Chance Thomas is well known to those of us who spend some time in the Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online trouncing across the Greenfields of the Shire, exploring the dark places of Moria, or most recently, charging across the plains of Hytbolt. Mr. Thomas is responsible for the merry melodies of the Shire, the ominous opuses of Foundations of Stone and the riveting rondos of Rohan.
But Mr. Thomas is more than just a video game composer. He’s created music for the Academy Award winning short film The ChubbChubbs!, as well as the wildly successful History Channel show Pawn Stars, and scored commercials for just industry giants as McDonalds.
Even when it comes to Middle-earth, Mr. Thomas has contributed to more than just Lord of the Ring Online. He’s contributed to numerous digital incarnations of Middle-earth, including Liquid Entertainment’s War of the Ring, EA’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and a personal favorite of mine, Sierra’s The Hobbit.
Mr. Thomas was kind enough to spare a moment to sit down and talk with me about his music, his creations, and exactly how does one go about scoring a modern myth. Thank you, Mr. Thomas, for giving me this opportunity. Let me begin with the obvious question: How exactly did become a musical composer? Tell me about your journey from appreciation to creation and how that lead to the long and winding roads of Middle-earth.
Chance Thomas: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. If you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to, right? I never started out with the intention of scoring films, video games or any other form of dramatic entertainment. But I’ve always had this profound adoration of music, and a realization of its impact on the human soul. I suppose that set my feet on a path of musical immersion from a very young age. I picked up several instruments as a lad – piano, cell, double bass, drums – and dabbled with the guitar and violin. I started writing songs around 10-12 years old, and that just opened the floodgates. Since then, the road has simply gone on and on.
James “Bandoras” Spahn: In addition to your published works of music for Middle-earth, you worked on several projects that never quite made it to the ears of your audience, including the video games Treason of Isengard and the original incarnation of Lord of the Rings Online called Middle-earth Online. When you put the time and effort into a project that never makes it to your audience, what becomes of those pieces? Do they see the light of day in future projects? Do the simply fade into a myth and legend? I mean, I can’t imagine that after putting the word and passion into a piece that one can simple cast it aside so easily.
CT: You’ve done your research. I’m impressed. Most of the music created for cancelled projects simply goes away forever. The music I write is so intrinsically tied to a particular set of visuals, specific storyline or gameplay, etc. To take that music and transplant it onto something else is just too artificial. Besides, there’s plenty more where that came from. It seems to me that the ocean of inspiration from whence all creative ideas flow really is limitless. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, along comes something new that totally blows your mind. And no, I’m not talking about Gangnam Style.
JS: I think it’s for the best that we avoid talking about Gangnam Style. That thing spreads like the plague. Music itself is at the heart of Tolkien’s story. Eru forged the world from song, and it constantly was a great protector and weapon of for the Free-People of Middle-earth.
CT: If I recall correctly, Eru sang into the void, and it was no longer void. Then the music he sang began to take on shapes and colors. I’ve often used this tidbit to good naturedly rib Art Directors about the preeminent place of music above art in the Tolkien mythology.
JS: Again and again, music is shown to be of an expression of the divine. Given that music is such a powerful force of nature in Tolkien’s Middle-earth and so many musicians have crafted song from his Secondary World, what do you do to make your music stand out when compared to a menagerie of artists like the Elbereth Orchestra, the Tolkien Ensemble, the Lonely Mountain Band, Maury Laws (composer for the Rankin-Bass animated film), Leonard Rosenman, and most recently Howard Shore.
CT: Not to mention my buddy David Arkenstone, another composer who has partaken freely from Tolkien’s deep well of inspiration. You ask a question I’ve never considered. What have I done to make my music stand out? Honestly nothing with that end in mind. My purposes when I compose for a Tolkien-based project are to use music to conjure up the feeling of time and place that is Middle-earth as we know it through the literature of professor Tolkien. Many years of researching the literature have yielded a very specific set of instrumental templates and themes which I use constantly in my LOTR-based writing, always targeted to the appropriate location/race and game purpose. If my work stands out in any way – and I’m not sure that it does – I would owe that to my intense quest for authenticity and resonance.
JS: Even your own Middle-earth musical works have been for different types of games. Scoring something tactical and direct like Liquid Entertainment’s War of the Ring has got to be an entirely different thing from scoring a happy-go-lucky game like Sierra’s The Hobbit. How do you keep the distinct feel of those games while still staying true to the central nature of Middle-Earth?
CT: I liken it to various planets orbiting around a common sun. Each game has its distinctive flavor, but they all orbit around a common Tolkien center. The templates and themes I spoke of earlier help create a center of gravity around which all the rest of the music can revolve. Each score takes on a distinctive voice appropriate for the game purpose it’s underscoring. But the literature-informed templates and themes tie the various scores gently but inexorably to one another.
JS: For many fans of Middle-earth and Lord of the Rings Online players, your music has become an iconic expression of Eriador and beyond. The booming, haunting Lament of Thorin Oakenshield captures the majesty of the dwarves, the haunting, melancholy melodies of Lothlorien, and the airy whistling songs of the Shire. Each song, like each of the Free-Folk is but a small piece in the great tapestry of Ea. I’d have to say that among your fantastic pieces a great many fans have a particular kinship for “Let Us Sing Together,” the eager, bright-eyed composition that is first heard when we enter into the House of Tom Bombadil. Recently it was even reborn as an anthem for all the Free People who brave the dangers of Rohan. Can you speak a little to what some (myself included) believe to be an iconic piece in the crown of LOTRO’s music? How do you feel about this piece?
CT: In life, there are some things that you plan out in painstaking detail, which then unfold like clockwork and turn out exactly as you’ve envisioned. And then there’s everything else!
The song called, “Let Us Sing Together”, which I’ve also seen referred to as, “Tom Bombadil’s Theme”, is ironically from the latter category. It is a happy accident, as much due to the implementation genius of Steven DiGregorio (Turbine’s audio director) as to my own compositional acumen. When I wrote the song, I originally called it, “The Road Home”. I wrote it with the intention of underscoring a player’s return to The Shire after successfully adventuring around in the game world. It has a homey flavor to it, and to my mind speaks of happy returns to familiar surroundings and welcoming friends, with tales to tell. But Steve realized it would work better as a tune to set apart the iconic home of Tom Bombadil. And so he renamed it, and implemented it just east of the Old Forest where Tom and Goldberry have their home. Brilliant.
JS:Do you have any pieces that stand out for you as moments of pride or where you feel, as an artist, that you hit the nail on the head when it came to your creation?
CT: I do have a few favorites. The Dwarves Theme that you mentioned, which threads its way through many music tracks placed in Moria, Ered Luin and other Dwarven haunts succeeds somehow in capturing the essence of their conflicted nature and history. Proud, relentless, mournful, determined, plodding, united, ancient… Somehow that theme hits all those emotions for me.
The themes for Lothlorien and Rivendell feel good to me. There is something especially magical and beautiful about Elves, almost otherworldly. These two themes, with their floating string melodies, augmented fifth in the harmonies, with the purity of the woodwinds and harp, each seem to describe in music the feelings I get while reading about each respective location in the literature.
The theme for Gondor is another one I think is right. We’ve heard bits and pieces of it in Shadows of Angmar. We hear it in the new login music, and in the East Wall where Boromir makes his last stand in the shadow of the Argonath. It’s a regal theme, a noble theme. And I look forward to developing it to a fuller extent in a coming day.
Finally, there are all the new themes in Rohan, which seem to be resonating really well with much of the player base. I’m so genuinely happy about that. Honestly, you never know how people will react to something that finds its way from your imagination and then out into the real world. I’ve made a montage of some of these themes accompanied by screen shots from the game and pictures from the recording session which you may want to share with your audience:
JS: Stepping away from the world of Arda for a moment, your body of work goes far beyond just Tolken’s work. As I mentioned earlier, you’ve developed quite a diverse portfolio. For the Oscar-winning short film 2007 film The ChubbChubbs! you served as both composer and a voice-actor. The short film was featured before the major motion picture Men In Black II and was so well received that it was included on the DVD release of the film, was used to introduce Stuart Little 2 and even received its own individual DVD release. For a piece that clocks in at just over five and a half minutes, that’s quite a resume. Can tell me a bit about that project and how you came into it?
CT: And it came back again in 2007, making another appearance on the Surf’s Up DVD. Super fun project. Ironically, it was a video game soundtrack that opened the door. Ken Ralston was the President of Sony Picture Imageworks at the time. A copy of my Quest for Glory V soundtrack found its way to his desk, and when The ChubbChubbs came up, he decided to give me a shot at scoring it. And here’s what that shot looked like: the animators sent me an animated story board and asked me what I could come up with overnight. That’s right – overnight.
So I did. I wrote some music overnight and sent it back. They liked it. Suddenly I’m scoring a film for Columbia Pictures. Who knew???
The score was symphonic, and we had a decent sized orchestra record it. My company HUGEsound also handled the sound effects and Foley work, bringing in sound designer Tim Larkin (a real stroke of good fortune) and Foley artist Janna Vance.
One thing that was interesting about the gig was doing two R&B remakes – Aretha Franklin’s Respect and Why Can’t We Be Friends from War. The Imageworks team created their animations to match the original recordings, but Columbia was unable to license those recordings for the film. So I had to create exact duplicates of the song segments they were animating to. The hardest part about it was matching the drummer from Aretha Franklin’s band. He was wild, all over the map with his timing. I mean, it ends up sounding great on the record. But I’m having to generate click and virtual drum tracks which match his imperfection perfectly, so my rhythm section and horn section can record the remake. It was crazy.
JS: Beyond theatrical work, you’ve also done considerate work in television. The History Channel, McDonalds, and the Emmy Award-Winning Rise Above the Blues, you seem to have a finger in every pie Mr. Thomas! With so much diversity in your portfolio, what are the differences in approaching these projects?
CT: I think a composer has to view every game, film, commercial or TV show they work on as a unique entity. The artistic mindset wants to understand the essence and nuance of each story on its own merits. After that you consider the delivery format. Fundamentally, all media is communication. And music is a language. I just learn the language and adapt it to whatever medium I’m using.
JS: With so many fans in so many venues, what’s the future look like for you and your music? Will we continue to see you composing for Lord of the Rings Online and other digital excursions into Middle-earth? Are there any new projects you can tell us about? What’s tomorrow hold, Mr. Thomas?
CT: Ah, but you forget – not even Gandalf can see clearly into the future. I often don’t even know what’s around the corner, let alone what may be coming in the years ahead. But I hope it’s good…!
Obviously, I would love to write more music for Lord of the Rings Online. Middle-earth is in my very soul, and it feels like I have many hours of music left to write in that world. But there are no guarantees. Of the many expansions Turbine has done, I’ve only been invited to participate in 3 of them (Shadows of Angmar, Mines of Moria and Riders of Rohan). So we’ll have to see what the players ask for and what the developer decides.
Apart from that, today I’m writing some slightly spooky adventure music for an unannounced project. And tomorrow? I’ve been contacted by the producer of a stage musical who wants me to score his production, possibly starting the first of December. After that, who knows? As my good friend and fellow composer Sam Cardon (World of Warcraft, Good Morning America) once said, “Every time I finish a project it feels like I’m going to be unemployed for the rest of my life.” Such is the fate of the freelance composer!
Having said all that, I have to admit that the past years have been full of pleasant surprises. The ChubbChubbs came completely out of the blue, and turned into an unexpectedly delightful experience. Creating the video game score for James Cameron’s Avatar was another unforeseen opportunity, which I absolutely loved. Lego Star Wars III, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Disney’s Ghosts of Mistwood, Peter Jackson’s King Kong… the list goes on and on. Nearly every one has been a surprise. So it seems the landscape of my career is destined to be dotted with pleasant surprises. Discovering the details should prove to be quite the ongoing adventure.
The Road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, and I must follow, if I can…
JS: As I watch Mr. Thomas get swept off by the road, I’d like to thank him for his time and for what was more than an interview. This magnificent conversation as been an absolute joy for me as an interviewer and I am in his debt. I can only hope that we’ll continue to hear more and more of Mr. Thomas’s shining symphonies as we ride to the edge of Middle-earth, and beyond! Just try to keep up to keep up with Chance Thomas over at HUGEsound and ChanceThomas.com, where where this masterful maestro will undoubtedly continue to amaze us all!