Get to know composing duo The Soundlings in our exclusive interview
In a game about street dodgeball, you need to have music that is high octane, full of life, and matches the style of the game. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, but those who tested out the beta version of Knockout City can attest The Soundlings kicked it out of the park with their soundtrack.
The composing duo made up of Sonny Rey and Matt Naylor has seen growing success in recent years. With songs featured in HBO’s Lovecraft Country, ESPN’s Monday Night Football coverage, and Blizzard’s Overwatch, The Soundlings have done a lot. But Knockout City marks new ground for the pair as they composed the entire score for the game.
We spoke with The Soundlings about Knockout City and where they hope their career heads next. You can read our entire interview in full below.
Tell us about your journey into composing. What did you do before becoming composers?
Sonny Rey: I actually started my journey pretty early in life. Started piano at age six. Toured Japan playing keys for Japanese artist Mimi at age 12. Got my first song placement when I was 17 on a show called Zoey 101. Toured with a rock band for a few years all over the States and Europe. Actually, I was doing music for America’s Next Top Model while I was in the rock band and realized I liked composing for TV. That’s when I shifted my focus to composing.
Matt Naylor: I’ve known I wanted to be a musician from a very young age. My parents got me into cello in the 4th grade but when they heard me playing “Smoke on the Water” instead of Beethoven, they decided to get me a guitar. Ha!
After highschool, I attended Belmont University where I studied production and engineering. There I started working in the industry with some great artists like Jason Mraz, Selena Gomez, and Willie Nelson. However, I always knew I wanted to work in video games, TV and film so I moved out to LA and turned my attention to composing.
Was there any singular moment that made either of you want to become musicians?
SR: Growing up with a father that is a musician and producer himself, I spent a lot of time with him in the studio just watching and listening. He would randomly throw me in the booth to do some vocals on a project he was working on. He would let me play around on all the instruments he had, which was literally everything.
Then one day I came home from school and there was a baby grand sitting in the living room. My dad said, “You’re going to practice piano everyday for at least 30 minutes.” And I did. That 30 mins turned into hours at some point. I can still hear him yelling from the other room, “Play with the metronome!!!”
MN: After I learned how to play guitar, me and a couple friends formed a punk band. We would try to book small gigs and parties to earn just enough money to record at our local studio in Cleveland.
There, I really fell in love with the entire process of making music, from being in the studio all hours of the night to actually releasing what we had made and putting it out in the world. There’s no better feeling then hitting “bounce” on a song or track that you are really proud of!
What was the first project you worked on, and what did you learn from the experience?
SR: This is actually a pretty difficult question. There are so many small projects I did when I was just starting out that taught me so many lessons. One project was a song I did about a book in English class. My teacher was cool enough to let me do my book report in song form. Thank you Mr. Stell! I teamed up with another kid in my class that played guitar and sang.
I’m sure if I found that recording now it would be frightening to listen to just because that was my first time recording an acoustic guitar and someone else’s vocals. Also my first time producing a track from start to finish by myself. I think the main lesson I walked away with from that experience was how to work with a partner. The importance of listening even when you think you know better. Having another perspective gives the music depth.
MN: I second Sonny on that! All of the little projects you do early in your career really build who you are as a professional musician. Playing small gigs and earning that first real paycheck for being a musician was huge for me.
However, the first time I heard my music on-screen was a remix I did of “Ain’t No Grave” by Johnny Cash for the movie Django Unchained. What I learned from that project was how fast I needed to be working at such a high level. They gave us the brief at 6pm and needed to hear a first draft by 10am!
How did the two of you meet, and what made you both want to enter the composing game together?
SR: We actually met through a mutual composer friend, Steven Stern. Matt was his production partner at the time and I randomly met Steven through working with another producer. Steven invited me to a writing session with him and Matt.
We all hit it off and wrote an awesome song that day! Unfortunately, Steven passed away a few years ago. Matt and I kept working together and realized that we had a unique sound and a great workflow together. Also, we’re just two dudes with the same goal: Working on cool projects with cool people!
If you had to describe your composing style to someone who’s never met you, how would you do so?
The Soundlings are very diverse in terms of the sounds we use and the music we create. Being a Soundling is much like something the late great Bruce Lee said, “… You put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.”
That was the original idea behind The Soundlings. We’ve worked on so many different projects and with so many different genres. We morph into whatever the project calls for. We are modern when we need to be modern and classic when we need to be classic. Sometimes a hybrid. It’s full of life. We put love into everything that we do.
Do either of you have experience with mentors? If so, do you recommend them for up and coming filmmakers?
MN: Yes, our friend Steven was a mentor to me and really shaped the way I work. I watched him pour the same amount of energy into small jobs as he would with major projects. That is what we do because art cannot stand unrealized.
SR: My dad, Les Pierce, was and still is my mentor. Amazing Composer, Producer, Writer and just all around musician. He taught me how to play piano. He gave me a foundation strong enough to build upon. Anytime I have a question, He’s still the first call!
Who are your current influences?
SR/MN: If you were to open our spotify and go to recently played, we’re all over the board. We literally listen to all genres and pull things we like from them. Currently, because of Knockout City, we have been listening to 90’s rap, The Surfaris and various Motown artists.
What are five soundtracks you think everyone should listen to in their lifetime?
SR/MN: Knockout City! Obviously! Haha! Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Garden State (the movie) soundtrack, Purple Rain, and Back to the Future.
What has been your favorite project you’ve ever worked on?
SR/MN: We’re not just saying this, but…. Knockout City! Velan Studios has such a great team. We loved working with them. The game is just so creative and fun and the music was just as fun to make.
Walk us through your creative process.
SR/MN: We usually talk about things for a while. We do our research. Then we’ll go into a creative/experimental zone. Once we’ve nailed down our direction, we start writing and recording. Matt always says, “What we do is 50 percent magic and 50 percent math.”
What part of the music composing process do either of you like best?
SR/MN: We love digging into the heart of a project to find the sound. It’s a very different process for every project. Experimenting with different sounds for us is like a kid being set loose in a toy store with no supervision.
How did the two of you get involved with Knockout City?
MN: I met with David, the COO of Velan Studios, at E3 in June of 2019. We met for lunch and he explained the concept of Knockout City to me and I knew we’d be a perfect fit. We composed three demos for the game and didn’t hold anything back. We paid for live musicians and spent a ton of time making them perfect. Thankfully, the whole team fell in love with what we made and the energy we brought to the project!
How does composing for video games compare to composing for TV shows and films?
MN: One unique challenge with composing music for video games is creating infectious/catchy melodies that have to repeat over and over again without being annoying. The way we composed with this in mind is to repeat our melodies in the track but change it up slightly so the player gets a new version each time around. Also, adding in little ear-candy elements that only happen once in each track.
What were your inspirations when composing the Knockout City score?
SR: We had a pretty wide scope to work within which was refreshing. When Velan laid out their vision, they must have had 20 different genres that they wanted to blend together. We listened to Jazz, Big Band, Surf Rock, Hip-Hop, EDM… the list goes on. One thing we listened to that still sticks with me is the score to Cowboy Bebop. There is some really amazing music in there.
What was your experience like composing the score for Knockout City?
MN: Sonny and I had a total blast writing the music for Knockout City. The team at Velan gave us amazing direction but really let us go crazy with ideas. Our working relationship with Matt Pirog was very constructive and always brought our music to new levels (pun intended).
We really felt like we could try anything to see if it stuck with Matt. Example, the track “Kitty Litter Kaos” was very free form and intentionally dissonant. Although our original version got left on the cutting room floor, they had really solid ideas to make it more accessible to their audience.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
SR/MN: In the studio creating for our next big project!
If any musician could compose the story of your life, who would you choose and why?
SR: That’s an awesome question. I’m going to stay true to our hybrid style and say John Williams teams up with Timbaland. Just imagine the possibilities. If by chance anyone that knows them reads this, don’t steal my idea!!!
MN: Oh… I like this hybrid thing so I’m going to steal Sonny’s idea with Alan Silvestri and ZEDD. Awesome melody with a crazy light show!
What advice do you have for up and coming musicians?
SR/MN: Don’t stop striving for that next level. Rejection is success’ annoying cousin. Get used to him. He’s a part of the family and you’ll see him at every get together. But there will be those times when he was just too busy to come. That’s why you need to keep showing up. Also, Buy Bitcoin!
What has been your biggest success and failure in life to date?
SR: Honestly, this is a hard question. My biggest success is not settling in life. When it comes to my music and my relationships I refuse to settle. I think that is how I met such an amazing human being in my wife, Janelle.
Which led to our three beautiful children (Izaak, Ava and Lenny). Not settling in music got me to where I am now. Doing something I love and am passionate about everyday. Biggest failure…. Well…. To fail you have to try. And if you are taking chances and continue to try even when you fail, is it really failing?
MN: My biggest success was convincing my wife, Cristi, to marry me. Still don’t know how I pulled that off! Ha! I’m a pretty positive guy so thinking up a failure is tough. If there is one thing I could tell an upcoming composer is to not hold onto any rejection or mess up long enough to be considered a “failure”.
What’s next on the docket for the two of you?
SR/MN: 2021 has been crazy! We have a lot of great projects we’re working on but… we can’t say anything about it until it’s out. We have a feeling you’ll be seeing our name pop up again in the near future!