Q&A: HEALTH's John Famiglietti On Scoring Max Payne 3
An enfeebling hollowness characterizes HEALTH's dark electronic pop. On 2007's HEALTH and 2009's Get Color, the Los Angeles-based quartet seemed to specialize in what might be described as "Grim Reaper ambient": vocals and tinny synthesizers bled through filters until impossibly brittle, riding a four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse forward-momentum to its doom, drenched in absinthe. Remember the look on Elijah Wood's face in Return of The King, right after he's been impaled and cocooned by that humongous spider? HEALTH embody that expression; there's something hopelessly beyond the pale about the sounds singer/guitarist Jake Duzsik, guitarist/keyboard player Jupiter Keyes, bassist/Zoothorn player John Famiglietti, and drummer B.J. Miller make together.
News that HEALTH were scoring the third Max Payne video game didn't come as a complete shock: there's always been a pointedly cinematic cast to their sickly, undulating pulsations. What's surprising is how easily the group adapted to the soundtracking genre requires, pouring its distinctive echoes and flutters into hair-raising interlude pools largely free of vocals yet as richly evocative as the verse-chorus-verse anti-arias on its studio records. Ironically, in the act of adding dimension to an ultra-violent videogame, HEALTH evolves: "Tears" is a tableau of stuttering cyborg desolation, the sinister "Dead" seethes static and slow-motion explosions, and "Torture" bends plangent guitar figures into a meditation on loneliness, while "Max: Panama" evokes It's All Around You-era Tortoise.
SOTC emailed with Famiglietti about making the Max Payne 3 soundtrack and how HEALTH hooked up with Rockstar Games in the first place.
What was the first time that music stood out for you in a video game?
Streets of Rage 2. It was a side-scroller, beat-'em-up game that was completely driven by its pumping, emotional dance music soundtrack. It's really great music.
How and when was HEALTH approached to score Max Payne 3? Were you fans of the games?
Rockstar came to a show in New York and took us out to dinner late last yeara bit of a "cold call," if you will. I was familiar with the games, but had never played them. Right after the dinner, I grabbed a friend's PS2 and the first two games and beat them immediately.
Have you beaten Max Payne 3 yet?
Oh, most definitely. Twice so far.
Was the game pretty much finished at the point where they brought you in, or was it still a work in progress?
The game was still being worked on when we came on the project. Levels would change pretty radically during the whole time we were composing, and we kept composing and changing things right up to two weeks before the release date.
Were the songs wholly inspired by the game, or did you come into the sessions with prepared pieces and ideas?
Mostly inspired by the game. Most of the time we were finding ways to adapt our sound into "score" form to work with the game, and then getting inspired by the look and mood of each level and where it took place in the story. There were a handful of pieces that were adapted from our own songs or stuff we'd already written, though.
What was it like to hear your own music in a television commercial?
It was cool. I thought the spot was well done, and really featured the music.
Were your friends freaking out about it? Was there anybody who didn't know you were involved with the making of this game who saw the commercial was caught unawares?
We've had a pretty unanimous "What the fuck!?" from friends and fans alike. We've gotten a lot of bewildered since once the commercial started airing. Even now, it's really hard to get fans to realize that we scored the whole game; they think we just did a song or two for it or something.