By Michael Laskow
I’m excited to interview you because you prove that one can be “retirement age” and create an income stream making music for TV and film. But first, would you give us some background… where you grew up, when you got into music, and when you started writing songs and/or composing?
I was born in Amsterdam, Holland. My parents emigrated to the U.S. when I was four. I’ve been trying to adjust to life above sea level ever since.
Most of my childhood was spent in Brentwood, an affluent part of Los Angeles populated by doctors, psychologists and movie stars. I started taking piano lessons at the age of six.
The problem was, as a child, I was borderline feral. I said whatever I wanted, I did whatever I wanted. This did not make me hugely popular with my piano teachers. During eight years of lessons, I went through four of them.
Four lessons or teachers?
Teachers! During my second lesson with the last of my teachers, he turned to me and said, “If you can behave for one hour, I’ll give you a piece of candy.” I told him, “I don’t want candy. I want money.” I was 11, and already exploring the joys and rewards of extortion. I wanted a dime, so I could buy a comic book after each lesson. During four years of lessons, I bought a lot of comic books.
Last year, I sold one of them for $800 on eBay.
In the middle of seventh grade, my parents decided to pull me out of public school and put me in military school. They hoped it would teach me discipline. It didn’t. Instead, it taught me something else. Every week, we’d go to a shooting range and fire M1 rifles at targets.
I eventually earned a sharpshooter medal. The irony of sending a troubled youth to military school where he’s taught to become an expert marksman is inescapable.
That’s funny as hell, and probably the only time I’ll ever hear that in an interview. Okay, let’s transition from rifles to music…
At 14, I decided I wanted to learn blues, boogie-woogie and Jazz. It was a sad day for my father, a classically trained pianist. In his mind, all music other than classical was trash. So I practiced when he wasn’t home. I learned blues and boogie-woogie in about a year by listening to Otis Spann, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson records.
When they played fast runs, I’d put my hand on the record to slow it down.
I learned to play Jazz listening primarily to Oscar Peterson. Unlike blues and boogie-woogie, Jazz has been a lifelong learning experience.
When I was 24 my dad, hoping to rescue me from the dark musical path I’d chosen, called and said he was taking lessons from concert pianist Leah Effenbach. If I agreed to take lessons from her, he’d pay for them. I took him up on the offer.
During the lessons, she’d sit to my right on the piano bench. I’d play what I considered a difficult run with my right hand. She’d say, “No, this way,” and play the run effortlessly with her left hand. She taught me things about touch and technique that I never would have learned otherwise.
When did you begin composing your own pieces?
That wasn’t something I was always able to do. Well into my late 20s, I struggled to write music for piano, but couldn’t. All I could do was play other people’s music.
It wasn’t until I was about 30 that I went to Federated Electronics looking for a cassette player, and stumbled upon a Casio CZ 101. It had a nice flute sound, so I bought my first synth. I also bought a four-track cassette recorder and a Yamaha drum machine, and started writing my own stuff.
I thought the tracks were really good, and played them for friends.
Sadly, the only person who didn’t know how horrible the tracks were, was me!
Awww, I’m not laughing at you. I’m doing that to cover up that I’m crying on the inside for you!
Well, I did have the good sense to ask myself how come my tracks didn’t sound as good as what I heard on the radio. And any time you have to ask yourself that, your tracks are either lacking from a musical standpoint, or a mix standpoint. In my case, it was both.
Over time, the instruments and sounds got better, and I got better. And here I am today — getting placements on TV. I think the fact that I wasn’t always able to write my own music, makes me appreciate it more today as the blessing that it is. If I’d been like Mozart and started writing at the age of four, I might have taken it for granted.
What are some of the acts or genres you listen to for personal enjoyment?
For the utmost in personal enjoyment, I listen to my own tracks. I’m kidding!
These days I mostly listen to classical music.
I’ve observed that many people over the age of 40 seem to be averse (or possibly scared to death) of learning how to use home recording gear. How was the learning curve for you?
I enjoy technology, and I enjoy learning. Back when MIDI was king, every time I bought a new piece of gear, I had to read the manual.
I’m impressed. You might have been the only one who read more than the Quick Start Guide!
In 2000, my studio was filled with all sorts of gear and sound modules. That year I was introduced to another keyboard player, Roger Scott Craig, but when I walked into his studio I thought, “How good could this guy be? He has absolutely no gear.” I asked him where his sounds came from, and he pointed to his computer.
In an instant, I realized he was light years ahead of me. He introduced me to Logic Pro, and helped me learn it. Today we’re best friends.
Is that still your preferred DAW?
Can you give us a run down of the rest of the gear you typically use?
It’s not overly impressive. I have a 1990 Korg O1W keyboard — no kidding — an iMac, solid state and standalone hard drives for my sample libraries, a Focusrite interface, and two KRK Rokit 8 speakers. I love those speakers!
When did you join TAXI and why did you join?
I don’t remember the exact year. I’m pretty sure it was in the ’90s, when we were submitting cassettes and getting our listing results via snail mail.
I think I lasted a couple of years, and foolishly quit, thinking TAXI wasn’t doing anything for me.
I rejoined in 2013 for the wrong reason — I thought it would be a great way to promote my Jazz fusion album, Night Owl. It wasn’t long before I realized I wasn’t seeing any Jazz fusion listings. If I was going to make this music thing work, I’d have to learn how to write in other genres.
One of the great things about TAXI listings is the diversity, which encouraged me to explore writing in genres other than Jazz. I believe that the more versatile a composer is, the better his or her chances are of getting signed and placed.
Now that you’re back for your second stint with TAXI, what are you doing differently than you did first time around?
This time around I was determined to stick it out. I was determined to succeed. Have I succeeded? I’ve had successes.
Getting my first forward was one of the earliest. Then getting signed by a music library.
Then getting my first placement on TV. Those were all goals and successes. But in my estimation, no I haven’t succeeded yet. My idea of success, at this point, is being able to support myself doing music.
I have little doubt that you’ll do that, Henry. And what a great way to go into your golden years—making music and earning your living doing it! Is there one thing that’s made a difference in your march to success, or is it a combination of things?
A combination of things:
Recording software is much better now than it was in the ’90s.
My writing improved.
My mixing improved.
And the sounds available today are so much better.
People who are thinking about joining TAXI often ask, “How long will it take me to earn my investment back?” They want to know if they’ll make $300 or more in their first year. What would you say to them?
If they join TAXI with the same incredible lack of knowledge that I had when I joined, they’d have a better chance of winning the lottery. For me, it’s been a marathon, not a sprint.
TAXI has been like going to a four-year university — without the student debt. TAXI not only taught me about the music industry and how to write music for TV, it also provided me with opportunities to get signed and placed.
My first four years with TAXI, I spent a lot of money buying hundreds of sample and virtual instrument libraries. During that time, I didn’t see one cent of income from my musical endeavors. But I looked at it as the cost of starting a new business.
I agree with that perspective. Starting something as small as a hot dog business with a pushcart has start up expenses that are the initial investment. When did you start to see a return on your investment?
It wasn’t until my fifth year that I started seeing a return. It came in the form of publishing and royalty checks. This year, my sixth with TAXI, my first two royalty checks have more than paid for my six years of membership.
Congratulations. I’m really happy to hear that, and I think your income will begin to snowball, now. How do you approach reading TAXI’s industry listings and figuring out what to pitch?
I read them very carefully, and multiple times, and once more before I actually submit.
Wow, I wish everybody did that!
When I started with TAXI, I submitted kind of helter-skelter to various genres, because the only genre I knew was Jazz. I got a lot of returns, which for non-members who might read this, it means my music didn’t make it past the screeners. Now, I only submit to listings that I feel there’s a good chance of getting a forward.
Don’t miss part 2 of this interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!
Listen to some of Henry’s music here.