We delve into the mind of the wildly versatile musician, celebrated for his collaborations with Tim Schafer at LucasArts and Double Fine Productions.
By Jerry Jeriaska (The Ongaku), Eric Bratcher
In this sweeping overview of the music of the Psychonauts franchise we are afforded a glimpse into the series' origins and its unpredictable return as a first-person VR title. Most recently, the highly ambitious soundtrack for Psychonauts 2 culminated in Double Fine Productions reuniting with voice actor Jack Black for a memorable musical number.
Behind each of these music scores is composer Peter McConnell, whose varied experience and battle-tested resolve played an instrumental role in resurrecting the franchise upon its acquisition by Double Fine. McConnell set out on his first collaboration with series developer Tim Schafer while the two were working on the sequel to Ron Gilbert's Maniac Mansion at LucasArts.
After Schafer went independent in the year 2000 with the formation of Double Fine in San Francisco, McConnell scored the in-game music and cinematic cutscenes found in Psychonauts for publisher Majesco. We heard from the composer on his experience composing and recording for the game series.
The Milkman Conspiracy
Our first pitstop on this voyage through the music of Psychonauts lands us in the humble, gasoline-scented origins of the franchise. "In those days, Double Fine was literally working out of a garage," McConnell recalls. "You had to actually drive into the garage and climb up a scaffold into where the cubicles were, inhaling your own exhaust."
At that time, the composer was working out of his cottage studio apartment in Berkeley, where he had composed the score for Grim Fandango. "I came to LucasArts maybe six months or a year after he did," McConnell says of his prolific collaborations with Schafer. "Our first working together was on Day of the Tentacle. That was something Michael Land, Clint Bajakian and I scored together, and Tim was one of the writers on that. The first ALL-TIM game that I worked on was Full Throttle."
The collaboration spanning two separate workspaces allowed the composer both creative leeway and insulation from gasoline fumes. He describes Schafer's approach as leading "more by example and inspiration than by direction." They had developed a routine, exchanging musical sketches on small-sized MP3 files.
On the ease of the collaboration, he remarks, "Boy, it's kind of like a telepathic relationship, really."
"As I did on Grim Fandango, I would hum the themes I was working on into my handheld cassette recorder. (laughs) Hey, it's twenty years ago! And I would play a piano accompaniment, so you would get this very crude recording of the theme.... And that would go to Tim. If it got past that point, it would go to mockup stage, doing it with sampled instruments."
Psychonauts introduces the player to a young psychic named Razputin. Reared in the circus, Raz was gifted with a mental ability, allowing him to hurtle into the troubled minds of beleaguered and deranged individuals. Deployed by an international network of secret psychic agents, Raz has a run-in with a paranoid mental apparition known as The Milkman.
The imaginary realm of the Milkman's Conspiracy in Psychonauts is populated by masked G-men and spiralling, warped pathways. McConnell recalls how the paranoid atmosphere of this mindscape had a certain thematic resemblance to the TV show "The Twilight Zone," narrated by Rod Serling. The show's gripping score, and metaphorical associations with a smattering of popular genres, helped inspire the sound for the Milkman's otherworldly environment.
"I grew up watching a lot of '60s spy movies," McConnell says. "And, for that particular level, another thing that comes to mind is The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is an early use of the theremin. It's not the earliest in movies, but it may be one of the earliest in a Hollywood movie. That was a huge influence, as well"
To capture what McConnell described as an "invaders-from-Mars kind of vibe," there was no simple remedy, as scooping up a second-hand theremin at a local Berkeley music store was not an option. The composer was familiar with the history of the enigmatic instrument, from its breakout role in the score to the Russian movie Aelita, filmed in the '20s. For his purposes, he would need to imitate that tenor using his Kurzweil K2000 digital synthesizer.
"For those who don't know what a theremin is, it's an electronic instrument invented in the early 20th century by a Russian composer named [Leon] Theremin," he says. "The way it works is there are oscillators in it that make a tone, and the pitch of the tone is controlled by moving your hand through an electromagnetic field that is generated above the instruments. You literally move your hand up and down in space to play this instrument. And it's really great to watch."
Within the mental landscape of Psychonauts' Black Velvetopia, Raz must brave the threat of a rampaging bull and search an imaginary Spanish village for a lovelorn matador. For this location, McConnell tapped into his memories of black velvet paintings he encountered at gas stations on road trips throughout his youth.
"Elvis and bullfighters really are the two most common subjects you saw on the road when I was a kid," he recalls. "I don't know why."
The fluorescent colours and inky skies of Black Velvetopia are the byproduct of Edgar Teglee's obsessive thinking process. "He is painting the scene of a bullfight, so I went for the Spanish vibe by doing flamenco music," McConnell explains. "That was me on guitar, and also that bongo sound is a Moroccan clay pot drum that a friend gave me."
The popularity of Psychonauts took time to fully take root, and the series remained dormant until Double Fine acquired the rights in 2011. When it came time to revisit the franchise, McConnell dove back in without missing a beat. The experience recording for the original game back in 2005 had left an indelible impression.
"It was like this friend that was always there," he explains. "It exists as part of my mental score. There's Psychonauts! Nice to see you. How are you doing? Oh, my goodness, you were recorded in an apartment!"
For the series' leap into VR, Raz returns to the paranormal world and regroups with his clique of international secret agents. Rhombus of Ruin, an interstitial first-person puzzler, is set in an oceanic region so perilous that the Bermuda Triangle looks tame by comparison. Raz must again employ his psychic powers, this time coming to the aid of his imperilled companions.
Double Fine's commercial successes meant the company could return to the franchise with greater resources to bear. "It allowed for a longer score, more live musicians and bigger production values," McConnell says. "It's very satisfying because I felt limited, as I think we all did with Psychonauts 1, in terms of what we were able to do with the time and budget at hand. It was nice to come back to that, now not needing to worry about the fact that I have to do an instrument with a sample because I'm out of money to pay musicians."
One instance where the composer introduced thematic overlap between the two mainline Psychonauts instalments can be found in the melodies of the circus themes. The Meat Circus is a late-game location that provides a distorted glimpse into Raz's upbringing as a water acrobat performer, while the Flea Circus shows up deep into the sequel.
"The previous version used these raw, rough organ sounds," McConnell recalls. "I kept those in, but turned them down a little bit — you have this larger ensemble playing. To the degree that it's not as edgy as the original, it's kind of an irony because what is really going on in the Flea Circus in Psychonauts 2 is maybe more worrisome.
"It's very much in the Western tradition to use these little melodic fragments to represent characters or feelings," he says of recurring musical phrases in the Psychonauts games. "It's a big thing in Star Wars, too. You always know when the Force is happening because John Williams brings in ‘the Force theme’ with the French horn. You know who your characters are, because they have themes, too. It's all part of the trade, you might say."
In June of 2019, Microsoft acquired Double Fine, ensuring the developer could flex some budgetary muscle in the graphics and sound department of the sequel. The additional resources became increasingly necessary as development on Psychonauts 2 overlapped with the sudden introduction of COVID-19 distancing guidelines. The design team were confined to their homes and largely communicated through Slack chat rooms.
"It took a long time," McConnell recalls. "It really does take longer when you can't have meetings other than Zoom, which are kind of limited in their effectiveness. There were some unexpected blessings, like the fact that we recorded the orchestra in sections. That gave us greater flexibility in the mix stage."
By mid-2020, McConnell ran out of options for a professional studio where it was possible to record with more than several people in a room. "It was touch-and-go," he recalls. "You would book a session in August, and 'Boy, I hope we're able to do this. Hoping things don't get worse.'"
The composer had previously worked with the Melbourne Symphony in Australia, and this time would be embarking on particularly ambitious recordings amidst unprecedented restrictions. "Their assistant music director [Andrew Pogson] is a huge jazz fan and was a long-time Grim Fandango and Tim Schafer fan," McConnell says of Melbourne Symphony.
"I first started working with him around 2016 on a live performance of Grim Fandango that was done in Queensland. When Broken Age was under development, he was a backer of the project. We got to talking and decided to record the orchestral music from Broken Age with the Melbourne Symphony. We did that, and we did Grim Fandango Remastered, so it only made sense to continue the relationship with Psychonauts 2."
Another in-game location with musical genre staples tied to the environment was the mindscape of Psychonauts agent Hollis Forsythe. Her inner world is reconfigured into the shape of a luxurious casino a short time after the character develops a gambling addiction. As with the Cold War paranoia that informed the Milkman's Conspiracy in the previous game, McConnell had a mood in mind for the Lady Luctopus arena.
"I wanted to draw from the cinematic tradition of the casino," McConnell says, "particularly the Rat Pack, the original Ocean's 11, and Frank Sinatra in general. That kind of a vibe was what I really wanted to tap into. The entire level is all jazz, and it gets more big band-y the closer you get to the boss."
By recording pieces of the score in separate locations, the music of Psychonauts 2 could retain the lofty ambitions outlined during pre-production. The Lady Luctopus boss in particular required a sound that matched the over-the-top visuals presented on the screen. McConnell listened in on sessions recorded across the country in what became "very much a worldwide effort."
For Luctopus, the battle track wove together a pass of strings and wind instruments, a pass of brass, the rhythm section recorded in Nashville, and the keyboard solo played in a studio in Hoboken. Getting the rhythm section, a full orchestra, and the Hammond organ solo "to all just gel" was a compositional and engineering feat that he could reflect upon with a feeling of satisfaction.
"It's the Melbourne Symphony doing the orchestral part," McConnell recounts, "and there's a Nashville rhythm section, and there's my buddy Andy Burton, who is a big-time keyboard player in New Jersey. He plays with Little Steven these days. He plays the amazing Hammond [organ] solo. It was recorded in pieces, all over the world."The Compton's Cookoff sequence from the game culminates in the Gluttonous Goats boss fight, which the composer seasoned with metal. "The mixing engineer, Will Storkson, did pretty much all the mixing for the music in the game," McConnell says. "He also played the shredding solos on that heavy metal piece.... He was grateful to have the orchestra in sections because it gave him so much more control over how to balance the strings and the brass, for example."
Reports had circulated as early as the Xbox Games Showcase of 2020 that Jack Black, founder of the comedy rock band Tenacious D, would be involved in the music score in some capacity. Double Fine offered a first glimpse of the comedian in his role as Helmut Fullbear in the Psychonauts 2 Brain in a Jar Trailer. The vocal track "Cosmic I (Smell The Universe)" not only reunited McConnell and Schafer with the Brütal Legend voice actor, but it also allowed for a call-back to the central role of musical numbers in Double Fine's story of fantasy world-travelling roadie Eddie Riggs.
"The song was written essentially with Tim's lyrics off the email and with Jack Black in mind," McConnell says. "I really lucked out because Jack Black's even more amazing than you think he is. That session was just really amazing. He brought that song to life. That's certainly a big favorite of mine."
Restrictions gradually subsided, allowing them to record thirty performers on a large stage at the Australian Broadcasting Company. The composer recalls, "March of 2021 was when we recorded the psychedelic music at Skywalker Sound, which is just over the hill from here. Their rules at the time were 'No more than five people in the room.' (It's a huge room in a beautiful studio.) And we had our five people spread out all over the stage. It was great. You couldn't ask for a better situation to record rock-and-roll in. We had our amps in the isolation booths that surround the main scoring stage."
The Flea Circus
Scoring games for Double Fine allowed McConnell the freedom to experiment with countless genres. To match the unpredictability of the storylines, he needed to be prepared for anything. It helped that McConnell's tastes and talents are so varied.
"Let me tell you, I really like all kinds of music," he says, "from field recordings of Roma bands in Moldavia, to Stravinsky. Honestly, there's pretty much something in every genre that I find to appreciate."
During the development of Psychonauts, Schafer had suggested a genre of music performed by the Eastern European Roma, suggesting it might help situate Raz's backstory in a memorable musical context: "[T]hey have this really interesting music that you can hear from places like Transylvania and Moldavia," the composer explains. "I got a CD from Tim that had this music on it, played by these traditional bands that apparently was on Johnny Depp's listening list in Rolling Stone back in 2000. It's really cool music, and it definitely had an influence on the Meat Circus theme and some of Raz's music."
McConnell attributes his fascination with disparate musical styles to having spent his formative years living in different regions of the United States. The composer grew up in Basel, Switzerland, spent time in Kentucky, then in Kansas, New Jersey, Boston and California. Becoming acquainted with an assortment of territories served as a primer for exploring varied genres as a musician. Whether the context was a string quartet or heavy metal, he found artistic satisfaction in bringing complementary instruments into alignment.
"Like in Psychonauts 2 with the Questionable Area music, there's acoustic guitar playing a John Denver-y kind of riff," he says. "You're out in the woods and you hear this clarinet playing, but that clarinet starts out with a fragment of the main Psychonauts theme. And then it goes into a minor version of the Aquato theme with the tuba, violin, clarinet and mandolin. It's really through themes — what they call in Wagnerian opera, 'leitmotifs' — that I try to maintain some sense of cohesion."
McConnell is currently working on the score for Return to Monkey Island with Land and Bajakian. The sequel to Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, overseen by Ron Gilbert's Terrible Toybox studio and Lucasfilm Games, is due out later this year.
________________________________Peter McConnell is a video game composer – www.petermc.com | Twitter @peternmcconnell | Spotify artist page