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For the typically rowdy rock band on the road, “scoring” might not necessarily have anything to do with film music. Yet over the last couple of decades of making music, a number of rock talents have made the career leap from arenas to scoring stages, and the ranks of today’s A-list composers include many with rock ‘n’ roll pedigrees. Randy Newman had a successful career as a songwriter and solo artist; Mark Mothersbaugh was a founder of Devo; and Danny Elfman started out in Oingo Boingo (a band that also included future composers Steve Bartek and Richard Gibbs). Trevor Rabin was a member of Yes; Stewart Copeland still drums with the Police; and Trevor Horn, a member of Buggles, and Hans Zimmer, who played with the band, helped launch MTV with the memorable “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
Film and television work still have strong attractions for a newer generation of rock songwriters and musicians: a chance to stretch artistically, an alternative to life on the road and perhaps even a steadier paycheck. Technology has made it possible for almost any musician to develop composing chops in a home studio, and the prevalence of nontraditional scoring approaches in Hollywood projects would seem to open the composer door to a wider range of talents than ever before. But writing for a record and writing to picture are still very different skills, and the transition from rocker to composer can be a tricky one.
“For me, it’s been a natural transition — but a slow natural transition,” says Roddy Bottum, who had just about as much success as a rocker could hope for during his 16 years as a keyboardist and songwriter with Faith No More. Bottum still rocks as a member of the band Imperial Teen but has also developed a composing career, with credits that include Whitewater Films’ “Kabluey” and “Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned” for PBS’ “American Masters” series. “I was coming from a band that had sold millions of records, so I assumed that I’d get work quickly,” he explains. “I learned that the band cachet gets you a little respect in your first interview, but it doesn’t guarantee work. And when you do get work, you have to put your ego aside. You have to get used to people saying, ‘No, that’s not right,’ which you may not have ever heard in a band. My bands have built careers out of doing things on their own terms, but you certainly don’t build a career in film composing that way.”
Film music agent Laura Engel of Kraft-Engel Management made a rock-to-film move in her own career, gradually shifting from Oingo Boingo’s manager to Elfman’s agent. In addition to Elfman, her current clients include Nick Urata of the band DeVotchka and songwriter Michael Penn, who are both looking to develop their composing careers. “When you’re creating music as a recording artist, for yourself or your band, it’s all about you,” Engel observes. “You are the Elvis. When you’re creating music for a film, the director and the producers and the studio are the Elvis. The talent and creativity it takes in each situation may be similar, but it’s two very different disciplines to work in. No matter how talented the musician, writing a song and writing a score are two very different crafts.”
Indeed, any number of great rock songs have been culled from a few chords and a verse-chorus-verse structure, but the musical mechanics of film composition are often more intricate, and even with orchestrators and support staff, the work can be daunting for a rocker working as a first-time composer. As a studio executive and music supervisor, Kathy Nelson, president of film music at Universal, has worked with such successful rockers-turned-composers as Elfman, Rabin and Wendy & Lisa (1995’s “Dangerous Minds”) — but she has also seen some stumbles.
“It’s a sexy idea for any musician, and a lot of them say they want to be composers,” Nelson says. “But a lot of times, a musician doesn’t realize that the nuts and bolts of composing are very complicated, and that the work can be harder, more time-consuming and maybe more tedious than they might think. You don’t just watch a movie and play along with it. It’s a matter of working in very different formats, and to have someone who’s made a career as an artist become work-for-hire isn’t always easy. Then again, sometimes you discover that someone you thought of as a pop star or a rock ‘n’ roller was really a composer waiting to happen.”
That tag once fit Charlie Clouser, whose recent composer credits include NBC’s “Las Vegas,” CBS’ “Numbers” and all four of Lionsgate’s “Saw” films. Clouser studied composition and electronic music as a college student and went on to work as a tech assistant for composer Cameron Allan on the TV series “The Equalizer” before he was “sidetracked” by a career in rock ‘n’ roll. He spent most of the ’90s playing with industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails and went on to work as a producer and remixer for acts such as White Zombie, Ministry and Marilyn Manson. When he first met with the “Saw” filmmakers, he realized he had a particularly good shot at the composer’s job. “They started showing me footage, and at first I was just hoping I could keep my Egg McMuffin down, but they had temped in music I had done with NIN and Ministry, so I knew from the start I could give them what they wanted.”
Clouser says that a background in electronics-heavy rock was actually great training for his film and TV work. “Working with a crazy level of detail and making sure that everything is timed properly and always hitting the cuts so that everything lays beautifully — that’s directly bred out of the ultra-detail-oriented, programming-based rock ‘n’ roll I was a part of. And frankly, sitting with a blank click track and trying to write a rock song feels a lot harder to me now. I like working with the road map of story and characters. Show me the markers, tell me what the music has to do, and let’s get down to business.”
The intense day-to-day work process and must-hit deadlines of scoring can be a very new experience for some musicians. “It’s almost like having a proper job,” laughs Sondre Lerche, a recording artist who did his first composer work creating the score for Disney’s “Dan in Real Life.” “You’re part of a team, and you’re relying on people, and they’re relying on you, and you have to show up in the morning and work together to get things done. But it was wonderful to be a small part of something so much bigger than a record. And it was actually a very enjoyable challenge to shift from expressing myself to helping (director) Peter Hedges express what he wanted to communicate.”
Lerche had the rare luxury of being brought on to the project by Hedges — a fan of his recorded work — when the script was still being developed. The first-time composer was around as actors were cast and began crafting their roles, was on set for much of the filming, and was able to work very closely with Hedges in devising the tone and scope of the film’s mix of original song and score. By the time the film was being edited, Lerche was leading a double life, touring and promoting his own “Phantom Punch” album and spending any spare time in the editing suite with Hedges. “I really got an education in the whole process from script to test screenings,” Lerche says. “I know the composer isn’t often that much a part of things, but it was perfect for my first time out.”
The ability to serve a filmmaker’s or producer’s vision rather than be inspired by a personal muse might be the biggest emotional transition a rocker-turned-composer has to make. But some musicians are clearly invigorated by the chance to make music that supports a narrative rather than playing a starring role. “It’s actually kind of liberating to create music that isn’t so much about me,” says Anna Waronker, formerly of the band That Dog and a current solo artist whose composing credits include the canceled ABC series “Help Me Help You” and the forthcoming films “What We Do Is Secret” and “All Ages Night.” “I love the collaborative part of the process, and it’s frequently a pleasant surprise to hear the music that comes out of you when you’re trying to give a director or producer what they want. Some of the music I’ve done for film and TV are actually some of my favorite things I’ve ever written.”
The way a piece of music eventually gets used in film and television might also require some ego adjustment for those used to being in the spotlight. “As a songwriter, you never think about the fact that the sound of a helicopter or a car chase might drown out the downbeat of the chorus,” says Jay Gruska, who was a major-label solo artist, a touring member of Three Dog Night and a staff songwriter for Screen Gems before developing a composing career that has included the TV series “Lois & Clark,” “Charmed” and the CW’s “Supernatural.” “You have to be aware that the music you’re creating is in a supporting role and is not just music in and of itself anymore. You’re not going to write anything so perfect that they decide to mute the dialogue and just let the music play.”
Competition for film and TV work has led some rockers to take an unconventional approach to getting a foot in the studio door. John Crooke has been a writer and performer with the bands Lamps and Jolene, and when he developed an interest in furthering a composing career, he decided to stick with a group approach. With fellow musicians Chris Phillips and Peele Wimberley and sound designer Rhan Small, Crooke co-founded I-40 Soundworks, a music collective that recently completed a second season of scoring Comedy Central’s “Lil’ Bush.” “We’d all been through the cycle of record, tour for eight months, repeat,” Crooke says. “We wanted to find another way to get our music out there other than making a demo reel and crossing fingers, so we pooled our experience, our resources and our talents — just the way we would in a band.”
If a rock musician does get busy working in film and TV, do they miss the thrills of the rock life? “The idea of being on the road with my own band lost it’s appeal a long time ago,” says Andy Paley, whose rock career ranges from recording as a member of the Paley Brothers to collaborations with Madonna, the Ramones and Brian Wilson. More recently, he’s worked as a film and television composer, with a strong affinity for animated series such as Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” and Cartoon Newtork’s “Camp Lazlo” and “My Gym Partner’s a Monkey.” “There was a time when a tour sounded exciting, but now I get much more enthusiastic about writing music for cartoons.” Paley does still occasionally rock out on stage — as the bandleader for special live performances of SpongeBob’s band, the Hi-Seas.
Clouser doesn’t miss too much of his former rock ‘n’ roll life, either.
“Believe it or not, you really can get tired of eating $35 cheeseburgers in hotel rooms. I like being at home and working on the things I’m working on. I’m a happy lab rat. I’d love the chance eventually to do some different things with the music — it’d be nice to compose a film score that wasn’t dark and dense and loud. But, that said, I love what I’m doing, and I’ll be perfectly happy working on ‘Saw IX.'”
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