An interview with Cicada: Game music concepts from right out of left field

Judson ‘Cicada‘ Cowan is an odd duck in the world of music. He’s a gifted composer, there’s no denying that (unless you like being wrong), but he’s always shared his music freely with the online community and asks only that you listen. He’s also a man of heady concepts, having just completed his latest album, Technology Crisis II, a soundtrack for a videogame that doesn’t exist. Yes, he’s an odd one, but an amazingly talented one at that.

Cowan’s Technology Crisis series is one of the most unique concept albums you could find. Sounding like the retro videogames that inspired them, both Tech Crisis albums tell an instrumental narrative that’s totally for the listener to interpret. It doesn’t hurt that the tracks are also superb. As well as two impressive concept albums, the man who calls himself Cicada also has an amazing collection of a capella covers, Metroid Prime remixes and slightly more conventional, but no less listenable original songs to his name. 

Destructoid, ever the swarm of culture vultures, sat down with Judson to discuss his Technology Crisis vision, his use of videogames as musical inspiration and how to fit a giraffe into a swan. We didn’t discuss the last one, sadly, but if you want to get to know Cicada better (and I very much hope you do), hit the jump for our exclusive interview. Oh and check out all the links given above. You won’t be disappointed by what you hear.

Destructoid: You recently sent Destructoid your latest videogame-related album, Technology Crisis II. As I understand it, the Technology Crisis concept is that of a videogame soundtrack for a title that doesn’t actually exist. What gave you the idea for such a unique and bold idea?

Cicada: When I was making the original, I created and named the “Earth’s Assault on the Central AI” track first, as kind of a solo song. I loved it so much I decided I was going to campaign the idea out into a virtual story so I sat down and figured out what would happen before and after that song in the story and created the whole album. The sequel was made in the same fashion except I made the entire tracklist ahead of time and created the songs in order from start to finish. Both are meant to be listened to as one would read a book – from start to finish – so that you get the ups and downs as I intended and hopefully experience the optimal emotional response to what you’re hearing.

Destructoid: Using 16-bit style MIDI sound, both Technology Crisis albums paint a picture as to what kind of videogame series this music would accompany. We’re given clues as to the story through track titles and sound, but that seems to be the only bones you, as the composer, throw us. Is that your intention, to prompt the listener to devise their own games mentally and weave their own story around the tunes you create?

Cicada: That’s exactly my intention. The genre of the game, the style, the characters – all that’s up to the listener. Feel free to throw in sh*tty comic relief characters in your head, like Jar Jar. You mentioned it was 16-bit style, I’d like to clarify that I wanted kind of a fusion of 16-bit, 8-bit and modern synthesis sounds to create a weird, unique hybrid that stands apart from other game music. Technology Crisis II is also a bit cleaner sounding, as if it’s on the “next gen” system from the first.

Destructoid: Is there a more solid story for Technology Crisis that you have for yourself? Characters, plot points, etcetera? Would you one day like to see a game inspired by the albums and using your soundtrack as the backbone?

Cicada: I’m gonna go ahead and answer the second part of that question first: Sweet Jebus, Yes. If anyone wants to make this into a game, have at it! I’d love to see an actual visualization of what people imagined was happening when they listened to these tracks. As for myself, I definitely have a story in my head when I listen to the albums. I won’t go into great detail about it, though, because I want people to develop their own ideas. Let’s just say it involves Barbara Bush, a gallon of WD40 and 33 hard-boiled eggs. Wait, what are we talking about?

Destructoid: You make no secret of your using videogame soundtracks for inspiration in not just the Technology Crisis series, but also your other works such as the a capella versions of some classic game music on your Choralseptic album and your Metroid Project remixes. What is it about game soundtracks in particular that inspire you to create?

Cicada: What is it about video games that any gamer loves? I grew up with a strong love for gaming. I never had a real interest in popular music until I was in my teens, so the strongest musical influence I had in my developmental years came out of my NES and my Super NES – and, uh, Sir Mix-a-lot. I love the musicality of game soundtracks. I love the unabashed hook usage and the freedom that working with such primitive sounds gives to the compositions. When you’re not so concerned with creating synths that sound good, with avoiding making things cheesy, it really opens up your options a lot musically.

Destructoid: What are your favorite videogame soundtracks/composers? Any particular tunes that stand out to you among all the classics?

Cicada: The obvious favorites: Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Koji Kondo (all the Mario games),  Kazumi Totaka (Mario Paint, Animal Crossing), Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger). I’m a huge fan of the Megaman series’ music – specifically II and III – but god only knows who wrote those soundtracks. Some guy/gal called BunBun is the closest you’ll get to finding the composer’s name. There’s another soundtrack, I’m not sure of the composer, that I love: Journey to Silius on the NES. I played the game (which isn’t very good, in retrospective) at kind of a hard time in my life and that music has probably had the biggest influence on my own work. Look it up, you won’t be disappointed. Some random games tunes that I love: Secret of Mana – World (I stole this concept for the final track on Tech Crisis II – compare and contrast!), Zombie Ate My neighbors – Evening of the Undead, Actraiser – Level 1, Sonic the Hedgehog – Green Hill Zone, anything from Katamari. The list goes on.

Destructoid: In a similar vein, can you tell us a little about your favorite videogames? Have you always been a retro man, or do today’s games stand with their ancestors in terms of both gameplay and music?

Cicada: I only really get into retro gaming if it’s games that are specifically nostalgic for me. So old NES, SNES and Genesis games – some old PC stuff, too. Anything I had growing up. The list of my favorite games could go on forever, though. I’m playing Half-Life 2 right now for the first time (I have a Mac and I hated the original Xbox) and it’s becoming one of my favorites. I love all the traditional favorites, but I guess I’ll just list a few of the quirkier games that define my taste more accurately: Ico, Pikmin, Yoshi’s Island, Dr. Mario, Silent Hill 2, Castlevania: SOTN, Sim City 2000, Day of the Tentacle, Dungeon Keeper, Eternal Darkness. I’m sure I’m forgetting tons of important stuff.

Destructoid: As well as videogames, what other music inspires you? Listening to your back catalogue, I get a very Depeche Mode feel from a lot of your work.

Cicada: Ha. Funny you would say that, Depeche Mode has never been an influence on my work. Until a few years ago I had only heard the same “Personal Jesus” song that everybody else has. Then people kept comparing my work to Depeche Mode and New Order and other 80s new wave artists so I checked them out. My big influences are bands like Orbital, Aphex Twin, Plaid, NIN, Radiohead, Autechre, Underworld. I didn’t start messing with vocals until years after I started writing music, so I had already developed a style and then just started slapping vocals on it. That’s why most of my influences are instrumental artists.

Destructoid: You’ve been recording since 1999, which is known to most Internet users as the dawn of time itself. In that time, you seem to exhibit little to no interest in making a dime off of what is clearly impressive musical talent and vision. It’s rare these days to fine a musician more into the music than money. Have you ever considered turning this talent into serious cash and if not, why not, you madman?

Cicada: Thanks for the shining endorsement! I’ve learned that people are very supportive and energetic about your work until it’s time to whip out their wallets and lay some cash down, at which point funds seem to disappear. I’ve tried making some CDs and selling them before and even most my friends are unwilling to drop 10 bucks to support my work. I’ve decided that trying to make money with music is just strenuous and exhausting and takes all the fun out of it. Now I just make music because I love it. That being said, if anyone feels that I should be making a profit with my music, there’s a donate button on my homepage. Haha. I encourage its use.

Destructoid: Thank you for speaking with Destructoid and also for sharing your excellent music with the Internet. Any final words for our readers?

Cicada: Thanks for having me, I’m honored. The opportunity to get my music in front of an audience that will appreciate is priceless. And readers, if you enjoy my work don’t be shy, I’d love to hear from you. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.

Jim Sterling