CUPHEAD: Hot Action and Bold Graphics Collide with Big Band

A game with the unlikely name of “Cuphead” mashes together the “rubber hose animation” of the early 20th century with a stellar soundtrack to create an action-filled big band experience for gamers. Composed by Kris Maddigan (also a jazz drummer and percussionist), the music keeps players at the edge of their seats while providing hot tunes at a fever pitch.

Previewed at the E3 trade event for video games in 2014 and released in 2017, this classic “run-and-gun” action game features “boss fights” and four worlds to play in. The game “Don’t Deal With the Devil” now has an expansion pack, “The Last Delicious Course,” and it’s available for Xbox, Nintendo, PS4, Steam, Apple and Windows.

Maddigan, who is based in Toronto, is a British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) award-winner and Juno-nominated composer who had a few words to say about composing for the game.

Kris Maddigan
Kris Maddigan

Was your early musical training primarily in big band, ragtime, bebop, or other?

I started on piano but quickly switched to classical percussion. (I wanted to play rock drums and this was a compromise with my mom). In high school I started in the concert band, finally got to play rock drums in a band, and began listening to and playing jazz. From there, I studied classical percussion in university but continued to study drum set as well, and played in the big band during my undergrad. I continued to play small combo jazz after graduation, eventually moving to Toronto to do an artist’s diploma in orchestral percussion.

When composing for a game, do you start with a mood, pacing, or melody, and why?

The studio knew early on that the style they wanted for Cuphead was in the ’30s’ big band vein, so for the most part composing was more about capturing a mood than anything else. Trying to create strong melodic content was (and still is) one of the biggest challenges.

Which bands, bandleaders, arrangers, etc. did you especially take inspiration from?

Since we didn’t really stretch past the early 1940s, the big influences were from the earlier eras of big band and ragtime. Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin were my two biggest influences by far, but the work of Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Jimmie Lunceford, and Chick Webb were all important to the overall Cuphead sound.

What do you hope to evoke with the music or do you wish for the music to meld as part of the holistic experience of gameplay?

My goal for the music is to not only enhance the gameplay, but to also be able to exist as a standalone album that can be enjoyed outside the game, with or without knowledge of Cuphead. Ideally, the soundtrack can be appreciated by fans of early film scores and big band on its own merits and not exclusively be tied to the game.

Your favorite part of arranging and scoring for Cuphead?

It was always fun to try to create something that was both “of the era” and was as original as possible. I tried to really approach things from the perspective of “what if the Golden Age of big band/film scores and the golden age of video games existed at the same time; what would those composers be writing?”

Are there challenges in recording in the studio or is it really mostly a blast?

This time around, the challenge was to try to record a cohesive album while dealing with the restrictions required by COVID. For example, we have a 50+ piece orchestra, but the maximum players we could have on the floor at any one time were 10, so not only what would normally be accomplished in one session now require five to six sessions, we had to do that while keeping everyone safe, which was always our most important priority.

Each of the dozens of sessions we did required an onsite nurse testing everyone before entry, masking, distancing, shields between players, two dental-grade air purifiers running constantly, and UV sterilization of the studio between every session. This would have been a huge project in the best of times, but trying to get a unified sound between three studios and 110+ musicians in these conditions was a huge challenge. Thankfully our recording engineer par excellence Jeremy Darby rose to that challenge in spectacular fashion.

Check out the behind-the-scenes antics with the musicians at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxB2K9l6S6E. Information on Cuphead can be found at https://cupheadgame.com.

© 2022 Debbie Burke

The musicians include:

Reeds

Vern Dorge – Clarinet, Alto Sax

Andy Ballantyne – Alto Sax, Clarinet

Alex Dean – Tenor Sax, Clarinet

Bob Leonard – Bari Sax, Clarinet

Alto Sax and Clarinet solos by John Johnson

Tenor sax solos by Alex Dean, Mike Murley

Brass

Jason Logue – Trumpet

Dave Dunlop – Trumpet

Kevin Turcotte – Trumpet

Steve McDade – Trumpet, Flugelhorn

Alastair Kay – Trombone

Christian Overton – Trombone

Peter Hysen – Bass Trombone

Scott Irvine – Tuba

Trumpet solos by Steve McDade

Trombone solos by Alastair Kay

Rhythm Section

Robi Botos, Jeff McLeod, – Piano

Rob Piltch – Guitar, Banjo

Paul Novotny, Jim Vivian, Neil Swainson – Bass

Ted Warren – Drums

Kristofer Maddigan – Vibraphone, Percussion

Piano solos by Jeff McLeod

Vibraphone solos by Mark Duggan

Brazilian Percussion by Alan Hetherington

Ragtime Band

Woodwinds

Laura Chambers – Piccolo, Flute, Bass Flute

Sasha Boychouk – Clarinet

Brass

Robert Venables – Cornet

Tom Richards – Trombone

Scott Irvine – Tuba

String Quartet

Aaron Schwebel, Emily Hau – Violin

Moira Burke – Viola

Liza McLellan – Cello

Rhythm Section

Elizabeth Acker, Jeff McLeod – Piano

Rob Piltch – Guitar, Banjo

Paul Novotny – Upright Bass

Kristofer Maddigan – Drums, Xylophone

Ragtime – Solo Piano/Trio

Laura Chambers – Piccolo

Jonathan Dyck, Christina Faye, Liz Acker, Kristofer Maddigan – Piano

Kristofer Maddigan – Percussion

Tap Dancer

Allison Toffan

Vocals

Alana Bridgewater

Barbershop Quartet

Shoptimus Prime – Tom Mifflin, Michael Black, Michael La Scala, Joel La Scala

Additional

Jonathan Dyck – Organ

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