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‘World of Warcraft’ composer talks Grateful Dead, favorite video game soundtracks

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If you’ve played video games over the last 25 or so years, then you’ve probably heard the music of Clint Bajakian. The Novato, Calif., composer boasts credits on 200-plus video game titles, including such well-known offerings as the “World of Warcraft” series.

He’s worked in the music departments at Sony PlayStation and LucasArts, as well as managed his own companies — and received the 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Game Audio Network Guild.

The multi-instrumentalist holds degrees in music from the New England Conservatory and the University of Michigan and has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Technology and Applied Composition department since 2015.

He’s also in a Grateful Dead tribute band known as The Eleven.

Q: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

A: When I was around 12, I started getting into heavy metal — Black Sabbath, Kiss, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult. Stuff like that. When I was around 13 or 14, I got pulled more over to Grateful Dead; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Jefferson Airplane and more sort of the psychedelic stuff.

Q: What’s your favorite Grateful Dead song to play and why?

A: I would have to say “St. Stephen,” because it is such a great combination of rock ‘n’ roll and also kind of an epic storytelling quality (with) contrasting sections and ideas. And many people might agree that is one of the most classic Grateful Dead songs.

Q: When did you really get serious about music as a career?

A: I graduated high school and went to Northwestern, not really knowing what I wanted to do. I was liberal arts. I was pretty good at guitar. I had some sense of how to read music. But a friend of mine, on a violin, would play this Bach piece with me over and over again. I called my dad and said, “Hey, can I come back to Boston and study classical guitar and get into a formal musical education?” He supported the idea. So a year later, I found myself attending the New England Conservatory in 1982. That was the beginning right there. It’s been pretty serious ever since, in terms of application of musical knowledge and talent, with a focus on writing for orchestra.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about composing music for video games?

A: One misconception is that people, who don’t know better, still harken back to the original video game days, when it was bloops and beeps. They think that somehow, we’re not going to Abbey Road (studios in London) and hiring 110-piece orchestras. Because we are. And we have been for almost 20 years. Since around 2000, we’ve been working with live orchestras and top musicians and recording in venues like Nashville and London and New York and LA and right here in San Francisco. We’ve been working with the same talent pool, frankly, that the film industry works with.

Q: Are you ever amazed by how many people will actually hear your work? I mean, what’s the reach of something like “World of Warcraft”?

A: It is mind-boggling. It really is. I find Facebook friend requests from all over the world. It’s funny, because personally, it doesn’t feel quite deserved. I just feel like I’m doing work. I know many composers, and really, we’re all just working. We’re all just trying to do the best we can and remain relevant and have our work approved by the project teams.

But it is mind-boggling how profoundly deeply it is appreciated by a fan base out there, who really pay attention to the music. I think I have to say that the video game fan base is more appreciative of the musical component than the people who appreciate motion pictures are of the music in motion pictures. I don’t know why that is. But it just seems really true.

Q: How much time do you spend actually playing video games? Is that a required part of the process when composing for them?

A: I tend to play games that I work on, of course. I’ve tended not to be as much of a gamer outside of that. So, if I am at home in the evening, I am probably not turning on a game system. I am probably watching news or just being with my family or having dinner.

Q: What advice do you give your students when it comes to getting into the industry?

A: I recently distilled my career advice down to one word, which took me 20 years to do. And that word is “people.” It’s all about people. Of course, talent is a requirement, as is a basic skillset. People rely on you to know certain software applications and be able to do certain things. I tell my students that all that stuff is boring. When you’re talking to someone with hiring authority, they assume you’ve got the prerequisite skills. What’s not boring at all is how it feels to talk to each other. Would they want you on their team? Could they see being with you, day after day, on a really tough project that goes on for two years? It really comes down to the soft skills.

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