by Interviews

Multi-talented multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Hunter is known for many things including their Skatune Network YouTube channel, being the trombonist in We Are The Union, and releasing excellent solo music under the name JER. On top of all of this, they are also an incredible composer who wrote the soundtrack for the upcoming video game Sunshine Shuffle. The game centers around a group of cartoon animals involved in a high-stakes poker game and it’s your job to uncover the part each one played in a bank robbery. JER’s instrumental traditional-ska-infused soundtrack complements the game perfectly, evoking a laid-back yet upbeat vibe that is ideal for sleuthing on the S.S. Sunshine. Sunshine Shuffle will be available on Nintendo Switch and Steam on May 24 via Strange Scaffold.

Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with JER over Zoom to talk about what goes into composing a soundtrack, what drew them to music composition, the connection between video games and ska, and so much more. Read the interview below!

You wrote the soundtrack for the upcoming video game Sunshine Shuffle which will be out on May 24 via Strange Scaffold. How did you become involved with this project?

They pretty much just hit me up on Twitter. I believe we worked on this back in 2021 or so, time is weird, and at the time I was posting more about looking for freelance composition work. I studied that in college to write for games and stuff so it kinda worked out. They had hit me up initially because I make ska music. Then I let them know that sound design was what I studied and what I want to do so it worked out really well for them to ask me to compose. It was all through a Twitter connection.

What has working with the Strange Scaffold team been like?

It has been really dope. They’re really passionate about what they’re doing and you can tell it’s coming from a place of love. There’s been a lot of understanding and patience too. It’s a big thing to write a soundtrack for a video game but it’s also a big feat to make a video game in itself. They’re not some huge corporate entity that expects you to have a thing done by a deadline regardless of what’s going on in life, they’re all understanding and very empathetic to whatever life throws their way. They’re doing this for love. It just feels like a really big family.

You mentioned that you studied music composition for movies, TV, and video games in college. How did you become interested in music composition? What made you want to be a composer?

I just always liked the idea of writing music. It’s something that I always found was a fascinating element whether it was for video games or TV shows or movies or anything like that and video game music in particular is something that I’ve always been very fascinated with going back as far as I can remember. When I started to decide what I wanted to do, I never felt that much of an attachment to performance as far as music goes or teaching or any of the more typical, standard jobs. But I had a really big fascination with being the person who writes and composes the music for these projects and using music as an element to uplift the product that I’m writing for. I very much gravitated toward that in high school and have continued to work toward that goal.

You have covered a lot of video game songs on your YouTube channel Skatune Network including “Yoshi’s Song” which you’ve called one of the best video game tracks ever written. What goes into making a good video game score?

I think it depends a lot on the video game itself, it’s like a level of worldbuilding. If you listen to the soundtrack of a movie, the point of that is to accompany the scene whereas with a video game, you’re in that world. That’s a big difference between watching a movie and playing a video game. When you’re watching a movie, you’re observing but when you’re playing a video game you’re going into the perspective of the characters’ lives. You have control over what you as a character is doing and how you are interacting with the other characters.

I think the first and foremost thing is you’re helping to create that world. A song can do a lot to elevate emotion and to elevate the feeling of going through a town or something like that. The music, the instrumentation, all of that can play a factor in evoking these emotions that are tied into said world. That way the world becomes more realistic and when you have that connection through music, it’s one of those things that makes the most iconic video games the most iconic. When you think about it, they all have the most iconic music.

If you had to pick just one, what’s the most iconic video game song?

I would say “Lost Woods” from Orcarina of Time is a great example of one. They’re all younger when the song plays and you can hear how playful the song is. There’s a whole bunch of other music theory techniques that go into it that play into this almost childlike wonder. It’s a very recognizable song. When people think of that game, I would argue that’s one of the first songs that they think of or even within the franchise itself, aside from the main title theme. Orcarina of Time and the Legend of Zelda series, in general, has done a really good job of evoking these emotions through its music. You can listen to the music and you can feel the story that’s being told within the game itself.

Those are killer soundtracks! What helps you capture the emotions to build the world when you’re working on composing for a video game?

I think about what type of world is being built and what elements would go into something like that. For instance, if I’m playing a video game and my character is exploring this giant overworld, I’m going to be thinking about giant orchestration. If you’re thinking about things where you’re a hero then what’s a hero? A hero is triumphant. So, what is triumphant? Most of the time people think of big brass instruments and very large, flowing strings, things like that. Whereas if you’re going to write a piece of music for a coffee shop it’s not fitting to have a fifteen-piece brass section blaring this main theme, you’re going to think about a guitar and maybe a violin. Something intimate. What would you see in a coffee shop or in a small village? You would think of smaller orchestration. There’s elements like that that go into it and that can help build your world.

It also creates a dynamic setting. When the main character is waking up at the beginning of the journey and they’re in their little village, that’s when you hear that small, intimate music maybe it’s guitar, bass, drums, violin, a very small orchestration. Then when you compare that to the music in the final boss battle where it is that big orchestra and the stakes are high - you can hear all that tension in the music, it’s not relaxing. I think elements like that that go into when I’m deciding how to construct a piece of music. Orchestration is one of the biggest things that I start out with.

How would you describe your songwriting process for the Sunshine Shuffle soundtrack?

When they hit me up, they presented an idea to me and it was already an idea that I was familiar with. Obviously, they wanted all ska music and they were originally like, “We don’t want it to be really upbeat ska-punk, we want it to be more laid back”. I was like, “Well, that sounds like ska-jazz to me. More in the roots of the genre, more into the traditional ska like Jamaican ska, Island ska”. It’s a lot more laid back, it’s a lot more chill. I sent them some examples and they were like, “Yes! That’s exactly like what we want to roll with” so I was like, “Ok, cool! Perfect!”

As a composer and songwriter I have a million song ideas that exist in a half-written form. For some of the songs on the soundtrack, I took some songs that go back as far as high school where I came up with an idea for a main lead but never finished it or used it. It was a perfect example of me taking a lot of these old song ideas and reworking them. Especially with them being instrumental, it was super easy to rework them because lyrics are where I get stuck on writing a song anyways. Making them instrumental and bringing them into this new light was relatively quick for me, as far as composing songs goes because there was already this traditional ska vibe versus a ska-punk vibe. Ska in general is something that I’m super familiar with and combining the elements of that with the vibe in the creation of that world just seemed very fitting.

What do you feel the connection is between ska and video games?

As far as sonically, they’re both pretty upbeat and happy. Obviously, not every video game is upbeat and happy and neither is all ska music. But I feel like at the end of the day you’re playing a video game to feel some sort of relief or to relax or to just do something you enjoy. I don’t think anyone ever goes, “You know what? I don’t like video games but I’m going to learn how to play them to make money”. The people who use video games as a way to make money or make a living whether that’s over streaming or designing video games, they come to it because they love it. It’s kinda the same thing with ska. No one ever goes, “You know what? I’m studying music but I’m going to make ska music because that’s where the big bucks are at”. That’s definitely not the case. Even as big as video games are and arguably as big as ska is, they’re both niche worlds where at the core of it are people doing it because they love it. I think that’s why the vibes of the video game world and the ska world work so well together.

What is the biggest difference between writing a soundtrack and writing your solo music?

I think it all has to do with the focus. For my solo music, I have a message I want to get out whether it’s a message about my feelings or about the world or whatever and the music is there to accompany that message. When I’m writing a JER song or a song for anyone to really listen to the lyrics to, the lyrics and the vocals are the primary focus and every else is to accompany that. So, I’m not going to focus on getting a crazy horn line down because I want the horn line to accompany what the song is trying to say or portray. With a video game soundtrack or any other soundtrack, the main focus is to accompany whatever that product is. When you’re playing a video game, music isn’t why you’re playing it. There are some video games that I’ve played simply because the soundtrack is really good but I’m not focusing only on the music and not focusing on the game. The music is there to accompany the game whereas with my original music, the instrumentals are accompanying the vocals and those are the main focus. With composition work, it’s all about knowing what you’re writing for. Anyone can write music. Even among composers and people who write for a living, they can all write music but not everyone who can write a punk song can score for a video game or a TV show or a movie and not everyone who can write for movies can write a good punk song. They’re completely different worlds. It’s all about, “What is the intended purpose of this music?”

What were you listening to during the writing process?

During the time when I was writing this, I was shifting away from alternative - I’ve never stopped listening to alternative but I guess during COVID, I started listening to a lot more Afro-Caribbean music and music that comes from West African music. Whether it’s salsa deriving from mambo and calypso, Bachata, bossa nova, all these Afro-Caribbean or other Afro-Latin genres of music that derive from West African music. That was a really big thing that I was listening to at the time. One of the biggest bands that we based the sound off of is this trad ska band that broke up decades ago called Western Special. They’re a French ska band and they have a very chill tone, that’s the best way I can put it. They’re the chillest ska band even amongst trad ska. It’s very clean, very polished, with almost a mid-century sound to it. It has a nice, you’re-on-the-beach-at-night vibe to it. That’s the laid-back vibe that they wanted so I sent a playlist of songs and that was the band we gravitated to the most in terms of what we wanted the sound of this game to be.

The game’s story centers around a group of cartoon animals who robbed a bank in the past and are now involved in a high-stakes poker game on a boat. Do you have any poker playing tips?

I have absolutely zero poker playing tips. [laughs]

Is there a connection between poker and ska?

To my knowledge, and I think I have a pretty extensive knowledge of ska, there’s not much of a connection between poker and ska. I think it just happened to fit the overall vibe of the game. I haven’t played through the game yet but I’ve watched them develop it and it’s one of those games where it is about them playing poker but the focus of the game isn’t the poker aspect, the focus really is on the characters. It’s one of those things where is the music accompanying playing poker or is the music accompanying this journey that you’re going through where you’re learning more about the character?

It might be like Undertale. I know people who have played the game and were like, “I liked the game but it was so easy. I beat it in two hours”. I’m like, “There’s three playthroughs to get through the game, you didn’t beat it. You just completed one of the run-throughs in two hours. There’s so many more elements to the game”. The reason why Undertale has such a huge following is because once you get through all of those playthroughs you learn so much about each of those individual characters. With the first playthrough, you might be like, “That character was an asshole!” and then you get through the last playthrough and you’re like, “That character is making me cry. Why am I crying in the club over this character I hated?” It’s all about that character development. I think that’s more of the focus and the vibe of everything.

It’s nice to have the characters be the focus because it’s so much more interesting. You get to take your time and really dig into stuff instead of just completing tasks.

I know some people like playing video games to complete an objective so it might not resonate with those types of people. But there’s a lot of people, myself included, where I do like video games like that. The more you want to dig into the world and into the game, the more you’ll get out of it. I’m sure you can also play through the game without digging too deep into what they’re saying and still have a great time but there’s just that added layer, you know.

Do you have a favourite game that does that with the story that you’ve played?

I’m probably going to have to say Undertale, if I had to pick one with the whole character development thing. Or Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, that was a game that I really loved because of the characters. It was the first time I ever played a game where I wanted to stop and read all the dialogue. The more I read the dialogue and understood the characters, the better the game felt. It felt like a complete story. I played that game a million times and it wasn’t until one of the later times that I was really paying closer attention to all the characters. They all have arcs and it makes the story more fulfilling when you pay attention at that level.

Why do you think the animals robbed the bank? What’s your theory?

I haven’t played the game yet but maybe they were just struggling like all of us. I think we all just need some money sometimes. [laughs]

What would you like to compose next?

I would love to work on anything, really. I haven’t been able to compose much in the past year because I’ve been on the road and have been really busy focusing on touring and stuff like that. It would be really fun to work on another video game. It would be really fun to work on a longer-form thing. I’ve done a couple of short films but they’ve all been two or three minutes where I’m just doing one song. It would be really nice to work on a soundtrack for something longer like a pilot episode for a TV show or even a TV show. That would be awesome. I’d really like to work on something where I could develop the music alongside the story that’s also being developed.

What are you listening to now?

I’ve been listening to a bunch of jazz lately along with a little bit of hip-hop, R&B, soul, stuff like that. I’ve been on a kick of Afro-Caribbean music again but not as much as I was when I was writing this soundtrack. But now mostly jazz. Specifically, post-bop and avant-garde jazz of the 70s and 80s is what I’ve been listening to the most. I guess the 60s as well with Charles Mingus, Woody Shaw, and stuff like that.

A good mix overall.

I try to keep it diverse. I try not to gravitate toward just one genre.

You have a couple of shows coming up. You’re playing with Bad Operation at Punk Rock Bowling later this month, you’re opening for Against All Authority in July, and you’ll be playing Fest in October. What are you looking forward to the most about these shows?

I’m looking forward to being able to connect with my community of people in a live setting. That's always been the best part of these shows specifically with doing JER and playing the record and original music that I put two years of work into. It’s been a big struggle to get that going as far as getting people to realize that’s something that I do and getting people who only pay attention to my covers or might just know me through passing to notice it. A lot of people don’t even know I’m a musician. They see my page and think I’m just a page that talks about ska or that shares ska memes or something, I don’t know. People don’t pay attention. But for the people who do pay attention, those are the ones who are coming out to the shows and it’s been a very supportive, very diverse crowd of people. The vibes have just been really, really good. I’m looking forward to continuing to see those vibes.

May 27PRB club show at Citrus Pool Deck at the Downtown GrandLas Vegas, NVPlaying as part of Bad Operation
May 28PRB club show at Citrus Pool Deck at the Downtown GrandLas Vegas, NVPlaying as part of Bad Operation
Jul 29Revolution LiveFt Lauderdale, FLsupporting Against All Authority with the Suicide Machines
Jul 30Conduit Winter ParkOrlando, FLw/0 Miles Per Hour, Flowers for Emily, Overthinker
Sep 02924 Gilman - Bad Time Turns 5Berkeley, CAw/We Are The Union, Bad Operation, Eichlers, Omnigone, Noise Complaint
Oct 27-29FestGainesville, FL