Grammy and Emmy-nominated musician, Jeff Russo has become a prominent composer, songwriter and arranger in the film and television industry and recently finished composing music for two highly-anticipated television series: FX’s ten-episode limited series, Fargo (starring Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Colin Hanks) and Starz’s new original drama Power. Jeff Russo’s history as a guitarist influenced his process of scoring FX’s Fargo, for which he recently received an Emmy-nomination. At the panel Russo said that he looks at the dialogue as the lyrics of a song, and composes the score around what it is the characters are emulating in each scene. Russo’s work can also be heard in various other television shows such as ABC’s Charlie’s Angels, Castle and What about Brian, Showtime’s Shameless and Weeds, NBC’s Smash, Crossing Jordan and The Bionic Woman.
In addition to composing music for film and television, Jeff still plays music with his rock band. He is a founding member, lead guitarist and co-songwriter of two-time Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum selling rock band Tonic. The song “If You Could Only See”, from their debut album “Lemon Parade”, rocketed to number one on the charts. In 2003, the band received two Grammy nominations, one for “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal” for “Take Me As I Am,” and one for “Best Rock Album.”
Last month Comic-Con fans were entertained by composers from their favorite films, television shows and video games at CW3PR’s “Behind The Music” panel in San Diego on July 24th. Jeff Russo joined other noteworthy composer James Levine (FX’s “American Horror Story” and TNT’s “Major Crimes); Daniel Licht (Showtime’s “Dexter” and Sundance Channel’s “The Red Road”); Brian Reitzell (NBC’s “Hannibal” and Columbia Pictures’ “30 Days of Night”); Steve Jablonsky (Paramount Pictures’ “Transformers” franchise and TNT’s “The Last Ship”); Christopher Young (Screen Gem’s “Deliver Us From Evil” and Columbia Pictures’ “Spider-Man 3”) at the San Diego Convention Center to discuss how they got into the business, how they create character themes, and their choices to use unique items such as duct tape and human bones as instruments.
We caught up with Jeff shortly after he made it back from Comic-Con.
GST: Jeff, thanks for taking some time to sit with us. Whenever a sequel, reboot or, in this case, a TV show treads the same water as the story that inspired it, do you look to adapt any existing material? Or is it better to do your own thing?
JR: We thought the best bet was to create our own identity while staying in the world and feel of the original. So things like palate were similar, while themes and melodies were all new.
GST: Fargo got picked up for a second season, congrats by the way, so what challenges do you face moving forward? Have you had any discussions as to where the story will go from here since it seems most of the cast probably won’t be back? Does it make it easier now that you’ve got a base to build upon or do you have to start from scratch this time?
JR: Thanks! We have talked about what the season 2 music might sound like. The main theme will stay the same, but most of the character themes will change since we will be starting anew. There may be an element of period appropriate music since we are jumping back to 1979, but that hasn’t been decided.
GST: I heard you just got back from Comic Con. Had you been before? Per usual it’s a mad house. Any tips for those heading next year, and how can you describe it to those who’ve never been?
JR: I had never been before. It’s INSANE! So much fun… Tips? Not that I can think of. Perhaps, look both ways before you cross…the streams? *laughs*
GST: The panel you were on, “Behind the Music: Crime, Death and Resurrection“, found you in the company of some other equally talented and big name composers – word is it was packed. I’ve interviewed Steve Jablonsky a couple times and he’s just amazed to see the response to his work. It’s tough to imagine the fan base when he, as he put it, is working by himself in a “cave” for so much of the production. How was it interacting with fans, and what do you take away from panels like that? What do the fans tell you?
JR: It’s awesome to see that people take notice of the music. I know what Steve means…we sit inside our studios, in a bubble, and hear back only from the producers. Very different from my playing on stage with my band, which has instant feedback from people listening! The fans were saying really nice things. I am thrilled that people have taken a liking to this music.
GST: Music is a collaborative process and like most arts there is no one right way to do anything. But sometimes the arts are subject to trends, so in the 10+ years you’ve been working, and from what you’ve seen and heard, what’s trending?
JR: Well, in TV it’s cyclical. For a while the Electronic thing was all that was wanted. Now it seems like more authentic sounding instruments and orchestras are becoming more of a trend. I like to take things on a case by case basis and don’t like to follow the “trends,” but all I can do is create the type of music that I am asked to create!
GST: On that note, trends tend to date a production but is it more feasible to do that with a TV show (because it constantly evolves) as opposed to a film?
JR: Exactly. I think it’s important to create a real identity for a show/movie. Staying away from trends is a good way to do that, unless what is needed for its identity IS the trend!
GST: Talk to us about scoring for TV. Hostages, Necessary Roughness, The Unusuals and now Fargo. Films have varying run times but TV has a certain cadence. Moreover it’s dictated by how it is broken up by commercials right? Does that affect your writing or limit you in any way?
JR: Actually, it’s different for every project. Every one of the shows you mention has a different cadence. Power, for instance, is on Starz, so there are no commercials. Fargo has no real limit to how long it could be, so that was different every episode. Hostages had 38 minutes of music in a 42 minute show, and Necessary Roughness had a more consistent cadence. I have to get into each one with a different mindset. It does make switching from one to another quite interesting and also complicated.
GST: TV is continually expanding upon characters and story lines from films. What do you like that’s on TV right now and, music aside, what really draws your interest?
JR: Lately, I have been watching “Orange Is The New Black.” I hadn’t seen it until now. I am amazed. It’s really entertaining and different from everything else I’ve seen on TV lately.
GST: Films, and probably TV shows change incredibly from start to finish so what scores or themes ended up being entirely different from when you first started writing?
JR: Sometimes it’s from season to season…Sometimes from beginning of a season to the end, depending on the character arcs and story arcs. With procedural shows like “Necessary Roughness” or “The Unusuals,” it’s the situations that change, so that can be from episode to episode. I like to follow the development of characters with music changing subtly, so by the end of the shift, it has changed dramatically without the viewer noticing.
GST: Looping back to the Fargo TV show, are there unexplored themes you’re excited to develop for the slew of new characters in the second season?
JR: There are a few musical themes that I started to work on in season one that I think can work for season two. Since they didn’t really get a fair shake in S1, I think developing them for new characters in the new season would be fun.
GST: Thanks for chatting with us Jeff. But before we finish up I was curious about something. Since composers, like actors, are all looking for their next gig, is it possible to be fan of other musicians whether or not they beat you out for a project?
JR: Definitely! We are all competing in a very small circle. But I LOVE music, so that is the more important thing.
Thanks to Jeff for his time. In addition to Fargo receiving an order for a second season, Jeff has just completed work on the feature film thriller, The Surface, starring Sean Astin and Mimi Rogers, and later this year he is slated to begin work on the upcoming Wilt Chamberlain Biopic, Wilt.