Laced With Wax spoke to composer Ryan Ike to find out how he and his cohort of collaborators approached the intimidating brief: ‘Create a soundtrack that encapsulates the whole of the USA.’ No sweat.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Ever wonder what it’s like to truly wander? To put one foot in front of the other, slowly make your way from place to place and interact with whoever and whatever crosses your path?
It was this sense of wanderlust that the creators behind Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, developers Dim Bulb Games and Serenity Forge, were trying to evoke with their ‘bleak American folk tale about traveling, sharing stories, and surviving manifest destiny.’ The joyfully hard-to-categorise interactive fiction-cum-adventure game is available now on Steam (PC/Mac/Linux).
A vital part of the game’s identity comes from its soundtrack. Marshalled by composer Ryan Ike, the OST (Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music; double vinyl available via www.lacedrecords.com) comprises a hodgepodge of Americana, folk, jazz, country, blues and bluegrass reflecting the sprawling diversity of early 20th Century America. To achieve this blend, and to help him tackle such an ambitious musical project, Ike drew on the talents of numerous singers and instrumentalists from around the USA. We caught up with him to find out how he took on the challenge of representing a whole country in just two hours of original music.
Press play to hear the album from track 1:
Like the player wandering the US in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Ike himself has lived in several states. He grew up in Delano, a small town in Minnesota, and reminisces: “When Spanish-speaking kids from a neighbouring school were in town, they'd make sure to inform us that ‘Delano’ meant ‘from the asshole’ in Spanish. I never bothered to fact check that because it felt right!” (Charmingly, the Internet concurs that ‘de la ano’ means ‘of the anus’.) After living in the San Francisco for eight years, he moved to Seattle in 2015.
He was introduced to music at the tender age of four, when he began playing the piano: “I’ve basically been a huge music dweeb since I was a little kid. I'd attempt to learn anything that I liked the sound of, but I'd especially try to figure out what I was hearing in video game soundtracks. I had this vague idea that I wanted to ‘do music’ for a living when I grew up, but what even is that? What does that mean? It sounded like a nonsense career.”
Composer Ryan Ike and Kellan Jett’s cover artwork for the Where the Water Tastes Like Wine OST.
“I didn't really get into writing my own stuff until high school, and it wasn't until I was almost done with college that I decided I wanted to be a composer. After heading to grad school for a master's degree that I 100% didn’t need to be able to work in indie games (whoops!), I decided it was time to try and make it work in this industry that I've always wanted to be a part of. It was either that or be unhappy.”
When it came to landing Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Ike puts his success down to “the magic of internet stalking!” As an ardent fan of the narrative exploration hit Gone Home, Ike made it his mission to track the next moves of the game’s lead programmer, Johnnemann Nordhagen. “I set some Google Alerts for his incredibly Norwegian name so I'd know when he was starting his next project.” Nordhagen subsequently left developer Fullbright to start Dim Bulb games. (Full bright -> dim bulb — geddit?) Like the nifty networker he is, Ike reached out to arrange a meeting around the time of the PAX conference: “It turns out Johnnemann didn’t mind grabbing a coffee with someone he'd never met. And it worked! I'm still baffled, to be honest.”
The mysterious card player that ensnares you at the very start of the Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. The character is voiced by Sting. Yes, that Sting — just don’t stand so close to him.
Ike is a passionate player of the video games (just don’t call him a ‘gamer’): “I recently wrapped up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — don't get me started about that soundtrack! Phenomenal. I'm also a huge Overwatch shit-goblin, so if you see a Tracer making a lot of bad decisions, it's probably me.”
Although the music for Where the Water Tastes Like Wine sounds a good deal different to standard soundtrack fare, Ike’s tastes in OST’s are straightforward: “I grew up on the obvious stuff — Star Wars, Back to the Future, Final Fantasy and so on — and the idea that you could use music to help tell a story, especially in video games where music often changes based on your inputs, freaked little-kid-me all the way out.
“My absolute favourite soundtrack across every medium is Katamari Damacy’s. If you've somehow never played it (impossible, surely?), it's about being a space-prince and rolling a sticky ball around, picking up everything you touch until it’s grown huge. I love the music because every single song feels perfect and yet distinct from the rest of the score. It cycles through jazz, J-pop, rap — even a Baroque fugue — a bunch of random stuff that doesn't belong together (just like a Katamari). Somehow it works.”
When the brief is the breadth of a nation
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine sees players travelling the entire US, meaning that the soundtrack brief called for a score of geographically epic proportions. Ike’s initial reaction involved “panicking and pooping weird for a few days… and then diving into American folk music for reference.” His research saw him delving into the back catalogues of the like of Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, B.B. King and Duke Ellington. “If I'm being honest, I was also influenced by stuff like [Greg Edmonson’s music for cult ‘00s TV show] Firefly and Red Dead Redemption; in other words, any of the usual nerd touchstones for ‘Western’ or ‘American folk’ stuff.”
Players travel around the whole of the USA in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.
“I get really excited whenever I have a chance to work on a type of music I've never done before, and this game gave me the opportunity to basically do nothing but that! I'd never done blues, sea shanties, or bluegrass before — although I'd always wanted to.
“It was also tricky because my last release, West of Loathing, is a Western soundtrack. While Where the Water Tastes Like Wine isn't a Western [alliteration BINGO!], it has a lot of those elements, so trying to distinguish it from this other project (which I was working on in parallel) was a challenge.”
“It really helped that I knew (or found) so many amazing performers to help me bring this thing together. If you're tasked with making a soundtrack that ‘sounds like America’, bringing in musicians from all over the country seemed like a good way to get there. I'm super glad I did it too — this album wouldn't sound the way it does without them.
“I kinda realised that I was a dummy for agreeing to write a soundtrack where I didn't know how to play most of the instruments we needed! One of the biggest hurdles to get over, therefore, was writing banjo, guitar or fiddle parts that didn't just sound like they'd been hammered out on a piano (even though they were). Thankfully, all the musicians I worked with totally ruled, and they added a lot of their own flavour to the stuff I was sending them — I think it all came out sounding very authentic.
“In general, working on this project was just me thinking ‘I can't believe this person is so talented’ over and over.”
Ike enlisted the talents of (top row from left) Akenya, Jeff Ball, Jillian Aversa and John Robert Matz; (middle row) Jose Daniel Ruiz, May Claire La Plante, Kristin Naigus and Max Wolpert; (bottom row) Joshua Du Chene and the Videri String Quartet). Collaborators not pictured include flautists Cody Richards and Michael Begay.
Ike ascribes the general vibe of the album to one man in particular: “My guitar and mandolin player (and vocalist) for a large part of the soundtrack, Joshua Du Chene, is basically a genius. He was the first musician I reached out to and there's a reason: he fucking gets it. He was so onboard with the stories this game is trying to tell from the very beginning, and it shows in his work.
“I wrote a slide guitar part for him and he texted me to say ‘I don't know how play slide guitar!’ I offered to rewrite it, but he just replied: ‘I'll figure it out.’ So he taught himself slide guitar in two days! What the hell? How is that even fair?! He was constantly elevating the parts I wrote to a completely new level. Every time he improvised something, or added his own flair, it made the track better.”
One of Ike’s favourite performances of Du Chene’s is “Rail Hoppin’”: “It’s the theme for a character named Quinn, a young kid who's displaced by the Great Depression during an era where lots of parents kicked kids out because they couldn't afford to feed everyone. Quinn roams around, hitching rides on boxcars. I sent Joshua the guitar parts and explained that I wanted this track to sound like ‘illegally traveling at high speed’, which, in retrospect, is total nonsense. But he just said ‘gotcha’ and came back with this.”
“He could've simply played what I wrote and been done with it — and that would've been fine — but the way he articulated it is completely spot on. [He nailed] the driving emphasis on the rhythm part, and he imbued the melody with a carefree attitude. That's part of why working with him rules: usually there's a lot more back and forth, which is fine, but he basically knocked out bangers on the first take, every time, all perfectly suited to what, and who, the track was about.
“And… even though he sings on several songs on the album [including “Vagrant Song (Deep South)” and “White Rider”], he changes his voice so well that a lot of people don't realise it's the same guy. He's some kind of crazy vocal polymorph and it was so cool to get to work with him.”
Another performer that Ike can’t help but sing the praises of is vocalist Akenya. “She has a fucking cannon for a voice box. I let all the performers more or less do their own thing with the parts — add improvisations etc. — but she went for it. Her embellishments are on point, and she sold the hell out of the basic parts that I wrote.
“She also really helped me with the authenticity of the tracks she performs on. "Tear It Down," was written for a character who's a black southern preacher in the ‘30s. A lot of his story is about him trying to maintain his faith given what the Black experience was like at that time.”
“I wanted to give the song a gospel feel, but was worried about stepping on cultural stuff I didn't understand. Akenya advised me on how to give the track the right feel, and suggested some edits that could make it more authentic. Then she sang the hell out of it. She even multitracks herself on the backing vocals and sings the part in multiple styles so that it sounds like a full choir.”
This was the first time Ike wrote lyrics for a score, “which I wasn't sure I'd be able to do when we started. I wrote everything myself with the exception of "Vagrant Song (Southwest)," which is in Spanish. For that, I wrote the English lyrics and the singers May Claire La Plante and Jose Ruiz translated it.”
“The lyrics obviously had to connect with whatever character or area of the game that the song was for. “Soulsucker Blues” was written for a character who sells her soul to the devil to become a music star, so the lyrics are about how she ended up that way, the consequences of her choice and how she might do it again if given the chance.”
An excerpt from “Soulsucker Blues”:
Tying together the soundtrack is the “Vagrant Song”, which has several different permutations that change depending on the part of the country the player is in. “The song isn’t about a specific character, so I wanted it to be about what it's like to wander America; and what it feels like to be looking for something and not know what it is, or if you'll ever find it.”
Ike feels that the main theme, “Heavy Hands”, forms the heart of the soundtrack. “The lyrics are all about searching for that place mentioned in the title — where the water tastes like wine — where everything's going to be OK, but in your heart you know that you'll likely die before you find it.”
An excerpt from “Heavy Hands”:
“It was the first thing I wrote for the game and featured in our first trailer, but I didn't finish the full length version until a year later. That meant I had to find the sound of the game with this track, which led me to the realisation that I would need live performers to make it all work. The original draft featured sampled guitar and MIDI fiddle… so, yeah, not great!”
The guitar: the American instrument?
With the ease and proliferation of in-the-box music-making (i.e. producing tracks entirely within a piece of software using digital instruments) and how it helps game composers meet deadlines and stay within budget, it’s always nice to hear live playing on a game score. In terms of specific instrumental voices, it feels like we haven't heard a lot of the guitar in video game music (notable exceptions include No Man’s Sky, Bastion and The Last of Us).
A guitar-playing character from Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.
Ike concurs that, in the case of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, the sound of the acoustic (and other types of) guitar encapsulates ‘the good ol’ U.S. of A.’ “Even though there are a billion different types of music you could qualify as the quintessential ‘American sound’, I think the acoustic guitar, especially when you're playing blues and bluegrass licks, puts you in the right place and time for this game. It's like musical shorthand — you hear it and you think ‘I know what this game is about.’”
As a principal instrument on a track, the acoustic guitar has several sonic upsides, including its bright, percussive nature. “Joshua Du Chene, who recorded all the guitar parts, could basically get that thing to do anything. There are some tracks, for instance "Howl", where he plays it really raw and ragged on purpose; and others where it's super crisp and clean. The guitar is a versatile instrument, especially in the hands of someone like him, so I think for a character and story driven game like this, it's the perfect sound for getting the player in the right mindset.”
For Ike, possible the trickiest song to figure out was "The Road Remembers". “It’s for a character named Dehaaya, a Navajo woman who travels in order to see what's happened to the land that was taken from her and her people when she was young.”
“Being a white dude without a ton of knowledge about that culture, I was really worried about trampling all over things I didn't understand. Luckily, I got in touch with Michael Begay, an amazing Navajo musician who was able to walk me through things. He even met with a tribe Elder to talk about what I was writing and make sure everything was going to be done right.”:
Indie 4 Life?
The idea has been bandied about more than a few times that indie game developers are the new ‘garage rock bands’ — small groups of creative people trying stuff out and intentionally bucking conventions. Ike doesn’t disagree, and is happy swimming in these waters: “Not to talk smack about the AAA side of things, but I know that the indie games space is definitely where I want to be. There’s more of a struggle to get stuff made because nobody has any money, but you have a lot more creative freedom, you can take more risks and generally experiment.
“Also, it's cool because everyone knows everyone else (or will eventually). The Seattle indie scene is basically just a bunch of dorks who are all friends; and occasionally someone releases a game in between drinking and arguing about D&D.”
Seeing his work enshrined in vinyl is a treat for him: “It feels super cool — I'm excited to have this weird, physical thing I can point to and say ‘I made that.’ And Kellan Jett did some incredible art for it, so the whole thing is real purdy. Crap — now I have to buy a record player!”
Kellan Jett’s illustration for the back (left) and front (right) cover of the double vinyl.
A couple of the disc labels by Kellan Jett for the Where the Water Tastes Like Wine soundtrack vinyl.
The soundtrack to Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is available on deluxe double vinyl (along with Steam game code and digital download) at www.lacedrecords.com: