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The ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ Soundtrack Might Be the Biggest Album of 2018

How a blockbuster video game (which sold nearly 20 million copies in its first weeks on sale) is introducing players around the world to rootsy Americana sounds

red dead redemption 2 sound track

'Red Dead Redemption 2' brings Americana-leaning sounds to a wide audience.

RockStar Games

It’s the season for year-end lists, but one of 2018’s biggest albums is missing from nearly every major publication’s ranking: The soundtrack to Red Dead Redemption 2. Less than two weeks after the blockbuster video game’s release, Rockstar Games was estimated to have shipped 17 million copies to stores around the world. The company declined to provide more updates on the game’s sales numbers, but that initially reported total easily exceeds the numbers of chart-toppers like Drake’s Scorpion. And not only did millions upon millions of people hear the Red Dead Redemption 2 music, they heard a lot of it: The game takes over 30 hours to complete.

Unlike the music of Scorpion, the sounds contained in Red Dead Redemption 2 lean towards instrumental roots music or pre-rock orchestral pop, with occasional vocal contributions from Rhiannon Giddens, Willie Nelson and D’Angelo at his most reflective. Banjo, harmonica, the jug, fiddle, cello and the Jew’s harp make sense in the context of a Western-themed outlaw game set in 1899. But these sounds are certainly absent from nearly every hyper-popular musical document of the last two decades, at least since the O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack came out in 2000.

“For this particular game, we kind of compare it to Noah’s Ark — it was all the real musicians who were left behind,” says Ivan Pavlovich, Director of Music and Audio at Rockstar Games. “People come to us to listen to things the way that they may go to Spotify or YouTube, or Apple Music. We’ve got a platform that reaches however many tens of millions of people, and they may not listen to this type of music.”

Despite the vintage sounds of Red Dead Redemption 2, fans of the game are responding to the music in the same hyper-modern manner they interact with contemporary hip-hop. “What’s interesting to me is the amount of traction we’re getting — all of this material has really caught on on the internet,” says Daniel Lanois, who oversaw the sprinkling of vocal tracks. “These songs are being ripped from the game and they’re on YouTube everywhere. There are Japanese pianists doing classical versions of the song I wrote with Rhiannon [Giddens]. I haven’t felt this kind of fever since the late Eighties, when I was knocking it out of the park [producing] Peter Gabriel and U2!”

The last Red Dead Redemption game came out in 2010 with a soundtrack that Pavlovich describes as “very Spaghetti Western” — referring to the famous film sub-genre best known for Sergio Leone-directed, Ennio Morricone-scored box office hits like Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The previous installment of Red Dead Redemption was also popular, to the tune of 15 million copies sold to date, though the new iteration sold more in eight days than its predecessor did in eight years.

Rockstar Games wanted the follow-up — actually a prequel, in the game’s timeline — to have a separate sonic footprint. “We really didn’t want to be derivative this time,” Pavlovich says. “We pushed it really far in the opposite direction at one point, almost going a little beat-driven with programmed rhythms and stuff like that. To find where the happy place is you kind of push it almost until you break it, and then you swing back.”

When the swing-back occurred, Pavlovich and his various collaborators, including Lanois, a former producer for Bob Dylan and U2, and Woody Jackson, who composed much of the instrumental score, settled on a series of reference points, all of which are a long way from today’s pop mainstream. One was the Willie Nelson album Teatro, which Lanois produced in 1998. Another was the music in the 1971 Peter Fonda film The Hired Hand, which was provided by the folkie Bruce Langhorne, who collaborated with Bob Dylan and supposedly inspired his track “Mr. Tambourine Man.” A third influence was the sound of the Wrecking Crew, a wildly versatile ensemble of Los Angeles studio musicians who backed everyone from Frank Sinatra to Brian Wilson during the 1960s.

For Matthew Sweeney, a session guitarist (the Dixie Chicks, Neil Diamond, Adele) who helped craft music for the game in Nashville, one of the directives was to make “a lot of Appalachian-sounding things.” “Or it could be a Morricone-style thing,” he adds. “But not, ‘make it sound like Morricone,’ more like, ‘you notice how the drums in his stuff are insistent? Notice how this one riff should be annoying but isn’t annoying?'”

Ground rules were put in place. “They wanted something more acoustic oriented,” explains David Ferguson, a longtime engineer for Johnny Cash who worked with Sweeney. “There’s a little electric bass and electric guitar here and there but not very much.” “We don’t want bluesey stuff” was another prohibition, according to Sweeney.

To avoid sounding overly indebted to some of his source material, Jackson made smart use of musical substitutions. Instead of relying on what Pavlovich calls “the classic Spaghetti Western bell,” Jackson found a mandolin that was played by the original members of the Wrecking Crew. (He has about 40 such instruments.) “It has this beautiful, deep bass sound, but when you pluck it in the right way, it kind of sounds like a bell,” the composer says.

Colin Stetson, a saxophone player as comfortable with skronking noise as he is collaborating with the biggest names in indie rock, added “droney, terrifying” touches to the game’s music that probably wouldn’t have made it into an old film score. Pavlovich also tracked down the Indonesian group Senyawa — “some of the scariest, heaviest musicians out there, and they are out there,” Sweeney says of the duo, whose music lands somewhere between folk, metal and pure noise — to add jolts of menace. Arca, an electronic artist-producer known for his work on Kanye West’s Yeezus and collaborations with Bjork, was also interested in contributing to a Rockstar game. “We had this Arca stuff that we maybe felt was too angular or sharp or modern sounding,” Pavlovich says. They found a way to add it into the game as a subtle undercurrent and another means of separating the Red Dead Redemption 2 music from its more obvious influences. 

Writing music to soundtrack video game play has its own idiosyncratic rhythms. “It’s a little bit of a movie, a little bit of a pop song, and then a little bit of The Twilight Zone,” Jackson says. “It’s coming up with a feel, a mood that’s not going to drive the listener crazy because they’ll play the game for a long time,” adds Sweeney. “Luckily I play in [the band] Endless Boogie, where songs can run up to an hour with no chord changes, so I know how to make a long piece of music that turns over in a minimal way but still has interesting elements. Acoustic-based, spooky but driving yet kind of pastoral and evocative — it’s fun as shit.”

But also grueling: Jackson needed to create music for a total of 60 hours of gameplay. “I think we went crazy and went with like 15 different stems, which are audio files that makeup a track split into musical elements and emotions,” he says. “Then that ended up being too much and we brought them to about 6.”

Though it took over 110 musicians to create all the music required for Red Dead Redemption 2, a number of players turned down the opportunity to contribute to the soundtrack, unwilling to engage with the unusual parameters of the work or uninterested in video games as a medium. “When I talked to people [about helping to score the game], it was wildly varying as to who was indifferent and who was dying to do it,” Sweeney says. “Some people would be like, I’m not going to make a royalty off that.”

But he contends, “you’ll get paid well for your work, and you’re going to get to listeners you would never, ever, ever get to.” “Does anyone know who played guitar on [Van Morrison’s] ‘Brown Eyed Girl?'” Sweeney adds. “Well, I do, but a lot of people don’t, and that music is everywhere. The idea to play a theme anonymously but still get paid for it and know that a nine-year-old is going to hear some picked guitar and some violin and think, ‘that sounds cool?’ I just love that.”

Ferguson, Cash’s longtime engineer, sums up the soundtrack’s ethos more succinctly: “Young people need to hear what real instruments sound like.”

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