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HEALTH Discuss ‘Max Payne 3’ And How Rockstar’s Game Changed Everything

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HEALTH Discuss ‘Max Payne 3’ And How Rockstar’s Game Changed Everything

The world of 2022 is radically different from that of 2012, for more reasons than any of us want to get into, right now. And closer to home, no doubt many of us have seen major changes unfold over the last decade. House moves, new jobs, fresh relationships, kids. And from the other side of the phone he’s using to speak to me from his Los Angeles home, that’s what’s staring Jake Duzsik in the face: evidence aplenty of a huge development in his life. He swings the camera around to reveal a wealth of toys - surprisingly neat and tidy, but unmistakably a sign of his world being in a still-new phase.

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“He loves his crib,” the HEALTH singer and guitarist tells me. “Quite often he's up at like, seven in the morning. And then I give him milk and I change him and I put him back to bed. He hangs out in there, and often just falls back asleep and sleeps until 10 in the morning. It's actually pretty amazing.”

As a parent of two myself: this set-up sounds dreamy. Quite why my eight year old constantly gets up at or before 6am, and subsequently wakes up the house, is beyond my meagre parental wisdom. But we’re not here to swap dad tips. We’re here to discuss what Jake calls a release that “recontextualizes the entire band”: the score to Rockstar Games’ gritty shooter Max Payne 3, which celebrates its 10th anniversary with a release, later in 2022, of the HEALTH soundtrack on vinyl.

Watch the PC launch trailer for Max Payne 3 below…

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“It's shocking that we're talking about the decade anniversary of Max Payne 3, but at the same time, it feels like an ocean of time has occurred and an incredible amount of changes have happened,” Jake says, as we both reflect on this game reaching double digits. “I mean, obviously, for everyone, the amount of experience and the emotional highs and lows that have accompanied the last two and a half years, it seems like they account for almost like a decade unto themselves. So yeah, to me, it's just that kind of trite but true adage of the days are slow, and the years go fast. I can't believe it's been that long - but at the same time, it seems like it's been a really long time.”

When the Max Payne 3 soundtrack first reached players, on May 15 2012, HEALTH was a distinctly underground band from LA that had two studio albums proper to its name, some positive column inches in the more discerning corners of the music press, but all the mainstream, mass-market appeal of four blokes hitting metal dustbins with bags of spanners… Which, some of the time, their music was a dead ringer for. The band - completed by drummer BJ Miller, bassist and electronics wrangler John Famiglietti and (now former member) guitarist and synths player Jupiter Keys - had earned plenty of plaudits for their 2009-released second long-player, Get Color, and had toured it worldwide. But at least a couple of the guys harboured grander ambitions - which would somewhat be fulfilled when they least expected it.

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HEALTH (l-r: John Famiglietti, Jake Duzsik, BJ Miller) / Credit: HEALTH on Facebook)
HEALTH (l-r: John Famiglietti, Jake Duzsik, BJ Miller) / Credit: HEALTH on Facebook)

“John and I are cinephiles, and had dreams or designs prior to the band of working in film,” Jake explains. “But we had no connection to any kind of compositional work or scoring work. We were playing European festivals, and kind of had the semblance, or the facsimile, of a career as a band. It was an exciting time for us. [Rockstar’s] call was completely out of the blue, a cold call from them. We were finishing the touring cycle for Get Color, and we happened to be in New York. I think we were doing a show at House of Vans, which was a skate park in Greenpoint, and it was like us and No Age, and some other, you know, underground luminary bands from that era - we were kind of all part of the same scene. Our manager at the time hit us up before the show and said, ‘Hey, after soundcheck, Rockstar Games want to meet up with you guys and chat.’ 

“We figured that it maybe had something to do with it having a song on Grand Theft Auto, just because obviously, culturally, like everybody is familiar with GTA. And the music is such a huge part of that game. So we thought, oh, well, maybe there's some possibility that we'd be included in that. We definitely didn't in any way think that it could be a scoring opportunity. We sat down with three people from Rockstar’s music department, and they seemed aware of our band and our recent record. And so the conversation was: ‘We're looking to increase the intensity in some of the more running-and-gunning sections, like everybody's-trying-to-kill-you sections of the game. And we think that maybe some of the abrasiveness of your musical palette and aesthetic might work. Would you be interested in trying that?’”

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“When you're young, and you don't know what you're doing, and you're not musically trained, that's when you make all your interesting mistakes. And I think that there was a lot of that on Max Payne 3.”

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Yes, was the answer. But when contrasting their own trademark sonic extremities with the music it was supposed to represent an elevation from, the HEALTH quartet found a dissonance beyond the intentional, the complementary. 

“Originally they asked us if we could contribute some of the more intense layers to the score,” Jake recalls. “But we found in trying to do that, that there was some existing score that didn't mesh well with our tones and the way we organise things. So we thought: what would it look like if we tackled an entire level, including all the suspense and the more ambient things, so that there was a continuity in the aesthetic. We were aware that it was pretty ambitious, but we were excited too. 

The song ‘Tears’ features at the end of Max Payne 3, in a dramatic airport shootout - watch a short film for the track below…

“We were looking at the [gameplay] we'd been sent, and we sort of left-turned it. The perception was that we're a noise-rock band, so we'll do something screeching and tense and sort of abrasive; but we did something more melancholic and sombre, and muted, just based on what we thought would aid the visuals and the emotional tone of the level that we had been sent. We were surprised by how well it seemed to work, and we sent it to Rockstar with our fingers crossed, like, hopefully they'll like that. And they really liked it. And so then the conversation became: ‘Why don’t you guys try this again, with another level?’ And then little by little it just became, oh, so it looks like we're doing the entire soundtrack.”

Max Payne 3 / Credit: Rockstar Games
Max Payne 3 / Credit: Rockstar Games

The project fundamentally changed the band’s compositional DNA. “It's actually pretty staggering how much we were forced to sort of grow up as musicians in a very compressed period of time,” Jake says. “Up until that point, you know, we had written very few pieces of music, quite frankly. We had two albums that were barely recognisable as any kind of traditional musical forms. There was very little melody. I think that there was sort of, for lack of a better word, jankiness on our part, because we were a bunch of young dudes in a noise band trying to score this massive piece of entertainment, but still using a lot of the tricks and and methods that we had employed in our own band. But when I listen back to it now, there's all this baritone guitar that I played through this pretty wonky pedal chain that I cannot believe is an incredibly important element of the soundtrack. It's just so leftfield - it's not a sound that we used at any point in the band's history before, it was just us trying to generate enough material and have that material work well. So we stumbled into this weird sound that has since become a staple of the band.

“Peter Hook from Joy Division and New Order, he said something, when describing what they were doing, along the lines of when you're young, and you don't know what you're doing, and you're not musically trained, that's when you make all your interesting mistakes. And I think that there was a lot of that on Max Payne 3.”

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“I'm not sure that we're still a band without Max Payne 3… it connected us to so many people that had never heard of us.”

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Work on the Max Payne 3 soundtrack took a year, after which HEALTH found itself at a crossroads. “As soon as it came out, we felt like, ‘Okay, we need to work on another record.’ But there was sort of a discussion among ourselves and our manager at the time: do we want to try to segue into just scoring, because there's a moment here. We ultimately decided that there was a lot left unfinished for us as a band, and we wanted to pursue that.” 

Nevertheless, the Max Payne 3 project left its mark on its makers, and not just in terms of elevated popularity: “As a bullet point on our CV, the soundtrack recontextualizes the entire band. And we definitely had a moment where there was so much attention on us, that I think it really affected the arc and the trajectory of the band, and I don't mean that just in terms of exposure. I mean the growing up that we had to do musically in order to actually finish scoring something of that value and scale. We were just different afterwards in terms of how we thought about music, in terms of our ambition, what we wanted to accomplish sound wise, and things like that.”

Max Payne 3 / Credit: Rockstar Games
Max Payne 3 / Credit: Rockstar Games

HEALTH have put out four studio albums since Max Payne 3 debuted, alongside a handful of remix sets, several singles and split releases, and collaborations with the likes of Deftones’ Chino Moreno, Nine Inch Nails, Soccer Mommy and Lamb of God. They’ve also returned to video games, and Rockstar Games, writing exclusive tracks for Grand Theft Auto Online’s Arena War missions; and they’ve had songs in Grand Theft Auto V, Need for Speed and Cyberpunk 2077. The band’s continuing evolution is palpable, their sound growing more complex, detailed, fuller yet remaining lean and mean, as hungry and pissed off as a pack of wolves starved of meat for a week. The “happy accidents”, as Jake calls them, that they stumbled across during the Max Payne 3 project have been a catalyst for so much more experimenting, the band always distancing itself from the raw percussive comfort zone of their self-titled 2007 debut LP - a record that ricocheted around my office at the time of its UK release, my ears still ringing a full 15 years later. But despite everything they’ve done since Max Payne 3, Jake can still go back to 2012, rewind a full 10 years, and appreciate what could have been.

“I'm not sure that we're still a band without Max Payne 3,” he says. “I mean, I can't say [for sure because] that's a bit of a Sliding Doors scenario, but, you know, coming out of a scene at that time, luckily… Well luckily and unluckily we didn't have a genre. But what I mean is, I think [the soundtrack] connected us to so many people that had never heard of us.” That’s the listening audience, of course - the streamers, the collectors, the gig-goers. But also certain collaborators: “JPEGMAFIA (who appears on the track ‘Hate You’) was interested in working with us, because they found out about us because of Max Payne.” And it could yet be that HEALTH pivots once again for a fresh score, into something wildly different to what we’ve heard already.

“John (who recently streamed Max Payne 3) has been playing Elden Ring - it’s a big topic of conversation for him, and that Dark Souls universe. It would be really exciting for us to do something where we didn’t do the most obvious thing for us to do scoring wise, which is heavy action dystopian sci-fi tinged, or whatever. That's our bread and butter, where we feel most comfortable. But yeah, it would be amazing to do anything that was ‘period beats’. It would be fantastic to do something that different and challenging.” FromSoftware, you know who to call.

The 10th anniversary release of HEALTH’s Max Payne 3 soundtrack will be available on vinyl and digitally later in 2022. Follow the band on Twitter at @_HEALTH_.

Featured Image Credit: HEALTH (2015) photo from Facebook, Max Payne 3 key art via Rockstar Games

Topics: Interview, Rockstar Games

Mike Diver
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