1) TOM, YOU PARTICIPATED IN SOME LEGENDARY PROJECTS WITH HANS ZIMMER. WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING INVOLVED IN THOSE FILMS AND WOULD YOU RECOMMEND APPRENTICESHIP AS A MEANS TO EXPANDING ONES CAREER?
I’ll answer that as two questions – about Apprenticeship – I was lucky to spend the first part of my career working for several amazing composers including John Debney, Louis Febre, Trevor Rabin, John Williams, and of course Hans – each one is an entire story of their own!! I guess you could say I have been a bit of a professional side man forever. When I was first brought into the business by my working partner and co-owner of Brand X, John Sponsler, I was a gigging musician and music programmer. I had always been a guy who tried to have a well rounded skill set and be useful wherever possible wether playing keys in as many styles as possible, or learning how to run the PA. When I went to work for John, I felt my challenge was to learn everything I could, and find a way to make myself an asset to the guy hiring me so that he’d never send me home. Sometimes as a tech, a session player, arranger, or just picking up his kids from the bus stop when we had a deadline. Basically, I would not have ANY of the work I’ve been blessed with if I had not come along side an amazing array of other artists and really “apprenticed” with all of them! Even when I was young and dreaming of being a jazz musician, I would try and play with people who were better than me, who would challenge and scare me – I always found it the best way to up your game. Apprenticeship and networking (in addition to not being too much of a hack) are the most important skills there are for a long and well rounded career IMHO. Just to clarify – for almost all of my compositional career I’ve been working along side my creative partner Mr. Sponsler so I’ll use the term ‘we’ for a lot of these answers as he and I were working together on almost every project early on. Collaborating with each of these different composers and all of their support staff was it’s own unique thrill and challenge and I’m so grateful for everyone who was kind, helpful, or encouraging along the way. Nobody does this alone that is for sure!
As far as working on huge franchises with Hans – We had worked with Alan Meyerson recording strings and percussion for The Last Samurai trailer and he was kind enough to recommend us to Hans. We got the call to come take a meeting for “a little sequel” he was doing called Pirates 2. He was interested in having ’new’ guys work with the P1 themes while his other team members worked on new material. We had often been told that we sounded like Zimmer, but Hans’ reaction to our first batch of demos was less than stellar. He basically said we didn’t sound like Pirates at all! Bob Badami and Hans both took extra time to really help us find the vocabulary and sound palette (as well as all the people who helped us overcome the tech which was equally overwhelming to chase) so that instead of being fired, we found ourselves weeks later musically introducing the world to Davey Jones, as well as writing the Three Way Sword fight, and Wheel of Fortune. I can honestly say that no single ‘apprenticeship’ has ever paid more rewards (creatively, technically, philosophically, and just how to manage a project and run a meeting) than my time working with Hans. We didn’t work our way up from assistant at RCP, so we were a bit on anomaly, but trust me, we were scrambling to learn from anyone who would teach us about how to survive! The feeling of being over your head is just something that I guess you get used to after a while, and it’s funny because you can actually get to a place where you don’t feel like you’re actually working unless you are swimming in deep water! Other gigs with Hans followed and we ended up with a room at RCP that we kept all the way through Pirates 4. It’s totally goofy to me when I stop and think of all the crazy stuff I’ve gotten to do with basically the film music heroes of my youth, but it was all by trying to do good work, help people do good work, and be constantly challenged by the work itself.
2) YOU SUCCESSFULLY HEAD THE COMPANY BRAND X MUSIC THAT CONSISTENTLY LANDS PLACEMENTS IN THE TRAILERS OF THE BIGGEST MOVIES. IN A VERY SATURATED MARKET I MIGHT ADD. HOW DOES YOUR COMPANY ACHIEVE THAT?
We have been around a long time and work really hard to keep the quality impossibly high, and have the very best relationships with our clients possible. I love everyone that works with/for me and we strive really hard to empower then to bring their talents to the table. Brand X was started as a side effect of custom scoring trailers back when there were not very many high quality libraries catering to trailers. We studied what companies like Immediate Music and X-Ray Dog were doing, but were also challenged by a producer we were working with to really push the boundaries of epic hybrid orchestra as well as using sound design as a ‘musical’ device. We were taking tricks we were learning from JD and later Hans, as well as relentlessly refining our palette to take advantage of emerging sampling technology and from that the ‘Brand X’ sound kind of emerged and people seemed to like it. This allowed us to be out ahead of the curve and build very solid relationships with several of the big studios while the market was relatively new. We have always embraced technology, and are constantly striving to make music and product lines that solve problems, fill gaps, and make our users creative process as easy and rewarding as possible. We have diversified into non Epic styles, but never have compromised on quality for the sake of quantity. We have also kept our team (both admin and creative) really small and very very hand picked. Every single track that we release is either mixed, tweaked, or mangled by one of our main staff (myself, John, Josh Lynch, or Corey Martin). That leads to a really consistent product that has stood up over the entire 16 year history of Brand X. I’ve been involved long enough now to have seen several cycles of ebb and flow in the industry, so some seasons we land lots of back ends (which always face the most extreme competition), some years not as many. We also do lots of overseas, in program, and promo licensing so Brand X is much more diverse than just a trailer catalog. This helps insulate against the moving target of trailer music trends, but allows us the working capital to keep the lights on and keep trying to learn and grow. We also work really hard to listen to the clients and provide them with a great customer experience – I have an amazing admin and sales team that work tirelessly to keep our clients happy and our company fresh.
3) WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO COMPOSERS WHO WANT TO WRITE TRAILER MUSIC? IS IT AN EASY PATH TO PURSUE?
Contrary to some information that may be prevalent on the internet- it is NOT an easy path. It might be an ACCESSIBLE path for some, and it is possible to enjoy some financial success by getting the right track into the right hands. There is definitely a lowest common denominator in trailer music that can be reached by someone with very little gear, and even less experience, however, I always try and remind new and upcoming composers that a handful of licenses doesn’t equal a career. It’s a highly volatile market, and composers that might have incredible heat on one release, often have trouble duplicating that success, much less support a move to LA or even more ‘mundane’ pursuits like buying a house or raising a family. I’d give three pieces of advice – 1) At Brand X, I’m always looking for composers that understand storytelling and have a unique take even when doing the most simplistic styles. I get a lot of submissions that sound good, have all the right tricks in the right places, but one minute after listening to it, you can’t remember the track to save your life. Or if I ask them to turn off all the sound design, and then listen to the bones of the composition, there is nothing there. Equally, I hear great compositions with a mediocre demo and the disclaimer that “it will sound great when it has real orchestra and is mixed”. If the demo doesn’t kick my butt, you’re not done yet. Even so, I find the most impactful music is the one that leaves you with a memory. A synth sound, a chord change, a tune – some sort of sonic hook that makes me remember THAT track in a playlist of 25. Once I hear the hook (whether sonic, or melodic), then I listen for the ability to arrange. Where does the composer take the idea? How do they develop or keep a simple idea interesting for :90? My 2nd piece of advice is be able to do FIXES! A big problem I have encountered with younger composers is they have wonderful inspiration and energy on version 1, but when the client comes back with changes that take them away from their original vision, it quickly becomes diminishing returns. Each version gets a little less inspired, a little rougher in the mix, etc. The ability to really try and get inside the client’s head and achieve musically what they are hearing version after version is a skill set you WILL need! Last but not least, you can not be precious with your tracks. If you have no work, and no income from music, but you won’t take a $400 buyout for a library track because you value your art too much, it’s going to be a hard road. If you don’t have the ability to sell what you’re doing today, and start something new tomorrow, a career in trailer music is going to be challenging. I’m not suggestion to let people take advantage of you, and if you have opportunities coming your way you shouldn’t have time to work for free. However, as so many on this forum have said over and over again, there are more reasons than money to do a gig. Always be creating with as many people as you can, and let the stockpile of your productivity build up into a body of work. It really is the only way to have any sort of long term momentum.
4) CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES OF RECORDING ORCHESTRAL ENSEMBLES FOR TRAILER MUSIC? PLEASE INCLUDE ANY RELEVANT INFORMATION FOR LOCATIONS AND STUDIOS.
Our first chance to record orchestra for a trailer was on ‘A Beautiful Mind’. The score was recorded at the now demolished Paramount M. It will always stand out to me because after arriving at the stage, John and I were sitting in the control room apparently looking young or out of place as the manager came into the room and demanded to know ‘how did you guys get in here?’ We laughed and told her we were the client. The trial continued as our recording engineer arrived and with obvious trepidation inserted the DA-88 tape of our pre-lays and hit play. When the track kicked in and the click was in sync, and it all sounded good, he turned to us and with some surprise said “wow, this stuff sounds good”. I guess working with orchestras was not something two young dudes did with their own money so we spent a lot of time kind of proving the legitimacy of what we were trying to do. Over time, we got better at what to do and how to do it while tracking projects for The Last Samurai at Fox with Alan Meyerson, Polar Express at Todd AO with Shawn Murphy, as well as full album projects with remote sessions in Seattle, Prague, and lately Nashville. The landscape in LA was changing, and scoring library and trailer music was starting to happen a lot more all over the world. We found that every room, and every ensemble brings something new to the table, and we are always trying new things! However we are also businessmen and have to honestly look at the cost of large scale orchestral recordings, possible strings attached with those recordings, and wether the client will even care. Because we were originally the ‘midi goes to finish’ guys, we never rely on the orchestra to do anything that we haven’t fully expressed to the best of our abilities in the demo. In some ways this makes integrating live orchestras MORE complicated. We have so much work and intent in the programming that just shoving a bunch of live performances on top of all this perfectly groomed midi doesn’t work very well nor would shutting off the midi and letting it all be live. We have moved to a point where we use live musicians to cover those things which they do the best – the emotive, the elegant, the dynamic, the lyrical, and then leave the heavy lifting and loud repetition to the synths. I don’t feel this way about underscore or more minimal styles, but for straight up loud ass aggressive trailer music, we find very little advantage in trying to ‘replace’ the midi with real. Also, smaller ensembles work better because the closer to the click you are when you have 100 tracks of pre-lays grooving, the better! However there is still very few things that can top the feeling a composer gets when a real full orchestra plays down a cue that was composed specifically to be played live.
5) HAS TRAILER MUSIC COME OF AGE? THERE IS CERTAINLY A HUGE ONLINE FANBASE AND WEBSITES THAT CATER TO THE FANS AND THE MUSIC.
Ah – the Epic music fan!! We love them! When Brand X started, the fan base was really limited to ‘collectors’. These were folks that wanted to have tracks because they weren’t supposed to, or were in love with a piece of music from a famous trailer that wasn’t available for purchase. We can thank so many people for changing this landscape and bringing epic emotional music to the forefront as a genre in the last decade, but for sure Two Steps From Hell were the ones that seemed to really catch the public’s imagination. They did it as composers and producers of music regardless of what famous trailer any given piece of music was attached to. It’s amazing to see what the public likes, and often it’s NOT the track I think it will be. We have released several public albums over the years and through our recent collaborations with Epic Music VN (a group of fans that have organized to promote epic music), we have released tracks from our back catalog chosen as favorites by the fans themselves. With the explosion of YouTube and the fan made trailer etc., we have seen a huge growth in the number of people that buy/trade/steal our tracks, but we try and embrace them all. I personally don’t care where or how the track was obtained, if I read a comment that a piece of music that I was involved in made someone 1/2 way around the world have a better day – wow, what a gift! That may sound cheesy, and of course we rely on people legally using our tracks to make a living and employ everyone who works with us, but first and foremost, I want people to love what we do!! I put passion and energy into everything I do, and it’s just amazing to think that the internet has provided me a virtual gallery to display my ‘art’ for so many to see! Some may hate it, call it low brow or base, but if it speaks to people, then who cares what the ‘educated’ think! Music is for everyone and we are so blessed to be able to share what we do – it really is an amazing age.