Interview with Matt
Performed by Jazzcat.
Needing little introduction, Matt Gray was a music producer
from back in the 1980s. One of his most famous soundtracks was for the
legendary Last Ninja 2 by System 3, which was released in 1988. He has been described as one of the musicians that defined the
sound of original chip music. Some trademarks of his music include arpeggios,
slappy bass and heavy drums.
Vandalism News is very proud to present to you the legend, please welcome Mr Matt GrayÖ
Welcome to the magazine and thank you for your time. Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Well, Iím a musician, composer and producer from the UK. Iíve been making music since 1984, first on basic synths then the mighty SID and after that from the early 1990Ďs within the studio environment producing dance and pop records. I live with my partner Clare and our three children in Kent, so thereís rarely time for outside interests. On those rare occasions Iíll catch up on movies and TV. I love serious music documentaries and great comedy.
Can you give us some background on your musical experience? How did it all start, do you have family members with musical backgrounds?
I was introduced to music very early on in life, mainly through my dadís great record collection. He was a part time club DJ in the early 70ís, but he had records across all genres of music. He was also a big Clint Eastwood fan and had many of the Ennio Morricone western soundtracks. Basically from about 3 years of age I spent most of the day playing this record collection until I got dumped at school. I think I was lucky to be growing up through a great period in music. The late 70ís were a huge influence, the first single I ever bought for myself was Heart of Glass by Blondie and I remember saving for weeks just to buy the album Parallel Lines. And of course shortly after I was totally blown away by Are Friends Electric by Tubeway Army followed by Cars. 1979 was a brilliant year for music. I was also into Sparks when they were produced by Giorgio Moroder and Computer World by Kraftwerk was incredible at the time. It still is, but at that time it was so revolutionary, a pioneering album.
The 80ís were obviously ground-breaking and along with the emergence of video I got more and more into film scores as well as everything that was happening in the charts. It wonít surprise anyone that seeing Halloween along with John Carpenterís iconic score was a big influence and so many films in that period had great innovative scores. A lot of these were horror films, but not always. From Italian horror to Blade Runner they all had a big impact. When home computers first came along they grabbed my attention, but it wasnít until I heard Ghostbusters on the 64 that I became interested in the SID. And when I heard the music Hubbard and Galway were doing I was hooked.
Did you ever try code or graphics?
I only ever really learnt to code in order to do music. I never harboured ambitions to make games or get sprites moving round the screen. For my computer studies class at school, I programmed the BBC machines we were using to play Galwayís loading tune from Rambo. But it wasnít until about 3 years later that I made a big concerted effort to write a SID player in 6502.
How did you learn to code your player and improve it?
I had to learn 6502 fast and the only way for me was by reading books and disassembling others code. Piece by piece things fell into place and I built up my player and revised it quite a few times before I was happy with it. Initially, like others I didnít use the filters because they often sounded very different on another machine, but eventually I simply had to just to move the sound on.
I remember writing my code out with pen and paper, planning it before I even had an assembler. It was during a meeting with David & Richard Darling at Codemasters one day that I realised I had to learn 6502 and not rely on a third party player. They basically told me that I simply wouldnít get very far in the industry without that string to my bow. I met David & Richard very early on at computer show that my Dad had taken me to. They had not long set Codemasters up and were very helpful and it was great to go back to them a couple of years later and actually get commissioned to write some tunes for their games. In fact that was the great thing about the industry in general then. Everyone was always willing to help and give some time to pointing you in the right direction.
Would you ever consider doing a one off, new SID composition as maybe part of the Kickstarter campaign if you hit a particular target? And are you familiar with the more recent PC-tools for making C64-music?
New SIDís are definitely on the cards for the campaign. Iím digging out my old source code to carry on where I left off, hopefully. I am getting to see and hear the more recent tools, but everyone had their own player for a reason. A SID composerís player is like a brand of guitar. It will basically be the same as other guitars, but it will have its own character.
Are there C64 tunes still out there which you have composed which haven't yet been preserved in the likes of HVSC?
Not that I can remember. There were a few that were wrongly credited to me or maybe someone else such as Mean Streak and Yogi Bear, but no the HVSC is pretty comprehensive on my stuff.
What is your own personal favourite C64 tune by a) yourself and b) another artist?
Thatís tricky. For myself itís probably Central Park in game LN2, simply because it seems to have become the calling card for that game. Iím also very fond of the in game Sewers track for the same game.
By another artist can I have two? Galwayís loader for Rambo is probably just about my favourite SID track. Martinís lead lines were always so brilliantly composed and executed. The main melody after the toms in that track is incredible, in fact from there on the track is awesome. The chords are emotional, the arrangement is great. Itís just superb. Martin obviously sacrificed drums for more channels, but it didnít matter because he knew the power was in the melody, chords and sounds rather than the beat.
Rob Hubbard produced so many amazing tunes itís difficult to pick one, but for me loading up Sanxion from tape for the first time was pretty special. I think that one track had the biggest influence on my sound for LN2, certainly I referenced it for Bangkok Knights loader. They had asked me to do my best Rob impression, heíd already done the in game tune, so I emulated that style of fast bass line with a small hat on each note. That was all one channel, but it was a good way to get some extra rhythmical or drum element in without taking a whole channel up. Sanxion loader has everything, great arrangement, great chords, cool drums and fantastic lead lines and sound design. Itís 10/10 on the SID for me.
I know you are following current SID-musicians, does this mean you have a wider interest in the on goings of the C64 "scene"?
Well itís only been in the last couple of years that I realised the scene still existed. The record industry demands so much time from me that I wasnít aware of its re-emergence.
When I basically stopped programming in late 90, I wasnít sure where the games industry was going. The Amiga never grabbed my attention really. Itís crazy to think now that I actually probably thought the games market was fading away, when in fact the exact opposite was happening. Iím still not quite sure why I thought that then, but hey itís all easy in hindsight. But yes, I am aware of some of the current SID composers and I like some of what I hear. I mean Lukhash for example is very good.
The C64 has come a long way since your last composition, what do you think of the various developments in the Demo/Game/SID scene since you've gone?
As I say, itís only fairly recently Iíve realised how big a scene it is again so I havenít got a huge grasp of the more recent crop of composers.
I do think that in general the games soundtracks have become very much like big movie scores, playing it by the numbers and no real innovation or emotion. The most memorable games soundtracks these days tend to be licensed material from the record industry. Thatís a shame, because the great thing about SID soundtracks were their impact on the games overall atmosphere. Sometimes the best thing about the game was the music. That doesnít seem to happen much anymore.
Did you ever chat with the other musicians at the time like Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway and share ideas?
I spoke to Rob on the phone several times in 87. I used to phone from the office where I worked at lunchtime when the bosses were out, because it wasnít cheap phoning Newcastle in those days. He was always very helpful and it was around that time he was talking about going to the states. I was interested in licensing his player but he didnít seem that keen. Still, little did I know how I was about to benefit from his departure when Iíd developed my own player.
Iíve never met or spoken to Martin, but I have tremendous respect for his work. Heís clearly a great musician as was Rob.
Can you recall where you sought inspiration for your SID-music? Any specifics?
Well inspiration mostly came from whatever I was into at the time. There are a few tracks on LN2 that have a dance music influence and thatís because it was early 88 and sample tracks were becoming big news. Sometimes I did hit a brick wall and had to resort to more than just inspiration, as clearly had others before. I probably wasnít as subtle as some others, though I always tried to take it somewhere else rather than just copy. I know both Martin & Rob had to ďresortĒ to cover versions sometimes.
Was the outcome of what happened with Deliverance (and I assume Maze Mania?) of non-payment from Hewson what caused you to move on from the C64 onto pastures new?
It was just the way things panned out. I think it was probably just Maze Mania actually, though Iím not totally certain. It wasnít a huge sum, but it just seemed to help push me into something new. System 3 effectively dropped me in favour of Maniacs Of Noise, who by the way I thought were very good, and it all seemed as if maybe Iíd done all I could with the SID for now. I actually had to take on a full time job as an operator but on a shift basis so that I could still do music. By then I was freelancing and working mainly for Codemasters on my days off, but my heart wasnít really in it anymore. Throw in the pull of affordable synths and samplers and the explosion of dance music and it was clear to me what route I should be taking.
It may just be a coincidence, but from 2:48 - 3:19 the Tusker melody sounds identical to a title song in a movie called "Zombie Flesheaters" from 1979 by Lucio Fulci.
Itís no coincidence. I had the 12ths rhythm track for Tusker and that melody fitted perfectly so I borrowed it. It does go into something completely original after though. I loved that movie, the atmosphere in that film was spell binding. Yes the acting is rubbish, but the film looks and sounds amazing. I was appalled to hear the guy who ran the video distributers for it in the UK was sent to prison under the video nasties act just for putting it out on video. Could you imagine that happening today?
On Bangkok Knights what was the reasoning behind having both you and Rob Hubbard doing the music?
I think it was purely down to Rob going to the states and they needed a loading tune and quick. I donít think it was by design.
During your time on the 64 you written many great tracks for some of the best games like Last Ninja 2, was there a game that you would have loved to written the music for?
Well there are certainly other game soundtracks I wish Iíd been responsible for such as Rambo First Blood Part 2, Sanxion, Parallax and Arkanoid.
Did you ever realise that Last Ninja 2, sub-tune 3 was ripped off by Anastacia for "I'm Outta Love"?
Well itís the same chord progression, but I wouldnít call it a rip off. If theyíd used my melody lines then that would have been a lift. Unfortunately they didnít.
How often did someone ask you to specifically make a tune that sounded like another?
Very few really. I was lucky in that I was pretty much allowed to do what I saw fit for a project.
If you had a choice, which of your tunes would you redo?
Oh quite a few. Probably not the whole tune, but areas of arrangement and production that to me now seem either amateurish or uninspired. I think 25 years in the record business has given me experience that I could really have benefitted from back then, but hey thatís a big reason why Iím remaking them now.
How many tunes do you think you have completed and which one did you spend the longest time working on?
I probably only completed about 40 SID tunes maybe 50. It was quite a short period of time really late 86 until early 91. The longest time on one track was Driller partly because it was so long in itself, but also Iíd started it a few days before the 87 hurricane struck and wiped out my power for 2 weeks.
Robin Levy wanted me to ask you, can you please, please, please do a modern and extended version of Driller? (Love that tune)
Donít worry Robin. It will happen for the album project.
A typical day in the life of Matt Gray back in the dayÖ
In 1988 it was pretty much an open book for me. I preferred working at night, like a lot of musicians I suppose, so the days were actually pretty boring. All my friends were at work in the day, so I spent most of the time watching films, listening to music, washing the car. And I pretty much went out every evening for a drink, but come 11.15 Iíd be home ready to work often until 3 or 4am. Obviously there were some days where I did code in the day or plan things out or went to meetings etc., but about 75% of the time I worked at night.
Who was the nicest pop star you met? Who was the least nice?
Ah, thatís tricky Ďcos so many of them were very nice, at least to me anyway. Neil & Chris from The Pet Shop Boys are great guys to be around, Phil Oakey was a real gent as was Johnny Marr. Kylie is not only a very nice person, but probably one of the most professional singers Iíve worked with. Itís too hard to pick any one person Alesha Dixon, Kimberly and Cheryl from GA were all cool with me amongst many others.
I couldnít comment on the least nice. Itís a small world!
What do you think of the pop industry these days?
I think itís been turned on its head in respect of breaking trends and innovation. It used to be new artists who paved the way for changes in what was ďinĒ, but now it seems to be only big brand name artists who can move the game and usually in their favour.
As a songwriter itís a tough game to be in unless youíre also an artist selling tickets for gigs. There are generally only a handful of really successful songs released each year, I mean songs that actually make money, and unless youíre a writer on one of those youíre not going to be making the sort of income that perhaps you might have before physical record sales fell through the floor. Streaming and file sharing has decimated income for songwriters of anything but a super worldwide hit song.
Throw in the terrible conversion rate of new signings by record labels into acts that actually make a profit and youíve got a similar situation that presides over the world in general. The gap between the top and the bottom is ever widening and the middle just doesnít cut it anymore.
But apart from all that it still throws up musical gems every now and then.
Do you have any funny stories about System 3? Donít hold back, we want to know it all!
Well there was a bizarre episode when I arrived at their offices in Hampstead one afternoon. Their building was opposite the hospital so it was very strict on parking. When I pulled up in my car, I saw Markís red Ferrari parked outside in the street so I parked my little XR2 behind his. Five minutes into me entering the offices someone shouted that Markís car was being lifted onto a tow truck by traffic officers. He ran down and promptly jumped into his car as it was about 18 inches off the ground and refused to get out until they put it down. All the while he was on his mobile to his lawyer with a crowd of onlookers looking bemused as the police tried to intervene as Mark sat hovering in his car like Marty McFly in a Delorean. Meanwhile I managed to move my car quick enough so as to avoid a ticket myself. Luckily in a choice between a Ferrari and an XR2, traffic wardens will always go for the big fish.
Mark Cale and the Twister dancers, 20 September 1985
System 3 Ė there have been many stories about Mark, payments to producers (and some not receiving what was due), the notorious stand incident at the PCW 1985 show in Olympia Exhibition Hall etc. From what I know, you had no issues with Mark Cale, what was he like to work with and can you describe some of the other personalities working in System 3 during that time?
I always got on well with Mark and we never had a crossed word, other than maybe the last time we spoke, but even then that was nothing too confrontational. To me System 3 represented the best of the C64 games world and it was a privilege to work for them. I think we parted ways because we were both going through significant changes. They seemed to have a bit of an exodus of programmers, etc. in 89 and I was starting to get a bit tired with the tools at my disposal (sorry SID). No disrespect to those who followed, but the team working on Last Ninja 2 probably was the best Mark ever had in place on the 64. Everyone was in the zone on that game, nobody was thinking why arenít so & so pulling their weight here? Mark had that quality about him that just impressed other people, you could tell this guy was a winner. And he also had the great asset of being able to put total strangers together in a team and get top results without cracking a bloody great whip over them.
After your C64 journey finished in 1990, what happened for you in terms of life style, family and music?
91 - 95 was tough, no question. I was submerged in the lower ranks of the record industry, putting out white label dance records on one hand and trying to break into mainstream pop on the other. There were long periods of being skint. I bought some music equipment, a 16 bit sampler, a Yamaha TG500 and some new monitors. With that basic set up I was able to turn out some rough but well received dance tracks. On the back of that I formed Motiv8 with Steve Rodway who had his own studio in my home town and we basically just got by until late 93 when I decided Iíd had enough of being skint and went and got a full time regular job.
Meanwhile a track we had done together was getting some attention and he went and licensed it behind my back to Warner records for a tidy sum. Obviously after much legal wrangling we eventually sorted out any differences and got back to working together in late 95. Meanwhile another studio client of his, whom I had met once or twice, had started working with him on remixes under the Motiv8 banner and they were getting a lot of airplay on prime time Radio 1 with remixes of bands such as Pulp and St Etienne. That guy was Brian Higgins. So as I came back and there were the three of us were working away, though by then Steve would disappear for days on end leaving myself and Brian to it. Very quickly though Brian wanted to start his own production unit and he left, but heíd wanted me to join him also so a few months later I did and thatís when Xenomania started in early 96. Within just a few years things had taken off for us, but I think many people outside the industry have an inflated view of how much money everybody earns within it. Yes, there are artists and song writers making tidy fortunes, but the vast majority of the workforce within it are earning little more than the national average wage with a cherry on top every now and then.
So whilst Iím better off these days than I was in the early 90ís, like many other people who have been in the industry a long time, Iím certainly not wealthy. What I am rich in these days is close family. My partner Clare and I have three lovely children including a set of twins and like most others in our position we lead a normal but hectic lifestyle. Thankfully headphones are so good these days I can escape every now and then into the world of music. Thanks Dr Dre!
What brought you back to the world of C64 and can you give us some details on the kickstarter box set project and what to expect?
It was Chris Abbott who first suggested a Kickstarter project. Weíd been talking about the possibility of me perhaps doing some games music again and Chris suggested looking at my C64 tracks with a view to updating them. I wasnít really aware of the crowd funding sites at the time, but it looked like it could be a solution to help make the idea happen. The costs involved in taking 6-9 months out to produce such an album worried me initially. I was originally planning to do it part time but I knew it wouldnít get my full attention that way so I sort of put the idea on the backburner for almost a year. Then earlier this summer I realised that if it was going to happen at all Iíd better start the wheels in motion. At that stage I had no idea if there was even a demand for such an album and no real idea what the c64 fans would be expecting. Iím glad to say upon finally putting my head through the door itís been a very warm welcome and a surprising amount of fans waiting for just such a plan. Within 4 days of putting the preview track up on Soundcloud it had received 5,000 plays which is a very encouraging. And the comments from everyone have been amazing, so Iím pretty well flattered to death by it so far.
Are you surprised at the reaction your re-entry got?
Yes, because Iíve been in quite a different scene for such a long time Iíd forgotten how passionate gamers are especially retro gamers. Itís been really great to see how much the music meant to so many people.
You were into CompuNet with quite a few demo tunes released during that time, what were these times like, any trivia you can recall?
Like so many around that time, we weíre using ground breaking technology and basically making it up as we went along. When I first logged onto Compunet I was amazed at this underground culture of c64 users all showcasing their talents either as coders, artists or musicians. Pretty soon I made friends with guys such Graham Hunter, Paul Docherty and Cory Kin. And we swapped ideas and demos always with a view to breaking into the games market. In a lot of ways it was like a training camp for future games developers. Some pretty bizarre things occurred sometimes, because I never knew when that phone was going to ring with an invite to join an unauthorised global phone conference call between C64ers via some unsuspecting US company. The calls always ended with an irate company official telling us we weíre all breaking the law.
Do you have any regrets?
There are things I wished Iíd done differently sure, but by and large things went pretty well then. Looking back I should have been a bit more pro-active socially within the games industry. Working in house or for the same company too long does leave you quite insular and working from home so much only compounds that. Thatís probably why I embraced the rave scene so much because it was about sharing great experiences with others.
Financially I definitely regret not buying a house in the late 80ís. Whilst those were tough times in the mortgage markets with incredible rate changes from month to month, if you bought a house then and sat tight you were going to do very well in the coming years. But thatís all with 20/20 hindsight isnít it? Eventually I bought one, some years later.
You met Mark Cale in a pub in Hamstead, can you describe what happened there and how you felt as a 17 year old?
It was one evening during the week in early November I think. We met at the offices first then went straight to the pub. Iíd been driven up by my mum and she was actually waiting in the car but Mark invited her along to the pub also. We basically had one drink and Mark just asked me how much I wanted for a yearís exclusive contract to System 3. I gave him my figure and my mum says she nearly fell off the chair. He said yes immediately and offered to take us out for dinner straight away to celebrate. We walked down the hill to an Italian restaurant, the food was excellent.
It was really a very kind gesture of Markís to invite my mum, though I suspect he quite fancied her on the quiet. Beyond that I donít really remember much other than it was a great feeling to have seemingly made the leap from office clerk to professional games musician just a year or so into trying. There was only a handful of guys in the country doing this full time and I was now one of them.
Describe the System 3 house in Watford to us, who was there, what was it like, do you recall any funny stories happening in that place?
It was just an ordinary house in a cul de sac. The garage had some arcade machines in and I think John Twiddy was living there, Hugh Riley had his room. The lounge was like the main meeting room, but there were C64ís in every room bar the toilet and kitchen I think. Iím not entirely certain now if everyone was just staying there in the week or actually living there. I only went there a handful of times to discuss the next stages and go through where we were at, but it felt a very productive atmosphere there. Tim Best was always present when I went and Mark was often there, but not all the time. I do remember that sometimes some very loud music was being played all over the place while people were working. Everyone was playing their part very well. I think something got lost a bit when the base moved to the little business park in Pinner. The team changed a lot also which had an effect.
I canít recall any funny stories Iím afraid. I literally only spent 7 or 8 days max at the house in Watford, but they were a great bunch of guys to work with.
I understand some of your tracks for Hewson did not receive payment, which title, what happened?
I actually think it was Deliverance because it was the last thing I did for them. Itís never nice when a firm goes into liquidation and Iím sure it was devastating for them. It hit me harder than perhaps it might have at the time because that was my only source of income and I literally had no other commissioned work on the horizon. Iíd been doing a few tunes for Codemasters and they wanted me to go full time in house, but I didnít want to move to Banbury at the time, even though they had a fantastic base on a converted farm.
Iíve actually met both Andrew Hewson and his son Rob briefly at the premier of From Bedrooms To Billions just the other night. Iím going to produce a remake of a tune from Deliverance towards the soundtrack that accompanies their book Hints & Tips For Videogame Pioneers. So thereís no hard feelings at all. Shit happens in business. Iíve had far worse setbacks in the record industry.
Which skills have you improved most over the years, improvisation? Music theory? Techniques?
I think just general experience is the real strength for me now. Once I started making music using more than one synth I quickly realised there was much more to it. Selecting the right sounds and making them work together is a bit of an art form and whilst Iíve gotten much better at it over the years, you never stop learning. Every new track presents new problems to solve or hurdles to overcome. Experience has helped me solve these puzzles more effectively as times gone on.
Was there any C64 game which you saw released, looked at the game and thought "I could have done that much better!"?
What the actual game? No. But music, yes. Sometimes it was just the melodies were not right for me, but more often Iíd think ďif only theyíd designed better soundsĒ. Iím not going to name names though.
What do you think makes the C64 something that people keep coming back to? Does it hold some special charm?
It canít just be a nostalgic thing. I think because it was such a pioneering period in computer history and things were starting to happen that seemed impossible just a few years before, people remember the astounding reactions they had when they first saw a home computer working on their TV, then one with colour and sound and then came the 64 with not only a proper keyboard but a hidden gem called the SID.
It was a proper synth that you could buy for £150 and it had 3 channels to play with. And then when you heard these amazing arrangements and sounds created by guys like Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway, it just blew you away. I think you had to have an ear for it though. Not everyone likes the SID sound and it was very much a package deal for those of us growing up with it. It was the game and the graphics.
It was all part of the overall experience, even if like me you often never played the game, you just ran it to hear the music. But I think it endures most with us because it was very much ďourĒ thing. Our parents had rock n roll and the Beatles through their teenage years and our older brothers and sisters had punk, new wave or whatever. We had 80ís synth music wall to wall and we had SID music which went hand in hand with that. But it was that computer generations own thing. It was our thing.
So in the same way my dad used to play all his favourite music from when he was a teenager when he was in his forties, fifties, etc. as we approach those same stages in our lives we go back to things from our youth. The SID is just part of that process for those of us who were teenagers in 85-89. Things are cyclic in music. Not only has the SID sound penetrated dance music and pop, the other big new sounds from that same period have re-emerged also. House music of today once again sounds pretty much the same as 25 years ago. Daft Punk had a huge hit with a track that sounded as if it was made almost 30 years ago. People come back to good things, eventually.
What do your friends/family think about you tinkering on an ancient machine like the C64?
Iím not sure really. Iím using an emulator so as far as they see it, Iím just on my Mac - as usual.
Matt Gray - the person
Food: Chinese or Mexican
Drink: White wine (Pinot Grigio or Chablis, if Iím flush) or Diet Coke
Movie: Bladerunner or The Exorcist
TV: The Sopranos or The Office
Books: Here, There & Everywhere by Geoff Emerick or Mick Jaggerís Biography
Music: Parallel Lines by Blondie or Computer World by Kraftwerk
Morning or night person: Night
Thanks for your time and participation Matt, it has been a nice journey down memory lane! Do you have any final words for the readers, the C64 community in general or the Prime Minister?
Just a big thanks in general to the C64 community, especially the SID lovers. The many great messages of thanks Iíve received recently for my c64 work and now the first of hopefully many remakes. The reaction to the 2014 remake of the Central Park Loader theme from LN2 has been amazing and if anyone else wants re-live the rest of my SID tracks as modern day remakes then be sure to support the planned CD box set project when it appears on Kickstarter this autumn.
Reformation Kickstarter Project - http://goo.gl/fSsE3J
Matt Gray on Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/MattGrayC64
Matt Gray on Twitter - https://twitter.com/MattGrayC64