Indieview #5: George Art Baker Esquire, Composer
Welcome to the fifth week of Indieview! Indieview is an interview series with a special guest who works on personal or business projects related to games, whether they’re an artist, a composer, a writer, or otherwise. This week, I’m joined by freelance composer George Art Baker Esquire.
George, also known by their stage name Smoke Thief, is a composer who has worked on video games and anime, as well as their own personal work. You might best know them for their work on Alienworks’ visual novel, Highway Blossoms, or their work with Brave Wave.
Mitch: I found out about your work via Highway Blossoms, and then sought out more of your work after. Before we get on to your personal work, how did the Highway Blossoms collab come about?
George: Josh Kaplan (Studio Élan) very kindly reached out to me on Twitter and I was immediately struck by the romantic story and the gorgeous art by Rosuuri. I already had a sense of the evocative kind of textures I wanted to make.
Mitch: Oooh, that’s not the first time I’ve heard of Josh doing that! He seems to have a good eye for talent, haha. One thing that really stood out to me in your work for Highway Blossoms was how it perfectly captured that feeling of a fleeting summer, and it made me feel really nostalgic. I noticed this strongly in Holding On, Backroads and Eleven. What were your inspirations, and what was the process like, for coming up with the music?
George: I tend to write in a kinda unconscious way, I’ll sit at the guitar or keyboard and try and dive as deeply as I can into an emotion or springboard ideas from looking at images, and Rosuuri’s work is so captivating, I would just have a still picture on my iPad or something and sing simple melodies that I felt and those got worked into pieces. I like singing melodies for more melodic tracks and then converting that to guitar/piano because it helps me intuit every note I write. Like, by playing and singing at the same time, I find what I want to crystallize, in a natural way.
Mitch: What was your favourite track to work on specifically?
George: For me, Eleven just felt like something I had been trying to express for a long time, I feel it’s got a lot of gravity and emotion to it. It was likely inspired in part by American Football and their more romantic take on post-rock. I first heard their debut album when I was 16 or so and it stayed with me.
Mitch: I could talk about Highway Blossoms all day, but I won’t! Your own album, Heart Beat Circuit, is, as the cool kids say, a banger. (I’ll link to your Spotify and Bandcamp here!) What’s the story behind Heart Beat Circuit?
George: I had started to write a short story about an android (Krystal) and found I was just too perfectionist to even make it through a paragraph. For some reason I felt I could depict the character better through music by just really honing in on the emotions I thought she might have at certain junctions of her life.
Mitch: I love hearing stories told through music, and I hope more people join Krystal on their journey! How would you describe your music? Are you inspired by anyone in particular?
George: I think my music often sounds personal, minimal and hopefully, at times, has this sense of connecting to something deeper. If I am trying to express something about a person, feeling or experience I’ve had, I try to find motifs, dynamics and tones that help connote something special about them or it. In terms of influences, I tend to love a lot of older stuff — DJ Shadow, Trane, Joe Hisaishi, Pharaoh Sanders, Poulenc, Nujabes and Amon Tobin are all people whose music speaks to me profoundly, time and time again. I also like to dig into the old jazz standards because each of those can teach you something beautiful. I like to get into the harmony-side of things on piano and then really dive into the melody on a mono instrument, like the Roland AE-10 electric wind instrument.
Mitch: Okay, one more Highway Blossoms question. Please tell me you’re returning for Next Exit?!
George: Yea, I’ve written a new track for Next Exit and worked really hard on it. I’m really happy with the piece, so I can’t wait for everyone to play and enjoy!
Mitch: Yes! I can’t wait to hear it, haha, the Highway Blossoms OST is still something I love to listen to. I know you’ve mentioned that you’re working on another video game, other than Next Exit. Can you say what it is?
George: Yea, I’ve written two tracks for an upcoming NES-style action RPG game called Orange Island. It’s chiptune, so it’s quite different to a lot of my work, but I’m hopeful it’s a cool introduction to another side of my musical identity. The game looks really wonderful and the developer Ted Sterchi has been really supportive of my music and it’s been a wonderful experience working on it!
You can see a preview of it here!
Mitch: Very cool. Will keep an eye out for them! From what I know, you play a lot of instruments. What do you play? Do you have a favourite?
George: I’m kinda in love with both the piano and sax. Lol. Something about the acoustic piano really helps me remind myself of why I play music, it’s a very visual instrument and I’ve built this kind of map of sounds and feelings in my head which helps me navigate to different keys. I owe a lot of my development as a musician to the piano. At the same time, the sax is so immediate and arresting, I think it really reaches listeners in a cool way, especially live.
Mitch: What equipment do you use to record?
George: More recently I use Ableton Live as my recording software. Music gear is so expensive, it’s really quite elitist when you think how much everything costs. I’m lucky that I’ve been trading equipment for decades and now have a solid setup. I have a range of hardware synths and instruments, but softsynths can be really useful and quick for capturing inspiration, so I’m still very much one foot in the digital ocean and one foot on the acoustic beach.
Mitch: You work with Brave Wave! Can you tell me more about that, please? Your name is among some incredible talent there, so it’s so great to see you being a part of it!
George: Thank you. Yea it’s so cool and I’m lucky I can count a lot of the resident composers as my personal friends as well. Brave Wave has been such a beacon of light in my music and personally, I’m eternally thankful. There are a lot of great composers on the label now, so I just try to keep my skills up and always be ready for the next opportunity.
Mitch: Are there any upcoming projects you’re involved with that we should keep an eye out for in the near future?
George: I’ve completed a pretty ambitious remix for a retro game-related project, so I’m excited for people to hear that. I’ve more or less finished a solo album of chill-out material, just trying to navigate how best to get it out there and ensure it doesn’t get totally lost in the digital wilderness.
Mitch: You live in Tokyo, and I might be a little jealous… What’s your favourite thing about living there?
George: For me, I’m very lucky to have a lot of support over here, both personally and work-wise, so I’m still following my dream of making lots of music. It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally starting to get a healthy work/life balance over here and I love that.
Mitch: How has it been breaking into the music scene as a Westerner living in Japan?
George: Japan has a really good live music scene, playing live is always fun here and it’s kind of respected. That for me has been the most positive side of the music scene here. In terms of companies and commissions, it’s very rare, in Japan a lot of import is placed on who introduces you, so it can be hard to get heard without an introduction (in my experience).
Mitch: What advice do you have for those who want to compose for video games?
George: Yea, it’s fun and rewarding and I think ultimately, music itself is infinitely so. My advice would be keep putting stuff out there, focus on improving your presentation (mixing, etc) but don’t get too perfectionist about it. If you keep trying and connecting to your listeners through your music, that will help you every step of the way. Remember that success is not comparative, just like music isn’t. The main thing is that you keep trying, learning and making the best work you can, that will make you a great composer in my book and hopefully lead to some cool opportunities for you. One perspective that also may help people, I believe the legendary mixing engineer Andy Wallace said something along the lines of — don’t get hooked on crafting the ‘perfect’ mix, often when you make several really good mixes, they’re just like different views of a secret. So imho work really hard and then pick whichever one feels the best and move on.
Mitch: Where can people find you and your work?
George: Yea, this is my Bandcamp https://smokethief.bandcamp.com And people can hit me up on twitter (for a lot of personal and political musings). https://Twitter.com/smokethief Or for less babbling, there is my Facebook page http://Fb.com/SmokeThief
Mitch: Is there anyone or anything you’d like to plug? Plug away!
George: It’s been a helluva crazy year so far, not really got anything to plug as such, just wanna give a shoutout and encourage people to support Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is a citizen-led political movement that’s aiming to finally eliminate racism and is seeking justice for a whole lot of injustices against black people around the world. Not everyone can protest or donate, but I’m hopeful that if we can all do what we can to support racial equality and the radical change required to establish that, we’ll be able to make a better world for the children. Everybody deserves the same safety, respect and opportunity, so let’s keep trying to make the world a better place. Thank you.
I hope you enjoyed Indieview #5, with George Art Baker Esquire. I’ll be posting an Indieview with another guest in the near future, so I hope to see you all then!