TAXI member Andy Gabrys
Okay, let's get this out of the way, right off the top: How is your last name pronounced?
Most of the time I say “Ga-bris” but it's a Polish name and the S is pronounced with a “sh” sound - so “ga-Brish” is closer.
Thanks for clearing that up. I got it wrong for the first year I knew you ;-)
Not a problem. I have been called all kinds of crazy things. :)
Where did you grow up?
Chilliwack, BC - It's a town about 60 miles east of Vancouver, BC. It's a beautiful, green farming town with lots to do outside in the mountains.
Where do you live now?
Santa Fe, NM.
Do you have a family?
Yes! My wife Jen and I have two wonderful children. Alex is 7, and Serena is 3.
Do you have a day gig, or is music your day gig?
I think my day gig is being a great Dad - and then I fit in music in the off hours. At this point everything I do is music related. I haven't had a conventional “day-gig” since 2001.
Did you grow up in a musical family?
Yes, but it wasn't a money-earning professional musician situation.
My mother plays piano and loved Chopin and similar composers. I was really lucky that we had an acoustic piano in our house growing up - an upright grand, dating back to about 1906. I loved to fall asleep to her playing as a kid. My late father played mandolin and violin, and singing was always part of our holiday traditions as well.
What was your first instrument that you learned to play?
My mother encouraged us to tinker on the piano, and eventually I learned where the notes were, but I was never conscripted into piano lessons as a kid. In seventh grade, I started playing saxophone and played that up until I graduated high school.
What instruments do you play now?
My strength is acoustic and electric guitar, and electric and acoustic bass. Then there are a bunch of things that I play more occasionally that help with writing and producing - keyboards, ukulele, mandolin, and various percussion instruments.
"Many of my first attempts were hilariously amateurish. I just hadn't learned how to listen for the important things."
So, you're pretty well rounded, cool! How old were you when you wrote your first piece of music?
That was in high school. It was a complicated jazzy thing - probably not Broadcast Quality. I wrote more later on in life, and in 2008 I self produced a Jazz trio CD called, “Constant,” when I was living in Brooklyn.
Did you always want to compose for film, TV, and commercials, or did you want to be a Rock star before you discovered the film and TV music world?
Originally I wanted to play Jazz. I really love classic and modern Jazz, and I could see myself doing that on guitar. Learning about production came later when I was living in NYC.
I was stalking you online and saw that you went to college originally to get a degree in minerals and mining, and you actually worked in the mining industry for a stretch. Is that what got you into Rock music? Did you mostly do underground music? Sorry, I couldn't help myself… had to get those poor attempts at humor in there!
Ha! That's funny because I did study Mining and Mineral Process engineering at the University of British Columbia, graduated and got a job working at an underground mining operation on Vancouver Island. Part of my job specialty was in ground stability and controlled blasting. So yeah, I was definitely into Hard Rock and I really liked epic sounds.
Got it. A typical Rock musician who liked getting “blasted.” Sorry, that was just too easy! You don't strike me as a guy who liked boring holes into rock and shoving dynamite in there. Never would have guessed it! What made you decide to go to Berklee, and how the heck did you end up graduating Summa Cum Laude? That's a pretty big deal!
After a number of years, I realized that mining engineering was a great career, but for somebody else. At the time I knew there was a cool school in the Kootenays of British Columbia that was started as an offshoot of Berklee. So I quit my job and went to Selkirk College in Nelson, BC. I had a great time, and after a year they told me to go someplace else and get my jazzy butt kicked - University of Miami, Berklee, or Univeristy of North Texas.
I applied to Berklee and got a decent scholarship, so off my wife and I went! She's a physical therapist and everywhere we have lived she has been in demand. After two years at Berklee, I graduated with honors and then had the big, “Hmmm… Now what?” moment.
We didn't have family in Boston, and didn't want to move back to BC, so we moved to New York City. I started teaching lessons, and playing as many gigs as I could in a variety of styles. Handing out hundreds of business cards, etc. The usual networking stuff.
Through a lucky Berklee connection, I was able to get an internship at a busy NYC music house in Chelsea that produced lots of TV commercials. So I got to set up for sessions, tear down, fetch things for the clients, and watch the composers and engineers work on TV spots. I also got really proficient at typical intern-type jobs like cleaning toilets, LOL.
After a while I was able to afford some basic gear, and that got me started down the path of writing and producing. Many of my first attempts were hilariously amateurish. I just hadn't learned how to listen for the important things.
"In my opinion, if you can listen, you can produce. You can figure out what fits and what doesn't."
Now that your career in film and TV music is gaining some real momentum, how much of what you use on a daily basis is based on what you learned in college VS what you've learned from being in the trenches?
I would say that 95% is stuff I learned in the trenches. The 5% comes in when I have to write something that comprises more instrumentation in the arrangement, and I have to keep track of multiple melodies or voices.
A big part of what I have always done is tried to listen really effectively. This started because I was interested in Jazz and performing live, and was reinforced by my ear training courses at Berklee. It's been a tremendous asset in every writing and producing situation since. In my opinion, if you can listen, you can produce. You can figure out what fits and what doesn't. After time you get a toolbox of things you can use to do something about the things you notice that don't work.
Looking at your IMDB (Internet Movie Database) page, it's impressive to see how many short films and documentaries you've scored, in just the last few years. And all the while, you've been actively creating TV cues. Which type of work do you prefer?
I think variety is the spice of life. I really like working in different genres and different mediums. Creating TV cues is my favorite of the two, right now. But I might get a film job, and then that will be my favorite for a while!
How do the two disciplines differ?
They're both music for picture. The main difference in doing films is that you have a picture to score to. The music can have more abrupt changes in sound, tempo and melody if it supports the picture. It some cases it might “save” the picture if the edit or the story is a little bit weak.
Writing TV production music, you almost never have an actual picture to score to, although sometimes you might have video examples of a certain show that demonstrates where you need to be with your cues. You usually have to create based on audio examples, a written brief, and a vibe. The format for TV cues is fairly standardized, so after you have written a number of cues you know what edit points, and button or sting endings are and how to employ them.
It's interesting to go back and see how your cues are actually used as well. I had a Post-Rock cue that was used in the CBS series, Men of March, last year, and the way it ended up being used was a fairly significant edit from how the piece was originally composed and produced. The placement was about 1:40 or so, and the piece itself was just over 2 minutes. The editor did a masterful job of making the cue sound like it had been written specifically to fit under the scene. And because I had an edit point and a sting-type ending, it totally worked!
I'm sure that no two projects are alike, but can you give our readers some sort of idea how long it takes to score a documentary?
If I'm writing and producing the score and its all me as the performer, I estimate about two finished and mixed minutes of score per day. So a 60-minute documentary that has 30 minutes of music in it might be 15 days of work. Those can be long days… often eight-twelve hours each, depending on how intricate the music is.
How much back and forth is there with the film's producer?
There's a lot of back and forth. Usually I have to touchup some cues because I missed the mark. Part of doing a film is realizing that it's not all about your music. It's definitely collaborative. So having a thick skin and being an easy person to work with really helps.
Sometimes what the director or producer felt by having a certain piece of music under a scene wasn't what you felt. You need to ask the right questions to figure out how they wanted it to feel. Like when the director says, “It has to feel more purple, you know?” [laughter]
"Sometimes what the director or producer felt by having a certain piece of music under a scene wasn't what you felt. You need to ask the right questions to figure out how they wanted it to feel."
When you see the final product, do you ever watch it and think, “Crap, I wish I'd added this here or that there?”
I think everybody wishes they could have redone something at some time in their lives. But I've found that I can have more detachment, the more I do in film. I realize that I am where I am, and what I write in five years, or even twenty years will likely be more artful, and probably better produced that what I can do today. You have to remember what didn't go so well, so you can address that in your future work. But when it's time to actually write, you really have to be in the now.
I've met so many musicians who think they can score a film because they've got great sounding sample libraries. What do they need to know to be a scoring composer beyond having great sounds and making pretty music?
You're a craftsperson helping to realize something that's (hopefully) much greater than your music. The right score might be epic and complex, or it might be very simple and heartfelt. So you have to try and meet the director or producer on his or her vision while adding your “spice” to it.
At some point, many composers have most of the same tools, so it's almost kind of funny when you hear a piece of music and think “Oh there's that Damage (Heavyocity, Virtual Instrument) loop again!”
Don't miss Part Two of this Profile in the August TAXI Transmitter!