Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I present to you our interview with retro gaming music god Rob Hubbard, ably supported by his chief co-conspirator of the last two decades, C64 remixer/producer supreme Chris Abbott!
Their latest Kickstarter has us smitten and is surely the definitive Rob Hubbard! A massive hardback book (feat contributions from Ben Daglish and Jon Hare to name but two!) and new SIDs that sound just like the Rob Hubbard of old. Don’t believe us? Listen to this:
***For those of you who want to pay by PayPal and/or directly through the c64audio.com website, Chris has now set this page up.***
Rob to tackle us first…
Rob, you’re an absolute legend amongst retro gamers. Your story starting at Gremlin in the 80s has been told a few times but what we want to know is at that point, could you ever have envisaged having such a remarkable career in game music creation alone?
No. At the beginning it was a means to an end. Pay the rent and bills. Then it kind of took off, and never looked back. So I did pretty good career-wise, being in the right place at the right time.
What makes video game music important for you?
Back in the 80s it was about trying to write something reasonably melodic that tried to create a mood. It had to have quite a few sections to stop being boring, and had to move round tonal centres a lot to create variety. It was also treading new ground and experimenting to see what was possible technically and also artistically.
It’s documented that you worked on 75 game music conversions (and generations) between 1985 and 1989 which is startling. What was your usual working day like and how did you cope with lulls in creativity?
I worked a lot of hours those days, as i would never refuse a gig that came my way. When you are doing a lot of work, it gets easier to be creative in some ways. However there are times when you simply have to go with whatever you come up with, and make the best of it. There are techniques you can use to ‘manufacture’ ideas to get you started, but there generally needs to be something in an idea to ‘latch onto’ that provides something of interest, in order to propel the project forward.
We’re predominantly 90s gamers here at Arcade Attack so your work at EA defined our outlook on what video game music should be. How did you get the gig at EA and what was it like moving to the States to work for them?
I met Mark Lewis at an awards do in London, and he asked if I wanted to do a couple of months working in the US. That’s when I did ‘Skate or Die’ C64 with the sampled guitars mixed in with the SID chipsounds. They then offered my a permanent job in California. You might say that piece of NMI code changed my life!
It was fantastic working for EA back in the early Trip Hawkins era. There were many really clever people who had passion, and a vision for the future, which in many ways, was way ahead of its time.
How did they cope with your British sense of humor?
I had many expressions that I had to explain all the time, but they generally got it!
The early NHL and Madden games on the Mega Drive/Genesis were outstanding and the music scores were a big part of that. What guidelines did EA give you to work with and how much creative freedom were you given?
I didn’t get any direction. I just knew how different the market was there and did what I think would be OK. You certainly couldn’t do a ‘Knucklebusters’ or ‘WAR’ type of tune over there. It was much more conservative.
We’ve just recorded a podcast on the Road Rash series, your music again was a massive part of the experience. What was your inspiration for those tracks?
Road Rash was just a biker game, so it was a rock type of tune. OK maybe those huge drum sounds were way over the top! I never had time to play the game.
What was your favourite game soundtrack to work on, which are you most proud of and why?
This is impossible to answer really, because by and large, I liked almost all of the tracks. There have been some stinkers I admit, but most I think are OK. The list would include Sanxion, Kentilla, Sherlock. Sanxion was interesting because initially after the first section I didn’t really like it. It wasn’t until the third section was done that it started to gel, and then that middle solo happened. After that I started to really like it. Kentilla was originally going to be an interactive music track, but we ran out of time to get it all done, so I just put all the bits together to make a long piece.
Of all the games you’ve worked on, which was/is your favorite to play?
I never had time to play any of them to be honest.
In the 90s, did you envisage EA becoming the behemoth they are today?
They moved into the consoles – NES, SNES and SEGA and that’s when they started to really grow. So I would say yes, we knew they were becoming a huge company.
Barring your own work is there a game’s music score that has blown you away?
I really haven’t listened to much of other peoples stuff, especially when I was doing a lot of work. The last thing I wanted was to subconsciously get someone else’s motif stuck in my head. In fact, I didn’t listen to much commercial music of any kind late 80’s to 2001. I did listen to a lot of orchestral music though.
Can you tell us a little bit about the new Kickstarter and what’s your favorite reward of the lot?
The orchestral concert – if it gets the funding – will be pretty cool. To get your own arrangements and orchestrations performed is a very special and unique experience.
As far as we’re concerned, this looks like the definitive Rob Hubbard project, with everything one of your fans would want. Have you any other projects in the pipeline?
Nothing in the immediate future, but who knows? This project will keep me fairly busy.
Could you be tempted to compose video game music commercially once more?
I don’t think so. The biz has changed that much, and I’ve moved on. I don’t think I could handle the modern day stress and politics involved with making games these days.
Do you still play video games and if so, what computer/console do you turn to?
I’ve never played a lot of games. I used to play PC adventure games back in the 90’s.
I’ve never owned a console either!
You’ve played live a few times, notably with Danish C64 cover band Press Play On Tape, what was that experience like and were you surprised by the reaction from the fans?
It was very enjoyable, if not a little surreal, in the sense of revisiting some of those old tunes again. And having to relearn what they were all about. I’m sure the audience enjoyed it!
Finally, if you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Actually, I’d probably choose the famous Jeff Minter (good call – Ed). I never had a good talk (or hung out and/or drink) with him, and I think we would probably have got on well. Our paths never really crossed for some reason.
Chris, you’ve worked with Rob since 1997. How did High Technology Publishing come about? How did you and Rob meet and first get started?
I emailed every Rob Hubbard on the Internet when you could actually do that (seriously, there was an address book on Compuserve!). I think I must have got in early, since he was very friendly and helpful even though he didn’t know me from Adam (though I did have MIDI files of his stuff under my belt). High Technology Publishing actually started as a music company, and later became a convenient vehicle for “Back in Time”. We didn’t meet personally until 2000 when I went to San Francisco to see him on the tail end of his stay at Electronic Arts. Exchanges of emails ensued. Some of them didn’t even mistakenly go into the spam folder (damn you, Gmail).
What’s Rob like to work with?
He’s both accommodating and exacting 🙂 . And immensely talented and creative. Without his contribution to the tracks on Back in Time 1, for instance, those tracks would have been much worse. He’s re-orchestrated my Flash Gordon orchestration. He’s very modest and down-to-earth about things, which makes it easier to swap feedback back and forth. While he spent a lot of time working on his own, he’s a great team player. He’s genuinely interested in the music above all, and pleasing the audience without patronising them. I’m in awe of his music skills. He makes me feel like a hack, but motivated to do better! And he’s an inspiration to other people: this is possibly his most defining feature. How you manage to remain modest and be such a prolific stage performer is also something he does really well. I guess he is a musician, and a technician. It’s what he does, and who he is. It’s nice that the project is allowing him the positive side of that (creative freedom and control, receptive audience, great team) without burdening him with the negatives (pressure, obligation, being exploited).
Congratulations on already passing your initial target, could you tell our readers a bit more about the Kickstarter… And what’s your favourite reward of the many many rewards?
Obviously the orchestral concert is the big goal, but the project is full of so much quality… It’s two Kickstarters in one. There’s Rob’s official biography (but there’s much more than that). There’s Rob’s definitive remix album with Marcel, and a return to SID composing might be on the cards. There’s loads of material fans haven’t heard from various points in his career, and loads of talented artists who wanted to do their own Rob Hubbard album.
There isn’t a single bit of the project that won’t deliver more than expected, because there’s so much talent involved, all doing their favourite passion projects. Now, could everyone back it? Pretty please? We need that concert: it would be the highlight of Rob’s life (and the lives of the other C64 composers involved) to give him his stuff played by the London Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra that did Star Wars and Indiana Jones. How can we not make that happen? This is the thing everyone has been waiting for since the 80s: now’s not the time to get sniffy because you’re worried he might not do tunes you like on Hubbard ’80. Now’s the time to support that guy who deserves your support. Though I do understand completely that there’s a lot there: we have a Paypal order page to allow you to spread it out over the next few months.
What makes the C64 so special for you?
It was always the music, though I fell in love with my first computer pieces on the Atari 400. Thinking about it, the first piece of original music I heard from any computer (i.e. that wasn’t based on existing classical tunes or standards) was probably Gilligans Gold or Daley Thompsons Decathlon (maybe even Cavelon). I was so naïve back then I was even impressed by the Hunchback music 🙂 . They all gave me a warm feeling: Ocean Loader into Hypersports was particularly amazing. The first time I can remember being in actual awe at a piece of music was in the Crazy Comets/Thing on a Spring period: I remember distinctly hanging out in a computer shop staring gape-jawed at Crazy Comets and wondering if it was the same guy as the one doing Thing on a Spring. And Monty on the Run sealed the deal there.
I remember one of Jeff Minter’s newsletters mentioned the Ocean Loader, too, maybe before I actually heard it.
Any other projects/Kickstarters in the pipeline?
Nothing that isn’t connected to fulfilling the existing Kickstarters 🙂 (except for the concert, which kind of is).
There’s definitely been a resurgence in the popularity of retrogaming. Do you think anything in particular has caused it?
Mid-life crisis? 🙂 There’s a primacy effect at work where the games/experiences you had first have much more psychological importance. When you have only two games, you play them to death over months. When you have 1000, you barely play one. Many retro games were crap, but even those ones sometimes connect to a memory or feeling. Music is especially good at doing that. Sometimes it’s tactile things like the feel of the play button on a C64 cassette deck, or the little chirp something makes. But the music especially evokes time and place better than anything except smell.
Same final question for you, especially as you’ll find me in Bromley Wetherspoons a lot, if you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
I would? Coffee’s on me then! I liked how Rob thought you were asking about real people, so I’ll say Ben Daglish. Or Thing on a Spring. Since I have plushies of Thing on a Spring, I could do that any time I wanted, and why not? Maybe the guy from IK+ so I could make people in the pub laugh by making his trousers fall down so I could get to the bar.
Thank you for joining us today gentlemen, it’s been a real pleasure! Readers – get on down to the Kickstarter NOW! And remember, for those of you who want to pay by PayPal and/or directly through the c64audio.com website, Chris has now set this page up.