It’s often the case that bands who pioneer a genre transcend that label; after all, to be trailblazing enough to become the figurehead for a scene, there’s always the likelihood that you will further progress. So it is with 65daysofstatic, the ever-evolving leftfield guitar and electronic experimentalists. Originally standard-bearers for a new wave of UK post-rock, they’ve since built inroads into the math rock, metal, ambient and experimental electronic scenes on their never-ending quest for creative fulfilment. More recently, they’ve been discovered by a new audience: young videogamers, excited by the promise of an upcoming game called No Man’s Sky. The game, which is hinged around a procedurally-generated, deterministic universe of in excess of 18 quintillion planets, is ambitious to say the least. Developers Hello Games used 65daysofstatic’s track Debutante from 2010 opus We Were Exploding Anyway for their initial trailer – which went viral once released – and this led to 65 being commissioned to write their new record with a view to it being used to generate a soundtrack for the galaxy-sized game. Now, with the album having just dropped, 65 have revealed the details on the depth and technology behind the collaboration. Split into a double album, No Man’s Sky has a main disc, entitled Music For An Infinite Universe, and a sprawling second disc of soundscapes. Both are predictably breathtaking.
As Joe Shrewsbury, 65’s principal guitarist, tells it, the collaboration was something close to fate. The band, having previously re-scored the classic sci-fi film Silent Running, were looking for another large-scale cinematic project after the conclusion of touring for their critically acclaimed 2013 album Wild Light. “We were looking for a project and we thought that it looked, if not perfect, then well… stuff like this doesn’t drop into your life every day,” Shrewsbury recalls. “Paul [Wolinski, keyboards] went down to meet Sean [Murray, Hello Games co-founder] in London, and Sean told him that he’d used 65days’ music in their weekly meetings for the previous two years. So even before the game was past the imaginary phase, when it was just lots of squares and triangles, he had used this music when he was talking about the game to instil enthusiasm in his team.”
With the game developers established as 65 fans, the project quickly came together. The band saw that the scope of the game was an exciting opportunity: “The scale was definitely really interesting because it was almost impossible to get your head around – and still is, really,” explains Shrewsbury. Also, the artistic vision and ambition of the game company mirrored their own: “It was also about the aesthetic of the game, because what they were trying to do artistically seemed really high concept and really beautiful. It wasn’t trying to be cutting edge and not getting away with it, or knowingly retro, but a really beautiful nod of the head to classic sci-fi art.”
I think it’s time to smash 65daysofstatic into pieces again and rebuild it, because I think that’s the only way we’re going to stay interesting.
The technical side of the procedurally generated music could have derailed other bands, but 65 found themselves uniquely qualified to keep pace, having two programmers in the band: Wolinski and bassist Simon Wright. A large-scale AV installation in Sheffield called Sleepwalk City had seen 65 feed guitar tones into an algorithm that Paul and Simon programmed, in order to spit out endless iterations of around 32 notes for an almost infinite number of chords. Wolinski is also known on the ‘live-coding’ scene, where music is written using a text-editor on the fly, with some extreme practitioners even building their synthesisers from scratch. The song Prisms from Wild Light was written out in this format and published on the internet so that other live-coders could manipulate the track at will. “I actually don’t think that a band that wasn’t able to work with the software, that weren’t au fait with the sort of concepts involved in procedural music would have been able to get as far as we have done with the project,” reflects Shrewsbury. “We’re working closely with the musical director, Paul Weir. He’s a super clever guy who’s building the software embedded in the game that’s going to generate the audio from the raw material. The difficulties are that he’s based elsewhere, and the software they’re using needs to be protected, so we’re actually not allowed to have a copy of that software. Paul and Si had to build our own version out of freely-available open source software… Paul and those guys find it quite easy to get their heads around that and build something that would allow them to fake what we’re trying to do. We’ve only been doing the procedural side of things for the last six months: the previous year was just scoring the game, writing the soundtrack. It’s quite a difficult thing to explain, because as well as writing an album you have to deconstruct that album. It’s done backwards.” If all this sounds like a huge undertaking, that’s because it is.
While there is strong musical continuity to Music For An Infinite Universe when considered against their last album Wild Light, it’s also an exploration into unfamiliar territory. According to Joe, the new music is: “More aggressive, the way it’s recorded and the way it’s mixed. It’s less exact, and it’s more sonic. Like the first track on the album, Monolith, we’ve never done anything like that before. It doesn’t sound like a band to me, it sounds like a machine underground, chewing up rock.”
This isn’t the first time the band have come to a dramatic fork in the road, either. “For me, there’s two really clear phases of 65, and the first is the first three records,” Shrewsbury explains, describing how 65 found themselves burned out by the time of their third album, The Destruction Of Small Ideas. “We were at a bit of a crossroads,” he states with a verbal wince, “because we were really tired of the band we’d become and we were tired of the band we were told we were. We needed to go back to the drawing board and decide what we were going to do for the next 10 years.” 65 might not be experiencing the same level of ennui this time around, but they are beginning to pine for a new challenge. Joe returns to Monolith: “It doesn’t sound like 65 to me in that I can’t hear the component parts… and I really like that about it. That might be where 65 are heading. We have tentatively started writing some stuff that we’re ignoring for now, but we may be heading in the direction of something more machine-like… I think it’s time to smash 65daysofstatic into pieces again and rebuild it, because I think that’s the only way we’re going to stay interesting.”
No Man’s Sky is 65’s first double-album length release, and for Joe, it’s not something entered into lightly.
“I don’t like albums that are like an hour and 20 minutes long,” he states firmly. “I think that 45, 55 minutes is
a really great length. The second disc is almost like the hinterland of the record, whereas the main disc is the easily understandable thing. Tracks like Supermoon, they start, they finish, and they’re hummable.” As for how
the discs relate to each other, that’s a question of the demands of the project in terms of time. “We were a lot less vicious in culling what we were making, because normally when we make a record we write a bunch of stuff, demo it, leave it alone for a while and then come back to it,” offers Shrewsbury. “What then normally ends up happening is that we throw a lot of stuff away. We didn’t have the luxury of time with this one… so in those terms it was really high pressure. We lost months just to being in the room and trying to make that happen.”
Joe stresses the point that as all of the material on the main disc and the second, expansive, freeform disc were composed together, they form part of the same body of work. “They complement each other. There are some thematic similarities, because while we were concentrating on the record we were also in the back of our heads aware that we were going to be doing procedural music, and that we were going to be working with endless variations of these, so there are things that are mirrored. There are tropes, I suppose, that are picked up subtly.”
I hope that we have contributed to something that is artful, graceful, beautiful and emotionally exciting.
The game and, by extension, the album, have been in production for years. There’s a great deal of expectation surrounding both, but Joe confesses they’re not too nervous about the release, or indeed the game itself: matters which he believes are largely beyond their control. “In the end, Hello Games have to make a great game, and hopefully we’ve done the best we can to assist them in that,” Shrewsbury shrugs. “The difference is going to be between the response to the album and the response to the in-game music. It’s a very thought-provoking game that’s not just about killing things… I hope that we have contributed to something that is artful, graceful, beautiful and emotionally exciting.”
The cycle of creative destruction espoused by 65 has kept the wheels turning, but at the heart of the machine, what is it that Shrewsbury loves about music, and the music that 65 create? He answers without missing a beat: “I think honestly that music is the only way we’ve found to articulate things that I can find no other way to articulate. 65 have had to learn to write music together and we are always greater than the sum of our parts.”
No Man’s Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe is out now on Laced Records. See the band’s website for more information.