For most of 2020 and 2021, a lot of us have been in low-key panic attack mode. This ever-present sense of dread is like the low-hum of the refrigerator in the background of just about everything I do. As the stress begin to really build last summer, I found myself venturing back to Hyrule as a means of escape and distraction. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but Breath of the Wild was a bit of saving grace.
After another break from the game, my daughter and I have been playing it quite a bit again in the last few months. Mentioning this on Twitter led to an exchange with Brian Grainger aka Milieu (among other monikers) and he mentioned these two fantastic albums of music inspired by Breath of the Wild he’d done over the past couple of years. I was immediately smitten with both and wanted to dig into them and what it is about the world of Hyrule that helped inspire such fantastic music. Thankfully, Brian was game and the conversation about these albums (and so much more) is what follows.
Come back tomorrow for a mix of songs from the albums (plus a few other things he did that are Zelda-related) and if you need something for background music while reading this, the Triforce mix I made earlier this year is a great candidate. I also highly recommend supporting Brian’s work via his Patreon.
Would you consider yourself a ‘gamer’ or is your interest more casual or only in a few specific titles or series? For me, it’s mostly been the latter and mainly Zelda games, though my daughter got super into Mario games over the summer and that was pretty fun.
I am absolutely the former. I am always playing multiple titles at once, usually on multiple systems or platforms. For example, right now I am still logging into a 500+ hour No Man’s Sky save to do daily stuff, and just finished their fourth monthly Expedition (which was superb and all about giant Eldritch sandworms!), and also logging into my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island (Corwood) every day. Beyond those, I’m playing through Far Cry 6 on the Xbox One and finishing up Ghost of Tsushima on PS4, and still trying to finish up Watch Dogs: Legion and the Mass Effect trilogy remaster. I picked up the Skyward Sword remaster as well as Hypnospace Outlaw on Switch and haven’t yet started either. Oh and I need to do the druids DLC for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla still too – that looks fun. I love all kinds of games though, I think minus some sports games and very mainstream-standard military things like Call of Duty, though I do enjoy a solid golf game and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t play Wii Sports more than any other Wii game back in the day. My wife and I still keep all kinds of consoles in the house – as of right now we’ve got Atari 2600, N64, Gamecube, Dreamcast, a Retron that plays NES/SNES/Gameboy games, a Playstation 2, a first gen Wii with the Gamecube compatibility, an Xbox 360 that looks like R2-D2, multiple Gameboy Advance SPs, two Game Gears, four 3DS units and of course all the next-to-newest gen stuff like Xbone and PS4. We also have four Switches in the house because myself, my wife, my daughter, and my mother-in-law all play a lot. I don’t have many other vices – really it’s down to coffee, tea, gaming, records, instruments, and books for me – so I am not afraid to put my money into gaming setups, and I am pretty much never without a specific console in any given generation.
I don’t think naming all that stuff there accurately conveys my favorites at all though, so here’s a list of those things: I have played all of the Animal Crossing titles, and all of the Assassin’s Creed games (I’m huge into historical fiction, stealth games, and sci-fi). My favorite RPG is Chrono Trigger. My favorite adventure game is Grim Fandango. I started out on point and clicks like Myst, as well as text-based RPGs on old DOS machines. I’m also massively into all things Fumito Ueda, loved both of the entries in The Last Of Us franchise, loved Mass Effect and Dragon Age, Wild Hunt, Horizon: Zero Dawn and I’m only into Rockstar stuff if it’s Red Dead or Bully. Remedy are all-timers for me too – Alan Wake and especially Control are very up there. Control could be in my top five of all time. I’m leaving out Zelda because that’s what all the next questions are about, but yeah. Love Doublefine stuff, loved the last Prey game Arkane made, love sneaky sneaky games like Deus Ex (although those stories are so dull, the technicals of the stealth gameplay are so nicely done that I still spend a hundred hours on each one). I also love leftfield stuff like Katamari Damacy and have enjoyed a fair few horror games like the first four Silent Hill games, Siren, and Eternal Darkness. Also enjoy ridiculous shooters that don’t take themselves seriously, like the first two Borderlands games were both my favorite games of the years they were issued in. Played World of Warcraft for several years also, and being honest I still love to play Oblivion too. Hopefully this all comes off as sincere and not chest-beating in any way. I just love video games.
So, I’ve been… I’m not sure if I’d say obsessed, but something along those lines – ha – anyway, I’ve been into The Legend of Zelda for as long as I can remember. I still remember having a foldout map of the original game that I got from Nintendo Power that I would just study… Anyway, when did your interest in Zelda first start?
I am a late bloomer as far as a lot of this stuff is concerned, and Zelda especially. My family was so poor when I was growing up that I never had any video game consoles. I got a couple Tiger LCD games for Xmas, and when I was in middle school I begged and begged my family to get me a Game Gear. They managed it, after coordinating with my grandfather and aunts and uncles and they all pooled together and that was my one gift that year, but it was great. I was in the arcades at the Pavilion (in Myrtle Beach, which no longer exists now) and the Waccamaw Lanes bowling alley almost constantly, and many of my friends had consoles that I could occasionally play as well, so I knew all about games but only got to play a few in their heyday. I very nearly acquired an NES with the first two Zelda titles in middle school also. I had a birthday party sleepover with some friends and one of them brought their NES and carts over for the night. I stayed up ALL NIGHT playing, I don’t even remember what it was, but the next day I arranged a trade for the system and games in exchange for a stack of my comic books. By that time, the SNES was out and the NES had fallen out of favor, so my friend thought it was an easy trade. My parents found out and got angry that I did this, and made me trade it back. I am still upset about that today.
My first Zelda experience was Ocarina of Time, I think on the Gamecube? I fell head over heels for the story and atmospheric quality of the game. It all felt so tangible and I am huge into time travel stuff so that was just the icing on the cake. From there I’ve slowly been playing through all the other titles – Windwaker, Oracle of Seasons/Ages, Link’s Awakening, etc etc – so by the time BOTW came out I was even more in love with the series than I’d ever been. I think it’s impressive how I can be this into Zelda without having grown up with it, so the nostalgia isn’t a thing for me, but there really is so much more substance to the franchise than that.
What is it about the Legend of Zelda series that you like so much?
I really love, for one, the recursion of the stories told within the universe. This almost medieval and romanticized notion that good and evil must always exist and oppose one another, that there is always a hero, a curse, a princess, a mythical sword, and even more, that these are not simply recycled story beats, but rather, a huge timeline where they form a rich mythology that is also an observable history. There are universal constants and inevitable cycles that must happen – the world feels bigger, older, and wiser than you could ever know. Every game seems to be built upon the shoulders of the last, and I love that it’s all asynchronous as well, meaning I can enter and exit with any title in the franchise and it will be a great experience. From a design perspective, the games are immensely enjoyable in their puzzle mechanics, memorable characters, and environments that have their own omnipresent dangers, flora, and fauna that exist whether you see them or not. It’s really immersive stuff and I think there really is something to the almost classical sword and sorcery texture of it that actually elevates it rather than renders it down into tropes.
What’s your favorite Zelda title? Why?
It used to be Ocarina, likely because I started there and you always remember your first kiss, but I resonated so much with BOTW because, personally speaking, I’ve always loved open world games, and the quiet minimalism of BOTW is especially alluring. The modern visual beauty of the game’s landscapes and landmarks is beyond emotive – I can spend time sitting happily by a fire in Hateno Village and just enjoy the sun setting, or I can whistle for Epona and set off into the desert or the mountains in search of treasure and action. The world of the game seems to be the main character in BOTW, and it calls you in different ways once you know how it works, compelling you to find its secrets, although it never feels tamed or conquered, and that I think plays into the story and the characters, who all seem to have a similar understanding of the land as this magical place that deserves your respect and care.
You’ve now done three different releases (at least, three I know about!) of Zelda-inspired music. How did the idea for the first one – the split with Millipede – come about?
Four total, but who’s counting? I am not the best at promoting my work either, which often works against me being so prolific, because there are legitimate things people might have a more mainstream interest in, and they just end up in the same ocean that everything else I make exists in. The first two were tape splits with my friend Joe (Millipede) who is now in a very cool band called Lacing (Milieu did a remix for them a little bit ago too). Joe is a very unique guitarist and I first found his work on his first cassette, simply titled Hyrule. I can’t recall how we got in touch with each other, must have been MySpace I guess, but we hit it off as that was right after I’d fallen so in love with Zelda myself. I organized multiple releases of Millipede’s work at INSTALL, the label I co-owned and operated with David Tagg for several years, and Joe and I collaborated on a number of things beyond the two Zelda tapes as well – he guested on my One Bleak Try album of doom guitar stuff, and we were 2/4 of a couple different splits at Sunrise Acoustics, a small imprint run by German Shepherd.
Anyway, that is A LOT of exposition so back to the tapes – Joe and I just wanted as many opportunities as possible to geek out about Zelda, and it felt very fresh at the time, like who else out there was taking influence from this game series and putting it out next to weird bedroom guitar jamming? I’m sure someone had, but it was just exciting to do it. I got David Tagg to print us some custom tape labels with Hylian script for all the text, and the printed insert was also this way, so unless you were a big fan of Zelda, you’d be utterly lost looking at it. We did the second tape a few years later but it very much picked up where the first one left off – Millipede’s sides are molten and jagged chunks of shoegaze-dipped-in-acid guitar and mine are more psychedelic four-track pieces, though a couple of mine are a bit heavier too. I can’t remember if it was the first or second tape, but Byron Coley got hold of one and wrote a bit about it in Wire, and it was there I was called a “polymath” for the first time. It was the first time anyone gave me what seemed like a logical label for my output and general inability to fit into my own musical “scene” so I embraced it fully. The music on those tapes isn’t meant to be a stand-in for soundtracking of Zelda games, rather, it was meant to just be our own impulsive tribute to the franchise and, if you like, something that could exist in the primordial unshown history of the Hyrulian universe…strange folk songs passed down and played on instruments that modern Hyrule no longer knows. I love that kind of stuff.
Getting into Breath of the Wild – so I was late-ish getting a Switch. My daughter was born in 2013 and we mostly didn’t have a lot of time for playing games. So I think we bought one in Spring 2019 and immediately became obsessed with Breath of the Wild. I hadn’t played in a little while, but when the pandemic hit and lockdown happened, it became a bit of a refuge again (think I’m at about 550 hours all-told at this point!). What about Breath of the Wild sparked so much creativity and inspiration that you created these two volumes of inspirations?
My daughter was born in 2012 so I’m not too far ahead of you! Parenting is really something else, but I’m so glad about it too. Hard to describe it properly to people who haven’t had kids. One of the most exciting things is being able to share all this worldly stuff you love, just to see how they react to it. You start to get a sense about just how “classic” and perennial some of those things are when they bypass generational gaps, and Zelda absolutely qualifies there.
For me, BOTW was such an immersive and longform experience that I was just plugged into it every day for a very long time. The first Hylian Improvisations album happened almost by accident, as I’d also just acquired a Korg Minilogue, which is a polyphonic analog synthesizer that’s still small enough in size that you don’t have to be too stationary with it. I was working exclusively with the machine to provide some library music type recordings for an Austrian photography magazine called Ausloser, at the time, for their video advertisements and web stuff, and so I ended up just plugging the Minilogue in next to my sofa and sitting it on an end table while I played BOTW. I’d tweak patches and make little sequencing sketches in the loading screen lulls of the game, but that would lead to moments where I’d be standing somewhere in Hyrule looking at the horizon line, and I’d be shaping sounds that worked with the visuals on the synth. My work ethic is such that, even for the Ausloser commission, I ended up with more recorded material than I needed for the project, and that was where and how Improvisations for Hylian Piano & Woodwinds manifested. Once the idea took root, I fully fell in love with it and really worked on it as I would a proper score. I decided to zero in on landmarks for the most part, places that really struck me in the game that didn’t seem to have dedicated soundtracking, and it was just filling in all those blanks. I do love how open and minimal the soundtrack is in BOTW, but there’s always this compulsion as an artist (at least for me) to create things where there’s empty space. I do realize how presumptuous that is, considering my love and respect for the games themselves, but it was all in good fun and not meant to be even remotely competitive with the design of the games.
The second volume – Improvisations for Hylian Horn & Pipe Organ – was a far more developed idea that had to be created away from the TV set and inside my studio. It began with my acquisition of a Korg Monologue – a sister unit to the Minilogue, but one with different features, including microtuning, which immediately popped into my head as the perfect vehicle for Hyrulian music. Scales that were designed by me, that weren’t adherent to any other purposes in other music? It was a perfect fit. So it began there, but very quickly I realized I wanted to go much more “film score” about this one and subsequently involved a lot of other machines. The recordings began to take shape almost like a Berlin school thing, lots of arpeggiators and polymetric sequencing, very influenced by things like the Selbstportrait records Roedelius did, and then with my decision to start building a modular system in January 2020, right before the pandemic happened, the album took on yet another aspect of its personality that is now inseparable from the tools I used. This saw me doing more overdubbing (I know, probably breaks the rule for an album of “improvisations” but what are you supposed to call it when you just improvise all the overdubs too?) with tape machines and even processing fully completed pieces for the album by wholesale feeding them into my modular system to make other tracks. I enjoy this kind of transitional work, because it allows for a lot of very cogent overlap between pieces, where themes and motifs can recur, but never quite the same way twice, and that’s perfect for something that is pretending to be a film score. So there’s much of my initial experimenting with generative systems on this album too, which probably also explains why it became a triple album, unlike the single-disc first one.
What were some of your favorite parts of Breath of the Wild? Are you still playing it?
Eventide Island and Thyphlo Ruins, for sure. I love that Zelda games can just fully submerge you into these spaces and events with totally different rulesets and you just have to adapt and roll with it to succeed. I also loved the jaunt toward finding the Deku Tree and all four of the Divine Beasts, and wish there were more of those. I love Robbie because who doesn’t love a character who has a recurring sound effect of a shredding electric guitar and a cheering crowd? I also love Mipha and Urbosa very much as characters – Mipha because she’s so truly virtuous that she almost manages to make Link seem less pure in his intentions, which isn’t easy to do, and Urbosa because she’s the one I’d be crushing on the whole time if I were Link. I do think Mipha and Link belong together, however, especially within the lore framework of BOTW, because they were clearly in love, though Link’s too reserved to ever really “love” anyone, and at least for his part in the whole story, he seems much more like a noble knight-protector for Zelda rather than her lover, and Zelda herself is finally given more of a proper development as someone who is conflicted over her “chosen one” expectations from her bloodline, as well as being singularly responsible for Hyrule even existing at all for the 100 years it took for Link to be regenerated and finish his quest. She’s immensely powerful and deserves to follow her own path once Link banishes Ganon once more, and Link ought to go pursue a firey Gerudo lady to run his dungeons with him. I haven’t played BOTW in a little bit after beating it, but I did go through the whole thing again as a passenger with my daughter when she played it, and I would like to jump back in and attempt to find all the Korok seeds, all nine-hundred of them…
Can you tell me a little about the process and how you approached these pieces? For example, did you have locations and characters in mind when you would create a piece and try to make something that seemed sonically representative of those things, or was it something else?
It was just like doing an actual score for a video game, really. The only difference was that these albums were passion projects and I wasn’t commissioned to make them ahead of time. I’ve done soundtrack work for several games, documentaries, and short films, the games being Eufloria (an “ambient RTS” that was released on lots of different platforms, including the PS3 at the time), ZEN (a minimalist math puzzle game for mobile, designed by the same mind behind the Ausloser magazine) and StarLit: Colony, which is not yet released, but it’s developed by the same team that made Eufloria, and is a very lengthy sci-fi Metroidvainian platformer about exploring an abandoned space station. For all of those projects, I’ve taken an approach of having some on-paper ideas, with associations made between specific instruments or sound-palettes and in-game references to either locations or creatures/characters, or even just events. Sometimes you start with “This is a bit more urgent so use some arpeggiators” or “Pull everything back except a couple sustained notes because tension is necessary” and sometimes you need an actual melodic theme to recur in order to tie events and characters together with some unspoken continuity. So the two Zelda albums were made very much in this way – with some on-paper ideas that sometimes didn’t work out at all, once I tried them, and some very impulsive moments of experimentation that managed to focus fully on a character or a set reference that became clearer as I was working on it.
I have also always loved to play with scores and soundtracks as a format, because despite it just being music and records like any other music I make, the framing of it being intended to accompany a visual element is something that forms expectations in the listener’s mind, and that’s a perception that I enjoy manipulating for the benefit of the music. For example, if you press play on something labeled as a soundtrack, and you haven’t seen the film it was made for, you are subconsciously a bit more forgiving of the music going places that don’t make logical sense to you, being more experimental or tangential or outright non-musical, because your brain processes that as something that isn’t meant to make sense without another element present. This same effect occurs even if there is, in fact, no visual element or film to accompany the recordings at all, it can simply be a construct used in order to recontextualize the music, and people listen to soundtracks differently than they would listen to, say, The Beatles, so you end up in a place where experimentation and unorthodox sound are welcomed and accepted more so than they would otherwise be on a “vanilla” record. The implication of another unseen dimension is absolutely propping things up, and it’s in that moment where I try to still approach the recordings with the same emotional connection that proper albums need to fulfill their functionality across their runtime, and hopefully I end up with music that works as a score but also works as absolute music without needing any deeper knowledge of Zelda or Hyrule.
I probably shouldn’t reveal this, but I’ve also released at least two albums that are labeled as scores for things that do not operatively exist, half as a proof of concept for what I’ve just described and half as a tongue in cheek act to see how much I could really get away with. Perception of a thing is arguably more realistic to the listener than the actuality of what that thing is, so why not play with it as you would with any other framing device placed upon creative work? I enjoy it too much to keep myself from doing it. In this way, the double-album is allowed to be more tangential as well, because you’re already expecting it to refer to Hyrule and Zelda as concepts, even abstractly, and the music benefits fully from the human brain always trying to find patterns in things. I’m sure this probably reads to some people like a big lie or a manipulation, but really it’s debatable that art has ever been anything other than creatively assembled fictions and fantasies, isn’t it? Video games and albums and books and films, they all serve that same purpose, which is propelled by our desire to experience adventurous and stimulating things through safe proxies, and just like a plate of food you enjoy eating or a cozy sweater you wear all the time, these are experiences you can revisit over and over, and why shouldn’t you? Life is too short.
Outside of the obvious Zelda/Hyrule influences, what else was an influence and inspiration for these recordings?
As I said before, Berlin school music was a big one, but also a lot of other things, namely artists who can make an entire work with a single machine, so my influences from Eliane Radigue, Wendy Carlos, and Richard D. James come to mind. I also love the synaesthetic fabric of certain scores, how they seem to actually inhabit the world they describe, such as Basil Pouledouris’ incredible work for Conan The Barbarian in 1982, which I happen to see as the benchmark for most other fantasy soundtracking that followed, by people like Jeremy Soule, Inon Zur and so on. I was also influenced by Philip Glass, specifically his organ-heavy work, on both Zelda albums, and Eno’s Shutov Assembly, On Land and both of his albums with Budd come to mind as well – all recordings that map out places and events that your mind is forced to imagine and construct. Sonically, you could probably also detect my love for Jochem Paap’s two albums of FM synth stuff on FAX, and Adam Pacione’s Sisyphus is another that remains an understated classic in my book – all of those records have a super tangible temperature and texture about them and that is absolutely what I hoped would come through in the Zelda albums.
These two volumes are absolutely massive. It’s been a lot to digest, but in a really wonderful and engaging way, and has even added a new layer to the game for me. I’m wondering how creating these pieces and these collections helped you further connect with the game and characters?
I actually haven’t listened to the music on the two albums while playing the game, I probably should try that! It just goes to show how much of your enjoyment of something can be simply the space you let it occupy in your brain, turning over ideas and events and characters and locations like a savory flavor you recall on your tongue, it can be even better than the actual physical experience in some ways, and I think music like this bottles that sensation up for me, and allows me to take the ride again and again whenever I get the urge to. Zelda games always leave enough unrevealed, and much of the game’s history is implied instead of shown, and I think that’s exactly the same feeling I get when I make these pieces.
There’s a map, and it’s a very old map, with parts torn or missing, ink smudged and faded, but it’s a real place, and even the holes in the map are real places, and you wonder what might be there? What do the names on the map mean? Someone thought they were important, and there’s only one way to find out, but you can’t always go climb Death Mountain. You’re a dad, and you work a lot, and you’re tired, so you read books about Death Mountain, and look at paintings of it, and these albums of mine are just the same as those things. A Weltlandschaft of the Hyrulian landscape laid out like a beautiful tapestry, a window to an unreachable and perhaps impossible or nonexistent place, a real escape for the mind to fantasize and be curious about.
What surprised you most about making these collections?
It’s difficult to say, especially since the first one was made in a very short time, and using a single machine, and the second one was a very long and drawn out process of working with a really varied amount of tools, so both of them feel blurry in my memory somewhat. There really is some truth to the old adage of “Distance lends enchantment to the view” and I feel I haven’t yet got enough distance from the work to really appraise it myself. I think, if anything really surprises me about these recordings, it would be just how rich and deeply inviting the lore universe of Zelda actually is, because, for the exhaustive nature of working on a triple album about any single subject, there always seems to be more left unsaid and out of reach. More tales of high adventure to be spun around a fire, more ruins dotting the horizon line to plunder, more holes in the map that continues to disintegrate, leaving room for new maps and new monuments, new memories yet to be made.
What were the biggest challenges?
For me, this always comes down to emotional resonance with a sound. Does this sound make me feel a certain way? Does it perform its designed function according to the context I’ve placed upon it? Is it too long? Is it too short? And once those questions are answered, other ones crop up – How do you weave all of these vivid moments into a sequential narrative that feels natural? How do you best refer to something before it feels overwrought or too ambiguous? There are all these “landings” to stick (a phrase I picked up from my wife, who used to be a competitive figure skater) and while I think many of these concerns are perennial for making an album about anything, they are especially important to consider for scoring work, or even something resembling a score, like these albums. I can’t really truly know if I’ve succeeded unless and until other people who play Zelda games come along and react to it in the way I’d hoped they might, and I can’t really know if the music is any good outside of the Zelda context until someone who doesn’t play video games at all picks up on the recordings for their own merits. It’s difficult, and not really that fair to yourself, to evaluate your work in this way, but when something is tied so intrinsically to ideas that other minds created, you feel a bit bound by the way other people might respond to it. I imagine the same stress happens when Neil Gaiman gets called up to write a Batman book or something like that. Playing in someone else’s sandbox has to be fun, but it also must be respectful, and of course, there’s no point in doing it at all unless you’re going to try to do something that no one else did before you in that same space, so there’s a lot of very check-boxed considerations on projects like these.
You told me there’s a third planned… have you started on that one? What can we expect?
Tentatively speaking, I want the next one to involve the Roland Juno 106, which I recently acquired as a gift from a friend because it seems to play itself and the full keyboard allows for a huge range of different usages for the machine to fulfill. I’d also like to incorporate more FM synthesis from machines like my Yamaha TX81Z because FM synths are so beautifully designed to create alien and unheard of tones and textures. These are the on-paper ideas that I’ve got to break ground on the project, but until I get there and start working in earnest, I won’t really know what it will sound like. So much of what I do, for all the prolificity and the problems/stigmas that come along with that association, is completely a natural and impulse-driven act. I just like making things and even a rigid project like a faux score for a Zelda game is something that never begins rigidly or is forced in any way. Everything begins with little drops of ideas, that could be a phrase for a title I dreamt about and wrote down, or a melodic progression or synth patch I stumble upon, or even just an image I’ve seen that brings all these other ideas and emotions up from some subconscious well, and once those things are fully acted upon in a genuine way, then you’re in the throes of it, and the “work” part of it doesn’t feel like work, it just feels like the pursuit of something grand and interesting. Somewhere in there, the next Zelda album is just buried, waiting to be discovered and cataloged.
Any other game-inspired music in the works? Or are there any titles/series you’d love to tackle someday?
I’m always doing little things like this, two other examples are the Milieu album The Traveler’s Offworld Retreat and Windblown Eclogues, published under my birth name. Both were created using Bytebeat synth engines present inside the No Man’s Sky video game, and were recorded directly out of that game in real time, and processed to completion in the studio afterward. There’s a drone album or two hiding inside Animal Crossing: New Horizons, with so many of the in-game instruments able to fully hold a sustained tone, and I just need to sit down with the Switch and start working on it. I’d also like to expand on Irdial’s legendary Mariopaint LP with a Mariopaint Milieu album, perhaps an ambient thing that uses some external filters and delay/reverberation to manifest itself. If any game devs or filmmakers are reading this, I’d also love to do a score for a horror film or game. Something really dark and weird fiction would be amazing! I think a lot of my studio tools would be able to convey those things beautifully.