Nick Kaelar (Varien) Interview
Nick Kaelar, more widely known by his stage name Varien, is a composer and producer whose work has covered a wide variety of genres and media, with his music appearing in numerous trailers and shows and films, along with various games and even venturing into K-Pop. RPGamer’s Alex Fuller had the pleasure of being able to chat with Nick about his love of gaming, his musical influences, and his hopes of one day being able to be involved in the soundtracks of big JRPG releases in the future.
In a highly enjoyable conversation, Nick showcased himself as an avid video games and RPG fan. As Nick details in the interview, video games have played an important role in shaping his music, including on his upcoming electronic EP release, Death Asked a Question, which releases later this month on October 26, 2018. Having listened to it in full and been fully absorbed in the great atmosphere that Nick creates, I can say Death Asked a Question is well worth checking out.
Alex Fuller (RPGamer): For any of our readers who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, can you give a brief introduction?
Nick Kaelar (Varien): My name is Nick Kaelar and I produce under the name Varien. I make all kinds of music and am a huge gamer, which I have been since I can remember. My first memory is actually playing Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo. I’ve been very interested in Japanese culture and language my whole life and have been studying it for about four years now, but I watched a lot of anime growing up and was part of the Toonami and Y2K generation and I just have a passion at the intersection of music and video games. I’m sure we’ll touch on that intersection as the questions go on.
Most people may have heard my music. I’ve had music in everything from The Walking Dead to commercials you didn’t realize you heard on radio and TV. I’ve done stuff for movie trailers, and I’ve actually done stuff on movies themselves.
AF: How long has music and composing been a part of your life, is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
NK: Yeah, in kindergarten they go around and ask “what you do want to be when you grow up?” and I’m like “I want to write music for video games”. I actually learned music starting at the age of eleven with guitar and then piano and then actually producing. People have never really got it until the last ten years when they’ve started to recognize the music in video games. We can go back now and hear David Wise’s ambience from Donkey Kong Country but I was playing it as a kid and hearing it in real-time when it was a fresh game and going “wow”. I was hypnotized by those sound chips from a very young age.
AF: Gaming is clearly something that’s been a big part of your life as evidenced by the impressive set of tattoo sleeves. How long did it take to build up that collection?
NK: My rule of tattoos is to wait it out and make sure that you know that you want that tattoo essentially. I’ve always been on the alternative side of dressing and fashion ever since I got out of school. When I was sixteen, I was introduced to the world of body modification — piercings, tattoos, etc. — I never got any piercings but I knew that at some point in my life I wanted to cover my arms and do two full video game sleeves. It was one guy, we planned the entire thing out and it took, I think it was 120 hours on the dot, over the course of three years.
It is a journey. If anything it will teach you about pain and how to cope with it. After 120 hours of getting jammed with a needle, your pain tolerance goes way up!
AF: What’s your first significant gaming memory? Is there a game in particular that really got you into it?
NK: It’s weird to think about me getting into gaming when my first memory was gaming. It feels like I’m one with it and all of my gaming memories. I have very distinct ones like Halo, Final Fantasy XI, and Everquest LAN parties. Here’s an interesting story. I went my friend’s house in the middle of nowhere and it was his birthday. His dad was “I know you like Final Fantasy-type games so I got you this cool-looking one”, and it was Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. For fourteen/fifteen-year-old me, playing Nocturne was blowing the doors open of what a video game could be, with demons and this amazing soundtrack. What an obscure game to just randomly pick for your son, but I’ve beaten it four or five times since discovering it. I love it more every time; I live for that cel-shaded aesthetic with the low droning atmospheres and progressive metal guitars. I have a lot of memories like that. It’s not so much what is my first, it’s more tell me about the culmination of these memories that have made you the person you’re talking to right now.
AF: This is a very unfair question as it’s always impossible to pick one but what’s your favorite game, or games? Which of the classic JRPGs series are your favorites?
NK: Why are you asking me this, it’s like torture! If I had to make a top five right now I’d say Final Fantasy XI, Chrono Trigger — I’m looking at my arms to reference actually — Mega Max X4, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and lastly I would have to say a tie between Majora’s Mask and Super Mario RPG. You know what, you should swap a fifth with one and I completely blanked on, which is my number one musical influence I’ve come to discover, is Super Metroid. And of course I love Metroid Prime and the entire series.
That’s the crucible for the dark sound that I have, which is a bit of Metroid and Shin Megami Tensei, but mostly Metroid. They were able to achieve a level of atmosphere just based off tiny wave cycles in a cartridge, it’s nuts. I remember growing up with Super Metroid and Mega Man X, which got me into metal, my favorite genre beside soundtrack music. The first time I heard Dream Theater I was like “Oh my god, this is like Mega Max X but real people”. My young mind processing progressive metal for the first time was comparing it immediately to Mega Man X!
For series in general, Metroid for the atmosphere and I’m a huge fan of strong female protagonists. There’s Mega Man X, and we’ve already mentioned Shin Megami Tensei and Final Fantasy. Pokémon is up there and obviously Zelda, though I have weird opinions about Zelda: I prefer Majora’s Mask over Ocarina of Time just for how dark it is. I can’t believe they took a Zelda game there; everyone is saying their final goodbyes in the last couple of minutes before the moon hits. There are so many great series but those are the main, obvious ones.
AF: Are there any times where being into gaming has really helped you?
NK: It’s one of the only things beside the community around me, and that community is probably mostly others who are also very much into gaming. I’ve been through a really tough couple of years and there’s no greater solace than a great game soundtrack to bring your heart and soul back to an easier time, or getting immersed in a world. It’s ok. A lot of of people like to rail against escapism but I think that for the sake of one’s sanity a little dose of it is absolutely required to get through continually hard times.
We can’t be fighters all the time. We’d exhaust ourselves and that’s exactly what I did. It hasn’t been an easy couple of years but gaming is my solace and I’ve been doing things like revisiting Final Fantasy XI. I never reached max level so I’ve given a gift to my younger self as it’s much easier these days of maxing out a couple of job classes and exploring the world within the game, listening to the music and being absorbed by it, things I couldn’t do when the game came out at the age of eleven.
AF: You identified Nocturne as a game you’ve returned to multiple times, are there any others you often find yourself returning to? What do you think it is about them that makes you do that?
NK: For this year I wanted to play through Final Fantasy IV to XV. Right now I’m on XIII-2. I’m trying to be as completionist as possible and managed to sneak in platinuming NieR: Automata in there somehow. Basically when I return to games like that — I’ve gotten all endings in Catherine, that game means a lot to me for personal reasons — if I like a game I’ve probably beaten it multiple times. It’s kind of like watching a film. If you enjoy it, it’s got replayability, and if a couple of years have passed by maybe I’ll enjoy it more.
I was playing through Final Fantasy V, which is not one of my favorites, but as I was playing through I was thinking “damn, I’ve missed out”. I understand the story now as an adult. We go through times in our life and our perspective gets shifted. I’ve beaten Final Fantasy IX tons of times and when I beat it a couple of months ago I understood it from a whole new perspective. It’s not that a lot of time has passed; it’s more what game is calling to me in my current mood and the current place that I’m in in life.
Next year I might do all the Personas and mainline Shin Megami Tensei, so that’ll be a much harder journey!
AF: Who are some of your favorite characters or ones that you’ve really identified with?
NK: Most recently Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII. I really like her because throughout the series she really keeps people on track and that’s been my mood for the past couple of years, getting back on the horse and writing music full-time again. In the game she’s distracted by a couple of things, but always comes back to “we gotta focus” (no pun intended). She’s just got a lot of quotables.
Another character I identify with is Vincent from Catherine for personal reasons. Something very similar happened to my life but kind of different; less asshole-ish but more what Catherine really represents in terms of freedom. Catherine means a lot to me, great soundtracks and great looks. I can’t wait for the remake and I’ll definitely be doing something for it, whether it’s a remix or tribute.
AF: Are there any underrated games that you really love?
NK: They’re not widely known but I really like the Atelier series by Gust. They have incredible soundtracks, alchemy, and traditional RPG elements. It feels a little bit like Star Ocean. I feel like at this point Star Ocean is kind of underrated because the last couple of games weren’t that good, but Star Ocean 3 is an incredible game. You can’t overlook that one when you look at RPGs as a whole.
I still think mainline Shin Megami Tensei is underrated. A lot of people focus on Persona and it’s only gotten increasingly popular with Persona 3, 4, and 5. I recommend playing Persona 2, absolutely yes, along with Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. I love that when they teased Shin Megami Tensei V, it looked like Nocturne.
During our conversation Nick was kind enough to provide examples from some tracks he has been working on, as well as noting some of the various covers he has created from some of his favorite tracks from various games — as part of picking apart how they were composed — including the one below of Final Fantasy IX‘s world map theme. It’s readily apparent how he has been able to utilize his gaming influences both in his electronic music and well as his soundtrack creations. It’s easy to be able to see the sort of scenes or environments that one would expect from a JRPG while listening to those particular tracks.
NK:It is one of the first works that I’ve done that’s been really personal. A lot of the stuff that I’ve done before has been far away from me and my problems, or blatantly spelling out a story. This is very dark and 2000s-industrial. I invoked so much Metroid it’s not even funny! Even in this soul-searching, expressive, personal, raw body of work, it still contains a lot of gaming influences. I think people will be able to pick out lots of moments where it gets really like Castlevania or Metroid. That’s how much gaming is a part of my music. Even when I write about me personally in my darkest times, there are still major traces of cinematic-isms and video game-isms.
AF: Have you done a lot of remixing or sampling of video game music?
NK: Yes, we were talking about the covers I was doing on YouTube. Once or twice a week for six months I covered everything from Chrono Cross to Atelier Ayesha to a Zelda medley. I did a Persona 4 medley and hired a vocalist. I kind of want to give them a second chance to shine so am working with Materia Collective and we’ll see what happens with that. I’ve also done an official remix with Undertale.
AF: Are there any particular musicians who inspire you or whom you’d love to be able to work with?
NK: My dream would be to work on the electronic side of things. I’d love to work with Bjork and Imogen Heap. I will and am working with other hip DJs and other electronic musicians, but I like to dream big and think big and outside of the box and Bjork and Imogen Heap come to mind.
A dream would be to exist in the same room and write alongside Hitoshi Sakamoto or Motoi Sakuraba, any of these JRPG giants. I don’t even have to write music! Even if I’m just fetching lunch for them, I just want to see them work and be there when that magic happens. JRPGs are a Fort Knox because not only are they in Japan but there’s a super tight-knit community.
I’m not going to say Nobuo Uematsu or Koji Kondo, that’s just an impossibility, but dream-wise I definitely would love to work on a JRPG. That’s always been my dream since I was a kid so all of this has been stepping stones to slowly connect my music to gaming. I’m working on two soundtracks right now and one of them is for an action RPG that’s got JRPG leanings and I’m finally able to execute some of my best music, because it’s what I love the best.
AF: How was the process for composing for games and how is it different to the other things you’ve worked on?
NK: Film is cut to the millisecond, while video games are more about the mood and that’s what I’m interested in as a musician. I think anyone who knows my music knows that no matter what genre it is, I will pay crucial attention to the ambience and atmosphere to put you there. It’s so much more free, with less worrying about what specific beats to hit.
AF: Is gaming composing in particular something that you’d be interested in devoting more time to? Are there are any developers that you’d like to collaborate with?
NK: If someone came to me right now with a legit gaming composing opportunity I would grab it. I’d still put out stuff under the Varien brand because that’s fun for me, but the first memory I have is Final Fantasy IV and the first thing out my mouth when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up was video game composer, so if that opportunity came to me, of course I’d go for it. The thing is video game composer in itself and especially the JRPG community is very much a Fort Knox. There’s a limited amount of people and they’re the best.
In terms of developers, I’d love to work with any that are making good games. There are a lot making good games. In particular though, if this was like a genie-type thing with three wishes, I would say obviously Square Enix on something like a NieR: Automata. I’d love to work on something with Gust because I like their aesthetic. My favorite style is cel-shaded anime. There’s a big side of me though that would love to contribute something to CD Projekt RED and Cyberpunk 2077.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. Right now I’m working with indie developers who are looking for funding and keeping my composing chops up. I’m praying for the best and also working for the best, so we’ll see what happens in terms of a big gig happening or getting an introduction to a studio who will let me show off a demo reel.
RPGamer would like to thank Nick for spending his time chatting to us and providing so many neat stories in his answers. We would also like to thank Kat Bailey and The Mother Lode for setting up the interview.
Those who like to listen to Varien’s music can check his official website, as well as his profile on SoundCloud and his YouTube channel, with the latter including a series of covers from classic RPG soundtracks. His newest EP, Death Asked a Question, releases later this month.