I’m thrilled to be able to introduce an interview with Joe McDermott. Joe composed the soundtrack for cult classic video game Zombies Ate My Neigbours (just called Zombies in PAL territories), released for the SNES and Mega Drive/Sega Genesis in 1993. In addition to his work on video games, Joe is a composer and musician who specializes in music for children, and you can visit his website here.
A few months ago I wrote to Joe to see if he would be prepared to answer a few questions about his experience working on Zombies, and to my great pleasure he agreed.
If you’re not familiar with Joe’s work on this game, I suggest you check it out straight away: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsdkSeTAGYs
Dear Joe: first of all, thanks so much for agreeing to do this. Zombies Ate My Neighbours is a cult classic loved by many people. It was a big part of my own childhood, and I spent countless hours playing the two-player mode with friends and my two younger brothers. Thank you for creating such an awesome soundtrack to accompany this memorable game which brightened so many young lives.
Q: Are you much of a gamer yourself? Did you ever play Zombies…, and are you a fan of any other video games or franchises?
Not really, no. We (me and Team Fat) used to play Outlaws a lot. An old western shoot up multiplayer game. I was at a conference once at the Lucas Arts booth and they asked me to play the new Star Wars game. After a while the guy looked at me and said, “You don’t play much do you?”
Q: Can you tell us how you ended up composing the soundtrack for Zombies? Had you done much other work on video games up to that point?
It’s a long story but here goes. I was doing children’s music and had a bad parting with a manager that slowed my career for a while. My friend George Sanger (The Fat Man) hired me to do some sound fx editing. George had gotten some game work from Dave Warhol, his college roommate. One thing led to another and soon George (who was one of the first real innovators in the PC game music world) started getting lots of gigs. He took me on as a team member. The story is better than I can tell it, so I’m going to ask George to give an interview too!
Sooo… I did a game called Rocket Man for Nintendo (the first – not Super Nintendo). I also did a game called Wings. When we started doing Super Nintendo I did Q-bert 3. Dave Warhol was very impressed with the style that we did and I got the Zombies gig. When I say “we”, I mean me and George. George was our producer (and my mentor) and he oversaw everything and gave everything the ok before we sent anything off. If you make it to the top level, George and I are standing next to a desk wearing cowboy hats. You might be able to shoot us. If you can read the cheat code on my cartridge you might be able to get there.
Q: Can you tell us about your process for writing and composing the soundtrack? Did you enjoy the experience?
It was one of my favorite things to write. Dave Warhol gave me the green light to go crazy on the music. I started out by watching all the 50s Sci-Fi I could get my hands on. When I was a kid there was a show on called “Creature Features”. They ran old black and white horror films. The theme was a very lonely sounding low guitar with lots of reverb and it used to kind of creep me out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AN3PL0_ZJa0
That theme song inspired the “Is Anyone Outside?” theme.
Q: Were there any major technical or artistic challenges involved? How satisfied were you with the soundtrack, artistically and technically? Also, several tracks feature humanoid sounds, like monsters growling or babies burping; how were those created?
Video game music back then was nothing BUT a technical challenge. The programmers wanted as much space on the card as they could get. That left very little for samples and the midi files that ran them. If you listen closely to the instrument sounds you can hear that they were incredibly short loops. They all have a kind of springy echo sound. I had a one-off card that plugged into a SNES box. I had the SNES sent to my studio speakers and a TV. The SNES box itself had an instrument bank but I tried to avoid that as much as possible.
The challenge was to make something that sounded really different than the games that were being produced at the time. As far as the human stuff it was very short low res samples. The voice that everyone asks me about is saying “Is there anyone outside?” The other is Chris Boas saying “uh oh”. If I may wax poetic: It was really rewarding to do video game music back then because it was so limited. It was like trying to build a Taj Mahal out of beach sand. The tools we used ran on DOS and the obstacles we had to overcome were real big.
If you listen to Koji Kondo’s work, it still is some of the best video game music ever written. The songs and sounds had to be great because we had nothing to cover them up with.
Q: What did the Zombies soundtrack mean for your career at the time? How was it received, and did you do more video game soundtracks afterwards? If not, why was that?
It really meant a lot to me because it was such a great game! My kids (and many other kids) loved the game and there is nothing better than to have contributed to something like that. A funny story: In the same phone call that Lucas Arts was sending the award for best Cartridge game that year they let me know that I was being taken off the game I was currently working on. It was like “Here’s your award–you’re fired!” It was much more good natured than that but there it is. I remember not being that into that game and I don’t think it even was ever released.
And yes I did games after that but mostly multi-media titles. Our team did the Putt Putt games and the Scene It games; I did the Friends Edition. I also did a lot of work for Stan and Jan Berenstain. That was fun.
Q: The aesthetic of Zombies draws widely from a lot of aspects of horror and B-movie culture, and takes a humorous spin on what could be construed as dark subject matter. Your soundtrack conveys a combination of creepiness and humour. Did you enjoy trying to create music that was both creepy and catchy?
Q: Do you listen to the Zombies soundtrack much these days? Do you have any particular favourite tracks?
I teach audio engineering at a community College in Austin. My students pull it up once in a while.
Q: As an adult who grew up playing video games, it strikes me that these days, when I encounter the games I played as a child, it is more often than not the music of those games that resonates with me now. Every aspect of the game can seem horribly dated apart from the music. Do you have any thoughts about that, particularly as someone who specializes in composing music for children?
As I said before, the songs had to be carefully crafted because we had almost nothing to hide behind. One of the things that eventually killed the independent music houses doing game music was Redbook audio–the CD. As the computers got more powerful the game creators started using music from their favorite bands. Also, the unique tools that we used went away because anyone could make game music at that point. I guess I have to say that programs like Ableton and Fruity Loops etc. made sounds that were really fantastic right out of the box. It can often lead to a certain laziness compositionally. If you can make a few mouse clicks and have something that sounds pretty awesome, why go further? We were composing as these tools came on the market and we used to try to use them, but we would always go back to old fashioned songwriting and composition.
Q: Have you found there to be any specific challenges in composing and performing music for children?
Well you have to be pretty entertaining to keep them interested. They just walk away if you bore them. Children’s music is a lot like game music. Anything goes. It’s really been amazing to be able to work with children and music–it never gets old!
Q: At this stage in your career, would you be interested in composing music for video games again if the right opportunity arose?
Sure. It would have to be the right kind of thing. I would love it if one of you youngsters made a ZAMN tribute game. (hint hint)
Q: Do you have anything else that you’d like to add?
Yes. Thanks for your patience! And thanks to all you people that remember that great game!
I want to thank Joe again for agreeing to do this interview, and more importantly, for his inspirational work on the Zombies soundtrack. Let’s hope that we see more from the franchise in future, perhaps even accompanied by a new score…