Being an expert in what you do is challenging to achieve without having the drive and passion for what you are doing. Eric Kalver, music supervisor at Activision Blizzard Games, joins host Tara Joseph to talk about gaming and his experiences working Activision Blizzard Games. Having grown up a gamer, Eric tells how being able to work with gaming and music is a total dream and has given him an avenue to express his passions. He walks us through his background and what it takes to put together music for a game.
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Gaming And Music: Working With Your Passions With Eric Kalver
With Special Guest, Eric Kalver
Our guest is multi-talented. Not only did he have a first-class education at Berkeley, but he’s also a published arranger and, I hear, one hell of a drummer. Without further ado, welcome to the show Music Supervisor at Activision Blizzard Games, Eric Kalver. Eric, how are you?
I am good. How are you?
I’m well. I’m so happy to have you on the show. It’s an honor.
It’s an honor to be here with you. Thank you so much.
Has gaming always been in your life? Have you always loved gaming since you were a child or was it music that drew you first?
It’s a mix of both. I will admit I’m not that much of a gamer as much as I used to because I have no time anymore. I did grow up with a lot of gaming when I was younger. When I was younger, I was playing a lot of Activision titles like Spyro, Spider-Man, Crash Bandicoot and all those things, but music came first.
What was the first game that you ever bought? Do you remember?
I remember the first game I ever played was either Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Land. It was one or the other. I can’t remember in the timeline which was first. Game Boy was my first video game system and Sonic and Sega was my first home system.
When you were playing these games as a child, were you aware of the music that was part of the games or did that come later?
It’s a mix of both. I was definitely fascinated with scoring and film scores as a kid, especially with the movies. With the video games, it was a big part of the psyche of a 1990s kid learning music from video games and knowing the scores. When people would reference it, I would sing it back to a certain level. It was definitely a big interest in my earlier years.
The gaming industry is a billion-dollar business. I’m hoping that there are a lot of people reading who are like, “Eric works at Activision. That’s so cool. He works the music for video games.” How does someone become a music supervisor for Activision Blizzard? How does that happen? It’s a dream job for a lot of people.
It’s a cool job. The headquarters is full of video game pods. When you’re on a break, you can go over and play a game. You’re surrounded by all people who love games. I didn’t know this was going to be something I would eventually do. If you told me when I was 8 or 10 playing games, “You’re going to be a part of the music team for these games,” I wouldn’t have believed you. I came from doing different jobs within music supervision because there are two sides to supervision. There’s the pitching side and there’s the choosing side. I was on the pitching side for a short amount of time working for a library. Through word-of-mouth, I heard that they were looking for a coordinator at Activision. It blew my mind. The company that I grew up playing games for was looking for someone in their department. I got lucky and grateful to have the job. They had a thousand applicants and I was part of the final eight or something and I made it to the team. It’s amazing to be a part of it.
In layman’s terms, for people that don’t necessarily understand what a music supervisor is, what is a music supervisor?
A music supervisor is an in-between person between the people that make the music and the people that are choosing the music for the production. I’m the in-between person that’s helping negotiate and to see if the people who own the music would like to be a part of our project. We tell them how exactly we’re using it, whether it’s a video game, TV or movie, how long we’re going to use it, how is it being used, this is how much money we have in our budget and we check to see if it’s available for us to license for the production. We’re not owning any music that we’re using in production. We’re simply licensing it out for a certain amount of time. I’m helping with all of that, the negotiating, the licensing and the creative with the person in charge of picking the music. It’s a job that can be misunderstood as someone who simply chooses music which would be amazing if it was only that. There are more legalities to it that I have been a part of for video games, for ads and all that.
You were at Berkeley, which is the premier music school in North America. Do you feel that your time at Berkeley helped you with the work that you’re doing? Did that give you a backbone for everything that you have achieved?
In certain ways, it did. When I went to Berkeley College of Music, I did not study music supervision or music business. I was a performance major on drums and I was also in arranging major. It’s called Contemporary Writing and Production. It’s a long name for arranging your composition. That’s what I did at school, which I still do. There was a job that I did there. It was a work-study job where I was getting paid to be in classes playing as an accompanist drummer for the voice department. It was interesting because I was working with the vocalist who were good singers that they didn’t know how to speak to other instrumentalists. Growing up, the singer doesn’t have to worry so much about talking with the band. There’s usually a music director, but as you’re getting older and figuring out what sets you want to do as a singer, you need to learn how to communicate with the band.
What I would do is I would help the singers in the class create sheet music for the band. Let’s say this singer was traveling or moving around different bands and one of them want to know their music, they would have to give them sheet music in order to play the song. I was communicating with the singer and describing how to write out the sheet music for a drummer, guitarist, bassist and pianist. I said, “Can you describe the drumbeat to me? I know you’re not a drummer,” or they may be, they would say, “I’m too embarrassed to do that. I don’t know how to talk a drummer or pianist.” I said, “Beatbox it and I can interpret it.” They’d beatbox and I figure it out in my head and say, “Is it like this?” They said, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was looking for.” It was a skill of learning how to talk to someone who didn’t necessarily know music or knew music but described it and I can interpret it.
Flash forward to now is a music supervisor, there are many people I work with who are in the industry who are either efficient in describing music or barely know what they’re looking for. They’ll tell me, “I’m looking for something that’s aggressive and exciting, but I don’t know any examples or I don’t know how to describe it.” I’ll tell them, “Give me an example. Give me some emotions and feelings.” It prepped me for that because that’s what I do. I help people who are trying to come up with creative decisions, who may not know how to speak music and interpret what they’re thinking. Hopefully, I can get what they’re looking for.
Where did the drumming fit into all of this? Tell me about your drumming expertise.
A fun fact that you may not know, I grew up with parents that are entertainers. My father is a professional magician. My mother was also a magician and a clown. My great-grandfather was an assistant to Houdini. I’m from Rhode Island. Whenever Houdini would come to New England, Houdini would come to a bunch of sheet metal workers in Massachusetts, like my great-grandfather, to help build some of the props. While my great-grandfather was around Houdini and his team, he picked up sleight-of-hand tricks and magic. At the same time, my great-grandfather’s daughter, which is my grandmother on my dad’s side was a singer. She was a nightclub and a USO tour singer. There was entertainment in my family. My father picked up magic when he was five and was a magician ever since five years old. He’s still a professional magician.
What magic does he do?
All the above. Back in the day, he’d do a lot more stage. He does mix comedy, close-up magic, art magic.
How about you? Have you got a bit of a dab hand in this too?
I used to do magic when I was little. My father and I were on TV in Rhode Island on the local Bozo the Clown Show. Bozo is an American staple in clowns and there were different Bozos around the country. I was on TV from age 5 to 8. I did magic. I grew up on stage as a kid. I would do all this stuff with my dad as his assistant. By the time I was about eleven, I was starting to get a little tired of it and then discovered The Beatles and Ringo. I was fascinated by Ringo and wanted to learn drums. When I was eleven, I took drum lessons and I’ve been playing since I was eleven.
You need to add to your bio your TV moment as a magician. I would have had a whole other outlook on this interview. Seriously, that’s hysterical. Do you still do the odd little trick?
I don’t. I retired.Sometimes life consists of wearing multiple hats all the time. Click To Tweet
The drums took precedence?
The drums took precedence and I did drums throughout middle school and high school. I was a drumline Captain, a first-chair percussionist and a jazz band drummer. I did all that in Rhode Island. I was an All-State Drummer for Rhode Island and then went to Berkeley.
How do you practice the drums now? Do the neighbors not complain?
Luckily, I have an electronic kit so I play on that. I build out my garage into a studio. I’m starting to get things ready to record live drums in here. I have a home with my wife. Luckily, it’s not an apartment or something, or if I played live drums, people would not be happy with me.
Have you ever played drums for the games?
I haven’t. That’s not something I’ve done but the composers hire great musicians out of LA or wherever they get them. I know a lot of them through the film scoring industry that I was a part of when I first got here.
You’ve got it all going on, haven’t you?
I’m a little busy.
Going back to Activision, how long does it take you to put together the music for a game?
It depends on the game and what score or soundtrack they’re looking for. With a lot of our games like Call of Duty, Spyro, Crash Bandicoot or any of those games, they have a score that goes along with it. They treat it like a movie so it’s sometimes with a live orchestra or sometimes synthesizes instruments. It’s up to the composer on how they’re going to do it, but those are scored out and worked on with our developers that create the game. We’re all working together to get that score together, producing it, getting the soundtrack together, hitting different milestones of levels and certain amounts of music that they compose for the game.
Other games like Guitar Hero and back in the day when we had Tony Hawk, those were soundtracks. Those consisted of songs that we license that helped fill out the mood of the game. Back in the day, it was skateboard culture, punk and hip-hop. SoCal had a heavy skateboard presence, Tony Hawk and all that. Superman by Goldfinger was the big song that everyone knew for Tony Hawk and watch a lot of other songs. With Guitar Hero, that was a lot of rock. When we relaunched in 2015, there was a little more pop to it. It’s filling out the songs that fit the vibe of the game. It’s a lot of different experiences with all of these games to decide what’s best for the overall vibe of the game.
Guitar Hero must have been super fun to work on?
It was fun. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because I cleared over 600 songs for the game. That was my first experience in clearing a bunch of songs for something. That was my first job after I was pitching for a library. When I started in Activision, they said, “We’ve got to clear all these songs for the game.”
I bought that game and I’m not someone who plays games all the time, but I love that. I was rocking out. I didn’t do well, but my friends and I would rock out in the evenings. We must have looked ridiculous.
It’s a lot of work to figure out where songs are in terms of the label, publisher. Thank goodness for the internet because back in the day, if you had to clear 600 songs without the internet, that’s a lot of work and a lot of phone calls. Thank you to the performance rights organization websites like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and PRS. I was doing detective work for all these songs trying to figure out where they were.
Do you think there are going to be other games like Guitar Hero?
It depends on what people want. Things are changing with games as they’re going more to mobile. There are still a bunch of console games, but who knows. We’ll see what the public would like.
What does the future of gaming look like? You guys are working on probably some extraordinary new games. I’m sure we can’t talk about now for confidentiality reasons. Where do the gaming companies see gaming in five years’ time? Every year it’s developing at such a rate.
Since the invention of the iPhone, things have gone even faster than expected. The iPhone was in 2007 and we’re already years in. We already have VR and mobile. Mobile is a whole other platform that we never saw before. Back in the day, you’d play the Snake game on the Nokia phone. Now, we came out with Call of Duty mobile which is a full version of Call of Duty on your iPhone. I see more and more games going towards the mobile platform and there’s VR as well. It’s hard to say. I couldn’t tell you. I wish I could tell you but there’s going to be more and more innovation over the next decade.
I have a close friend who I discovered who does a lot of voiceover for Call of Duty. He does a lot of the soldier like, “Move, duck, to the left.” It was funny hearing all his different voices. I bring this up when I interview all of my fabulous guests, the podcast is called For Love and Music, so let’s talk a little bit about love. I ask everyone this question, has love ever helped you make an unexpected decision in your career?
I need to ask about your definition of love. Do you mean the love of someone or the love of something that I’ve always enjoyed?
I’m probably veering more towards someone, but it can be something if that’s easier to answer.
My wife and I met working together at the Apple Store back in 2008. We were acquaintances at the store. We knew each other through passing but went our separate ways. She moved to LA in May of ‘09 and I was moving to LA in August ‘09. She saw on Twitter and Facebook, because we were friends on there, that I was moving and said, “I don’t know if you remember me but when you move here, let’s hang out sometime.” There was no ulterior motive on either end, but who knows. I said, “Sure. I could use a friend moving out here.” We hung out. I needed a place to live and there was an apartment right next to hers that was open. It was literally right next door to hers. I moved in because I needed a place and we became best friends and started dating.
To get to the love and music part, one of the first jobs my wife had out here was working for a music publisher called Bug Music. Back at the time, I didn’t know anything about supervision or licensing. Many of the people that I met at her job were people I still work with years later and I had no idea that that was going to happen. I’d say my wife helped me lead the way to potentially getting it to supervision a few years later after talking to some of those people over the years. Maybe that answers your question.
That’s a great answer.
I credit my wife for everything.Life is like a pie chart and the slices of that pie are your interests. Click To Tweet
What’s your wife called?
My wife’s name is Elissa.
My wife’s name is Alyssa. The people are probably bored with me saying the same thing, but she is the reason this podcast is called For Love and Music because those are the two reasons I moved to LA. One other little love question, do you remember the song you had your first kiss to? Do you have a song that has a particularly romantic message to you? Did you dance to a song at your wedding that is special to you still? A lot of people say they can’t remember their wedding song.
A funny story about my wedding song. My wife is into country and she loves Brad Paisley. I was never a big country fan until my wife introduced me to some country. That’s how I started to and respect it and I respect Brad Paisley. As a surprise, most of my groomsmen, except for two, were Berkeley grads, I had my brother-in-law who I taught how to play the tambourine and my best friend from high school who can play the saxophone. I arranged a cover of a Brad Paisley song to sing to my wife. I was going to sing and play drums and have all my groomsmen play instruments. I was going to surprise her because we were having a live band. I asked them if we could use their instruments. I was going to sing and play the drums which I had never done before.
I practiced for a whole year. About a month before we were going to do it, a friend said, “Why don’t we do a key change at the end of the song and have you do a surprise cover of I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston. A few days before we got married, she said to me out of the blue, “It would have been awesome if you had all the groomsmen play a song with you at the wedding,” and I had to lie. I said, “That would have been cool. There was no time to do it.” When I had a moment at the reception, I started to get everyone together. My wife was confused and so I sang and played a song called She’s Everything by Brad Paisley.
You have some romantic stories.
I try. I do the best I can.
If you and Elissa were stuck on a deserted island for eternity, what three songs would you take with you?
That’s tough because we have different tastes.
Would you have to be on other sides of the island from one another or could you merge in the middle?
We’re not against each other’s music. We just have different likes in music. To get along with liking the same music, I’ll pick a couple of bands that we both like. Brad Paisley would be one. Probably She’s Everything is the slow song. We both like Andy Grammer. We like the song Spotlight. That’s one. If I’m going be selfish and choose one for myself, I’d say it’d be something that was by The Beatles or by Incubus.
All are great songs and picks. What would you say is next for Eric? Where would you like to be in 5 to 10 years’ time? We spoke about gaming and where that’s going, but how about for you?
I never know. The thing is, my life consists of wearing multiple hats all the time. As a music supervisor of Activision, I’m doing that full-time. At the same time, I’m also a gigging drummer who’s getting hired for various gigs around LA and working with comedians on different shows. I was on a Netflix comedy special playing drums for one of those and I’m also a composer. Besides music, I’m also a runner on five marathons and I love doing that. As you can tell, that’s a lot of work.
You’re a busy guy.
I’m also married. There’s a lot to do but the way I see my life is like a pie chart. I learned this from one of my mentors from Berkeley. The way I see my life is that every sliver of that pie is one of my interests whether it’s drumming, supervision, composing or running. Based on how you want to do your life, if you want to look at it every week, every day or every month, those pie slices could be your 90%, 50%, 1% of the pie. The way I see it, even if a pie slice is 10% or 80%, the fact that you’re still doing it within the month shows that you care and that you didn’t give up on something. You’re not doing it as much this month. In the next month, you can do a little more. That’s how I see my life because of how many interests I have. In 5 or 10 years, there could be more pie slices.
You need to get a bigger pie.
I’m going to continue doing what I love and with supervision, the playing and everything and keep going. Those slices will move around over the next five years or more.
If you could play as a drummer with any artist, who would it be? Who’s you’re dream artist?
I’ve been The Beatles fan for life. If I could play with Paul McCartney, that would be amazing since I pretty much know their catalog the back of my hand. I’d also say Incubus because I know their music the back of my hand. Either of those, that would be awesome.
One last question and I ask everyone this and it’s not a depressing question. It’s a fun question. How would you be remembered, Eric?
These are the hardest questions.
Are they? It’s like, “I want to be remembered as a lovely guy who was great on the drums.”
I’m so used to the questions of, “What do you do? How do you do it?”
I’m trying to break it up and make it a bit more interesting.
I love it because it gets me a little more personal, stuff that I don’t normally get asked. I try hard with everything that I do. I put in a lot of effort, stress, blood, sweat and tears into things to make sure that things are going well. Sometimes it drives me insane and when I get to something, I realize that I’ve over-prepared which is fine. It’s always good to over-prepare than underprepared. I would hope people would remember me as someone who cared about the things he worked on and did his best.
That’s a great answer and thank you. You’ve been an amazing guest.
Thank you for having me.
Honestly so happy we were able to make this happen. Thank you to all of our readers. You can check us out on our website at LaLaLanded.com, on Instagram @LaLaLandedPodcast, and on Facebook at La La Landed. Until next time, you’ll be with me and my cohost Dani Behr at La La Landed again soon.
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About Eric Kalver
Eric Kalver is a music supervisor, composer, and drummer who graduated from Berklee College of Music with degrees in Drum Set Performance and Contemporary Writing & Production. After taking the UCLA Music Supervision class, Eric began his career pitching for music libraries and then quickly transitioned into the music supervisor world. As the Music Supervisor for Activision Blizzard, Eric handles all music needs for games such as Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Destiny, and many more. Eric also worked as a Music Supervisor and Assistant Producer for MAS (Music and Strategy) alongside executive producer Gabe McDonough, working on music supervision for advertising and branding. In a short amount of time, Eric has music supervised for brands such as Netflix, Coach, Miller Lite, Intel, Verizon, Ford, Nest, and many more.
Eric is also an accomplished drummer (sponsored by Tamburo Drums) who can be seen playing drums on the Netflix comedy special, “Todd Glass: Act Happy”. He is a published arranger through Alfred Music Publishing and his compositions have been heard on television and streaming services.