The impressive thing about composer Grant Kirkhope is that it doesn’t really matter which of his two most famous games – Banjo-Kazooie or GoldenEye – you played first: as a kid, you could hear magic at work in the music, whether it was the colourful bear-and-bird platformer or the slick shooter, Kirkhope managed to soundtrack them both so well, we’re still talking about them today.
Now, with two decades and a monumental list of musical achievements piled to his name, Kirkhope is back on Banjo-Kazooie and revisiting the soundtrack’s iconic tunes for an album of remixes called – appropriately – Banjo Kazooie: Re-Jiggyed.
You’d think returning to your own music would be a simple task, but Kirkhope – chatting to me from his home in LA – pleads that it was anything but.
“I’ve been wanting to [return to Banjo-Kazooie] for years. I probably started a couple of years ago, but honestly, I found it hard to really remix my own stuff. I don’t know why, it just seemed like pulling teeth!.”
It ended up taking Kirkhope a couple of years to put the remixes together, and he chiselled away at the album “in bits and pieces”. Whilst Kirkhope had his eyes and ears firmly on the mixing board, the long process of sorting the legal ramifications of the album out was progressing in the background. Games music rights are infamously a thorny issue, and while the soundtrack was unmistakably Kirkhope’s, it still technically belonged to Rare.
With the help of a site that specialises in video game song covers, Kirkhope managed to release Banjo Kazooie: Re-Jiggyed in October this year, and the end result is a fantastic love letter to the game – though not everything sounds exactly like you’d remember it. Instead of remixing each track like-for-like, Kirkhope wanted to take his legacy in a completely new direction.
“I really wanted to do something that was different, because a lot of people have remixed my stuff over the years,” he explains. “But they just kind of stick to the standard, you know, whatever the game version did. I thought there’s no point in me doing that, because there’s a gazillion versions out there that are really good. So I wanted to try and make it different and add different styles – as much as I could possibly chuck in everything and the kitchen sink – so that’s what I did.”
He points to turning Gobi’s Valley into an orchestral piece with metal guitars “like Metallica or Nightwish“, and transforming the iconic Click-Clock Woods theme into a GameBoy-esque 8-bit piece. I ask if that’s why I can detect a little bit of ska in Freezeezy Peak, and he happily admits that his younger days in a soul band – which he says used to support Bad Manners – may have crept in.
With some creatively vocalised ska noises, Kirkhope explains that he likes the “oompah-type thing” of the genre and says ska is “very like Banjo-Kazooie“. He went in looking for a tune to ska-ify, and eventually landed on Freezeezy Peak.
Kirkhope’s trumpet-wielding days also came in handy at another point during the production of Re-Jiggyed. As Kirkhope mastered the instrument in his youth he befriended Simply Red‘s Tim Kellet, and the two have been friends for “donkey’s years”.
“Tim Kellett is a friend I’ve known from school, we both were trumpet players. But he ended up being in Simply Red, who were a huge pop band back in the 80s, and he played trumpet for them.”
Kirkhope thought it would be “fun for him” to cover Bubblegloop Swamp, and asked Kellett if he’d take a shot at it. Kellett said he’d “have a go” at the song and the result is the Bubblegloop Swamp version that ended up on the album, which Kirkhope says is “mostly [Kellett’s] track”.
Similarly, the guitar-shredding Rusty Bucket Bay cover features Jules Conroy (also known as YouTuber FamilyJules) who Kirkhope credits as a “good friend and a great player”.
With some special guests and Kirkhope’s own playful spin on things, Banjo Kazooie: Re-Jiggyed turned out to be a wonderfully creative endeavour, and perhaps more of a departure from the source material than fans may have imagined. That being said, it was always going to strike more of a (literal) note for Banjo-Kazooie fans, who regard Kirkhope as genuine royalty.
In a nightmarish scenario for the industry, Kirkhope shares that there were multiple points where he almost never became a video game composer. After 11 years of gigging around and living with his mum, the thought of a real job struck Kirkhope as bizarre – laughing, he describes how, at the time, “no one I knew got a ‘job'”.
Luckily, fellow composer Robin Beanland – who still works at Rare – pointed out that perhaps 33 was a good age to move out from his mum’s house, and nudged him into applying for a position at the studio. After spending a year sending Rare cassettes of “tunes I thought were appropriate for video games” without a reply, the studio finally invited him in for an interview with Dave Wise. While Kirkhope clearly did well enough to start working at Rare in 1995, his first day hit him like a truck.
“I went in with no idea what it entailed, right? I had no idea: I just thought it would be like MIDI files and what I was used to doing at home. My first job was working on the original grey GameBoy, so that was converting Dave Wise’s music from Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest to work on the original GameBoy. I just had no idea… It was ridiculously hard!
“I remember the first day, it was done in Hex – Hex is just like four numbers on a screen, it’s just a hexadecimal code. I was used to playing keyboards, not to typing it in. I was like, ‘what’s this’?”
Despite Wise showing him what to do, Kirkhope immediately felt it was “way too hard” and called Beanland with resignation already in his mind.
“I said ‘Robin, I’m going to have to resign after my first day – I just can’t do that’. He said ‘Don’t be stupid; get Dave back tomorrow. Get him to write it down, step by step’.”
The next day, Wise came back and helped put together “a massive list of steps” to follow, which Kirkhope, chuckling, clarifies was to add a single note into the GameBoy. From there, Kirkhope – as anyone with a Nintendo 64 will tell you – smashed it. But his legacy didn’t come together easily – not by a long shot.
“Then I got to do GoldenEye right, and that was kind of poppy music again. But it’s still compressing the music, compressing the sounds to get it in there. It’s very limited, so it’s a big steep learning curve. I have no idea how that worked… I can’t believe we did it.”
There’s a lot about Rare that might welcome disbelief – least of all the fact that they fired out so many gems in such a short span of time: Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark? Somehow, all Rare, and all within a four-year period. Better than most, Kirkhope knows of the magic that went on behind the doors of the iconic British studio.
“Being at Rare was brilliant back then. I mean, to be at that company at that period of time when they just became those ‘golden years of Rare’, when they just made hit after hit. You know, to get to do Banjo-Kazooie as my first game where I did it all by myself, all the music and all the sound effects and get the chance to work on GoldenEye and Donkey Kong and all the rest of it – who’d have thought? It was just a complete fluke! I look back and I go: how the bloody hell did that happen?”
Since those golden years, Kirkhope has gone on to compose for a number of high-profile games, from Yooka-Laylee to Civilisation: Beyond Earth and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, to name a very select few. Nintendo fans in particular will quickly recognise his contribution to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, as he was invited to provide music for the beloved bear and bird’s return in 2019.
“If you told me that, in 1995 outside of Rare, I’d never believe you! It’s ridiculous that I’ve got to do that; get tunes in Smash, do Civilisation.”
To work on Banjo and Kazooie’s triumphant high-profile return, Kirkhope talks about being contacted by a “super secretive” Nintendo. He remembers thinking “surely, it can’t be Banjo, because it’s been so many years – he should’ve been in there by now!” and assumed that it would be for something Rabbids-related. To his glee, he was wrong: Nintendo wanted to have him, personally, soundtrack the fighter pack.
The back-and-forth process of bringing the right music to Banjo and Kazooie’s fighter DLC involved using a Scottish Nintendo employee living in Japan to act as an intermediary between himself and Sakurai, who was “super nice” with feedback. After frequent revisions on the soundtrack, Kirkhope finally got to see the iconic Spiral Mountain rebuilt as a modern Smash map. He found himself “in tears watching it”.
As it turned out, the most emotional part of the journey would come when the rest of the fans got to share the moment. It was a tense wait – Kirkhope was under strict orders not to announce anything until after Banjo was live on the Smash website. Once the DLC was announced and fans were partying, Kirkhope was sat at home “bursting to go it’s me! it’s me! it’s me!” until he was finally given the greenlight to join in on the celebrations.
“I was in tears at the reveal, even though I knew it was coming.” he recalls. “I was watching the Nintendo store in New York when it got announced and it was like England scoring a goal. I knew the store and the people there, and I’ll never forget that moment – people went absolutely ballistic. “Those moments only happen once in a lifetime. Sometimes when I’m down, I’ll go back and watch those videos and it super cheers me up. It was absolutely brilliant, they’re so nice to me.”
Is it really such a surprise that Banjo-Kazooie has left such an impact on so many people? Given Nintendo’s affinity with younger gamers, the incredible output of Rare during its iconic golden years, and that special magic something Kirkhope managed to weave into his games, it makes sense that the reappearance of such well-known characters would create such an international stir. When Kirkhope tells me of some interactions with fans, it confirms that I’m far from the only one whose childhood was deeply affected by his music.
“People often say to me, I did the soundtrack of their childhood. I feel like I’m just as down to Earth as when I started, I haven’t changed at all – I’m just a bloke that writes music. But I do get those emails sometimes where people say “I played the game with my mother who was dying of cancer” or something dreadful like that, they just break your heart. When you play Banjo-Kazooie, and it brings back their mother and all that stuff to them – it brings it all back as if it was yesterday – I can feel it. I’m so lucky, and all games composers are lucky to be in that situation where they get to be a little part of people’s childhoods. It’s so humbling to be a part of that, and that never gets wasted on me.””
The community surrounding Kirkhope and his contributions to gaming is plain to see, even from a cursory glance at his Twitter account. While the golden years of Rare may be looked back on fondly, we’re well and truly in the midst of an on-going golden era for gaming and the relationships it builds.
“I think in games – especially with the Smash thing – you really feel like it does bring people together,” reflects Kirkhope. “My son is 19, he’s a massive gamer. His whole community is online, all of his friends are online. His playlist he listens to every day is all games music. It’s incredible. It’s such a massive force, gaming, now. For me to be the tiniest part of it is such a privilege.”
With Kirkhope revisiting Banjo-Kazooie for Re-Jiggyed, I was curious to know whether he saw another game ahead for the franchise, which will soon be available on the Nintendo Switch. The ultimate question on everyone’s mind, really, is ‘will there ever be another new Banjo-Kazooie game’?
“I would like to see it, but honestly? I think we’ll never see it. That’s my honest opinion. Rare couldn’t do it because it’s super busy with Sea Of Thieves, and that’s doing really well. “It would have to farm Banjo out to an outside studio. If they could find another studio that got the humour, and was passionate about making the game, that would be a possibility. But whether there’s a market for it… I’ve got that bubble of Banjo-Kazooie fans, is it enough for them to make money out of it? At the end of the day, it’s got to be down to money for Microsoft and for Rare.
That being said, Kirkhope happens to know one particular studio that he thinks would be a perfect fit for Banjo.
“Knowing the team at Ubisoft Milan, because I’ve done the Mario Rabbids game and I’m doing Sparks Of Hope with them right now, I think they could do it. I know they get the Mario thing so fantastically well, and I think they could get the Banjo thing fantastically well. I feel like they could do it – though I doubt they would – but knowing those guys, how passionate they are about making games, I feel like they’d be a great fit for that title. But, it’s money right? It’s gotta be the money –show Rare the money, you can make the game.”
Then again, there’s the upcoming Perfect Dark reboot – which Kirkhope says didn’t sell “anywhere near” as well as Banjo-Kazooie – that’s found a home with Crystal Dynamics. Alongside Banjo and Kazooie’s overwhelming fan reaction to their Smash announcement, Kirkhope wonders if perhaps there could be another game ahead, and if he’d be able to soundtrack it.
“I don’t know whether I’ve got enough Banjo-isms left in me. I hope so, I’d love to do it, of course I would, but they might want some young go-getter to do it. I’d love to do it if they asked me, of course I’d do it, but whether or not they’d ask me I don’t know.”