Where did you grow up?
I was born in Southern California, but spent my formative years in Santa Cruz, California. After high school I returned to Southern California to attend college. I majored in music.
Do you come from a musical family?
Not really. My father had a great love for music, but my mother had very little. My dad played trumpet as a youth and later learned a little guitar. At one point he took Flamenco guitar lessons, but I have no idea what he was thinking. Flamenco was way too advanced for where he was skill-wise.
My father had an extensive record collection. He loved everything from Glenn Miller to Robert Goulet to Acker Bilk to Sabicas to Broadway show soundtracks to comedy records. One record that sticks with me the most, Marty Robbins singing El Paso. The guitar licks (Grady Martin) and the sound of his voice with that reverb. It was haunting. My dad’s been gone for 20 years now and whenever I hear this song I just tear up.
I came across a photo of my paternal grandfather – whom I never met – and he was pictured with a violin. I have no knowledge about his musical background, but it seemed pretty obvious this was a serious endeavor for him.
At no time did I feel like I was a gifted musical prodigy. I worked very hard to develop the skills I now have.
What was your first instrument, and how old were you when you began to play?
Guitar. I picked it up at age 9. I don’t recall why I wanted to play guitar, but I’m sure having my dad’s guitar around the house, plus his record collection must have had an influence on me. That and the Beatles. Everyone wanted to play guitar then. I started with formal guitar lessons and learned to read music from Alfred’s Guitar Method. I think I got through the first two books.
My parents also had a Hammond organ at one point. I remember goofing around with it and not understanding why I couldn’t get it to sound like the music I heard on records. I didn’t know at the time that the sound I was searching for came from the Leslie rotating speaker.
Were you ever in any garage bands?
No! While other kids were cutting their teeth jamming in garages and learning how to be creative I was still reading sheet music and playing only what was on the page. I didn’t play in my first band situation until I was out of high school and had started music college.
I pretty much only played acoustic guitar even though I had a really cheap Italian-made electric guitar. What a piece of crap it was! In high school I got interested in ragtime guitar and took lessons to learn to play the songs of Rev. Gary Davis as I was introduced to them by Hot Tuna. Hesitation Blues has always been one of my favorite numbers. After about a year of ragtime lessons my instructor encouraged me to learn jazz. This was very eye-opening to me. I worked very hard at it and used that training to win a spot in the jazz band when I got to college.
Has music always been your main source of income, or have you had other jobs?
Music has never been my main source of income. Maybe it was for some brief periods, but I always had to go back to a day job.
I was on the road in a Top-40 band when my lead singer wife became pregnant. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to support a family on a bar gig salary so I went back to school to learn a trade. I became a computer programmer. Although I’ve continued to pursue a full-time music career over the years and have had many successes, I still work in the computer field. I currently work for a major film studio in Los Angeles writing iPhone® apps for them.
When is the right time to give up your day job and pursue your dream full time? For me, with having a mortgage and a family to support I never felt that I could make the kind of sacrifices that are required to live that dream. My kids are now adults and out on their own, so it can still happen. Never say never.
As a source of income, doing production music is part of my retirement plan. It’s something that I can continue to do until the day I die. It’s one area of the music business where you don’t have to be young and beautiful to be successful.
I remember seeing a photo of you years ago with a guitar in your hands, so I’ve always thought of you as a guitar player. Yet, I know that you’ve had a pretty extensive career scoring for film and TV, and creating themes and cues for radio, TV shows, and even e-cards. Give us a list of all the instruments you play.
Guitar is my primary instrument, but I play piano pretty well now. Well enough to compose but not well enough to give piano recitals! I also play most stringed instruments: electric bass, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, and Dobro. I’ve gotten pretty good with a slide and an eBow. I tried to learn violin but could never master the bowing hand. I have played harmonica on recordings before, but I really wouldn’t put that one on my resume. I also play flute. Badly.
I’m left handed. The first time I picked up a guitar I held it in a left-handed manner. My guitar teacher said “No, no, no!” and promptly flipped the instrument over to a right-handed position. I’ve always wondered if given the opportunity to play left-handed if I would have been a better musician.
I ended up studying guitar at GIT, the Guitar Institute of Technology, what is now the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood. At that time they only taught guitar and bass. My goal was to become a studio session player. I would follow Tommy Tedesco around and hang out at many of his recording sessions.
I’ve always wanted to learn the harp. I’ve said that I’ll pursue it when I retire, but I don’t think I’ll ever retire. So we’ll see.
You actually do a lot more than film and TV music! What other types of musical endeavors have you been involved with?
I’ve never turned down a challenge if I felt I could do it. I’ve done a lot of work over the years for a music book publisher. I’ve done music engraving for several books, transcribed Gypsy Kings-style guitar performances for a book of Christmas songs, done audio restoration of rare Jimi Hendrix home recordings, performed ukulele songs for an accompanying CD, and recorded an album of cowboy songs sung by children.
Some years ago I had a company where we made websites. Some of those even needed some original music. We eventually branched off into making TV commercials and corporate training videos and they all needed original music. The company eventually turned into animated e-greeting cards. I scored all of the little animated cartoons for that. Some of those even aired on G4 TV.
Even in my app development I’ve focused on music-related tools for composers. One app, ClickBook, is based on the old Knudson Click Track Book. Ron Jones, the composer for the show Family Guy, still relied on this ancient technology of using a book and he started using my app. I later found out that the music editors at Fox are also using the app!
How the heck did you get hooked up with Mark and Brian, the morning show guys on KLOS?
They were a very popular morning radio duo here in Los Angeles for many years. At one point they had a producer that was so smart they gave him the nickname of Mr. Owl. They created a contest for listeners to create a theme song for Mr. Owl. I spent about five minutes coming up with a tune, and about a half hour writing silly lyrics for it. My entry won. That makes me an award-winning songwriter!
They also had another segment called “Ask Rita.” I took it upon myself to write a theme song for that since I had already established a relationship with them. I wrote a John Phillips Sousa-style march for it. They loved it!
Since I was on a roll I decided to write a theme song for the show itself. I drove down to their studios to deliver the DAT tape (remember those?) in person. They ended up doing an entire segment interviewing me on air. My 15 minutes of fame was now complete!
How and when did you transition into TV and film music?
I wish I had known when I started college that I should have majored in composition instead of guitar performance. I had always composed and my compositions were frequently selected for various recitals. But because the guitar was my passion, I didn’t really think about it too much at first.
I blame it all on MIDI. As soon as MIDI instruments and sequencers and drum machines became affordable I was hooked. I was always writing instrumental tracks. Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice soundtrack made a big impression on me. It was hip and modern. I was pretty sure I could do that.
I started to really listen to and take apart film scores. John Williams’s score to Star Wars was a turning point for the film industry that saw a resurgence of orchestral film scores, and that score in particular caught my attention.
In 1990 I enrolled in the UCLA Film Scoring program. I loved it! After the two-year program, I sent out my demo reel (on cassette tape!) and was asked to write for cartoon shows at Saban Entertainment. I ended up doing 56 two-and-a-half minute episodes for a show called Tic-Tac-Toons, followed by a few half-hour episodes for the shows Journey to the Heart of the World and Button Nose. I was very green at the time and didn’t understand how performance royalties worked. I signed a work-for-hire agreement for my work and later found out that Haim Saban not only took screen credit for every show his company produced, his name was the sole composer listed on all cue sheets. I lost potentially tens of thousands of dollars, but learned a valuable lesson – the hard way – about the business.
Much of the music you’ve done has landed on reality shows. Are there specific genres that you find work best for reality TV?
I can only speak to my experience and successes. I’ve been writing “dramedy” style for almost five years now. Dramedy is basically pizzicato strings, mallet instruments (marimba, vibes, xylophones, glockenspiel), woodwinds, and wacky percussion. The style definitely speaks to my love of cartoon music. It’s a really fun style to write.
One thing I discovered in writing for these shows is that by just adhering to the same color palette (same instrumentation) that I can vary the actual musical style and it will still work. For example, I’ve created really sweet and tender cues as well as James Bond-style spy cues and it all works. They don’t have to be quirky, bouncy all the time. It’s how you sell it.
Reality TV music is all over the board style-wise. There’s no standard rule-of-thumb to go by. There are obviously things that work all the time: acoustic guitar, ukulele, rock guitar-bass-drums, etc. Dramedy, as a style, has been around a long time and continues to be popular. It’s often referred to the Desperate Housewives style because it first came into prominence on that show.
What have you learned about creating instrumental cues that most musicians who aren’t doing them for a living yet don’t know?
In the visual medium, music is there to serve the picture. This applies to features, TV episodes, documentaries, commercials, video games, etc. Unless it’s a music video (remember those?), your job as a composer is to serve and support the story. It’s not about chops, or how good you are as a musician. Your primary purpose is to convey an emotion and help keep the story moving along.
Scripted shows usually have a composer hired to write a score specific to the project, but unscripted shows – which is mostly reality TV – must rely on music library cues. Their budgets don’t afford them the ability to hire a composer to write a custom score.
So what is the difference between composing a film score and writing music for music libraries? Virtually nothing. You are still writing music that will serve the film in the proper manner. The only difference is that in a film score, the composer has the job of moving the music from one emotion to another. In reality TV, that’s taken care of by the music editor. Their job is to find all of the necessary music cues that can be cut up and reassembled in a way that makes the music work in a cohesive manner.
What this means to you, the composer, is that when you are writing a cue you need to consider how this music could hypothetically be used in the context of a film. When I compose a library cue, I’ll often create the title of the cue first. That will influence the emotion I’m trying to convey and helps me stay on track.
I’ve even gone so far as keeping a list of potential song titles. Titles that not only inspire the intended use for the cue, but also to make it interesting enough that a music editor might be enticed to check it out. Of course, if the cue gets re-titled by a music library, then it doesn’t matter what great name you’ve come up with.
Is it better to be a brilliant composer, or a composer who understands how music is used in a given context – like reality shows – and give the music libraries or music supervisors what they will quickly see as “useable”?
It’s smart to look at what’s on the air and write similar pieces of music because maybe it’s the flavor of the month or perhaps the beginning of a new trend. For a while it was dubstep everywhere, and now nobody is using it. We’re kind of going through a ukulele phase right now.
Once I turned in a batch of dramedy cues for a show that were all similar in style because that’s what they were using. But one of the cues turned into a James Bond/Pink Panther spy cue with low brass, alto flute, and triangle. Since I never throw anything away, I just included it. To my surprise it got used. A lot! I think the music editors get bored with hearing the same things over and over and are happy to shake things up a bit. You never know.
What did you have to stop doing to become better?
I had to stop over analyzing everything and being too self-critical. Creative people always like to put roadblocks in front of themselves. I think you have to trust your instincts if you’re a creative person.
If you’re getting stuck because of a technical issue, get help! Collaboration is a great way get things done. Trade services. TAXI is a great community and folks are willing to help. Don’t let a bad mix hold you back.
I know writer’s block is a real thing, but I don’t often let it hold me back. As long as I can write 3-4 notes I know I can turn that simple motif into something. I think as long as you force yourself to do something, you’ll get somewhere. It may not be very good, but you’ll be further along than if you did nothing. You can always edit and rewrite if it doesn’t work. Just don’t let it keep you from doing anything at all.
Don’t Miss Part 2 of This Interview in Next Month’s TAXI Transmitter!
Hear Steve’s Music: http://stevebarden.com/music.asp
See Steve’s Credits: http://stevebarden.com/credits.asp