Gabriel Mann is the multi-faceted award-winning singer/songwriter and composer behind a range of television favorites including Modern Family, A Million Little Things, Fam, Rectify, Rosewood, Star-Crossed, Dr. Ken, Ringer, and School of Rock. Over the course of his flourishing and unpredictable career in the music industry, Gabriel has left no stone unturned. He served as a producer for Sara Bareilles’ Careful Confessions, toured as a solo artist with Alanis Morissette, created the signature songs of Arrested Development in concert with David Schwartz, composed for popular video games like The Legend of Spyro and F.E.A.R., lent his vocal talents to projects spearheaded by Muse and Steve Vai, and the list goes on. Gabriel’s alternative rock band, The Rescues has released four albums and enjoyed considerable success in music licensing, securing placements on Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars, One Tree Hill, and Private Practice. In our entertaining discussion, Gabriel speaks on infusing A Million Little Things with his soul-stirring musical sensibilities and the joy of being an integral part of Modern Family since the very beginning.
I understand that you were initially on track to become a doctor, studying pre-med at the University of Pennsylvania. What events led to your relocation to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in film music?
I was a junior at the time. I was Pre-Med, but I was also majoring in music composition. Midway through my junior year, I was almost done with Pre-Med with one more semester of organic chemistry to go, but I was falling deeper in love with music. I just decided to stop Pre-Med and go full throttle in music. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’m originally from San Antonio, where there’s not an entertainment business to speak of. I mean, there’s salsa and Tejano music, but there wasn’t a music industry in San Antonio. I became more of a musician once I got to college. Before that, I studied piano and learned to play by ear, but I wasn’t super into it.
Someone told me about the USC Film Scoring program, so I applied to it with a vague notion that, if all else failed, I could be a film composer or a composer for media. So, I got into the program, and that’s really what did it for me. I relocated here, and I’d never even been here before. My brother was moving to California at the same time, so it made it a little bit easier, but he was in Newport Beach. He’s an engineer, so we have entirely different pursuits. At the time, the USC program was one year of advanced studies. This was in ’95, ’96, so I attended under the tutelage of Buddy Baker. We had a lot of intriguing guest composers come through — Jerry Goldsmith, Leonard Bernstein, David Raksin, a lot of major guys from that generation.
Once the program was done, I stayed because I didn’t have anything else to do and figured that if I wanted to make music, it would be a good place to pursue it. I spent the next many years doing all manner of odd jobs that were at least loosely related to music in one way or another while making my own records as a solo artist. I basically did that up until 2005. I had made five albums while working as a wiring technician. I worked as an assistant to three different TV composers, taking hard drives around Los Angeles. I also recorded every acapella group in Southern California, producing and mixing their records.
I never gave myself 100% leeway to go off and tour forever, living in the back of my van and selling my records on the street. I always had a foot in the studio, recording people, mixing stuff, producing stuff, and every once in a while, I'd get a chance to write something for something. I was too worried about not being able to make rent. I was never willing to go willy-nilly into the night and not earn anything. So, I always found a way to earn as a musician. In doing so, I was introduced to a lot of interesting people — a lot of people that I still work with today, a lot of people that have gone on to do exciting things. Most notably, I produced Sara Bareilles’ first record, which was the one that landed her a record deal.
It was all over a ten year period. I had come back from a big tour, opening for Alanis Morissette as a solo artist in Europe. That was the pinnacle and the end of my solo career. I made one more record after that, but my wife was pregnant and then had our first baby. Around this time, one of my old bosses, David Schwartz called me up, asking if I wanted to write some songs for this TV show he was working on called Arrested Development.
The songs were a result of Mitch Hurwitz [creator of Arrested Development]. He just had this idea that it would be funny to have songs in the place of score that would reference what was happening in the scene. At times, the songs were very specific. He would call and give us some ideas about what he was looking for, and then we would just make something funny. They were often soundalikes of a general style. If it called for a male vocal, I would often get to sing. That show was the first opportunity I had to really earn money as a musician and a writer.
David and I were writing the songs together, and when I would sing, it was a union vocal. It was a major change for me, going from being in bands and trying to earn money through ticket sales at the door and selling CDs to getting a royalty check in the mail. For many years, I had sort of sworn off this kind of work off because I wanted to make it as a rockstar. I pursued that path for many years, and when it wasn’t really happening, I was very, very glad that I could be of some service to someone. I was very thankful that David called me at that time.
That led to another chapter of producing a lot of music for bands, writing and singing for Arrested Development and co-composing other projects with David. It led to the first pilot I did on my own, another child, and another band called The Rescues in 2008. The band went on tour and got a major record deal. At the same time, I got a pilot that became a big hit called Modern Family and completed my first season. That was my first solo composing credit on a series. It was a crazy year.
That leads us to the beginning of the stage I’m in now — 10 years into writing music for TV shows as my own guy. The Rescues still exist. We’ve actually just made a cover of a Sarah McLachlan song that will be featured in Grey’s Anatomy in February. It’s awesome. I’ve worked in the same studio for 20 years, which was built by my friends, Chris and Becky. They were in a semi-pro acapella group that I joined when I first moved here. I still work with Becky a lot, and she works in the other room. Now, I have an assistant in the other room too. That’s the situation. That is life right now.
Let’s retrace your steps with composer, David Schwartz, whom you worked under and collaborated with on Arrested Development. What were the most valuable lessons you learned during your time with him that still prove relevant in your composing approach today?
David started in bands as a bass player and was making records. He has always been into making things sound great. He would spend as much time as it took on any given piece of music to make sure it sounded the way it was supposed to sound. I think that more than anything, is what I took away from him. You get good gear, you get good sounds, you hire as many live players as you can get in there with the budget, and you make it sound as great as possible. You really try, regardless of what the end use of it is. The piece of music may wind up being heard through a phone on the TV, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't make it awesome. You never know when you're going to need to recall a piece of music, especially in the situation when you're working for someone like Mitch Hurwitz. He's like, “Hey, you know that thing that we used on the phone? What if we put that front and center in episode eight?”. His mind works like that. So, that’s something that I learned from working with David.
David works all the time. He’s a very, very dedicated musician. He loves music, he loves his job, and I feel similarly. I feel really lucky to be able to do what I do. David’s always found joy in everything he does, and it was contagious. He also puts a very high value on lunch, which I also take with me. Another thing I learned from him is that he didn’t care how much it cost to do something correctly. It costs whatever it costs to get a brass band, so if he really needed a brass brand, he would just get them and make money tomorrow. He wouldn’t worry about losing money on a particular cue, a particular episode, or during a particular week. In the end, you will come out ahead because you’re going to be bummed if you don’t do it the right way the first time. You do what you have to do to make things sound great. We're not kept around to make crappy shit all day long. We’re here to make awesome music and to have a good time doing it. That was something else I learned from him — don't sweat the money.
A Million Little Things examines the aftermath of the unexpected suicide of a member of a close group of friends. As time goes on, more painful secrets are uncovered, and we learn how this tragedy inspires his friends and loved ones to change their ways for the better. How did you originally come to compose for the series? What were the first concepts you explored with show creator, DJ Nash?
I had done a show called The Mayor, which was on for 13 episodes last year. One of the executives and one of the main directors on that show is James Griffiths, who was directing the pilot for A Million Little Things. James had heard my music in Rectify, which was on Sundance for four years. It was a beautiful piece of art made by Ray McKinnon. That show was a real opportunity for me because there was a very large canvas to paint on. Often, minutes would go by without any dialogue. A lot of the score featured guitar, but not in a conventional way. The guitar was almost treated like a cello. I used a lot of cello in that score as well because it is capable of so much beauty, darkness, and emotion. I still had a lot of this music on hand, which suited A Million Little Things because there’s a character in the show who plays guitar in a band. DJ, the creator of the show, had in his mind that guitar would infuse the score in various ways.
After reading the script, I combed through my library to present my ideas of what I thought this score could be. I came in with specific things I had done for Rectify and for Modern Family, which is also a guitar-based score, that fit already and then we talked about what the rest of the score could be. We considered the other characters, the flashbacks, the melodrama, all the emotions. After listening to my music, they were like, “Oh, yeah. This is close.” They were into that direction.
Pilots are usually very difficult because you’re trying to figure out a whole new language and talk to people you don’t really know about something that’s hard to express, which is music. Thankfully, we had a really good foundation already because we already listened together. So, I ended up getting my hands on very early versions of the show and scoring right away, so my music could live in the show, and there would be no fighting with a temp score. I just wrote the music I thought should be there and then put it where I thought it should be. That was it.
The only difficult part was figuring out the song at the very beginning. We didn’t know if we were going to get the rights to the song we ultimately chose for the spot. We also went through this whole thing where we felt like it could work with a song, but we couldn’t find the song we wanted or a version of a song that worked for the whole opening. They were finally like, “Well, why don’t you cover the song we want? It’s not working for half of this opening, so just make a cover that goes in and out of score and does all the things we want it to.” So, I did it, and now it’s become a hallmark of the show and what I get to do on the show musically. It’s a real joy for me because I feel like this project uses all of the things I’m good at. It’s also interesting to be able to take a song and mess with it enough to make it work for a particular sequence.
A Million Little Things traverses very intense emotional terrain, exploring themes of loss, suicide, battling cancer, and infidelity. Your music is very thoughtful by design, allowing for authentic human experience to shine through without bogging the viewer down with despair or taking a turn into melodrama. What is your secret for enhancing sentimentality of a scene without being too on the nose? How do you know when you've struck the right balance?
Oh my God, that's such a great question. That is the secret of all things. I don't know. I’ve got to say that it is something that I'm constantly thinking about and working towards. I try not to get caught up in the melodrama and rather be reflective. I’m always trying to remember that no one else has seen this show yet. No one knows what's going to happen from moment to the next moment, so I’m not trying to lead the witness or gild the lily. Doing that is hard. It's hard to be subtle, beautiful, and not tell everybody what you think they should be feeling with the music. I have to allow the music to unfold in a way that’s appropriate.
At the same time, this is a network television show, so I also have to be respectful of the people that I'm working for and make sure that they're getting what they need. I'm working for a lot of people, I'm working for myself, I'm working for the audience primarily, then I'm also working for ABC, and I'm working for the showrunner, the guy who made this show possible in the first place. Essentially, if I can satisfy him, that's probably number one. And then, number two is, to make sure that the audience is getting what they need and last, is making sure that I'm creatively satisfied.
The score has a lot of guitars used in many different ways. My studio is filled with toys that I mess around with. I end up making a lot of noises with my sweatpants, I beat on my chest, and use all these little things that are organic in nature. Then some things come out of my computer to help enhance everything. I’m mostly trying hard to make it good, and avoid making it annoying and obnoxious.
There are so many beautiful moments in A Million Little Things. There is at least one golden opportunity in every episode to do something gorgeous. Whether it's dark or light, happy or sad, there's always at least one major moment where I get to express myself musically. Sometimes, it’s in the song I write or the cover I create. Sometimes, it’s a very serious event that occurs in the story. Not every piece of score is as important as every other, but I am careful that each reflects what we’re trying to get across as accurately as possible.
What led the decision to reimagine covers of popular songs by Elton John, The Killers, The Cure, and Paul Williams among others for the show? You have also penned original songs that are woven into the plot. What have been some of your highlights in crafting the detailed and highly emotional musical atmosphere of A Million Little Things?
Because I come from a song and score background, I’m often placed into situations where I get to do both things. On A Million Little Things, we do a song about every other episode. I can spend a full day on that song — it's like a whole other job. You can really paint with a song. Once you have harmonic material, and then you have lyrics that make sense in particular moments, you can very carefully drop the appropriate lyric in the right place. You have to respect the original, but you can also veer away harmonically and still stay within the spirit. You can also change the spirit entirely.
For example, take I’m Still Standing — it’s a much, much darker version of the original, but it’s also very uplifting and strong. It’s almost like there’s a hidden message in the original recording and that dancey ’80’s bop going on. Whereas, I feel like the version that we made is more respectful to the lyric in some ways. I wasn't trying to make a hit song; I was trying to paint the words into the scene. It’s a really interesting thing to get to do, and DJ [Nash, creator of A Million Little Things] is really into it. He loves it, and now, he knows that we can use this going forward.
Every time I get to do one, I feel like it’s such a treat. The first one probably took the most work — All These Things That I’ve Done by The Killers. That was mostly figuring out how a cover would work in the first place. Subsequently, everything else has sort of modeled after that in concept, in terms of the songs moving in and out of score. Don’t You Forget About Me was super fun. The original song was amazing especially to see it performed on camera. That was something I wrote with my bandmate, Kyler England from The Rescues.
We also did Rainbow Connection, which was great to create with the cast. They’re not located here, so I have to Skype with them when they’re doing their vocals. It’s always cool when the song goes over many scenes because it allows me to modulate and add a whole other layer of complexity.
Love Song was an awesome one. I'm basically telling you all of them, but that cover was super fun. I was never like a massive Cure fan. I respect them and can appreciate them, but now that I have really dug into one of their songs, it has made me appreciate them all the more. That happens a lot with this material. I wind up falling in love with these bands all over again. Every time you open up a new song, get to dive in head first and interpret it through the lens of what’s happening on screen, it’s a wild and exciting experience. I feel so lucky to have landed on this show. I hope it goes on forever. We have the world of songs to draw from, and we’re not locked into a particular era or sound. We can do whatever we want as long as it’s appropriate lyrically and see where it takes us.
I will say that the lyrics are always the most challenging part. Finding the words that are the most reflective of what’s happening is tricky, but then we turn it into whatever we want musically. I will often stick close to the original harmonically, but then there are other situations where I completely tear it apart, re-structure, and put a whole new harmony around the melody. Sometimes, I’ll take their chord changes and change the melody. It’s the best sandbox to play in.
Modern Family is one of the longest running sitcoms of its time, having been on the air for a whopping ten seasons. When composing for a show that enjoys tremendous success over a long period, what are the methods you use to keep things fresh yet familiar for the audience and keep yourself engrossed in the creative process?
Ten years! We're in season 10. You know, on every show, we have an abbreviation for cue numbers. Modern Family is the only show I’ve ever been on that is now into a four-digit numbering system. It's crazy. I watch Modern Family, and I’m a fan, so I know there’s a reason that it has lasted this long. It’s still absolutely hilarious and extremely smart. It’s just awesome. I love the show, and I’m so proud of it. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about it, but I have a cameo coming up on the show later this season. I have finally achieved unity in the whole thing. They needed a sound for a particular situation, so I wind up singing on camera. It’s very cool.
Modern Family has two very strong showrunners, Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan. They don't compromise; they still don't compromise. I don't know how they have the energy to keep the quality up, but they do, and they won't do something if it doesn't feel authentic to the show. If something doesn’t meet the criteria for what they believe the show deserves, they don’t do it. It’s an amazing tribute to them that it’s still on the air and just as funny as it ever was. Frankly, everyone’s pretty confident that it’ll get another season. I hope it brings more than that because it’s such a joy to work on. I'm one of the very few people besides the cast, who has been onboard since the pilot. I'm proud to be a part of the Modern Family universe.
Can you tell us about how your work on the show has evolved alongside the zany family dynamics of the extended Pritchett family?
Well, it's interesting because I feel like my main job on this show is writing the final montage music. It’s probably half of what I do. I called it the “wrap it up in a bow” moment. It’s something that Modern Family did from the beginning. It doesn’t appear in every episode, but it became a hallmark of the show. It can be very funny, but also very moving at times. I make sure not to get in the way of funny. There are times when music is happening as part of a joke, but it’s never a comedy score. Maybe there is a funny song, or there’s a circus, and I have to be true to that, but I’m never scoring a funny moment like I’m a funny composer. They’re already entertaining. I don’t need to get in the way of that.
Steve [Levitan, co-creator of Modern Family] and Chris [Lloyd, co-creator of Modern Family] didn’t know if they needed a composer in the first place because it was never meant to be scored like a regular comedy. My primary responsibility is to deal with the emotional parts and the source music. The sound of those ending cues has evolved, and I think it has a lot to do with the way that modern music has evolved. Steve is a big fan of acoustic guitars and wanted a heartwarming type of thing, so I created ideas for that. As things have gone along, I have added my own taste into what those cues sound like. The sound is informed by other music that exists in the world now. During the process, I became a big fan of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, so I was influenced by the way a lot of indie bands treat guitars. My own taste comes through in how the guitar sounds are treated, how they are played in the first place, and how they are mic’ed. All of that comes from the music I’m listening to and the sound of those records.
The theme of Modern Family is dramatically different from the rest of the music on the show, rendering a horn section in a big band style alongside chant-like vocalizations. What did you originally set out to create? Can you elaborate on the musical experiments that led to this final piece?
It was under the direction of the director of the pilot. His name is Jason Winer. He was like, “We don’t have much time. We have like 12 seconds to get everybody’s attention.” Everyone always wants their theme song to be the most recognizable thing in the world — a big, hooky, hip song. He had the idea to do a breakdown of a big band tune as opposed to playing the head of a tune. That was the concept. I made a few options, and by the time we got around to number three, Jason was like, “Yeah, that sounds like the thing.” He took it around, and Chris [Lloyd, co-creator of Modern Family] really liked it. So did ABC, so we were good.
What I didn’t know was that Steve [Levitan, co-creator of Modern Family] had a whole other thing in mind. I don’t think if this has ever been written down, but Steve’s idea was for the theme to be more like the heartwarming ending cues you hear in Modern Family. He wanted people to be reminded that this show is not just about joke after joke after joke. He wanted something warmer and less ‘in your face.’ So, we just kept making new ones that were basically for Steve. He was like, “No, it’s not like that.” and I just kept going and going. I probably have 25 different main titles for the show. By the time, the seventh episode with other main title aired, we just gave up. The main title you hear is what stayed, and that was that.
I also want to give a shoutout to Tom Marino. He’s the one who plays trumpet throughout and ends the theme with that killer, wailing high note.
Since guitars are such an integral part of the Modern Family score, can you elaborate on your typical set-up?
I don't play guitar, which you may find surprising since everything that we've been talking about is guitar based. I write, but I’m a piano player. I was never the guitar guy. I can play just enough guitar to survive, but not enough to really record. I mean, there are situations, especially on A Million Little Things where I use the guitar as an effect. I can do things like that by myself, but I can't move my fingers up and down the neck like a real guitar player. So, I write guitar parts, and I have a guy named Steve Mazur play for me. He was a part of my solo artist project, and he’s in the band, Our Lady Peace. He’s a rockstar. He’s just one of those guys who makes the guitar not really sound like a guitar. It doesn’t sound like you’ve heard it played in that way before. He doesn’t strum like everybody else. There’s just something magical about the way he plays. Steve’s go-to guitar is a Starcaster and he uses an old Fender Reverb as his main amp.
For A Million Little Things, he has to come and work with me because it’s extremely involved, but for Modern Family, I can often send material to him, and he’ll put on whatever he needs to put on, which is usually some combination of a million different kinds of instruments. Sometimes, on an acoustic piece, he’ll layer different instruments to get a unique sound or use a high strung. Sometimes, he’ll use what I refer to as a janky guitar. I tend to like that sound as opposed to a bright and shiny new Guild, which only works for particular things. Then he’s got a million electric guitars to choose from. I know that Steve will give me the right thing, but you don’t really know until you try. Often, we’ll test out a few different guitars on a cue to make sure we’re getting the best possible version.
When Steve’s out of town on tour, I bring in Adam Tressler, who plays with big-time poppy people like Selena Gomez. There’s also Adam Zimmon, who plays with Ziggy Marley among other people. These are pro guitar players, so they come in with a bunch of stuff, and I show them what I’m looking for. My taste in guitar players isn’t necessarily someone who’s just a technician, nailing every note perfectly. I really prefer it when they bring their own personality too.
What can we expect from your musical treatment for the brand new CBS sitcom, Fam? What excites you most about this narrative?
Fam is a midseason premiere and we have most of the series in the can already. It's a multi-cam, so the job on that show is very different from Modern Family, very different from A Million Little Things. There’s a theme, and then there are transition cues, and then if they need anything special, I do that. It’s not scored like a single-cam or a drama. It’s mostly music for going in and out of scenes because they have a studio audience and a set. They rehearse it and then shoot it in one night. It’s a very different style of television, but some of the greatest shows in all of TV are multi-cams. I mean, Seinfeld is a multi-cam.
This show is super funny. Gary Cole from Office Space is in it. Office Space was actually one of my first union singing jobs. So, I’ve come full circle, and now, I’m writing the music under Gary Cole.
If you had your pick of any musicians in history to assemble the superpower band of your dreams, who would you select to fulfill each role?
Oh, my God. That's too hard. It's the end of a Tuesday, how am I supposed to come up with a good answer to that? I think I would go with John Bonham. I'm on a little bit of a Led Zeppelin kick right now, so it also makes me think that Jimmy Page would be nice.
Whoever plays keyboards in Boston! I don't know who the keyboard player was, but man, that guy was good. Frankly, I'd like to get Brad Delp too. He’s not around anymore, but he was the greatest singer — what a voice. Who else could I get to sing lead that’s currently alive? I would get Justin Vernon from Bon Iver. I love him, but it really wouldn't make sense with this classic rock band that I've assembled. Could we have Beyoncé in this band? India Arie would also be great, or Louis Armstrong.
Who do I need to play bass? I love Flea, and I love the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I don't know if Flea would fit in this band. He’s too obnoxious. How about Paul McCartney? He could sing back up. This is like the weirdest band ever made. Oh, and Stevie Wonder. That’s who we’d need to take everyone to a whole other place.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Gabriel Mann and White Bear PR.