With distinct JRPG and anime influences, Garoad (Michael Kelly) brings us an eclectic playlist of retro-synthesized and emotional compositions. A composer who so clearly and passionately puts his heart and soul into every piece, Garoad is on his way to making a big name for himself in the video game music business. I had the great opportunity to interview the creative genius about his work, where we talked about evoking emotions, compositionally refreshing, and the necessity of challenges and persevering.
Thanks for doing this interview! Let’s get right into it! How did you get started in music?
Michael: Well looking at that from the context of video game music, I guess some of my earliest memories of being interested in video game music was when I was a child, and playing Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and hearing the Dark World theme for the first time… That really stood out to me. And later on, the N64 came out, there was Dire Dire Docks from Super Mario that had a big impact, and Wave Race 64 soundtrack… And then later on, through the PS1 and PS2 era, Final Fantasy soundtracks were really big to me. Shin Megami Tensei series was really good, and the Silent Hill series…
I thought I heard some Shoji Meguro in your music!!
Michael: Yeah, he was definitely a huge inspiration for me. I think it was Digital Devil Saga, one of the first games I played that had his music. I was really just intrigued by his mixture of jazzy elements with synthetic elements, and hard rock elements. So that was pretty amazing. I guess when I first started to get into music, I was around 20, 21. I was living in an apartment at the time, and there was this guy that lived on the floor above me, and he composed hip-hop beats for local artists. He was a really friendly guy, and he invited me upstairs to see what he did. At the time, when I thought of composers or musicians, I guess I always pictured these celebrities with an elaborate studio, and an orchestra at their beck and call to perform whatever they wrote! (laughs) So it was kind of mind-blowing to think that this guy was just in his apartment, writing music, and doing a good job at that! So he showed me some basic stuff. He had a simple setup: a couple keyboards, and I believe he was using Reason. So that inspired me to try that out, and start diving into music production.
All right, awesome! So do you have any formal training? Or do you play any instruments?
Michael: Nothing formal. I can play piano rather well, and guitar rather well. Never any formal training. I got a guitar, my first instrument, when I was 14 or 15. I taught myself how to read tablature on summer breaks. I’d go and play video game music by ear. I was a pretty big Metallica fan at the time, too. As far as actual composition goes, I taught myself the notes on the piano and some scales… I would practice playing by ear what would sound good. Then I started looking up how to play songs from the Final Fantasy series, or I guess songs from my favorite composers, on piano. And I guess that kinda taught me how to build a composition, how it’s structured, things of that nature.
All right yeah, so what was the first piece of music you ever composed? What sparked that initial creative burst, and what was the experience like?
Michael: Earlier I mentioned how I got into music from a guy who lived upstairs from me. And at the time, when I started diving into it, it was more of a hobby. And it wasn’t until probably two or three years later… I was browsing YouTube—I want to say this was 2008—and I came across a fanmade piano collection, a bunch of different songs this user on YouTube had written that were inspired by Final Fantasy XIII which hadn’t been released yet. I remember listening to those and I was blown away. I thought to myself, what if I were to pursue that?
So at that point I kinda put the pieces together, combining music with video game elements, and pursuing that. The very first song I wrote was called “Warp Rift”. It was a very, very simple song. It consisted of two seventh chords, just played on a synthetic pad, with an arpeggiated base line, so it was pretty high-energy… Nothing to write home about now though. (laughs) But I felt pretty proud of it at the time, cause the texture of it was what I was looking for. When I started diving into the video game music world, and composition, I was thinking of what style I wanted to approach, and i was looking to get a texture or do something along the lines of what I heard from Hamauzu, Akira Yamaoka, Shoji Meguro, Shinji Hoso, composers like that.
Okay, yeah that ties in with the next question. What, or who, are some of your main influences, whether other musicians or other aspects of your life?
Michael: Well I would definitely say the top influences that I can think of off the top of my head would have to be Kenji Kawai, Akira Yamaoka, Masashi Hamauzu, Shoji Meguro, Shinji Hosoe, and even Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails. What really captivated me about their music was… When I listened to each of those composers, they do this really fantastic job of creating these ethereal, beautiful textures based on the instruments and voicings they use. They always make me feel something when listening.
In fact, I watched an interview with Akira Yamaoka years ago, and he said something that really resonated with me. He said that he felt like the melody was not the most important part of music. The melody definitely can be the most memorable thing in a piece of music, but what’s always stood out to me when I listen to music is the type of mood that a particular piece can evoke or the kinds of textures that a piece has. And all those composers do a really good job of creating these really beautiful, elaborate textures with the music they write.
Yeah, cool. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Michael: Very simple layout. I use Cubase right now. I also use Reason with that. I have a 49-key amp audio keyboard, and then a Les Paul for guitar recordings. So it’s a very simple layout. Very efficient though—works for me. I don’t, at this time, need an elaborate studio or anything.
Okay, so what was the first video game soundtrack you ever wrote? How did you get the position and what was the experience like?
Michael: The first official soundtrack I wrote, which I actually just recently finished up, was the soundtrack to VA-11 HALL-A. It’s actually kind of a funny story. Before we started work on VA-11 HALL-A, there was another visual novel project they were working on. And at the time I was looking for a project to work on, to stay focused. So I reached out to them because I saw their project on Indie DB. It was funny cause when I reached out to them, the artist wrote me back and he told me had been subscribed to my music and had been following my YouTube channel for I think like a year or two. So that was really surprising, and we really hit it off from there. And the VA-11 HALL-A project came up, so we started working on that, and it was a lot of fun!
Okay, so was it just all over email and internet communication? Or did you meet up in person?
Michael: No, those guys are actually based in Venezuela. So all the communication that we’ve had has actually been through email and Skype.
Oh, that’s amazing! Power of technology!! Wow, awesome! Yeah so talk about that soundtrack a little more. What was your compositional process like?
Michael: It was very interesting actually. It got a little surreal. When I was practicing my compositions, I used to get a lot of flak, because my approach to music was a lot of retro synthesizers, and Japanese influences. I used to have a couple buddies who said “You’re never going to get a project to work on, here in the states!” (laughs) Completely different style… So when this project came up, it was kinda like a dream come true. I was like wow, this is amazing! So I was extremely excited to write in a style that was very influential to me, as far as music goes.
Another thing that helped out in the process of writing for VA-11 HALL-A was the fact that I was pretty much given complete creative freedom. So that was amazing… The artist, writer, and programmer had enjoyed my music, and they trusted me to handle the soundtrack and do what was best for that. So having that creative freedom gave me a lot of room to try new things, experiment…
It was also a little tricky as well, I knew the general concept of the game, like the setting, the story, and the main character’s situation… However, I wasn’t given the details of how that story was gonna play out. So when I was actually writing the compositions, I had to write with what would be just some general music people would like to hear as they’re playing along with the game. And then also I had to think outside the box, and think of different concepts of a track that would possibly evoke a good mood, and this situation with that situation… Basically making the album a concept in itself and telling a story through that. So it was a lot of concept work mixed with generally writing songs that would be enjoyable to listen to.
All right. So if you had to pick one composition of yours that you’re most proud of, which one would it be?
Michael: Oh wow, that’s a tough one. That’s like asking which one is your favorite kid! (laughs) Um… I would say… There’s… Oh wow.
Okay, how about a few, if you have two or three. (laughs)
Michael: Yeah, looking at VA-11 HALL-A, I think one of the ones I was most particularly proud of was the song titled “Believe in Me Who Believes in You”. It was just one of those songs that resonated with me, and was very enjoyable to write.
More recently, I would say a track I feel very proud of writing was a track called “To The Sky”. That was part of an album called “Blue”, which was separate from VA-11 HALL-A. I was really trying a lot of new things, experimenting, and I felt that track came out very well from the process of experimenting and stepping outside of my comfort zone. So I was very proud of how that track turned out. I would definitely say that’s one of the more recent tracks I’ve done that stands out to me.
Oh yeah, so I checked out that album “Blue”. Was it for anything in particular?
Michael: Not anything in particular… When I was writing the soundtrack for VA-11 HALL-A—which was a beast in and of itself, there were so many songs—I would try to give myself a bit of a palate cleanser, kind of step away from that style, and experiment and try new things to refresh and do something different. When I finished VA-11 HALL-A, I had a few ideas that had come up during that process, so I wanted to jump into that and explore that a little more. And that’s what came out as “Blue”.
Okay, nice. All right, so besides looping, what do you think are some of the main differences between video game soundtracks and other kinds of music, especially your own compositions?
Michael: Hm, that’s a good question. One of the things I suppose stands out to me, in regard to video game music, is that it feels like there’s so much more freedom in creativity and trying out experimental things than maybe you would have when writing a standard score for your AAA movie or whatnot. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there’s a lot more room for imagination, playing around with textures, combining synthetic elements with orchestral elements, that you may not hear in other genres.
When I think about video game music too… I think a lot of people who aren’t really well-versed or know much about video game music, when you try and talk to them about it, I think they automatically revert and think back to the Super Mario theme, and I think that’s what they think all video game music is.
Yeah, definitely. (laughs)
Michael: That’s not to take away from the Super Mario theme at all—that’s absolutely iconic! But you know, the video game music world has evolved so much, and there’s so many things you can do with the technology now.
Yeah. So what major challenges have you faced while writing for video games, and how did you overcome those obstacles?
Michael: That’s a great question. One of the biggest challenges, I think, when it comes to writing music in general, is letting go of being a perfectionist. There were times when I was writing the VA-11 HALL-A soundtrack, where I would have a track just sit, unfinished, for months at a time. I would go back and listen to it, and try to think to myself… What do I want to add to it, do I want to take things away, where do I want it to go? I think what can be one of the most challenging aspects—not just myself but I’ve seen it from other composers as well—is holding back a piece or not making progress because you’re thinking about it too much, and you’re trying to make the composition absolutely perfect. So I think the habit of perfectionism getting in the way of progress would be one of the biggest challenges.
Okay. So do you deal with that by just saying “Okay, it’s done. This is as good as it’ll be!” (laughs)
Michael: Believe it or not, yeah. Sometimes I actually have to make myself do that. And that’s not a result of a deadline or timeframe or anything like that. Each composition I go to, I try to make it the absolute best it can be. I’ve never believed in tossing some elements into a composition and calling it a day. Every single composition for every project I’ve ever written, I’ve wanted it to stand out and have its own personality. But I think there comes a point where you have to realize, enough is enough! Let’s do this and finally write the track up. I’ve never really had the time constraints and restrictions—I haven’t experienced that kind of pressure yet. So I think that I would get complacent and leave a track unfinished for a long time due to a lack of urgency, and not really get that drive to sit down and finish the track up within the next few days.
Yeah. Okay, so what’s one of your main goals or aspirations as a composer? Do you have any specific projects or people you dream of working with?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. There are a couple projects in particular that are in early development now, that I’ve reached out to and expressed interest in. So fingers crossed that all will go well there! When I think about goals for myself as a video game composer, or what I would ideally like to see, obviously I would want to make an impact on the video game music scene, in a way that Uematsu or Hamauzu, composers like that, have in the past. When I say that, I’m not trying to entertain the thought that I’m on the same level or playing field at all! (laughs) But that would ideally be what I would like to achieve in the future, as far as video game music compositions go. A primary goal with my music is to also evoke deep feelings from those who listen and provide encouragement and inspiration. The main themes with the music written for VA-11 HALL-A were about struggle, hope, and perseverance. Really, I want to create music that can heal.
Oh wow. Okay, great. So which compositions of yours, video game music or otherwise, was the most different from your other works, and what did you learn from writing that piece?
Michael: Hm, that’s a great question too… Again, I guess I’d have to go back to some of the works I wrote on “Blue”. For so long, with VA-11 HALL-A and whatnot, I was always writing in the Sega Saturn, PS1, PS2, heavy synthesizer, jazzy kind of feel. So stepping outside a little bit, and experimenting with more orchestral elements, and mixing that with synthetic elements, was a great learning experience for me. I think it helped me understand a little more how orchestration is pieced together.
I think it also helped me realize that it’s okay to step outside the comfort zone at times, and try new things. That’s very important to grow as an artist. I think for a while I was worried, because I was writing in the same style for so long—especially with all the tracks for VA-11 HALL-A—that I was maybe falling into a little bit of monotony and tunnel vision. You know, I would catch myself going to the same chords or the same kind of progressions, or the same structure as the other ones. I was worried that I was falling in that line of complacency. So being able to step outside that, and try something new, and learn from that, I think was very important to help me continue to grow.
Yeah, awesome. So outside of video games and video game music, what other sorts of activities or hobbies do you spend your time doing?
Michael: I’m a little bit of a health nut. I’ve been going to the gym a lot. And, you’ll probably think I’m weird, I always get strange looks about this. But I’m kind of a night owl, and I love to jog. But I don’t jog in typical hours, I’ll usually wait around til 2 AM or 3 AM, and I’ll go outside and just jog two or three miles or so. People ask me why I do that, and there’s something very cathartic about it being night, very quiet, it’s very peaceful outside, that solitude to think to myself and be alone for a little while. Other activities other than that… Nothing, really. Kind of a boring guy. (laughs) Video game music, trying to stay healthy, exercise when I have the free time to do so.
Yeah, that’s good. (laughs) So now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready?
Michael: Hit me!
Favorite arcade game!
Michael: Marvel vs. Capcom 2.
Favorite dungeon in any video game!
Michael: Not the water dungeon! (laughs) Let me see… I’m going to say… Let’s go with the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time.
Oh, I love that one! Pick one: magic, physical strength, or defense!
Favorite mystical creature or animal in a video game!
Michael: Off the top of my head, I gotta say Conker, from Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
Okay, if you could live in any video game world for a week, which world would you choose?
Michael: Hm! I would say Final Fantasy X.
If you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would it be?
Michael: Vergil, from Devil May Cry 3.
If you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you choose?
Michael: Oh, gotta go with guitar!
(laughs) All right, favorite battle cry or special attack quote!
Michael: Oh man… “Hadouken!!” from the Street Fighter series!
All right, awesome. End of rapid-fire questions! (laughs) Okay, so what are some of your future plans? What are you working on at the moment?
Michael: Well right now, after writing VA-11 HALL-A and “Blue”, I feel like at this time I’ve gotten a lot of the musical ideas out that I needed to get out, and said what I needed to say, recently. Right now, I’ve taken a lot of time to just sit back, try new things, and hone my craft. There’s a lot of different things that I want to try to learn, as well as improve on what I can already do.
Okay, nice! That’s all the questions I have! Do you have any final thoughts, parting words?
Michael: Thank you, for giving me the time and interviewing me today. I would say, as far as final thoughts, if there are any other composers, or aspiring composers, reading this… I would definitely say that one thing I’ve learned from music, is to practice, practice, practice, and learn what you can, but when it comes time to actually write something, try to forget about all that. One of the most important things you can do when approaching the music process is to write to evoke a feeling. Write what you feel, and not necessarily what you’ve been taught. That takes care of itself subconsciously. I would also say, if you’re feeling particularly discouraged, don’t let that stop you from doing what you want to do. In any case, whether it be video game music, or whatever your passion or dream might be, if you’re feeling discouraged, understand that that’s part of the process and it’s necessary for growth. If you’re not feeling discouraged, then you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re not stepping outside of your comfort zone. Keep at it!
Yeah, definitely. Thank you so much!
Beautiful supplementary photos courtesy of Gigi Lo.