MIDI Pioneer George Alistair Sanger The Fat Man

by Rob Patterson Back in the early Eighties, George Alistair Sanger was another struggling Los Angeles musician with dreams of greatness. "All that time, the prime directive for me was to figure out what it is that made the Beatles so great," he says. "What made them so cool. And how can I be that cool? How can my band be that cool?

"I beat my head against this thing, and it started to occur to me that the Beatles had a lot of ground to clear, a lot of paths. And I had nothing to hit my machete against. All the paths had been cleared. So, here I am playing Missile Command and Space Invaders thinking, `You know, the next Beatles is going to be something kids love and their parents don't understand.' And I figured it was going to be games."

Today, Sanger lives in Austin, calls himself the "Fat Man," and has sold some 20 million copies of his music, making him not only far and away this city's biggest recording artist, but one of the better selling rock & roll musicians in the world. Within his medium, soundtracks for computer games, he has achieved a measure of Beatledom, thanks to the innovative compositions Sanger and his Team Fat have created for such leading games as The 7th Guest, The 11th Hour, Wing Commander I &II, Loom, Freddi Fish, NASCAR Racing, and some 80 others. He's been the subject of feature articles in People, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, and was dubbed "a musical superstar" by Associated Press.

So why, unless you play computer games, have you never heard of him? Just wait. The "biggest name in multimedia," as the Fat Man calls himself, is primed for stardom. With his ironic nom de guerre (Sanger is lanky and thin) and his flashy cowboy threads, Sanger has a PR savvy to match his musical and technical creativity. There's a Fat Man Fan Club, newsletter (Fat Beat), web site (http://www.outer.net/fatman), and even a coloring book, and of course, his knack for the eminently quotable quip. "My speciality is no speciality," he explains. "I'm kinda like a salad, I draw from wherever." See what I mean?

The Fat Man's dreams of stardom started out in Coronado, California, an island community off of San Diego, where he and his brother Dave Sanger (past and present drummer for Asleep at the Wheel) played in an award-winning high school band under the tutelage of one Bob Demmon, leader of the surf band the Astronauts. "On the days that it was raining and we couldn't go out and march, he'd show us slides he had taken on his tours with the Beach Boys of, say, Glen Campbell loading amps into a truck. In Japan, the Beach Boys would open for the Astronauts. They would get chased down the streets by the Japanese girls, too - the whole bit."

After studying music at Occidental College in Los Angeles and bouncing around the local club scene, Sanger was looking for his vehicle for success when his friend Dave Warhol called to ask him to write music for a Mattel Intellivision game. "I wrote a 10-second song called `Carnival of the Penguins' for a game called Thin Ice," Sanger explains. "I got $1,000 for it, and then Mattel Electronics went out of business." He started doing music for the Atari 800 series, and then Atari reorganized. "What I didn't realize until later was that this was the big Game Crash of 1984."

Subsequently, he relocated to Austin - "My wife Linda [Law] and I were like Mr. & Mrs. Mallard, flying around to find out where to raise the ducklings" - and started making music for MIDI. By then his friend Warhol was at Nintendo, and hired Sanger again to do music for some games.

"We were doing a lot of boopity-boop stuff, but we were trying to stretch it out so it might sound like music. We had four voices: two boops, a beep, and a psst," he recalls. "But by using a lot of cool techniques, we were able to make it sound like enough, sound like a lot of voices. It was a very interesting technique. It was like playing tennis with a very high net. We always gave ourselves a challenge: Mozart could write for quartets, we can write quartets."

Warhol then moved on to Lucas Arts, where he recruited Sanger for Loom, one of the first games on CD-ROM, for which Sanger fashioned a MIDI soundtrack adapted from Swan Lake. Then Warhol referred Origin Systems to Sanger, who had already been peppering the Austin-based game company with letters saying, "You gotta work with me, I'm the Fat Man, I have what you need, call me," he recalls. "I found out later that all that those letters were doing was pissing people off."

Nonetheless, Sanger and his Team Fat associate Dave Govett came up with the music for the first edition of Wing Commander. "It was an unqualified revolution in computer games - no one will ever argue with that," Sanger notes. "It was the first time that music was considered a selling point for a game. And it was credited by PC magazine as having sold more hardware than any other software."

These days, the Fat Man gets from $7,000-$12,000 per 30-40 minutes of music, plus royalties on a game's sale. And after years of working at home and connecting up with Team Fat - Govett, former Grains of Faith leader Joe McDermott, and computer whiz Kevin Phelan - via a BBS, the gang is now holed up in a farmhouse in Leander north of Austin. Noted for bringing a musical standard to computer games (where music was once "less than an afterthought") with real songs and real instruments, the Fat Man is now also helping set an industry-wide technical standard for general MIDI reproduction on computers, which can vary widely in the accurate delivery of sounds, by setting up his Fat Labs sound card certification service.

But dreams of stardom still rattle under his Stetson, and why not? As The New York Times noted in its recent article on the Fat Man, the interactive entertainment software business, at $6.8 billion annually, now outpaces the $5.2 billion film industry. "I'm getting ready to compete and be able to stand alongside the guys who make real music," Sanger notes. "Bring 'em on. Sure, I have delusions that I'm the next Peter Gabriel or the next Beatles or whatever, but I know that they're delusions... yet I still have them.

"We've lined ourselves up all along to compete
in that arena," he concludes. "And it turns out that the people I've been collaborating with make the perfect line-up for a surf band." n

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