|Award winning composer Adam Zelkind during his interview|
at the 2011 TAXI Road Rally.
Adam Zelkind is an eight-time award-winning composer who has created cutting edge music for over 550 television hit episodes. Adam’s success lies in his ability to create a distinct signature sound for each show. His composer credits include: Rock of Love, Flavor of Love, I Love Money, Real Chance of Love—anybody see a theme?—The Surreal Life, MTV’s From G’s to Gents for executive producer Jamie Foxx, I Love New York, Charm School, My Fair Brady, and Outback Jack.
Adam’s awards include ASCAP’s 2009 and 2010 Most Performed Underscore and Themes and Top Series for Rock of Love, I Love Money, and Rock of Love Bus. As well as BMI Awards for The Surreal Life, Outback Jack, and Hogan Knows Best.
Let’s talk about non-musicians trying to describe to you what they want? Do you get a lot of “Make it more ‘purple,’ and give me more of this.”? And how do you deal with that?
“Can you make it snappier?” “Yeah, of course, man. What do you mean by snappier though?” It’s like everyone’s definition of snappy is different I think.
So how do you deal with that? How do you interpret what they ask for in order to give them what they want and what will work well with picture?
Yeah. You know, sometimes there are people who are great. I’m working with somebody right now, a director, who is very clear, and I said, “Thank you for being so clear, because it’s not always like this.” If they could do a song and say that is the vibe they like, that’s helpful, and different from, “Oh, just rip this off.” It’s just wonderful to have that guidance. Either that, or if they will give you the freedom, that’s also good. But what I teach my daughter—she does this also—is that the music is the easy part and the fun part. The hard part is not saying what you’re thinking when you’re having meetings with network executives and directors and producers.
Say it’s a new show and you’re deciding what the musical signature and texture of the show is going to be and you present it to them—how do you ingest the feedback they give you and—obviously they’re right because they’re writing the checks—but how often are they actually right? Do they have good feedback for you? Do you have to bite your lip and blood starts dripping down your chin and you just walk out of the room and cash your check?
Yeah, I’ve got a lot of scars on my lip.
And is that why when I get a text from you at three o’clock in the morning, are you refining due to the insanity that they present you, or are you creating at three o’clock in the morning?
Both. Lately, I’ve been creating. I go in there to turn off the studio and decide that I’m gonna listen to what I’ve done just one more time. And before you know it I hear, “Dad, I’ve got to go to school.” And I had just gone to bed 37 minutes before, because I just get into it. I like to make it great. I think everyone likes to make it great. But “If it has to be this good, make it that good” is kind of my motto. Just make sure you love it. Then when you get rejected by somebody, which you will—people are always gonna be chucking spears at you—you just go, “I don’t care if they didn’t like it. I know it’s great.” So make something you can own in your heart. I firmly believe that, because you can’t go wrong with that. Even if it didn’t work for that show or that record, then you have that. You know you did it, and you can put it on in your truck when you’re driving on the 405 sitting in traffic and you’ll be like, “Yeah, this is good!” [applause]
I know you to be a guy of tremendous integrity. I’m absolutely certain of that. Do you ever feel like you’ve sold your soul to make those guys happy? Or do you bite your lip, drive your truck, and do just what you described?I have two avenues that I drive down. One is my songs that I won’t change for anyone, and I just write them because I want to write them, and if they want to license it for their show or their movie, or whatever, here you go. It is what it is. But if they offer to pay me money and I go in with the understanding that it’s my job to do what they want, I’ll do what I mentioned before, and I’ll try and save them from themselves if they start going toward the edge.
I have walked from some shows. Even I have a point, you know. This is what they said to me: “We want Midwestern housewife watered-down wallpaper.” After that, I said, “You got the wrong guy. You should go to a music library.” And they did, and they thanked me very much. I guess they went to a music library, and I was very glad, because then the world isn’t hearing that music and seeing my name and they’re like, “God, this guy writes stuff for Midwestern housewives, and it’s kind of watered down and like wallpaper.” I don’t want that, you know? [laughter]
So you do have artistic integrity? Not just personal integrity.
Yeah, that being mixed with the fact if I accept a job, I’ll try to do my best to do what they want. But, yeah, there are occasionally times when they’ll just wreck stuff.
When you write songs with co-writers, how is it for you to collaborate? Do you ever have to go through the lip-biting exercise? Or do you look at that as a completely different animal and it’s more give-and-take?
Well, first of all, what I’m sayin’ to myself most of the time is, “I can’t believe they let me in the door of this building with these people.” Because all the people I write with, I mean, I’m just amazed at other people’s talent. What I’ve learned is that, when you’ve got a great idea or any idea, put it out there, and when the other writer has something that’s great, be humble enough to step out of the way and let them pedal that bicycle, and you jump on the back. Then you’ll come back again the next time and you’ll bring something. But, yeah, be confident and be humble, and just know that you guys are both there to do something great together—to create greatness. It’s like going into therapy sometimes, you know. You come out of there and you’re diggin’ deep—good songwriters and co-writers are brave. It’s great because you’re sharing stuff that you’d be paying $275 for a 45-minute session with a shrink, and you’re just sharing it with someone you know, or maybe you don’t know. You’re not paid right away, but you’re paid in other ways immediately, and then maybe you’ll make money.
Do you ever come up with signature motif for shows, where the show gets its own motif, and then within that motif, you create like sub-motifs for each character?
Absolutely. Every show that I’ve done, within three seconds you can kinda tell. It will be like boom. Like Flavor Flav just had a vibe. He’s an interesting guy.
What’s he like to hang out with?
I got the longest hug that I’ve ever gotten from any other human from Flavor Flav. [demonstrates] He’s a funny guy. He’s got better hats then me. His hats have horns on them. But he has a sound for that show. And Bret Michaels, he’s a big rock star, and he has a “thing.” But I said, “We’re gonna create a sound for him, so when you mix rock & roll with cartoon music, it’s like wow. It’s a thing and it’s huge—the motif thing—and then the characters, even the sub-characters, when they have a sound, I’m totally into doing that. It really helps your show so much. One of the network execs came up to me at a shindig and said, “Adam, I just want to say that your music is one of the characters of the shows that you work on, and we really appreciate that.” And I was like, “Thanks, can I have a raise?” [laughter]
The night you and I met, I went up to my hotel room later and Googled you. I wanted to hear some of your work. I watched an episode of Flavor Flav, and one of the other ones. I sat there with a huge smile on my face because I was amazed at the quality of the work you’ve done. Your music actually elevates those shows a lot. That guy was right. And you’re so dexterous—not missing anything. That was the other thing I quickly noticed inside of five minutes. It was like, “Wow, I can’t believe he thought to add those extra two notes.” As a character walked around a corner, as they took a step, you actually had two notes that went da-da. You punctuated the visual so well—musical punctuation. So how do you learn that stuff?
Just lucky, I guess.
Well that helps them [the audience] out a lot. Thanks for stopping by! [laughter]
I don’t know the exact scene, or whatever, but sometimes maybe it was luck, like the editor happened to use my music. Since I was a video editor for 10 years, I write on levels. So if there’s a good editor and he’s using that music, he’s digging down to maybe level four or five. And if it’s someone who might be still ramping up, they might just think it’s a song, and it’s a fast song, and they might have level one. So I write on different levels and try to put in “cuts” for them. Sometimes, if I write a cue, I can cut the scene for them before it’s been cut, because they can do the picture cuts to that. It’s not always just scoring the music. Sometimes I’ll write the music, then they’ll actually cut picture to it with those kinds of shows.
That’s probably great fun! You’re mentally doing the editing, so you’re already a couple of steps ahead.
I did get a really good response from the editors from that. They said, “You cut my show for me.” And I’m like, “Really? I don’t remember walkin’ out my door.” But it’s a good thing having that experience, you know? It’s all about rhythm and vibe, whether you’re an editor, or if you’re a composer, or a songwriter.
And how many different instruments do you play?
Will I play? Or do I play? I’ll play anything!
Anything with strings, I would imagine.
Yes, I play many kinds of guitars, and we have drum sets and basses. My daughter [Zoe] plays cello. Child labor laws, you know, so I haven’t done the cello too much. But I used a Sparkletts water bottle on a show once. It was a perfect D. You hit it and it goes booooommm. It was like, wow, this is good, and then I just like built cues around it. Anything that makes noise. Zoe would always get me these little toys for Father’s Day and stuff. Remember that little thing that went varoom? Well, that was on… I don’t remember which show or who was on the show, but people laughed when they heard it.
You and Zoe should do a reality show. I have the pleasure of knowing his daughter Zoe, and she’s awesome and wonderful—nothing like her dad, but somehow strangely congruent. You know what I mean?
Yeah, but her hairline isn’t receding. [laughter]
How much do you sleep on average per night?
Not enough. I easily work until somewhere between 2 and 5:30 in the morning.
Then tell everybody what time you get up to take Zoe to school.
Well, except for late-start days, we’re usually up about seven-ish, I’d say. So sleeping I haven’t done as well on as I should have. [laughter]
The reason I ask him that is to show the incredible commitment that… Look, anybody in this room could potentially be Adam Zelkind and live the life. I mean, Adam would be the first guy to tell you this.
Don’t know if you want to do that, by the way…
But it didn’t just happen because he’s this cool, awesome, warm-and-fuzzy guy. It happened because he’s an incredibly hard-working guy.
I do work hard. There’s no other way that I know of other than doing it—whatever you’re doing, you know? Look at what you’ve created—this thing [TAXI and the Road Rally]. By the way, you guys, the reason that I didn’t initially start paying attention to TAXI was I always saw the TAXI ads in the magazine, and I thought, “Ah, another one of those things that rips the musicians off.” So I didn’t even read it or ask about it or anything. And then I just started asking about it and I heard all this good stuff and I thought, OK, I gotta find this TAXI guy and ask him some questions. I’m gonna find out where he’s screwing everyone…and he’s not! I couldn’t believe it! But then I said, “OK, then you take the publishing, right?” And he’s like, “No.” And I ran out of angles where he could have been doing it. So the fact that you guys are here and doing this, I think this is really smart of you and cool. And I kinda wish that I had done it a long time ago, because I wouldn’t have been broke for as long, I don’t think. So it’s really good, and it’s… Can I just like preach for a minute?
You can do anything you want.
Believe in yourselves and do what you think is great, and don’t try and be the next John Williams, or whoever. Learn from these people and study them, and learn the rules and study them, and then shatter them, and make what you think is fun music or great music or sad or happy music or whatever. I think that that is what really stands out, and that’s what made it work for me—doing that and putting together the things that you’re supposed to. You know, death metal or orchestral music wasn’t typically a thing that was supposed to go well together. Aboriginal music with hip-hop, or country and hip-hop—which I’ve done a lot of—wasn’t supposed to work, and it just did. So make it work. Find that place inside you that makes you feel comfortable and want to play it, like I mentioned, in your car or your truck as you’re driving. You hear it and you’re not feeling the urge to vomit, that you really love it. I think that’s a good healthy approach. [applause]
Make sure to read Part 3 in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!