A wooden pianno, with a broken key, and lots of knobs on it, it looks well-worn and well played

Making music for Forest of Sleep

This is the third in a series of blog posts by producer Hannah Nicklin featuring in-depth interviews with the Forest of Sleep team, focussing on different aspects of the art, animation, sound, music, inner-workings and influences shaping the game. This interview is with Heather Trost and Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk and a Hacksaw. You can follow them on Facebook over here.

In August we were delighted to announce that we would be working with A Hawk and a Hacksaw to produce an original soundtrack for Forest of Sleep. A Hawk and a Hacksaw are a duo from New Mexico heavily influenced by the Eastern European tradition, and Ed has been a long-time fan, so obviously we were honoured and delighted that they were up for working with us on the Forest of Sleep soundtrack.

There’ll be another post in the future which will look in more detail at the way we’re making the music – including its implementation within a procedural context – but for now we thought it would be great to get to know the band, to talk with them a little about their background, how they came to be involved in the game, and how they’re feeling about getting started.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw (AHAAH) are Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, both born and raised in New Mexico in the US. AHAAH began as Jeremy’s solo project and as it grew, he discovered and welcomed Heather into the mix. Jeremy Barnes began by talking to me about his background and how he came to the original solo act:

I started out as a self-taught drummer playing rock and roll music, and after high school I started playing in a band and touring. I did that for a few years … then while I was living in Chicago, I was searching for a new direction musically, and that’s when I first heard Eastern European music.

At the time Jeremy was living in a part of Chicago called the ‘Ukranian Village’. Around the turn of the 20th century that part of Chicago began to turn from a largely German-American neighbourhood, to one populated by Polish and Slovak immigrants, and thereafter, Ukranian, Serbian, and Romanian. The ‘Ukrainian Village’ is currently home to around 15,000 ethnic Ukrainians. Jeremy remembers moving there, and discovering the culture:

I was really intrigued – intrigued by the amazing cooking smells, and the Orthodox icons on the wall, and the people, the culture seemed intriguing.

It was in a local thrift store that Jeremy came across the music for the first time, via an old Romanian folk record, one he was only really drawn to because of the cover:

It was put out by a ‘60s Romanian socialist label, they’re trying to represent Romanian folklore in its most bucolic aspect, you know […] the cover had a man with a clarinet in traditional Romanian dress, holding a baby goat, I liked the cover and it was 50 cents, I didn’t expect to enjoy it, but when I put it on it was an epiphany for me.

At this point, Jeremy describes himself as ‘just a drummer’, he could play a little piano (though I suspect that probably means more than what I might mean if I said I played ‘a little piano’). This record changed the whole direction of his musical life. He began to learn accordion, seek out more and more Eastern European music, and make music influenced by this tradition himself.

I found more copies of Romanian music, Yugoslavian music, [I began] researching the borders between all of these countries – they’re very distinct but they have these connections too, Hungary and Turkey, and Macedonia and Bulgaria; the whole region. At that point I started [to listen] to the melodies and rhythms and trying to write my own version of that stuff.

In this time of experimentation and discovery Jeremy moved to France, where he recorded a solo record. The self titled debut by A Hawk and A Hacksaw was released by The Leaf Label in 2003. Barnes moved to England, and then back to New Mexico (a place he never thought he would live in again). Which is how, in Albuquerque in the early 2000s, he found himself watching Heather Trost play a gig in the local tiki bar.A Hawk and a Hacksaw under stage lighting. Heather on the left plays violin, and Jeremy is playing the accordion on the right.

Heather’s musical background, she explains, is classical:

I started playing classical violin from an early age and later piano, our house was always full of classical music then – and I really loved it, I would try and write my own songs and was practicing a lot, then in high school I injured my wrist, so I started singing in a choir, got more into rock and roll, exploring music outside of the classical realm, which was a great revelation to me.

In college she joined a band, as well as pursuing classical music. She also began listening to Béla Bartók, a Hungarian pianist and composer. Bartók travelled Hungary and Romania in the 1910s-20s collecting field recordings on wax cylinders. He recorded local renditions of folk and peasant music that he wove into and throughout his compositions. Heather explains:

Those are now the earliest recordings we have of that music. You can go see these wax cylinders in Budapest. He used those melodies in his compositions.

She remembers meeting Jeremy in a hazy tiki bar full of drunk people after a gig. They began to talk about Bartók, and the way Jeremy describes it, it almost seems like Bartók was a kind of Shibboleth for him:

I was looking for a violinist – and I figured if she liked Bartók […] we can collaborate, so our first conversation was about him, and she said she loved him, ‘he’s one of my favourite composers’, so I knew it would work. That was in 2004.

“it was great to meet someone on that same level”, Heather explains.

Fast forward 12 years and the music they make now is heavily influenced by the music of Eastern Europe, but not only that: “We’re also interested in psychedelic music – we try to have a as broad influences as we can”, Jeremy says. While most of their work tends to start from the Eastern European folk tradition, both Jeremy and Heather are keen to emphasise that they’re not attempting to be ‘authentic’ in how they respond to it; they recognise their status as outsiders.

Heather:  our goal is not to be authentic because that’s impossible

Jeremy: the word ‘authentic’ can mean a lot of things – to me folk music is a tricky thing to follow […] There’s the side that belongs in a museum that’s being preserved, then there’s the side that’s slippery, and always changing. Where innovation can happen.”

Inspiration, not imitation.

A picture of the team outside Jeremy and Heather's place in New Mexico, when Ed and Martin visited in August 2016.
Ed, at the AHAAH studio with Martin, Heather and Jeremy in August this year.

This gets to a difficult bind, and one at the heart of the way we are also trying to approach our source material within the game: trying carefully to walk the line of ‘inspired by’ and not ‘exploiting’ – trying to avoid what you might call a kind of cultural colonialism. In Forest of Sleep and for A Hawk and a Hacksaw, it seems our approach is to not try and be authentic and correct, or to lift things without thinking about the context (and ours in relation to it), but instead to respond to a tradition from the context of our own, and to make sure we’re working with people who are also from or connected to the places from which the tradition originated.

Jeremy and Heather travel to Europe and play with people local to the tradition they’re experimenting with, while Nicolai Troshinsky’s dual Russian-Spanish heritage offers us that same informed-outsider perspective, which we’re pairing with careful research. That perspective is something Nicolai talked about in discussing the animation and illustration influences on Forest of Sleep, and Jeremy and Heather also talk about the qualities of being a reflective outsider:

Jeremy: in the beginning, it was about armchair travel, buying records, […] These days though, we are in Eastern Europe as much as possible. We did a tour of Bulgaria and Romania this summer and that really helps me: to travel, to play with and learn from the local musicians [from those traditions].

Heather: it’s kind of an advantage to be an outsider, too, sometimes folk music has hangups. Being outsider, it’s not a contradiction to play a Hungarian song and a Romanian song next to each other, we’re lucky because we can enjoy it just for the beauty of it, we have a little more freedom.

What’s more, the Eastern European tradition itself constantly shifts borders and influences, it’s a place where – for example –Turkish music left marks on Romanian folk songs, and where the bagpipes of (what ended up) the Celts of Western Europe are still littered throughout the musical history of the Eastern European region. Today, as folk traditions continue to change, those shifts are increasingly global, where Jeremy “can find a record in a thrift shop and be influenced by someone miles away and years ago”. He explains that he loves “the way it’s constantly evolving and changing, and I love being a part of that”.

The soundtrack for Forest of Sleep will also feature musicians from the areas Twisted Tree and A Hawk and a Hacksaw are drawing on, including a traditional Romanian flautist, and a cimbalom player. Jeremy explains:

The cimbalom is really important to the music, and the Romanian flute – a shepherd’s flute – it’s an antique, an old old very rare instrument, and people don’t play it any more, it’s probably medieval. Romanian shepherds tending to their flocks would have a flute in their pocket and play these melodies.

But what’s key for Jeremy and Heather is that they hold together the complexity of knowing what has come before, the impossibility that they might be able to imitate a tradition which they are not from, and yet how they might earnestly respond to that tradition – bridge to it from their own.

We try and focus on writing new material and are very aware of ourselves as outsiders in that culture – we’re Americans and have to come at it all from a different angle.

In fact, this lightness of touch is also the reasoning behind the band’s name ‘A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Jeremy explains:

I named the band AHAAH because I wanted to reference the novel Don Quixote  – I was reading it when I was recording the first record, and I realised what I was trying to do was what Quixote was trying to do – he’s out in Spain with his old horse trying to be a knight, and I was trying to emulate the recordings of these beautiful Romanian virtuosos in the 60s, with broken instruments in a garage. Quixote is a buffoon, he’ll never attain his dream of being a knight-errant, but he becomes a hero in a way – and something unique – in his own right. I wanted to keep that in my head: I’m an outsider, and will never be what I dream I’ll be, but I have to do what’s speaking to me.

Klaus, the dog, a blonde coloured labrador mix, rests asleep on the floor of a ramshackle studio, while music happens around him.
Klaus the dog has a sleep in the recording studio

We finish up talking about their first impressions of working with the Forest of Sleep team. Neither Jeremy or Heather had ever worked on a video game before, although as soon as Ed approached them they were eager to be involved.

Jeremy: I think we both thought it was perfect, the idea of doing Russian folk tales as a video game is really compelling, a beautiful idea – I loved it

Heather: and it looks so beautiful as well!

Together we’ve been setting out in a very wide, exploratory manner:

it can be difficult to write music for someone else because when you’re on your own you can enjoy your tangents, and I want to do that for this too – so we wrote a bunch of stuff, some wildly different from what might be expected, so we can narrow it down slowly, go on some tangents together. We started with a conversation about what we want the soundtrack to be like, then now we have a pretty good idea of what they like, but also as Heather mentioned – looking at Nicolai’s animations, and talking to Ed about the stories helps and inspires us to make melodies to fit well within that.

We’re really thrilled to be able to work reactively with A Hawk and a Hacksaw – to see what they make out of the animation and illustration examples we send them, and the folk stories that we ourselves are being influenced by, and then to work together (alongside Martin Kvale) to find the best way to layer and develop the music for the game. Heather and Jeremy (thankfully!) echo our enthusiasm:

Heather: the collaboration is exciting for us, the whole idea of creating music for a video game is amazing, something we’ve never done before so it’s a whole new creative incentive I guess, and it’s really nice to work with Nicolai and Ed and Martin – because it’s their medium, and our two artforms coming together in a really nice way.

Jeremy: […] They didn’t just finish it and then ask us to add music – being there on the ground floor and watching it grow is really inspiring.

Ed and Martin recently returned from a week with Jeremy and Heather in the recording studio, and later on in the process we’ll let you in on how all of that worked. AHAAH will also be releasing a full length record to accompany the videogame – a re-working of the music made in collaboration with Forest of Sleep.

In the meantime, you can follow them on Facebook, where they regularly update fans on upcoming shows, and promote some of the other records they release and promote from musicians they support via their label. We can’t encourage you enough. Go and listen to them some more. Go!