Interview with Justin Karpel, composer of Time Fcuk

Play As Life caught up with Justin Karpel, composer for the indie game Time Fcuk.

Q. First of all, congratulations on the new soundtrack! What was the process of composing for Time Fcuk like?

A. It all happened within the span of a few months, from June thru September of 2009. I was having a chat with long-time friend and graphic artist, Edmund McMillen (blog link, interview link), when he mentioned that he was working on a new flash game called “Time Fcuk” with programmer, William Good. During that same conversation, Edmund proposed that I join their team and create the soundtrack for the game, and I took the commission for the soundtrack to Time Fcuk on the spot.

From that point forward, creating the sound design for Time Fcuk was certainly a collaborative affair. I submitted a handful of initial sketches within a week, most of which were rejected; so it was ‘back to the drawing board,’ so to speak. All I can remember is that a moment of true inspiration struck, about two weeks into signing on the project, I spent all evening working on a track and I put together the music that would become the cue for the opening sequence and title screen of Time Fcuk.

Feeling that we were moving in the right direction now, I took the raw vocal samples for the “voice” in Time Fcuk, and transformed them into the eerie, robotic syllables you hear in the final version of the game. Time Fcuk is a game with many layers and many things happening at once. The result can be somewhat chaotic and dissonant at times. With the vocal bits complete, I turned back to the main theme for the levels of Time Fcuk, and came up with a track that conveys the repetitive and uneasy flow of time and motion in the perplexing world of the game.

Later on, as the design of the game became even more user-driven, the concept of a “level editor” came into play, and another track was born — a more ambient, blurred, slow and distant version of the main theme. Also, a very simple track came out of these later sessions, and we all liked it so much that we decided to use it on the early levels of the game as the player is learning the basic controls and how to navigate through the puzzling world of Time Fcuk.

At every point, the music was tested in-game and I was constantly supplied feedback by Edmund and William on ways to shape and master the final cuts for optimum use in the game. As the release date drew near, I was literally working 10 hrs at the “day job” and coming home to work another 6-8 hrs on the soundtrack for the game. I didn’t get much sleep on those nights, but the final product was a mix of inspiration, imagination, improvisation, persistence, and pure fun.

Q. Would you say that Time Fcuk represents your musical preferences, or is it more catered to the storyline of the game?

A. The music for Time Fcuk is definitely more catered to the storyline of the game, as you say. The first thing I always ask for when embarking on the task of a video game soundtrack is to have a copy of any artwork, or any working versions from the game as the primary source for my musical imagination. I like to become as immersed as possible in the world of the game in order to create a sound which feels original and true to the game. The strange and multidimensional quality of Time Fcuk was the driving force for the sound design.

Q. What kind of equipment did you use for Time Fcuk? What instruments do you play?

A. I recorded everything for Time Fcuk on computers in my home studio. I’ve been fascinated with pianos and keyboard instruments since a young age. I just added a piano into my arsenal of instruments at home, and the hardwood floors in my house add a nice flavor to the acoustic environment for the instrument as well. I also have an assortment of synthesizers, pedals, and sound modules at my disposal too. You will notice the melodica (a widely underused keyboard instrument, in my opinion) figures a large part in the score to Time Fcuk. I also sampled an old chord organ in the score to the level editor of Time Fcuk (I found this particular organ for $5.00 at a secondhand store–what a bargain!). Royalty-free music websites also provide some nice sounds for musicians to sculpt and utilize, and I always keep my eyes and ears out at yard sales, flea markets, dollar stores, etc. for interesting instruments (or sound-producing objects) too. I’ll sample and record just about anything if it might have a musical application one day. You can do a lot on a small budget these days as an independent musician if you’re creative and innovative.

Q. You have so many creative talents. How do you introduce yourself to others?

A. Hi, I’m Justin. I’m 28 years-old. I have a degree in creative writing and electronic music. Sometimes I like to think of myself as a student of the Universe. I imagine I’ll always continue to study art, philosophy, religion, psychology, writing, and music. I like to watch movies, read books, attend symphonies, play video games, and a lot of other things too. I attend as many cultural and artistic events and time and money allow. More than anything, I love to write books and compose music. I’ve worked as a librarian, a video-store manager, and an English teacher. I’m currently employed as a corporate trainer. But really, I’m just another human being on the look-out for a little truth, beauty, and happiness in this lifetime.

Q. Pick five words that you would use to describe your music.

A. Experimental, Electroacoustic, Atmospheric, Organic, Meditative

Q. What influences your music the most?

A.  The writers, the musicians, the philosophers, the painters, and the poets of the world–these are my Muses. For this reason, I always try to attend live concerts, theater, and displays of culture and art whenever possible. I can spend a whole day reading a good book or strolling through a museum of modern art. I have a huge library of CD’s, DVD’s, and MP3’s. In college, I think it was Stravinsky that opened my ear up the most, and I have been listening to the pioneers of 20th and 21st century music ever since. The music of composers like Philip Glass and Harry Partch have made a definite impression on my style, not to mention the free jazz experiments of Sun Ra and Don Cherry. The progressive sound of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and ELO. The Residents and Radiohead always satisfy. From Leonard Cohen to Laurie Anderson, Bela Bartok to Stockhausen, there are just too many personal influences for me to name here. As far as video game music goes, Koji Kondo‘s soundtracks are legendary in my mind.

Q. There’s a lot of dispute about whether or not music should be free. How do you feel about making your music available to people online?

A. All the music that I’ve written is available for free online. That’s been my own choice so far. My books are not free. I just happen to be a big fan of sharing free downloads of my music and collaborating with other artists online. There are whole communities of artists working together and doing some spectacular stuff online. I would like to mention a site where I participate and donate time and money to called iCompositions.com. There are many great musicians and artists collaborating there. My own page, with many free downloadable tracks (including the complete soundtrack to Time Fcuk) is located at: http://www.icompositions.com/artists/Justin_Case/

On the flip side, I’m also fine working with contracts, concert venues, copyrights, royalties, etc. I believe that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” and that you just have to find the right balance between your artwork and your pocketbook. I’ll admit that I’m not happy when I hear that multi-million dollar artists are suing people for sharing digital copies of their art. I think that digital reproduction in the postmodern age is simply a way of life. Nevertheless, I believe that if you put on a good show, or sell a CD or DVD that features your artwork, or contribute work to a project that is financially successful, it’s only fair to come away with a share of the profits for your efforts.

Q. Being a writer/musician is hard in any economy. If you could turn back the clock 10 years, would you do things differently?

A. Absolutely not! I create art first and foremost because it makes my soul happy to do so. I simply cannot imagine not creating art! Money and recognition have always been a secondary benefit of the process. I write stories, poems, and music because it is through these acts that I feel more intensely alive!

After all is said and done, I still require a “day job” to pay the bills. I don’t regret this fact, but I hope that in another 10 years, perhaps the art will be the centerpiece of my financial well-being.

Q. Do you think video games can be a form of art?

A. Without a doubt, video games belong to the realm of the arts. Perhaps the closest cousin to video games is cinema. It takes the efforts of graphic designers, animators, writers, and musicians — all artists in their own right — to create a truly interactive and immersive video game experience. When all the pieces come together in a way that transcends the individual parts, that’s the sign of true art! Art is simply that creative territory where effort meets imagination, and video games certainly fall into that category. Video games represent the triumph of art, entertainment, and computer technology.

Q. What type of games do you enjoy playing?

A. Role playing games, strategy games, puzzle games, fighting games and side-scrollers are my favorites. I have enjoyed everything from Super Mario Brothers, to the Zelda games, Metroid and Mario RPG, Final Fantasy and Sega’s Phantasy Star series, to PC releases like Blizzard’s Warcraft and Diablo series. And then there’s the classic fighting games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Super Smash Bros. I’ve always enjoyed the adventure game genre as well, with games like Sierra’s King’s Quest series, and LucasArts’ Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion titles. Those were some great games!  As much as I enjoy RPG’s, I haven’t found an MMORPG that truly satisfies me yet, and you’ll more often find me playing an old console or PC game instead of one the recent console and online releases.

Q. How do you feel about mainstream games versus indie games?

A. I’ve been a fan of both mainstream and indie games for a long time; I don’t think they are truly at odds. I have friends working with companies like Nintendo, PlayStation, and XBOX. I’ll admit that the mainstream has a reputation for playing it safe, going with the tradition, sticking with the tried and true. Indie artists and indie gamers have been consistently pushing the boundaries and taking risks. There’s a great amount of freedom with indie projects. It’s great to play outside of the box! It seems to me that the best-ranked indie games will eventually get their shot at becoming mainstream hits. Having not been signed to work for any major label or company, I can speak from working extensively as an independent artist. It’s an alright road. I still believe it’s not worth sacrificing your artistic integrity for a shot at the mainstream. No way! On the other hand, I wouldn’t refuse a shot at working with a mainstream company, if the final product was consistent with my original vision for the project. I think most independent artists would welcome the opportunity to share their work with a larger, mainstream audience.

Mainstream games versus Indie games? I don’t have to choose, really. Both have their share of flops and successes. I just keep on playing the games that I like.

Q. Are you working on any new video game music projects?

A. I’ve been working two more indie game music projects since the release of the Time Fcuk soundtrack. I’m also in the process of submitting the manuscript to my third novel. Many exciting things to come in 2010!

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