Interview with Jay Gruska

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8DIO Artist Spotlight. Answers by Jay Gruska / Questions by Troels Folmann. 2015.

Introduction:

Jay Gruska is a very talented and consummate career composer, producer & songwriter. While best known for his television & film work; Supernatural, Beverly Hills 90210, Charmed and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (Emmy nominated for Best Main Title Theme Music) Jay has flourished on all sides of the industry. Starting out as a singer/songwriter and an artist’s recording contract with ABC Dunhill Records while still in college, followed by 2 albums for Warner Brothers Records, he moved into and across all mediums. His acclaimed career has garnered 9 ASCAP Awards, 3 Prime-Time Emmy Award nominations and chart-topping songs across many genres.

Landing a recording contract while a junior at UCLA must have given you a new perspective on things. Did you move into music full-time at this point?

Yes I did, although other than having somewhat of a knack for, and a burning desire to write good songs, I had no idea what I was doing. I was deeply into my music theory classes and cutting political science classes to go to the practice rooms and write music. I didn’t know anyone in the music business and really only knew colleagues from high-school and college that were either music majors or singer/songwriters. We were all just trying to get some chops.

I was lucky enough to get a record deal but I was quite naive. When asked by the record company what approach I wanted to take for the album, I only thought to say that I wanted to work with great musicians…people I dug whose names I’d seen on many records. Between Michael Omartian, Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, Ed Greene, David Hungate…etc, etc., my own musicality was enriched by their stellar musicianship. After making that first solo record (Gruska on Gruska, embarrassing title which the record company thought up and I didn’t know enough to insist on a cooler one) I met and worked with Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, Steve Lukather, Mike Porcaro, Carlos Vega, Mike Landau, Lee Sklar and several other greats and it began an even more dedicated period of writing and recording for me. The brilliance of their collective rhythm section and arranging talents and experience was a huge eye opener for me. Being around musicians like that just made me want to live in that world all the time.

Your Ex Father-in-Law is the wonderful and venerable composer, John Williams. Did you get to experience any of his work firsthand?

I was lucky enough to go to almost every scoring session he did in Los Angeles from E.T. through Schindler’s List. Personally, I’ve never met or observed a bigger musical genius – both inspiring and utterly intimidating.

You grew up during a transitional time for music in the ’50’s + 60’s; new incarnations of classic styles coming in and older ones going out. How do you suppose this affected your overall musical sensibilities?

The combination of the changing musical era and having parents that liked and listened to every style of music, including Big Band, Latin & Jazz standards is what made me interested in a wide range of idioms and harmonic language. Although I love pop music (especially of the 60’s), The Beatles changed everything for me, like for so many others, I was always interested in wider more varied harmonic possibilities, from the jazz greats to classical composers like Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev, Mendelsohn, Elgar etc.. Ultimately, that additional harmonic and coloration interest is what led me towards film composition.

Were you a British Invasion fan? If so, what bands did you find compelling?

Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. Oh, and did I mention the Beatles? Of course many other things inspired me but British Invasion was huge for me…all Clapton incarnations, The Hollies, Spencer Davis Group, The Kinks, Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Zombies…too many to list. At the same time, I was obsessed with all the Stax Records and Motown Records artists. Groove became a big thing to me, and the Motown and Stax pocket was deep and wide.

I also thought Paul Simon was a songwriting standard bearer! Paul and Stevie Wonder were staples for me in the 70’s. By the mid-70’s, Steely Dan was a huge focus for me as well. The mid-70’s was also my earliest memory of taking deeper notice of what film music’s function and impact was, even though I wouldn’t actually jump into it for another decade or so.

Your offspring have clearly inherited the music genes and are doing very exciting things with their band, The Belle Brigade, opening and playing with Ray LaMontagne this past summer. Outside the vagaries of the music business it must be wonderful to see them succeed.

I just experienced the Belle Brigade getting a standing ovation from 5000+ folks at the Greek Theatre in L.A. and it choked me up more than anything since they were born! Barbara and Ethan have 2 records out and are serious about their songwriting. Their chops on the their respective instruments are deep and soulful, not to mention singing like they share the same lungs! They’re more interested in being real artists than stardom. I’m a very proud Dad.

Share with us what stands out in your recollections of staff songwriting with Screen Gems and Universal and how they differed.

Being a staff songwriter is essentially the same anywhere one goes. With the exception of relationships with key individuals at any particular company, what remains constant in most staff songwriting gigs is that you are paid a monthly or yearly amount and you write X number of songs. It was mostly a really exciting period (almost 15 years) because of the many collaborations the publishing companies set up for me. Some of those collaborations either did not have chemistry or were not fruitful, but the ones that were fruitful were a great experience whether the songs succeeded or not. I was fortunate to have few big hits and it sweetened the ride. The main point was that I was always writing…even if half of it was crap. I tell young songwriters that they need to write 100 songs to get a couple of good ones out of it…if they’re lucky.

You also joined Geffen Records which became such a powerhouse in the industry. What were the expectations of the songwriting teams there and how were assignments handed down? Lastly, how was it decided what artists would get specific songs to record for the label?

To be accurate, I didn’t join Geffen records, I was signed to Geffen Music, which was their publishing company wing. Those couple of years produced a bunch of decent songs and one very big multi-platinum hit record by Amy Grant called, Good for Me.

Overall, how does staff songwriting work at a label? Does it align with the concept of …”a smaller piece of a bigger pie”?

Like any other publishing company, the staff writers were writing for any artist at any label. My songwriting, while at Geffen, wasn’t proprietary to Geffen Records.

You have achieved amazing success writing for artists (Michael and Jermaine Jackson, Robert Palmer, Amy Grant, Deniece Williams, Chicago, Bette Midler and on…) over varied and sometimes, seemingly, inverse genres while scoring very high in the charts in many of them. Do you posses a particular affinity with any specific musical style?

Although I am drawn to melodic pop and rock and R&B groove sensibilities, I really enjoy jumping styles a lot. I am lucky to have a chameleon-like musical point of view. Point me in a directions or style and I’ll immerse myself in it — live it, breathe it, and write it for a while. It’s been a decent quality to have for film scoring and all the variations that film music demands.

You have been a prolific television composer enduring some series over years of production (e.g., Supernatural, 200 episodes, 2005-present) among others. How do you keep finding fresh, creative pools of ideas to resource from?

Yes, I have been lucky to have several long running shows with international audiences. And yes, the challenge becomes how to reinvent the wheel after several years of a serial TV show. I can’t say I’m always successful, but I try to approach each episode as its own universe, its own movie. That definitely helps me keep things fresh. In the case of Supernatural (I alternate episodes with another composer – Christopher Lennertz) I’m now scoring my 100th episode and aside from drawing whatever inspiration or ideas I can get from the shows themselves (the writing, acting, directing, cinematography, lighting etc.) I also look to a constantly evolving mix of colors that I use, both from the handful of virtuoso live players on every episode and the various sample libraries that form the basis of any given show’s template.

I own many 8DIO libraries from piano, to dobro, mandolin, all the CAGE bundles (an enormous palette for Supernatural!) and most recently and delightedly, all the Agitato and Grandiose Legato Strings which are now a go to! Troels and Co. have really figured out how to embrace the attainable perfection of a sample library with the slight imperfection and slop of human nuance and performance…very happy with that!

Are you able to push out high quality work while under pressure to do so? 

I think I would have been fired long ago if not. But high quality can be a subjective endeavor. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. I think anyone who scores episodic television develops a “muscle” for writing and delivering what must be done, in less time than is ever fair. It is both a joy and a challenge…thrilling and scary. Kinda like life. In the end, hindsight almost always leaves me with some regret about any given cue or cues. “Wish I had that counter line” or, “Would have liked another few hours to ponder melody, harmonic choice or orchestration density” etc., etc. Oddly that is where I tend to feel the time pressure, later…not while I’m in the thick of it.

Share with us a bit about your creative process, your inspirations and how they have changed over the years along with your experience(s).

My creative process only contains one mystery. It starts every time, no matter the genre or gig with first thinking about it for a while and then sitting at a piano or keyboard and, extemporaneously, noodling in some direction or another. It is often quite lame and frustrating but all I ever need is a one or two bar cell that indicates a possibility. The mystery, in hindsight, is always, “How did I get here” when I finish a song or cue. I still don’t know the answer and I don’t really care. The question of “how” remains wonderfully compelling as an unanswered one. I subscribe, in large part, to that old adage that, “Composing is two percent inspiration and ninety-eight perspiration”. I have prodigious sweat glands!

How did you make the jump into writing for theatrical productions? What has been the most distinct difference writing for the stage? 

I’ve been involved in writing musicals since the early 80’s. Which is to say, it’s a long process and it wasn’t until the 90’s that I experienced my first small production, and another 20 years after that, that I experienced an actual production in a real theatre…so, this is a true labor of love. I don’t have the same expectation or need for commercial success in the theatre world. It is more of an outlet for my songwriting which I do much less of these days since being so busy with film/TV scoring. That is not to say I wouldn’t want a hit show, I just don’t stress it either way. The writing of the piece is my payoff.

Working with long time collaborator, Paul Gordon, makes the journey the pot of gold. I really mean that. That said, writing a song and a song score for a musical is both challenging, exciting and very different from writing a pop song or any song just for the song’s sake, or as they also call it, “absolute music”. One must serve the story and often replace what would be a dialogue scene with a song that informs and progresses the story. That in itself is the primary difference, but also in terms of musical style or idiom that must consistently have a connection to the theme of the piece, the era, the character who’s singing, sometimes the geographic location, etc.. Pretty fun stuff if you’re into that sort of thing.

When the standard you’re holding yourself to is set by artists like Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Frank Loesser, the bar is very high, but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

Tell us about your current projects and what has you excited.

I’m just finishing scoring an episode of Supernatural (the 200th of the series, my 100th) which I also wrote, arranged and produced 2 songs for. Having a blast. On the musical theatre front, I have 2 shows heading towards regional productions, but it is too soon to share any more details.

Over this productive career of yours, thus far, are there any projects/works you look forward to covering?

I have been asked a lot in the last decade or so if I would do another record as a singer/songwriter. Although I’m very interested from a writing, arranging and producing standpoint, my singing muscle is a bit atrophied, so I have to either get my chops back to some reasonable degree, or just shut up about it. Other than that, I will just keep doing what I do. At some point I’d also like to write a few songs for various artists again.

Do you have any individual or band related works waiting to be (re)released? 

There is a possibility of a second Supernatural soundtrack CD release, only this time with some songs I’ve written for the show (Lennertz too) as well as some other new themes.

Are you doing any live gigs these days? 

Nope. I’m quite content in my studio and going to Belle Brigade concerts:)

What is your go-to rig (right now) for writing and creating?

My rig has been fairly consistent the last couple of years in that I have 2 souped-up Mac towers (fully loaded 12 cores) running Vienna Ensemble Pro with many libraries and sound sources that make up a palette of about 250 instruments (mostly orchestral choirs) always at the ready.

I have a decent mic collection and a simple but elegant A to D chain – Apogee Rosetta 800, Manley Slam, Massenburg EQ and various other pieces of outboard gear.

8DIO 1928 Steinway Piano is my go-to piano for writing and recording. I have both, Pro-Tools and Digital Performer, but virtually all my writing and scoring gets done in DP — I have owned every version since about a year or two after it came out…back in the 1900’s!

What artists that have performed your work have you most enjoyed?

I guess the most thrilling experience was to hear Michael Jackson sing, Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’, in a duet with his brother Jermaine at the peak of Jackson mania in the mid-80’s. It was on the radio multiple times a day for a year or two and it never stopped being exciting to hear.

I also really liked the way David Foster produced, What You’re Missing, for Chicago 16. Classic Chicago horn arrangement on my tune was too cool. Oddly, I had a number one country song with, Both to Each Other, and although I thought my song was a bit corny, the arrangement, production and vocal approach on that record was really clever and I dug it. It wasn’t written as a country song but the country audience embraced it. I don’t think it’s possible to not enjoy hearing one’s song on the radio or live in performance by an excellent artist.

Out of all of the songs you have written for other artists which final productions, do you feel, were as close to the original intent? And, were there others that exceeded your imagination?

I would say again, Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin’, Michael/Jermaine Jackson and, What You’re Missing, Chicago – were as good or better than the original intent.

Tell us about your experience with 8DIO products and how you discovered them.

Steve Tavaglione, woodwind and EWI player extraordinaire, whom I’ve worked with for a couple of decades, is the first person to turn me on to Tonehammer and then 8DIO. The work done by 8DIO is always both, a sonic standout and a particularly great “human articulation vibe” standout.

What works have they appeared in? 

Although for most of my scoring career so far, I’ve always been on either several projects simultaneously, or have been lucky enough to go from one series right into another. For the last three years I’ve only done Supernatural so the 8DIO libraries I have are, literally, all over that series. So far, my fav instruments include Legacy Piano, Agitato Grandiose Violins, Violas & Cellos, CAGE Strings, Brass & Woodwinds and Dobro and Mandolin Strummer. I will be looking at the wonderful woodwind categories next.

Is there a particular favorite 8DIO library or instrument you enjoy working with and anything you might like to see?

I love the Mandolin Strummer for its vibe and relaxed groove and just because it’s my most recent purchase. I’m really liking the Agitato Grandiose Legato Strings Bundle! As far as anything I’d like to see from you guys…you’ve been doing just great, thank you! I suppose your various takes on percussion grooves would always be an interesting thing – including orchestral, world music and otherwise.

What are your creative ambitions at this stage in your career?

I would love to do some longer form film – movies, mini-series, etc. but I don’t have too much control over that. What I do have control over is continuing to write, arrange and produce – whatever it is. If I’m not on a scoring gig, I’ll write songs. I don’t believe in retirement:)!