With compositional influences in orchestral music and EDM, Brandon Lau has a solid grasp and mastery of both genres, among others. Check out my interview with the easy-going and amicable composer, where we had an interesting discussion, talking about discovering a composer’s power over an audience, unexpected mutual influential of seemingly contrasting musical genres, and musical inertia.
How did you get started in music? Did you have any formal training?
Brandon: It’s kind of long-ish story… I started playing piano when I was four. It was kind of cool, my mom didn’t really have to force me to practice, but I didn’t really see it as a potential career or anything—it was completely just a side hobby. I did it for fun. I performed in recitals and that kind of thing. Slowly I picked up more instruments… I played violin later, then saxophone, then drums, bass, and I got into more and more stuff. But all of this was just a side hobby. What I really wanted to do was be a chemist when I grew up.
So actually, my first choice university was Johns Hopkins. I applied there, early decision, and was unfortunately rejected. So I was sad about that, and started looking for other options for universities. And that’s when I discovered Berklee College of Music. I was completely unaware that there was a college that was not a conservatory style, but focused on more modern, contemporary music. They had not only classical, but all these other different types of musical genres: jazz, EDM, rock, metal… So I started researching the university.
At the same time, I started watching all these movies that were coming out, like Iron Man, Avengers… I watched Iron Man 3, and I thought wow, that was a good movie. And some time later on, I had a friend show me the soundtrack, and I got that exact same feeling as when I was watching the movie, despite not seeing the picture. So that’s when I finally discovered how much power a film score composer has over what the audience feels in a movie. And I really, really liked that.
So that, combined with discovering Berklee, and how I could major in film scoring at Berklee, I was completely enthralled by the idea. So that’s how I’m here now, at Berklee.
Okay, awesome. So what was the very first piece of music you composed? And what made you want to write music?
Brandon: I remember when I was younger, I used to always… “Compose” these piano pieces. They were just honestly… Two bars, three bars of some random chords and melodies. I don’t exactly remember, because they were far back and somewhat insignificant. But my first piece that I actually recall composing, and what started my compositional career, was an EDM piece called “Warlock”. I made that with Logic IX. I started listening to EDM when I was in high school. When I was playing around with some of the pre-sets in Logic, I noticed wow, this sounds a lot like this piece, or this one reminds me of this piece. So I tried taking the pre-sets and putting elements into my own song, and that’s how my first composition evolved.
Okay, that ties in with the next question. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Brandon: I do still really like to use Logic. But now I leave Logic for when I’m doing film scoring—orchestral, or… Anything that’s not EDM. When I am doing EDM, I find Ableton Live to be the fastest and most suitable for that kind of work flow. It’s a lot more intuitive for that type of music. So those are my two go-to softwares. And of course, I use a lot of sample libraries in Kontakt—those are just for my sounds.
All right, so who are some of your main musical influences?
Brandon: My main musical influences… I would say, I listen to three types of music. The first is big, orchestral soundtracks. Iron Man, Inception, Batman…
Hans Zimmer? (laughs)
Brandon: Yeah, Brian Tyler… Transformers… Big sounds. Those artists from that realm have really inspired my soundtracks. Even my EDM, I would sometimes incorporate classical elements into them.
My second branch is actually metal music. Really heavy metal bands with 8-string guitars with low tuning… I really like how they incorporate very complex rhythms—they put a lot of polyrhythmic elements in their music. And I take that from those guys.
And of course, my third inspiration would be the EDM realm, so really hard, heavy-hitting, what they’d called club bangers… Showtek, to name a DJ.
All the music I really like is really heavy, and hard-hitting, powerful… I really like those three genres, and those have really affected how I write my music today.
Okay. And then in terms of life in general, what sorts of things, people, places, objects, etc. inspire your compositions, if there are any?
Brandon: Before, when I was composing music, I was just trying to make it sound professional and musically sound—I wanted to have chords resolve correctly, or have interesting melodies. But these days, I really want to have a theme to my music. I wouldn’t necessarily say any one thing inspires my music, in a place, but I really want to take my listeners to a certain themed world. Right now, I’m currently writing an EDM piece, called… I don’t know what to call it yet, but it’s like an Amazon theme, I have some rain in the background, and tiger sounds… Every time I write a piece now, I feel like I want to have a theme. That would inspire me, something very unique. When my audience listens to my song, they would know they’re in this environment.
Yeah, like kinda transporting them.
Cool! So what was the first video game soundtrack that you ever wrote?
Brandon: There are so many universities in the Boston community. And one thing that we do is have game jams. Well I’m sure you already know, but I’ll just say… Game jams are these events that are 48 hours in total. And within these 48 hours, people come together and make a game in 48 hours. So I worked with a couple people from Northeastern and MassArt, and we created this game. It’s like a card game. They made it for Oculus Rift, so you can use your hand to move the cards and stuff, and you can see everything going on. It’s very, very cool!
But, unfortunately it was just a game jam, and I think the developer didn’t want to necessarily pursue the idea. He wanted to make it more of a table-top game. But while it lasted in the electronic realm, another Berklee student and I did the audio for the game. I wrote three pieces.
The first was the menu theme. It’s an ambient-sounding piece that’s a little bit creepy too. The setting of the card game was like the four elements, outside, embodying nature. It was kind of a creepy, very toned down piece, kinda ominous. And there was a battle theme, which was more upbeat, had raw EDM elements—a heavier, interesting theme when you’re in the gameplay. And the third piece was a victory piece, like da-da-da-DA-da! (laughs) We didn’t have time to do losing music—we only had 48 hours. But in that amount of time, I made those soundtracks for that game.
Okay, so this is a bit of a detour, but for those game jams, do you just meet together, then talk about it, then split up and work separately? Or do you like all have your laptops, and your headphones, around the table…
Brandon: It’s very interesting. I would say there are lots of different types of game jams. There are worldwide game jams, where everyone would be at their own place, and they communicate online. But there are also local game jams, like mine. Everyone’s in Boston, so we all met up in the Northeastern library. It was flexible and up to your team whether or not you wanted to meet up together or not. For my team specifically, I did the first 24 hours on my own. And then when the deadline was coming up, I met with the team so I could get instant feedback on my music. Then we met together at the library, where we could showcase it at the end.
Okay, interesting. So back to your EDM… You already talked about how you got into that genre, but how do you think your EDM compositions affect your acoustic or orchestral music, and vice versa? How do the different genres affect each other?
Brandon: So, I really thought that I had two different minds at first: my EDM mind and orchestral mind. But as I was showing some students at Berklee my compositions for my orchestral pieces, they said “Oh, it’s very inspired by EDM!” And I was like, that’s very strange, I never noticed that… That I would have my EDM push over into my orchestral music, and vice versa. But I think harmonically, my EDM really influences my orchestral music, because in the EDM I write, I really like to use Phrygian mode, the flat two, flat three… I really like that kind of sound. And using the tonic and flat two alternating, da-da-da-da… And I guess a lot of that goes into my orchestral music, and I didn’t even realize it!
Interesting! So what is your compositional process like? How do you usually go about writing a new piece?
Brandon: So generally, I have my best compositions come out when I’m just doodling on the piano. That really helps get some of my ideas out. What I usually do is, in my free time… I’m not even trying to compose something, but I would just play on the piano, and if I improvise something that sounds great, I would record it. I wouldn’t build on that idea until later. Instead I would keep playing at the piano, keep coming up with more riffs, more licks, and recording them. And eventually, I have my own personal library. And when I’m trying to compose a song, I would go back to my recordings, and listen to it, and ask which one should I pick out, which one should I choose? And after that, I’d orchestrate the elements, and develop the ideas. That’s how it starts.
All right, awesome. So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced and were able to overcome while composing?
Brandon: So this is related to my film compositions. I find that I have a very heavy inertia when I’m writing music. So if I write something that I’m really proud of, and I show the director, “Oh this is the piece that I wrote, I think it really fits the scene!” and then they say they don’t like it, it’s too happy, it’s too sad, they get this weird emotion from it… It’s very hard for me to think of a new idea, to think of another thing that would work in the scene, something that fits what the director wants more. So how I overcome this is to have another composer help me. In the sense of… Not having them write it for me! (laughs) But just to see like, what do you think is wrong, why do you think the director thinks this about my music? And usually the composer is able to critique my music in a more detailed manner. And by their critique, I can then think oh, that’s what I was doing wrong, and then I can go back and correct that.
Oh okay, so by “other composer” do you mean your classmates, professors?
Brandon: I usually mean my classmates, but sometimes I would ask other people, like professors or friends.
Okay, interesting. Yeah, that’s great. So what is one of your main aspirations or goals as a composer? Do you have any particular projects or people you’d like to work with someday?
Brandon: Hmm… So I have a few. I have a few record labels that I would really like my EDM to be featured on. One of these is Enhanced. I really like their sound—it’s very big, and professional. Also… I played most of my games on the computer. Growing up I didn’t really have any consoles to play on, because my mother didn’t believe in consoles. (laughs) So I had most of my games on the computer. One of the games that I really liked the music to—and I just love this game in general—is Dota 2. I would really love to work with the Dota 2 team eventually, on some kind of music. I really like the current music, and I really like the game. So those are some of my aspirations.
Yeah. Okay, so besides looping, what do you think are some of the key differences between video game music and other kinds of music, like film scores?
Brandon: I think in film music, it’s all drawing up to a particular moment, setting up for something. Now it’s easier to do this visually! Film music is more vertical [makes a diagonal line with arm], video game music is more horizontal. You’re just kinda supporting it from the bottom up, in a horizontal fashion. It’s very hard for me to explain verbally. But I think you’re supporting a general mood rather than a certain event, most of the time.
Other than that, I think it’s quite similar to film music. Several friends have asked me “Oh is that a film soundtrack?” when it was actually a video game soundtrack, and vice versa.
Okay, so aside from music, what other sorts of hobbies and activities do you spend your time doing?
Brandon: It’s very funny, because people ask this sometimes at Berklee, what do you do besides music? And most kids just say “Oh, nothing. My entire life is music.” (laughs) But now that I’m thinking about it… I don’t know, what do I do besides music!? I have no idea what I do besides music. (laughs) It’s kind of sad now that I think about it. I really like running. I was running competitively for a while, but I’m in college now, and I don’t have time to be running competitively!! (laughs) So I do like long-distance leisure running. Hmm what else do I like to do… I mean of course I hang out with friends and that kind of thing. But I do spend a lot of time practicing, composing, researching about music, looking up music on YouTube. There’s a lot of different activities related to music. But when I’m not doing that, I like running, playing video games…
Oh, what’s your day job, if you don’t mind my asking?
Brandon: Oh, of course not. Well I’m still in college, but while I’m spending my time here in Shanghai, I’m working with a studio. They are kind of an advertisement, TV show, documentary type of studio. They don’t do movies, but other kinds of media, like commercials, promotional videos, that kind of thing. So I go to their office, and any time they need music, any kind of sound design, audio effect, editing… I help them with that.
Oh, interesting. How did you get that job?
Brandon: I found them on LinkedIn. I emailed them, and sent them my portfolio. Then they called me for an interview. And… That’s pretty much it. (laughs)
Sounds pretty standard!
Brandon: Yeah, there’s no very interesting story around that, besides maybe the fact that I was rejected from several places before that. So this is not my first… It wasn’t easy, getting an internship here.
Yeah, that’s also pretty standard. (laughs) All right, so I have a list of rapid-fire questions now! Give short answers as quickly as possible! You ready?
All right, favorite arcade game!
Brandon: It has to be Tetris.
Favorite battle theme!
Brandon: Definitely Super Smash Bros., Final Destination.
Okay, favorite Pokémon!
Woo! If you could live in any video game world for a week, which world would you choose?
Brandon: Oh, no… Oh god… Let’s do Starcraft!
Pick one: magic, defense, or physical strength?
Brandon: Magic, always.
Favorite time signature!
I was going to say favorite church mode, but you already said phrygian… (laughs) If you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would it be?
Brandon: Shadow, from sonic the hedgehog.
Okay, if you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which one would it be?
Brandon: Oh dear… Clarinet? I don’t know, kids in my band class always held them up like they were weapons.
(laughs) All right, end of rapid-fire questions!
Brandon: All right, all right. Whew!
Okay, so what are some of your future plans? What are you working on right now?
Brandon: Right now, I’m studying at Berklee College of Music. And I will be finishing four years of that. Afterwards, I feel like I really want to go to USC film scoring school. But as it stands now, financially, that may or may not be possible. Eventually I still want to move to L.A. People have been telling me that L.A. is the be-all end-all when it comes to film scoring and video game scoring… I want to go there, and work my way up. But at the same time, I really want to continue doing my EDM. I really want to get better at that, and hopefully sign to some bigger labels. And yeah, just continue to improve in any way possible. Looking back, I see that I’ve already improved a lot since several years ago, but I really hope to be improving at a similar rate or even faster rate in the future.
Awesome. So those are all the questions I have. Do you have any final thoughts?
Brandon: No, that’s it from me!
Okay, thank you!
Check out Brandon’s awesome EDM on soundcloud.
Beautiful supplementary photos courtesy of Rebecca Zheng.