Video games and sound effects are fiercely intertwined, and soundtracks becoming very popular is nothing new. But George Baker, aka Smoke Thief, has taken this to the next level by releasing an entire album based on his collaborations with a whole host of Japanese video game music artists. The result is Heart Beat Circuit, a very dreamy record with lots of different influences. We sat him down (virtually) and asked him about his interest in Japan, the album and the future.
Tell us how you ended up living in Japan.
Artistically, Japanese technology and creative works have been a constant in my life, from my first Casio keyboard when I was four, to the Nintendo NES/SNES glory days where I would continually fail to complete platformers like Mega Man and then get so inspired by the soundtrack that I'd just move the character to a safe plateau and jam with the soundtrack. When I had just graduated from Chichester University with a MA in Music Performance from Chichester University, I stumbled upon a little blue book I'd made some notes in when I was 17. It was a kind of bucket list that I'd written shortly after watching Beat Takeshi's Kikujiro. Number 1 on that list was inspired directly by a scene of that movie: 'run around Tokyo with a backpack on'. A few friends had moved to Tokyo some years before that and promised to help me out, and here I am!
And then you somehow ran into the arms of some of Japan’s greatest composers in the video game industry...
Well, I started work with Brave Wave (a label geared towards video game music) last year. I sent Mohammed Taher (Brave Wave founder and director) some demos for Heart Beat Circuit and he was really supportive. From there we discussed loads of ideas and the whole thing snowballed into me releasing this album! I couldn't believe it and I still have to pinch myself sometimes. Each of the musicians has their own, unique style, so each collaboration was a little different. Take Takahiro Izutani ('Metal Gear 4', 'Bayonetta') for example: he conjured this psychedelic planet of a track based on my string and amplified keyboard arrangements for 'Mirror Pool'. Or the lyrical, pianistic skills of Manami Matsumae ('Mega Man', 'Shovel Knight'), which Mohammed, Marco Guardia and I thought would be perfect for ‘Dusktone’. And Saori Kobayashi ('Panzer Dragoon' series, 'Crimson Dragon') and her fabulous sense of dynamics, percussion and piano helped make ‘Nights II’ so relaxing and expansive. The title is also a tribute to her soundtrack for ‘NiGHTS into Dreams’, which I absolutely loved in my teens.
Lots of influences indeed. How did it all come together?
I just used a narrative concept to create a feedback loop of emotions, ideas and scenes to try and inspire the music. This android 'Krystal' accidentally awakens and finds herself thrust into the confusion and complexity of human life, relationships, self-regard, doubts, dreams… and so I forged an aesthetic that mixes more natural/acoustic instrumentation with more mechanic, quantised, synthesised textures. This gives the album quite a futuristic atmosphere, but because there are these acoustic, melodic, less perfect, human elements, I think it's hopefully got a lot of emotional gravity too.
And the future holds?
I'm really hoping a game or anime production company will take this whole album and use it for a series, as people have said that there's a cinematic side to this album. I could see it working well for an RPG, or a more futuristic anime… but I guess time will tell. I'm now working on the sequel, Kodama, which is an ambitious work that merges compositional techniques from Japanese music with contemporary electronic production, instrumental hip-hop and ambient recordings taken from natural locations in Japan. I've just received sponsorship from RØDE Microphones and so I'm looking forward to discussing different location recording techniques with their technicians. I'm also looking into acquiring sponsorship with some Japanese instrument manufacturers as I want to give this album some real authenticity, I'm a scholar of music and music performance and a forever a student of Japanese culture and music, so I'm aiming to bring all these elements together for one exciting album. Alongside this I will be continuing my soundtrack work and I'm very hopeful that next year one of my soundtracks will make it on to a hit anime or game… we shall see!
Listen to and buy the album here.
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– Interview by Kirsty Bouwers