How Health became Rockstar’s rock stars

The Grand Theft Auto developer powered up the past with shooter sequel Max Payne 3, but it’s the LA rockers’ soundtrack with its eyes on the future

[Originally published in INDUSTRIA Issue 2, May 2012]

The well-worn hands of Clint Mansell and Trent Reznor may now be the go-to tools when you need a bit of darkness mixed in with your big-budget filmic bluster, but there’s a new noise on the score scene and it’s sidestepping Hollywood. When Rockstar Games, purveyors of the most cinematic of joypad botherers from Grand Theft Auto to LA Noire, wanted some rock stars of their own to soundtrack their latest small-screen blockbuster, they went, instead, for youth.

The hypnotic sighs and drones of Californian rockers HEALTH are not only heard over the ubiquitous slow-motion Max Payne 3 adverts that have supported Rockstar’s rise to the top of the charts once more, but also throughout the game’s many edgy hours of guns blazing, pill popping and bad-guy wasting. Having been asked personally by Reznor to support Nine Inch Nails back in 2008, the Los Angeles four-piece have now unexpectedly taken on his soundtracking mantle.

“Whether people like it or not, video games are redefining entertainment and becoming as culturally relevant as films,” Jake Duzsik, who formed HEALTH back in 2006, told cult music site Pitchfork. “It’s vitally important to us that we be involved in things we respect artistically and we feel Rockstar’s projects have an undeniably raw and tasteful aesthetic.”

“Raw” is definitely a term in tune with these LA noise rockers, a fiercely independent outfit that used to only play for free, have been known to sign fan-club posters in blood and whose biggest hit to date was a joint single with Canadian electro crackpots Crystal Castles. We also didn’t state Duzsik’s preferred instrument as, bar drummer BJ Miller, the rest of the band – made up by John Famigiletti and Jupiter Keyes – do a bit of everything, from chiming synths to searing guitars. Oh, and playing games, evidently.

“The first thing I said to Rockstar when we had the meeting was, ‘Just so you know, I got 100% completion in Red Dead Redemption,’” laughs Famigiletti. “They were like, ‘Really? Dude, we didn’t do that, that takes forever!’ But this game’s ridiculous, it’s violent in the coolest possible way.”

If Max Payne 3‘s colourful firefights mark a detour for the noir series, with publisher Rockstar also now the developer instead of franchise creator Remedy, the score is a full-scale diversion for gaming, a medium not endowed with many rock band-helmed soundtracks.

Sure, the likes of Pop Will Eat Itself and Bomb The Bass licensed their pre-existing music to games in the nineties, while the Guitar Hero-fuelled rhythm-action craze of the mid- to late-noughties saw bands turning to consoles for exposure and some back-catalogue cash-cow milking. But an entire soundtrack composition for a triple-A title handed over to some of the coolest kids on the musical block? This is a first.

“By using a band instead of a traditional composer, we’ve created a soundtrack that sounds completely unique,” says Rockstar’s soundtrack supervisor Ivan Pavlovich, who has worked with HEALTH for the past seven months on the project. “They created hundred of hours of music for the game’s score and have now distilled this into a devastatingly moody and atmospheric album.”

The story of Max Payne 3 finds our grizzled former-detective protagonist washed up and strung out, and the soundtrack reflects first his descent then his revenge-fuelled redemption; it’s Taxi Driver meets John Woo.

Not many games open with the player-controlled character downing a bottle of bourbon to cure the shakes before smashing a photo of their dead family into a wall, but whether it’s the staccato guitar screams imitating gunfire on the album’s first single ‘Tears’, the psychedelic passages mimicking Max’s drug-addled visions or the lethargic pace sitting perfectly in pace with the prevalent “bullet time” battles, the sonics are spot on.

“There are set levels where all these different things happen,” continues Famigiletti, “so we created different types of music for different types of shootouts and action, as [Rockstar] would have to be able to stack them on top of each other so it could loop indefinitely. With super-loud gunfire over the music at all times, not to mention levels that someone’s going to be playing for a fucking hour and a half at a time, it was pretty challenging.”

The album not only shows the breadth of HEALTH’s influences, but the lengths they went to embrace the game’s “stranger abroad” plot. With large portions of the game set in Sao Paulo, minus any conveniently translated subtitles to ramp up the isolation, the soundtrack is unrelentingly unsettling.

Acclaimed ‘Elite Squad’ scorer Pedro Bromfman was brought in to get the local rhythms just right, while Brazilian hip-hop artist Emicida also contributed and DJ collective Trouble & Bass compiled the nightclub mixes. It may have been composed to create a living, breathing world in which to unleash carnage, but as with all great soundtracks, it also works on its own merits.

“We recorded so much music,” says Famigiletti, “but we wanted to take the best parts of the score and make a good, listenable album. The closest example is like a Brian Eno record, where there are long pauses between songs and you feel this mood, because a lot of the score is just these drones that help the game’s action work. If we’d just put that out you’d have this two-hour album that would be as boring as hell.”

While it was inevitable that Rockstar, the most cinematic of game makers, would be first to open this particular page of the songsheet, it is still surprising that it’s taken gaming, the most immersive of mediums with ever-growing budgets, so long to embrace the emotion-tugging armoury of the band-penned soundtrack.

With gaming increasingly high profile, and HEALTH revealing that the Max Payne gig alone has enabled them to bag themselves a whole new studio rig for their new album, this could just be the beginning.

Health‘s Tears single and Max Payne Official Soundtrack album are out now on iTunes. Max Payne 3 by Rockstar Games is out now on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360

To see the fully interactive version of this feature with photo galleries and video, download INDUSTRIA on your iPad here.

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