A Fireside Chat With Jim Guthrie on the Music of ‘Reigns: Her Majesty’ and More

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The whole internet seems to be talking about it today, but if you somehow missed it, Reigns: Her Majesty ($2.99) was released late last night. It’s the highly anticipated sequel to last year’s surprise mashup of Tinder swipes and RPG gameplay, Reigns ($2.99). This time around, the developers pulled out all the stops, even recruiting Jim Guthrie and JJ Ipsen for a totally custom soundtrack for the game. If the name Jim Guthrie sounds familiar, that’s also because he’s the mastermind behind the incredible soundtrack of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery ($3.99)- A game we not only loved in our review, but also ended up choosing as our 2011 Game of the Year (which feels like ancient history now). On the Reigns side of things, we’ve had a flood of content on the site for Her Majesty, including a review, as well as a spoiler-laden walkthrough to get the best ending. Anyway, on with the show.

TouchArcade: Jim, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Reigns: Her Majesty just hit the App Store last night, we reviewed it, loved it, and aren’t really surprised that it seems to be what everyone is talking about this morning. How are you feeling about the whole thing, and how does the feeling of a game release featuring your music differ from the feeling of releasing a new album on your own?

(Jim Guthrie on the left, JJ Ipsen on the right.)

Jim Guthrie: Hey, no problem. Thanks for being so gosh darn nice. We’re all super proud of it. After years of development it’s always a challenge to be in the moment once you release something like this into the world. While I obviously believe music can play a huge part in any game I really have to give all the props to the whole team. A lot went into this one. It was a total pleasure to write for this. I think I’m lucky with game soundtracks because for the most part I’m making music I might already make if I were left to my own devices. It always feels pretty personal and artistically satisfying so I always feel like I’m releasing somewhat of a personal statement with my game OSTs.

TA: Awesome man, well before we dig deeper into Reigns, I’d love to talk about your history as a musician. I know there’s a lot of up and coming, talented musicians, who look at where you are and would love to be the next Jim Guthrie. But before you were Jim Guthrie the professional musician, what was your original life goal? Take us back to lil’ Jim sitting in 6th grade study hall, what’d you originally want to be when you grew up? Or was music always part of the plan?

JG: Ha, wow. That’s a tough one….in all honestly I never really had a plan B. I did however start off drawing and was more into visual art as a kid but music always cut a little deeper. I just didn’t have the means to explore my musical side until I was 16 or 17. Then all hell broke loose and I never looked back. I didn’t know exactly how I would make a living but that wasn’t even the point. I just made music everyday and learned a lot about myself in doing so.

TA: How’d your parents feel about that at the time? And is it kind of amusing to look back at that now, seeing where you’ve ended up? My parents always gave me such a hard time about playing too many video games, and, well, here we are.

JG: Ha, I had the same experience. It’s funny to think back when my mom would come home from work and I’d be in the basement with headphones on screaming into a mic and she’d be like “What in the hell is going on down there!!?”. They didn’t understand my musical pursuits right from the get-go but once I got a write up in the local paper years later they started to warm up to my choice to pursue music. They were pretty working class folk and didn’t see how I’d make a living and I totally get that. (I didn’t really start making a living on my music until I was in my 30s.)

TA: So did you ever get any classical musical training, or are you one of those wizards who just picked it up on your own?

JG: I’m one of those self-taught peeps. I didn’t have too many pals to play with back in the day so I bought a cassette 4-track (early 90s) and proceeded to record hours of the worst music ever made but I taught myself a lot about the orchestration of pots and pans. 🙂

TA: I remember back in the Sworcery days, people were mentioning something about how you originally mixed your music using an original PlayStation? Or making music using an old PlayStation game or something, can you expand on that process and how long you used it before moving on to… actual music mixing software?

JG: Yeah, totally. I never had a computer until I was 26 or something so my first attempt at “computer music” came when I learned of the game MTV Music Generator for PS1. You would save the music to the same memory cards used for game saves. It was a great program. Super limited but I love limits. Then in the early 2000s I got an eMac with Garageband and that was huge for me. I started recording more and more and got gigs doing music for TV and advertising. And this stuff went to air – all using Garageband! Saved my life really.

TA: Wow, I guess that really goes to show you that Apple isn’t kidding around when they talk about how powerful the software that comes with Macs is. Would anyone remember any of your TV stuff, or was it limited to small markets in Canada?

JG: Totally. I was bonkers. My first ad gig was a jingle for Capital One and it was the Canadian launch of the company. I did tune called ‘Hands In My Pocket” and it went viral before the internet was really doing viral. People would sing the song at election rallies and it was spoofed by the CBC’s Rick Mercer (Knee In My Package). I had no idea what I was doing and I think that’s why it resonated? I did it all in Garageband and it sort of sounded like a rea, lo-fi song from the 60s or something.

TA: Holy cow. That’s… something. So when you’re cutting tracks (that’s what the cool kids say, right?) do you have any influences you always find yourself leaning on, or does that vibe change from project to project depending on what the gig requires?

JG: Yeah, I mean I’m not super on any given instruments but I suppose I have a talent for orchestrating my ideas? I dunno. I’ve always just really thrown myself at every idea and gig so I suppose that’s my strength? I really get into it!

TA: This is probably impossible to answer, but of all of your work, what’s your absolute favorite song that you’ve done? I’m a fan of your more simple stuff, with Now, More Than Ever being my all time favorite tune you’ve released. It’s … hard to put into words, just delightful. The entirety of Children of the Clone is also fantastic, I love how… mechanical, I guess, it all feels.

JG: Thanks yeah, I think NMTE is a big one for me. It was nominated for a Juno (Canadian Grammy) and I just did a lot of things as an artist that I had never done with that album. Having said that…a fave song of mine would have to be either Children of the Clone or And We Got Older just because they were done with such minimal gear / tech and I tapped into something inside myself that was really satisfying and deeply meaningful.

TA: I feel like most people around here, or at least “old school” iOS gamers (hard to believe you need that qualifier) would know your work based on Sworcery, were there any changes in how you approached the score of Sworcery over how you handled working on Reigns: Her Majesty?

JG: Haha man, we’re old! I’d say both of these games are very different in scope but similar in some of the feelings JJ and I were trying to convey. The biggest challenge with Reigns was the fact that it moves pretty fast and leaves little to a traditional score (even by video game standards). So we knew we just had to make pretty wallpaper for the most part and be happy with that limitation knowing that there was way more going on with Leigh’s writing etc.

TA: Yeah, I assume it must’ve been easier to score Sworcery because the game had many big crescendo moments, like when you first get the Megatome and other similar things you could build around. Her Majesty doesn’t really have that, largely just due to the random nature of the game, how tricky was that to plan music around?

JG: And Sworcery was built around the music for the most part. I was very lucky in that regard. It was a dream game for me. Reigns was also a bit of a dream gig (having loved the original) but yeah, way trickier to navigate. I think we had to pick our moments knowing that some narrative bits would always happen but most of the time it was a blaze of left and right swipes (much like Tinder…not that I’d know!) so we had to accept that there wouldn’t be the same opportunities to really pull the heart strings with music.

TA: When you work on the score of a game like this, how much information do you have about it beforehand? I imagine the vibe of everything needs to mesh together, which would lead me to think that it’d be challenging to write the narrative without the music, and challenging to write the music without the narrative. How did the logistics of that work out with Reigns?

JG: I took a great deal of direction from the team initially. Francios and Leigh (and the others!) really knew what they were after so that was a huge help. It’s a mix of old and new sounds, musical themes and melodies. We wanted to play with an old timey genre but also have a foot firmly planted in the future. I also have to thank the team for letting JJ have “free reign” as it were with what we came up with. They were incredibly supportive and trusting of the music we submitted.

TA: Any particular track from the game that you like the most, or are most proud of due to its complexity or any other reason? I’ve been listening to it a bunch since it hit, and it’s just… such good music to have on while you’re working. Everything flows together so well for me that it feels like one of those albums where it could just be one constant track… Which feels sort of rare when it seems like so much music these days is designed to be a hit single.

JG: Thanks for saying. I think it’s sort of all over the place but it works!? Well, I really like the first track Long Live The Queen only because that was the first thing I did when they asked me to submit a style / direction. It really set the tone for what would follow. It’s short and simple. Old and new. Other faves are ones were JJ took the reigns (sorry but it’s the best word to use!). Something like….Emotional Labor were we would jam out ideas for a direction and sound and JJ would just deliver that! We worked on Planet Coaster together and he’s been in my band for years so there’s a huge amount of trust there. He’s awesome.

TA: When you and JJ work on music like the soundtrack of Reigns, how does the work usually end up getting split between who does what? As someone who has never been in a band, or musical group or anything, the way two people jive together musically has always been mystifying to me.

JG: Like I said, trust goes a long way and when there is so much music to be written we sometimes have to off on our own for a bit and come back with tunes that are pretty much done. I’ll basically would track direct and make some mix adjustments but we never disagreed on what’s best for any given track.

TA: I guess I just need to dive in and have a jam session with someone, maybe I can play the cow bell or something. From the looks of it, you haven’t done any touring since 2011, with the unbelievable reach that mobile games can have now, it’s totally possible that the success of Her Majesty could provide some ridiculous exposure. Any plans on going on the road again to take advantage of that?

JG: The world can always use more cow bell amiright? I think I’ve played live 10 times in the last 5 or 8 years. It’s weird because back in the early days I’d play 100 – 150 shows a year but I slowly fell out of love with playing live. I’d much rather stay home with my wife and cats! But you’re right, I have an unbelievable reach with the games I’ve worked on and still play the odd live show or DJ etc. No plans right now though.

TA: Haha, well, that makes two of us on the whole staying at home front. If you don’t have plans for touring, what about other things that you and JJ might be working on in the future? I assume a vinyl release (or even several limited releases) of the Reigns soundtrack is inevitable, but what about any other projects you’re able to talk about right now?

JG: Yeah, I think I got tired of playing the same songs night after night and I don’t like people looking at me either so here I am – right where you can’t see me! I hope to do some vinyl for Her Majesty (so be on the lookout for that!) As long as I have enough work coming in I think I’ll be doing more with JJ but nothing in the works at the moment. I do however have Below in the works still and another called Grift Lands by Klei. Also working on an animated short and few other indie games too soon to mention!

TA: Oh wow, well I was going to ask what sort of things you do to decompress after a big release like Her Majesty, but I guess the answer is, “Make more music.” Is your slate pretty full right now, or do you still have time for more projects if any developers who loved your work in Reigns wants you onboard?

JG: Yeah, if I stop writing / making music then life becomes pretty joyless so I just keep going! I’m always open to new opportunities because the schedule for any given game can be years so it’s important to keep the feelers out there just in case the work dries up!

TA: Awesome dude, well thank you so much for taking the time on launch day to chat with us. For anyone who wants to get in touch with you, or just listen to your music, what’s the best way to do that?

JG: Ah, thanks to you as well. Love what you guys are doing and I promise I’m going to sub to the Patreon! It’s important you keep going! If anyone wants to hit me up then @jampants on Twitter or good old will do the trick! My music is all available over at Bandcamp. If anyone wants to give JJ Ipsen some love he’s at @JJIpsen on Twitter.

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