Rockstar Music Head on 'Grand Theft Auto V': We've Topped What's Come Before (Audio)

Grand Theft Auto 5 Key Art - H 2013
Rockstar Games

Grand Theft Auto 5 Key Art - H 2013

Ivan Pavlovich tells THR how they landed top talent for the megahit's soundtrack and chronicles the challenges the team faced to seamlessly combine radio music with the game's immersive score.

With the release of Rockstar Games' new Grand Theft Auto V, the numbers have spoken volumes. Twenty four hours after its Sept. 17 release, the game had earned $800 million. In three days, it reached $1 billion in sales -- making it the fastest selling piece of entertainment ever.

As a highly anticipated sequel in an immensely successful series, fans have been waiting years for this release, obsessing over the most minute details leaked to the public. The technological evolution since 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV has made this the most lifelike and involved gameplay, switching between characters' points of view to create a more immersive experience. All the while, the gameplay runs through an expansive narrative with film-like cinematography throughout the scenes. 

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And then there's the music. The game's tracklist is impressive in depth and dimension. With more than 240 songs licensed to play on 15 in-game music radio stations hosted by A-list DJs that ranges from funk legend Bootsy Collins to the members of Wavves, the GTA V soundtrack also includes songs written specifically for the game by A$AP Rocky, Tyler the Creator, Flying Lotus, Twin Shadow, Neon Indian, Yeasayer, OFF!, HEALTH and others. Meanwhile, the game's soundtrack was scored as a collaborative effort by German electronic music pioneer Tangerine Dream, hip-hop producers The Alchemist and Oh No, and composer Woody Jackson, who has worked with Rockstar on several games before. 

This is the first game in the GTA series to include a scored soundtrack, and Rockstar Games' music supervisor Ivan Pavlovich said the intent was to not detract from the gameplay and the in-game radio that has become a beloved component of the series. They arrived at more than 20 hours of original music to drive, steal and shoot to. Select cuts of the score are now available for sale as Volume 2 in the three-part The Music of Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack release. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Pavlovich, Rockstar Games' music supervisor since 2004, about the immense effort that went into the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack and the fandom that surrounds this game on every level.

Throughout the series, the music has become a very large part of the game and is itself a character. Entering into Grand Theft Auto V's creation, what did you know that you wanted to do differently or develop more in this game and how did that manifest itself?

Rockstar has always been known for the music in its games, dating back to the beginning of the company. So we're all trying to build on what we've done in previous games. GTA was the first game to incorporate this idea of radio stations into the video game. So with every game we want to develop it even more. For GTA V, one of the ideas early on was, for the first time ever, to add a score to the Grand Theft Auto series. In adding a score, we really had to be careful never to step on the feet of the experience of the radio. That was the main thing -- being able to have those two coexist. 

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You worked with three different composers on the score. What's your relationship with them and how did they manage to create a cohesive soundtrack? 

We've worked with Woody (Jackson) on several games. He was the composer for Red Dead Redemption. He won a [Spike TV] Video Game Award for best score for that and he helped with LA Noire. Woody is definitely our main collaborator for the score across all games, so he was crucial for a lot of things that happened. Tangerine Dream recorded in Austria, but we did the whole score as a collaborative score and Woody's studio was really where a lot of the recording went down. We teamed Al and Oh No with Woody so that anytime they needed to record live instrumentation they were able to go back to Woody's and a lot of those parts were recorded at Woody's -- then they went back to their own respective studios, they chopped it up, they sprinkled whatever magic fairy dust they do that makes no sense to us, but when we hear it back, its like, "Wow, this is amazing," and then they'd go back to Woody's and add additional elements on top. So Woody's studio, Vox Recordings, was very integral to the entire process of the score.

The big trick was tying it all together: How do we take three different sounds and make it this kind of seamless score that goes across all these missions? What we started doing was sending the music around to each of the different composers. So we'd send Tangerine Dream's to Woody, and we'd send Woody's stuff to Al and Oh No, and Al and Oh No's stuff to Tangerine Dream, and we asked them all to add their own elements to the other composers' music. And in this way it kind of created this cohesive sound. Every part is different but they don't stray too far, so there is a cohesive sound that happens throughout the game. This gives a kind of continuity and hopefully it doesn't feel like you did a 180 because all of a sudden you're going from Tangerine Dream's ambient electronic cinematic sound to something that's completely different that Woody or Al and Oh No did. You feel like there's a natural progression. 

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You talk about adding the score to the in-game radio, something for which the game's become distinguished. What was your process here and how has this developed over time? 

The first thing was to concentrate on the in-radio. When we had to make decisions about how the radio would work, we just wanted to make sure that people had options so if they didn't like the score they could go back to the radio and enjoy the radio. The score happens when you're on mission, and what we tried was to find the balance between when the score starts to slowly creep in and still give you the sense of radio. So at the beginning of missions while you're driving, the first half of the mission you'll have radio for the most part, and you'll be able to enjoy radio until there's that point where the mission really kicks in. That was really important for us -- making sure we didn't take away from the radio experience was a thing that we really focused on. Hopefully we struck the right balance in doing that.

Score works very differently in video games than it does in movies, so it's something we have to think about. For movies, I feel like you're supporting characters and you're supporting the narrative in that one moment in time. In video games, you're obviously supporting those characters with your scores but somebody is also playing this game, so we have to somehow figure out when a character makes a certain decision in a game, how to support that and keep it seamless. So when you go from a stealthy moment to an action moment, we have to support that and it has to change and you have to feel it, but it can't distract you from what you're doing.

You  have a pretty phenomenal list of DJs on these stations. We're talking Keith Morris, Flying Lotus, Kenny Loggins, Soulwax, Twin Shadow, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Wavves, Gilles Peterson and the list goes on. What informed your selections here and were people immediately ready to get on board or did it take much explaining? 

The way that the radio stations work is from the beginning, we sit with Sam Houser, who's the founder of the company, and we start to brainstorm. The radio serves as a layer in this world that we've created. What Rockstar is great at is creating these incredibly detailed and authentic worlds for the storyline to develop in. The radio is another layer in this world to make it living and breathing. The radio is incredibly detailed; it reflects the environment in which the game is set. So at the very beginning we have lots of creative conversations with Sam and the people at the Rockstar North Studio, and we really try to map out what radio stations and what direction will support this world and make sense in this world. So Keith Morris is an obvious pick because of all his work in early punk and continues today with OFF! Flying Lotus is a friend of ours that we've always wanted to work with, and he just makes an incredible amount of sense for this game. He's L.A.-based, he's known all over the world and we're huge fans of his. For us it's an honor to work with all these people. 

They are people who we really want to work with who also understand what the game is and what it means. We have no bigger fan than Flying Lotus. I don't think that we had to convince these people to be a part of this. We picked them because we're huge fans of theirs, and then things just work out that they're also fans of the game. So I'm just really thankful. All of these people were incredible to work with.

How does your roster of DJs compare to this series's previous releases?

Every time we work on Grand Theft Auto, we try and progress and expand what we've done before. In GTA IV we worked with some great DJs who made a lot of sense for our version of New York, Liberty City. We worked with Francois Kevorkian, who's been a DJ in New York since the late '70s, early '80s. Bobby Tonga did the dancehall station. And that all was a progression from the time before, so we've always tried to do this. I think that this time we once again pushed the boundaries, and we were able to work with Flying Lotus and Soulwax, who have been fans for a long time. We've been able to work with Camillo from Mexican Institute of Sound. Once again his station makes perfect sense in the context of the setting of this game. And so we have Keith Morris, DJ PoohBig Boy from Power 106 -- all these DJs make sense in the terms of the world that we've created and work as we're filling out the details. 

And the radio is more of an immersive experience than just the songs that we've licensed or what those stations are. It's not just the songs that are on the radio. It's the advertisements, the banter, the introductions, the news feed that you have on the radio that will inform you of what's going on in the game. It's a part of this living, breathing world, and the way that it's programmed actually makes it feel like radio that you would listen to in your car or on the Internet.

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How about the original music that's unveiled with this game. These are some high-profile artists contributing. Have any of the other games done anything to this level? 

It's the first time we've done this much. We told ourselves that not only are we going to have more music, but we're going to have more original music. Having original songs makes it more exciting because these are songs that nobody's ever heard before by artists that they're fans of. All the artists gave us their top music and that's what we're really thankful for. Nobody was holding back. They actually gave us their top music. And these are all people that we want to work with, so that kind of shows the level respect for each other. 

It has to help marketing some too, tapping into a music community with names like this attached and publicly promoting the game. 

It's a great talking point. I mean you've seen the amount of hype that's surrounding it with people on social media. The amount of conversations that started with FlyLo or Tyler the Creator or Nathan from Wavves, it's pretty exciting. And these guys are generating excitement not only about their own music but other music in the game. One of the greatest compliments that I've seen was Tyler The Creator getting excited about Gilles Peterson's WorldWide FM channel in the game. Things like that are great, where all of these artists support each other in the game. But we've never approached anyone for that. The point that we're getting to is that we have real fans out there in the artists. These are kids who grew up playing GTA who are now musicians and artists, and this is the way they communicate online. It's a really natural thing that's happening. It's amazing for everybody.