Brian Tyler has been composing bombastic themes for Hollywood blockbusters for nearly two decades. But as his sound is nearly everywhere these days, you’d think he’d been at the forefront of adrenaline fueled music for a lot longer than that. There’s a lot to be said for Tyler’s prolific output; he’s a household name and Brian has amassed quite the hit list.
Part of our reason for talking to Brian this time around was to talk about this next stage in his career. Don’t worry, he’s not giving up scoring actioners, but he is putting more focus on his music project Madsonik and his upcoming live concert feature with the Philharmonia Orchestra (click here for details).
As we’ve spoken to Brian over the years, it was great to catch up and get a taste of what film score fans across the pond can expect from his concert. Fingers crossed, he will bring that performance piece state-side in the months that follow…that is if you can get him out of the studio. Enjoy the entirety of our time with Brian Tyler.
GoSeeTalk: Excited to be talking to you again Brian, you’ve got a lot of things on the horizon, but what I’m most interested in is your live concert. Tell us about planning for this retrospective performance.
Brian Tyler: The concert is going to be a blast! Being able to go out on stage and have the music that is usually encapsulated in the four walls of the theater with sound effects going full boar and then make it its own unique performance is going to be really exciting. Most of all because I get to conduct all of it. It’s going to be performed by the London Philharmonia but I’ll also be doing drum solos, and whenever I get the chance to play an instrument with those musicians, I will.
I’m really thrilled to be bringing all of this music to life going all the way back to some of my earliest compositions as well as music for films that have not been released yet. The audience will get to hear some music for a movie that comes out two months after the concert, so that’s going to be special.
How did you choose the Philharmonia Orchestra? Why not the Hollywood Bowl, or, I’ll be a little selfish here, why not the Dallas Symphony?
[Laughs] Those are all definite thoughts and considerations for the future, but with this being the first one, it actually goes back to when I was working on The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Don’t worry, we are looking to take this performance to different places including The States. But the London Philharmonia came up as the first of these concerts because, number one, they are amazing, and two, the idea really spawned when I was conducting Age of Ultron. I had previously worked with the Philharmonia on Thor: The Dark World, and Now You See Me at Abbey Road. So when I was doing Avengers, I was conducting a particular cue and behind me, to the right, I saw a group of people who looked very official, [laughs] and they were from the Philharmonia.
It was the head of the organization, and various people that work with him, and they were stopping by to hear the session. They came to listen to the music, and so it was really their idea to perform that piece as well as other things I had done live.
The idea just kind of grew from there, and we decided that next Summer, now just a few weeks away, we would perform a concert in the Royal Festival Hall as a whole retrospective concert. I thought it was a cool idea, and the way they presented it was really interesting to make it look like a movie experience on its own.
It would be very cinematic in its approach, and everything from the sounds in the film, to the way the musicians are set up, and the placement of the choir is going to be very unique. It will also present the music well because my music goes into so many different sonic areas. It’s not an easy task organizing a concert that covers as much sonic ground as this. But they are up to the task! [laughs]
Talk to me about the logistics of this. I have seen Casablanca played live to picture, but the attack on Tony’s house in Iron Man 3 has so many explosions and that goes toe-to-toe with your bombastic cues. But I can’t imagine how do you downplay one without underwhelming the other.
Yeah, exactly! We are really concentrating on making sure all the detail and richness and musicianship is represented in the way it was recorded in the first place. In this case, we’re using all sorts of things, from full choir, to a huge percussion section, and a lot of sub sounds in the low frequency range. It really covers the whole gamut.
There’ll be solos and soloists, and I didn’t realize how much went into these cues and how complex these tracks were as well as the recording techniques until I went back and started reviewing what music I wanted to perform. I really had to try to think back as to how things were done with hand percussion and sometimes things were recorded backwards for a particular scene in the movie. So we looked at it and went “how did we do that again?”. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I did it that way?? That’s crazy!”. [laughs]
So it came to be a very difficult challenge but a fun one at that to figure out ways to do the music live. There’s pieces from all the way back to Children of Dune, then we’ll hit on Iron Man 3 like you mentioned, and Thor: The Dark World. For that, we’ll do the piece called “Into Eternity”. We have a choir on that one but we also have a singular voice which is very specific, so we’ll fly out the singer from the piece that was recorded. We’re leaving no stone unturned when it comes to really fleshing this out to make it a fresh, vibrant, and truly new performance of all these pieces.
That’s gotta be a great place to be in. Everything you’re playing is essentially your “hit list”, and you have a long streak of hits. But as a music fan, only having heard one version of it, I’m excited to know how you can add to it, much like John Williams does. He’s well known for expanding on his existing material.
Oh, for sure, we’re doing expand pieces. What you’re not going to have is an exact replica of the pieces you’ve heard before. That was not the idea behind it. We’ll expand as much as we can and, for instance, speaking about Marvel properties, we will do the full “Marvel Fanfare” which has a new expanded suite. People only get to hear about 22 seconds of it before every Marvel movie. Same for the Universal Fanfare I did a few years ago.
But a lot of the other pieces are going to have a whole new level of intensity and variation whether it’s the Avengers, or Fast and Furious, or Far Cry, or Call of Duty. We’ll even go as far back as doing my Star Trek: Enterprise music. That’s a whole new thing too, in terms of the take on it.
One of the toughest jobs for composers, or any artist for that matter, is creating something from scratch. I love what you did for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I’m kind of bummed you aren’t returning for the sequel. Can you tell me how the hand-off occurred to Steve Jablonsky? Was it scheduling, interest, or something in between?
Basically, that landed at a funky time for me. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it being that schedules are what they are. Composers tend to never have a life outside of the studio because you’re always trying to be open to do everything that you can. I also have a really tight relationship with the original director, Jonathan Liebesman and in a sense it would have been even harder in a way if he were directing this one. But I still talk to all the people over there who are working on it, and they’re doing a great job, and Steve is one of my favorite guys in the world.
He’s really talented and he’s a good friend. He also has a great relationship with Michael Bay, so that kind of speaks for itself. [laughs] He seems like the obvious choice, but I really, really loved doing the first movie. I’m a big Turtles fan, and I really loved doing the song “Shell Shocked”. Scoring the first one was a blast, and in fact I’ll be performing music from that movie in the concert, so it will be my little nod to the new movie. And this new one is going to be awesome, I think people are really going to respond well to it.
You’re right about Jablonsky and Bay – they are, mostly, a package deal. But it reminds me of the times I’ve talked to Patrick Doyle. He’ll follow Kenneth Branagh wherever he goes even if it means leaving a successful series. But that’s something that you have to tell yourself, right? You don’t have to do everything in a series.
Exactly! You got a good point there, Marc. And I think that’s a really cool aspect to what we do. You can kind of have your hand in a series that you love, but to be able to do all of a series is always going to be difficult. I did not score Fast & Furious 6 for instance, but I was able to do Iron Man 3. So it’s great to be able to be in those areas, and really just be part of anything.
We’re all really lucky just to be able to write music for films in the first place, but certainly, no matter what it is, you put everything that you have into a film and it can stand on its own as its own score in a piece of music that people either love, or don’t, or somewhere in between. I think Turtles is one that I will always remember very fondly.
When you have a good working relationship with a director, and it’s not your first time around the block with each other, what discussions do you have when a movie isn’t exactly what you hoped for? Writing for GoSeeTalk, and other outlets, I have to be a little more critical, and so I honestly have to tell you that I was not a fan of that first Turtles. I love your music, and not just because I’m talking to you [laughs]. I honestly thought it was sensational, but the movie left me wanting.
This is my way of going about it. For me, part of the way my career has moved over time, and a part of being a little more established is that you do get booked before they shoot the movie. Most of the time that’s the case. So with any movie you have a relationship with either the director, or someone else, and you’re usually on board before you really know what the movie is going to be. So you have to go with the flow and bet on the talent of not just a director but also see how the studio treats the director, and allows his/her vision to be done.
There are so many moving parts in a movie it would make your head spin. It’s unbelievable! Everything from test screenings and test audiences, to producers who fight with directors who fight with executives, whatever. This is just in general on movies, we’re not talking about anything in particular.
So sometimes movies don’t turn out like you had hoped, but I don’t really know that until afterwards, because when I’m writing music for a movie, I have to dive into it as if every film is Citizen Kane, or E.T. And, [laughs] some of my most favorite, admired, or beloved music from film aficionados are actually from films that are not very well-reviewed. It’s kind of interesting, [laughs] but it does show that I don’t let off the gas regardless of the movie. So you have to put yourself in that mindset that this movie, whatever it is, deserves your full attention and talent.
Many times when I listen to a James Newton Howard score I say to myself, “I don’t think he’s watching the same movie” because his themes are so fantastic they just overshoot the narrative, characters and pretty much everything.
[Laughs] That’s funny! [laughs]. Some of my favorite scores are from really weird movies that didn’t work very well from other people. There are a lot of oddball movies that Jerry Goldsmith scored that are awesome scores, and John Barry the same, and there’s a rich history of these legendary composers doing films that were kind of awful at times.
I know what you mean about James. But I also know that he similarly gets onto a film before the film is shot because people want to lock him up and get him on board. One thing to be aware of is that any of those offers, when it’s that early, are real tough to tell the quality of the project. During that time period, scripts turn into all sorts of movies. I’ve seen scripts that were not particularly awesome turn into amazing movies and vice versa. So really, it’s an interesting but constantly moving target.
Since everyone has a different approach, tell me how you work. Do you like to dive into a script, or are you a treatment kind of guy? Or do you just like to see what’s on screen and then get to work?
I almost always dive into the script. For me, it’s something that I just find to be integral to the process because I think it’s needed for a couple of reasons. First, the films that I’ve been lucky enough to score are projects that I’ve known since I was younger – before I was even working towards being a film composer. I often want to read the script and be involved with any project because I want to know what happens.
That comes from being the big Marvel collector that I was growing up, so of course, I was like, “Okay what happens to Tony Stark? What happens to this character?”. So I feel like I’m the first kid on the block who gets to read this cool story, and you can chalk it up to a huge curiosity factor before it becomes a creative process. I’m just so curious where story lines go.
So that’s part of it. But when it comes to getting to work, I really like coming up with ideas really early on, and so I will even draw out some of my own storyboards when I’m reading a script. Then later I will sit down at the piano and start writing some things to what I’ve drawn.
I remember talking to Michael Giacchino and his standpoint is that if he reads a script, he gets ideas in his head that may or may not be what the film ends up looking like. So he likes to get a look at something as if he were an audience member.
That’s certainly a valid approach. But I just think there’s something about the script that, sometimes, provides things that you don’t see on camera. You get descriptions of what people are thinking, and often when you see the film you might have a camera push in on someone and they may have a very stoic look on their face. But the script could say things like “…as he contemplates his past, he recalls his lost love who abandoned him at 14 years old, and how he was never able to get over it”, or whatever it is. [laughs] Books are that way too, so scripts offer the same kind of background information and I find I can glean a little bit more off of the beats of the story by reading the script.
The scripts are of practical use to me because I started scoring films that were created from scratch. But fairly early on, I came face-to-face with an example of creating music from the written word when working to picture on Children of Dune. The opening of notes of Children of Dune, the theme for Arrakis, that came to me 12 years before, when I was just a kid. I used to read science fiction novels and write little things on the piano growing up, when I was 10 or 12. So I read that book and I had actually written down a motif for it and that’s actually the where the notes from the soundtrack came from – the little scribbles I did when I was a kid.
Wow, that’s awesome! But your career has progressed incredibly. Every time we talk, you’re always doing something new. If it’s not a sports theme, or a fanfare, it’s another Blockbuster score. But just short of Doritos calling you and saying “Hey, be our jingle writer”, or the Pope calling and asking “Hey, Brian will you write a theme for The Vatican?”…
…I have gotten those calls, I just haven’t followed up on them…[laughs]
I figured that was the case. [laughs] But a live concert is something new, and so is Madsonik. On that note, I really liked the Criminal score because it’s so different from your other works. I felt like I was back in the ’90s listening to Everything But the Girl, Nine Inch Nails, and the score to Speed. It’s focused and pensive music, so how did you decide on that palette?
I think the important thing to do is not get in too much of a lane with your instrument palette. When scoring films, it should naturally be different. I really like changing up the size of the orchestra for instance – I don’t have a go-to orchestra. I also like having a really small orchestra which gives a different sound…if you can manage it that is. Sometimes you get pressure to make it as “big” as possible, and in certain films that certainly works. But with this movie, I thought it would be dressed with the wrong clothes to be done in a big orchestral fashion. It didn’t feel right to go big.
It took some convincing to do something different, but to do something with a lot of synths really made sense to me and influences for that score came from, like you said Speed as well as Thief, and then Escape From New York, and Blade Runner. Then it goes all the way up to the ’90s with how synthesizers were used very deliberately as a palette, instead of trying to emulate orchestras – analog synthesizers that were outboard instead of ones that were in the computer.
The cool thing is that they feel more “human”, but they are also problematic because they don’t stay in tune. They actually go wildly out of tune. For instance, the CS80 that Vangelis would use is so cantankerous. But that is the sound – you are struggling with this instrument to make and keep it in tune. It also has all sorts of white noise and hiss as a baseline for when the synthesizer is on, but when you have pop synthesizers in a computer, it cleans up the sound a lot. It makes it perfect, and it gets rid of the hiss and always stays in tune. But humans don’t act that way.
Humans go out of tune when they sing or when they play a violin, so that synthesizer being slightly out-of-tune is what makes it feel “present”. That’s where the idea for this score came from. We wanted to make something that was, by design, in the electronic world but felt as human as possible.
If you could go back and tell 10 year old Brian that one day you’d be doing a certain project, what would you have never believed possible?
That happens on a regular basis and that’s what’s so crazy because from the get-go. I’m a huge, huge, huge Star Trek fan. I have seen, multiple times around, every season of every Star Trek including the animated series, to Deep Space Nine, to Voyager, to you name it…many times. If you start doing the numbers on the years that all those series ran, including the original, you are talking about a good amount of my life that has been spent watching Star Trek. [laughs] So when it came around that Paramount called and asked “Do you want to score some Star Trek?”, I said “Of course!!”. There’s a pinch me moment right there, and my second response was, “Can I tour the Enterprise?”.
And it happens over and over, especially with Marvel. I grew up collecting those comics, and seeing that the Avengers sequel was going to have Vision blew my mind. Everything I’m doing in my career is just bananas.
Even in the handful of game scores I’ve done, Call of Duty, Need for Speed, Lego, and Assassin’s Creed, these are all serieses I played before I scored them. It’s pretty bizarre for me to be faced with playing the beta version of the game before everyone else gets to. But for me, that’s like half the draw. [laughs] So it consistently happens, and I get to work with people that I idolize too.
So we know that you grew up reading sci-fi and comics, but what else can you tell us about yourself and hobbies when you’re not on the clock? What was your favorite movie of last year, do you have favorites this year? What do you like to do in your free time?
Free time? What’s that? I hear other people talk about it.[laughs] One thing I love to do, aside from movies, is music. I’ll try to see everything out there, and some of the ones from last year I loved are Spotlight, and The Revenant, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Deadpool this year. I get into these films as a film fan and a music fan. But another thing I love doing is going to concerts, music festivals, and going to see a wide range of musicians – everything from classical concerts to seeing Gesaffelstein do a crazy dark techno set. There’s so much going on at all times, even your heroes growing up, and I’ve gone to so many concerts in the last year. Probably the thing I do the most is go to see music.
I’m a desiner at an Architecture firm and we’re designing an Omni hotel for the Dallas Cowboys here in Texas. But when I leave work at 7 or 8 o’clock, the last thing I want to do is more design, or anything related to the trade. So it’s great that you keep at it after hours.
Oh yeah, definitely! I’ll be at Coachella checking out the different artists, but I also like being on stage too, and doing shows with Madsonik. But at the same time, I really love being in the audience. So I never really want to lose that enthusiasm and feeling I had when I was a kid watching movies, or seeing a great band. Each experience inspired me musically growing up.
If there’s one artist you’re excited to see live, who would that be? Or if it’s someone you think highly of, or just discovered, who is that?
I’m going to give a shout out to a band called Other Lives. They are an indie folk band in the lane of Radiohead but really beautiful songs, great writing, and completely underrated. I’ve seen them probably four or five times in the last few years. So I’ll give them a shout out. [laughs] They are awesome and they deserve to be heard!
For me, I’m pretty big into Le Matos at the moment – they’re a band from Toronto who score Turbo Kid – and I also like Ghost Beach.
Yeah, it’s really cool to be part of something that not very many people know about. But then you find a couple people who do and it’s like “Right on! There’s other people like me!”,[laughs] and it becomes a communal kind of thing.
I really like many other smaller bands, and you go around, not finding many people who know what you’re talking about. But then you go to one of their shows and there they are – all these people who listen to the same music you do. Yeah, it’s something I’m definitely down with.
Thanks to Brian for his time. For info on the concert, and to get tickets to the show, click this link for details.