Exclusive Preview: Cuphead Composer Discusses Big Band Score and the Track "Floral Fury"

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"It's one of the least traditional sounding tunes on the album. There's a tune by Duke Ellington called 'Caravan' that I love, and one of the early tunes I wrote was kind of in that quote-unquote 'Latin style.' The guys in the band would play maracas and bongos and stuff. Cuban music was becoming very popular at that point in time [when Ellington wrote 'Caravan'] so there was a bit of crossover. You got 'Caravan' in 1936, and [Dizzy Gillespie's] 'A Night in Tunisia' was 1941, so this style was becoming popular. So there are a couple of tunes on the album that have that vibe on it. But I was in Brazil, actually, with a group with Alan Heatherington, who plays percussion on 'Floral Fury,' and we were talking about the game. He didn't know about it yet. He asked me to write something he could play on, some Brazilian stuff, so then I started listening to a lot of stuff from that era, like Ary Barroso, and a lot of the tunes that I really started to enjoy were the Carmen Miranda tunes. That's also from that era. I was, like, what if we took a Carmen Miranda vibe, set it up, and have a sort of Brazilian Carnival parade breakdown in the middle of it. Alan was all over this. That's the genesis of where 'Floral Fury' came from. It's a bit of a high-step Carmen Miranda / Brazilian Carnival vibe."—Cuphead composer Kris Maddigan on "Floral Fury"

It's been a long journey for Cuphead, the StudioMDHR game that pays tribute to the Fleischer Brothers's cartoons from the 1930s, but it'll finally be released for the Xbox One and PC on Sept. 29.

In keeping with its Depression-era aesthetic, the developers eschewed a typical videogame soundtrack. They reached out to Kris Maddigan, a composer and percussionist from Toronto and member of the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra, and tasked him with putting together a big band orchestra and writing an original score that sounds like it comes straight from the '30s. The result is over three hours of authentic-sounding jazz and ragtime that makes Cuphead sound like no other game before. You can listen to the exclusive track "Floral Fury" above, and later this year iam8Bit will be releasing a four-LP vinyl box set of Cuphead in a vintage-styled package that looks like it could've been released by RCA Victor in 1933. (Sorry, collectors: despite how it looks this won't be a 78 RPM.)

Maddigan had never written music for a videogame before, but he had the right background for the job. "I've studied jazz and listened to jazz for a long time," he tells Paste. "I've played the drumset for about 26 or 27 years now." He's played in a variety of jazz bands throughout Canada, along with groups specializing in other genres, and has played with the National Ballet since 2010. He knows the music, but he still put in the kind of research necessary to make sure his score was as accurate to the time period as possible.

"I had to really start delving into doing the listening," Maddigan says. "I found an excellent teacher and mentor, John Herberman, in Toronto, and he really helped me get things together. I did a lot of score study. I found some old [Duke] Ellington scores at the library, and those were very valuable to just see how things were laid out. And now there are so many books and YouTube videos too, with people discussing arranging in that style. It was a long process of independent study, in a way."

Anybody familiar with the innovative big band sound of Duke Ellington will hear strains of it throughout Cuphead's score. Maddigan credits him as his primary inspiration. "I don't want to keep harping on Ellington, but he'd be the big one," he says. "Partially because the music that he wrote was so different than—a lot of people were writing, I don't want to say generic, but standard dance band music, which was strictly for dancing. And he was writing really interesting concert jazz, and he was always experimenting with different instrument combinations and unique composition techniques and really interesting voicing. His sense of experimentation and fearlessness was influential.

"On top of that, there would be Cab Calloway. He was a huge influence," Maddigan continues. "Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, the stuff they did together, I love the sound of the vibes and the clarinet together, so there's some of that on there. Gene Krupa also was huge, his presence and his whole tom-tom solo thing fit so well with a lot of what we were trying to do, so there's a lot of Krupa stuff on the album, as well."

To capture that sound, Maddigan assembled a 13-piece big band orchestra, which featured different players across different sessions. For the ragtime portions of the score—"Scott Joplin was definitely the big influence there," Maddigan says—he employed a 10-member ensemble. On top of that, he brought in various soloists and ragtime pianists, bringing the total musician count for the Cuphead sessions to an even 42. Maddigan himself played the drums on the ragtime tracks, and the xylophone and vibraphone on other pieces. Together Maddigan and his players created a period-perfect sound that sonically roots Cuphead in the era evoked by the game's art style.

Maddigan had never composed a videogame score before Cuphead, and going in he knew he'd have to confront a challenge unique to the art form. Videogame music rarely has a concrete end during the actual game—it has to stretch or contract based on the player's performance, looping when they dawdle or struggle and wrapping up earlier when they blitz through a level. When you have a recording performed at one specific moment by a dozen or more humans, it's not necessarily easy to loop that in a cohesive way. It was a potential problem that was solved, in part, by the improvisational nature of jazz.

"In general the tunes are actually, form-wise, reasonably standard," he says. "Once the tunes were done, I went through every one and figured out, 'okay, once we're at this point, we can repeat back to this.' Sort of down to the hundredth of a second kind of thing. We were conscious of it in the production stage but we weren't super worried about it.

"Also what we did, which is kind of interesting, is that in most of the big band tunes you'll have some ensemble piece which is written out and then you'll have a section where someone takes a solo and then you'll have another ensemble section, and what we did with all the solo stuff is we recorded all of that separately. Once we had completed all the big band sessions we brought in half a dozen soloists and we recorded them playing over top of a lot of the solo sections on the charts. So that's why you might have one tune but six different versions of it. So each tune, you can have the same tune but it's going to have different solos on it, just to keep things interesting in the game. So if you die at a boss, if you leave and you come back to that tune, it's going to be the same tune but it's going to have somebody else soloing over it. We were conscious of it that way, too, trying to maintain a certain amount of interest on repetition like that. There was a bit of improvising in the ragtime tunes as well. "

Considering it was his first time making music for a videogame, composing the score to Cuphead must have been as challenging for Maddigan as the game itself has a reputation for being. Not only did he have to account for technical and pacing concerns that aren't present outside of this particular medium, he had to write hours of music in a genre that he had no experience composing in before. If "Floral Fury" is any indication, though, he had no problem pulling it off.

Listen to "Floral Fury" above, and also watch a behind-the-scenes video on its recording.

Garrett Martin edits Paste's games and comedy sections. He's on Twitter @grmartin.

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