1) MATEO, YOU HAVE SCORED OVER 50 FILMS, 100 PLUS TV EPISODES, COMPOSED 18 SYMPHONIES AND THEN SOME! THE WORD PROLIFIC DOES NOT EVEN BEGIN TO DESCRIBE YOU. HOW DO YOU KEEP UP WITH ALL OF THAT?
Aaaaaaaaand I have five children which take more time than any of those you just mentioned. Ha! I’m a big believer in walking directly into the fire….as in, say yes and figure out how to do it next. The first 8 months of this year were filled with 3 films, 3 shows, a mini series, and various smaller projects and it was a blast, a challenge, a marathon, a great opportunity, one I’ve spent 15 years in the trenches preparing for! The way I keep up with it is, I have a team whose mantra is “Keep Mateo Writing!” I invest in my team as people more than musicians, technicians, orchestrators, producers, etc. My assistant/producer and I have worked together for 6+ years and we find things daily to make us laugh. Sometimes we clock in a 15 hour day so keeping a sense of humor is paramount to our success. My family is the most important thing in my life. Instead of trying to just find a balance, I look at my career as something I’m blessed with to be able to provide for them. On a more practical basis, every Sunday evening I roughly schedule each day of my week with writing, calls, meetings, spotting sessions, flights, etc. Also, I ask questions. I consult the advice of my agents, fellow composers, I ask my music editor what the feeling is on the dub stage when I’m not there, I keep communication as open as possible. Also, I trust & write from my instincts, I don’t hold anything precious so I am able to produce a lot when needed. Years ago I was telling my dad one of my capricious concert ideas. I was going to hide an entire symphony orchestra on a stage behind a scrim and mysteriously backlight them. He said “You still don’t know what you can’t do.” It did not sink in until a day or two later….it was the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. Not paying attention to limits, walls, or what I’m supposed to do has allowed me freedoms and a certain confidence in my abilities. In the end, I am fueled by my love for music and how we communicate emotions through it.
2) THE FILM ‘JUNO’ WAS PIVOTAL IN YOUR CAREER. IN AND OF ITSELF, THE MUSIC YOU COMPOSED FOR IT IS NOT BOMBASTIC OR SYMPHONIC AND YET IT LEFT AN INDELIBLE MARK ON THE MOVIE. THERE’S A LOT TO BE SAID ABOUT MELODY AND SIMPLICITY, RIGHT?
Yes, I agree although simplicity to me is not just about style. It is more about the emotions we feel when music is conveyed in a raw, unaltered, un-produced way. When I started writing on Juno, I was searching for sounds that represented Juno McGuff. She was someone who looked the same as the rest of us, but she was full of unique qualities. She talked differently, she was an old soul, she was quick to point out the irony in any situation, she was a smart ass, she was basically different…yet she looked the same as any other kid in her high school…and she was pregnant. For that film, I called 5 different guitarists and they each came over for a session and I asked them to bring all the acoustic guitars they owned. I auditioned guitars for this film! One day, one of my favorite, quite stoney, guitarists came over and he was pulling 4 guitars out of cases and tuning them. I heard him trying to tune one of them and it wasn’t quite working. Then he strummed it once and I immediately turned around from my writing and asked “What is that??” He said “This is Stella. An old Sears brand of practice guitar. I bought it for the case at a garage sale. it was $25.” He kept trying to tune Stella but she wouldn’t quite go in tune, but she sounded great! It wasn’t about perfection, it was about character. This guitar sounded beautiful, but really rough around the edges in the exact same was as Juno McGuff. Juno director, Jason Reitman, and I are collaborating currently on his show Casual. In the same way, I’ve found a sound that matches these characters and their emotions. I have musicians come in for sessions, cello, mandolin, guitars, basses, pianos, ukulele and we tune once, then no more tuning for the rest of the session. The music feels very raw, accessible, slightly off, slightly non-musical, but most of all intimate. The characters of the series are raw, slightly off, accessible, and you constantly see how they feel in intimate situations. All this to say, you can say so much with so little because it let’s people in, it opens up a place for intimacy.
For a short time after Juno, I had a slight identity complex. I was asked over and again to write this way for other films. I was so happy to do so, but I wanted to say “Would you like me to use the orchestra on this one instead? I’ve written a dozen symphonies. It’s in my toolbox.” Then one day I went to lunch with Mike Giacchino and along with a lot of other great advice he gave me his pizza analogy. I’m paraphrasing from memory but basically he said “A director will come to you and ask you for a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. You will be tempted to come back to him and say ‘Okay, but I can also make you this deluxe pizza with all of these great toppings and it will be the best pizza you’ve ever had!’ Your director is going to look at you and remind you he or she just wants a peanut butter jelly sandwich. Nobody wants you to emote all over their film.” I went on to write more scores and now I really don’t care whether I’m writing for the orchestra or for a small ensemble, as long as I’m nailing the tone of the film and the emotion of the characters. This year I recorded the orchestra numerous times and as fulfilling as it is, it feels the same as any of my small ensemble scores now. My lesson is to be unique, be bold, be unconventional, and ALWAYS write to serve your characters.
3) SOME MEMBERS OF THIS FORUM HAVE ATTENDED THE ASCAP Television And Film Scoring Workshop AS YOU DID A FEW YEARS AGO. CAN YOU COMMENT ON THE EFFECT IT HAD ON YOUR CAREER?
Since I have never studied music or film music conventionally, the workshop felt like my film music education. It was filled with wonderful lessons, advice, the realities of the budgets, the tricks, the pitfalls, basically Richard Bellis is a masterful teacher and I was so excited to be there. When I look back on it though, getting in was as much of the journey as was the actual month we studied together. I had met Mike Todd through mutual friends when I first moved to LA. He encouraged me to submit an application. I failed my first 3 years of trying. Then I decided to write a symphony called “Symphony Soundtrack.” In researching this, I went around to composers I admired and interviewed them. John Debney, Elmer Bernstein, Graeme Revell and in my research I asked them how they wrote fear, love, joy, excitement, sorrow, etc. Lucky enough my interview with Elmer turned into a mentorship where every week I went to his house and asked him questions while he drank coffee and told me stories. I went back to my studio and wrote an entire concert of how I felt, and how I had learned our culture listens to music that contains fear or love or sorrow, etc. I recorded the live concert and submitted that in my fourth year and I finally got in. Nobody gave me permission or even encouraged me to go write a concert of film music or to call these composers I admired and ask to meet up. Heck, nobody ever asked me to write a symphony even. I just tried. Like most things in my life, I’ve taken big risks and some of them work. Some of them fail, actually more of them fail, but some of them work. Now I have a career doing what I absolutely love and feel passionate about and when I look back it has come through big risks, asking for help, learning from Bernstein, Debney, Giacchino, Lennertz, Revell, Bellis, and so many others. What I learned in that workshop were the tools of the trade, but what I took away from it was to go out and risk, create, be a great composer.
4) YOU DIVIDE YOUR TIME BETWEEN LOS ANGELES AND SEATTLE AND YOU HAVE STUDIOS IN BOTH LOCATIONS. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO COMPOSERS WHO ASPIRE TO MOVE TO HOLLYWOOD?
Anytime I meet aspiring composers I advise them to move to LA. It is where our business lives. Years ago, when I lived in Seattle, I had just completed my first symphony and I was really curious about film music. At the time, there were film music sessions every week at studios in Seattle. I went to almost every one of them and sat out with the orchestra. With my little notepad and pencil in hand I took notes, I listened, I marveled, I noticed how different composers used the orchestra. It was my own education in orchestration. One day Elmer Bernstein was recording a score for Ed Norton’s film ‘Keeping The Faith’. One of the engineers invited me into the booth. I watched sparks fly as they got into an argument about the cue at the end of the film. They yelled, swore, walked out, walked back in, talked, figured out a solution. I was blown away and I went into the booth for every recording session after that. Another day, Angelo Badalamenti was up scoring one of David Lynch’s films. The contractor had let him know who I was and I think because my last name being Italian he said “stick around after the session.” After the session he invited me to sit at a table with him. He opened a bottle of wine and poured us each a glass. He said “So I hear you want to be a film composer” I said yes. He then strangely asked me “Do you play baseball?” I said “I did when I was a kid.” He asked “Where did you play baseball” I pointed out the studio and said “Just across the water over there at a place called Bar S fields.” He asked “So is there a baseball diamond at those fields?” I was so confused and I said “Yes!” He then said “So you went to the baseball diamond to play baseball. Then why do you think you can write music for films living up here.” A few months later I packed up and moved to Hollywood. In Hollywood I’ve met so many friends, all of my directors, my producers, my colleagues, my team. My career is in Hollywood.
Nowadays, I split my time between LA & Seattle. It hasn’t really made any difference since it’s only a 2-hour flight and I can get from one to the other within a few hours notice. I fly so often I am friends with many of the flight attendants and I’ve gotten to know a few of the pilots even. Also, I travel with a mini Akai 2-octave keyboard. I receive a lot of funny looks on my flights, but I find a lot of creativity 30,000 feet up so I constantly write on airplanes.
5) WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH ‘ALICE IN CHAINS’?
Jerry, Sean, Mike, and William are all great artists and musicians. I was connected with them as they were about to make their comeback after Layne passing away. I went into the studio with them to discuss ideas of collaborating and it was this crazy different world. They placed a dice game as often as they went into track. There was as much attitude as there were notes being laid down. It was just awesome! As we discussed all of their catalog and what we could do I realized for them the performance was going to be as much about honoring Layne and his legacy as it was about any songs we played. I Invited them and Heart (Ann & Nancy Wilson) to perform in my symphony called Legacy. As we were working together I had an idea. I mean, here I was working with one of the hardest rock groups in the world and I was combining them with the orchestra. So I proposed we cover Zeppelin’s Kashmir for the encore. At first everyone had this look of “Should we? Could we?” which turned into “We can. We should. We have to!” This was the result:
So, outside of conducting at the ASCAP workshop and a couple of small projects I had not really conducted. I decided since it was my 10th symphony, I would conduct this piece…mostly to challenge and scare the shit out of myself. From the moment the first guitars were strummed, I hovered about 6 inches off that podium. Someone from the NFL was there and approached me afterwards and asked me to reproduce it for one of their half time shows in their new stadium. So my 2nd big conducting appearance was in front of 70,000 people in a stadium and basically because of the epic nature of the song, they all went nuts. One of my favorite, most exhilarating experiences in life.
(BONUS) YOU ARE A PHILANTHROPIST, CARING DEEPLY FOR THE HUMAN CONDITION AND YOU HAVE MANAGED TO RAISE OVER A MILLION DOLLARS FOR CANCER PATIENTS. HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THAT?
At age 24 I BS’d my way into the symphony hall without knowing how to read music or having an orchestra. If you want the full story of how, here is a TED talk I did called How to write a Symphony without reading Music.
After my first symphony, the CFO of the company I was working for called me into his office and let me know his 6-year-old daughter had recently passed of a brain tumor. He said she received excellent care at Seattle Children’s Hospital and they had a piano at the hospital. I called the hospital and volunteered to play piano. After my first day I was hooked. Now, 19 years later, I still do the exact same thing with kids. We sit at the piano and write songs about bees & dogs & fart and forget about cancer for an hour or two. Over the years I’ve realized if you just ask a kid (anyone for that matter) how they are feeling they are not so compelled to answer. BUT, if you write a song together and you ask them how they feel, they will express themselves and tell their story. I believe it’s very important for everyone to tell their story, especially these kids going through difficult treatments. I love my career, I truly do, but it doesn’t compare to the satisfaction or joy I feel when I see a kid light up as they write a song. Volunteering has filled my heart in a way nothing else can. When we do something, even the simplest thing, that has no benefit to us but completely for another, especially a stranger, it fills one with a feeling of good will, love for our fellow man, purpose. I have kids now, so I understand what it’s like to give without receiving, but the reality is we all receive so much. Don’t be afraid to give.