Last action hero: Tango Fiesta composer Gavin Harrison on bringing back the 80s

Early Access shoot-em-up Tango Fiesta is ditching the grey palette and worn out, foghorn laden scores of today’s action games to take us on a trip down memory lane,...
Tango Fiesta

Early Access shoot-em-up Tango Fiesta is ditching the grey palette and worn out, foghorn laden scores of today’s action games to take us on a trip down memory lane, with developer Spilt Milk keen to remind us that action didn’t always come with a side-order of grit. Yes, we’re looking at you messrs Borne and Bond.

In fact, back in the 80s, the word ‘action’ meant something else entirely. It meant Bruce Willis taking on sharp-dressed, sharp-tongued German terrorists. It mean’t Arnold ‘get to the chopper’ Schwarzenegger taking down ugly motherf*cker’s in vaguely named jungles. Back then, more than anything, action meant ‘fun’, and lots of it.

By taking the events from every single 80’s action film and mashing them all together into a single game, the Spilt Milk team are hoping to recapture some of that magic by serving up an explosive, bullet-ridden, ass-kicking slice of action-arcade pie.

Intrigued by the their noble mission, we caught up with Spilt Milk’s composer-in-chief, Gavin Harrison, to find out how Tango Fiesta will be bringing back not only the style, but the sound of the 80s.

Side One: How did you first become involved in the project? 

Gavin: I’ve known Andrew, a.k.a. Spilt Milk, for a while. He was one of the first people I knew in the industry. All in all there are four of us on the team, we’re the main core, and we all did a game jam at Rezzed about two years ago. As well as me, Andrew also knows Ewan, the artist, and Andrew Roper, the coder, so we all got together at this jam and that’s really where the game was born.

What was the inspiration behind Tango Fiesta?

None of us really knew what the genre would be, but we joked before hand that it would be really funny if it was 80s related because we all love the action movies from that era. Then, as luck would have it, they actually pulled 80s out of the bag, so that was that.

The name came about when we ate at a Argentinian restaurant the night before in Birmingham. There was a poster on the wall for what we assumed was a dance class called Tango Fiesta, and we all agreed that whatever happened at the jam, that was going to be the name of our game. 

Hah, it seems inspiration strikes in the most unlikeliest of places. Now, winding back the clock, how did your involvement in the sound industry come about?

My first foray into the music scene was in the late 80s, early 90s, when the demo scene was pretty big. I started out doing a bit of programming, and I was okay, but I was clearly never going to be very good at it. Then I started using the old Tracker Pro on Spectrum, and that got me into music. I built my own leads and connected a synth to my Spectrum, and then it just snowballed.

I also did the whole ‘pub band’ thing when I was in my late-teens, because a friend told me I had to learn guitar.

What was the band called?

We were called Sacrafix. It was a death metal band, but a friend and I managed to turn it a bit more indie. We ended up at the Placebo end of the spectrum, I think.

“The name actually came about when we ate at a Argentinian restaurant the night before in Birmingham.”

Anyway, I did music A-levels, and in my 20s I managed to get a bit of music work here and there, but I couldn’t tell you the moment it all changed. I share a studio now with a friend, who’s a drummer, and he started doing music for TV and I got pulled along with him, I guess.

After that I started doing music for games. I’ve always been interested in them, so I did some sound effects for a game and it just sort of snowballed from there. I then got in touch with Orange Pixel, who develops retro-inspired games, and I pitched that I do the music for his next game using a Spectrum.

People started taking note after that, and I couldn’t pick a watershed moment, but that’s how it all started.

Wheeling back around to Tango Fiesta. Did you look towards any particular movies or soundtracks for inspiration?

Yeah, definitely. I always say this about anything I do, and the score is very much a work in progress, but each level is themed around an 80s film. ‘Loosely based’ would be the appropriate phrase, I suppose. For each level I’d research the soundtrack quite a lot, listening to each composer, researching what they were doing at that time, and drawing from their influences.

I wanted my tracks to stand on their own while being a recognisable homage, you know, like the extra song that never made it on the soundtrack.

You’re one of the first composers I’ve spoken to who’s working on a game in early access. Is that a weird situation to be in?

Yeah, kind of. I would say that when you first go into early access it’s weird because your work really isn’t finished, and you know that, but you have to rely on the players to take that into account.

That being said, on the audio side of things I think you can get away with it a bit more because people can’t play a broken game, so from a coder’s point of view there’s a lot more pressure on them.

Beyond that I’ve found that we’re almost chasing out tail a little bit. We try and update every couple of weeks, so a lot of our time is spend working on those things rather than creating new stuff. The hardest part is definitely being judged on work that isn’t finished, though.

How do you go about writing tracks for a game in early access. Do you just get something basic down and then slowly build on that?

“Early access is weird because your work really isn’t finished, and you know that, but you have to rely on the players to take that into account.”

Yeah, it’s going back to the influences. So when I listen to a soundtrack, for example one was themed on The Running Man, I ask what are the key instruments used by the composer on that soundtrack? I then work around that structure to replicate the sound.

Our audio is slightly adaptive, in that there are three objectives and when you complete an objective the music ramps up a bit. So there are three layers. That’s adaptive in it’s most simple form, but it’s been interesting making sure those layers work together when they’re put together.

Will it be hard to take a step back when you do finally reach the finish line, because you’ve been working on it for so long?

I quite like having that. I don’t think I’ve worked on many games where the deadline hasn’t been pushed back. I sometimes find that quite difficult, because I’ll often finish the music way before the game’s due to release, which means there’s temptation to go back and tinker with it.

The deadline lets me know when somethings done. It lets me move on, and not because I don’t enjoy working on things, but because I could endlessly work on things. I need that cut off point to tell me when to stop.

Speaking of moving on, do you have any projects lined up post-Tango Fiesta?

I’m very rarely unable to talk about stuff, but this is one of those times. The Robotality guys who did Halfway are working on something, so I hope to work with them again. Nothing’s really confirmed though. There is another game that’s in the works, which I can’t say anything about, but other than that I’m open to offers.

My main ongoing thing is doing pieces for TV.

Do you prefer writing music for TV or games?

I guess the TV work I do is a bit different because it’s stock music, and although it’s not of a lesser standard it’s not bespoke so it has its advantages, but in a different way.

With TV music I get afforded the opportunities to work at Abbey Road, and no game, currently, has been able to offer that.

If you were given free rein to pick your next project, what would be your dream scenario?

It would absolutely be something like F-Zero or WipEout. I would love to work on something with a neon theme, particularly a racer. I’d also love to work on something that’s purely electronic. I’m a massive analogue synth-head, and I’ve tried where I can to use only analogue keyboards. That’s been good fun.

“I like having a deadline because it lets me know when something is done. It lets me move on.”

So yeah, an 80s influenced driving game would do it.

Are there currently any plans to release the Tango Fiesta soundtrack?

Yeah, I think it’s going to go up on Steam along with the game, and it’ll probably go up on Bandcamp as well. The one thing I will say about game soundtracks is that in-game the sounds will loop, and I don’t just want to stick those on an album. In an ideal world I’ll have time to get the soundtrack ready for launch, but it will need to be a bit more bespoke, and mastered and mixed in a different way.

We’ll see, but there are definitely plans.

Finally, you just mentioned that you’re a massive ‘synth-head’, so to close could you tell us which albums are required listening for synth fans?

Oh, wow. I’m a massive Jean Michel Jarre fan. I know that’s sort of middle of the road electronica, but anything by him will always hold a special place in my heart. So, yeah, anything by him and Vangelis, but they’re the obvious ones.

I would say actually, one of the albums I keep coming back to at the moment is Mezzanine, which isn’t exactly a synth album, but it does hold up as one of the greatest albums of all time. The whole piece of work is absolutely amazing. The Drive score was just absolutely brilliant as well.

When it comes to keyboard and stuff, I absolutely love Future Islands. Chvrches are also up there, as are Nine Inch Nails, although that’s going back a bit. Finally, there’s a group called Telefon Tel Aviv, and they’re unfortunately no longer about, but they completely inspired me and made me start writing music again.

Thanks to Gavin for his time. Tango Fiesta is currently available on Steam Early Access for £9.99

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