After a short hiatus, we’re back with a new Fine Tuning interview and this one is quite a goodie. I got to sit down and fire questions off at Eirik Suhrke, aka. Phlogiston. Neither names are easy to pronounce but this veteran on the video gaming scene has experience well beyond his years under his belt, the most recent being the Derek Yu, spelunking-inspired, Xbox LIVE smash aptly named Spelunky.
If you love your music chiptuned and dig (geddit?) the synth beats from the 90’s, make yourself comfortable and fire up your speakers as you descend into the world that is Eirik Suhrke.
Hangie: Tell our readers a little about yourself, such as your study background, how you got involved producing soundtracks for the video game music industry, your favourite piece of audio equipment, and perhaps your future goals?
Eirik: I have no formal training in music composition, but I am an educated sound technician/engineer, specializing in music studio productions. I figured teaching myself how to write music would yield the most original results.
I have been writing music for video games for ten years or so. At first I started writing midi music for rpg-maker games that never saw the light of day, and then I just got cooler and cooler gigs over the years. It’s only been recently that I’ve started doing it commercially.
My favorite piece of audio equipment at the moment would have to be a toss up between my Cheetah MS6 analog poly-synth, and my Yamaha TX802 FM-synth. Between the two of those I can synthesize most sounds I’m interested in, ranging from super basic to very complex. I tend to prefer the basic sounds, as it’s more VGM-esque. They form the skeleton of most of my music these days.
As for goals, I’d say the main one is just to be able to work on games and other projects that interest me, and not have to worry too much about money. I’d like to do more projects with the people I’ve already worked with, but I’d also like the collaborate with new people. Oh, and my goal since early childhood has been to write music for a “nintendo game”. At the time that meant an NES-game, but I’ve since expanded the goal to any game on a nintendo platform. I did do an album released on an NES-cartridge anyways (color caves, a collab with Alex Mauer), so it’s already like half fulfilled!
Hangie: Walk us through a typical work day in the life of Phlogiston.
Eirik: I only very recently took the step into full time freelancing, so I don’t quite know yet! I’ve been working with audio/lighting installations for the last couple of years, so my day has been regular job 8-4, go home and eat, work a few hours on music, quality time, sleep and repeat.
Hangie: Phlogiston: A substance supposed by 18th-century chemists to exist in all combustible bodies, and to be released in combustion. How does the word Phlogiston relate to your music style?
Eirik: It doesn’t. Sorry. I just came across the word and was fascinated with it, so I decided to label some tracks I did with it and what do you know. It snowballed. Like every artist, yes I would have picked a different one if I could do over, haha. I don’t really use it anymore, though.
Hangie: As with any vocation, there are positives and negatives that come with it. What are aspects of your occupation that you love, what do you dislike, and what would you change if you could?
Eirik: I hate it when people like bad music. Mine as well as others’. I get discouraged when my “good tracks” don’t sit well with whomever I wrote them for, but they like the “bad ones”. The good part obviously is being able to do what you love for a living, and being your own boss.
Hangie: Which video game music artist if any; inspires you and which are your favourite video game soundtracks?
Eirik: Essential composers and soundtracks: Koji Kondo (Mario/Zelda/Star Fox), Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Noaki Kodaka (Blaster Master/Mr.Gimmick!/Ufouria/Batman), Junko Tamiya (Little Nemo), Yuzo Koshiro (Ys, Sorcerian, Actraiser, Streets of Rage), Soyo Oka (Mario Kart, Pilot Wings, Sim City), Iku Mizutani (Shatterhand/Shadow of the Ninja), Alexander Brandon (Deus Ex), Dave Wise (Donkey Kong Country, Battletoads) – I could go on. My favorite stuff is Japanese early 90s stuff.
Hangie: Do you ever get a case of ‘writer’s block’, and what do you do to fire up that creative spark when composing?
Eirik: I do. It sucks. It helps to do anything else. I usually take a walk, or even just a shower. Playing video games will get me inspired. Writing deliberately messy and weird music is also good.
Hangie: Your portfolio spans over many years and has earned you many accolades, despite your relatively young age. Which amongst the tracks you’ve composed were your favourite to work on, and is there a track which is especially meaningful to you, and why?
Eirik: The first thing that comes to mind is the BGM from Radical Fishing. I just like it a lot, still. From the Phlogiston disco I would highlight Geif – my rough NES-medley album. I think it sums up the Phlogiston project pretty well.
Hangie: In your teenage days, you became one of the fastest rising star in the chiptune scene, releasing Mode:3 under the 8bitpeoples label, performed at Blipfest Europe and even launching the net label Pause (iimusic.net) with contemporary chiptune composer Rich Vreeland. You’ve achieved so much in such a short period of time which begs the question, is there anything else that you’re still looking to accomplish?
Eirik: In addition to the things mentioned earlier, there’s the element of personal artistic growth. I still feel very novice in terms of composing music, so I’m always eager to expand my creative skills.
Hangie: The buzz at the moment is on the recently released Xbox LIVE Arcade title, Spelunky by well-known indie developer Derek Yu who happens to also be a friend of yours. What kind of challenges did it present to work on a project with someone who you know quite well?
Eirik: I didn’t actually know Derek all that well before we started working together. Getting along well has only contributed to making the experience and the collaboration smooth. Me, Derek and Andy are all pretty down to earth and we click pretty well in terms of working so close with each other.
Hangie: On the topic of Spelunky, the soundtrack has tracks I would describe as having an epic retro J-RPG feel from the mid to late 90’s, incorporating tracks from paced pieces suitable for exploration, to larger scale, almost orchestral scores. What was the ‘feel’ you were trying to capture with the updated Spelunky soundtrack?
Eirik: That’s the feel I was going for. In short, I’d say it’s a mix between the Nihon Falcom style found in games such as Ys and Sorcerian for instance, and the more sparse and odd cave vibes found in games such as Zelda and Final Fantasy games.
Hangie: Composer George Buzinkai originally scored Spelunky for Windows in 2009. How much of Buzinkai’s work ended up in the Xbox LIVE Arcade release of Spelunky, and how did it feel to compose new music for a video game title which already had a soundtrack before it?
Eirik: Only a little cameo of the original soundtrack made it into the new game. I had a few arrangements in the works, but they didn’t feel right. Derek told me to not worry too much about the previous game, and do what I felt was right for this game. It does have a pretty different feel to it. The fact that the game already had an established fanbase meant some people were going to be less pleased with any change we did, but I think it was inevitable. I’m glad some people praise the music whilst others don’t care for it, but I might be more wary of the fact if I ever score another sequel.
Hangie: Did Mossmouth (developers of Spelunky) or Derek Yu provide much direction or input to the soundscape for Spelunky? Was there much joint collaboration between the developers and yourself through the development/concept process?
Eirik: Initially it was up to me to figure out how to design this game sonically, both in terms of music and SFX. But yes, we’ve been communicating constantly throughout the development, and both Derek and Andy have shaped the score too. There are a bunch of sketches of stuff that I like but that didn’t get the Mossmouth seal of approval – maybe I’ll show some of that stuff off soon.
Hangie: What’s a little known fact about Phlogiston?
Eirik: For as much cute video game music I write, I did in fact crawl out of the black metal pits of Norway, and also enjoy the occasional live noise concert.
Hangie: If you weren’t composing music for video games, what would you like to do instead?
Eirik: I would have liked to spent more time working on game design/programming. Be one of those indie game auteurs. Alternatively, I would also love to work in a studio with recording music. Fortunately I do get to do a little bit of both.
Hangie: Do you have any suggestions, advice or pearls of wisdom for those looking to break into the video game music industry? Is it an occupation you would recommend?
Eirik: I don’t feel like I’m there yet myself, but I can definitely suggest just going for it. Generic answer, but just make games. Make music. Nothing is stopping you.
Hangie: Any closing comments or thoughts you’d like to share with our readers, eg. social media account information, upcoming projects, etc.
Eirik: You can check out my stuff on my website strotch.net, and keep up with me on twitter (@strotchy). I have some exciting stuff in the pipeline. I’d also like to mention that the debut album by my band Pajjama is coming out real soon. Fans of my music will want to hear it, I believe. Keep a lookout on pajjama.com
Special thanks to Eirik for taking the time to sit and chat with Esperino. We finalised the interview last month but due to some circumstances out of my control, I’ve had to postpone the upload until now so I appreciate Eirik’s patience before being able to get his fine music out there.
If you like what you hear, be sure to head over to strotch.net where you can download the entire 62-track Spelunky soundtrack for a measly $7 USD. Not only are you getting audio delights at an affordable price, you’re also supporting Eirik so he can continue to do the things he does so well. While you’re there, be sure to check out his other music as well!