Brian Tyler is the gallant composer, multi-faceted musician, and conductor who has taken the film music world by storm. With over 70 features under his belt, Brian has established a glowing reputation for refined orchestral arrangements and high-octane action scores. He has contributed his musical sensibilities to an array of blockbuster films and thrilling television shows including Iron Man 3, The Mummy, Thor: The Dark World, The Fate of the Furious, Hawaii Five-0, Rambo, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Power Rangers, and Sleepy Hollow. Most recently, Brian is enjoying the widespread success of his work on Jon M. Chu's stereotype defying masterpiece, Crazy Rich Asians and Taylor Sheridan's contemporary heartland drama, Yellowstone. In our informative discussion, Brian reveals his life-long quest to expand his dynamic skill set and his intrepid embrace of a global musical tapestry.
You grew up in Orange County, California. Were you raised in an artistically inclined household? What was the soundtrack that defined your upbringing?
I was raised in an artistically inclined family, for sure. My father, he's a painter, artist, designer, and his father was an art director for film, and my grandmother's a pianist. In my immediate family, I'm the only musician, but the visual arts were always around. That was always something that I’ve been steeped in - photography, painting, rendering, all the visual arts - but I took to music so early on. I don't even remember it really. I think I was four and I took to drums and piano. Eventually, I just grabbed onto any instrument that I could.
At the same time, I loved film. My grandfather and my parents, they loved films as well. I became familiar with the art form and when I would see a film, I would immediately associate it with music. I got into the history of film through the music. My dad would take me to reissues of Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, and movies like that. I loved those scores and I would listen to them. Certainly, the one that comes to mind the most was Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the whole trilogy. I must have listened to that daily. Anything that John [Williams, legendary composer] did, I took to. Raiders [of the Lost Ark], E.T. - I bounced back and forth between that and Bernard Herrmann a lot as a kid. Those were my favorite musical artists.
There was a lot of other music being played around the house too because I was a drummer. My dad played a lot of R&B records, Motown records, and jazz. When I sat down at a piano, I sounded more like a film composer, leaning a little more towards the classical side, and then when I would sit down on the drums, I was more like a rock and an R&B/jazz drummer. In a sense, that’s where the two worlds merged.
How has your musical eclecticism shaped your career path?
I just love all kinds of music. It’s strange to think that I’ve recorded a record or two in most genres. My life has been in symphonic music, conducting and writing. The first piece I wrote was a concerto, but my best selling piece of music was a hip-hop record that went gold. To me, music is music. I love working in the area of film, but if you want and you're so inclined, you can really explore and produce music in any genre. The thing is, you have to really love it. There’s no faking it. In order to be authentic, you have to be into all these different styles of music, which I truly am. My playlists are schizophrenic, that's for sure.
In the sense of being a film composer, I am allowed to experiment. As a solo artist, you're not allowed to do that because you can blur and confuse your fan base. I've worked with record labels and they want you to do something that can be branded. You can incorporate some of those elements into what you’re doing, but if an artist in a particular genre shifts and makes a classical chamber music thing out of nowhere, people will be bewildered. They might think it’s interesting that someone could go ahead and do that, but there’s a certain expectation when you’re going see Slipknot that it’s not going to be a jazz instrumental. Film scoring, writing music for film is perfect for me because I don't want limitations. I don’t want to be branded. I want to just be able to write different styles freely. I love writing music from the perspective of being versatile, really changing it up, and challenging myself. I’m able to have my cake and eat it too doing this gig.
Based on Kevin Kwan's novel, Crazy Rich Asians follows the journey of a Chinese American economics professor, who visits Singapore with her boyfriend to attend a friend's wedding, only to discover he is unbelievably affluent and desired by many. Can you tell us about your exchange with the director, Jon M. Chu to determine the sonic direction for the film? What ideas and concepts did you explore early on and what did you set out to accomplish?
Certainly at first, when we were talking about the movie, he hadn't shot it yet. I'd read the book and it was amazing. I loved it. Jon wanted to take this story and really capture the “crazy rich” idea on screen, making it feel like a technicolor extravaganza. Something really colorful, jumping off the screen. I do remember him saying, "We want to make this movie. It's for everybody. It's a story that relates to everybody. Having a cast that is an all Asian cast is long overdue, and we want to tell this story in the most honest way possible.” I think the first thoughts were “Oh, a contemporary novel, a contemporary story. Let’s do a contemporary score”, considering electric guitar, drums, a very modern approach, but what Jon shot was so classic that it needed something that felt true to that.
We live in a contemporary world, where music and the arts all have affected each other. It's created a global effect. Jon's idea was to go for the emotional heart of the movie and make it fun like a throwback to the big and bold old Hollywood movies. We just wanted the music to evoke that vibe. Without it feeling stereotypical, there is an Asian element to it. There are definitely flutes, stringed instruments, plucked instruments, erhus, and different Chinese instruments in the score, but they're blended in. Everyone plays together. It's both an orchestra and a big band jazz group. Those three elements came together.
I'm so grateful to Jon and Warner Brothers for allowing me to write a score that is half jazz and big band music for a studio film that’s not a musical. I can’t remember the last time that happened. To the credit of the filmmaker, the studio, and the producers, they totally got it.
Can you tell us about how you conceptualized the piece, “Text Ting Swing”? The drum intro seemingly channels the spirit of Gene Krupa.
The drum intro is almost also a nod to how I started. When I was a kid, the very first thing I played was the drums, I loved tom-tom solos. There’s something about the solo drum playing along before the cue kicks in. It goes for about 16 bars, then I play some vibraphone over it, which has a very 50’s, 60’s old school spy movie feel and a sense of jazz at the same time. Looking back to the 60’s, a lot of the scores were jazz-based. That was the time of Henry Mancini doing big movies like Charade and The Pink Panther. Look at James Bond. That’s all jazz and big band. All of that music feels really swanky, and for lack of a better term, “crazy rich”. It has a swagger to it that feels cooler than contemporary pop music playing. The scene benefits from that big band attitude. Nothing against pop music and artists, but imagine putting a peppy Top 40 tune over that sequence. Sometimes, the cooler thing to do is to not try to be current. If you follow the tone of the movie, you come across ideas that might have a vibe as if they’re 40 years old, but you can write it new.
I credit Jon [director of Crazy Rich Asians] because he could have very easily gotten a Gene Krupa record or something else already in existence. That’s typically what would happen because it’s less expensive, but Jon was so adamant about creating music for this world. Even if it sounded like it was from 1952 or 1961, he wanted it to tie into the rest of the themes of the movie. For instance, look at Astrid’s theme. The first time she enters, it's a swanky, jazzy, big band thing, but then that same exact melody becomes score. There's a very emotional scene towards the end of the movie and the same melody returns, but it’s done in a more heartfelt, non-jazz style — piano and strings. I don’t know if people are really conscious of it when they’re watching, but I think the music gives the movie more of a unique identity, as opposed to borrowing things from others.
I also credit the music supervisor on Crazy Rich Asians, Gabe Hilfer because a lot of the tunes for the soundtrack were remakes that they made especially for this project. The way they went about it was so clever and the songs felt so representative of this world. When you combine it all with the score, I feel like it’s a really great experience for the audience.
What did you learn about Asian culture from your time working on Crazy Rich Asians? What does it mean to you to be a part of history, serving as the composer for the first studio romantic comedy with Asian leads?
It's a huge honor. The responsibility is more than I could ever dream of. It’s beyond my reach. This film is the result of an entire group coming together to get this thing out in theaters. We all rallied together and become a family. I'm really good friends now with a lot of the cast, everyone from Henry Golding, and Constance Wu, and Gemma Chan, and down the line. There are so many amazing people involved. Jimmy O. Yang is great, Ken, and Awkwafina as well. It’s been great to have gotten to know them. I’m very proud of the movie and I am so happy to see it catching on to a wider audience. Jon has directed such a fabulous movie and I think it speaks for itself.
Working in Asia has been part of what I do for some time. I’ve always been very interested in Asian culture since I studied it back in college. I became fascinated and spent a lot of time learning various traditional instruments. I think this experience went hand in hand. While I was recording this score, I was also, completely coincidentally and separately, working with the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and Gong Linna, an opera singer. I was conducting concerts for them - one of them was at the Dolby Theater, where they host the Oscars. It’s a Chinese orchestra with traditional instrumentations, opera singers, and dancers.
These experiences have inspired me to learn and try to get a better understanding. It’s not something I was born into or raised with, but it’s something I truly love. I feel like any kind of exploration of music or culture can help you realize that no matter how much you learn, there is more to learn. The more I’ve studied, the more I realize I don’t know. It’s been very interesting even just from the perspective of music functioning as a universal language. I don’t speak Chinese, so when I’m conducting the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra, I have to communicate with these musicians through the music. When I'm up there conducting or giving notes, I can't just speak like I am right now, so it's fascinating to see how much of that information crosses over and translates.
By the time Crazy Rich Asians came around, there was a question of, “How much of this sound do we try to incorporate?”, but in terms of cultural differences, I look at Rachel’s character, who is played by Constance Wu in the movie. When she goes to Singapore, they just see her as an American. She identifies herself as an Asian American, but she feels like a complete foreigner and a fish out of water. In a sense, this is a relatable experience for everybody, especially in America. We're a nation of immigrants. Unless you're a Native American, we have come here.
It’s amazing what you can learn from the different perspectives of your friends, whether they are Asian American or not. Through my cultural lens, I have all these different aspects of what I’ve learned over the years and I’m always trying to discover more. My significant other happens to be half Japanese. It’s funny because when I watch Crazy Rich Asians, there are moments that are relatable to me. I feel similar to Rachel’s character when I come into a social setting or a family function with relatives on her Japanese side. These feelings are all conveyed in the movie. That’s why I really believe this film is for everybody because everyone can relate to it in their own way.
The film was gripping. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I cried at the end.
Oh my gosh. Me too. Usually, when I’m in work-mode and I see a movie for the first time, this wouldn’t happen, but when I saw in the theater at the premiere, I couldn’t escape without tears. That is a really, really tough thing to do when you've worked on the movie because you’re so familiar with the scenes. When you see how the movie is put together, it takes away the mystery of it all. With this movie, that just wasn’t the case. I even talked about it with the cast members and they were like, “Is that really us?” I think in many ways, the label of romantic comedy doesn’t do this film justice. Beyond being super entertaining, it’s very powerful and says quite a lot about the human condition.
Your score features lively, resounding big band arrangements that contrast with grandiose sweeping orchestral moments. What were some of the most demanding musical aspects of composing for Crazy Rich Asians? Were there any surprises in how the music was ultimately rendered?
I think it was a challenge to coordinate the themes of all these different characters through the lens of both jazz and more symphonic, classical-based writing. Just from a technical aspect, the way the chords, and harmonies, and the melodies work in jazz are almost the opposite of how you write symphonic or classical music. Even the scales are different, so to merge these two worlds, create it in a way that you could recognize a single theme done in both styles, and make it cohesive was incredibly demanding. It’s one of the reasons why I'm really proud of the score because it provided a challenge with such a high bar.
When you’re writing big bang arrangements, where do you typically start? Do you begin with a chord progression first, then conceive a melody on top of it? Do you find the melody first, then structure chords and harmonies around it?
You know, it's weird. I write in two different ways; one is more improvisational, trying things under your hands when you’re playing the piano. Then there’s the other way, where ideas pop into your head and you follow them. On those jazz pieces, the difficulty was more in getting the concepts in my head down on paper. In other words, the melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions were already in my head, but I had to figure them out. When writing jazz, it’s really tricky because the chords are, as we say, crunchy. There are a lot of strange diminished and adds everywhere. It’s all over the place. Changing a chord in your brain may sound different just because of the inversions alone. Everything from “Text Ting Swing”, “Astrid”, and “Rainy Nights in London”, you name it - any cue with a jazz flavor was interesting to find.
The main love theme was literally another one that popped into my head. I sat down on the piano and played it the first time out. That’s pretty much what it is. I even have a voice memo recording of it on my phone. That was one of those great moments because often, I’ll go through a million versions of something before being happy with the result. This was the opposite. It was literally the first take of the first draft and I had the “Love Theme”. It has one jazz chord in there with the main melody to tie it all together.
Yellowstone is a riveting drama set in Montana which focuses on a powerful rancher, his family, and their struggle to protect their land from an Indian reservation, property developers, corrupt politicians, and America's first national park. What storylines and relationships did you gravitate towards within the narrative? What were your strategies for creating tension and intrigue with your musical treatment?
Taylor Sheridan wrote this incredible story and went on to direct this very meditative saga. What drew me to this project was the fact that I, at different times, relate to the different characters. I get angry at the characters in a similar way that I get angry at myself. The show is about the consequences of decisions. It has a mythological-like story that’s very Shakespearian in a way, even though it takes place in a contemporary setting. It really focuses on the darker side of the big themes of life. I was drawn to it because stylistically and tonally, it was very different than the projects I’ve recently been known for.
I think people tend to associate me with projects that are big blockbuster summer fare, but I decided to take the time to do the nine-hour movie that is essentially what Yellowstone is. It’s not like a regular TV show where you do the pilot with a director, and then he leaves and you work with all these other directors. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but Taylor Sheridan directed all nine hours. You can imagine it took up a chunk of my life because the project was the length of doing five features and I had to turn down four features to be a part of it. I know it was worth it because it was such an incredibly creative outlet to be able to write melancholy, impressionistic chamber music. It was very open and at times, it goes into an area that’s very different stylistically. That’s why Sony Classical is releasing the album.
From the start, Taylor always encouraged me to write music that could be performed, in a sense, as a concert work, that could live as its own tale. Kurosawa [Akira, iconic film director] would do this with his movies. He would have music written, but it wasn't always straight to picture. We did a lot of things where I would go to London and I would write a bunch of music. It was just impressions of the Yellowstone story and what Taylor shot. Then we would work it in during editorial and cut scenes with music that I'd already written. It was a very, very different process. Taylor's a genius. It's been fascinating and rewarding to working with him on Yellowstone.
The freedom of not having to score everything to picture must have taken you different places creatively. Would you say that’s true?
Exactly. I did both on Yellowstone. Sometimes, I would write to picture and sometimes, my process was more abstract. Taylor provided me with these beautiful visuals and sometimes, they would artistically speak to the tone of what should go on musically. I’d look at a helicopter shot moving over the plains of Montana, followed by taxidermy animals mounted on a wall, one after another. He creates a sense of the tonality he’s going for — almost like a painting. Taylor tells a lot of his story through non-traditional means. In a way, my music became a big part of that.
As a long-time fan of Formula 1, what guided your approach in composing the theme?
As a huge fan of Formula 1, it's always been about emotion for me. I get so emotionally involved in the drama of Formula 1. You have your favorite racers, your favorite teams, and you follow them through a season, which lasts for the majority of a year. There are only so many drivers — about 20, so you get to know all their personalities because they film a lot. It's very effective. You get involved in what's going on in their lives and their rivalries. When you're following someone and rooting for them and things go wrong, it's just agonizing.
I wanted the music to capture the kinetic energy and speed, but that is not all of what the theme is saying. It represents the epic drama of the sport; the highs, and lows. Through the years, there have been so many triumphs and tragedies associated with Formula 1. For example, Lewis Hamilton’s unbelievable first championship win. He won on lap 72 of 72 in the very last race of the season and won by one point in the point standings. With only one turn and about 100 yards to go, he went from losing to having won the championship in the very last moments. One of the biggest tragedies was Senna’s [Ayrton Senna, three-time Formula 1 world champion] death on the track. I was a huge fan of his. People that don’t watch Formula 1 might not understand the gravity of a moment like that. He was the biggest name in the game. It would literally be like Michael Jordan dying on the court in front of everybody during the NBA Finals. It was an absolutely devastating, unimaginable moment in sports history.
If you've followed it for like 25 years, like I have, you see how much it means to the fans. I’m so glad they hired me. In fact, they had no idea I was a Formula 1 fan. I didn’t pitch them. I didn't say, "I want to do this." It was nothing like that. They came to me, and they just liked my music and thought it could be something. They had no idea how much I live and breathe Formula 1.
I agonized over writing the theme. It was the opposite of the ease I experienced in coming up with the Crazy Rich Asians theme. I don’t remember ever being so stumped while writing a theme before. I was like, “How do I capture all these things at the same time?” I couldn’t find a tempo. I asked myself, “Is it major? Is it minor? Is it relative, is it dominant? Wait. Is it an orchestral thing? Is it a rock thing?" They didn’t give me any restrictions. It was so wide open and it was a huge responsibility to capture a sport that is not just any sport. It’s a way of life. 500 million fans watch Formula 1 every week and they hear this theme.
It’s one of those things where I had to win some people over, but boy, it is great to see now. Every week, when a race comes on, I wake up in the morning, casually look at my social media feed, and I go, "Oh my gosh. What happened?” I see that I hit the max on my notifications and I kind of panic as if something went wrong, but it’s always a Formula 1 race and people are tweeting about it. It’s exciting to see people air drumming to it and uploading videos and covers on YouTube. It’s because they love Formula 1. I’m lucky that my music happens to go along with something we both love.
Aside from film scoring, you produce electronic music under the moniker, Madsonik. What was the core impulse behind adopting this alter ego and who are some of the electronic music pioneers that inspire you most?
Growing up, I loved electronic music as well. It was everything from Vangelis, Daniel Lanois, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, and Allan Holdsworth - people that did electronic scores, to artists like The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, and Fatboy Slim. I loved hip-hop too like Public Enemy. My influences went up and down the line. I learned to program keyboards early on and I loved analog keyboards. Even as a drummer, I also loved drum machines. I remember, especially at the time, if you programmed drums, you were the enemy of drummers. That was like, "They're coming here to replace us. They're gonna take our jobs.” I loved both, and I loved what drum machines could do. I would layer things. While I was learning and writing concertos and classical music, I was making beats as well. I just loved the whole culture of it and the vibe. I was also into metal. I loved Rage Against the Machine and that industrial sound, Nine Inch Nails, you name it.
When the opportunity came along to do “Shell Shocked” and Wiz Khalifa came on board, we decided that I couldn’t really use my name, Brian Tyler for it. I had done these side project tunes before. I did a song with Slash for Fast and Furious. It was listed as Brian Tyler and people would get confused and think it was the score. I needed some kind of differentiation. The name just came about when I recording with Kill The Noise and Wiz. We played one of the sounds in the song and it was like, “That’s a crazy sound. That’s like a mad sonic.” That’s where it came from.
"Shell Shocked" went gold. It was me, Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, Kill the Noise, and Ty Dolla $ign. It was a song that I wrote and produced when I was scoring Ninja Turtles. It became the theme song for the end credits and it was released as a single. It was pretty wild because I spent the vast majority of my time writing the score. It was a billion pages of music. We used a full orchestra and choir. The song was really fun to have at the end. I incorporated the theme of the movie, which I had written for the orchestra, laid down the beats, and even did the vocal line, “Knock, knock. You’re about to get shell shocked” with Wiz Khalifa. So, we did all this work, and then all of a sudden, that song goes crazy. It has over 100 million views on YouTube. They even sent me a plaque, which is a gold pizza thing for the Ninja Turtles.
So, now whenever I do tunes for a movie, like for Criminal, I did “Drift and Fall Again”, I use that moniker to separate these songs from the score. It’s only by coincidence that I’ve been asked to go on tours as Madsonik. We’re working on an album right now. I’m on a bunch of albums and collaborated with all these different artists like Zedd, Boombox Cartel, Kill The Noise, Ty Dolla $ign, Rae Sremmurd, and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine. Now, there are all these great opportunities to work with a lot of rock and hip-hop artists I grew up listening to. It’s a totally different thing and I love it.
I think there’s a certain amount of skepticism that can go along with it. People have got to know that this is me and a reflection of my love for music. I go to all kinds of concerts. Sometimes, I want to go see Ray Chen do the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and then go see Wiz Khalifa and Post Malone, and then go see Lamb of God or whatever. All of that reflects back into what I write. I kind of need to explore all these different avenues in order to express those things. If you're a composer or writer, it doesn't mean you should or have to write in all the genres that you love, but for whatever reason, it’s what I feel compelled to do.
It sounds like you were just born with this incredible love of music.
That's exactly right. It's that more than anything. It’s more than skill or natural talent. When you love music, you figure out a way to figure it out. You go and sit down, listen to an album and deconstruct it in your mind. You go, “How did Pink Floyd do this record? How did Nine Inch Nails do this record? What is that going on in this Rage Against The Machine record?” You break it down as a drummer, a guitarist, or a pianist. I learn it all by ear. I didn’t go to music school. I would sit down and listen to the "Fantasie-Impromptu" by Chopin and go, “What’s this lick? Can I slow this down and learn this?” Through that process of learning, I started to see what was going on and I’ve continued to learn.
Like I said before, the more I learn, the more I realize that I don't know. The ability to say, "I don't know," is a really important attribute. Having that humility. That mindset teaches you more than anything and it’s certainly been my mantra. I’ve learned more from saying”,”Oh, I was wrong," or, "I didn't know that," than I’ve learned from saying "I know how to do that."
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Paul Goldowitz, Ruby Gartenberg
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Brian Tyler and Jeff Sanderson of Chasen & Co.