Video game composer discovers niche through unexpected events

Grant Kirkhope can’t understand how he got so lucky.

When he was growing up, Kirkhope never considered being a video game composer. He went to school in the United Kingdom, and music has always been part of the majority of his life.

“I played the trumpet and recorder when I was younger,” says Kirkhope. “I started picking up the guitar from ages 11 and 12. I wanted to play in metal bands. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Kirkhope attended the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester when he was 18 years old.

“I kinda did the studying half heartedly,” Kirkhope says with a laugh during a recent interview with the Plainsman Press, “but I passed. I was terrible at harmony. You had to pass the harmony exam within the four years you were there, and I failed it the first three years. I scraped by in the fourth year because I was bad at understanding the harmonies.”

After graduating from Royal Northern College, Kirkhope continued to play for local rock bands. He played in a band called “Little Angels,” who toured with Bon Jovi and Van Halen.

“I played in metal bands for a long time, and I really didn’t get anywhere,” Kirkhope explains. “I did this for about 11 years. I had on and off unemployment. So, I would be on tour, come back play in local bands, and make no money.”

Kirkhope thought we would continue to do the same routine until one day his career changed forever. One of his friends, Robin Beanland, who was a keyboard player, announced he received a job at a company called Rare.

“I asked [him] ‘doing what?’ and he said, ‘Writing music for video games,’” Kirkhope explains. “I asked him if that was a thing. I played a lot of video games, and he was there for a year and a half. He says to me, ‘You know, Grant…you’ve been unemployed for about 11 years. Don’t you think it’s time for a job?’ I was 33 at the time.”

Beanland encouraged Kirkhope to try to compose some tunes for Rare. Kirkhope says that even though he wrote music for metal bands that he was part of, he didn’t think he could compose video game music. But he gave it a shot.

“I bought a copy key base, a computer with a mega ram,” explains Kirkhope.  “I sat and tried to write tunes that were appropriate for video games. I sent five cassette tapes to Rare through the course of the year…never got a reply.”

One day, Kirkhope got a reply from Rare, a rising video game company, asking if he can meet in Twycross, England, where the headquarters of the company was located. He went, and the company was pleased to meet him and hired him.image1

“It’s a surprise to me than anybody else,” says Kirkhope. “That was it. I started working with Rare up till 1995, and it was an absolute fluke. I never thought I could do it. I didn’t even consider it as a career choice.”

Kirkhope’s process of composing music hasn’t changed in 22 years. He explains that his process is not intellectual. Rather, he uses his imagination and messes around with the sounds of different musical instruments.

“So, I think with any composer, it starts with imagining the level or scene,” explains Kirkhope. “If someone says to you, ‘This cinematic scene is a frozen ice castle,’ right before I start composing for it, I think about spike instruments such as celeste, glockenspiel and things that sound icy to me. If someone says a lovely warm forest, I think about nice strings and bassoons.”

Kirkhope says through his composing process he always hopes he writes a good tune, and that’s what he always tries to do.

“My favorite part of composing music is the core sequence and the melody,” says Kirkhope. “I’m a really bad polisher. I’m an ideal person, and I hate polishing. My favorite part is getting the main melodies down.”

Kirkhope has won awards such as Best Original Score for a Video Game or Interactive Media for “Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth” at the International Film Music Critics Association in 2014, Best Score for “Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth” at the Cue Awards in 2015 and, Best Video Game Score for “Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth” at the Movie Music United Kingdom in 2015.

He has had countless nominations for many different video game award categories. He has also composed music for many popular, well-known video games such as “Donkey Kong Land 2,” “GoldenEye 007,” “Banjo-Kazooie,” “Banjo-Tooie,” “Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts,” and “Donkey Kong 64.” His most recent project is for “Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle.”

Although he is referred to as a veteran composer, he doesn’t see himself as such. He considers himself humble with anything that he achieves.

“I don’t like focusing on the success thing too much, because you’re only as good as the last thing you’ve done right,” says Kirkhope. “If the next thing is [expletive] then, people forget about what you did before. I’ve been so lucky to be on some of those projects. It gave me inspiration to hopefully write hopefully good music. Like going from Rare to coming to America and going freelance. I think it’s always a happy set of fortunate disasters that kinda get me to the right place.”

According to Kirkhope, he is happy to stick around when it comes to composing music. He says he feels that he’s very lucky to be writing music, because if not, he would still be playing for local bands.

“I would be playing for local bands back in Yorkshire,” says Kirkhope. “At 55 years old, making no money. It’s a mystery on how I keep going.”

Kirkhope likes to reply to people who like his work on social media such as Twitter. He doesn’t consider himself a celebrity of any kind and likes to interact with his admirers.

“I don’t like to use the word fans,” Kirkhope explains. “I really try hard to reply to people on Twitter. I always think of it like this…If I could reach out to John Williams, he’s my absolute hero, and say, ‘Hey, John, I think you’re fantastic’ and he says, “Cheers Grant,” I would be over the moon. I think it’s a nice thing to do when I reply to people.”

Kirkhope takes his composing career one day at a time. He doesn’t focus on the success too much because he tries to live in the moment.

“I don’t really consider myself successful,” Kirkhope says. “I don’t let myself get a big ego. It’s nice to think that people like my music. I always say if one person, if someone likes anything that came out of your head, it’s pretty amazing. To see that people like my tunes, I’m always humble. It’s amazing for people to like what I do. That’s the reward for me.”

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