Interview: Dexter Composer Dan Licht On Silent Hill: Downpour
Konami’s Silent Hill: Downpour not is not only being handled by new developer Vatra Games, but the iconic horror series’ soundtrack is being created by Dexter music man Dan Licht. This marks the first entry in the series without musical backing from famed Silent Hill composer and producer Akira Yamaoka. As a longtime fan of the series and video game music in general, I sat down with Licht to ask him about his past experience, what he thinks of Silent Hill, and what it’s like following Yamaoka’s act. We also have a full sample track from the game exemplifying Licht's unique style.
Download the sample track here (or simply listen to it below).
GI: How did your involvement with Silent Hill: Downpour begin?
Daniel Licht: I was approached by Konami. I know that they wanted to get someone that the fans might be happy about to take Akira [Yamaoka]’s place. We know Akira’s very popular with the game. I guess the idea is that the composer for Dexter might come up with some interesting ideas for Silent Hill.
GI: You also worked on the Hellraiser series. You have something in common with the design director for Silent Hill: Downpour, Brian Gomez, who also worked with Clive Barker on Jericho. Did you work closely with Clive Barker?
DL: Well, Clive Barker hired me, definitely. I’m pretty good friends with Christopher Young. I’ve actually worked for Christopher Young for awhile. He’s the composer of the first Hellraiser. But Clive was aware of my work and picked me to do Hellraiser IV. I didn’t work with him specifically other than he had to okay the score. It’s not like he came over every day, I worked with the director on that and the producers.
GI: Where does most of your inspiration come from?
DL: Other than the great horror masters of the past? Obviously Bernard Herman [composer for Hitchcock classics like Psycho –Ed.] a… is that what you mean by inspiration? Or inspiration for this particular job?
DL: Well I’m absolutely influenced by scores like Gerry Goldsmith’s The Omen, and Alien, and I’ve studied a lot of 20th century composition. I’ve always liked to incorporate a lot of atonal and experimental sounds into my work. That’s kind of one of the things that attracts me to working in the horror genre, is that you can push the envelope a bit and go out on the edge. But then there’s also a very emotional aspect to a lot of music. There’s always moments – obviously because there’s a lot of death – there’s a lot of emotion going on. So horror films tend to have music with a lot of strong emotion to it. That’s always been important in what I like to do.
GI: You mentioned sound experimentation and I know you’ve used human bones as instruments in Dexter. I also know that in the past Akira did sound design for Silent Hill games. Do you have any part in the overall sound design of Silent Hill: Downpour?
DL: I’m not involved on the sound design, other than I am doing some ambient music. In certain sections it may be hard to tell what’s sound design and what’s music, so I’m doing some kind of ambient, washy, tension sounds. I’m not involved in the specific sound design elements like the heart effects or room tones or anything like that.
GI: I’ve read that you aim for subtlety in Dexter rather than hitting viewers over the head with heavy string sections to accompany a jump scare or something. Are you taking the same approach to Downpour or are you trying something different?
DL: Well, I’ve played some of the earlier games…
GI: What’d you think?
DL: It’s a great game. I really like it a lot. I haven’t played them all just because I have a PS3, but I’ve had walkthroughs of the games I haven’t played just to get an idea. I’m trying to study the history of the game, so that what I do comes out of what has come before me. I’ve done that in the past with films. I did a Hellraiser, obviously I had to look at the other Hellraisers. I did an Amityville, and I had to look at the other Amityvilles. And I did a Children of the Corn, so it’s something I’ve had to do before. It’s always something you want to do, and put your signature on something, but you always want to serve whatever it is you’re working on first. If it’s something with a deep tradition, you generally want to acknowledge the tradition.
GI: Fans of Silent Hill love Akira’s work. His music is a little more out there and noticeable than most horror soundtracks. Are you going for something that’s more traditional for horror games, similar to Dexter, or quirky like past Silent Hills?
DL: Yeah, I definitely want to do something that has a personality and is not just functional. In Dexter the music is a part of the feel of the show. It’s not just functional music. It really has its own character. Part of the reason is that it’s noticeable. I don’t do the obvious choices in terms of the music with Dexter. I’m playing against picture a lot. I don’t try to get attention, I always try to serve the story in the picture and move that along.
But yeah, I do want the music to make a statement, absolutely, and give a unique feel to everything. I do think that’s important. I think people spend a lot of hours playing these games and the music may loop or whatever, but I think if it’s good music it adds to the experience. I think that’s what people have felt about the music in Silent Hill. I think the music is interesting and it adds to their experience. That is definitely on my mind. I want to keep the music interesting and adding to the experience of the game, but not distracting from the gameplay, if that makes any sense.
GI: I’ve noticed this is your first time composing for a video game. Tell me about the process.
DL: It’s interesting because in a sense when I work on a TV show or a film I think of the music as functional pieces. In other words, I write all my themes first. I might write a chase theme, or a love theme, or an action theme, or a suspense theme, and then I’ll have those in my pocket when I’m ready to score the film. I might write them to a different scene or use them in different places. With a video game you’re doing the same thing, but you’re not always locking those themes to picture, if you know what I mean. You are for the cutscenes – you’re scoring the cutscenes – but the process of coming up with the material is the same, really.
Some people who are working on a film or TV sit down and they’ll just score the scene. I tend to think about the music and then I mold the music to the scene. So it’s a similar kind of process. I’m going through the game and trying to give an arc to it as well. Definitely between each level I’ll give an arc to it. Obviously you’re going to start with suspense then you go into a fight or an escape or whatever music. I’m trying to set up the levels so that they build. So in that sense it’s a similar process, but it’s just not tied to footage.
GI: Tell me about the instruments you’re using.
DL: I actually did use some mandolin for some of it because I know that was a key instrument.
GI: Great, that’s one of the things I wished they’d use more of in the entire series.
DL: Yeah, so that was kind of calling back to… I think it was Silent Hill 1.
GI: Yes, they have it at the very beginning of the game. Wasn’t it flamenco style or something? I’m probably wrong…
DL: It’s tremolo, a fast tremolo pick. So I’m using that. I still have a ways to go. I’m really just getting started with the music. In terms of what I intend to do I am using some piano. I did notice that on some of the blogs certain players have said there are similarities between Dexter and Silent Hill, and with sort of the dark, repeating figures, I did notice Akira did that sometimes. I do the same thing in Dexter, so we have a similarity of styles in a certain corner. He tends to be much more of an industrial sound than what I do, but I am working with some of the industrial sounds as well, to keep with the nature of the game. I’m also bringing in my style as a composer, I tend to use more organic sounds as well. I’m also bringing in some of my organic sounds – very tense or eerie sounding sounds.
GI: Are you going to be playing on any human femurs for Silent Hill: Downpour? Using a ribcage as a xylophone or something like that?
DL: Would you like to offer yours?
GI: Sure, if you’re looking for one. My body could be sacrificed for much less meaningful purposes.
DL: I don’t have any ribcages available right now, but I do have a percussionist I work with who does have some human bones and stuff. I may use some human bones in the game. I guess they came from Mexico or something. There will probably be some human bone work in this Silent Hill as well. I guess it’s becoming a signature of mind.
GI: Is it tough following Akira, who earned such a rabid fanbase? Do you have anything to say to the fans?
DL: I really like his work. I have a lot of respect for his work, and I really like the series a lot. I’m trying to do my best to honor that and bring something new and exciting to that at the same time. That’s my intention. I’m hoping that the fans will be happy with it.
GI: From what I’ve heard I think they’re going to be. I’m a big fan of video game music and this is very impressive so far.
DL: I’m a big fan of music in video games as well – as long as it’s good.
GI: Do you have any personal favorites?
DL: For video game themes? I don’t know about particular themes, but I like the music in BioShock. I like the way it works and is placed. I just hear stuff that I like. I’m spacing right now, but I just hear good themes in it, and people put a lot of effort into it. There’s a lot of creativity.
GI: What’s your favorite Silent Hill? Either composition-wise or based on what you thought was cool.
DL: That’s a good question. The one I know best is Homecoming, just because that’s the one I’ve played end to end. Other than that I like Silent Hill 2, the guitar pieces in there are really nice. The other games I’ve just gone through and seen clips from. I didn’t keep track of which games they were so it’s hard to say. I liked a lot of it.