INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Peter McConnell (Video Game Composer and Musician, Psychonauts 2)

By Marty Mulrooney

Peter McConnell Psychonauts 2 Interview - Alternative Magazine Online

Following on from Alternative Magazine Online’s review of Psychonauts 2 – “some of Tim Schafer’s best writing and world-building since Grim Fandango – and interview with Nicki Rapp (the voice of fan favourite Lili Zanotto) earlier this year, I am delighted to welcome back video game composer and musician Peter McConnell for yet another exclusive online interview – this time to discuss the incredible Psychonauts 2 soundtrack!

Hi Mr McConnell, thank you for your time and welcome back to Alternative Magazine Online! I hope you’ve been well – what have you been up to since we last spoke in 2015?

Well thanks, and it’s great to be back. We are all lucky in my family to have weathered the pandemic OK so far. And since 2015? Wow, that’s a long time! There’s Grim Fandango Remastered, Plants vs. Zombies 2 and Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare, Full Throttle Remastered, Hearthstone, an indie film called INTERSECT, some new things I can’t talk about, and of course Psychonauts 2.

Congratulations on the recent release of Psychonauts 2! The soundtrack is wonderful and truly elevates the entire experience. How did you approach composing it and were there any complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?

That’s a good question, because the last year and a half of development was shaped by COVID. Almost everything about the process was affected. Making games requires teamwork, and much of that has always depended on people being in the same room.

For audio it was particularly tough because, for example, I am used to being in the same room with the mix engineer during mixing. And how do you record a full symphony orchestra during a pandemic? We had to essentially book sessions with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and hope conditions in Australia would be such that we could get enough people on a large stage to do the recordings and still be safe.

Fortunately, by the time the sessions happened, we were able to get close to 30 people on a large stage at once. So we recorded all the orchestra pieces in two passes: one for strings and winds and one for brass and percussion. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave us more flexibility in mixing and implementing the tracks later.

When I first interviewed you in 2012 you mentioned that you had faced some budget limitations when composing the soundtrack for Psychonauts. Were you excited to revisit this world with fewer restrictions?

You bet. Other than COVID restrictions, I was able to focus on what the game really called for musically, rather than whether we had the budget to pull it off. And partly because of COVID I was able to work with some of my favourite musicians all over the world. We just had to work remotely.

Is it true that you composed most of the original game’s soundtrack in your apartment?

Composed and recorded, yes.

When composing the soundtrack for a sequel, is it tricky to figure out how many familiar songs should be revisited? I loved hearing familiar tunes remixed and re-orchestrated in Psychonauts 2.

It’s pretty much determined by the characters. Most of the original Psychonauts themes are character-based, except for the Main Title theme. So it was pretty easy to know when to use the melodies, say for Raz, or Lili or Ford Cruller. I composed new themes for the new characters – and there are many new characters in Psychonauts 2. And even for the original themes, the settings were new in terms of arrangement, orchestration and musicians (two exceptions: the Forgetful Forest and Sasha Nein’s lab have re-mixed tracks from the original Psychonauts). A great example is the Main Title music: it was re-imagined for full orchestra, with an added middle section that introduces a new theme for Maligula, the main villain in Psychonauts 2.

Psychonauts 2 took six years to develop. Was composing the soundtrack a constantly evolving process?

Absolutely. As you can imagine, we ended up in a very different place than when we started, and at least a couple of levels were completely overhauled. A great example would be the Compton’s Cookoff level, which started out musically more like Julia Child’s French Chef, and ended up more like The Price is Right or Wheel of Fortune.

This must have been a fun project to work on, as each level is completely different. Do you have a favourite song and/or level from the game?

It was incredibly fun, and hard work as well! It’s always hard to pick a favourite piece or level. I really like the way the Lady Luctopus boss music was able to combine the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, bass and drums from Nashville, and my friend Andrew Burton’s amazing Hammond organ solo recorded in Hoboken NJ. It was an amazing experience being able to record the Psy King music at Skywalker Ranch with my lifelong friends and colleagues Michael Land and Clint Bajakian, and to write a song with Tim Schafer for Jack Black.

My favourite music in the game plays when Raz is exploring the Quarry; the strings and brass instruments evoke such a strong sense of adventure. The music that plays in the main hub of the Motherlobe is beautifully understated yet surprisingly epic too. I would often stay in these areas longer than strictly necessary just so I could keep listening!

Thanks so much for that! I am so proud of that Quarry piece because I think it captures a certain kind of orchestral Americana that I grew up listening to. I think of being six years old, dressed in the cowboy suit I got for Christmas, and listening to Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. With the Motherlobe music I really wanted to capture Raz’s sense of awe arriving at a place he’s dreamed about being a part of.

The PSI-King’s Sensorium level is very trippy and evocative of the 1960s. Did you use any unusual instruments specific to that era?

Yes, we tried to be as faithful to the period as possible. Skywalker Ranch has a Hammond organ from that era, and we rented a ’60s Vox Continental electric organ, which was a major part of the sound in Cosmic I. Drummer Eli Hludzik played a ’60s Ludwig sparkle drum set and Clint Bajakian had a vintage delay pedal that was at least modelled after the gear of that time.

You reunited with fellow LucasArts composers Clint Bajakian and Michael Land at Skywalker Ranch to create some of the music for Psychonauts 2 – what was it like playing with them live?

I think it was a thrill for all of us. We had all worked at Skywalker Sound before, but this was the first time we entered through the ‘Musician’ door. We have a long history of playing and working together, and it was a real treat to have that reunion in music.

What was it like collaborating with Jack Black? When his character finally starts singing it’s an incredibly emotional and heartfelt moment.

We did the vocal session back in January of 2020 with Jack Black, Tim and Voice Director Khris Brown in LA. Audio Director Camden Stoddard had me patched in from his studio at Double Fine. Jack is a consummate professional and a generous artist. It was amazing to hear him listen to the demo I had made line by line and then bring it to life.

Prior to composing the music for Psychonauts 2, you also worked with Double Fine on Day of the Tentacle Remastered and Full Throttle Remastered. Is it fun to revisit projects from earlier in your career?

Always. It was satisfying to visit Full Throttle in particular, since the audio bandwidth was limited in the original version due to CD performance and storage issues. I was finally able to record the live slide guitar parts I had always wanted, and to get nice high-resolution mixes of The Gone Jackals songs done by my friend Michael Rosen, whose credits include bands like Green Day and Rancid. I think Ben Throttle deserved nothing less.

What’s next for you Mr McConnell?

I’m working on several projects, including a couple of adventure games.

Thank you for your time – I’ve been a huge fan of your music for many years and I can’t wait for Volume 2 of the Psychonauts 2 soundtrack to be released!

Thanks! It’s been a pleasure.

To purchase Volume 1 of the Psychonauts 2 soundtrack, click here.

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