Recently we got the chance to chat with composer Tom Holkenborg about his work on the soundtrack for the narrative portion of FIFA 18, as well as his extensive history working with EA, his love of soccer, and how to capture the appropriate sound for a given sequence. Tom has contributed to numerous EA titles, dating back a number of years, including Madden 2016, The Sims 3, and more. He’s also got an extensive music career dating back many years under the stage name JunkieXL where he’s also contributed to numerous films, including most notably Deadpool and Mad Max: Fury Road.
We started out the discussion by asking about where and how Tom’s relationship with EA developed, which according to him dates back to 1995. As a touring musician he mentioned there were several occasions, where after shows he had played, people would come up to him who happened to work at game studios and talk to him about how they’d like to use his music in their games. This began in the early 90s courtesy of Microsoft where his tracks would end up being used in titles like Quantum Redshift and the original Forza Motorsport on the first Xbox. Eventually, this led to EA approaching him for the same thing, as early as the very first Need for Speed title.
One of the things that fascinated us most from this bit of the interview stemmed from when Tom first started getting involved in games. Other people in his field that he knew when he was in California viewed him as a sellout. “Fast forward to today, and games, FIFA as well of course, are just so huge now, and a lot of these people have tried to break into this field now too, but there are a lot more people working in the field now," he said.
And as we got back around to FIFA, we started discussing soccer outside the world of video games, as well as the intersection of both forms. This led to Tom talking about “the” soccer team for him, the Netherlands based AFC Ajax. Tom is himself originally from the Netherlands and he talked about a time where he got to visit the stadium and meet with members of the team, and get a tour of sorts. And during this he mentioned the realm of pro gaming, including a world pertaining to the FIFA games that this writer had no clue existed: “A lot of these pro teams, around Europe, there are gamers that play all of these games with FIFA like those very leagues. And all of the teams are represented by gamers and they play on the same schedules and it’s this huge thing.”
That segued back into how Tom ended up working specifically on the FIFA 18, which was thanks to a couple factors. His long standing relationship and work on numerous EA project was a huge help of course, as there was already an impressive and successful working relationship in place. But not only that, Tom was well known as being a “soccer fanatic”. In addition to just personally being passionate about soccer, he’d provided the soundtrack to the World Cup in 2002 with his remix of Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation.
So when the time came to pick out how to approach a score for FIFA 18’s story mode, the publisher teamed up with Tom to create the sound for the second story focused on phenom Alex Hunter. “EA was looking for a kind of alternative sound they felt would fit the Alex character well, and it was the perfect time to do it," he said.
This led to us asking how Tom approached the process of laying down groundwork for what the sound of the game was going to be. “I didn’t look at any movies," he explained. "And nothing else I had previously made really fit either. So I started thinking about it in the way of what Alex represented. What should the music for an English 19 year-old sound like? What did British culture sound like? A lot of the sound stemmed from those questions. Electronic, but with some guitar mixed in there, too. I started looking at groups like Radiohead and The Verve to really start developing Alex’s sound. And I wanted to make sure it would have mixture of elements to it. It would give me some more tools to work with.”
The process for developing Alex’s sound would end up proceeding surprisingly quickly as well: “I talked to the creatives for the game, we brainstormed some ideas, and I made a piece of music and sent it to them to see if it was the right sound that they were looking for and they loved it right away, so I was able to start building the sound for the game right from there.”
While the sound would be developed further, that first piece ended up becoming 'Alex’s Theme' in the game, but it was important to capture more than one sound as well. A film’s not going to have just one sound for its entire runtime. There are different sounds, different emotions at play, so Tom had to work on making sure he captured the right tones for the right moods along the way of the story as well. You don’t want the sound to be completely at odds with what’s happening on the screen. “If someone’s sad, you’re not gonna start going nuts on the banjo,” he joked.
And then following that absolute gem we closed out our chat discussing how Tom’s work with film music and game music had differed, and he mentioned how games seemed a lot easier. “For film, it’s different than it is with games," he started. "You need to understand every single aspect of a film. You need to be able to work quickly, manage things differently, and more strictly to hit heavily constraining deadlines, and be the right fit personality wise for a film as well.”
On the surface, games may not appear all that different, but at least to a certain extent, there seems like there might be a bit more breathing room. Of course, games aren’t devoid of deadlines, especially given how notorious end of development “crunch time” can be on big titles.
But there you have it, a glimpse behind the curtain at Tom Holkenborg process and approach when it came to scoring the narrative component of FIFA 18. If you want to hear the music for yourself, it’s on display in Alex’s story in the newest FIFA title from EA.
Thanks to Tom Holkenborg for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with us. For more on his work, check out his JunkieXL website.