Interview…Film and TV Composer John Swihart Discusses Scoring ‘How I Met Your Mother’

How I Met Your Mother HeaderCBS’ wildly popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother is nearing its end and kicks off its 9th and final season this evening. Prior to the premier of tonight’s episode we got to chat with the show’s composer John Swihart to talk about his work on the show. In addition to How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM for short) his other credits of more than 40 films include Youth in Revolt, Employee of the Month,  For A Good Time Call… and Napoleon Dynamite which was his breakout project.

John has been playing music from a very young age and his early influences are across the board ranging from Miles Davis, Gershwin, Stravinsky and Ravel, to such bands as The Residents, The Dead Kennedys, Gang of Four and Captain Beefheart. After performing in numerous bands John auditioned for the Boston production of Blue Man Group. The Blue Man Group experience found John working with some of the best musicians he’d ever met where he played Chapman Stick, Bass, Guitar and Zither in the Boston, New York and Las Vegas shows.

In addition to writing the music for each episode of HIMYM, John does background vocals on the main title song as well as producing the songs that are used in various episodes. He often sings background on these songs too and plays bass guitar. With the clock winding down on HIMYM John is still very busy with upcoming projects including the new CBS series We Are Men starring Tony Shalhoub and Kal Penn and the upcoming feature film adaptation of Dean Koontz’s best-selling novel Odd Thomas.

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 – John, after 9 seasons How I Met Your Mother is coming to an end. Can you talk briefly about the longevity of the show as well as your thoughts on why it has become such a popular and endearing series? Further, did you ever imagine you’d be doing something for this length of time? I mean, what’s it like to have worked on something for 9 years?

I think the writers deserve most of the credit here. Obviously the cast has a special chemistry with the Director, and the rest of the crew are all top notch. It’s just an amazing team of people to be working with. I have such a great feeling when I get to go to the stage and watch them all work together. This vibe is something that comes from Carter and Craig, the creators of the show.

Watching the show evolve since its start and being part of the creative process has been a wonderful gift to my writing and storytelling. I hope to have such a terrific opportunity again in the future.

 – You seem like you’re always working, which is probably a good problem to have right? Around 2010 it appears you began to focus more on TV work. Do you now prefer that type of work? Also, with so much going on, what responsibilities do you take on when writing music and which do you hand off to others?

John SwihartMost of the films that I was doing were independent films so when the indie film market took a hit form the economy, I took on more TV. I wish I was doing more film right now. Music for film and music for television are similar but very different in process. I would not trade one for the other because they are both a lot of fun.

 – As far as your schedule, how do you juggle TV work, which I’m told is a non-stop grind, versus scoring films which is about a month, give or take a week, and then you’re done? Also, tell us about your mindset approaching them both individually.

Films can be 3 weeks or 6 weeks or 3 months or 6 months depending on what kind of film it is. When I score a film I usually score the whole film once and when I get to the end I know what will work so I go back and score it again using the elements that I discovered the first time through that resonate with the storyline, characters and visuals. TV is a weekly delivery and you’re only lucky enough to have some flexibility at the beginning of the show, like last month when I started on the new show We Are Men. There is an evolution
We Are Men CBS to a TV score just like there is with a film score but everyone gets to see your “rough” concepts.

The traditional sit-com has nothing but transitions, but that’s not what How I Met Your Mother is. There is always something specific going on that needs to be felt or enhanced with the music in addition to the transitions. There is usually a moral compass to every episode that presents itself towards the end of the show which is almost always scored. With that said, you won’t find any 4 minute cues in this show but there are cues that are over a minute quite often. On other single camera shows like Go On or We Are Men we tend to score even more.

 – Much of your resume is comedy-based. Do you find comfort and contentment in these plucky stories/shows, or are you looking to branch out into other genres that necessitate different sound and styles?

Well Napoleon Dynamite was what put me on the map so once you have a hit, you’re that guy that did that thing and that’s how everyone sees you in “the business”. This is why I am busy, and I am grateful for that. Comedy makes me laugh while I am working, and I have to say I feel lucky to be able to do so much of it. I’ve done a lot of dramas including “The Other Woman” and recently a lot of electronic thriller material in “Odd Thomas” and “Mischief Night”. Some of these have not come out and some are not as big of a hit as Napoleon or HIMYM so I suspect people will continue to see me as a a comedy composer until I have another hit that is not a comedy.

 – There will be some over lap between HIMYM ending and the start of the new show on which you’re working. So tell us what we can look for from “We Are Men” that stars Tony Shalhoub and Kal Penn. More specifically, aside from plot, what’s expected of you, what’s your approach and how does this project present new challenges for you?

We Are Men_Penn Shaloub O'Connell

“We Are Men” is a very strong show with terrific writing, and a great cast. There will be lots of roomy guitars, interesting rhythms, and maybe some sitar for Tony’s character because he is such a Zen Master. There is so much great music out there today that is very retro sounding in the way it is produced, and that is what we will be going for as a vibe. Very masculine but not “macho”.

 – If you had the chance, what themes would you like to go back and revisit if the film were to get a prequel/sequel or if a show were to be renewed?

This is something I don’t think about until it actually happens.

 – OK, fair enough. Finally, tell us what got you interested in music, who were your earliest influences and and what kept you moving towards becoming a composer?

I watched a lot of movies as a child. Maybe this is why I eventually gravitated towards story telling but I was always drawn to music. It consumed my thoughts and when I realized I could make people feel something through music that is all I wanted to do. My influences are too many to name here but basically it includes everything I have listened to on my journey to where I am today. There is a lot of great music out there that inspires me today.

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The 9th and final season of How I Met Your Mother premieres on September 23rd on CBS. We Are Men series premier airs on Monday September 30th only on CBS.