Rock stars try new tune as Hollywood composers

By | January 13, 2008 at 6:06 PM

For the typically rowdy rock band on the road, “scoring” might not necessarily have anything to do with film music. Yet over the last couple of decades of making music, a number of rock talents have made the career leap from arenas to scoring stages, and the ranks of today’s A-list composers include many with rock ‘n’ roll pedigrees.

Randy Newman had a successful career as a songwriter and solo artist; Mark Mothersbaugh was a founder of Devo; and Danny Elfman started out in Oingo Boingo (a band that also included future composers Steve Bartek and Richard Gibbs). Trevor Rabin was a member of Yes; Stewart Copeland still drums with the Police; and Trevor Horn, a member of Buggles, and Hans Zimmer, who played with the band, helped launch MTV with the memorable “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Film and television work still have strong attractions for a newer generation of rock songwriters and musicians: a chance to stretch artistically, an alternative to life on the road and perhaps even a steadier paycheck. Technology has made it possible for almost any musician to develop composing chops in a home studio, and the prevalence of nontraditional scoring approaches in Hollywood projects would seem to open the composer door to a wider range of talents than ever before.

But writing for a record and writing to picture are still very different skills, and the transition from rocker to composer can be a tricky one.

“It’s a sexy idea for any musician, and a lot of them say they want to be composers,” says Kathy Nelson, president of film music at Universal Pictures. “But a lot of times, a musician doesn’t realize that the nuts and bolts of composing are very complicated, and that the work can be harder, more time-consuming and maybe more tedious than they might think.”

Former Faith No More keyboardist and songwriter Roddy Bottum says it was a “a slow natural transition” developing a composing career with such projects as “Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned” for PBS’ “American Masters” series.

“I was coming from a band that had sold millions of records, so I assumed that I’d get work quickly,” he explains.

“I learned that the band cachet gets you a little respect in your first interview, but it doesn’t guarantee work. And when you do get work, you have to put your ego aside. You have to get used to people saying, ‘No, that’s not right,’ which you may not have ever heard in a band. My bands have built careers out of doing things on their own terms, but you certainly don’t build a career in film composing that way.”

Film music agent Laura Engel, whose clients include Elfman and songwriter Michael Penn, says writing a song and writing a score are two very different crafts.”

Indeed, any number of great rock songs have been culled from a few chords and a verse-chorus-verse structure, but the musical mechanics of film composition are often more intricate, and even with orchestrators and support staff, the work can be daunting for a rocker working as a first-time composer. But sometimes a rocker turns out to be a composer waiting to happen.

That tag fits Charlie Clouser, whose recent composer credits include NBC’s “Las Vegas,” CBS’ “Numbers” and all four of Lionsgate’s “Saw” films. Clouser studied composition and electronic music as a college student and went on to work as a tech assistant for composer Cameron Allan on the TV series “The Equalizer” before he was “sidetracked” by a career in rock ‘n’ roll. He spent most of the ’90s playing with industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails and went on to work as a producer and remixer for acts such as White Zombie, Ministry and Marilyn Manson. Clouser says his a background in electronics-heavy rock was great training for his film and TV work.

“Working with a crazy level of detail and making sure that everything is timed properly and always hitting the cuts so that everything lays beautifully — that’s directly bred out of the ultra-detail-oriented, programming-based rock ‘n’ roll I was a part of,” he says. “And frankly, sitting with a blank click track and trying to write a rock song feels a lot harder to me now. I like working with the road map of story and characters. Show me the markers, tell me what the music has to do, and let’s get down to business.”

But if rock musicians get busy working in film and TV, do they miss the thrills of the rock life?

“Believe it or not, you really can get tired of eating $35 cheeseburgers in hotel rooms,” Clouser says. “I like being at home and working on the things I’m working on. I’m a happy lab rat. I’d love the chance eventually to do some different things with the music — it’d be nice to compose a film score that wasn’t dark and dense and loud. But, that said, I love what I’m doing, and I’ll be perfectly happy working on ‘Saw IX.”‘

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