Words by Amon Warmann
Music in video games has come a long way in the past two decades. The high-level talent it’s attracted has led to more symphonic scores, and composers becoming much more involved in the game-making process. In recent times, this approach has led to excellent work by Bear McCreary in 2018’s God of War reboot, and equally memorable music by John Paesano in last year’s acclaimed Spider-Man game, which gave the web-slinger one of his best ever themes.
Now comes Ghost of Tsushima, an open-world action adventure game which tells the story of a samurai in 13th Century Japan who must break away from his traditions to save his home. Game developers Sucker Punch tapped Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi to create this incredible score. Ilan, a 20 year veteran composer of Layer Cake, The White Crow, and countless other films and TV shows went above and beyond alongside Shigeru Umebayashi in creating the soundscape of Tsushima over 18 months. In addition to journeying to Japan to make sure the music was as authentic as possible, he incorporated the Biwa – a Japanese lute that samurai used to play – into many aspects of the score.
When we caught up with Eshkeri over Zoom, we spoke about how working on the game challenged him, overcoming self-doubt, collaborating with co-composer Umebayashi, potential sequels and much more.
*This interview contains spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima.
When did it click for you that you could switch from music appreciator to music creator?
It was always like that for me. I started writing music when I was a young teenager. I had a guitar and my mates and I were in a garage band. We've always written music from when we were 14 years old. So even as a really young child I had learned to play music on the violin but I'd always want to change it. So there wasn't a shift, it was always that way for me. Was there a film or TV score that resonated with you in a big way growing up? There was loads of music that I really enjoyed. The first film score I owned was Back to the Future on vinyl. It had loads of cool songs on it – Johnny B Goode, Huey Lewis and all the great 80’s songs – but there were two bits of score that I found very inspiring. But I also loved video game music. I played a lot of computer games growing up and, you know, the music for TV shows that I loved growing up and all sorts of stuff.
Was there a film or TV score that resonated with you in a big way growing up?
There was loads of music that I really enjoyed. The first film score I owned was Back to the Future on vinyl. It had loads of cool songs on it – Johnny B Goode, Huey Lewis and all the great 80’s songs – but there were two bits of score that I found very inspiring. But I also loved video game music. I played a lot of computer games growing up and, you know, the music for TV shows that I loved growing up and all sorts of stuff.
On this score, it was all about the research – finding out about the scales, the instruments, the traditional music, and getting my inspiration from there.
Did Sucker Punch say exactly what it was about your Coriolanus score that they loved? I was re-listening to it before this interview, and given what that score does with percussion it makes complete sense to me that they sought you out because of it.
The people who love that score really love it and I love listening back to it as well because it's very extreme. One of the things that myself, Ralph [Fiennes] and producer Steve McLaughlin decided early on is to have no reverb whatsoever. So there's nothing to hide behind. The sounds are compressed and very in your face, and listening to something with no reverb is not something we do very often. I’m not sure that Ghost of Tsushima is quite as extreme as that, but you're right in that it was the percussion but also the ethos of Coriolanus that spoke to them. We created a lot of unusual violin sounds that you wouldn't really think of and I used a lot of that in Ghost as well. There was just something about the ethos – the aggressiveness, the sort of uncompromising nature of it – that worked for this, that felt raw and real. That was what initially drew me in and I was like wow, you're making this giant multi-million dollar blockbuster game and you're interested in this sort of niche art film I made, and I just admired that they were making a brave choice like that. And it showed me that they won’t be afraid to try new and interesting ideas.
What, to you, is the difference between authenticity and cliché?
I don't think that authenticity and cliché are opposites. I think authenticity is about is about being truthful. And so, for example, I won't use samples. I won't use fake stuff. I'll find another way to do it in my music, and the reason why is because if you if you use samples and you try to pass that off as a real orchestra, then when you do that you’re duping the audience. And if you try to fake it, then it lacks authenticity and it lacks value. You could get someone to paint you a Picasso, right? But if it wasn't a real Picasso, then it's not worth anything. And why is that? It's because we value where things came from. We value things being real. And so I don't want to dupe the audience. I want things to have authenticity. Now, it doesn't mean that you can't use samples. There's tons of 80’s records that have fake strings in them. But they're not trying to be real strings. They just sound good in their own terms. So for me, authenticity is about honesty. It's about artistic integrity. Within that you could do something that's clichéd and still have artistic integrity.
You scored 47 Ronin, which needed to be underpinned by Hollywood fantasy. Similar deal with Ninja Assassin, another film you scored. Ghost of Tsushima is trying to be much more authentic. Did you find yourself having to ignore the Hollywood impulses from your other scores?
Not really. I thought about it in a different way. You see, with 47 Ronin you're not looking for authenticity in the way that the Shakuhachi flute is performed. In fact, it was very difficult for the Shakuhachi to play what I've written because it wasn't naturally the right pentatonic scale notes for that instrument. But that wasn't a problem because that's not what I was looking for in the authenticity. I was trying to write an authentic Hollywood fantasy score. Same with Ninja Assassin. It was more important that it was contemporary in that way. So I didn't think about those scores at all. This was something very different. The impetus for the score came from a very different place.
When you come to begin your initial ideas for a score, where do you start?
It varies. On this score, it was all about the research – finding out about the scales, the instruments, the traditional music, and getting my inspiration from there. It's a curious thing, because I like to give myself a set of rules to work with. If it's a completely blank canvas, and you’re sitting in front of 88 black and white notes, and it's the same 88 black and white notes that that Beethoven and Tchaikovsky sat in front, that's pretty terrifying. I don't know how you begin with that. It was actually great on this project, with the Japanese pentatonic scales. I was like okay, well, I can only work with five notes, not 12 notes. And so there were these limitations. But then the really difficult bit is that you've got to come up with something, and you can get overwhelmed with anxiety about that. The feeling of well I just got lucky the other times, maybe I'm not going to get lucky this time. I always feel that and it's terrifying.
So what I try to do is I try to say alright, can I write a really amazing work of genius by the end of the day? And the answer is probably not. But can I write something sort of average, sort of just good enough? That feels like a more achievable goal. So by removing the stress or the pressure it frees me up, and I always think just write something because the worst thing is going to bed knowing you’ve got a deadline and you haven't done anything. And then you're really stressed out and you have a bad night's sleep, you wake up in the morning, you're feeling panicked. But if you write something – and it might not be very good, but at least it's something – the next day you can either improve it, you can start again, or there are those rare days where you sit back down you go, actually, this was pretty good! And you carry on. So I just think write something, anything, even if you don't think it's any good. It will feed into something else.
I think a lot of that is true for many creatives.
I think it's true for any kind of creativity, not doing something is debilitating. The creative process fascinates me, because there is a point when you're mucking about and playing these notes and suddenly there's a point at which the notes stop just being notes. You come up with something and it’s a melody, why is that? What's the difference between a random set of notes and melody? I think that there's a point at which it becomes greater than the sum of its parts, It's not just notes anymore, It has meaning. I think that's true for any kind of artistic process. There's a point at which it's greater than just the things it's made of. The bit that really fascinates me about that is how do you get to that point? Is it because I discovered something that was always there by just fooling around or did I breathe life into it? Or is it a combination of both of those things? I don't know, It's impossible to say but there is a moment when it transforms. That's the thing you're looking for.
I know you’ve said previously that you were really excited to score the final fight between Jin Sakai and Lord Shimura…
To be honest, I wasn't excited. I was terrified. When we got to the end of that I was like, wow, this is so powerful. It's so emotional, and I had not seen it coming. And you know, I’ve worked in this industry for 20 years. To my own annoyance, I watch movies and I'm already like I know what's going to happen. But I did not see that coming. And I said to the Sucker Punch guys that the player needs to have tears in his eyes. Like, I want them to lose the fight the first time because they had to wipe the tears from their eyes and they couldn't see what they were doing. And then I realised I'd made a rod for my own back. I had to write action music but they've got to be crying at the same time – how am I going to do that? It was a huge challenge.
Was there any other sequence you were especially excited – or terrified – to score?
There were visual things. I have synesthesia, which means that I associate colours very strongly with music. Everything I do is really colour coded, and it really bothers me if it isn't. For me the strings are different shades of blue and the woodwinds are different shades of green and the brass is different shades of red. It's not an aesthetic choice but for me, that is just the way it is. It's set in stone for mes so the colours for certain scenes really had a big effect on me.
It was really fun for me to explore that side of my creativity, which is not something I get to do all that often. And I got to discuss it with the guys at Sucker Punch and PlayStation and they were really up for me engaging with that as well. It's very rare that I get to do something like that, unless it's my own personal work.
That's awesome. I'm still on my second playthrough of the game. The first time I played I spared Lord Shimura. Did you compose two different sets of music for sparing or killing Shimura?
Yeah, definitely. Not the whole fight, just the end, but yeah. I think a lot of people have been sparing Shimura. Shimura is the old person who's not capable of accepting the change, and so I think you have to get rid of him in order to be able to really change society. The really great stories – the reason Shakespeare is still relevant – is because he writes about timeless things. And so somehow they still mean something when we watch them today. And I think this game is like that. It's about the new way versus the old way. It's about youth revolution, and we’re in the midst of that right now. At some point, the old guard has to go and the new guard has to come in. And if the older generation isn't supporting the new thing, then they’ve got to go.
Everything I choose to do is a part of me and I choose to do my projects for artistic reasons.
In what ways did Ghost of Tsushima push you as a composer?
The sheer amount of research and learning I did…I have never gained as much knowledge and worked as hard and been given the latitude and the time and the budget with which to be able to do that. I'm very grateful for the Sony team because I'm a massive nerd and I really enjoy getting into it, I really like learning about this stuff. To try and write music in a traditional way for a historic culture is a huge challenge. In fact, I made some big mistakes along the way, and luckily I had people around me to guide me.
One of the funnier ones was when I used the Taiko drums. They have this system of words – they don't mean anything, they’re just sounds – which they use in arbitrary ways to get from one bit to another bit or to learn how to play rhythms. So I use them as chanting in one of the tracks, and I just use the words that for me, rhythmically felt right and sounded right. We went to Japan and we recorded this incredible Taiko ensemble and partway through doing these chants, they literally fell on the floor. Apparently, I had put together two or three of these syllables and it sounded like something really rude. They were too polite to tell me what it was but we had to change it, there were all kinds of pitfalls. I learned enough to be able to write authentically and respectfully to an extent, but also only enough to know how little I know, that was really difficult. The Sucker Punch team really pushed me hard on the melody front too, which is great. I pushed myself hard. I wrote a lot of material, at least twice as much material that’s in the game. And again, that was difficult and it was challenging.
What project has pushed you the most?
There were other projects that have been difficult like that. Every film I've done with Ralph Fiennes, for instance. We’re real kindred spirits, and we have a real understanding of each other creatively but he always really pushes me. He wants me to come to him with an unusual and unique idea. I love that and I want to take that idea to the furthest extreme, and Ralph wants to employ that idea to the furthest extreme. He won't let me off the hook, and we'll push together. Sometimes I'll think I've done this, and then he'll push me further.
Shaun the Sheep was such a labour of love, that was maybe the most challenging thing I've ever done. It was every conceivable style of music known to man. I’ve never been pulled in so many different directions at once. It was everything from jazz saxophone to 80’s and 90’s rock to giant symphonic stuff, tons of folk music…At the end of it, the question was how do we transition from the sound of the farm and folky music to the sound of the city and then epic symphonic music? It was everything you could ever imagine, It was a huge challenge and I loved doing it. We laughed and laughed and laughed doing it, cried a lot as well. Then I had to do a barbershop quartet and I was one of the sheep. It was so ridiculous, I loved it. The guys I worked with were so wonderful. When I go to Bristol I try to pop in and visit them, they’re great guys.
You mentioned that you wrote lots of music which didn’t make it into the game. When will you #ReleaseTheEshkeriCut? Will we ever hear it?
Well the thing is, we didn't record it. The only way it can happen is if we sell so many albums, and we make so much money that that the record label are prepared to fund the music that didn't make it into the game, which I think is pretty unlikely. Or we make Ghost of Tsushima 2, which I think is more likely. Maybe some of those things will get a look-in.
Is it easy to let go of that stuff? Do you find yourself returning to it?
Oh yeah, I return to it all the time. Maybe it wasn't right for one project, and somehow it might work for another. But it's easy for me to let go of. At the start of my career, I got really upset about these things and you take it really personally. I can't remember who said it, but when the production says “we don't like your music”, they're not actually saying that they don't like your music or that your music isn't any good. What they're saying is this piece of music that you wrote is not good for this scene. It's not good for this film. It doesn't mean that it's not a great bit of work. So you just hold on to them and use them elsewhere. It's also important to not be afraid of doing something new. Don't hold on to it. Just put it to one side, and try something else. And you know what? The first batch of things I did for Ghost of Tsushima, we just put to one side and started working on other stuff. And you want to know which piece was in that first batch? The Way of the Ghost, which came back and ended up being the main theme of the game. So you never know, right?
By the end of the game, Jin Sakai has fully embraced the mantle of The Ghost. Is that an opportunity for a whole new soundscape in potential sequels?
I think that we're in a world of tremendous amount of conjecture here. I have no idea. Nobody has spoken about a sequel. I suppose there's any all sorts of things they could do. You could just expand the scope of the game. There was a second invasion of Tsushima many decades later. Maybe it could be that. But what's funny is that typically I've not done sequels, for various reasons. I did the Johnny English sequel which was a sort of James Bond pastiche score. Now that I’ve done that once, I'm not sure what else I’ve to say about that, you know? I would love to do a James Bond movie, but one would be enough. Once I got to scratch that itch it would be enough because it’s not really my music. It’s all about something else. Ghost is different, because I feel a creative ownership over it. The bits that are mine are purely my voice. And the bits that are Ume [Shigeru Umebayashi, co-composer of Ghost of Tsushima] are clearly Ume’s. So I would be really up for exploring that world a little bit further.
Is this project perhaps a bit more satisfying than others because you’ve gotten so much time and latitude to develop these themes?
I put the same amount of love and energy into everything I do, I take on projects I really care about. Stardust – I worked on that for two and a half years. I was on set hanging out with the actors and I remember Jason Flemyng and Charlie Cox coming into my room at Pinewood and they’d be like, “play the horse-riding music again!” I wrote all that stuff based on Neil Gaiman’s book and I really put everything I had into that. The same with Young Victoria. I’m doing my third collaboration with David Attenborough and I feel like I’m doing something really important, everything I choose to do is a part of me and I choose to do my projects for artistic reasons.
You’ve been doing this for a couple decades now. You’ve been around the block. What’s it like to record at AIR studios? Does it feel different?
The thing about AIR is it has these huge Church windows, and just having that light coming in makes it feel different. The thing about Abbey Road is that it’s the musicians’ mecca. Every time I walk up those steps I think that I’m so lucky I get to do this and not just that I get to do this sometimes, but often. Often enough that I can give the dinner lady Doreen a hug and a kiss, you know? There was actually one time when my daughter was little and she had stayed at my Mum’s, who doesn’t live far from Abbey Road. I was taking her to nursery and she said, “I need the loo”, and I was really late so I was taking her in a cab. There was literally nowhere to go because there’s nothing residential around that area, we were coming up to Abbey Road and I asked the cab driver to pull over. We ran over to the studios and I asked the security guard if we could use the loo! [Laughs] So yeah, Abbey Road is like home for me, and I’m really very grateful for that. You feel the weight of its history when you walk up those stairs, It really makes you raise your game.
Your musical background is very varied. How much of your recreational listening is film and TV scores?
To be honest, it never really was. If there’s a film score reference, typically I’ll listen to that and say what inspired that person? And I go back further, otherwise you end up copying your peers. If you can go one step back then you have more chance of creating something original. I have a library of lots of music that’s not film related, when I listen to film music, it’s in the context of films or when I play a game.
Is there any genre that you haven't worked in yet that you'd really like to?
I’m a big sci-fi nerd. I always loved the theme from the original Battlestar Galactica. And I loved the theme from the original Buck Rogers and the Star Trek theme. And I’ve never gotten to do a sci-fi film. The closest I’ve come is a space project with real astronauts called Space Station Earth, which was not science fiction – it’s just science. But at least it had space and rockets in it! So if anyone out there has got a sci-fi project, I’d really like to do it.