By Gregg Stephens
What compelled you to start making music?
My father had quite a diverse album collection, and in my early teens I remember my father playing an album he loved “Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein” and I was completely mesmerized by this. I wore that LP out…I was sold right then and there. A few years later, I heard the Patrick Williams album “An American Concerto”… I loved the mix of genres…the colours, that rhythm section!!! Those two albums (and composers) inspired me throughout my college days and later, career. It drove me into this industry, to try and push some boundaries…to take risks, and unapologetically be adventurous in my writing.
What was your first instrument and what instruments do you play?
My first studied instrument was trumpet, and while at college we also had to take functional keyboard (although I sometimes call my technique an oven-mitt approach)… I also studied with Jimmy Bruno (jazz guitarist from Buddy Rich) on guitar. In my youth I also played and taught in several Drum Corps…so I was always hanging around great drummers and percussionists, and so, picked up a lot of concepts, and knowledge from those teachers/educators/players. These days most of my session work is on guitar.
What lead you to become a composer for media? Did you expect to end up in this field?
I can’t say I ever expected to end up in this field. Although I always had dreamed of it. I started as a jingle writer. That really was the beginning for me. I was hired on by a music house in Toronto, Canada, and spent 10 years writing jingles and ads – probably hundreds of commercials. And that was an eye opener for me. I was mentored by some of the best ad guys in Canada…and I was completely schooled by them. When I started, I was amazed on the speed and creativity of the guys. They taught me the ropes, the do and don’ts…I got put in my place, torn down, and built back up. And after 5 years or so I ended up being the head writer for the company. They taught me so much…..I’m very thankful for them. After 5 years as the main writer, I was burning out on ad stuff, I felt I needed a new challenge. So I went into long format – TV series/Film, and started out on my own only doing long format and stopped the jingle work.
Do you prefer working alone or as a collaborative process? Do you interact closely with the production team as you shape a score or prefer a more solitary workflow?
Depends on the gig really…I’ve been involved in many writers camps for the labels, and those can be quite fun…back to actually putting an instrument in your hands and playing with other human beings. These days, because of budgets and time constraints (in TV land) you spend quite a lot of time by yourself in a room writing…and that can get quite uninspiring after a while. So, to answer the question, I love writing/playing with others when I can get the chance!! It’s just harder to manage that with the tight deadlines…
What styles of music or particular artists compel you most? How do you feel those influences have consciously or unconsciously shaped your sound?
I’ve always been attracted to groups/composers that have been a little outside the box. From Stravinsky, to Zappa, Amon Tobin, Weather Report, to John Cage. Unique blends of palettes and tonal colours really attract my ear. Whether it be classical or industrial grunge… But to relax and rinse my palette, I always come back to the jazz greats – my regulars on my playlists are Miles, Bill Evans, and Coltrane…
What inspires you to compose? Do you sit down and just see where the mood takes you or is it more methodical?
Coming from a big jazz background, I believe I do my best sketching improvising… and with different instruments. Because that can change my approach very quickly. If you’re a guitar player, and that’s only what you write on, you’ll always be coming from that angle, and sometimes I find that can handcuff you or box you into a corner pretty quickly. So, I like starting out with an instrument I’m not so schooled in…it forces me to think differently. To work around my inabilities at that instrument, and come up with ideas I never would have come up with on one of my main instruments. Later on…I may bring it back to guitar (for example) but by then, it would have been all flushed out.
Do you thrive on the pressure of deadlines or prefer a more relaxed pace?
I prefer a deadline… I like the pressure. For me, I like that it forces me to go with my gut, and to not over-think a concept or idea. I can also procrastinate like no other – so a deadline keeps me in check.
What do you fear most when starting a new project?
To be honest, I think what every composer does – “I hope they like this”
Congratulations on the Juno Award win! How was the whole experience of being nominated and winning? What's your personal take on awards in general?
It was pretty surreal. I didn’t even know the album was even entered! So, to have the album recognized like that was quite a surprise, and lovely. I’ve never been in this industry with a goal to be recognized or famous. I just always wanted to create something that was interesting to me. Something to challenge me, make me uncomfortable, and to overcome those fears and challenges…that’s success to me.
You've scored some very different genres of film and television. Is there a particular film genre or type of scene you most enjoy scoring?
I would say my favorite is action/drama… I like the emotional curves, and the nuances.
Your work on Orphan Black creates the perfect mood for the show. What has influenced or inspired your vision for the score?
The creators of Orphan Black had sent me a large playlist of songs/scores that they liked. And that certainly steered me into a direction that we are at now. It was just a matter of sorting through it all and finding out what within the material that they were reacting too. They had quite a collection of stuff – from modern minimalism to dubstep and electronica.
There's a lot of sound design in your score for Orphan Black. How did you create the unique sounds in Helena's theme?
Helena’s theme was born out of two ideas and one happy mistake. I knew going in that I wanted to approach her score in a John Cage sort of way. I also was playing with a 12 tone row idea that I was working on…but I was concerned that it may be a little ‘out there’ for the producers. I had also purchased these instruments from Folktek – these sort-of circuit bent things that produced some odd and unusual sounds. So while working with all these ideas – I sort of went with the Cage idea with a partial tone row….then I started adding the Folktek stuff in. And that was the magic… it became its own thing very quickly. The happy mistake was the screech sound that everyone remembers – that was a result of leaving a volume pedal up and the room monitors on…I got up to make a tea…came back, engaged record and bam! The screech was born and captured
Can you tell us a little bit about your studio set up?
I have two studio set ups…one in my home – more of a writers set up ….and one at my office downtown – that’s more of a typical studio setup. I’m using Mac’s, with your typical outboard gear (pre’s, compressors, etc), some vintage mics (Neumann u87, km 184s, Cole 4038, etc) Adams monitors, Euphonics artist series mixing controllers, several keyboard controllers/perc pads), RAID drives, lots of instruments.
How do you balance the use of sampled instruments and synths vs. live recordings?
I’m a large advocate of - every cue MUST have at least one live instrument in there somewhere. To me it glues a mix together and makes it breathe. Also, I like to create a lot of ambiences myself from organic sources – manipulating them after (stretching, pitching etc…) From the most simple of sources – my washing machine, music stand, pots and pans, bicycle spokes --- anything that’ll create a tone or percussion element. A technique that I learned from you guys – with your bonus ambiences.
Which Soundiron library do you find yourself using most?
I’ve been a big fan since the early Tonehammer days. So I have a fair amount. Some of my regulars and favorites would include…the Ambius Collection, Antidrum, Bowed Bucket Bass (a personal fav), Rust, Twine Bass (another fav), and Bizarre Sitar.
Any new projects that you can talk about?
Not yet…. there’s another series in the works, and a feature film…