable when the performing was to be faked - I even got to do some choreography. During one sequence, our fictitious band in the movie, 'Jesus & The Brides of Dracula' performs on a hotel rooftop. Along the way, we were spitballing ideas and thought it would be fun to have the singers make some synchronized gestures on stage. We didn’t have someone on hand to do that, so David asked me to do it. It was fun, and…different! We also worked with Silversun Pickups and wrote a song for the film which they perform called ‘Turning Teeth.’ So there were a lot of facets to the project - it was a very complex undertaking!
The nature of the story is that it’s less of a character film, and more about the circumstances. The score seeks to suggest things about the world it takes place in and to nod at the various threads of mystery that unravel through the film. One thread involves a whistle theme that is synonymous with an underground hobo culture and evolves into a clarinet part as Sam finally meets one of their kind. There’s also an element that’s thematically tied to the mystery-seeking behavior found in old video games, like the original Legend of Zelda. There are throughlines that have to do with Sam’s relationship to women, whether it’s his mother or his neighbor who he’s hopelessly romanticized. A movie with so many thematic ideas was a great opportunity for me to foreshadow and really help to underline and comment on the many threads.
In your compositional approach, what are the first clues that help determine whether or not an idea or concept is worth pursuing further? How do you gage when your music is speaking to the scene?
It’s tricky. Sometimes, you get lucky and discover something very early on in the process. You might flag it, saying "Yes, this is a thing that needs to be developed." Other times, it's more of a gradual process of sculpting from a low resolution to a higher one. It’s like you’re molding and refining something, and it's coming into view over time. It’s a process, and sometimes you know that it just won’t be good until it is, and those can be taxing experiences.
I think a part of the process for me is exercising some patience, and being willing to take the time necessary to get to the idea. At the same time, there's a lot of instinct that goes into asking a question like, “Am I going in the right direction right now? Is this an idea worth pursuing?” It can be a puzzle.
What’s so interesting about composing is that sometimes, the first thing you write ends up being the best because there’s something instinctual and real about it. When you’re writing for a specific purpose, it’s not a pure art. It has a utilitarian function. In my experience on many of the projects I’ve done, the first thing I write is cool but isn’t necessarily the right thing. When you’re coming into it fresh, that’s when some of the wildest ideas emerge, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out. If you’re lucky, you can still use those ideas later on another project.
There’s usually a process of refinement that needs to happen, and there’s a rhythm I need to get into to learn the language of a project like a film. I tend to have to build up the capacity to internalize a broader picture and establish rules for the music. I just keep absorbing material into an intuitive mindset, and it gets me into a flow where I can churn ideas out.
I think of it a bit like method acting, like finding your character as you acclimate to the story you’re trying to tell. It’s a complete state shift. The initial exploration is very free and creative, taking on many different forms, but once you transition into a structure, it requires a different approach and a different mindset.
Coming up, what is in the cards for you musically?
Right now, I'm completing a game with Heart Machine and Annapurna [Interactive]. It’s called Solar Ash Kingdom. It was announced recently, but it’s a big project that I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I also have an independent film coming up with director Joaquin del Paso called The Hole in the Fence, and I’m also planning to work on a theater project, which I’m very excited about.
Is there anything you can share with us about the direction you'll be taking Joaquin del Paso's The Hole in the Fence?
I can’t discuss this just yet. What I can say is that with every project, I really try to find the common denominator between what the project needs, what my collaborators need and what I need, or what I'm looking to gain from the experience. Usually, for me it has to do with seeking out novelty, having fun, or there's an emotional resonance that I gravitate with, that I'm trying to help achieve.
If I do a bunch of really taxing, serious projects, I usually like to shift to something short and fun or try something completely new. There are things I haven’t done before like theater, or working with voices. I’m always looking for a new medium or style to explore.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Editing| Alex Sicular, Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Rich Vreeland and White Bear PR.