Interview: Petri Alanko

Petri Alanko is the composer of the upcoming Remedy game Control. He is probably best known for the soundtrack to Alan Wake, however he has been involved in a lot of other productions as well. He is known as Lowland and has released two albums, Classical Trancelations 1 & 2, with classical arrangements of famous EDM tracks. Petri Alanko performed tracks from Classical Trancelations on a concert with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in 2016. This is an interview conducted a few months prior to that concert when he visited Malmö in Sweden for game music concert Joystick 8.0.

You are most famous for the Alan Wake soundtrack. Can you tell me about some of your other projects?

I started working with RedLynx after Alan Wake and my first project with them was a small one, meant to be published only on Nintendo Wii. It was called MotoHeroz and I have to say it was quite a miserable project because it had to use tracker music and the last time I had done such a thing was when I was 16. I think it was almost 20 years since the last time. It was quite a stretch due to the memory capabilities. Then a short while after that, RedLynx asked me if I wanted to make music for Trials Evolution including the DLC packages. Then I worked on the Trials Fusion and DLC packages. So I have a long history with both Remedy and RedLynx.

So you ticked off two of the most famous Finnish game developers already.

Pretty much. Actually there are quite a few upcoming startups that I would like to see go into a full bloom mode, but I’m not sure if they will manage to. You know, on App Store there are like 600 new games a day, so you have to be really good and have a decent marketing budget in order to be able to conquer that market. Some of the startups I’m working with don’t even have a company name yet but their game ideas are quite brilliant. They are combining old classic game ideas with real-time multiplayer. But I better keep my mouth shut about this so I won’t destroy my NDAs. However, in addition to RedLynx and Remedy I’ve been doing stuff with for instance SmallGiant Games, Ministry of Games and PlayRaven. I did music for Winterstate and then some stuff for Robocide.

Was it clear from the beginning of the Quantum Break development that you would write the music?

I was contacted after Alan Wake’s American Nightmare so these things chronologically happened almost at the same time. But I was there when they started discussing about the new project and they asked whether I was interested at all in doing new stuff with them, especially after such a long project as Alan Wake was. After I heard about the first draft of the plot and saw the first cinematic, I sort of fell right into it. It was something I always had wanted to do because of the big scale. There was a time machine involved, time anomalies, and lots of agent stuff and things like that. Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a project? It was such a boyish moment after quite a dramatic and sinister music of Alan Wake. I thought it would be a really nice thing to participate in that project to bring some balance into my world. Of course, I didn’t know back then that it would take yet another four and a half years of my life. But you know, it’s Remedy and the game is ready when it’s ready.

You got some restrictions on instruments to not use in Alan Wake. Was it the same with Quantum Break?

Yes, pretty much the same, just that I wasn’t supposed to be working with an orchestra at all this time. We actually agreed that we should try to use my analogue synth arsenal this time. I dusted off quite a few ”dinosaurs” that I happened to have in my garage and at my parents house. My studio isn’t really that large so I can’t keep everything there. For a short while it was probably the most cluttered place there is on Earth.

So you have your studio at home?

Yes. When I wake up, I walk down six meters, drink my tea or morning coffee and have my bagel. Then I walk up some 12 meters and that’s it. That’s my work trip daily. However, I’ve actually gotten into this habit of visiting Remedy almost daily. Their headquarter is only like 10-12 kilometers away from my house and I happen to like the guys. So we go to have lunch every day and it’s a good break for me to drive there and listening to music while driving.

Aren’t you almost like an in-house composer at Remedy nowadays?

Well, a sort of in-house composer yes. But I’m only on a long gig at Remedy, so I’m not an employee or anything like that.

I read that back in 2010 you worked completely on your own in your home studio. Is that still the case?

Unfortunately yes. I’m not naming recorded audio tracks. It’s all untitled. Also, it’s due to my habits; that I work recursively, I mean that a song intro can be 100 % ready and there isn’t even a hint of outro yet. So it would be quite an uncomfortable environment for an assistant to try to fit in. I would like to have people around me, but unfortunately it seems that it wouldn’t be that good of an idea.

So, do you plan to continue working in the same way?

For now, yes. I haven’t ditched the idea of an assistant, but so far I feel that I maybe should proceed by my own. I don’t know really.

How did you enter the games industry?

Ah, that was a nice set of accidents really. I have to go back even further because it all started with the club scene in Finland. Back then I met a few guys. We got along quite well and made some tracks together. Some of those tracks ended up in several places. I worked with one of the guys on some dance trance EDM music, or whatever it was called back then. He later on went to work with Futuremark, a computer benchmark company. They happened to have a summer party and then my old friend got a question from a Remedy representative if he knew anyone who was capable of doing modern orchestral music with an electronic twist. Luckily he knew only me, so he gave my number and the next week the phone rang and Remedy invited me over. They were really, I don’t know cautious, but they were like ”are you really interested in doing this?”. I tried to keep cool and acted as down to earth as I could. Then they showed me a few pictures and cinematic samples. I was sold. That was something I had always wanted to do and, I don’t know if it’s OK to say, but that saved my life. Later on, I’m pretty much willing to say that. It was a profound and important change in my life. It paved the way to other good things as well.

This must have been back in 2004?

I think the first contact was made in 2004, but I found some cinematic files that had a ”Remedy confidential, Petri Alanko” label on them 2005. Those were the first cinematics I ever did with them. Then of course, I had to do a demo after the first demo. I’m not exactly sure but I think it all started in 2004. It could be that my memory is not working perfectly well due to a really bad boat trip from Helsinki to Stockholm last night. Two hours sleep.

You have stated that music composition is not only something you work with, but rather a lifestyle.

Yes, because if you are a salesman or working in an office, you’re able to leave your job behind when you finish your day. But unfortunately, the things that have been ringing or playing in my head all day don’t fade when I rise up from the chair and go running or riding a bicycle. They just keep playing and they do so until I manage to force them out.

Has there been any performances of Alan Wake on other concerts previous to Joystick 8.0?

There were two actually in Helsinki last year. But this is the first one outside Finland. Also, this is the first time Alan Wake is being performed together with other international game music. The two concerts in Finland were dedicated to Finnish game music.

I’ve noticed that Finland finally has got the attention on game music concerts, with several international productions stopping by in the last years.

I actually haven’t heard anything about those ones. Maybe the marketing wasn’t that good. It’s a bit of a mystery to me actually. A friend of me told me that he attended a concert, I don’t even remember in which city. And I was like: oh, what!?

Apart from the secret smartphone games you hinted on earlier, are you working on anything else right now?

Because the manuscript of Quantum Break was changed quite drastically several times throughout the project, I had already made quite a lot of music for the old manuscript with several leftovers. I actually took those and started putting together an album with the leftovers and also some new material that isn’t Quantum Break-related. The leftover material is more beat-driven and it has a darker, more sinister and more aggressive sound. It all fits together quite well and therefore I decided to put it on an album. I don’t have any deadline for this. All the songs are composed already, but finding the time to finish each mix is going to be hard. And it will be quite a nasty job.

Then I have a hobby thing of mine that has gotten a bit out of hand. I made a classical so called trancelations album some years ago and it was released by Armada Music. Then a year ago I released a second one. A friend of mine, DJ Orkidea, also known as Tapio Hakanen, used to be Nokia’s head sound designer. Then later on when Nokia was sold to Microsoft, he was Microsoft’s head sound designer in the mobile phone area. Tapio is quite a good DJ and he got this stupid idea that hey guess what: we’re going to do this with an orchestra. So we’re going to play classical trancelations compositions together with some new tracks live in August 26 at the Helsinki Festival 2016. It’s happening with Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra at Helsinki Music House. I’ve never been this nervous this early really because it’s going to be really nerve-wrecking. I have a classical background and I used to play a lot of piano, I have done some 1 200 gigs or maybe even more, so I know what it’s all about. However, it’s going to be really different because of the scale, because of the orchestra. You know, I shouldn’t be the weakest link on stage so that’s a lot of pressure. I will have to spend my summer on practicing.

Which instrument will you be playing?

Grand piano.

I read that you were trained in playing the organ as well.

Yes, that’s right.

Have you performed live?

Well, when I switched from piano to organ, I was quite a young boy. When I was in high school, I sort of decided that I should probably head towards pop music, rather than classical. So it sort of faded away. Then after high school, I started studying theoretical physics and musicology.

Sounds like an interesting combo.

Yeah, it’s called a ”stupid combination which probably leads to unemployment eventually”. I realized that pretty soon and at this time I decided to go for pop songs instead. However, I had a really good teacher but unfortunately I was so damned lazy and stupid that I didn’t respect the guy. His name was Kalevi Kiviniemi and he is one of the most renowned organ players nowadays. He was a really smart guy and had good stories. His pedagogical eye was something I had never met before. He knew how to lure the student into loving stuff. He knew exactly which classical composers to use in order to make things happen. So in my case, what really lit up the world to me was Gabriel Pierné, a French composer. His preludes were something I really loved. But because the studying of organ in Finland is so formulated and you have to study e.g. Bach’s chorales I couldn’t stand that. I couldn’t stand the idea that I should be playing in a church when 80-year old ladies are singing behind your back, and the pitch is lagging. You should keep the pace and playing the chorales. And you should do that 20-25 times. So, I decided that this is it. I don’t like this anymore. It sort of stopped there. But for a short while, I really thought that maybe that was something I could do for the rest of my life. Then the pop thing happened. Or actually, before that: I ran out of money, you know the usual thing. I needed some money, so I went working in a music shop. However, I was probably the poorest sales guy ever. I just … I don’t have that in me.

Do you think you could use your organ skills in upcoming game soundtracks?

Yes. In fact, there are several things that I’d like to do. One of them is use organs, a really big set of organs. Then I would also like to make a game soundtrack using an indie style band, with base, drums and guitars. I’ve been fantasizing about some darker-colored goth style game in which I would be able to use the organ. Or, there’s the other point about organs as well. I mean, going the Hans Zimmer Interstellar way. That isn’t sinister or goth, but it’s still using organs in a beautiful way. It was a good invention by Zimmer.

Lastly, can you tell me how Alan Wake ended up being part of Joystick 8.0?

Somebody sent me an email and asked if there is a score of the Alan Wake soundtrack, and if it had ever been performed live. We happened to have ready printed scores thanks to the concerts in Helsinki, so we sent it to Malmö Symphony Orchestra and then after that we didn’t hear anything for a long while. Until suddenly the marketing and PR section checked the website of Joystick 8.0 and noticed that Alan Wake was included in the concert program! Of course it was a privilege to me to be part of a program with scores like Final Fantasy, Fallout and Metal Gear Solid.