Cyber clubs and virtual rockstars: a chat with Ivan Pavlovich

Ivan Pavlovich interview the cayo perico heist

As the Music Director at Rockstar Games, Ivan Pavlovich is responsible for the tunes you hear while ducking the cops in Grand Theft Auto or exploring the Red Dead Redemption prairie.

But even before Ivan Pavlovich was soundtracking high-risk heists and virtual helicopter rides, he was knee-deep in music. In Chicago he was at clubs “literally four, five, six nights a week DJing”, producing records, and generally burning the candle at both ends.

It’s this history that’s allowed him to leverage names like Flying Lotus, Julian Casablancas, Gilles Petersen, D’Angelo, and too many more to count for in-game appearances or compositions. His latest pursuit, however, has taken him back to his roots: clubs. With The Cayo Perico Heist, Grand Theft Auto Online’s massive new update, he’s is attempting to build a musical experience inside a video game that’s closer to real life than we’ve ever been.

In the wide world of GTA Online it’s now possible to catch legit DJ sets from Moodymann, Palms Trax, The Blessed Madonna, or Solomun (to name a few). Rockstar motion captures these artists, imports their mixes into the game, then blasts their choice tunes from in-game speakers for players to enjoy. It’s a unique digital space that’s a step above live-streamed concerts and a step below live music – but if anyone can close that gap, it’s Ivan Pavlovich.

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab you copy here

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HAPPY: How are you usually involved in a new Rockstar project? At what point do you come into the development, and what are your initial objectives?

IVAN: The music always supports the game, and we’re there usually from the beginning. Music at Rockstar has always played a very heavy role. In the forefront we’re supporting all the action and we actually get to score the gameplay, so I think we’re heavily involved from the beginning. We sit down with Sam [Houser] who’s the founder, and we decide on the direction for the stations and how those may relate to the gameplay.

HAPPY: When you were coming together for The Cayo Perico Heist, what was that direction?

IVAN: I think there’s a couple of things. One, we had this casino and we wanted to expand on the nightclub that we had previously done. We felt we’d done this incredible thing in terms of motion capturing DJs and putting them in the club environment, and that we could do it even better now we’d figured it out better – how to motion capture them, how to do the mix first, and how to capture it so it actually felt like you were in a club. And then you obviously have an island! You have this incredible new landscape, this territory that players can explore, so part of it was having DJs playing on the island.

For the stations, we were already talking to Julian [Casablancas, of The Voidz and The Strokes], and the idea of having a rock station, especially curated with Julian, was an incredible opportunity. Because of what was going on in the world at the time, we also wanted to reach out to our old friends. You know, FlyLo, Gilles Peterson, they’ve both done two shows for the game, so we checked in on them to see if there’s other things we can do together, so we added to those stations. And Joy Orbison we’re big fans of, we wanted to figure out how to get his flavour in the game, and I think we came up with this really brilliant way to incorporate him into the gameplay and also add this incredible layer of music. That’s a lot of stuff right there, but that covers all the new music.

HAPPY: A lot of stuff is way better than not much at all.

IVAN: Well for us, this was the biggest musical update that we’ve done since the game was launched. A massive, massive undertaking.

HAPPY: You were a DJ and producer first – how did you jump ship from working in music to working in games?

IVAN: Very fortunately! You know, I was in Chicago with Detroit very close, and Rockstar’s always been into music. Even before Grand Theft Auto III I was working with them, and they were always working with underground artists. Sam’s vision, he was always passionate about music. Everyone at Rockstar is passionate about music. So a long time ago, before I started working there, they’d approached me about doing some music for Smuggler’s Run and then GTA III, and then it was sort of a natural transition. We’d been working together from afar and when everything went digital, a lot of distributors went under and I was looking for something to do, they were kind enough to offer. The short answer is very lucky!

HAPPY: Do you still DJ or make music?

IVAN: I DJ in my house! More often than not. I spend a lot of money on Discogs, especially now… way more than I’m comfortable. But it gets me through the dark times, you know? And also it’s a great way to find music, I just love it. All of us who are associated with the music, whether it’s the PR side or the founder, we all DJ at home for ourselves. Just actually loving music, if we’re not doing it for work we’re doing it for pleasure.

HAPPY: I think that’s the way you’ve got to be. A lot of people fell back on that during lockdown, DJing at home is essential.

IVAN: It is essential!

moodymann gta online

HAPPY: Could you have done this job as long as you have, or as effectively as you have, without the skills you learned as a DJ? Being able to dig, having a critical ear…

IVAN: Quite honestly, I think it all comes around. Everything we learn growing up, going out to clubs, literally four, five, six nights a week DJing – I think that anyone who plays records can testify to this. It’s cataloguing records, it’s the hunt for records, and then it’s how you put them all together. I will say – and FlyLo’s always been really generous – we don’t like to give a lot of feedback to someone like FlyLo, but I think when we do, everybody appreciates it. And it’s because of that history we have with music. With any of the DJs! It’s coming from somebody who’s lived it and loved it, it’s just the approach.

HAPPY: You kind of preempted the next question. Is there absolute trust in the talent you pick? Or do you have to go back and forth with them sometimes?

IVAN: You pick them because you love them, because you’re a real fan. So yeah, we have conversations and back and forths, but because of who we are and what we’ve done in the past, we don’t need to get somebody just because of their name. We will find people that we love and are amazing artists, and we’ll put them front and centre rather than trading off somebody’s name. That establishes trust and then our background in music and our passion for them as artists… if we say something to them, they know it’s a collaboration. That’s one of the greatest things we can do with them, so as long as it comes from that place, it’s appreciated.

HAPPY: Do the artists relish this different space to broadcast?

IVAN: I think they do. They always have, but I think it’s especially more relevant now for them, they’re getting to reach fans who are missing them. You know, everybody was doing live streams when the pandemic started hitting and everybody was staying at home. Some people’s natural reaction was to do live streams, and they kind of wore thin rather quickly. There were some DJs who literally, to this day, refuse to do it because they understood that an artist who’s performing onstage or a DJ that’s performing in a club, there’s a connection to the energy of the people that’re watching them. You don’t get that with live streams. This is different! I walked into the [Grand Theft Auto] club the other day and Palms Trax was playing and I was like, “holy shit this is incredible!” I’m out where I want to be, with the people I want to be with. I’m doing it in GTA! It felt like it was a club that I’d want to go to. Ultimately our choice is that we get to do what we’re passionate about and put it in the game, so it feels real, you know? I think that’s why artists are excited to be doing it, it’s great.

HAPPY: Is that a conscious goal of yours? Trying to break down that digital wall that many people became hyper aware of during the pandemic?

IVAN: I think we still have the need to be social, right, but we have no places to do it. So it is breaking down a certain wall, it’s giving you an avenue. For example Moodymann just won’t do a live stream, so if you’re a fan of Moodymann, you just won’t see him. For the last nine months or wherever we’re at, you will not have heard a set from Moodymann because he won’t do it. So we’re consciously offering something to people, and it’s a way for people to go and hang out and interact with people at a time when we all want to be out. Hanging out with each other and having a real connection with people, I think this is a way of doing it.

HAPPY: From the first iteration of the GTA club to The Cayo Perico Heist, have there been any fundamental changes to the player experience that help achieve that goal?

IVAN: I’d say yes. This time around, we did all the things we learned from the last one and made them better. It’s even tighter, it’s even more realistic, right? That translates into the experience the player has. Dancing is better! Even going in and dancing there’s more variety, it’s more on-beat, you’re actually getting into it.

HAPPY: It’s a big step forward in bringing the club or dance floor experience to people playing video games. Do you think that line will continue to blur?

IVAN: I think that it will. You have these incredible climaxes that are more and more realistic and more soulful in the way that you’re seeing the DJs play, and for us in this one, Moodymann is not only talking on the mic while he’s DJing – which is a very Detroit roller skating kind of thing to do, right? And then he has his dancers behind him and they’re doing steps together in unison. It’s like watching James Brown or Prince, but while you’re DJing with this incredible music. We’re now at a place of a performance, right? From a DJ set into a live performance. That step forward is incredible, so yeah, we’re going into a direction where we’re pushing more and more. It’s fun.


The Cayo Perico Heist is available now to Grand Theft Auto Online players.

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab you copy here