With a splendid collection of wonderfully titled and beautifully arranged pieces, Wesley Gillebaard‘s portfolio on soundcloud is indeed some delicious ear candy! I had an incredibly thought-provoking conversation with the composer/developer, where he shared his ideas about many fascinating topics, including hearing a melody in his dreams, excessively repetitive music, fashion subcultures and their corresponding soundtracks, and using art as a means to give back to the world.
What is your music about? How would you describe it?
Wesley: Good question, I suppose. I grew up with video game music, as you know, so it’s always been what’s dear to my heart, and comes out most easily. When I think of a song that I want to write, I think of an area that I need to compose for: what would happen if this place was full of waterfalls and flowers, or… If they were in a dark cave?
Though I do listen to a lot of video game music, the stuff I really love to listen to is a lot more bossanova, Shibuya-kei… The themes I have going through my head—and I guess you could say rosy and cute things—are probably what comes out. I had an experience about four years ago where I actually attempted to compose an entire video game soundtrack. And I realized, I’m awful at it. I’m just awful. I can compose certain things really well, level themes, certain moods… But once I go outside my comfort zone, I cannot anymore. So where I could do a beach song or a forest theme, when it came to an intense boss theme, or a cutscene… There was nothing there, nothing in my mind for that.
When I get right down into what I can do, it’s just the desire to communicate a mood. Not any specific emotion so much as just to allow people to close their eyes, sit back, and imagine they’re somewhere else. I think the stuff that resonated most with me as a kid were village themes in RPGs. For example, like Legend of Zelda. Things like that, where you can listen to it, and feel like there could be stories going on all around.
Yeah. So how did music first come into your life? Do you have any formal training?
Wesley: I do. I played violin for about 12 years. I started taking lessons… 12 years ago. (laughs) I was home-schooled, and I was taking some courses on classical music, and seeing that I liked it, my mom decided to have me take violin lessons. It was a very good thing—I enjoyed those a lot. But before that, my major musical experiences were for the most part, video game music. And 80’s music that my dad listened to at the time. But it was the former of those that was definitely more influential.
Nice. So what’s the first piece of music you ever composed? And what sparked that initial burst of creativity?
Wesley: That’s actually a pretty funny question… The first piece I ever composed was something I heard in a dream.
Wesley: I used to always have these dreams that were like… I was navigating through my own video game world that I created. Some of them were really cool, and I’ve actually been able to use them in projects that I’ve done. But yeah, the first piece I did was just a theme I heard in my dreams, and I woke up and was like that’s so pretty! And I kinda had that a couple times, where I had the dream and heard it, so I knew what the song sounded like. So I transcribed it, using an ancient midi sequencing program, Anvil Studio—it was an awful program. The song turned out okay. I have a remaster on my soundcloud—The Dusty Attic.
I have an ancient midi version too, but it’s really bad. I didn’t really have a good idea of meter, so I had a couple parts that just cut to a new section in the middle of a measure. (laughs) It didn’t take me long to realize that that was very bad—a month later I came back and was like this is embarrassing!
Wesley: But after that, my second song was honestly one of my favorite ones I’ve ever done. I don’t have it uploaded anywhere, cause it’s just a midi. But it was a snowy theme—I called it “Heaven’s Diamonds”. I’ve never been able to remaster it in a way that I’m pleased with. Someday, I’ll upload that second song!
One day! (laughs) So which composition are you most proud of, if you could pick just one? Would it be that one, that you just mentioned, or is there another one?
Wesley: If I had to choose one… It’s hard to say; I have two underway right now that I feel are way above and beyond anything I’ve made at this point. Probably I would say that my favorite song that I’ve made is “The Winds of Tomorrow”, but I hesitate to say that because the mastering is really bad. I’m not really quite sure what happened there, cause I remember it sounded better when I was making it, but something made it really muddy, and I never got around to sorting that out. So sometime I’ll fix that, too. That was actually my first really big experience with a full orchestral sound bank. So it was definitely a learning experience.
Yeah, I like that one!
Wesley: I have a lot of songs underway currently. To be honest, my entire library of unfinished songs probably numbers about 500, which is a huge number. So I have a lot of works-in-progress. I feel like I’m improving every time I make a song. Whenever I make a song, I’m happy with it for about a week. And then I think, “I can do better!” So when you ask which one is my favorite, I think, “The ones I’m making now!!”
Awesome, cool! So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music?
Wesley: I’m very simple—all I use is a mouse, a keyboard, and FL Studio. I’ve never recorded anything, I have never used a midi controller. I have one, but it was a waste of a purchase. I never used it at all. I know some people really depend on that stuff; recording and being able to play live is really big thing for them. But I just… The way my mind works, I am happy just plunking notes down with my mouse. I have thought of recording some violin for my songs, but I don’t really have a center with the proper acoustics to do that at this point. So maybe in the future if I have a better place… But as it is, I just entirely use sample banks, sound files, and FL Studio.
Recently actually, I was at MAGFest, in Washington, D.C.—it’s one of the biggest game music conventions in the country. It’s coming up again this January, and I’m pumped to go. But when I was down there, I met with Alexander Brandon, who composed the soundtracks for Unreal Tournament and several other pretty big things, and he was talking about how strange it is to him that some people can compose with just their mouse and the piano roll. He said the only composer he knows that does that is the Minecraft composer. And I’m like “I do it! I do it!”
(laughs) That’s funny!
Wesley: Yeah that’s an interesting tid bit. I thought a lot more people did it than me, but I guess not.
Yeah. So you touched on this a little bit: who are some of your main musical influences?
Wesley: Funny enough, I’d say I don’t really often compose anything similar to what my influences would be. Recently, Yasunori Mitsuda… Chrono Trigger, and some songs for Xenoblade. And actually Xenoblade is what my latest song that I’m working on is intentionally inspired off of, so you might notice that.
Aivi Tran and Surasshu, the Steven Universe composers, Toby Fox, the Undertale composer, and Andrew and Jillian Aversa of OCRemix fame are all huge idols of mine. Since most of us grew up in similar music communities, the experience of being to be able to watch my colleagues move on to do big things showed me that I could, too.
I think my first musical influences were probably… It’s bad that I don’t even know the composers for them, but the Sega Genesis games. Funny enough… My parents never really liked me composing video game music. My mom wanted me to compose classical stuff, and my dad didn’t really care that much. But I specifically remember when I was a little kid, playing on the stairs with a toy car, and I was humming Ice Cap Zone. And my mom came up behind me, and she’s like “What are you humming, Wesley?” I’m like “A song from Sonic.” She’s like “Why don’t you hum something else?”
Wesley: And that just broke my heart. I remember it to this day… Just a disappointing thing to feel as a kid. As I’ve gotten more into video game composing, I don’t usually show it to my parents.
Aw man… Yeah, there is this kind of stigma.
Wesley: Something that people say a lot to me is that video game music is repetitive. And I do not get that argument. I mean I know if you’re talking about old arcade music, it’s repetitive—console limitations! But I tell you, if you turn on the radio and listen to stuff, I hear stuff that is waayy more repetitive than any video game music I hear nowadays.
“Something that people say a lot to me is that video game music is repetitive. And I do not get that argument. … I tell you, if you turn on the radio and listen to stuff, I hear stuff that is waayy more repetitive than any video game music I hear nowadays.”
Wesley: So I feel like it’s almost a meme phrase people throw out there about video games.
They don’t… They don’t understand!! (laughs)
Wesley: They don’t understand us!! (laughs)
No really though! I think they probably say that because of the looping nature, but that’s really it. I mean I could go on about this for days, but the whole… Different themes, recurring themes, you could call that repetitive, but it’s purposeful repetition—it comes back in different ways. But like you said, stuff on the radio is even more repetitive, and across the board… It all just kinda sounds the same…!!! (laughs)
Wesley: Yeah, not to mention the idea of motifs and little phrases that recur throughout the song—that dates back to classic periods. I mean, I mostly grew up playing Vivaldi stuff on violin. And that was so repetitive, it drove me nuts! You know, Vivaldi of course is best known The Four Seasons. Well, the thing that most people don’t realize is that’s the only thing he ever composed. Everything else he did, he just shuffled around pieces from The Four Seasons, and put it in a different order. There are entire phrases that are stolen directly in most of his pieces.
(laughs) He’s a One-Hit Wonder! That’s hilarious!
Wesley: (laughs) Pretty much, yeah. I don’t know anything else of his that’s really impressive.
Wow. All right, so what inspires you outside of music?
Wesley: What do you mean by that question?
Like what kinds of things outside of musical influences… Particular events, sceneries… Does anything inspire you outside of music?
Wesley: I think lifestyle would be the simple answer to that. Music to me is background—it’s something to represent a lifestyle that you’re living, and an aesthetic that you want to have. I guess it’s all about aesthetic to me. One of my most recent interests has been fashion, the way certain types of music tend to stick together with certain fashion subcultures. You have your goth, metal people, and their dark, broody music… You have Lolita fashion, and J-Pop and Shibuya-kei. And that’s particularly what I identify with most.
That’s interesting, I’ve never thought about that!
Wesley: You have hipster culture, and everything that they listen to… You probably wouldn’t know what half of it is! (laughs) Music seems to have its own influence, or… Maybe the best word would be amplify. It amplifies aesthetic. So it’s one thing to dress up a certain way, and act a certain way, and look a certain way. But when you add music in, it makes it all even more obvious.
“Music to me is something to represent a lifestyle that you’re living, and an aesthetic that you want to have. … One of my most recent interests has been fashion, the way certain types of music tend to stick together with certain fashion subcultures. … It’s one thing to dress up a certain way, and act a certain way, and look a certain way. But when you add music in, it makes it all even more obvious.”
Yeah, interesting. Nice. So what’s your compositional process like? How do you usually go about writing a new piece?
Wesley: Very slowly… Very slowly. When I was younger, I thought I really did want to be a composer for video games; it seemed like something I could do, and I had made songs, so I thought I could be good at it. But the thing is, I’m just very slow at it. I have friends who can sit down and write a full orchestral composition in four hours. And that’s maybe a little on the fast side… But at my fastest, I can compose—assuming for a full orchestra—I take about eight months to do one song. And actually that’s not really that surprising, because a lot of musicians really don’t publish new music that often. But I take a long time to do my music. So my one attempt I had at composing a soundtrack just fell apart—in addition to not being able to compose certain themes, it just took me too long to make music.
So generally when it comes to a song, I’ve had to get a lot of bad habits out of the way. I never was very good at strong melodies. So one of the things I try to do first nowadays is come up with a strong melody, and write for as long as I can, not distracting myself with any harmony or drums or sound effects. Just get the flow of the song down. When you can have the entire dynamical piece written, then you can focus on other things. It’s very easy to listen to a melody, and think of what harmony should go with it. But it’s not so easy to listen to two measures of melody, drums, and harmony, and then try to figure out what should go after it. Sometimes that’s what takes me so long: I get like three minutes of a song completely done, and after that it’s just mind-boggling as to what I should actually have it do next.
Interesting… Adding too many layers.
Wesley: Yeah, the complexity gets too high and my mind can’t focus on where the actual melody should be going. When it comes to the process, I will say that I absolutely hate doing drums. Most of my early songs don’t have any drums period. Part of that has to do with having an orchestral background, but on the other hand, I’ve never played the drums, so I don’t quite understand how they work. So I just have to imitate other songs. I need to listen to beats, and say oh that’s a beat that works, that’s a beat that doesn’t work. “Don’t make it repetitive!” is what my mind tells me. To me, repetition is a bad thing. To simply make two measures or four measures of a beat, then copy-paste it for twelve measures, that seems like a giant sin to me. But usually, no one cares; it’s actually what’s expected.
Yeah. Okay, so what was the first video game you composed music for?
Wesley: Oh, that’s embarrassing, I don’t want to talk about it. (laughs) No actually I will. It was a Doom modification, a Sonic one.
That sounds cool!
Wesley: I jumped into it. I’d just been browsing the internet for games to play, ages ago… I probably wish it was longer ago than it actually was. I was just browsing, and I found this game called Sonic Robo-Blast 2. And it was actually really cool. It was a Doom modification, which has been a work in progress as long as I’ve been alive! It was pretty interesting… I found a guy making a level pack for it, and not really knowing anything about the community, I hopped right in, “Hey, can I compose for this!?” He’s like “YES!” Well, I made a critical mistake: I had not finished playing it before I offered to compose.
Wesley: So level 1, 2, and 3, I loved, and the songs came spilling right out. But when I got to level 6 and 7, I saw that the creator had just taken a complete quality turn, and had no sign or initiative to improve. So it’s one thing to compose for a game you like… And it’s a completely other thing to compose for something you hate. And once I got to that point, I just couldn’t do anything. I struggled to make a last couple few songs. I never even properly mastered them or anything. I was just like “Here, I’m done with this.” That was a very discouraging experience.
Wesley: It did teach me a lot of valuable things. There’s very few of those songs that I still have up on the internet. I mean you can find them if you really search, because people who played the game uploaded them, which is I guess just what people do. The bottom songs on my soundcloud are all from it. Those are my favorites of the ones I composed it.
All the ones that are much more embarrassing, I have deleted. But if you really want to search for them, and find my dark history of awful music, you can find them.
Okay, I’ll have to dig through the internet, and see if I can find it.
All right, so what is one of the biggest compositional challenges you’ve faced, and how did you get through it? I guess you’ve talked about a few already, but maybe a different one that you haven’t talked about yet?
Wesley: Hm, that’s a good question. Let me think about that one… I don’t feel like there’s much to say, except that when I initially start a song, I have a serious issue with copying people. Almost every one of my songs, there’s a near-identical song in terms of ensemble, chords, key… The entire flow of the song is very similar to something I’ve listened to in the past. It’s a definite trial to make myself depart from that, and bring in my own original things. There’s an arpeggio I really like, and I think I really want to use an arpeggio, but I have to make my own. No other idea sounds as good in my head as the one that I heard in the first place. Generally, my biggest success is when I can take what I heard, take something I like from it, and completely branch it off, accidentally, and do something good with it.
I have a song that I’ve recently been working on. I heard a really ambient piece with some piano and strings. I took a section from it that I liked, and was like “What can I do with this?” I liked the song a lot, but it doesn’t really go where I want it to. So I was able to bring in my own instruments, which is something I don’t usually do, bring in chiptune instruments. I love chiptune, I listen to a lot of it, but I can’t usually compose with it. But I was able to bring in some chiptune instruments, and turn it into my complete own thing.
Nice, cool! So which composition of yours is the most different from anything you’ve written, and what did you learn from writing that piece?
Wesley: That’s hard to say, because at least as I see it, I generally don’t tend to have a distinct sound; it’s all over the place. Now that’s what I think. When I’ve taken part in contests—I forgot to mention that. I used to take part in music contests, on VGMusic.com, back before the forum was defunct. Really awesome community, that was my first internet forum ever. They taught me a lot about music and about, well, relating to people in the music community in general. Very good experience. They had a lot of contests there… Monthly midi contests, sample pack contests… And people seemed to be able to recognize my style there. Cause when we voted, they could say it was anonymous, but a lot of people picked my songs. So there’s something I do that people can recognize, but I’m not sure what it is.
The truth is, not very many of my songs sound very similar at all. I always had big dreams, like “I’m finally gonna make a full album, 8 songs of this style!” But then I get halfway through the second song, and it’s not anything like the first. And I think, how can I put this in the same album, it isn’t even the same genre, the same mood, nothing. Rather than wishing I could make songs more different, I feel like I wish I could make songs that were more similar.
“The truth is, not very many of my songs sound very similar at all. … Rather than wishing I could make songs more different, I feel like I wish I could make songs that were more similar.”
Yeah, interesting. So what other hobbies and activities do you do outside of video games and music.
Wesley: Well, to be honest, most of my stuff really does focus around video games. Primarily I’m a programmer, but I got into that not because I love programming—I really hate programming—but it’s a necessary evil. It’s one thing to be a programmer and say “Hey, I need some artists to help me make this game, come on over!” And then suddenly all these desperate artists just bowl each other over, kicking each other out of the way and stuff. But when you’re an artist and say “I have this really great idea, I need a programmer!” They’re all like “How much are you willing to pay me?” You know? Programmers are in high demand, so they can afford to be picky. It’s a completely different issue. So I picked up programming for that reason.
But my passions lie all over the place. I got into drawing about two years ago, as an attempt to be able to draw concept art for games. It’s hard to communicate to people what you really want. It’s hard to communicate to a better artist what you want, unless you draw it yourself. So I got into drawing, and I mostly love drawing characters and stuff like that.
Did you draw the little character that’s your icon?
Wesley: Sadly no, I had that commissioned by Ocean in Space, an artist in Ontario. She makes beautiful art. I just met her recently at a convention, so I had that commissioned. Writing is also another big one… I loved creative writing. I took some creative writing classes in high school, and they were just some of the best experiences I ever had. So that has mostly transitioned into me writing stories for my games.
Beyond that, I think that my other major hobby is Lolita fashion. I’ve considered picking up actual tailoring, but I’ve never had a good experience with that. In general I’m good with my hands, but when I attended a ribbon craft class that my friend hosted, my ribbon fell apart. Generally it’s pretty unusual for a guy to be into Lolita fashion, I know. But it’s just always been something that’s… Been me. So recently I picked up make-up, fashion, all that. I’m actually gonna be in a fashion show, come March.
Wesley: It’s a lot of fun. I meet with a group up in Canada. I’m in Niagara Falls, near the border, so I travel there to meet with them. That’s my biggest thing. I’ve never really had any form of outward self-expression before, so just to be able to get together with a group and just look pretty is really big to me.
Yeah, nice. So now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible. Are you ready?
Favorite video game protagonist!
Wesley: Kid from Bastion.
Favorite video game series.
Wesley: Is it okay to say a rhythm game? I like Pop’n Music!
Okay, favorite Pokémon!
Wesley: I really like the new rock, fairy Legendary… Diancie!
Favorite battle theme! From any game.
Wesley: I would say Swords Bursting over Battlefield, from 7th Dragon.
Okay, favorite character theme!
Wesley: Oh man, there’s so many…! Some of the character themes from Undertale are really good. I like Undyne’s theme a lot.
Yes! Spear of Justice?
Wesley: Yeah, and the other one too, Battle Against a True Hero.
Okay, favorite time signature!
Okay, nice! Pick one: strength, magic, or defense?
Wesley: Can I pick stealth? (laughs)
Wesley: I always play stealth characters. It allows me to have my own fun with the game, cause I can just stealth through something when I don’t feel like fighting.
Yeah. If you could live in any video game world for a week, which world would you choose?
Wesley: Probably the Guild Wars 2 world—that’s easily my favorite world, period. I’m a Lord of the Rings fan. Guild Wars 2 is the closest thing we have in terms of quality to that.
Okay, if you had to make a weapon out of any instrument, which instrument would you fight with?
Wesley: A flute with magic powers! That would be amazing.
Oh, yes! All right, end of rapid-fire questions. So what are some of your future plans, immediate and distant?
Wesley: My big plan at this point is to finish my game that I’m programming, and start my business. I dropped out of college after two years. I was going for computer science. Great degree, and I went through an online place that was really helpful, and allowed me to not spend nearly as much money as most people do on college. So thankfully I didn’t get into super huge debt over it. But two years into my college, I realized—as I started taking the actual content-related computer science classes—I taught myself all this in middle school. There’s a couple things that I would’ve learned in college, but none of it is stuff I need. And if I plan on getting a job with someone else, that’d be one thing, but I plan on starting my own business, so I don’t need a degree.
So I dropped out, for one there were financial issues. I did not want to go into debt. I’ve been working at the airport—which is actually a point I need to bring up—and I’m working on my game, in my free time. I usually code in my free time at work. It’s still a long way to go. I’m making it a turn-based strategy game, called Aria Wars. It’s similar to things like Fire Emblem, or Advanced Wars, or Disgaea. Those are some of my favorite genres, beyond action games… I love the capability that you have to do a lot of story-telling. So that’s what I’m working on primarily. I’m mostly doing the coding for it, I’ll also do the story-writing for it. Once the time comes, I’ll be hiring artists for that. Realistically I’d like to say I’d have a demo ready in a year, but you can never put a time frame on that stuff.
That’s what I’m doing long-term, or at least mid-long-term. The shortest-term thing I have at this moment is mostly just networking. Lots and lots of networking. I try to make connections and never lose them. When I went to MAGFest last year, I was able to meet a ton of people that are pretty big in the industry, and keep in touch with them. I’m looking forward to doing that again this year.
In the long term, I would love to create a studio. I really think I am capable of it, creating a studio where I can be a lead that actually doesn’t have to code. (laughs) Because I really don’t like coding! But until I am successful enough for another coder who’s better and actually enjoys it to come alongside, it’s likely not going to happen.
Some of people create art as a form of self-expression. I think this is worth discussing too. I know for some people, art to them is a way that they get their mood out: if they’re depressed, they do sad art, if they’re feeling happy, they do happy art. I’m not like that. Though I can understand why they do that, I do not identify with that. I create art specifically to help people. And it’s not as much as a form of self-expression as it is a form of giving back to the world. I want to give people things that will help them grow.
So most of my stories tend to be pretty heavy-handed. (laughs) I love a deep story. Finding the proper way to integrate a story in the game is the toughest part. They’re made to go hand-in-hand, but there are so many ways that you can do it wrong. When I originally started programming, I realized my plans were too ambitious. I know everyone says that. I had a really good story to write. But I realized at one point that I would just have to put it off, and say “I will make this game later, I need to make something more simple now.”
So those are my plans, basically. My plans, and reason for the plans.
Yeah. And did you say you wanted to mention something else about working at the airport?
Wesley: Right! Yes! That’s very awesome short-term. An amazing secret that most people don’t know is that airline employees get free flights, which means that I have been able to fly around the country and go to conventions I never would have been able to attend.
Oh, okay. Nice!
Wesley: So it works great for networking. That’s how I got down to Washington, D.C. last year to go to the convention, then to Canada… I’d like to go to more places as my projects get nearer to completion, too.
Cool, what do you do at the airport?
Wesley: Just a ramp agent. I’m the person who brings the planes in with the lights, unload, load baggage, stuff like that. Another nice part about that is because I work in Buffalo—which isn’t the most active airport ever—I can sometimes have as much as two to four-hour breaks. So it allows me to code, because we’re allowed to bring our laptops and do that. So it’s the dream job for an aspiring coder.
Yeah, cool. So what’s one rule that you like to live by?
Wesley: I think the most important thing that I try to live by… I always try to temper my impulses to give other people what they need. I feel like this is a thing that not everyone does, but every time I interact with someone, whether someone I despise or someone I really like. There’s always a bunch of impulses that come to your head. But I always stop to think, “Is this really going to help this person?” And so that mindset also comes into game design, every time I write a story…
If you’ve ever written, you understand that. Your writing can come from a deep part within you. So sometimes you’ll write something that really appeals to you, and you won’t know why. So that’s when self-searching can help: why did I write this? Why does it appeal to me? Is this a good thing or a bad thing, and how will it affect our society? Cause I don’t want to send negative messages, you know? So I guess the thing I try to live by is really examining myself, and how what the things I do will affect people.
Yeah, nice. Thank you so much!
Listen to Wesley’s majestic music on soundcloud:
Gorgeous supplemental photos courtesy of Dendy Julius.