A Composer in Conversation: Steve Bartek

Interview conducted by Brandon Drake, Bradley Fowler, and Dillon Selph on February 26, 2023.

Where do you want to start? I remember at five wetting my pants in the snow and not ever wanting to go out into the snow ever again. And I'm so glad that my family moved to California. So that's as far back as I can remember.

[moving to a relevant direction]…it was back in junior high school…no, it was in elementary school. They came around and had people show instruments and I glommed onto the flutist. I liked the sound of the flute. And also the girl sitting next to me wanted to take flute lessons too, so we signed up for a class with this teacher in elementary school. There was a little orchestra, actually. Surprisingly, they had good group classes. I remember going home first with a mouthpiece only to show you how to make an embouchure. So that is what sparked it—it was seeing musicians play in front of me.

I moved out here [to Los Angeles] when I was five. I think it was the third grade when I was about eight that I started taking flute lessons from this guy. He was a really, really good teacher, you know, really patient and knew how to direct you where to go. And I actually got good on the flute, until he quit teaching and went to Camarillo, which is a mental hospital…he was doing that not as a patient, but doing music therapy. He gave up teaching for music therapy. So he was a real empathetic kind of guy. He knew how to get me to actually want to play the flute. The awful thing is I don’t remember his name.

And then, of course, The Beatles showed up. My brother had taken accordion lessons, but when The Beatles showed up, he got guitar lessons. So, our house, my parents were...my dad I think played clarinet and guitar when he was a kid, but never took, you know, extensive lessons or anything. My house was filled with polka music. We were a polka family from Ohio. Not fully, actually. One of the records I remember my parents letting my brother and I play was, ‘The Song of the Nairobi Trio.’ You guys have no idea what that is. Do you know who…I can't think of his name now…he had a comedy show. He was married to Edie Adams…Sid Caesar…not Sid Caesar…Ernie Kovacs! Ernie Kovacs had a TV show and one of the skits was three apes miming a piece of music and the piece of music was “The Song of the Nairobi Trio.” It was actually called “Solfege,” but it became called “The Song of the Nairobi Trio,” because on his TV show there was this gag of the Nairobi Trio playing this music. We had that record and I played the hell out of it. On the flipside was a thing called “An Accidental Slip on an Oriental Rug.” If you find either of those pieces of music, you'll understand a lot about what's in the back of my head a lot! [laughs] 

It was written by a harp player [Robert Maxwell] and has marimbas and it's just like this weird…they're both weird pieces of music. I remember playing that record non-stop until my brother got into Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley. So we had a couple of those records and that was the music that was on the record players between the ages of six and 12.

Am I going anywhere? [laughs]

Growing Up in L.A.

I grew up in the valley. Where we grew up is [now] Woodland Hills and at that point Warner Ranch was actually a ranch, which now is all malls and an industrial center. So if you actually had to go shopping, you had to go into Hollywood to find a real grocery store when we first moved out there. Where I grew up, we watched it all gentrify and change and blossom into what it is now. At the point where my parents moved there, it was out in the boonies.

When The Beatles showed up and my brother had guitar lessons, I used to sneak into his room and play guitar when he wasn't around. So I taught myself guitar by sneaking into my brother's room and playing his guitar. Then at one point, my brother stood up for me to my parents and my parents got me a guitar. The first guitar they got me I don't have, which I regret. My brother still has the first guitar he had. This is nonsense, but I had it for a while, I loved it. But I gave it back to him because he was retired and needed something to focus on. So I gave him back his guitar, so he'd start playing guitar again. 

These were guitars from a place…there was a place in downtown LA, it's long gone. I forget the name, it was on Main Street…I think...it was Eagle pawn shop. It was the musical pawn shop in LA. That’s where my brother got his guitar. I got my 1938 Epiphone Emperor there, actually I still have my Epiphone. I still have my three quarter size Gibson (ES145 ¾). We got them at this place and they were all one hundred, two hundred bucks back then. They're all worth about three or four thousand dollars now. They had good stuff in this pawn on Main Street. 

I forget where we are going…

I was not your average kid…well…maybe I was your average kid. All the kids were more outgoing. They were hitchhiking to concerts and the beach, I was lazier.  My brother did do that. So I missed a lot of good, good opportunities. For instance, there was a big concert at Devonshire Downs. I think now, I realize it was called the Newport Jazz Festival. Something where Jimi Hendrix, every band you'd ever think of in 1968 and ‘69 who was big, played a set there. I didn't go. All my friends went and I felt really bad and stupid. There was stuff happening that I usually missed.

Do you know who the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is? He was this meditation guru The Beatles followed. He came to Los Angeles and walked through my high school. For some reason they chose my high school, so I got to see him walk though my school, Taft High School–south of Ventura Boulevard, which was considered the richer area, as opposed north of Ventura which is the Canoga Park, less money area. At that time [mid 1960s], it was a mostly white school. We had like two two black students, I think, at that point.

Strawberry Alarm Clock

My neighbor was my brother's age, three years older than me. He took up the bass. After The Beatles came, everyone was trying to play guitars and basses. He'd come over and we would write songs together. He chose me instead of my brother, I think, because my brother was less interested in actually playing and I was. I would sit in my room and play the guitar while watching TV. I was always playing the guitar. So we wrote some songs. We would take names out of books from the library or something out of the paper and have a title or try to start a song. At one point, a friend of his had joined a band called Thee Sixpence, who then changed their name to The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and put out a record. They needed songs so George, my neighbor, told them we had written some. They brought us in one day to play the songs for them and they took all of them. We had four or five songs and they wanted them all ‘cuz they only had three or four songs that they had written themselves, but nothing else to fill up the album. So they asked George to play bass, because they weren’t really happy with the bass player they had anyway. They asked me to join the band, too. I spent the day recording with them. I got to play the flute, playing like two or three flute solos where I had, I think, one take each time. I sat the whole day watching them record, just enthralled to watch the process. 

Okay, so we were asked to join the band and George joined the band, but my mom wouldn't let me join the band. So I finished high school. I ended up playing in the band that George had been playing in [before Strawberry Alarm Clock]. They brought me in and I played bass. I took over his job as bass player for a while. Then at some point George and Randy, who were in Strawberry Alarm Clock for a year, made some money…they made some money, and it was actually the fact that they made money with the band that led to my parents allowing me to switch later…they allowed me to switch my major from pre-med to music when I first started college. So it had an influence. The fact that they did that and made money. My neighbor George bought a Jaguar that maybe drove for, you know, two or three days out of the whole time he had it. It sat out in front of his parents garage for years, not moving. As far as getting it repaired, it cost a lot of money. I guess. Sorry. That was a side story. Where was I? Oh yeah, Strawberry Alarm Clock.

After Strawberry Alarm Clock, Randy and George came back and we had another band for a while. We played the kind-of-big clubs. The Aquarius, it was called, or the Kaleidoscope. Something like that. With this band. We opened for a band called Ten Years After. We opened for the band that [later] became Chicago, who were called CTA at the time. Procol Harum and a band that was really big here called Love. It was kind of a big concert that happened when I was still in high school. This was a band made from the two guys that went into Strawberry Alarm Clock, then came back.

I was a science major–pre-med, physics, calculus. When I went to college [UCLA] I started out that way. I took a physics class, and a Calculus class. I didn't do well in English. I had to take the first college remedial class. If you didn’t have certain numbers on the English tests, you have to do one English writing class of some sort. By the end of the first year I was in the music department. I kind of attribute the fact that my parents didn't give me a lot of grief, to the fact that I had made money and they saw that there was livelihood to be made [with music], it could be done. I studied composition. Actually, the first year or so there, I met Burleigh Drummond…he became the drummer for Ambrosia, who I lost contact with for many years. There were a few  of us that hung around together that had rock and roll backgrounds in the middle of all this classical stuff. Burleigh Drummond was really driven. I've run into him since then and he's a wonderful guy and a really great drummer.

I remember Katherine Quittner, ‘cuz I was afraid of her. She became a music editor and left LA, because she was disgusted with it. I remember her ‘cuz she was really kind of brilliant, just talking with her. I remember Burleigh. I remember a guy named Steve Grom who was a representative at Fender for a while. The teachers…there's like three teachers I remember, Aldon Ashforth, Paul Chihara, and Paul Reale. [Reale] was my orchestration teacher. I remember him as…well…I remember learning a lot from him. 

I remember enjoying Reale’s class. I thought I came away from him with something. With Paul Chihara and Aldon Ashforth, they were kind of like, ‘do your own thing and I'll criticize you.’ That was less helpful to me, because I'm the kinda guy who, unless there's a real reason to do something, won't do it. Which is why I'm not a film composer. I'm not a composer full time. If I’ve got a project, I'll do it. I've got a focus. If left on my own…ehhhhhh. Which is what Chihara and Ashforth did [lack of focus]. I didn’t feel like I came away with much real information about the topic at hand. I graduated in ‘73. I had to stay an extra quarter to finish. For the first three years, I took as many music classes as I could because the degree program was ending so I had to finish while classes were still offered. And then after that, I was less interested. So I took fewer classes and ended up taking an extra half year.


The biggest light bulbs for me were Oliver Messiaen and Harry Partch. I was kind of Stravinsky driven, too. I was kind of a little fanatic about that. But when I discovered “Technique of My Language” by Messiaen, it just threw me into…I'm doing the right thing. And Harry Partch was just so off center that I completely fell in love with that kind of approach. There was a performance of Terry Riley’s “In C” done by practically the entire music department. It opened my ears. I mean, I couldn't last through it, they went on for hours, but I was impressed with what it was, what it was doing. 

I've actually had backyard jams over the last ten, fifteen years where I'd pick an artist or I'd pick a type of music, and write up fake charts and invite musicians to come play. I give my friends and musicians a chance to play things that they never actually thought about playing or had a chance to play, you know, pop tunes and odd things. Three times, two times, I did Terry Riley “In C” and everybody came away with a religious awakening [laughs]. It's not so much…I mean listening to it is…I mean, some of the audience, the friends who came enjoyed it. But as a musician, it is an awakening. You have to listen to what the other person's doing and that is a big percentage of the joy of making music with other musicians. It's not just playing or leading. It's interacting with other musicians and that gets down to even the…I'm digressing…but it goes down to being in the studio and recording something. When you have people playing together, it's way different than having one person play something and other person play something. I mean, even background vocals…if you're layering background vocals, it's much different if you have three people singing together than having each person do it separately. Because to me the important thing is that the frequencies are intermodulating in the room. So the actual physical sound of what's going on is different. This is the difference between samples of a  piano, where they sample each note separately, and when you play an acoustic piano and all the strings are ringing. Everything is intermodulating. It may seem like a subtle idea, but I think it makes a huge difference in the sound. 

Recording Film Music

With Danny, it took us a while to figure out. Originally, it was just everybody plays and then it became best to record the percussion separately, for the sake of  editing later. Then suddenly everything was striped separately. And then Avid shows up and suddenly the  time that we have to get it done is compressed and the movie is not really done until after you've recorded the score and the music editor has to deal with it. So you end up having to stripe everything. At one point, everybody was doing that, we were doing it and we had a hell of a time. The one that I remember  is Terminator 4. We were in London and we had to record separate stems for budget reasons. We had to do the strings first because it's cheaper, then the brass and woodwinds. They had separate sessions. Brass had the best players in the world and they had trouble playing in tune with the strings that we had recorded. The strings had tuned to the piano. But what I found was that the strings tuned to each other more than they tuned to the piano. So if they don't have the rest of the orchestra to relate to, what you get is not really just-intonation and doesn't really work with the other sections.

So we ended up, which looks like it costs a little more money, but was way more efficient, we had the strings, woodwinds, and brass playing in the room together. We can then make compositional adjustments right away, ‘cuz you hear everything as you record, ‘okay, well no, we don't want the brass doing that’ or, ‘this is too loud,’ you can make all these adjustments. They've all been in a room. They've all heard each other play in tune. So they know where their tuning is. And then we record the strings and pay attention to their details. Then we record the brass while, unfortunately, everybody is sitting there. Because the woodwinds are usually so much quicker and maybe it's because the way Danny writes for the winds is more efficient, or…err, ehh… we usually put them off and we hold them over for an extra hour overtime. Everything that we've spent six hours doing, they usually get done in an hour. That ended up being our process, even though they'd been there the whole day.

Yeah, you can rationalize that ‘well, you know, why have them there the whole day?’ Well the reason to have them the whole day is that they'd heard everybody, made all the corrections, everybody’s heard their part, so they know how their dynamics should be working with everyone else. As opposed to the Hans Zimmer thing where he has everyone overlay with his synth mock up. It’s really not the same. I did The Simpsons theme for him, for The Simpsons Movie, and the way he does it is he goes long strings, short strings, etc. and he has everybody playing with his synth mock up and it's really not the same as far as musicians giving you and each other feedback on the scoring  stage. 

I work with Jon Brion. We just finished a score a few weeks ago. Every film he does, he comes in with a concept that that fits the film. Like on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he had this toy called a Talent Maker that had an optical disc. The optical disc, I think Mattel made one called the OptiCon. But the one he had, the optical disc was clear. Because this optical recording device was clear, he could turn it upside down illustrating that Eternal Sunshine is all about time. So, part of the score is this Talent Maker upside down with an orchestra on top. And part of it is me trying to orchestrate making it sound like the orchestra is playing backwards. It was really, really fun. We were in Seattle and the musicians didn't quite understand the political position they were in at that time. This was before Seattle became a place to go to at all. They were trying out the waters. They were uninvolved. They didn’t care about making it sound good. As opposed to musicians here. Granted, they were getting paid slave wages, like thirty bucks an hour or something like that, but this was an opportunity for them to show what they could do and they didn’t. They were very resistant the whole time. It was really kind of a tough time with the musicians on that recording. Since then, I have had great experiences [in Seattle]. But anyway, Jon Brian…

The other one was a movie called Synechdoche, New York. The word “syncechdoche,” not like the city, means calling the whole of something by a part of it. The only real example I can use is your car. You call your car your wheels. So that's kind of the concept. I forget the whole story, but Jon built his whole score out of these little kernels of musical gestures. Little harmonic kernels or harmonic motion. Then we had the strings and woodwinds improvise chord changes. I gave them specific chord voicing  and he had them improvise moving through the notes watching his conducting gestures for shape. It was really, really fun and in the end, moderately effective. I'm leading to something, so sorry! [laughs]

The movie we just finished is about an actor. A lot of it was shot on studio lots, so it's like the main character going from one studio lot to another looking for jobs or doing jobs, acting in different movies. And so his concept was, [Jon] had seen this concert, the MGM Jubilee it was called, a live concert in the ‘50s where they played all the hits of MGM movies. They had a big string section, brass section, a big band section, drums, bass, percussion. The whole thing together, live. That was his concept for this one. But he got sick and the schedule kept changing, so we didn't get to do everything we wanted. But we had one day where we actually set up exactly that way. We had drums and stand up bass with a pickup in the room at Sony. He has this thing about Sony that it sounds great, and he’s right! They haven't changed the room in Sony since The Wizard of Oz. They've kept the acoustic stuff up. It looks like crap and you wouldn't know it’s a modern recording studio, because it looks like an old fashioned sound stage. It sounded really cool. I brought this up because it goes back to having everyone in the same room playing differently. When you listen to the whole, the entirety, and everyone is playing together.

Back to the Early Years

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad knocked me over the head with the music. It was Bernard Hermann, and xylophones, and skeletons fighting. I had a collection of movie music records as soon as I could. In 1971, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was trying to get out of college. I had to finish my degree early because they switched the curriculum, so by the end of the third year I had to finish all my music courses. My last year was everything but music. I kept wondering ‘why am I still coming here?’ Except, that was the first year they offered an electronic music class where they had a whole room with a full old Buchla and a full old Moog, you know, the original. What's that called? The modular. All this modular equipment, the Buchla didn’t even have a keyboard, it just had weird controllers. We had to write music on the computer. There's a Max Matthews book that showed a way to program the computer to make organized sounds.I made a little gamelan piece. You fed data into the computer and the computer gave you back punch cards. You have to take the punch cards and feed them into another computer for it to turn into sound. It took forever to do, like a one minute little piece. But it was enlightening. I don't regret finishing school, but at the time I was thinking ‘what am I doing here? I'm just getting a piece of paper.’ Of course, after I graduated my next professional job was playing at the Holiday Inn [laughs].

[After graduating] I played in Horace Heidt’s Big Band and it was actually great. It was with a friend of mine who was a great bass player, Leon Gaer, and a really good trumpet player, Rich Cooper. He was with The Band in The Last Waltz, and a bunch of Paul McCartney records. These were a bunch of good musicians in the band and it was a good experience. It was a Holiday Inn so, you know, ehhh, but it was a steady job! [laughs]

In high school I had a friend, Peter Gordon, a saxophone player who showed up from Germany his last year in high school. He was in the jazz band when I started playing guitar in the band. The band teacher decided he finally wanted to have a guitar and I could read because I taught myself guitar from knowing the flute and music notation, not from just listening.

[Steve makes weird noises] Go back. Where was I? Danny! Meeting Danny.

In 1971, Peter’s younger brother Josh was in the Mystic Knights. They were a street theater group. Apparently, their guitar player had left. He was Stan Ayeroff. He was a Django Reinhardt specialist. Stan had written books and transcriptions and stuff, but he left Boingo so they were looking for someone else. Danny wanted to put together a group of musicians rather than street actors with someone who could do Django. Josh put me up for it. I went and auditioned for Danny at Danny’s mom’s house to show him that I could, you know, fake Django Reinhardt. And they hired me.

‘76 sounds right ‘cuz I think ‘77, yeah, ‘77 we played…it had to be ‘76 at least, if not before that. ‘77 we played in Tokyo. We played the Tokyo World Song Festival competition as Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. And by that time we had Miriam Cutler. I'd met her in the UCLA dorm, she was a clarinet player and a singer. We went to Tokyo and played in the Budokan Hall. We lost! [laughs].

Making a Living 

I was squeaking by doing casuals. I'd play weddings and proms etc. My expenses weren’t real bad. I shared a house with three other people. So my overhead wasn't terribly high. I had to take these awful gigs, but I was playing music. There's one singer I remember working for. It was at a bar and people would buy him shots of tequila. He would spend the whole night taking shots of tequila and he would talk more than we would play music. He would [weird drunken impression] and start telling stories rather than play music which was fun. You took all kinds of awful jobs. I'm not sure how, I don't remember how everybody else did it financially . I know that the drummer at the time, Tim Boatman, was playing with the Opera Orchestra, so he had a real musician gig. The nice thing is when Danny auditioned me, he auditioned people that were actually musicians, who wanted to be musicians as opposed to people who were doing it for fun on the side.

We were all hoping [it would become a full time gig] because of the way it slowly built. I mean, the Mystic knights was turning into a whole theater production. We did a playhouse here, then we ended up at a place called The Boarding House up north for two weeks at a time, doing a show that had films and set-changes and costumes. It was like a whole different kind of thing,  It was only partially original music. It was mostly Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington. We did Balinese Gamelan, homemade gamelan, at the end of the show and African balafons at the beginning of the show. Some rock and roll. Danny wrote a piano concerto. We did a whole theatrical thing with a magician, magic hat, a lion tamer, and a mermaid. All the things you expect to see, of course you would. So it was a complete theatrical show and out to make money for us. It wasn't pandering. It was Danny's vision. It was what he thought was cool and we all bought into it. It made enough money to keep us going through the seventies. 

There was one point where the only offers were either Broadway or Las Vegas and they both meant cleaning up the act and making it slick. None of us were really interested in that and Danny really wasn't interested in that. At that point he had been starting to write songs. So, I almost forget, there was one big thing…we are going to open it at a theater. A little tiny theater in Hollywood and it burnt down days before we are supposed to open. Luckily, our stuff was in another room that was a fire protected room for some reason. I think we lost a piano or something like that. So there was a hiatus for a while and Danny decided, ‘okay I'm switching’ and jettisoned the theatricalness. I mean, the band was the same basically. We changed drummers, because we got a drummer that was more into rock and roll, which was what Danny was starting to write. So, yeah, there was a switch when we approached ‘79-80. We went in and did demos as just Boingo. 

We did have a meeting where we went around and around with all kinds of awful names for the band to get rid of the Oingo Boingo. But we figured we had a theatrical following with Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, so you keep Oingo Boingo, you'll bring some of them in. It was kind of like the Bob Dylan thing where, you know, he’s not doing folk music anymore, he's doing rock and roll. Enough will come that we should keep the name.

It didn't seem quick [the success of Oingo Boingo]! [laughs] 

Well, the record contract didn't happen real quick. Actually, we did demos, we would send it around to everybody and nobody wanted it, except I.R.S. took it. They gave us a little budget to re-record one song. They put out a four song EP, but they didn't give us any money. You know, when someone signs with a record company, you get something. Think they buy into you? But no, it was like, they'll put it out for us is all it was. And then, I think, Jed the Fish was the reason KROQ played it. He picked up on it and played Only a Lad on the radio that got interest. In fact, it was I.R.S. actually, Miles Copeland, that got us as an opening act for The Police at The Forum which was one big venue here. After we opened for The Police, suddenly we had interest and then they sold our I.R.S. contract to A&M records. We were on a legitimate record label then. 

So it wasn't, I mean, I guess compared to 71 years of my life it was sudden. But it wasn’t. All along for me, the process was ‘okay, it's a little better than last year. Am I going to stay doing this? Do I need to do something else?’  So every time, things were a little bit better and it kept everybody involved.

Breaking into Film

I had my first first kid in 1981, so that was after the first album and stuff like that. That is when I started wondering, ‘well…’ I played in Don Randi’s band at the Baked Potato, which was a hub for fusion and jazz musicians. Larry Carlton, Robin Ford, and all the seventies session musicians played there. I quit that gig for the Mystic Knights gig where the fire happened [and the gig never happened]. I kept thinking, ‘shouldn't I have stayed with that? I could have been working in the studios doing something.’ That is where my mind would go. ‘If this doesn't happen, I'm going to go do that. I’m going to do something else.’ Then Danny started doing films and it was a whole different story. We did Pee-wee's Big Adventure and my perspective shifted.

The basic score is mostly Danny. I mean, it’s Danny. He wrote a couple of songs. We were playing at The Boarding House and had to come back to LA to record this piece. There was a song at the end…”The Queen’s Revenge.” I remember we were playing at The Boarding House and we had to come back down to LA and record this piece, he wanted it to be an orchestra. So I orchestrated it for one of everything. We had had a tuba, actually, a tuba player who played electric bass (Jim Self), and one of every instrument. I made a little ensemble and did the accompaniment to this song that he wrote for the movie that they had shot. We recorded that early because he had to shoot. The rest of the score, the band came in later and redid a couple of the songs. Susan Tyrell …the song “The Witches Egg”…they wanted it a little more rock and roll. Danny did all the background score. I never played the slide guitar [before], but had a great time trying to play what Danny wanted.

In 1980, we were playing Madame Wong's. We were playing funky clubs in the early eighties. When we toured, we had no audience. When we would go to New York or go to Trenton, New Jersey or Iowa, they wouldn't play the record, which is what Danny found out when he'd go to interviews. They're interviewing him, but none of the songs are on the playlist. So it was really frustrating, for Danny and for all of us, ‘cuz we couldn't get booked in any places, except local bars. After the first tour, we never went out for more than a couple of weeks and came back. We never had enough gigs booked that we could sustain a long tour and nobody wanted to be on the road, taking that beating.

From way back in Forbidden Zone, Danny had his sights on doing some movies. He thought he would work his way into it. I don't know how he met John Hughes, but  Pee-Wee happened because David Newman brought Paul Reubans and Tim Burton to a Boingo show…or Paul brought Tim or…one of them brought someone to Danny after seeing Boingo shows, to approach Danny for that. Well, we were on A&M. Kathy Nelson was the head of music...the music person for A&M. She liked Boingo and must have been the one to connect Danny with John Hughes. Danny went to meet John Hughes. In the car, leaving the thing, into his tape recorder he sang “Weird Science,” he sang most of the parts. We went in and recorded that real quick. I think we recorded that even before we did the album “Dead Man's Party” Now that was the first thing we recorded for the album.

[That was the only music video Danny did not direct]

Yeah, yeah, yeah, he had no, he had no control over that one and regrets that. I made a nice little dancing cameo in it. I remember being really sick and Danny said, ‘no, you don't have to come to the whole thing. Just come play the guitar solo.’

Pee-Wee and Lennie Niehaus

The studio didn't trust that Danny could do it by himself. And Danny didn’t trust that he could do it by himself. So he brought me in. The studio brought in Lennie Niehaus. Lennie was officially hired as the orchestrator and conductor. What happened is: Danny would write. I would sketch it all out trying to make sense of it and give it to Lennie. Lennie refused to take orchestration [credit]. He wanted to be a conductor, not an orchestrator, so he refused to take orchestration credit. So he said I was welcome to do it, but I didn't want to take orchestration credit because I didn't really do the final orchestrations. I think I was credited as “arranger,” which I was more comfortable with taking as an official denomination.

I learned so much from Lennie on that project, watching how he set up a page. Every score [I orchestrated] at that time period is exactly the way he set up a page. He had like red for the meter changes, so that the conductor can see what meter changes are coming. And he used stamps for the titles, not handwriting. The little details. I followed him and how he voiced the trumpets. I thought he was amazing. On Back to School, he conducted and advised me, never to do what I did again. I thought ‘you know, I'm successful. I did this score and it worked, so I'm going to do a transposed score.’ It didn’t work and I had nobody else helping me. I was doing everything. So lots of, viola clefs that were wrong and transpositions on instruments that were wrong and that slowed down the process. I learned never to do that again. The copyists were great and so was Lennie. I can't specifically say, but I think going through that and watching how it was fixed is how I feel on every session since then. I feel that I'm a facilitator to fix whatever is going wrong, ‘cuz that's kind of my responsibility. If I'm at the session, that's my responsibility. I'm trying to make sure that what the composer wrote is what is happening in the room. There's a lot of steps in between those two things. Lennie was great. I watched him, how he navigated my indiscretions, and thank him for it.

As I remember, [by the late ‘80s] he wanted to be a composer, not an orchestrator or conductor. I think Back to School was my first official credit as orchestrator, and I think he was backing out of his obligations for other people because he was doing Clint Eastwood’s films. So he wasn’t as available for Danny as he had been.

Shirley Walker

Meeting Shirley Walker was a wonderful thing. Shirley was open, charismatic, and magnanimous. She was helpful and hands-on. For instance, on Batman,  recorded in London was the first time we worked with her, and since I was out of town we gave [The Waltz] to another orchestrator. Danny had just finished writing it while I was on the airplane to London. It shows up on the stand, we run it through and what should sound like a big old-fashioned kind of waltz, sounded this [tiny finger gesture] small. It's like everybody was just playing in unison. The orchestrator didn’t do anything with it, didn't open it up and, you know, add harmonies underneath the melody. It was just kind of awful for the film. It sounded wrong. So Shirely pulled it from the stand and took it back to the hotel that night. I forget who did what? We took different sections. One of us did woodwinds and brass, and the other did the strings and percussion or something? We re-orchestrated it that night, because it had to be recorded the next day. She was just wonderful, just being open to doing that, helping me get through that. She was great. In London, they had never had a woman conducting for them before. So they were kind of taken aback, but she whipped them in the shape, took command. She wasn't mean to anybody, but she didn't suffer any fools. She called things out as they happened.

The weirdest thing is that at the end, they thought they’d get her a gift, a going away gift, because the contractor thought, ‘oh the first woman to conduct and all that…’ So they gave her a set of dishes! [laughs]

She was a little angry about that, but kept it to herself, kept it to us. We were laughing and sobbing about that.

She was going through awful stuff right then. She came from a troubled family and her dad had just died, or was dying. I forget. Her relationship with her dad was awful. She was also really emotionally tied up in the fact that she got through that project so nicely. It is a testament to her fortitude, her strength. Apparently she was a child prodigy piano player. She was introduced to us as the “orchestrator of the apocalypse”. She did a lot of the synths for “Apocalypse Now” that was credited to  Coppola’s father [Carmine Coppola]. She made the score happen. If it wasn't for her, it wouldn't have gotten done, kind of thing. So that's how she was introduced to us, which sold Danny on her right away.

Bill Ross and Lionel Newman

There is one [story] that all the musicians talk about still or did for a while. One of the things that was happening on the first day of recording Beetlejuice is Lionel [Newman] came in with his own idea of what the score was supposed to sound like. And it was not Danny’s and my idea, particularly Danny's. And so as we're recording, Danny was trying to be efficient, trying to give notes and he's realizing the notes he's giving over the talk-back to the conductor are not getting to the musicians. So he goes out and talks to the trombone section and walks around while they're changing reels inbetween takes. Someone in the brass section said, ‘Danny, he's telling us the exact opposite of what you're telling us.’ Newman said to him, ‘Hey Beethoven, get back in the booth!’ The musicians remembered that. So Lionel was fired the next day.

I had a meeting with Bill Ross. I forget the exact timeline. I met with him and went through all the scores  and he made suggestions, I made changes. He was actually a big help. I left Beetlejuice in tears the first day, because it felt like…I was looking at the notes…I was not focused on the emotional interaction between Lionel and Danny, I was feeling like ‘this is going so slow and things aren't sounding good because of me.’ So I left in tears on the first day of sessions. The fact that Danny fired him made me feel much better, and meeting with Bill Ross, he helped me clean up what could have been a problem.

One of the things that Lionel corrected was: we had a tuba and piccolo in basically minor 9th’s and a couple of octaves away in parallel. It was the sound Danny wanted. It actually sounded cool, but it was a mistake to Lionel and he corrected it. Things like that were going on and it was hard to pay attention to it because they happened quite quickly. He'd do that without telling us. He’d fix it.

Bill Ross taught me that each section had to sound good by itself. At that point, I had been doing a lot of Klangfarbenmelodie, where I liked things thrown around the orchestra. Bill Ross helped me reconceptualize what that means and how to do it efficiently. I mean, now when I know that we're striping, I tell the other orchestrators that we have to make sure each section is going to sound good by itself. So when you go to record, [for example], the brass by themselves, they sound like they're doing something together. 


I had a big drafting board and video player. The smart thing I did all the time was always have a picture. For an orchestrator, it doesn't seem that important and there's plenty of projects where I couldn't get the picture to the other orchestrators and they all did fine. But I like seeing the picture so that I know what the dynamics are supposed to be, who is talking, ‘this has to be big, but it can't be loud’ or ‘this has to be loud and take over because there's nothing else going on.’ 

From Pee-Wee on, until [Danny] was doing full mock-ups in the computer, what I got from him varied. Much like I was learning from Lennie and Bill and Shirely, he was learning from what he was getting back from what he had written and what was put on the page. For instance, Batman, “The Descent Into Mystery,” driving into the Batcave…he originally had at least a dozen low woodwind parts. Any two or three of them sounded great together from what he was sketching on paper. He would sit down and he'd have a little piano or something going. At that point, he had a SMPTE box and could get a click track locked to the picture and he'd play along. Then he'd sit down with a pencil and go ‘oh, I'd like it to do this! Or like this!’ and I'd sit there and watch him do it sometimes. He would add extra stuff into what he wanted. Often, it was my job to say, ‘these three work together, these two work together, these don't work together. Decide what you want to hear,’ and I would make changes. With Pee Wee, I still have the sketch…I think I gave them back to him. I had his original sketches. Well, we have some of the sketches. Or I gave them to [Lennie], but they varied and he got better and more precise as the film projects went on. 

Then when we got to Digital Performer, I would get a Digital Performer file. For the theme song to a TV show…it was the name of a Peter Gabriel song…it was like that…what was the Peter Gabriel song title that was a bad TV series? It was a series called Sledgehammer.  I think we did it all on the computer. Actually, The Simpsons I also did all on the computer with my first little Mac. I made a mistake at the end. One of the phrases is an eighth note off, but he liked it so he kept it. The same thing happened with “Weird Science”. It was on a Mac and there's a brass figure that I'd written on the beat, but it shifted somehow and I liked it better. So I kept it. So there's some advantages to having a computer.

[On paper] it’s way different. Way different. You have to..I have so many erasure marks on any of my scores, I know you have looked at them. I do something and go ‘oh fuck,’ then go back and redo it, because it’s not what you think it’s going to be. With computers you can cut and paste and move things around, it becomes more modular, which is what films demand. But on paper, everything can end up being way different. Does that make sense? 

Working with Other Orchestrators

[One of the problems working in film] is you're up all night finishing it, because everything comes in so late that you're still turning in scores the morning of the first recording. That's how it is. It took me many years, decades, before I got to the point where I refused to work the night before a show. I have other people that I pull in near the end of a project. I have a guy now named Ed Trybeck, and Dave Slonaker who has been working with us for many years. Dave understands everything about Danny’s music. Ed, and his partners Jonathan Beard and Henri Wilkinson, always study the scores I have done before I bring them on and then emulates my approach. So they know what I've done with all the themes up to a point, so their orchestrations, when they come in, match what the rest of the movie is. And often better! [laughs]

For instance, the Jon Brion project I just did, I was diving in thinking ‘I'm going to do this all.’ I had talked to Ed early on saying at the very last minute Jon always brings in things even later than Danny, ‘I may be calling you, so please let me know when you're available.’ When we started the project it was big band music. I have some experience with big band music, but it's mostly Duke Ellington and that kind of old-fashioned stuff that I bullshit my way through, because I like it not because I know exactly how to do it. Dave Slonaker was nominated for a Grammy two or three years ago for the big band he put together for his own music. I immediately got Dave on for the real big band stuff so that it would be done right. When it got down to the end…I love working with Jon Brian and I love working with his crew, he's got an engineer and a guy, Eric, who does everything else and records Jon and does all the file management…but sometimes under pressure communications get muddled or forgotten. We got to the first day of recording there were like three or four cues that never got to me that had to be recorded. Even on the last day of recording the orchestra there were two cues that Ed Tribeck and his team jumped in and did for me the morning of the session so we had it by the evening.

With Danny, usually I get to do about half the score until things start showing up at the same time. That is when I used to pull in at least two orchestrators. For a while there, during the  week before recording I was responsible for conforming music to the latest edits to the film, redoing stuff Danny wrote so it would fit to the new picture. That would actually take up almost a whole week before recording where I wouldn't be orchestrating. I couldn't take on new cues because it was almost full-time conforming for how much they would be editing. I definitely had to have other orchestrators working.

The first extra orchestrator [we brought on] was Mark McKenzie. He was a wonderful orchestrator for Danny’s music, but left because he wanted to be a composer. The whole thing about Hollywood is that you're pigeon-holed to whatever job it is you're doing. So if you're orchestrating for somebody, nobody's going to look at you like a composer. Period. I've got a friend who is a music editor and until he stopped being a music editor, no one would hire him as a composer. Now he is working as a composer.

Dave Slonaker was recommended by the engineer Shawn Murphy, I believe. I had a big conversation with him and remember that he paid attention to what I had been doing to make what he was doing fit with what had been happening up to that point. I've worked with a wonderful composer / orchestrator , Edgardo Simone, for years and he was recommended through an odd connection with an old friend bass player from who he bought a bass. I listened to his concert music and his orchestrations were just kind of amazing. So I felt good about it. I followed him closely off and on for the first couple of gigs that I used him. I'm usually careful about which cues I am giving to people. With certain people like Dave, if there's big brass, he's the one that does it. If it was strings, I'd send it to Edgardo ‘cuz he was really good with strings. I always try to do as much as I can before I'm inundated with too much music.

If the other orchestrators come back to me with a problem, I'd send them directly to Danny. Danny would like to know directly to be able to give his opinion about what it should be. If Danny is in a crunch and can't deal with it, then I'll deal with it, but there's no reason why they shouldn't talk to the composer.

More Workflow 

Nothing is instinct. If he gives me a reference, I go look. This is way back…on Back to School there was…actually also on White Noise...there was a reference to Aaron Copland. So I pulled out all my Aaron Copland scores and tried to do due diligence of what constitutes a sound that he thinks he wants.

There is something I picked up from Shirley Walker that I tried to keep up, but often fail to do: she kept a notebook of things she tried that worked. For a while, I was doing the same thing. Like doubling high strings with a trumpet, two octaves lower. It sounds like the strings are stronger and doesn't sound like a trumpet is playing, just the harmonics working. That was one of her big notes that she passed on to me. 

One of the other things I try to do with every film, is to experiment with something. Like Psycho, the big experiment was doing antiphonal strings. We re-did the the score with a huge ensemble. I had just heard a concert of…umm….by the Seattle Symphony. I was in Seattle for some reason and sat down right in front. They had set up antiphonally, where the first violins were on the left and the second violins were on the right. It knocked me out. The violin sections sounded different. The instruments on the right were facing away and sounding mellower, the ones on the left were facing the audience and brighter and more aggressive. So in Psycho, while looking at the score I saw that [Herrmann] has one bar where the first [violins] are doing sul ponticello and the seconds are doing sul tasto at the same time. And then the next bar they shift, the first are doing sul tasto and the seconds are doing sul ponticello.’ In the mono original recording you can't tell, but the musicians are feeling that, and  they have to be paying attention. Part of what that does is make them pay attention, they can’t just slide through and not think about the music. We did it antiphonally and you can hear the timbres shift if you pay really close attention. It really thrilled me to do that.

It was Shawn Murphy’s [idea to use multiple mic positions] and the conundrum was, ‘do we make it sound exactly like the old one or do we make it sound like a new one?’ So he set up, I think, at least three different sets of mics everywhere, so he could go between the different styles of mic’ing. A mix could be made between the two and put somewhere in between, which is huge. I think the goal was originally not to be just like the old one, but the fact that it was a huge, huge string section made a big difference.

Fun Fact

A little side note here…[my acting debut]...“Back to School” then we did a Bud Light commercial around the same time. I got a S.A.G membership and got to “act” with Robert Downey Jr. !!

We go on stage during “Dead Man's Party,” and Robert Downey Jr’s character made it go into feedback. So I got to give a dirty look and Robert Downey Jr. got to lay on the floor and fart in my general direction. That was my acting debut. [laughs]

Financial Planning

Well, how many musicians do you know actually have plans for that kind of thing? Exactly. I was one of those also. I was very lucky. The fact that we started doing films, it became apparent that was a better source of income. The money was better than doing a tour with Boingo and because the band never made any money from the records until after the band broke up. We never had income from recording. The only income was from touring and tour support from the record company. There was never any profit ‘till four or five years after the band broke up. Then we started seeing royalties from record companies. We could make money touring on the west coast, so we would do a west coast tour. Then to go anywhere else, we'd have to get support from the record company. That was a moderate source of income. As soon as we started doing films, it was like ‘oh, do one or two of these a year and I'm making money.’ I didn't realize what a great position I was in then, time wise. It also pays into the special payments fund, which right now is part of the reason why I can pick and choose things I want to do. The special payments fund, do you know what that is? No? Okay on every union movie, studios have to pay a certain percentage of their profit back to the union musicians. There's a whole formula about how many hours a musician is working and how many musicians are on the project to figure a percentage of the studios profits . Orchestrators get hours for how many pages you do.

I still get money from movies like Spider-Man, because they keep coming back. The amount of profit for the studio is large, so the small percentage, less than a tenth of 1%, is what goes to the musicians and it ends up to be hundreds of thousand dollars broken up between musicians for a year from some movie. I didn't, at the time, realize I was accruing all this equity. But the fact is that is why film musicians stay film musicians and put up with so much pressure. It is about keeping their job and receiving compensation down the line. So everybody makes sure that they're available when a job comes up. Part of it is this too: in the end, when they retire, there's this pension. Yearly, there is also a paycheck. In July there is the Motion Picture Special Payments Fund. There's a paycheck for all the films you've ever worked on. So every July, musicians get a good sum. I realized year after year, that it kept coming every year and the sum got bigger and bigger. So the financial planning…it was dropped on me because of the musicians union.

This is part of the reason studios record in London, because in London, the studios don't pay special payments. So they pay more to record the score there, to send people there, and they pay about the same wages to musicians, but they have no back-end. They don't have to pay a special payments fund if the movie is a success. So there’s the reason why anybody in my position is doing okay financially. If it wasn't for that special payments fund, I'd be scuffling around looking for more composers to work for, for any kind of job. Luckily, I'm at the point where I can take or leave an orchestration job if someone asks me.

Also, the fewer people who work on a film, the larger the percentage of the sum allocated to you. On Ladybird, it was only woodwinds. There was me and, I think, Ed Trybeck. So we got big special payments fund checks from Ladybird, even though it was a low budget film. So when a low budget film becomes a hit and it's a union gig, you're always going to end up making more down the line. Which is why every orchestrator, and I insist every orchestrator, who works with me gets paid the same. We charge double our rate when we do a gig out of town. When we record in London, we're missing those special payments and we're missing health and welfare and taxes. All that paid-in credit gets thrown out the door when you start recording out of town.


[The world is] way different than when I started. I lucked in. I lucked in under Danny’s coat tails. And Danny lucked in. I mean, how many rock lead singers are given the opportunity that Danny had back then, now? Trent Reznor did, maybe. But he does a different kind of score than Danny does. And Danny got the opportunity to have a full Orchestra at his beck and call from day one. That just won't happen. I think, from what I see.

The thing that any musician needs, which I have to include myself, is to be prepared for whatever happens. The fact that Danny asked me to orchestrate, I'd been playing in a rock band, the theater band, with him for a few years then he asked me to orchestrate something. I was prepared to try. I had had college orchestration classes, but I had no experience doing orchestration for a film. You don't say, ‘oh, I can't do that’ or ‘I don't think I can…’ You say, ‘okay let's try it!’ Worst comes to worst, you fail and you let down whoever it is you are working with. [laughs]

But if you're not in a position to have some of the tools to give you confidence enough to give it a try, you're going to be stuck. Today everybody has to know everything. For a while I thought, ‘I know synthesizers, I can do some programming…’, but I realized that what I'm best at is the orchestration, rather than diverting my abilities trying to do too much. I know people who try to do too much…if anybody had asked me to come engineer something for them, I would say no. But sometimes you need to be prepared to step over the line of what you think your limitations are to facilitate a relationship with a composer.

I used to have to go to [Danny’s] house and spend time going through every single cue with him and have the paper in front of us and making notes and changes. It is now down to where I get a file, I open it up, I see the picture. If I have any questions, I write him back. Otherwise, I dive in because with his mock-ups and the film it's usually obvious what it is supposed to do. So all of the technology has changed the time involved talking with him. I actually spend less time now with him directly on the project, than I did then.

Time Crunch

The good thing about those time crunch situations is, they're stuck with whatever we do. It's when they have no leeway that we can do things that we think work easier. As opposed to having to satisfy four different people and have to come back and redo it again. And I think that happens with Danny as the composer as well. It has to.

In fact, with Mission:Impossible, they forced the director to be at Danny's house everyday.

The director had not paid attention to the first score that he threw out. The director had met with the original composer at spotting but not as he changed the picture, so on the first days of recording he realized it was not the score the newest version of the film needed and that he hadn’t been in communication with  the composer. So they forced him to be with Danny for the whole process. I think he even bunked out at Danny's place for a while. 

The thing about Marvel is that they wouldn't let anybody else, any of the other orchestrators view the picture. I made sure that their files had lots of hit points on the sketches, so that they knew what was happening on screen. This doesn't always happen coming from Danny so we have to add those. I had to add a security camera in my room aimed at a safe. I was supposed to put the film in every night after I worked and disconnect from the internet when I was working. I also had to install cameras at my front door and outside my studio door, to meet their qualifications to be able to have the film. None of the other orchestrators were willing to do all that which is fine ‘cuz it was expensive and stupid.

The reason why they ask for all that is, I heard later, because some exec had taken his hard drive and made a copy at a commercial copy place. A copy of a movie was on his hard drive and they got it then directly from this exec. It went everywhere. And it was because of this exec, not because of people who are working on it, we're not giving it to other people. It's just misdirected security.

Sleepy Hollow is an anomaly in my history. I usually do exactly what I have been saying . As Danny begins his score, I make sure somebody's available to help with orchestration as we get closer to the recording dates. Two or three weeks before, I check out who's available. Dave or Edguardo, just to give them a heads up so that they can be ready if they want the gig. With “Sleepy Hollow”, I had a knee operation that put me completely out of commission. I had to interview a few orchestrators and chose Conrad Pope to take over my position. He was the orchestrator at the sessions because I couldn't travel, I was laid up in a bed on a machine with my leg moving and an intravenous PICC line to get medicine 3x a day and I could barely hobble, let alone go up and down stairs. I did do some of the orchestrations. I did the Main Title and a few other ones, but most of it was another crew of orchestrators. Once it started with Conrad Pope, I left him in charge because I couldn't be there. In fact, I had written that off in my memory as not participating, until I had to go back, to look at the Main Title for Danny’s Elfman/Burton show. I realized: ‘oh, I did orchestrate this, what do you know, I did do something on this film!’ That was around the same time that Jon Brion first approached me for Magnolia and I had to pass because of my knee. I was really thrilled that he came back to me for Eternal Sunshine.

The Politics of Filmmaking

I avoid it. I gave up trying to be a composer mostly because of the politics. I had done a film, Novocaine, where the director was hands off for most of the picture. He was not paying attention to the music I was writing at all. Much like Brian de Palma and Danny on Mission:Impossible. When I was almost finished writing, at the very last week, he shows up and starts having me change the individual notes in the music for a scene. He considered himself a musician (he was a drummer, not that they can’t be musicians too). He started having me change things that made absolutely no difference to the emotional impact of what the music was doing for the scene. It was a noisy scene, and we spent like two or three hours changing those individual notes, I think just because he saw that we could with a computer. Thankfully the music supervisor got the producer to come down. I played the entire score for the producer. He said, ‘That's great’ and told the director, ‘you can't say a word at the recording session.’ Thus, I got the score recorded quickly and efficiently and the director couldn't say anything, because…he was not being an asshole, but he was so controlling to minutia that I would never have finished the score if I didn't have that last week without him. If he was there he would have been giving notes for everything.

The Danny/Sam Raimi controversy seemed fairly simple from my perspective: Sam abandoned ship for the week of recording [Spider-Man 2]. Much like I had said how great it was recording without the director on my low budget film score, with Danny he lost his director on Spider-Man 2 and it was not good. Sam showed up the first day, then disappeared to a vacation with his family. Then he came back with a list of notes that he wanted changes. While we were recording without him, we were trying to second-guess what he wanted. Sam had been listening to the temp score so much that he wanted a parts of the score  to be more like temp. No matter what you of him or what relationship you have with him good or bad, it's the director’s film and it's he who decides what is going to be in the movie. You have no real control of how your music is used. As the composer you need to satisfy the director’s needs and with Sam Raimi disappearing, we had no chance of satisfying what he wanted. Having a director involved with your work may be painful but the film  will be better for it .

Temp scores sometimes become stuck in the director’s head .With Jon Brion, we did Delivery Man and this happened. Tim Burton and Danny on Big Eyes had it happen too. On Delivery Man the director was so locked into his temp score. Even though Jon came up with this whole other kind of cool musical direction, the director couldn't see past what he had been listening to for a year while editing his film. So a couple of  nights before scoring, Jon sat down with the director and went through every cue and rewrote every cue. So I had to re-orchestrate everything, very quickly for the sessions. 

One of the real joys of orchestrating with brilliant composers like Danny and Jon is seeing what in the music makes the film come alive, how tiny details in expression or articulations by the best musicians in the world can make a huge difference in the effect the music has on listeners. I am so lucky to have been in the position to facilitate and have a small contribution to the scores I get to work on.

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