Nobody anticipated The Sims game would be a bestseller, let alone the biggest selling computer game of all time. “They were almost not going to do it,” explains Jerry Martin, whose name – save for a slight crowd in the unplumbed corners of the contemporary jazz circuit – is borderline unknown. But you’ve heard his music. It’s accompanied each friendship, housewarming, and sadistic drowning of every Sim in the original game and several expansion packs. As chief composer for the interactive life simulation game, Martin effectively introduced new age piano and contemporary jazz to the masses (150 million, to be precise). Now, he is encouraging inscription for a new project: an expansion on the new age piano themes of The Sims Build Mode, with friend and pianist John R. Burr, to finish what he started on a game that was almost never made.
"As chief composer for the interactive life simulation game, Martin effectively introduced new age piano and contemporary jazz to the masses"
“Most of the Electronic Arts people didn’t understand why it was fun or how it was going to be fun,” says Martin, “but then it turns into this huge success and then everyone in EA wanted to come over and pretend that they had something to do with it, when they’d almost canned it. It wasn’t because of the music that they weren’t shipping it; it was because of the overall game. They didn’t understand it. It was fun because it wasn’t goal oriented. They didn’t really get it.” The idea for the game came about in 1997 – a loosely structured notion of a neighbourhood and the end user playing God to the inhabitants – three years before its release. At the time, Martin was audio director at EA. “I was an employee at Maxis from ‘96 to 2004, so I had started on stuff earlier than the Sims. I was the audio director at Maxis for about 8 years or so. So Sims was one of the projects.”
In the late 90s, creative control was a free for all. Jerry Martin had both the initial and final say, but one thing he did make room for was Maxis cofounder Will Wright’s suggestion to include some Bossa nova. “His ideas were to have some Bossa nova stuff in there. The whole Latin channel and the stereo in The Sims is Bossa nova. The build mode was the new age stuff, which in this case was just solo, new age piano.” The skint direction allowed him to play in genres rarely considered that became an uncanny fit for a computer simulation game. “What I’d do is, I’d do a few tunes in the genre or the category I was working on and kind of set the bar and creative direction that way. And then I’d have the guys helping me to compose in those different genres.” The guys, who include Marc Russo on sax, Jazz rock guitarist Kirk Casey, and guitarist Dix Bruce, along with pianist John R. Burr, helped shape the aural foundations on which virtual neighbourhoods could be built.
The build themes – when users play contractor – are five to six minute, improvised piano arcs. “I wrote a lead sheet for it, you know the chords and the melody – this was kind of a simple lead sheet. And then [John R. Burr] just took it. He was improvising it but it was on the structure of the chords.” The romance of the ivories soundtracked many a downscale neighbourhood, but also cropped up in the odd real-life blind date. “Some guy, I forgot his name, sent me an e-mail about how he somehow met his girlfriend or something by talking about The Sims music,” Martin remembers. “I forget what it was exactly, it was kinda funny.”
His inbox is also flooded with love, and with a pile up of requests to release more Sims music, Martin is finally looking to scratch that itch. “I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails about the Sims stuff, the music in the Build Mode especially. I wanted to revisit that with John [R. Burr]. I’m getting people to sign up for it,” he explains. “I’m planning to do a downloadable album of Sims Build Mode, Volume 2. It wouldn’t have anything to do with EA, it’s just a personal thing for me and John. I don’t think EA would appreciate it. But I don’t think they’re gonna care too much unless there’s billions of dollars involved.”
By signing up to BoomBamBoom, you'll get access to The Sims 1 Build Mode Music Pack. This includes the original build mode tunes as highest quality MP3s, Sheet Music Transcriptions, and MIDI files of all the tunes.
Text by Trey Taylor