When one thinks of Resident Evil 7, the mind doesn’t automatically go right to the Kit Kat jingle (gimme a break) or Spider Pig from The Simpsons Movie. However, the creepy theme song Go Tell Aunt Rhody, Spider Pig, and that catchy can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head Kit Kat commercial song were all written by the same man: Michael A. Levine. Levine is an accomplished musician who has written music for television, film, and now video games. Born in Tokyo but raised in America, Levine has worked with musicians ranging from Lenny Kravitz to the famous composer Hans Zimmer and produced Lorde’s track Everybody Wants to Rule the World from The Hunger Games. CGMagazine recently had a chat with Levine to pick his brain about the music industry and the differences between writing a Kit Kat jingle and the theme song from a Resident Evil game.
CGMagazine: Standard question first. Tell us a bit about yourself! What’s your background in music, when did you decide you wanted to compose soundtracks and such?
Michael A. Levine: I started piano at age 4. My older sister and brother played so I just figured it was something you did. At age 8 I tried to enrol in the school drum program but they were filled up. There was space in the violin program so I became a violinist. All these years later I still think that sometimes I play the violin like a drummer.
I wrote songs back as far as I can remember and had my first song covered on a record at age 16. I did every kind of music job there was including performing on the street and playing fiddle in country western and Irish bands. I got into scoring commercials via musical theater and dance. That led to films and television including Cold Case, and writing the Spider Pig choir arrangement in Hans Zimmer’s score for The Simpson’s Movie.
Commercials were a fantastic way to learn the mechanics of scoring. One of my best-known compositions is still the Kit Kat Gimme A Break jingle.
CGM: You’ve written music for a variety of different media. What are the major differences between composing a piece for a video game and something like a film or commercial?
Levine: Conceptually, it’s exactly the same – you are using music (and words, in the case of a song) to help tell a story. However, in Resident Evil 7, because I was writing the song before the title was complete, the timing was more general than for a commercial or a film with a locked picture.
CGM: Are you much of a gamer yourself?
Levine: Honestly, no. My son is much more knowledgeable than I am, and tried valiantly to educate me through the years. (I think he taught me what an FPS was.)
CGM: When writing music for a narrative experience like Resident Evil, how do you approach crafting a score for something that’s meant to be played rather than watched? Where do you even begin?
Levine: To be clear, I wrote the theme song, not the score. I got the fun part!
CGM: What was it like working with Hans Zimmer? The guy is kind of a legend, what was the major thing you learned during your time with him?
Levine: “Good enough” is not good enough. Hans will make an absolutely extraordinary effort for what seems like a marginal difference. But if you add up all those “marginal” differences you end up with something truly outstanding – and unique.
CGM: What works are you most proud of and why? What would you say is your biggest goal for the future?
Levine: I am always most excited about what I am doing right now. I just finished recording an album with virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie at Abbey Road with me on violin. I scored two films making the festival rounds that couldn’t be more different. Directed by first-timer Lysa Heslov, Served Like A Girl is a documentary about the women competing in the Ms. Veteran America contest to help homeless women vets. Another first-time director, Saskia Rifkin, helmed Could Hitler Happen Here, a fascinating unreliable narrator feature about an elderly woman whose neighbours are plotting to evict her from her home. Or are they?
Plus, I scored a feature and a series of shorts for Lego DC Super Girls (here’s a link to one of the shorts, Need For Speed). It was a blast swinging from Super Hero orchestral music, to rock n’ roll, to tween pop to Who Knows What.
But maybe the thing I am most proud of right now is producing the first album by Samira & The Wind. The singer is Mariana Samira Barreto, who sang all the background voices on Go Tell Aunt Rhody for RE7 and also all the background voices for the Lorde version of Everybody Wants to Rule the World I produced with Lucas Cantor. It was in the Hunger Games Catching Fire soundtrack and later used in the Assassin’s Creed Unity trailer.
Mariana is also my daughter.
CGM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Levine: This goes out to all the artists of all sorts out there; from choreographer Martha Graham, whose company I worked for when I was young, and who I once had the honour of meeting. Remember this the next time you get frustrated and want to chuck it all:
“No artist is pleased. No satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
That is, unless you’re playing Resident Evil 7 VR. Then you’re more dead than the others.