In partnership with Square Enix
For many of us, the most exciting event we can hope for in an average day at the office is tactically manipulating the tea round to one’s own advantage, or perhaps an unplanned fire alarm. But while working on Square Enix’s forthcoming blockbuster game, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Steve Szczepkowski found himself living out his rock ‘n’ roll fantasies from the comfort of his office at Eidos Montreal’s Canadian HQ. By day a mild-mannered senior audio director, Szczepkowski is now living a double life as a rock god-in-waiting fronting the band Star-Lord, a group that rocks so hard their latest video, just released, looks like a gnarly 1980s Saturday morning cartoon about kickass heavy metal vikings. Check it out above.
The audacious effort came about following a tweak to Peter Quill’s origin story which dictated that he took his Super Hero name, Star-Lord, from that of his favourite rock band. That presented a problem because, well, there wasn’t a 1980s band called Star-Lord. The solution was to challenge Szczepkowski to fill in the blanks, and he did so by supplying not just a track, but a full-length concept album of period-perfect hard rock that brings to mind stonewash denim and music videos filmed at a desert canyon in a windstorm. Fans of Judas Priest, Megadeth and Meat Loaf should give it a spin immediately.
The album, ‘Space Rider’, stands in addition to a separate orchestral score and an ’80s-tastic licensed soundtrack featuring Rick Astley, Kiss, Gary Numan, Iron Maiden and even New Kids On The Block, which kicks in when you, as Star-Lord, take your team into battle. All of which is to say that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is not only a game that takes its music seriously, it’s one that could change expectations of in-game music forever.
With his Robert Plant ringlets and Motorhead T-shirt, the man who pops up on Zoom to talk about his work on the title – and, in particular, the Star-Lord album he recorded almost single-handedly – looks like he should have been on the cover of Kerrang! a few times back in the 1990s. Turns out he wasn’t, but not for lack of trying. “Up until 30, all I did was play music and work a job for just long enough to keep me on the road,” says Steve. “But once I hit 30, I figured maybe this ain’t gonna happen. So I’ve been waiting in the queue for quite a while now. Sometimes people say luck is actually more just being the guy who hung around long enough!”
There’s a bit of an analogy there with our hero Star-Lord himself – plucked from Earth as a boy in 1989 and fumbling his way to reluctant galactic hero status via a stint as a space mercenary. “If you were a hard rock kid like I was in high school, you can very much relate to the young Peter Quill,” says Steve. “You don’t fit in, the girls don’t like you, your hair is kind of in between long and short, you just can’t obtain this cool factor that you feel is there. I can totally relate to that.”
It’s easy to imagine Peter Quill enjoying the Star-Lord album, with its Frank Frazetta-style cover art, gnarly angular logo (reproduced as a patch on Star-Lord’s jacket in the GOTG game), era-perfect, riff-tastic sound and songs about space adventures. The only period detail missing is problematic lyrics about acceptable-in-the-’80s things. “I sat down with the Creative Director and said to him, ‘Look, I don’t want to cross any barriers because obviously with Marvel and Disney on board, I can’t be writing Motley Crue songs about going to strip joints,’” laughs Steve. “Though I did slip in a reference to the Black Hole Saloon, which sounds kinda dirty.”
Beneath the sci-fi window dressing, says Steve, the album’s themes are universal. “We made a list of about 10 high level topics: family, standing up against the odds, things like this. And when I looked at it at home I’m like, F—, that’s pretty much been my life, you know. Somebody saying, ‘I don’t think you can do that’ and you’re like, ‘OK, well stand back and watch me’. As I started writing, especially the lyrics, I found I was putting myself into it. So I embraced it, saying, ‘Well, I guess I’m really doing a record’.”
Writing an album in the guise of Quill’s favourite band also led Steve to look into his own lifelong love for Kiss, the US band who dress like comic book heroes and rock like demons, albeit these days with thicker make-up and unpopular opinions. Kiss even had their own Marvel title in 1977, the genius gimmick being that the band donated blood and mixed it into the red ink at the press, allowing the publisher to boast that the issue was printed in the band’s own blood. “Even though maybe they’re not the type of people I look up to now, I can look at Kiss and be 12 years old again,” says Steve. “Lyrically, they’ve always been about positivity and believing in yourself, going against the odds and going against the grain.”
That’s a pretty good summary of Steve’s MO while working on the Guardians game, too. Rather than waiting for a list of audio requests from the game designers, he actively worked to incorporate sound and music right at the earliest stages by “being that kid who always wants to get into the game”. That’s how the ‘huddle’ feature, in which you, as Star-Lord, lead the five-strong group into battle to the strains of Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’ or 29 similarly brilliant tracks, came about.
“I’d seen the huddle being worked on around the office and I was like, ‘What could I do for that?’” explains Steve. “So I literally started grabbing some combat footage, muting the score and dragging licenced music in – and then going, ‘Ohhhh, this is kind of cool.’” At first glance, some of the tracks seem slightly incongruous – like Hot Chocolate’s ‘Everyone’s A Winner’ – but that’s where the real magic lies, says Steve. “I discovered the pop songs actually gave the better bang for the buck, because of the juxtaposition with the frenetic combat that’s going on on screen.”
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy represents more than four years of work for Steve, but having heard his brilliant Star-Lord album, you have to wonder if he might soon be leaving Eidos Montreal for that long-delayed career on the stage. Should we expect to see Star-Lord playing Download and Hellfest next year? “I mean, you know what? I would love to get up on a stage opening up for somebody, of course I would, but it’s something that Marvel would have to get behind,” says Steve. So for the time being, he’ll have to content himself with his dad-band, a classic rock covers group who recently reunited for their first practice since the pandemic. “We’re called RockHed,” says Steve, “with one ‘e’ – to make it rock ‘n’ roll official, you know.”
With Guardians’ mix of licenced tracks, score and full-length, brand new album, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a time when established artists will sign up to write albums for games, like, for example, 1960s folkies Simon & Garfunkel doing the soundtrack to the movie The Graduate. “I mean, maybe without realising it, I’m kind of opening up a vanguard here,” says Steve. “Video games is a great medium for music to move into, especially the way the music industry has changed these days. But getting a real band to do it would be a lot more expensive than having your senior audio director write an album!”
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is coming October 26 to PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC and streaming via GeForce. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Cloud Version for Nintendo Switch also coming October 26.
What if: Guardians Of The Galaxy were a band?
Star-Lord singer/songwriter Steve says he thinks of the Guardians of the Galaxy team as a five-piece band. So who’s playing what?
Star-Lord: “The frontman, obviously!”
Drax: “He’s got to be the drummer. I mean, he’s built to beat things.”
Gamora: “I think she would be shredding some guitar licks.”
Groot: “I think he’s holding down the rhythm section with Drax. He’s got the fingers for the bass guitar.”
Rocket Racoon: “I picture him with an SG [guitar] bouncing around the stage like Angus Young from AC/DC.”