Bill Brown is a composer for film, TV, and video games. He recently started writing the score for SyFy’s Dominion, and took some time to sit down and talk with us about the new job, how he got where he is, and the passion that pushes him forward. You can find his music at http://billbrownmusic.com/.
Nerdspan: How are you?
Bill Brown: I’m doing great. I actually just finished a really, really fun flashback sequence for Dominion. The episodes are getting more and more cinematic. It started epic, the whole idea is that Season 2 starts really epic, but it’s really next-level when we get halfway through the season. I think the fans are gonna be awestruck.
NS: So, you came into this show on Season 2. When you came on, were you working within some of the sounds and textures that the show had already established, or did you immediately start forging new ground?
BB: That’s a great way to put it…forging new ground. I basically treated it like any of my other film or TV projects. I met with Vaun Wilmott, the show’s creator, and we discussed the types of music that we loved, and we discussed the show, and where season 2 was going, and that first night after I met him, I had three big themes already in my head. I actually dreamed a couple of the really important ones, which I don’t really do a lot, but I woke up with “Michael’s Theme” and “The Chosen One,” and ran into my studio to get them into the computer. I sent Michael’s Theme over to Deran Sarafian, who was over in Cape Town directing / filming, and he actually played my demo of Michael’s Theme during the filming of the big Mallory sword battle sequence from eps201with Michael battling the 8-balls. He was inspired to approach the action score and the season in general in unexpected ways. Michael’s theme is very emotional, and he’s playing it over the battle sequence to inspire the actors. And since, I’ve been in contact with some of the actors on Twitter and they’ve been really responsive. It’s been a really cool process!
NS: The reason I bring it up, it sounds like to some degree, your music has become this integral part of the creative process, though.
BB: Yeah, it was present throughout the filming, I was working on the early versions of the themes and all the early ideas as they were filming. I’m lucky that I had a couple of months to ease my way into it, because it allowed me to create this palette of character themes and ideas. Then I got the first cut and we got to see what actually worked. So my demo of Michael’s theme, as I started to flesh it out, became something much bigger and more complex, and I added electric guitars, cello and electric cello, and the modular synths.. all kinds of stuff that wasn’t in the demo, and it turned into the theme that everyone heard in the season 2 premiere, and can see videos of Tina performing in the studio. on my YouTube channel!
NS: So, I was going to ask about that. I saw that on your Facebook page, and it was just awesome. It sounds like a lot of the score is live performers? I know you do a lot with Logic Pro, and with Kontakt.
BB: Yeah, I do. I’ve got about five days to get each episode done, sometimes a little less. We’re not set up with a schedule and budget for orchestra. I bring in players to sweeten the score, but the orchestra stuff you hear is just me in the studio, with Logic and Kontakt and all that, and then I’ll bring in awesome performers like Tina Guo, who plays cello on some of the cues, just to add that magic and emotion that she adds. I’ll also have guitarists like George Doering come in and play guitar parts. I play a bit of guitar, but he brings this enormous amount of experience to it that I don’t have, piano is my main instrument. I have him play a lot of that rocking guitar stuff, and for the love theme, the classical guitar sound is George. I also did an ethnic wind session with Chris Bleth a couple of weeks ago playing ney and duduk for some of the flashback sequences. It’s really great to have those live players, even if it’s just a few; it just adds and incredible amount of dimension to the score.
NS: I think technology has advanced to the point that you can do a lot by yourself, and it’s fun, and it’s amazing, the things that one person can do. But there’s still something emotionally rewarding about getting to create with people, you know? I think there’s kind of a bond there, you’ve got this thing you can point to and say, “We brought this thing into existence.”
BB: I totally agree. That’s exactly how I look at it. And it goes further when you get to play with an orchestra, or with the caliber of players that I get to record with on Dominion, it takes it all to the next level. It’s better and better, each step that you take. And it’s enjoyable for us as composers, too. It’s the experiences that make up your career, and your life.
NS: So you got your professional start doing sound design, and you’ve talked some about your experiences there. Is that correct?
BB: It’s interesting. I’ve been doing music my whole life. When I moved to LA and to pay the bills I did sound design and sound effects editing for a year and a half, working on Hercules and Xena. And then I actually switched over to the mix stage, I was actually sound editing on David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and mixing some cool HBO stuff, so the first two years I was here, I kind of paid the bills doing that, and that was totally cool and fun. And then a friend introduced me to Scott Gershin over at Soundelux, and that’s when I did the demos for Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and DreamWorks Interactive’s Trespasser: The Lost World. I did those both at the same time, and those were both AAA titles, and so my game career, in a matter of weeks was completely on autopilot and stayed that way for nine years. And for most of that, I was doing four or five games a year, while I was doing smaller film and TV projects. And in 2004, when CSI:NY came up. That summer I was doing four games at the time, and I was demoing for CSI: New York, and got that, and I had to make the choice, because I had to focus the energy towards being on this new endeavor. it was the first television show I’d ever done was this humongous franchise, so I had to pull back a little bit and refocus myself. I moved out of Soundelux and built my own little studio and got to work, and that was the next nine years of my life, apart from the other projects that I fit in on hiatus, etc. Eventually I was doing games like Captain America: Super Soldier at the same time that I was scoring CSI:NY.
NS: Yeah, I was listening to some of your early film work, everything from Any Given Sunday to the Lady Death movie.
BB: Those were the things that were happening while I was at Soundelux. The people at Soundelux were kind enough to introduce me to Oliver Stone, and Michael Mann. So I sat down with Michael Mann to talk with him about his film Ali, and here I am, in my twenties scoring the final reel of a Michael Mann film. It was surreal. I was having a blast with all of it. I was having so much fun, and meeting so many new people. That was the great thing about being a music director at Soundelux those years. I got to meet all of these directors and producers. It was a really great phenomenon, to have that gig. A lot of composers, like I’m doing right now, sit in our rooms and write our music, and hope someone calls us, and there, every day I was meeting new people, talking to them about what I was doing. You can imagine, if that’s happening every day, you’re easily doing ten or more projects a year. But then I had to make choices, focus in. But that was a series of crazy, early things I helped one of the music editors out with. I didn’t do the whole scores for Any Given Sunday and Ali; I just helped out some. Lady Death was a fun one to score, very epic!
NS: I’ve seen you doing a lot of press, and it’s interesting how much has fallen to composers. Now that one person can compose, sample all these instruments, recording, mixing, mastering, hitting the pavement to the press, it seems like a lot. It was easier to find interviews with you than a lot of even big-name composers from Old Hollywood, you don’t see their names in magazines that much.
BB: Well, they didn’t really have to. They met that one director, or two directors if they were really lucky, who were doing cool work, and they grew up with them. They evolved with their careers and got to fly alongside them. It really comes down to this: In this day and age, we as composers are responsible for making the connections and getting the next gigs. We have our teams. I’m fortunate enough to have a wonderful manager and a PR company now, and these things work in service of that goal. The composers that we grew up with that we love, they made those early career-changing relationships. That really is what it’s about. My relationship with Deran, we started doing a Budweiser spec commercial, and then my first TV movie, and a couple of years later he called me for CSI:NY, and then this Spring he called me for Dominion season 2. I’ve talked about this a little bit in past interviews, and I find it to be a very interesting topic. I’m still kind of in the middle of it myself, even at this juncture in my career. I’m working all of the aspects of my career, and somewhere in there I have to compose the music. But you’re right, we have to be experts in everything that’s related to what we do to move our careers along.
NS: So, speaking of the press trail, what’s one thing in all the interviews you’ve done that you’ve wanted someone to ask you that they haven’t yet? Is there some part of this that you’ve been excited to talk about and haven’t had a chance to?
BB: I feel like I’ve sort of answered the questions about how I got where I’ve gotten pretty much in the same way. I’ve talked a lot about Soundelux, because it’s the starting point. You have to understand the reality of the work I had to do. But the thing that I don’t answer as much is that underneath that, the whole time, doing all of that work, I was pushing myself because of my passion for films, and film music. I always thought I’d be scoring films out of the gate. That as my dream when I was a kid. So I was always trying to take my work to the next level, to a film quality level every day. And to this day, I feel like I’m still doing the same exact thing. I had this dream. I guess that’s the thing, I’ve maybe said it once or twice in interviews over all of these years, but that energy is what has been driving me all these years. My love of this music, and this medium, and my passion for the medium. I grew up loving it so much. I felt like I was transported…watching Indiana Jones, I loved these things so much. That’s the thing that continues to pull me through. Even this week, working on cues for Dominion’s second season, I feel like I have breakthroughs, and I hit new plateaus in my work. It’s so exciting and rewarding. Honestly, I don’t know how the music compares to my previous work. I feel like those magic moments doing the work, every day, that’s what truly brings me happiness. And hitting those new plateaus, and finding new ideas and adding new dimension to the scenes that I’m working on, that’s what makes this so great and so interesting.
NS: And to me, that’s the fun part. The passion. Part of the reason I’m into all of this in the first place is because I love the look people get in their eyes when they talk about something they truly care about. Even when it’s something that I’m not personally into, but when someone’s fire is lit, you can tell, and it’s rewarding.
I know I need to let you go, but you just mentioned like six things I wanted to talk about. You’ve talked about a lot of influences in a lot of interviews, and I would love to hear how they inform the Dominion Season 2 score.
BB: Yeah. It’s all in there. I mean, everything that we grew up with, everything we take in. I think the things we love about music, and about films or television, even games…the things we love and embrace the most, and have studied, and are passionate about, that just becomes part of our vocabulary. And then we turn that into what we do. In whatever way we want to turn it, and create something fresh. But all of that, the impressionists, the 20th century modern, all of that goes into it, and I think it all shows up somewhere.
NS: Well, and that’s it. I mean we talk about being excited and comparing what we’re doing with our previous work, but maybe it’s “how much was I able to distill the things I care about and put out something that’s still me?”
BB: Something soulful. Exactly. My assistant and I were sitting here going through some of the themes I came up with for Dominion S2, and saying, “you know what’s working about a lot of this?” It’s that there’s mystery in it, even for he and I. That listening back to a lot of the material, there still remains mystery, you can’t exactly put your finger on what that progression is, where it came from, or where it’s heading. You could say it a bunch of different ways, but there’s something magical in it even for me, and I guess that’s what I’m striving for every time I’m sitting down to write. And I guess what I’ve learned after all these years is that if there’s something in there that’s that way for me, there’s something in there that will translate into something valuable to the audience as well.
NS: I have sincerely enjoyed talking to you. Thank you so much.
BB: It’s been great talking to you too.