A good soundtrack can make or break a game a lot of times. While things like actual gameplay and visuals are of course key, the wrong vibe or a sour note can quickly pull someone out of an immersive experience. No one seems to know that better than the fine folks at Rockstar Games and it’s reflected in just about everything they make, including the soundtrack to Red Dead Redemption 2. In fact, folks loved the tunes so much that Rockstar recently released The Housebuilding EP, that features several tracks that were composed and produced by two music industry veterans that are rockstars in their own rights, producers and composers Matt Sweeney and David Ferguson.
Shacknews recently had an opportunity to chat with them both about their work on the game’s soundtrack and their creative process and find out how they went about composing such catchy tunes.
Shacknews: What got you both interested in working on this project, were you fans of the Red Dead series before working on the soundtrack?
Matt Sweeney: Rockstar Games approached me and described what was needed, which was a lot of Appalachian sounding music. That's when I brought in Ferg, he’s the guy that you go to if you want to get the best banjo players, the best fiddle players. Also, Fergie’s one of my favorite singers. And as luck would have it, they ended up using his voice for The Housebuilding Song.
David Ferguson: I got involved through Matt Sweeney, who needed some of my hillbilly instrumentation. And it was going to be a lot easier for him to come to Nashville, to work in my studio and use the players around here, than it was going to be to bring everybody to New York.
Shacknews: Was this the first time you two had collaborated on a project? What was the creative process like for the two of you?
David: We met through working on a Johnny Cash record with Rick Rubin in LA, in ’05. Since then, Matt and I have done several other projects together. We produced a Cowboy Jack Clement record, a Jake Bugg record, various other things.
Matt: And singles with Anna Ternheim, The Black Keys, and a bunch of things! This was the opposite of the first time we had worked together.
Shacknews: I can hear the influence of Ennio Morricone on at least a few of the tracks on The Housebuilding EP, if not all of them. I imagine it's hard not to have the Spaghetti Western composer’s work come through on a project like this, but what were some of the other artists or composers you turned to for inspiration?
Matt: I turned to Dave Ferguson. I was inspired by what I've learned from him. There's also a soundtrack by Bruce Langhorne called The Hired Hand. I just love that soundtrack. That was sort of ambiently or spiritual in my mind, but we never really talked about it.
It's hard not to have the Western influence come through. We made a point of not having it come through. Of course, you can't unhear, you know, Sergio Leone. Once you hear it, you know it.
David: Anybody that's ever watched a Western movie has got it already in their head. But we really tried to steer away from that. We didn't do that much electric stuff. We did very little of it. Most of our stuff was acoustic oriented with percussion, upright bass, and acoustic guitars.
Shacknews: You've both worked on a number of incredible songs and albums with many well-known artists. Is there a difference in the way you approach a project like this that's very rooted in traditional folk/country music versus a more contemporary project?
David: With this we were dealing with a scene, instead of trying to make up a continuous piece of work that plays from one end until the other, and a group of songs that becomes a record and that you have a singer involved. Not having a singer changes everything because the instrument is the voice.
I think it's a different approach. Because it's not so much dealing with verses, and choruses, and bridges.
It's having to stay away from certain things, like percussion that would get confused with a gunshot or a horse’s hoof. Not being able to have those kinds of things is really different.
Matt: I couldn't have put it better. I could only add that when you're working with an artist, and you're brought in to make a record for an artist and to make the artist sound good, then you're thinking about what the artist needs.
In this, we're serving the game, which is a much different head space.
Matt: It’s a good question, because when you're working with an artist, you're trying to draw attention to the artists and not to yourself. It’s the same way with this music, you're trying to draw attention to the feelings, to the story, and you're really trying to stay out of the way, but still really be there. There's certainly a massive difference between the two, but I can't say that one doesn't sort of inform the other.
Shacknews: There's a ton of great guitar work on this album. Did you do all the playing yourself (acoustic, lap steel, I think I heard some baritone in there...) and what guitars did you use while recording these tracks?
Matt: I think I did all the guitar that's on there, but not the lap steel. Guitar is my main instrument, so the compositions were really written on a guitar.
The guitar that's pretty much on that whole record is a Martin that Neil Diamond gave me, I think it’s a 1969. That’s the one you can see in the performances online.
Shacknews: Beyond the guitars, there’s a ton of other traditional folk instruments in these arrangements. How did you approach the orchestration and make decisions on your instrumentation?
Matt: They were made for us, mostly. Rockstar Games does exhaustive research. Even things like melodic influences couldn’t be in there. Blues wasn't popular, so there's not going to be any blues.
Ferg, I think, really did help them with traditional instruments. An example is the “percussion tree.” Ferg has this colleague, Leroy Troy, who has an amazing rig set up. It’s like a Hillbilly percussion rig with bells and whistles, and a washboard. That thing is heavily featured in A Quiet Time. Also, Ferg is great with things like, “OK, if we can’t use percussion, we can use mandolins for the 2’s and 4’s.”
David: We were able to bring in a couple of things. I think they learned a little bit about how to use those instruments after we started.
Shacknews: How early on in the game making process were you brought in and how much source material did you have to go off of when composing everything?
David: We came in about maybe a year and a half before it came out. Since we came in late, we were lucky enough to be able to see some clips and (have) them give us ideas. Like a sneak up scene, a shoot up, a satisfying ride away. It was more like doing the sound for a movie.
Matt: We were brought in for the small sounds, all those in between the cracks and the in between rides. But they were really clear to us about how important our job was. It’s the smallest of missions, and the character driven aspect of these missions, that is going to affect the tone of the whole game.
It was a very specific zone that we were in, and yes, we were brought in late.
Shacknews: What's it like for you to see so many people enjoying your work outside of the game? Do you have any game soundtracks that are your own personal favorites?
David: I don't have any game soundtracks, only whatever we worked on. But I'm glad that people like it. It's a neat thing to be part of something that you know is always going to be there.
Matt: The fact that people liked the game feels really good. I get such a thrill out of the fact that people love a song that Fergie wrote, The Housebuilding Song. There was never any intention of that happening. We didn't come into this thing with the expectation that anybody was going to recognize our work.
I think it was nice and super sweet of Rockstar Games to do this record, and to recognize that we did stuff.
Shacknews: Some of the actors didn't know they were working on Red Dead Redemption 2 initially. Were you aware of what the project was, or was it somewhat secretive?
David: We were sworn to silence. We had to sign big stacks of stuff every time we recorded. We had to do non-disclosure agreements. It’s great, because then you don’t have to talk about it!
Matt: We were very, very aware. And we still are. I'm a big believer in secret sauce, and I'm a big believer in keeping things quiet.
You can catch Matt and David’s compositions in Red Dead Redemption 2 as well as on the The Housebuilding EP, which is available for streaming on Spotify, iTunes, and the Apple Music Store digitally and on limited edition vinyl now.