If there is a perfect balance of lo-fi, epic, and cute, Helsinki-based composer Jukio Kallio’s soundtracks nail it every time. The 29-year-old musician, who sometimes uses the alias Kuabee—or, in earlier days, Kozilek—has carved out a fascinating niche in scoring games, making music that can feel both extraordinarily tense and brilliantly silly. From Luftrausers, which turned epic sea battles into math-y and minimalist sepia-toned fun, to the cartoonish bullet-hell Western Nuclear Throne, to most recently, the absurdly inventive and cute Minit, Kallio constantly pulls off soundtracks as memorable and eccentric as the games themselves. We exchanged emails while Kallio was traveling in Japan, where he grew up.
What did you fall in love with first: video games or music?
I think it’s safe to assume it was video games first. I have two much older siblings, and living in Japan in the early ’90s, we had a lot of console games. I can’t even remember what my first game was, as they’ve been part of my life from the very beginning.
I got into music pretty late. My parents didn’t really allow pop or rock music! I started discovering bands I liked when I was 14—it was pretty fast metal music that I got into first, and I had this weird assumption, for the longest time, that one had to have a degree from a music school to even form a band. That assumption shattered when I heard Nirvana. It was so rough, but so good, and I realized I could make music, too. Around the same time, I watched an anime called BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, which is a beautiful drama about a boy who joins a band. So I asked for a guitar from my mom, who supported me wholeheartedly, as she played guitar and sang, too. I started composing and recording as soon as I knew how to play a few chords. From the beginning I was more interested in songwriting than just being a good guitarist.
What were some of the first game soundtracks or scores that you found yourself interested in?
I think the first ones that made me say ‘wow’ were the Seiken Densetsu 2, Seiken Densetsu 3, and Chrono Trigger soundtracks. I think playing those games first planted the seed in me that games plus music could be more than the sum of its parts. Not knowingly, of course, as I was too young.
You’re one of the more prolific musicians I’ve spoken with about game scores and soundtracks. What do you get out off making your own music, versus making music for a project?
Sometimes I’m surprised how much music I’ve been making myself! I make my own music as a kind of counterweight to the stress of doing music for work projects. It’s very relaxing to make my own music without deadlines, but it’s also hard to keep at it for longer periods of time. For example, I’ve been wanting to make a full-length album for a long time, but my attention span just doesn’t seem to be long enough to do that. That’s why I release so many small EPs and singles. Work projects I take way more seriously: planning and thinking before doing.
Can you talk about your first foray into making music for games? How did you get your start?
This is where the scene thing was also very important. I met a lot of people online, first on a game making forum called 64Digits and then later through The Poppenkast, an invite-only video game creator forum that has been a safe space for like-minded people to show off their works-in-progress and get feedback and encouragement. We were basically just fooling around with whatever we wanted to create, and sharing the results with each other. Then some people from there grew into making bigger games commercially, including Jan Willem Nijman and Paul Veer, who I became very close with. They remembered me and my weird dabblings in music-making, and asked to compose for them. We jammed out the original Luftrauser, and that’s how I kinda got started!
I was still working as a graphic and web designer in different companies around that time. When I had enough savings to live well enough for six months, and had a few composition contracts lined up, I quit my job. I haven’t gone back into office since.
Your music combines lo-fi, ‘game-y’ sounds with other aesthetics. Luftrausers had this very noble, action-movie sort of sound, but blown-out and synthesized.
I never really thought of it as using ‘chiptune’ or ‘game-y’ sounds, really. It was more that I was super interested in making my own synth patches, and as I was learning, I realized I actually like the raw and simple synth sounds more than very sophisticated layered sounds. At first the lo-fi sound came simply from me not understanding production enough. But over the years as I’ve learned a lot, I’ve realized I just really like raw, lo-fi sound, and it’s stuck with me.
Luftrauser and Luftrausers’ music was a cool kind of thought collaboration with Jan Willem. He told me to make really raw, pumping electro sound for the game, but I really wanted to do kind of orchestral, heroic music for it.
I love your Nuclear Throne soundtrack—it’s such a pastiche of action-packed arcade music and spaghetti western sounds. What inspired it?
Thank you! Nuclear Throne was an amazing project for me. I was kind of frustrated with pixel-y indie games so often resorting to straight-up chiptune-style music. To me it seemed like people were obliged to do chiptune because the games were in big pixels. With Nuclear Throne, I went in a different direction. I chose acoustic guitars and harmonicas over raw synthesizers. Lo-fi being my thing, it still became very raw and electronic-sounding! One big inspiration was Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western music. I love Morricone’s compositions so much. Nuclear Throne’s music is definitely a love letter to him, in game-music form.
I think with Nuclear Throne music, I managed to transcend the ‘just music for accompanying the action’ barrier. I really believe the game became more than the sum of its parts. I composed the ending track, ‘Kings and Queens of Wasteland,’ around the project’s halfway point. I showed it to the team and it kind of changed how the whole team felt about the game. It wasn’t just an action game anymore. It felt like the whole project really became something more after that. There’s so much lore behind all the decisions we made for that game.
Minit has had such an amazing reception that really started long before the game came out. Can you talk about your inspirations for the soundtrack, and your process for making it?
A big inspiration was the Link’s Awakening soundtrack. That game is also referenced in the first area track’s name (“Minit’s Awakening”). But I actually went into Minit wanting to make this very peaceful ambient music for it. But that won’t do when you have a tight time limit woven into the gameplay. And in Minit, you only live for one minute and then you have to start over, and all the puzzles are built around that mechanic. So, I had to completely change my vision for the music, and I don’t think I’ve gotten over that, even after the actual release of the game! This is a problem I’m currently trying to teach myself out of. Always something new to learn!
I also did all the game’s sound design. Sound design is super fun, but it was a lot of work. I think I don’t want to do that anymore with projects of this size hahah! Just want to concentrate on music.
Half the soundtrack for Minit is songs from the jukebox in the game’s little bar. I found myself dying and returning to that bar just to try and listen to the songs more fully. Is that what the designers asked for, or did you get a little carried away?
I love the jukebox! I used to compose with a software called Guitar Pro, which used the general midi sounds from my operating system. It was a very specific midi sound that I remember, and last year I finally found a usable soundfont that was almost exactly the midi sound I remembered. That gave me an idea of just churning out tons of bad ‘genre tracks’ and putting them in a jukebox. I was actually planning on making way more tracks, but decided maybe these were enough.
Two of my favorite jokes in Minit revolve around the jukebox. There’s the obvious one: the worst track is, of course, the one that the character in the bar wants to hear and dance to. A horrible, horrible track that doesn’t even loop properly. The other joke is that the ‘trance’ jukebox song is way longer than one minute, so there’s no way you can hear it fully inside the game.
If you could soundtrack any game from any era, what game would you choose and what would you do with it?
This is a tough one! I feel like all the games I’d love to compose for already have such good soundtracks. To me, soundtracks are such a big part of the experience that I don’t think I can just take one apart and remake it. That said, if Nintendo wants me to compose for a new cute Yoshi game, I’m up for that! I want to make cute music! Or maybe a horror game soundtrack! I just want to make more music!