Interview with Chris Bacon
8Dio Artist Spotlight. Answers by Chris Bacon / Questions by Troels Folmann. August 2014
Chris Bacon has been a very busy and successful composer for film and television since 2007. His work has been featured in KING KONG, THE DARK KNIGHT, I AM LEGEND, BATES MOTEL, SMASH, SOURCE CODE and the compelling war veteran documentary, HIGH GROUND. He has worked extensively with James Newton Howard as well as Danny Elfman and Harry Gregson-Williams. He won his first Emmy Award nomination for his work on NBC’s, SMASH.
Share with us your formal music education and how it has played a role in your success.
I received a Bachelor’s Degree in music composition from Brigham Young University and completed the Scoring For Motion Pictures and Television program at USC. Education’s role in my career is difficult to measure but I feel that both schools are very much a part of what I offer and were invaluable in deepening the musical well from which I try to draw.
Were you aware, growing up, that music was going to influence your future in some significant way?
For as long as I can remember being asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” my answer has been “film composer”. I grew up playing keyboards and woodwinds in seemingly every possible ensemble at just about every level, from amateur klezmer wedding bands to highly professional live and recording gigs. I feel this was every bit as valuable as the formal education mentioned earlier because of the time spent on the other side of the music stand and the exposure it provided to such a wide variety of music styles. Truthfully, there was never really any possibility that I would pursue anything BUT music because for all my shortcomings with it, I’m much worse at everything else.
At what point, and how, did you become aware that you possessed the talent to compose music at such a high level?
Well, that’s a question I still struggle with, as I’m often positive that whatever I just wrote is the worst thing I have (or anybody else has) ever done. The first movie I ever wrote music for (a tiny sliver) was Peter Jackson’s, KING KONG, which was a pretty surreal experience. It didn’t seem to sink the film, so I’m still at it.
In my opinion, talent is a strange word most often (over)used in the context of people who work in arts and athletics. We don’t usually hear or speak about talented doctors or mechanics or teachers– skilled seems to be the word more used in that context. There is no doubt that there are many in every field who are more naturally pre-disposed to excel at whatever their trade is, but for some reason artists and athletes seem to be the ones we save the word “talented” for.
I find that most of the people who are able to make a career in this industry are those who are able to develop their ability beyond the descriptor of “talent” to that of “skill”. Even then I find that the most successful are those who can brew the right concoction of hard work AND tenacity AND social skill AND technological mastery AND dramatic prowess AND musical ability. There are definitely those who possess more natural ability in any one of these areas than others but I don’t know anybody who has built a successful career only because they possessed the musical talent.
Truthfully, I don’t consider myself especially talented, and I’m not sure I’m skilled enough to consistently belong among some of the best in the industry. However, to this point I’ve been able to make it work with a combination of the things I listed above, and I’m very happy to be able to continue to pay my mortgage.
What was your first “break” into the industry and how did it play out?
I would say attending the USC program and the immersion to the industry that it allowed. That’s where a lot of relationships started that have proven to be very rewarding both professionally and personally. While at USC, I met another talented (there’s that word again!) composer not in the program named Pieter Schlosser (who has written several great demos for 8DIO products!) who helped facilitate a job interview with James Newton Howard. While I learned a ton from school, my real-world education came under James. It felt like I was on scholarship because I was being paid to learn what it means to be a film composer at the pinnacle of the industry. James gave me my first opportunities on projects that he couldn’t fully take on for a variety of reasons and his endorsement was very comforting to producers who appreciated the work still being performed under his “umbrella”.
Heading into professional composing who were your influencers and have they changed with all of the experiences you now posses?
This is probably too difficult a question for me to answer concisely. Any names I list only represent a fraction of the number who have actually influenced my musical perceptions and aspirations.
I’m not ashamed to embrace the cliché that John Williams was one of my heroes growing up and my opinion of him hasn’t changed after 10 years in Los Angeles. I loved Bernard Herrmann, Bruce Broughton and a lot of Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner and Alan Silvestri. I was drawn to John Adams, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Ottorino Respighi and Debussy. Other important influences were Duke Ellington, Nelson Riddle (not technically known for composing), Pat Metheny, Stevie Wonder, Maria Schneider, The Indigo Girls and Miles Davis.
Not much has changed in my appreciation for those listed above. If anything I’m even more in awe of what they do and have done, particularly Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Bernstein. I think John Powell is one of the most versatile and virtuosic composers I know of and would add him, Alexandre Desplat, Jennifer Higdon and Gordon Goodwin as some of my current musical crushes. I obviously owe a lot to James Newton Howard and his influence is definitely part of my makeup. I would be honored if anybody were to say they heard any of the above influences in my music.
What styles of music inspire you and what artists do you enjoy listening to for entertainment?
I don’t think there’s a style that inspires me more than others. I went to a drum and bugle corps show last week (DCI) and was completely blown away by the level of musicianship and creativity in the performances, composition and arrangements. It may seem odd to be inspired by that but I truly was. I love satellite radio and things like Pandora (all controversy over artist royalties aside) just for seeing what pops up. Yesterday I turned on the 80’s SiriusXM station while house cleaning and didn’t stop smiling for the hour and a half it was on.
I find that great music doesn’t necessarily inspire me musically but spiritually and emotionally. If I happen to gain some musical inspiration as a result, all the better! Modern pop music gets a bad rap (some deservedly so) but there is still a lot of great music being made across all genres. I’m listening to Maria Schneider’s Sky Blue album right now and finding it hard to concentrate on these answers because I’m so drawn into the music. However, other times I just can’t resist a little Katy Perry. In small, hyper-compressed and auto-tuned doses.
You came on to SOURCE CODE late in the production with a looming deadline. What was it like to come into a production that was headed in a specific musical direction and keep the consistent aspects of the score within your influence?
A composer being brought in late happens so often these days that I’m not sure my story is unique. It wasn’t necessarily headed in a specific musical direction when I was hired (which is part of why I came on so late!) so it wasn’t too hard to be consistent because I wasn’t trying to chase conflicting ideas or concepts. I was very fortunate to have a great director and editor whose notes and direction were generally helpful, focused, and consistent. Strong, supportive leadership and collaboration goes a long way towards a successful project.
Was Bernard Herrmann (the famed Hitchcock film composer) a reference point for you on Source Code?
At the time, it was not a conscious effort other than a discussion that the Main Titles were a great opportunity to do something bold (a-la Herrmann) to introduce what is, in a lot of ways, a very intimate movie. However, that was the first cue I wrote, and it rubbed off on the rest of the score. There are definitely some harmonic nods and textures that crop up in the film that I think are more a by-product of his long-term influence on me than my conscious effort to reference him specifically in that score.
You did 26 episodes of Smash and 20 episodes of Bates Motel. That’s seems like a tremendous amount of music to cook up. What kind of deadlines are you working under when writing a full season? What is your process?
As any composer working in TV can attest, it IS a lot of work. Episodes are typically turned around within about a week’s time with some weeks definitely easier than others. For example, BATES MOTEL may have 18 minutes or 38 minutes of score in a given week. Unfortunately because of network deadlines, the amount of time to complete the work usually doesn’t expand to accommodate a greater amount of music. Those can be rough weeks.
The process is one that most of your users are probably familiar with. For BATES, the music editor and I will spot the episode with its editor, a producer or two, and the show’s supervising editor. I’ll go away and furiously start making noise, sending a couple of batches of demos as I make progress. They’ll give their notes, I’ll address them and send the approved cues on to be quickly orchestrated (often the night before the session) and we’ll record the strings the night before the episode’s final dub. Rinse and repeat. Or sometimes just repeat because there’s no time to rinse.
Where do the ideas keep coming from for so many episodes?
Excellent question. If I knew the answer I would probably get far fewer headaches. It can be a real challenge with TV because once a series is established it’s often temped with music from previous episodes. Sometimes it’s great for thematic and tonal consistency (not to mention those occasions where it’s appropriate to re-use a cue) but other times it can make it more challenging to expand and evolve the sound of the show. I’m going to try to write a bunch of new music before the start of season 3 to give to the editors to see if we can help inject some new material in as the tone of the show darkens.
You have worked with some of the most honored composers in Hollywood, including James Newton Howard on KING KONG, THE DARK KNIGHT and I AM LEGEND. James is known for his quick pace. How did you find working with such an iconic and established veteran?
James is faster than anybody I’ve ever seen and possesses such a deep well of innate musicality that it sometimes just doesn’t feel fair because it’s, frankly, not a level playing field between him and me and I mean that in a completely complimentary way to James. However, his gifts are matched only by his work ethic and focus and when he shows up to work, he really shows up to WORK. The way he uses technology and continues to evolve is impressive and his ability to seamlessly move between something epically orchestral like MALEFICENT and something more electronic and visceral like MICHAEL CLAYTON is matched by few in the industry. As I said earlier, I owe a lot to him and am very grateful for the time I was able to spend as part of his team. To this day, I still mentally wear one of those WWJD bracelets and occasionally find myself asking “What would James do?”
Have you found that collaborating with other composers creates a broader creative palette to work from? Does it, generally, hasten the process?
I appreciate this question because the notion of composers hiring other composers for help still, sometimes, has a bit of a stigma about it. The truth is, I don’t know a single composer who hasn’t had to seek outside help for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s simply for a creative or technological specialty to flesh out a composer’s idea in a style that’s not his/her strength, other times it’s just to divide and conquer so the job can get done. The practice is widely known and accepted in the industry because of the nature of the job of film/TV composer. It doesn’t necessarily make a score any less composed by the credited composer than a 2nd Unit Director makes a film any less directed by the credited director. That’s not to say there aren’t those who may take it too far so they can accept work they have no intention of doing but generally it’s employed as a necessity.
I have been fortunate to work around some of the biggest names in the business and each one has amazed me with their varying strengths and idiosyncrasies, as well as some very interesting similarities; primarily of the healthy, quasi-neurotically obsessive variety.
If I’m working subordinately to another composer it’s my job to bend my sound and instincts to match theirs. That’s a tremendous challenge, and can be quite fun! So, if anything, I would say it broadens my personal creative palette, further deepening the well from which I can hopefully continue to draw in the future.
Sometimes it can be useful to offer a different musical point of view on an existing theme. To help keep it fresh in a way that might be more challenging for the original composer who has lived with it a certain way for a long time. I’ve definitely had this experience where themes that I’ve composed have been improved by someone else’s fresh take on it.
I think the answer to the second part of your question is: it depends. Sometimes the only way to meet a particularly tight deadline is to throw a bunch of people at it. Sometimes multiple people are brought on because multiple ideas for one scene are required without the time for one person to provide them all, usually when the direction of a score is uncertain. Other times, additional composers (like me) can actually slow down the process because of the time it can take to get a cue to sound as if it came from the lead composer.
I frequently work with a former USC classmate named Gad Zeitune who is an incredible composer in his own right and will undoubtedly be making his own big splash in the near future. Hopefully not TOO near though because he’s definitely saved me on more than a few occasions and probably will again.
Do you find collaborations to become committee-like or a burgeoning and melding of individual ideals that shine?
I think collaborations most often happen out of necessity where getting the job done on time is only possible with help. However, there have definitely been times where collaboration absolutely allows for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. I find that my work is often elevated when working with composers who are better than me and it has provided opportunities to create music that I might not have working completely alone. Working with Marc Shaiman on SMASH comes to mind as an example.
Stuart Michael Thomas is another compatriot that you have done a lot of work with. Do you maintain traditional roles when working together or is it different with each project?
Stu and I started working together at James’ and have maintained both a wonderful friendship and productive working relationship since. He’s a fantastic guitar player and composer who is often my first call when I need something guitar-oriented that I just can’t fake on my keyboard.
I’m not sure what the traditional roles might be but he usually gets to be the Jedi Knight wielding The Force and an elegant light saber while I’m stuck being the storm trooper fumbling with a clumsy blaster that never hits its target. Soon the tables will turn and his comeuppance will be sweet.
When inspiration strikes how do you memorialize it?
I’m not often “struck” with inspiration. If I was, I would probably memorialize it with a granite monument of some sort, maybe along with some lavender peonies and a large fern.
Most often, the decent ideas are the ones I have to work for. Thought…trial and error…step away…more thought…more trial and error…maybe walk my dog around the block. As Jerry Seinfeld said in a recent Reddit AMA: “Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.” As much as I conceptually agree with him, it doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes get stuck.
I do find that on occasion I’ll be just checking that everything’s triggering in my system, and randomly trigger a note combination on an unanticipated sound and become completely derailed by some unexpected idea. I’ve learned several times that I need to just put whatever I have open into record and save every idea because no matter how clear it is at the time, I’ll never remember it later.
There has been the unfortunate occasion when I’ve had to get my phone out on the 405 and sing (bellow) into the voice recorder when an idea comes, usually a variation to an idea currently in progress in the studio. I’m pretty sure this is illegal in California so I don’t necessarily endorse it.
What are some of the more complex scores you have been challenged by? How do you find your way through them?
Every score has its challenges, and surprisingly enough, I find that the ones that seem most clear and obvious at the start have a tendency to become the most vexing. I’ve scored several interesting documentaries that required small scores (as they often do) and those can be more difficult than the large, seemingly more complex orchestral scores. Trying to find a compelling combination of sounds and ideas that doesn’t overwhelm the subject or tenor of the film and then employing them in a way that doesn’t feel melodramatic can take a lot of work. I think Alexandre Desplat, Christophe Beck, and Theodore Shapiro are some of the best in the business at crafting scores that are small in scale but don’t feel underwhelming musically, if that makes any sense at all.
Finding my way through those challenges often requires a tremendous amount of focus and energy and it’s in these instances where talent doesn’t usually solve the problem. Sometimes the first idea is the best one, but other times, it’s realizing when it’s time to walk away from whatever the first idea was and delete the couple of hours of work that went into trying to develop it. I find that takes more discipline than just about anything else I do; being willing to Select-All and Delete a turd of an idea that I’m trying to polish with slick production, shiny effects and impressive percussion. Not listening to that nagging little instinctual voice in my head can end up costing even more time by putting off the inevitable and embracing the lazy (I say pragmatic) voice that knows I just don’t want to start over.
Having said all that, sometimes the ideas I thought were awful at first end up being the most beloved by the filmmakers. It’s this kind of working environment that causes so many composers to have involuntary twitches and high therapy bills.
Tell us what projects you are currently working on and are excited about?
I’m in between seasons for BATES MOTEL which I’m still very proud to be a part of. I just finished recording the score for the Jungle Cruise at Tokyo Disneyland which was a blast. I would be very happy if the rest of my career consisted of working on Disney attractions. I’m just starting an interesting documentary called SOAKED IN BLEACH which makes the case that the Curt Cobain death investigation should be reopened because of some compelling evidence that suggests the argument for suicide might not be as conclusive as originally thought.
Please share with us your experiences with 8DIO products and how you are using them.
I’ve really only recently started using 8DIO products but the ones I have are fantastic. I really love the All Tuned Percussion bundle. Instruments like the Wrenchenspiel and Polyphon have been very useful. You can definitely expect to hear some elements from CAGE tucked into some of what I’ll be doing on BATES MOTEL. I also just bought Ambient Guitars with the hopes it can be helpful on SOAKED IN BLEACH.
How about any instruments that you would like to see sampled in the future?
I need really great, comprehensive, PLAYABLE solo strings- including double bass. I’m also still looking for a great, playable big band library. Maybe a comprehensive drum kit with stick alternatives (brushes, rods, mallets, etc), and a nice ethnic winds collection.