Old Dog, New Tricks: Brian Reitzell on scoring Watch Dogs
If the notion of a videogame soundtrack floods your mind with bleeps and bloops, it might be time to wrap your head around Watch Dogs – a progressive score for a cutting-edge game. We asked Brian Reitzell about his unorthodox path to becoming its composer
Think carefully about your career. Plan what you want to do with your life. Have goals and ambitions. Don’t squander your time with videogames. It’s advice we’ve all heard in some form or other over our lifetimes. However, it’s not advice that Brian Reitzell has particularly followed, and yet the former rock drummer now finds himself as a pretty hot property, composing music for film, TV and, yes, videogames. Having come to prominence scoring 2003’s Lost in Translation, and more recently putting his touch to the acclaimed Hannibal television series, Reitzell seems to be in something of a purple patch, cemented by his stunning and progressive work on Watch Dogs, one of this year's biggest and most anticipated games.
“I’m really not someone who plays videogames, because my job is like a videogame,” laughs Reitzell when The Skinny asks about his gaming credentials. “I sit at my computer with all this equipment trying to make it work, to fit into whatever I’m scoring at the time. It’s like the best videogame ever.” With indie games covering topics as diverse as playing a fictional immigration officer to controlling a set of self-aware, artificially intelligent, polygonal shapes, we suggest to Reitzell that perhaps such a game could exist. “Yeah, then I could soundtrack it,” he laughs.
However, Reitzell didn’t always have such a clear idea of his future path. Back in 1990 the young musician joined alternative punk band Redd Kross as their drummer, a position he held for seven years before deciding to forge his own path. “Redd Kross weren’t my band,” he begins on why he quit the veteran group. “They had been around for over a decade when I joined and eventually I realised I wanted to do something that was completely my own. I didn’t know what that would be, but then Sofia Coppola asked me to help her with the music for her first film [1999’s The Virgin Suicides, for which Reitzell assisted French stargazers Air]. We were friends. I had a big record collection. I used to make mixes and play them while we would hang out. It was an extension of that really.”
“My job is like a videogame. I sit at my computer with all this equipment trying to make it work to fit into whatever I’m scoring at the time – it's like the best videogame ever" – Brian Reitzell
Though The Virgin Suicides was a confident first outing for both, it wasn’t until the pair teamed up again for Lost in Translation that the real acclaim began to emerge. Reitzell, along with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, received a BAFTA nomination for his work on the soundtrack. It opened up many unexpected doors for Reitzell, which allowed him to develop his own style. “I was approached to work on a small horror film called 30 Days of Night,” he begins, detailing the offers that came in. “I really didn’t know how to score a horror film but I wanted to do it my way rather than just copy someone like Bernard Herrmann. I didn’t have access to huge orchestras or anything like that so I just had to develop my own way of doing things.”
Reitzell claims that his ominous and brooding score for 30 Days of Night led directly to the offer of his first major videogame project, 2011’s Red Faction: Armageddon. As a reasonably well-received fourth instalment to a fairly non-descript franchise, it was perhaps a good starting point for the new frontier Reitzell found himself at. However, his next major videogame project was certainly quite different on paper. Watch Dogs was pitched as an ambitious, open-world, stealth-action game; a new IP for Ubisoft and clearly one of such investment that a whole new franchise would be riding on its trenchcoat-clad shoulders.
“I went to E3 in 2012 and had no idea what to expect,” begins Reitzell on his first proper look at the game he had been working on. “Up until then it had been called Nexus. I didn’t even know the name had changed until I turned up. I watched it in a small room and was just blown away by the trailer. As were a lot of people, it turns out.” Indeed they were, and Watch Dogs went on to be one of the most anticipated games of recent times, partly due to its grand, far-reaching ambition and partly because it was slated to be one of the first triple-A releases for the next generation of consoles.
Yet despite being in a strange new world, and with some weighty expectation from notoriously hard-to-please gamers, Reitzell claims no such pressure intruded on his day-to-day work. “I started with the script,” he says of the process he went through. “That gave me a good feel for the tone of the game and I’m also very familiar with Chicago where it all takes place. I had been thinking of doing something in a krautrock style for a while and felt Watch Dogs would be a good match. At the time, Drive had just been released and that got a lot of attention, but I felt the Tangerine Dream comparisons were a little off. So that made me really want to do a proper krautrock, early Tangerine Dream score.”
With his ideas in place, Reitzell went to work on recording his score but says he discovered more and more the complexities of making a videogame compared to a movie. “With in-game music, you might know what’s happening in the story or where in the city it takes place but ultimately you have no idea what the player will be doing at that time,” he explains. “So you have to make the music fairly ambiguous. And even with cut-scenes, where you have a visual cue, the early versions would have people with no lips or even no head at times. Things would be edited and changed in ways that just don’t or can’t happen in movies.”
However, just as he claims with his score to 30 Days of Night, adversity bore art and Reitzell’s struggles saw him adopt some clever approaches to the difficulties he faced. “I ended up going over and above what my remit was,” he admits. “I’d maybe be asked for a two-minute piece of music for a certain section but by manipulating that piece, by slowing it down, changing octaves and looping it, it would go on for twenty minutes without ever repeating itself. I thought that was important for a game people will be playing for thirty hours or more.”
Delayed for six months while Ubisoft tightened the game's underlying mechanics, Watch Dogs was eventually released in May to record sales and strong critical acclaim. Not least of the plaudits were those for Reitzell’s unconventional, progressive soundtrack, and it wasn’t just cyber-hacking gamers taking note. Invada Records, a small, specialist label co-owned by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, release the Watch Dogs soundtrack this coming month, a development that pleased Reitzell plenty. “A mutual friend of mine had been telling me I should meet Geoff for a while and it was kind of on my radar but we both just didn’t have the time. It was pure coincidence that Invada decided to release Watch Dogs on vinyl and CD, and a real compliment, as they only release stuff they really like themselves.”
With the physical release of game soundtracks something of a rarity, Watch Dogs seems indicative of a maturity within the craft and we’d wager on it being something of a pivotal soundtrack in years to come. On that note, we quiz Reitzell on some touchstone videogame scores of his own. “Like I said, I’m not really a games player but I’d love to do something along the lines of those 8-bit sounds,” he states surprisingly. “I remember Malcolm McLaren playing me all these crazy Game Boy soundtracks and it was quite an eye-opener. Some of those things were as intricate as any classical piece. I’d love to work in that area, do something as a tribute to those classic arcade games like Pac Man, Donkey Kong and Centipede.”
For now though, Reitzell has just released his debut solo album proper Auto Music (again collaborating with Shields) and is currently putting the finishing touches to the physical release of his Hannibal soundtrack. After that he has no plans, or is at least remaining tight lipped, causing The Skinny to ask if, after the success of Watch Dogs, a sequel is on the cards. “Let me tell you, they [Ubisoft] are like the CIA,” he jokes. “They know how to keep a secret, so no, I haven’t heard anything. But then again, I wouldn’t, not yet anyway. But yeah, if the offer comes up I’d certainly be interested.”
So it continues for Brian Reitzell then. No firm career plans, no overarching goals, taking opportunities where they arise and absolutely, positively wasting his time with videogames.