George Art Baker, more commonly known as Smoke Thief, has been a musician for most of his life. Growing up in the UK, Smoke Thief learned the saxophone and fell in love with jazz music, becoming a bandleader and composer. Since 2012 he has lived in Japan and is the first original artist signed to Brave Wave, a fantastic label touting some of gaming’s biggest composers such as Manami Matsumae, Keiji Yamagishi, Yoko Shimomura, and many more. His first album with Brave Wave came out last year titled Heart Beat Circuit and he is hard at work on his second title! I got the chance to ask him a few questions about Brave Wave, his music, influences, and what it is like working alongside some of the most legendary composers in game history!
He also has a Kickstarter going for his newest album Kodama which should be excellent.
Spencer Birch: Can you tell me a bit about how you first got into music? I understand you went to school for Music Performance correct?
Smoke Thief: Yeah, I was mainly playing jazz, I wasn’t a producer back then, so I spent most of my time working on how to play melodies in a way that evokes something. The saxophone is a good instrument for that, its conical nature and reliance on breath make it vocalesque – and that’s something that’s been a mainstay in my music – vocalesque melodies.
The MA was hard work, but it taught me that if you put the energy into what you want to achieve, you’ll get good results.
SB: Your work has led you to Brave Wave, an excellent record label based in Japan, where you work with such game music legends like Manami Matsumae, Keiji Yamagishi and Yoko Shimomura among many others. How did you come to join this team?
ST: I began corresponding with Mohammed Taher [Founder & creative director – Brave Wave] in 2014, I could tell he was truly passionate about games and atmospheric music and so we got on well from the get go. The team is just amazing, they’re very humble, very friendly and very forgiving of my high school girl-esque Japanese.
SB: Was it difficult for you to acclimate yourself to life in Japan?
ST: Yea, kind of. In Tokyo, you have to be particularly considerate because there are just so many people living in cramped spaces, so sometimes I find myself refraining from singing 90s pop ballads at 3am in my apartment because it would wake up like 6 neighbors, stuff like that.
Also, in psychology Japan is regarded to be a society with dominant conformist tendencies. At its heart, jazz is kind of a triumph of liberty and individualism, that’s something I resonate with, so I’ve kinda accepted that I’ll always be at loggerheads with certain traditions and ideals. I think you’d find something equivalent in every culture though. And while my reading of kanji isn’t too hot, my Japanese friends have helped me so much to understand things around me, so I get by alright!
SB: From what I understand you do a lot of work from home, forcing you to use headphones almost exclusively to record and mix your tracks. Is this how you have always preferred to work, or did it take some getting used to? Or do you have a place where you can record, mix or master your tracks in a more traditional studio setting?
ST: I prefer to work from home, but you need a very controlled environment and I don’t have that right now. I’m looking to move to somewhere more ideal, but for now I go between my little Genelec 8020 monitors and headphones for mixes and there are like 4 studios on my road (Tokyo’s got epic amenities!!), so I can just hire the studio for a day and track some acoustic instruments/check mixes on bigger monitors.
SB: What was it like for you to join Brave Wave? I couldn’t imagine working alongside some of these composers!
ST: Kinda humbling and validating really. I really believe in my music but to hear positive feedback from your childhood heroes is like something out of this world! They’re so talented, it’s ridiculous, so I just feel lucky to have the opportunities to work with and learn from them.
SB: You have since released your latest album Heart Beat Circuit through Brave Wave as well as had the opportunity to work with Manami Matsumae, Takahiro Izutani, and Saori Kobayashi for different tracks on it. What was it like to work with Brave Wave to release your album, and what sort of working relationship did you have with these composers featured in your tracks?
ST: Yeah, it was cool because Brave Wave put my vision first and because we kept that original artistic intention in mind, we didn’t make any compromises that would have diluted the concept. Like, the last track ‘Forever Never’ is so long, but that’s the song a lot of people vibe off because they can meditate to it or just use it to chill out. With all the composers, we basically chatted about the imagery for the song and then I just let them weave some magic! I prefer to collaborate by offering a pretty loose brief so they can work without feeling to stifled by expectation. That’s vital I think.
SB: Do you have any involvement with the Generation Series from Brave Wave?
ST: Nah, not at the moment.
SB: Your music is instrumental and tends to be a bit funky, focusing on bass rhythms often with some ambient overtones and really catchy melodies creating a really unique sound! Was this style of yours always so well fleshed out or was it something that you have been creating for some time?
ST: Ah thanks! I’m not sure really, I’m just trying to follow the feelings and images I have and working that into what I feel I do well. I don’t ever wanna become staid or kinda stop evolving, so I’m always trying to sharpen my skills. I guess production-wise that’s a style I’m making good progress in, so I wanna go as far as I can go in making music that hopefully moves/uplifts/revitalizes people. When people vibe with my music, that’s my favorite thing.
SB: Since moving to Japan you have been endorsed by Roli and Rode Microphones, twp very well known manufacturers of equipment. How did this come about?
ST: Yeah, just from discussing my aims and ambitions utilizing their tech. Rode make some truly epic mics, I’ve been really enjoying using their NT5s for recording soundscapes, they have a great depth of field.
ROLI have made what I regard to be a real breakthrough instruments, the Seboard RISE is a fluid, dynamic instrument that is just the most fun thing to explore and it often yields really impressive results.
Both ROLI’s Seaboard RISE and Rode’s NT5s are at center stage for my next album ‘Kodama’, so I’m looking forward to sharing the music I’ve made with them.
SB: What are a few of your favorite game OSTs or songs? Alternately, what are some of your favorite albums or songs of any genre?
Yoko Kanno’s ‘Earth Girl Arjuna’ and ‘Cowboy Bebop’ soundtracks are just infinite sources of inspiration for me. Female composers rarely get any recognition worldwide, which is nuts! In my eyes, Kanno-san is the greatest anime composer of all time.
She’s mixed vocalesque melodies and folk traditions with more electronic instrumentation in a way that’s so organic, I’m always left in awe.
George, thank you so much for talking with me! Myself along with everyone here at We The Nerdy wish you the best and are excited to see what you do next!