The lights are on
Jack Wall has worked on some of gaming’s biggest properties, from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 to Treyarch’s upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops II. We recently spoke to Wall about his work in video games and approach to crafting the music for Black Ops II. We also learned about his surprising history in rock music, where he worked with such artists as Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, and Jesus Lizard.
You have a pretty interesting background, you started engineering in rock music for people like John Cale and Patti Smith. What were those days like and what did you learn that prepared you for what you do now?
Those days were a lot of fun! I am working on a project now where I’ve basically been making a country album – well, it’s more like “alien country” - working with amazing musicians playing songs I’ve written. I have to say it brings back a lot of great memories working with artists like John Cale, Dr. John, David Byrne (with John Cale) and Patti.
Quick story: I was recording a Patti Smith concert in Central Park for something she was either archiving or wanting to release. Some guy comes up to me and says, “Patti told me to get the tapes.” Not ever seeing this guy before, I said, “Dude, I don’t know you. I’ll be delivering the tapes to Patti myself, thank you very much.” The guy gets pretty indignant and I just waved him off. After I finished breaking down, I walked the tapes over to Patti’s trailer and handed them to her myself. The guy followed me and ended up being legit, but it just made me think about how stupid it would have been to hand these strangers her tapes! I also saw one of my heroes, Jeff Buckley, at the show watching Patti. I had to hop off of the recording platform and tell him how awesome he is. His passing was such a sad thing for me.
I learned so much from being an engineer. I got to watch great producers and engineers like John Leventhal, Larry Klein, Kevin Killen, and Flood working their magic. I got to work in the room with Trent Reznor on Pretty Hate Machine way back when and with Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell back in my early days as a second engineer. I worked in Manhattan during the ‘90s when artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson were in their heyday – either directly or hearing the birth of their music just down the hall. These sorts of experiences can really prepare you for doing something on your own and not being overwhelmed by it.
But it was really John Cale that gave me the confidence to move on with my career as a composer and producer. He trusted me with production tasks I hadn’t done before and simply expected what I did to be great. Soon I felt that I needed to step up my game and not just work with creative people on their material, but make my own. Video games became my outlet.
I saw that you engineered for Jesus Lizard on an EP that I think Andy Gill of Gang of Four and John Cale produced…Jesus Lizard had a pretty wild reputation. What was that experience like?
Amazing! Those guys were so fun. It was a great experience for me to go to Chicago with John and hole up for several weeks and work on that album. It’s funny you mention them because a friend of David Sims recently contacted me to tell me he said “Hey.” I have to get back in touch with those guys. David Yow was pretty nuts and just a great performer. Made me think I’m a better writer/producer than a performer.
You’re a composer now, did you ever play in bands or as a solo artist in rock music?
Yes, I did and I still try to play when I can. I played in various bands until I became a composer. I like composing more, but occasionally I get a bug. Some people I’m involved with now for a video game score (the countrified space alien music I previously mentioned) have asked me to put a band together to perform those songs sometime early next year. It would likely get broadcast over the net. We’ll see what happens. It would be great to play with such amazing musicians: Joe Travers from Zappa Plays Zappa, along with Craig Stull who played on the Firefly soundtrack, and even my friend Bear McCreary who lent a hand with his accordion. They were some fun sessions!
How did you begin to transition out of producing and engineering into soundtrack and score work?
Well at some point, my wife Cindy was my girlfriend who designed video games. Did I mention I love nepotism? She is also an amazing musician who had a band called 2.5D on Capitol Records. I was called in to help produce their demo and we hit it off and became writing buddies. She and I got a commission to write for a video game score and that was the beginning of how I started composing.
How did you first make contact with the video game industry?
During the day, Cindy worked for various game developers, and at the “New Media Group” at the flagship PBS station in New York City, Channel 13, as the lead designer when I met her. Her group was in charge of creating games that were educational in nature. One of her colleagues went off and started a game company in San Francisco, called Postlinear Entertainment. We started writing the scores to all of their games. I think we did about 4 or 5 for them. That was the beginning. Cindy went off and did other things and I kept at it. Postlinear was one of those companies where it seems that everyone who worked there went off and did really cool and great things. Some of them are still my clients to this day.
Do you exclusively work in games now or do you still do film work?
I’d love to do more film and television. I think games and TV are in some sort of golden age. I watch way too much TV. I love the stories being told and the creative ways they are handled – not to mention some great music! Breaking Bad, Smash, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, etc. Love all of it!
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Good music in a video game is very important to me. It can enhance the enjoyment of the game dramatically.
Looking forward to when Michael Giacchino gets an interview.
He's a great composer. The sound-tracks to Mass Effect 1 + 2, and Jade Empire were simply spectacular.
It's a little sad to see him leave Bioware, but at least he went on to bigger and better things.
I'm excited to hear his work on Black Ops 2 and Lost Planet 3.
Man, I'd buy Black Ops 2 just to hear his music.
Gotta love Jack Wall.
I'm not very excited. I'm getting Halo 4!
Cool. I didn't know anything about him before this.
An alien/country soundtrack for a video game? Sounds a bit like Prey 2 to me, as they used a Johnny Cash song in their CG trailer.
Anyway, great music in a game makes me very excited, and Jack's work on Mass Effect was incredible, so its great to read an interview with him, especially as he was so open and genuine. And he's worked with Azam Ali on Black Ops 2's soundtrack?! Will this be the first COD I'll regret not buying? Hmmm...
He and Marty O 'Donnell are my favourite videogame composers. ME3's soundtrack was alright, but I think Wall would've done a better job.