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Ben Daglish interview “Music has always been in me”

Ben Daglish interview “Music has always been in me”

I met Ben Daglish in 2016 during the Pixel Heaven Festival in Warsaw. We had a great and busy time together and apart. At one point we sat on the pavement near a trash bin as it was the only semi-quiet place around. I gave Ben my questions on a piece of paper and asked him to have fun with it.

We talked about his relationship with music, instruments and SID chip, but also about his unusual hobbies and obsessions. The first question was We all know who you are, but can you tell us a few words about yourself. Here is the transcript of our talk. All the audio files are damaged beyond repair, but I tried and salvaged some pieces of the video footage that you’ll find below.


Ben: Hi, my name is Ben Daglish and many many many years ago I wrote music for games. Music for lots and lots of games. According to Wikipedia it’s 50, but according to my memory it’s a lot more than that — possibly a 100. And I was working from about 1982 to about 1989-90 in the game industry. Well, I was working in the field of games and I left when it became an industry. When it started becoming very corporate and stopped being fun. So that’s who I am.

I have a bunch of questions here which I’m gonna read out…

Kya: Thank you!

Ben: My pleasure! So, the second one I’ve already answered, Do I know how many games I worked on…

I don’t know how many games I worked on! This is always a problem. Partially because I worked on so many, and partially because I was in my early twenties. And a lot of the money went on drink and drugs, so my memory is a little bit hazy.

Kya: And you’re not a person who counts.

Ben: No indeed, I leave it to other people. There’s things like HVSC, High Voltage SID Collection, which I rely on whenever anybody asks me about if I wrote the music for a game or not, then I have to look it up myself. But I remember the tunes I wrote. I don’t actually remember the names of the games because they all sort of merge into one, you know.

Anyway…

[Ben reading the question quietly: I’ve read you wrote your first piece when you were 12, then you went to school with Tony Crowther and he asked you to write some music for his game. How long did you take to learn to write music on a computer?]

I wrote my first piece when I was 12 — I did, yes! Possibly 13. The first piece of music I wrote was a love song! For a girl I was very much in love with. I wrote it on a hotel piano in Switzerland, which is quite romantic, isn’t it. It didn’t do any good, she didn’t go out with me [we laugh]. It’s a real shame.

And then yes, I went to school with Tony Crowther. He was a year above me.

What actually happened was I entered a competition in the days when the BBC Micro has just been launched. They were very keen for this to become a de facto education machine. So they were trying to to push the BBC Micro to as many schools as they could. They were running all sorts of naughty little competitions, you know, “write your name on a piece of paper and win a BBC Micro”. I wrote an essay for the school — and I won a computer for the school. And so I was one of the few people who were allowed to play on this computer. And one of the other people was Tony. He had his own computer and he was known to be a bit of a programmer. So I got to know him, and he knew that I was a musician.

One day he came along to me and said: “Can you write me the notes for The Death March?” [Ben sings The Death March melody]. So I wrote out five lines and the treble clef, and started writing notes — and he said “No! No, no, in something that I can understand and read!”. So we worked out quickly that I would write out C4 10, C4 10, D# 10 and so it was, writing out in letters. He took that home and he’d put that in for computer. And then, a couple months later, he came to me and said “I want to put Equinoxe 5, Jean-Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe 5 into a game”.

Kya: Could he do that? Royalties and stuff…

Ben: We didn’t know! To this day I’m still waiting for a bunch of French guys, shaven headed big blokes, to knock on the door and say [mimicking French accent]: “Hello Ben, you owe mister Jarre some money”. [we laugh]

Yeah, we didn’t know that you couldn’t do that. We were only 14-15 at the time, I think. And yes, royalties meant nothing to us at all.

So I went around to his house one night, he played the Equinoxe 5 [Ben vocalizes]. I listened to it a few times over and wrote out all the notes. I typed them in for him, it was easier for me to type in than for him to do it, and… that’s how it started!

And then I thought — this is great fun, I could start writing my own music.

So we did. I started going round to his house in the evening, we’d wait until his parents were in bed, and then we’d work until 2-3 in the morning writing music, and I watched him writing games — and it was a great time.

What did you know about a game you were about to start write music for? Did you… Oh, I’m sorry, I missed one. How long did you take to learn to write music on a computer?

I didn’t take me any time to learn to write music on a computer. Because as soon as we’d worked out how we were going to do it — typing in the letters and typing in numbers for durations… ‘cause I was always quite good at maths as well…

Kya: …and music is math.

Ben: Indeed, indeed. So I just typed in the music. It just came to me, it took me no time at all, really.

I suppose the harder bit was learning about the SID chip and learning about the various things it could do, in the wave forms and envelopes and filters and this kind of thing. But again, I knew a little bit about synthesizers beforehand, so it didn’t really took long at all.

[reads] What did I know about a game I were about to start write music for? Did I play all of them? What did the process look like? Someone calls, and then…?

Very often it was just literally someone would call and say “We’ve got a fighting game. Could you write some music for a fighting game”, and I’d go “Yes”. Then I’d write a piece of music and I’d send it up, and sometimes I never saw the game at all. Sometimes you’d go down to the offices of the company and see a quick demo or some demo graphics or something like this, but very often I knew nothing about the game other than a very brief description.

Occasionally you’d get sent the demo in the post, because this is the days before the Internet. It was all passing everything around on floppy disks, so if you wanted to see a game, it was they either put the disc in the post, and then when I finished the music, I’d put a disc back and post it to them, or you have to actually go down to the offices and watch the programmers doing their thing. [we laugh]

So yes, very often. I mean, in the later days, when I was working at Gremlin Graphics — I was the in-house musician for Gremlin Graphics for a couple of years. So then I was in — right from the beginning of writing the game, and sometimes I’ve been involved a bit with the game, things like that as well. So that was nice working quite closely with the programmers right from the beginning.

When I was freelancing it was a complete mix and match, sometimes l’d known nothing about the game at all.

Kya: So, you were the guy, “Hey, we got this game, in that genre, you get us music for that” — “Yeah, okay, I’d do it”?

Ben: That’s how it works. That’s how it worked with all of us, with Rob and Dave, and all of the freelancers. We just churned out tunes.

Where do I find inspiration for my music? Who do you listen to and what do you do to find the right tune? [Ben sighs heavily, we laugh]

Kya: I am sorry for that question, but you know, it’s necessary. What do you do before you start working? Ooh… [pretending to look amazed at the world around us]

Ben: …Aaaah… [waving hands and goofing around] I look at the sky and I look at the flowers… and I look at the beautiful bird… [laughs]

Inspiration… I don’t get inspired as such. Music has always been in me. And I’ve always… Always, even now, there’s a little bit of tunes going round in my head. 

And sometimes… [long pause]

I have a right story. I met a guy once, he was studying classical piano at the piano conservatoire. His father was a structural engineer, used to go all around the world, doing big engineering projects.

One year during the summer he was working in Mali and his son, the pianist, went with him. And while they were there, they had the inauguration of a new tribal king happened. Which is this big kind of a week-long festival, just nonstop music and dancing, and the whole history of the tribe for the last 5000 years is told by the various people that know the bits of it.

There’s a band of about 30-40 musicians, half of whom would be playing at any time. And what people would do is — they’d sit down and they’d start playing. They’d sit down a bit, immediately playing with everybody else, and they’d be playing along for five or six hours. And they’d get up, they’d go have something to eat, then come back, sit down and carry on playing. I think they’d often have a sleep and come back, wake up, and sit down and start playing.

So there’s this constant rotation of musicians happening. They all apparently worked it out — it all sounded like it was composed. Everybody was in with each other.

This friend of mine, the classical pianist — he couldn’t understand this. He said to one of the musicians: “How do you do this? How can you just wake up, have a bit of food, sit down and [snaps fingers] start playing?”.

And this guy said: “Westerners have this strange ideal about writing down music, codifying it all, but for us — music is just here”. It is difficult to do it on a podcast, I’m wobbling my hand over my head. “Music is just here, just floating here, and all we do is we sit down and we just reach out, we grab the same bit that everybody else is grabbing”.

This freaked him out so much he had to stop playing classical piano. He couldn’t go back to just playing dots on a piece of music. So he left to do something else.

And when I think about it, that I think is how music for me is everywhere. It’s just a case of finding the right bit to grab for that day.

Today’s music is, you know, in the key of E flat, and it sounds like this [sings low “bah bah bah”]. It’s just there, it is all the time.

Very often people who aren’t artists think that artists get inspiration from something else. Especially with music, because music is such… almost a cerebral art. It’s difficult to not try and relate it to something in the real world. “This is a piece of music about nature, oh, this is a piece of music about the sea” or something.

And sometimes you can do that. Sometimes you do. I’ve written a lot of music, say, for theatre, where it is very specific: “We want the music that would fit this scene, and it would climax here, and there has to be a feeling of darkness about it”. And so you use a certain number of musical tricks — darkness is a minor key whereas happiness is a major key or something.

But in terms of the inspiration for the notes themselves… They are just — there. There’s nothing that inspires me.

Yeah, that’s a one sentence question and a half hour answer.

Who do I listen to? And what do I do to find the right tune?

I listen to everybody. And actually part of the thing about music being everywhere is — every single piece of music I’ve ever heard is in there somewhere [points at his head]. And especially because the more you play music and the more you learn about music, the easier it is to be able to store it all.

I can remember note for note whole symphonies that I played 30 years ago. I can sing along to three quarters of the hour of music. It’s a bizarre thing, because if you relate that to memory… being able to remember 10 000 notes it’s not like remembering 10 000 numbers.

Kya: Music works in a different way.

Ben: It does, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s the structural pass in the tune.

I remember when I was five or six, telling my great uncle about how I was listening to classical music — I knew what was going to happen before it happened, even though I never heard the piece. I could tell what the tune was going to do.

He was one of the people that said to me, “you must keep doing this, in your life, you know. It’s a rare skill”.

Everybody’s music that I listen to. I hear in terms of patterns. “This is the pattern for this particular person, and for this particular piece of music, this particular artist”, you know.  

Lots of the music that I used to have to write for games — I say “have to write”, because a lot of the time people would say to me: “Can you write a piece of music that sounds like this? Could you write a piece of music that sounds like this TV theme tune or sounds like this particular artist?”. I would try and recall the general pattern of how that tune went, and then I reproduce the same pattern, but just with different notes.

Can I name some of the games I worked on and consider them my favorite for any reason?

Yes! I was just talking in the hall there about “Trap”. “Trap” is the favourite piece of music I wrote. For other people, their favorite is generally “The Last Ninja” music, because there’s lots of it.

Kya: Everybody knows it and it’s very catchy.

Ben: Indeed, yes, I hit my stride with “The Last Ninja” in terms of melody. I think.

And “Deflektor”… I always liked and enjoyed. What I enjoyed about “Deflektor” was finding a really good cowbell sound [laughs]. Like, the only reason this existed was ‘cause I worked out how to make a really nice cowbell sound on the SID. So yes, I wrote the whole piece around it.

Yes, like I said, so many games I worked on, it’s difficult to pull out a… Lots of bits have “my favorite 10 seconds”. The other tunes I wrote, some may be not necessarily my favorite tune, but there might be just, like, one little snippet in there which I remember, rehear and go “oh yes, that particular bit I really liked”.

I have a particular style. I like melody a lot, I like tunes. But also my folky-classically heritage gives a sort of… “Bouncy” — is how a lot of my music is very often described. I write “bouncy” music. And yes, I like bouncy music. So my favorite bits have an odd little bit of bounce, just in the middle of a tune. It certainly makes me start bouncing to them.

So, which modern games from the last 5 years, do I like?

I haven’t seen a lot, to be perfectly honest. I’ve been very impressed with Jon’s “Sociable Soccer”, that looks absolutely lovely, really really nice.

Kya: Did you play yesterday?

Ben: No, I’ve always been rubbish at football games anyway, my thumbs don’t work that way.

I try to remember… Ah, the last game I actually saw and was impressed with was “Fable”. I know it’s older than 5 years, but when I saw that — me and my wife, we talked over the years about writing a game which we had in our heads, it’s a “fairy” game, the game involving a lot of fairy story type things. And then when I saw “Fable”, I thought — oh, yeah, actually that’s near to my ideal game, as it were. If I were to write a game now it would be along these lines. But better! [laughs] No, of course. I enjoyed that.

I collect instruments, yes. 12 years ago I said I own about 50. (Can you really play all of them?)

Yes, it’s about right, there’s probably more now, ‘cause it was 12 years ago. I own about 5 or 6 guitars, a couple of violins… So I got about 10-15 string instruments. I’ve got more whistles than… There’s about 50 whistles in my whistle case. Flagolettes, penny whistles, you know? I collect them, I have one of every kind of whistle that’s being manufactured now — all the cheap ones. And I got a couple of nice, expensive ones, but I actually don’t tend to play them a lot. Also I’ve got a couple of victorian ones, some with lead mouthpieces, so, well, you know. Yes, and two flutes, a clarinet… Hundreds of instruments. You know, a suitcase with little instruments.

I did a show about 10-15 years ago, a theatre show, where I played about 40 instruments on stage. I had a waistcoat with all these little instruments, like little ocarina and a stylophone… I don’t know if you remember a stylophone? [yes] And a thumb pianos, and Jew’s harp… I played my trumpet and my flute, and some of my big wooden bamboo flutes… I counted them one night — and I think I played 40 in one night, changing them all around.

Yeah, I like all the instruments. I see them all as being… they are all tools. They all do the same thing, but they all do it in a different way. I enjoy picking up… I like meeting new instruments.

I found this one instrument that I can’t play. It’s the uilleann pipes. Which is a bit like bagpipes, but they have bellows as well. So you have a bag in one hand and you have bellows on the other side. You have to keep just constant pressure on the bag under one arm, but the bellows you have to be pumping with the other hand, and then you play the chanter with your fingers, so one arm is moving about and one is staying still, and then you switch in the drone with your knee… [gestures wildly]

Kya: …and then you faint.

Ben: They strap the thing onto you… I mean literally there are four or five straps that go around your back and around your waist and so and so. It takes five minutes to strap on the pipes. And then you’re doing this [gestures again] — it’s a little bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, but times ten. It’s a ridiculously hard instrument.

At some point I will master it. But so far it’s the only instrument that has ever beaten me. And even things that I’m not very good at, like the violin, I can make a reasonable sound on it, you know.

Do I consider the computer a musical instrument?

Yes, of course. The chip, the sound chip is a musical instrument. The computer bit is the way that you play it, if you know what I mean. But yes, the SID chip certainly, which is the most famous chip that I worked on.

It was a great musical instrument. It was my first synthesizer and it’s as much a musical instrument as any synthesizer. Which is a unique instrument because its played via the interface of a computer.

When my fingers are touching it, nothing is happening, and that is only later when you hit RUN — then you hear what you’re doing. So it’s a little bit different to playing live.

Though now, with things like the SidStation and things like this, it’s great — you can play the SID live with the keyboard.

I consider everything a musical instrument. Two rocks bang together is a musical instrument. My cheeks are a musical instrument [pops a melody with his cheek]. Everything is. [goofing around] My body is my tool!

[everybody laughs]

Yes, everything is an instrument, potentially.

I was a freelancer, yes. Have I ever been a starving artist?

Not really, no. I mean, I was always… because I started quite young and so by the time I sort of hit my stride and left home and I was making a fair amount of money out of it actually.

When I then left computing and went in to doing real music, as it were… “Real”, well… When I say “real music”, I mean music in the real world rather than just sitting in a studio, you know.

So then I did a lot of playing in theatre and composing for the video and this kind of thing. That was quite… it was a bit harder. When you’re a musician, you have to say “yes” to everything that comes along. So there was a time at which I was doing some session playing and some teaching, and a bit of composing, and a bit of actor-musician work… And so having to sort of run around doing quite a bit in order to maintain sort of a lifestyle to which I had become accustomed [laughs].

So I’ve never been a starving artist. And I’ve always had the programming skills to fall back on. So what then happened was, yes, we had children and got a mortgage and so I started doing more programming — because it was easier, I could do that from home or I could do that office hours. As opposed to, again, when you’re working as a musician, you’re out a lot. You’re out in the evenings, playing or touring or whatever it may be. Which isn’t very conducive to having a family as well, you know.

Let’s move on to today. The band I play with, SID80s, SID80s is one of the bands I play with, I play with quite a few bands — is also known as “Stuck in the ‘80”.

Yes, it’s a sort of a joke on the acronym of sound interface device which is the SID, but also ‘cause we all feel like we were stuck in the ‘80, because all the music that we play is from the ‘80.

What is so awesome about the ‘80?

I was in my twenties! [we laugh for a minute] That’s what was awesome about it.

It was my teenage years. I was 14 in 1980 and 24 in 1990. So, yes, what’s awesome about the ‘80 was I was a carefree youth with a great job and having a great time. Like I often say, that’s why I can’t remember half of it! [laughs]

What do I most like about performing live?

I like audiences. I like seeing them react. I like communicating with audiences and I like seeing the reaction from audiences. I like to see the whites of their eyes [gestures wildly]. I like to be able to… it’s the instant feedback.

If you’re writing in a studio on your own, you have no idea really, whether this music is appealing to anybody other than you. And very often that’s how you have to do it. You have to write it — if I like it, then hopefully other people will like it. But when you’re playing live, you can see on their faces if they’re liking it or not.

When I play my penny whistle, I do things on the penny whistles that most penny whistle players don’t do. Most penny whistlers don’t like it actually. They get a bit annoyed because I’m trying to be Hendricks on a penny whistle, you know. [we laugh]

I do lots of “rrr”, chirli noises and slides and I play some screamingly high notes and things. Sometimes I know I am going too far — and I can see in the eyes of the audience that I’ve gone just slightly too far, so I can pull back a bit.

Yeah. I like the feedback that I get from an audience whatever I’m doing, whether I’m talking on stage or playing or acting or whatever.

All right. What would I do if I wasn’t a composer, musician and programmer?

Huh. Weirdly enough I think I’d probably be a historian.

Music and maths — music and programming is the things I’m good at. And so that’s what I’ve done throughout my life, really. But I have lots of other hobbies, as it were. I get very obsessive about things for a short period of time, and then I’ll just research the hell out of them and learn a lot about it.

I did a period a few years ago where I got into string games, you know? Like cat’s cradle. But sort of… the Inuit in the Philippine string games. They tell stories with loops of string. There’s a whole kind of shapes, you move between one shape and another shape and stuff. And I got very, very into this, and I ended up writing a programming language for string games.

I worked out how how to express it as a logical…. There are a few ways of codifying it. The International String Figure Association has a way which they write down string games — but it wasn’t good enough for me and I couldn’t turn their language into a computer. I couldn’t make my computer do string games and I wanted to do this — so I wrote a way of codifying this. And got into some very interesting discussions with The International String Figure Association. [we laugh hysterically, but Ben is keeping a serious face]. I got into great discussions with them!

An incredible guy called Anoli who is… I think he’s a shaman? He was American Indian shaman, but also he’d been the maths teacher at the real life New York School for Performing Arts. Remember “Fame”? [sings “Fame, I’m gonna live forever”]. Well, that school was based on a real school, it’s not the Juilliard — I can’t remember it — but it is a high school in New York. And he was the maths teacher there. But he’d done his degree in string figures and in the maths, and string figures.

And so we entered into this amazing correspondence. He was sending me with these figures, he’d worked out these ways of developing, like, creating these fishing net types things, with a loop of string kind of 100 feet long — and just looping it, and netting it, looping it and netting it… And he made these, like, tennis net things as he called them. And he was very interested because I was into the programming of string figures.

So yes, I get obsessive about things. And one of the things also I have been very obsessive for many years is Elizabethan London. Elizabethan London was a great love of mine and I’ve spent ages drawing maps and wandering around London, looking at all the bits that are still there and all the rest of it. What I really like is building 3D models of old houses and things — so computer archeology and computer kind of reconstruction of historical buildings and things. I’d probably be doing that. I think. When I think about it, yes.

What else what would I most like to do? In 10-20 years time, when I start thinking about retiring, I may well then go into a university degree in archaeology — because I love learning about the past and the way that we repeat it all.

You can’t know anything about the world unless you know how it all came here. And so many aspects about the world, political, social, economics — we’ve done it all before. There’s nothing really that hasn’t been tried at some point in the past. And if you know about how it went last time, then you can do it a lot better this time. Whereas people that don’t know about it, they repeat the same mistakes. We are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history.

If you were born yesterday, whose C64 music would I recommend to you, except for mine and Rob Hubbard’s?

Right. Well, if you were born yesterday, I’m not sure that I’d want to play it… Maybe leave it a few years, before your ears are developed, you know [we laugh].

Oh, I don’t know. The next generation, as it were, people like Jeroen Tel and Tim Follin, and Chris Hülsbeck and Reyn Ouwehand. They started doing clever things with the SID chip that people like me and Robert thought that you could do, you know, and there’s a lot of that.

I wouldn’t recommend music, I wouldn’t recommend C64 music — in the same way that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this particular piece of jazz music or this particular piece of classical music. Some C64 tunes are great, some are rubbish, some folk is great, some is rubbish. If I was to pluck out particular pieces, we would be here all day. But it’s all… it’s all good! It’s all good to listen to as much as you can and make your own judgments, you know.

I’m not going to tell you you must listen to this particular piece of music. And the same with groups. There are many groups I’m very into, and when I get drunk I start insisting that people listen to this. But on a normal day, no, I’d say: “listen to as much as you can”, you know?

Because the more you listen to, the more you understand, the more you learn. Even if you’re not particularly musical, you still can… I mean things like, say, difficult music. There’s a lot of music that’s quite difficult to listen to, and needs you to listen to a lot of music beforehand to kind of work your way up to it. Like, say, you know “The Rite of Spring”? Stravinsky piece. [Yes]. Yes, it’s a difficult piece to listen to, if you haven’t already listened to some late 19th-early 20th century orchestral music.

But once you have, and then you hear “The Rite of Spring”, on your third or fourth listening you suddenly go: “My word, this is a work of genius”. But when you hear it first, it just sounds like a lot of random noise.

Is there any new project of mine in the making that I am excited about?

I am too old and jaded to get excited about anything, my dear! [we laugh]. Every project I do I enjoy. As I said, I love playing with… Yeah, I’m quite excited about playing with Jon [Hare] tonight actually!

Kya: Did he tell you what to expect?

Ben: Not really, no, he just said “Oh yeah, they’re very enthusiastic here”. And he said he’s going to teach me this song, “Whisky”? Is it? Which I believe he just about can work out the chords to. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it before, but I’ll just play along anyway — because that’s what we do.

Yes, my next project is doing a gig tonight with Jon. We haven’t rehearsed yet. We’ll get half an hour together at some point to have a quick rehearsal. [we laugh]

I’ve played with John quite a lot in the past in various combinations. He’s a very easy musician to work with. I like to think he thinks the same about me. We get on well. We communicate well on stage, so even if we haven’t rehearsed, I am sure it will come out sounding all right.

[They did.]

What would I like to say to all the retro fans at Pixel Heaven?

You’re not geeky enough! You’re too social! There’s too many people, like, sitting just out, drinking beers and chatting, and then there’s women here and everything! You really wouldn’t get this at a geek conference in Britain. Yes, so far the Polish geeks are the least geekiest geeks I’ve ever met!

Yeah, get more geeky, blokes, come on, get your heads down and [in squealing voice] just playing games and not thinking about anything else, like, ‘girls’. [we laugh]

Kya: We started later than you, so we have been warned.

Ben: Yes, yes indeed! I love it. I love it here. What I tell you — I said it earlier on stage — about one of the things I really like about it, is how not corporate it is. How there’s no Sony stand here, there’s no Microsoft stand here. Most of the game shows I go to, yes, it’s Sony with this huge PlayStation tent with 15 machines. There is none of that here. It’s all small independent games producers. And it’s great. It’s really giving me a renewed faith in the 21st century gaming industry, to be honest. Yes. And thank you for inviting me and I hope you invite me back next year. It’s been a pleasure. [kisses] Thank you.


Thank you, Ben. It was a pleasure and a privilege. Goodbye and see you on the other side.

<3

Kya

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