Freezepop are not just a band. They're the first band in the world to become popular almost entirely because of their appearances not in newspapers, radio, magazines, or the blogosphere, but in video games. As a result, they're a convincing picture of the near future of music, gaming, and the worlds of art and commerce that surround both.
Just a few years ago, Freezepop's songs were sharing the stage with karaoke-style covers of "Smoke on the Water," "Ziggy Stardust," and "Spanish Castle Magic." Now, through a combination of good timing and great songwriting, they're sitting right up there with Bowie, Radiohead, and Blue Öyster Cult. Not karaoke-style Blue Öyster Cult, but the REAL Blue Öyster Cult...in a way. *
The Boston 3-piece has at its core The Duke of Pannekoeken, a programmer of infectious synth-pop and also of music for highly infectious video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Liz Enthusiasm is Freezepop's bouncing, purple-haired frontwoman whose deadpan delivery is every bit as plasticky and cutting as their synth lines. The two were kind enough to answer a bunch of my stupidly detailed questions about music, licensing, the Cardigans, and the concepts of "fun" and "songwriting" in rhythm gaming. If you haven't experienced rhythm gaming or Freezepop, you might want to watch these videos to get an idea of what you're dealing with. The first is Freezepop's official video for "Less Talk More Rokk," and the second is the same song being played to perfection in Guitar Hero II.
Trent Wolbe: How have your audiences and concerts changed and/or grown over the years?
Liz Enthusiasm: Well, when we were in the smaller games (Frequency and Amplitude) it was more hardcore gamers who came to our shows, but Guitar Hero has really opened it up to a lot of people. One thing I really like is that there are all kinds of people there, all ages groups and different scenes. It's pretty cool.
TW: Duke - you work at Harmonix, the company that makes the best Rhythm games in the world. What is Freezepop's relationship to Harmonix, exactly?
The Duke of Pannekeoken: why thank you kindly for the praise... i hope to think that harmonix has worked really hard to try and bring fun, interactive music experiences to people! the relationship is pretty straight-forward... just after freezepop was started back in '99, i joined harmonix as a sound designer and composer and was tasked with writing music for our first game FreQuency, as well as authoring a number of other tracks in the game. after a couple of years doing that, i moved up and became the audio director for the Karaoke Revolution series of games, AntiGrav, and Guitar Hero 1 & 2. Since then, i've transitioned over to being a producer and lead the team that made Phase for the iPod which was released last fall. All of this has opened up a great opportunity for freezepop to include tracks in almost all of those games and reach whole new groups of fans. it's been amazing the reaction we've gotten to our songs in the games and has brought out lots of gamers to our shows.
TW: Do you write Freezepop songs and hope they'll end up in Rock Band, or see a hole in Rock Band, for example, and write to fill it?
LE: We generally use pre-existing songs of ours. There are certain ones that are just more obvious choices as to what would work well in the video game context.
DoP: For the most part, it's just a song we've written, and have gotten an opportunity to include it in a game, and then we've made some changes to the track that will make it play more fun. the only exception to this really was Less Talk More Rokk which was pretty much explicitly written knowing it was going to go into Guitar Hero 2. But it sounds pretty much like our other songs so it wasnt much of a stretch. We have added guitars and beefed up some of the instrumental parts in Brainpower to make sure it's super fun to play in Rock Band.
* TW: You've had your music in video games for quite a few years, starting with "Frequency" and "Amplitude" and now currently you're starring in Rock Band. Has the game licensing game changed much since then?
LE: Yes, we were really lucky to get in at the right time. Because now the music industry is catching on that this is a really good way to get exposure and lots of labels are working on exclusive deals with game developers. So for a relatively unknown band like we were, it would be next-to-impossible to break in now.
DoP: dramatically! back then, it was really hard to get songs for our games and we had such strict needs from the bands to get all of their separated tracks that it could take a really long time and costs gobs of money [hence the "karaoke"-style versions of Hendrix, Bowie, and BÖC re-recorded for the games]... but since the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, getting access to bands and the multritracks of their songs is easier than ever. Labels, bands, and publishers have realized how much potential there is in interactive music games. Statistics have shown that after getting a song into one of these games, sales of that song online shoot through the roof. Our song Less Talk More Rokk was on an iTunes electronic top song chart for a year, mostly in the top 20 and had great sales primarily due to the games. now every band wants to get in the game and we're flooded with requests... so it's become really much easier to get high quality songs in our games from our favorite bands [Bowie, Radiohead, and Blue Öyster Cult, to name a few].
TW: Do you write songs with licensing for rhythm games in mind, or do they just come out magically like that?
DoP: nope, not really. like i went to above, we just write the music we're going to write and if a song or two works well for various games than that's pretty rad, but a ton of our songs would be really boring to play in these games. i think it's just that our uptempo party songs just seem to translate really well to rhythm action games.
LE: We were just kind of a natural fit. I mean, the music started out pretty blippy already, so it was kind of a no-brainer.
TW: Your songs are incredibly fun to play in Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Even though I might like "In Bloom" better as a song than"Brainpower," "Brainpower" is infinitely more fun to play in Rock Band. What IS it that makes your songs so much fun to get inside, virtually? (Please give specifics if possible - I know for me, the intense hammer-ons in the middle of "Brainpower" are a lot of fun for me - is that because it's more like, you know, playing a Street Fighter 2 Turbo-type game, with the controlled button mashing?)
DoP: well, having a song that's really fast in tempo goes a long way to making sure the energy of the song in the game is really high and exciting. we also write some pretty complicated instrumental parts so when you start have to play every note in our songs on those little guitar buttons or drum pads, you realize you're in for quite a challenge! part of it as well is that they people who author songs for our games are insanely good at what they do and they can really make fun patterns and challenges for you to play, even if the song isnt super complicated. i give a lot of credit to how fun our songs are in the games to the people who author them.
TW: Is making songs fun for Rock Band different from making songs fun for Guitar Hero? Does the collaborative nature of Rock Band make it easier to make a good Rock Band song?
DoP: really it's the multi-instrumental experience that makes the songs that much more fun. it's just that in Guitar Hero it's just about the singular guitar part, and with Rock Band, you have 4 different parts to try out or tackle with your friends all at once, and each part has something unique and fun to play. those moments when all 4 players are maxing out their streaks and the crowd is going wild really makes the experience of playing our songs that much more fun. plus, we can make some pretty hard bass parts and know there are players out there who enjoy a fast complicated bass part!
TW: Do you think rhythm games will change the way people write songs for games? Are there any specific innovations / evolutions / synergies you see developing in the future in this form of songwriting?
DoP: yes, i totally think this is true. as more and more rhythm action games get released by harmonix and many other great game companies, there will be opportunities galore for bands. i think we'll start seeing bands who write songs just for games and you'll see great songs that are also really fun to play. it's pretty exciting. and i think, even more exciting for fans of music. now with these games, it's no longer about a passive experience, but an interactive one where you get to recreate the song, or maybe even create your own songs in a game environment.
TW: Liz, regarding the lyrics in Rock Band. A lot of people who like to sing in Rock Band find the fact that you have to adhere strictly to the notes (no room for improvisation, harmonics, etc) kind of stifling. Are there any ways you would've designed the vocals portion of the game differently?
DoP: Good luck on this one Liz as we've spent years trying to figure out the best way to approach the singing portion of our music games and make them fun : ) any insight or suggestions would be great!
LE: Well, I can see their point. But then again, I have no idea on how/if that would be possible to do things differently.
TW: The Duke - I'm incredibly excited about the Stage Kit coming this summer for Rock Band [which adds a synchronized light and smoke show to your virtual performance]. Are there any new developments in the works, or things the Harmonix team wishes it had done differently in the game?
DoP: well, there are tons of developments in the works, that's for sure, but nothing i can really go into specifics on until their officially announced. there are lots of great downloadable songs coming out pretty regularly now which i find really exciting. now if there are a bunch of songs on the disc that dont rock your world, there are tons of songs online to try your hand at. but, believe me, there are some great things coming out that i'm really excited about.
TW: What's the next big innovation in rhythm games? I'm still waiting for a Beatmania-style interface to become popular in the USA.
DoP: you and me both! i'm not totally sure on that front. i think we'll see some interesting games come out like Fret Nice that use the instrument controllers to make innovative new titles. a freezepop music game would be pretty badass if you ask me : )
TW: In Japan, rhythm games have been popular for much longer and at a much more intense level than they have been here. And there are tons of people writing songs for Bemani games in Japan. Do you ever talk to people who are writing music for games there or in other parts of the world? How are they different from you? More advanced or game-focused in any way?
DoP: For awhile i was in contact with some of the composers who were writing for the DDR series of games. This was back when i composed all the menu/shell music for one of the xbox ddr releases. obviously they were all writing pretty fast straight up dance music. but i've never really been into the kind of dance music that was predominant in the ddr series of games. it all kind of just sounded like early 90's house and techno... nothing terribly innovative. i do stay in touch with a number of composers who work on more traditional games that need orchestral or sci-fi sounding scores. it's fascinating some of the stuff they come up with, especially the audio engines that they help engineer to make sure the score follows the actions of the player closely.
TW: I was glad to see the Cardigans' "Erase/Rewind" on your iTunes artist playlist. Would you help me start a campaign to have them write another "cold" album like Gran Turismo (even though I love the "warm" ones too)?
LE: That was actually [2nd vocalist / keyboardist] Sean's pick, but yeah, I could get behind that idea!
Freezepop's new album is called Future Future Future Perfect. Their latest in-game appearance is "Brainpower," which you can play in Rock Band. They're playing at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA next Saturday 4/12.
To hear a bunch of people playing Rock Band on my radio show, go here.