Sup y’all? =) President Hoodie here bringing back my Hoodie Highlights interview column after a couple months off. Even I get a break every now and then, right? (^_−)−☆
For my return to the blog, I’m bringing both a very special guest in Alexander Brandon, a name that needs little to no introduction in and around our collective of collectives, as well a new focal point for at least the next few interviews I’m conducting: mental health.
It’s a very important topic that I feel we don’t discuss near enough publicly, especially in and around our scenes, which are brimming full of creative, often unique individuals. There’s a pervasive cultural stigma regarding mental health, and it’s one that needs to be done away with posthaste. Talking about it more often is one way to help facilitate that.
With that said, let’s get to talking!
Hoodie: Hey Alex! Welcome to the blog!
Alexander Brandon: Thank you! Happy to be here.
Hoodie: First off, if you could give us a quick rundown of who you are and what you’re about that’d be awesome.
Alex: Sure! I’m a composer, sound designer, voice actor and audio director and I’ve been working in the game industry for about 21 years now. I’ve worked on music for Unreal, Unreal Tournament, Deus Ex, and more recently I collaborated with Hyperduck on Dust: An Elysian Tail, and I’ve done VO for Skyrim and DC Universe Online.
I’m also a bit of a game music maniac. I used a portable tape recorder to make soundtracks of NES and even arcade games when I was a kid.
Hoodie: OH SNAP! So you did that too! hahaha Hi five.
Those homemade cassettes were my favorite Walkman tapes.
Alex: People used to look at me funny in arcades but I didn’t care. Ninja Warrior is the bomb. Same with games like After Burner. It put fire in my heart.
Hoodie: It’s hard to care when you’re grooving that hard to jams that good.
Alex: And this was when I really didn’t know that many other people that were into it. Game music was just cute sounds that came out of machines. Oh yeah, VAPOR TRAIL, that’s another one with a really killer set of tracks. But I’d say Metroid was the first game I recorded and just repeated over and over.
Hoodie: Omg. You’re a Metroid fanboy too. How the hell did I not know this already? :O
I think it’s *still* my favorite game OST to date. It’s bizarre and timeless.
Alex: It had a sound nothing else did at the time. Not so much the instrumentation but the composition. Years later I interviewed Tanaka-san about it. One of the top high points.
Hoodie: WHOA. Looks like I’ve some reading to done when we’re done here. haha
Okay. Before I get completely lost down this WONDERFUL Metroid rabbit hole (Metroid hole…?) and we talk about that OST the entire time (which would still be a good chat! haha), I’m gonna shift topics here.
As I mentioned beforehand, my primary talking point in this interview is a bit of a change-up in that of mental health. Our collective of collectives is full of creative, talented artists, creators, makers, DOERS, etc, of all forms and fashions from all over the world, yet I’ve found many of them suffer from some sort of mental health concerns; some diagnosed & treated (like myself), some not. It’s the typical blessing/curse combo that comes with this sort of mindset and work ethic I think. How have you personally combated such throughout your career? Clearly MUSIC is one way! =)
Alex: Ok, this is a good and a new question. So <cracking knuckles> here goes…
Emotional well being is something too nebulous for most people to take seriously. We think that maintaining feelings can’t be quantified or described adequately, so we dismiss it. Only logical stuff and things that have measurable results seem to matter.
Well, that’s a load of bullshit.
We need to maintain our feelings just as importantly as watching what we eat so we don’t get heart attacks. Exercising. Maintaining focus. Emotions are an incredibly important foundation to this. Now, I’ll step off my Dr. Oz soapbox and get a little more personal.
On the composing front, I’m not sure what inspires me these days emotionally. I’ll have moments of inspiration, which I then need to remember by taking notes, and then I’ll try to figure out how to make use of that inspiration. It could be writing something using an 8 bit instrument. It could be making an attempt at being a better live guitar player. But I see so many people who want to write music for games convinced that just writing a good orchestral score is the way to go.
No, NO, NO. Wrong. Bad.
Find what inspires you. It might be tin flute. It might be a Reaktor distorted sound. Make that sound your bitch. If someone else hates it, tough. Look at Amon Tobin. I’m honestly not crazy about his music but he found a niche that made it into what… oh, SPLINTER CELL? Seriously, otherwise you are pandering or trying to “logic” your way through your creative process. And your emotions take a toll on that. Next…
I have anxiety and ADD.
Hoodie: On the anxiety train here full steam ahead! w00t w00t~
Alex: My son has anxiety as well. What does that mean? Well, I wake up usually once a night with thoughts bombarding my head like “you’re a loser.” My son Nicholas gets in a frenzy because he doesn’t know the right way to study for a test. He works himself up into fits of crying and anger.
Hoodie: It’s a special set of demons that presents itself differently for all of us who suffer from it. That said, there seems to be one unifying factor:
ANXIETY’S A REAL ASSHOLE.
Alex: And on ADD, my mind wanders. Don’t get me wrong. It used to a lot more, and people get used to it, but you never are “cured” of that. You have to use various techniques to assist yourself in being able to keep track of priorities, as well as focus on… well, what the hell is important in your life? What do you want? Those are probably two of the hardest questions to answer. EVER.
Hoodie: Yeah, I imagine it can make the simplest of questions tricky. Nevermind something broad like that.
Alex: Yeah, focus is as focus does :) Jeanette has used natural oils and stuff from Advocare like Spark to help my brain get more in tune and it’s actually helped.
Hoodie: Hey, whatever works. It’s funny actually: I mentioned my emoji wristbands offhand to my therapist yesterday and told him jokingly they were my new daily reminders to try and be more chill and in the moment. He proceeded to tell me a few stories of folk using something like that to help manage their issues. Now I’ll actually probably use ’em like that. haha
Alex: I’ll say something about therapy, from my perspective it hasn’t actually assisted me, believe it or not. Whether it’s for relationships or personally, I self diagnose. Sometimes I’ll talk out loud to myself, and other times I’ll need to concentrate, hard, to take a single thought through to completion. Usually that means “what am I feeling?” and by the end of it I can’t stop until I have an answer to “what do I do about it?”
Now… something else in my industry that I don’t play ball with: it’s something some folks call “playing the game.”
“if you want to play the game you gotta…” “if you want to stay in the game, you’d better…” “it’s part of the game, that’s just how you play it.”
FUCK… THAT… SHIT.
Hoodie: AMEN. HALLELUJAH.
Alex: Our industry has people that are go getters of varying levels of success, and I’ve heard way too much “you gotta kill yourself to play this game”. Not true.
Hoodie: That is a *VERY* common thing to hear, though, in any professional industry these days. It’s more of a culture issue than anything else I think.
People aren’t valued for their own worth. Just their accomplishments or potential.
Alex: Resting, and if you’re lucky enough to be freelance, just shogging off work for a few hours, is completely vital to do. It requires patience, balance and persistence, for example, you need to be able to answer a client almost instantly, if not instantly. But if you have gaps in your schedule, take those gaps and go listen to the Skate or Die soundtrack in a park. Play Metroid: Zero Mission on a grassy hillside. Whatever soothes those nerves, DO IT. France and Google? Doing it right.
Hoodie: Google’s always brought up as a good example of this. I think it’s hard to argue that the way they treat their employees isn’t part of why they’re so successful!
Alex: Well yeah, they’ve hooked into some fundamental infotech highways. Indeed they’ve built kind of a big one, and they’re leveraging that well. So that’s the main cash cow.
Now, some of this is very, well, high falutin’ of me to say. Having the luxury of choosing my work time is not something everyone or even most have. Have I earned it? Maybe. Been laid off twice with three kids to feed. I’m sure a lot of people have many times over and still don’t have the ability to choose times of rest. Having said that, most in an office environment can work something out with their boss that at least includes 20-30 minutes every few hours to choose how to chill.
Hoodie: Of course. To a point, you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got. Personally, I’ve been exploring mindfulness and meditation to help increase how I take take breaks/rest my mind. Been using a really cool app/desktop service called Headspace. From what I’ve researched, it’s basically taking old school principles and modernizing them a bit to make it more accessible. Ditches some of the “mystical” buzzwords and just focuses on the direct, measurable improvements that it brings to your state of mind.
To be honest, I never thought I would be a dude who would be able to dig that; activity is one way I fight my demons. Stay too busy to engage. That can be exhausting, though. And this is helping.
I’m still too damn busy. haha But it gives me more space. That and I’m just learning better self-care. It really is hard to wrap your head around that when that’s really never been a focus most of your life, though, if that makes sense.
Have you any additional strategies, etc. that you’ve found help you out?
Alex: The self analysis is one. If I feel like ass I ask myself why. Usually it’s the issue with “why am I inadequate?” And that’s usually a long personal conversation with myself. Sometimes I talk into my iPhone sound recorder, but rarely listen to them again. Just talking out loud is what can really help, and of course that’s when I’m alone (kids at school, wife is teaching class).
Then there’s NOT WORRYING ABOUT OTHERS’ OPINIONS OF YOU, or what you perceive those opinions to be. Jeanette, my wife, is a type A personality. Life is about work and responsibility. At least, mostly anyway. I’m type B. I’ll sleep in. I’ll then work until 1am. Not much logic to it and I listen to my feelings about when would be the best times. But if I choose to rest, there’s a bit of guilt, sure. Jeanette is ALWAYS active doing something, and it’s usually work of some sort. I’m not built that way and I’m not embarrassed about it anymore.
Hoodie: I think you’ve struck gold there on the topic of accepting WHO you are. At least in this specific area. That’s important stuff, man.
Alex: Oh yeah! It took some time to get to that point and it’s still ongoing. Being unsure of one’s self is fairly constant and on many different levels. Particularly if you live and work with different personalities. “Am I still a good composer?” “eh, I could do X, Y, Z better”, whether it’s hearing something Virt did and having my jaw drop to the floor or hearing a Frost* album and taking bits and pieces of it, or hearing most games nowadays and just going “bleh, these game soundtracks aren’t going to innovate themselves… it’s up to me!”
Hoodie: Agreed. It’s definitely an ongoing process. And easy to devolve on if you’re not careful, or have a string of really bad events hit you at once.
Alex: You need a list of happy things. And it’s harder to find them the older you get.
For me just looking at a longplay video of an old game gets my spark going again. Other times it’s a walk in the woods, or a glass of whiskey and jazz. Having said all that, most of us seem to have a base need of personal closeness. It’s work to maintain it with a single person but it’s worth it.
With that foundation it serves to inspire everything else like creativity and our place in the world. It fuels our ability to help others as well.
And inspiration can come from the damnedest places.
This video (linked below) has niggling improvisational synth crap from one perspective. But it feels warm and fuzzy to me as well. Reminds me of growing up in the 70s, where, well, things were simpler and there was more warm and fuzzy.
Hoodie: I think music is often therapy for us far more than we dare realize.
Alex: Oh hell yeah it is! Even when we think we’re done with it! “I’m so over music… I just need some peace and… oh look! NEW X ALBUM! MUST LISTEN!”
Hoodie: I know it has been for me over the years. Still is. It’s a powerful damn thing.
And YES. A stellar new release can do wonders for the soul. haha Especially when it surprises you!
As much as I’m a believer in professional avenues of treating mental health (talk therapy, medication, meditation/mindfulness, etc), there IS a lot we can do day to day to help manage it like you’re talking about. Sometimes it’s good music, sometimes a stroll in the park, sometimes a few hours of No Man’s Sky wandering the pseudo cosmos, etc.
Just being more mindful of mental health and talking better care of it in general is what I want us all to do, you know?
Alex: Honestly, I’m convinced therapy has to be the hardest branch of medical science there is. I have met ONE therapist in my life that did any good. He looked like George Carlin and told jokes and took me to burger king. This was because I was stealing money and lying all the time growing up. He diagnosed me with ADD and put me on dexadrine (essentially the same as Adderall nowdays). But since then no therapist I’ve encountered is effective. They seem to go through the motions of “were you abused?” and such without really listening. So when faced with that, you need to self medicate. There’s no other choice unless you start drinking or cheating or whatever it is you feel will make you happy.
Hoodie: I count myself lucky then as I’ve found a really amazing therapist locally. I have heard horror stories from folk, though, but I reckon it’s like anything else: there’s plenty of crap folk out there doing the job. You’re bound to run into them as well. Sucks extra hard when it’s regarding something like mental health, though. One bad therapist and the anxiety/depression/etc. will sure rush to write off making an appointment with another!! Hell, the first one I tried to make an appointment with booked the initial appointment but then just quit responding to me. That was disheartening as all get out. “Welp, fuck this!” But Erin pushed me to keep looking, since it was something I admitted that I wanted to do.
Alex: EXACTLY. I don’t see how you can get into a business of helping people with their problems and not take it more seriously than anything else.
Glad you stuck with it.
Hoodie: Me too! I wish you’d had better luck, but I’m glad you’ve found other ways to deal with it. One of my personal favorite “self-therapy sessions” is, of course, grillin’ and beer with the wife and dog. Even got a hammock now to take it over the top! haha
Alex: My mother is an alcoholic. And my dad warned me about it as a kid, but I’ve never really drank that much. In fact sometimes two glasses of wine will give me a splitting headache the next day. But believe me, a small glass of whiskey can do wonders to calm me down.
Hoodie: Yeah, like many things it’s something to be careful with. As long as you’re mindful and don’t let it hurt more than it helps, no worries. =)
Alex: Grill, grub and bubbles… ahhh!
And on that good closing note, anything else you want to say before we wrap this up?
Alex: Yeah. You chiptune people are a whole new lifeblood of game audio culture that I never imagine would happen. It’s really gratifying and brings a tear to me eye. I also believe that soul searching with the myriad of tools we have available is more necessary than ever to find a new sound for games. Sometimes it means going into Amiga sound, Ad Lib, NES, whatever, but I think we’ve got enough creative people that have enough tools that we need to become the equivalent of Republican noisemakers. People who narrow our focus into new and exciting stuff just as was experimented in the 70s with early synth tech except they were FORCED into those places. Now we have to force ourselves because the very tools we’ve developed to free us have become an even more constricting prison than limited tech.
Hoodie: Thank you for that. <3
It is bizarre how limitations can inspire great lengths and feats of creativity, whereas too many options can become an overwhelming burden. But that’s a whole different chat, ay? hahaha
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, especially where mental health is regarded. Let’s break that stigma yo! \m/
Alex: You’re welcome! MORE BRAIN AND FEELS TALKS! This is a good precedent man.
Hoodie: P.S. YOU’RE AWESOME. SIGN MY CHERRY WHEAT BOX?? ;D
Alex: HAHAHA I’ll sign anything, yo.