Lyle Workman is a radically adventurous composer, guitarist extraordinaire, and recording artist. Kickstarting his career, playing with Frank Black of The Pixies and his own band, Bourgeois Tagg, Lyle found his way into the world of advertising music, which subsequently led to his first film scoring job on Jon Favreau's Made. Most notably, Lyle has been celebrated for his work in collaboration with producer/director, Judd Apatow, shaping the musical identities of comedic treasures including Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him To The Greek, HBO's Crashing, and Netflix's Love. As a first call session player and touring musician, Lyle has hit the road with the likes of Sting, Todd Rundgren, and Beck, and recorded with Norah Jones, Michael Bublé, Ziggy Marley, and Shakira. He served as a key member of The Forest Rangers for the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack curated by Bob Thiele. In our far ranging discussion, Lyle reveals how he attained expertise by emulating the work of his idols and how he has brought emotional depth to comedy through his scores.
I understand you grew up in Northern California. Can you tell us what events led you to Los Angeles?
I grew up in San Jose. Later on, I was living in Marin County, playing in bands and things had sort of run their course. There just wasn’t enough activity, not enough work coming in. I'd always thought about moving to Los Angeles because there was so much opportunity there. At that time, I had no design on scoring. I was focused on being in groups, touring and playing on records. That's where I was headed. I moved to Los Angeles and that did happen, and I ended up making a bit of a detour into composing.
To answer your question, I started playing and recording with Frank Black. He was the singer and creative force behind the band, The Pixies. After they disbanded, he embarked on a solo career and I recorded and touring with him. He was based in Los Angeles. After a couple records and several tours over the course of a few years, I decided to move down to Los Angeles because at the time, pretty much everything I was doing was with his group. I had a great gig, I had the means to move down here, so I took that opportunity. That was in 1996.
Looking back to your formative years as a guitar player, what was your practice regimen like and what music had the most profound influence on your artistry?
I think a lot of it was just learning how to play complicated music. I spent more time playing “challenging music” that I liked rather than practicing scales or working on exercises.
I was into Mahavishnu Orchestra, Genesis, Focus. A lot of heady music set the stage for me. I think if you’re a musician and you only listen to a certain kind of music, you’re pretty much only going to play what you know. I gravitated towards all kind of things. It started off with the Beatles, then more guitar driven stuff like Jimi Hendrix. After that, I discovered jazz-rock and then found jazz. I explored classical music as well. All of this really helped to train my ear from an early age.
It’s been very helpful. Now, if I have an assignment to compose in a certain style of music that I've never done before, I’ve enough musicianship to analyze what's happening. I have enough proficiency on my guitar to pull a lot of stuff off. My keyboard skills are not great, but between my ear, my ability on guitar, and the added benefits of technology, I can write sophisticated music without having to be an accomplished pianist.
How did you land your first composing job?
In the late 80’s, I was in a band called Bourgeois Tagg. We were on Island Records and our second to last record was produced by Todd Rundgren. Around some circles, I was known for my work in that band and I had also toured with Todd Rundgren for a few years after we disbanded. A song I had written with one of the singers in the band became a Top 10 hit.
After that, I started doing session work as a guitar player for a jingle company. I went from playing guitar on Reebok and Nike commercials to writing them. That was my first entry into scoring to picture.
Then I reunited with a record producer I knew from the Bay Area. He had moved to Los Angeles before me and had great success, producing Faith No More and some other really big groups at the time. Now that I was down in Los Angeles and on his turf, he started hiring me for sessions.
On one of them, I got along very well with John O’Brien, who was one of the central songwriters in a band my friend was producing. We started working together on some of my jingles and commercials. He happened to be friends with Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, who had asked him to score their film, Made. In turn, he asked me to co-score it with him.
Can you tell the story of how you landed the job for Judd Apatow’s directorial breakthrough project, The 40-Year Old Virgin?
I got in through the side door on that one. I had been working for the composer, Ed Shearmur as a guitarist on his scores. His wife, Ally was an executive at Universal Pictures. At the time, one of her workmates, Harry Garfield needed some guitar work for a personal project. He was the Vice President of Music at the time. Through my connection with Ed and his wife, Ally, I ended up with a Universal music executive in my home studio, basically just doing him a favor by playing guitar on his music. Right before he left, I gave him a little pitch. I told him that I was a composer, I'd done commercials, I did this movie called Made, et cetera. I'd put together a demo CD of my work and I handed it to him. I thought I'd never hear back from him, but he called me back and said he liked what he heard.
The first thing that he had for me was a movie that never came out, but that was followed by him asking if I could submit some additional music for the Universal movie called Kicking and Screaming. There was a bit of rock music involved, so he thought I would be a no-brainer for it. I wrote some cues, submitted it, and they ended up in the movie. Judd Apatow was a producer. Shortly after that, Judd signed his directorial deal with Universal and the first movie was 40-Year-Old Virgin. I was championed by the Vice President of Universal and they sent me a couple of scenes to demo. Completely to my surprise, I got the gig.
I was pretty sure I had no chance. I was much a no-name at the time in the composing world, but Judd liked what he heard and he brought me onboard. The movie was a big hit, number one for a couple of weeks. The next movie was Superbad and again, it was number one for two weeks. I sort of “cut in the composer line”. It started a great relationship with Judd that extends to this day.
Superbad revolutionized the trope of a coming of age teen comedy when it emerged on the scene. How did you feel when you saw the footage of Superbad for the first time?
At that time, I had only really seen early cuts of a movie a couple times with Made and The 40-Year Old Virgin. With the 40-Year Old Virgin, I had no idea how people would react, although I knew it was really funny, well made and different. When I saw Superbad at an early "friends and family" screening, it was the most excited I’ve ever been after seeing a movie I was attached to. I was driving home after the screening and called my wife. I said, "I can't believe that I'm going to do this movie." I remember telling her, "This is like the Fast Times at Ridgemont High for this generation". I felt it could have that kind of impact. I was pinching myself in the car home about it.
When I saw Fast Times, it was like, "Wow, these are kids talking like the way they did when I went to school. You know what I mean? I felt like I knew those guys. It was very real. I was just thrilled that Superbad had that same realness - the way Superbad was shot and everything. Of course, we’ve seen what's happened for Jonah Hill since then. There was such great talent, the director, Greg Mottola was fantastic.
I remember being there during a mix one day. They had edited some things I’d not seen before and everyone was watching seriously, trying to get work done. I started cracking up and couldn’t stop, it was so funny and felt a little embarrassed because everyone was trying to finish up.
You worked with Bootsy Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, and other talented funk musicians on the Superbad score. What inspired you to bring them into the fold?
When I signed on, they'd already temped in music of that nature for the score, as well as songs from that era. I wanted to make sure that the score was going to be a nice fit with the songs. It was a no-brainer. The score music had to be just as legit. Genre-wise, I just wanted to take it one step further and see if I could get some of those funk legends to play on it. Lucky enough, we had the resources and they were interested. We spent four days at Capitol recording the score. It was an incredible joy to work with these giants. It was the dream come true and it was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had as a musician.
The soundtrack of Get Him To The Greek was unique in that it featured a lot of hilarious and engaging original songs. In what capacity were you involved in bringing those pieces to life?
I actually collaborated with the music supervisor, Jonathan Karp to produce all the songs. It was a great effort by a bunch of songwriters, Mike Viola, Dan Burns were one songwriting team. I wrote some stuff with Jason Segel. Then we had Jarvis Cocker from the band, Pulp and Carl Barat from The Libertines. It was a real legitimate collective of artists and writers that came together. We wanted the songs to sound like they were worthy of a rock star as performed by Aldous Snow, Russell Brand’s character. They had to be great songs with top-level production. There was something like 20 songs written specifically for that film.
You served as the lead guitarist in the Forest Rangers, the house band that shaped the musical world of Kurt Sutter’s iconic motorcycle club series, Sons of Anarchy. How did this opportunity eventuate? Do you have a personal highlight from the experience?
I was hired by Bob Thiele to play in that group. He’s a great guy. Anytime I get a call from Bob, it’s always a pleasure. I was essentially a session guitarist participating in the recording of those covers. It was really fun just being there.
They were recorded by the producer/engineer, Dave Way, who’s a great friend. He’s got a beautiful studio, so we’d all get together and play. It was a bunch of friends interpreting these cool songs and arrangements. We did a cover of Fortunate Son, the Creedence Clearwater Revival track, as an acoustic guitar treatment. Of the ones I was involved in, Sons of Anarchy fans responded really well to it.
Let’s talk about Love. The power of the show lies in the nuances and absurdities of each romantic and platonic relationship. Music is used as a device to exaggerate these emotional juxtapositions. It was fun to see your cameo in the first episode. Considering the range and quantity of licensed material used, did that have any effect on your compositional approach?
Yes, I was one of the church musicians in the first episode. The songs they licensed weren’t a factor for the score direction. I was serving the story and there was a certain aesthetic that worked on the scoring front, and also in the song department. It naturally blended together nicely. We started off with a bit of a Los Lobos vibe, a Californian, Mexican-American type sound. I bought several instruments from a great guitar shop in downtown Los Angeles that were of that ilk. Then it grew from that base and expanded further. Of course, being in Los Angeles, we’re surrounded by the landscape, architecture, and the Latino culture. The music between the first season through the third has been a journey. As the stories developed and expanded, so did the score, but the textures and sounds of those ethnic guitars and offshoots from the outset were the constant from beginning to end.
Across your body of work, the range of your guitar tones is incredible. Your acoustic guitar tones are consistently sweet and warm. Then in your Overboard score, they are more melodic, very in-your-face yet smooth. What are your go-to methods for recording an acoustic guitar?
I have two microphones for that. I have an East German Neumann, it’s an M582. It’s a small diaphragm tube condenser microphone. Then I have a Soundelux large condenser tube microphone. I blend the two.
Freeform’s The Bold Type is loosely based on the life experience of Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan Magazine. For a drama centered around millennial women, it explores heavier topics, such as gun control, unethical business practices, sexual assault, xenophobia, and more. What were the themes in the narrative that you thought were the most important to emphasize with your score?
It’s about highlighting the interpersonal relationships. Touching on the young woman’s issues, and in all projects I do, supporting the narratives. I wanted to use sounds and textures that would align with that generation.
Now, moving on to your work on Overboard. The track, Down the Hatch, is beautiful and lush, using Django Reinhardt style acoustic guitar melodies and agile string arrangements. It sounds simultaneously modern and vintage European. How did you come up with that piece?
First off, I am a huge Django fan so I was only too happy to go there. It was an extended version of a scene in the movie, where the main character wants to have sex and he's looking at her with bedroom eyes and she says, "No." We wanted the music to play to his point of view, something with a romantic, European flair. Sometimes, you don’t want to be too on the nose, you want to play subtext. In this case, it needed to be right on the nose.
I always try to make the music work on its own accord. It's always a bit of a balance because you don't want the music ever to overpower the story. It shouldn’t call attention to itself. But there are moments when I can figuratively step to the front of the stage, and in those cases where the music gets to be featured, I enjoy putting a lot into the tracks to make them compelling without dialogue. I don't think I'm saying anything any other composer wouldn't say. Put your best foot forward all the time and do the best work you can. I'm incredibly humbled by my peers and all those that I'm in awe of. I feel very fortunate to do this. You know what I mean?
In another cue of yours, Is This Where the Magic Happens? you utilize what sounds like the same melody. Can you explain this decision?
Yes, that is essentially the same track as “Down the Hatch” but shorter and without the 40’s style arrangement. “Where the Magic Happens” was written for a scene, and much later expanded to “Down the Hatch” which was written to be an end credit piece. I do a good portion of my arrangements, but for “Down the Hatch”, I sent it to my orchestrator John Ashton Thomas to come up with the arrangement. John is amazing and just to name a few, has worked on Black Panther and the most recent Star Wars movie with John Powell. My direction for that arrangement was something in the style of 40’s popular music. The more widely known modern example would be “Honey Pie” by The Beatles. From the outset, I wanted woodwinds, but being the great orchestrator he is, John added horns, strings, and all other beautiful adornments. We recorded at Warner Brothers on the Eastwood Stage. That’s ultimately what you hear on the track.
What is your DAW of choice?
There are a lot of advantages to working soup to nuts in Pro Tools. When I start writing, it’s in Pro Tools. When we’re at the mix stage and everything is final, it’s in Pro Tools. It is helpful when you’re on the mix stage and for example, the music editor says, "Hey, I can't find that woodwind stem in this session." I can go into the computer there on the stage and be helpful. It starts and ends in Pro Tools. It's all I've ever known.
I came from an audio-based environment rather than a sequencing, MIDI-based environment, and it took Pro Tools a long time to get even close to other DAW programs on the midi front, but it has come a long way and I am grateful that Pro Tools shows no signs of going away.
Returning to your past as a touring musician, you played guitar for Sting’s Broken Music Tour. Do you have a specific memory you’d like to share from that experience?
There are so many. The first one that comes to mind is when we played in France during the World Cup. In the middle of our set, it was determined that France was going to go to the finals. It was raining in a beautiful old outdoor amphitheater. Everyone was sitting on these pads on concrete steps. At that moment, everyone threw their pads in the air and it cued some hellacious thunder and lightning. It was just an incredibly visceral and emotional sight and also happened to be one of our best nights of the tour. Once, we played a free concert in Warsaw, Poland for over 450,000 people. It was unbelievable. It may have been the biggest crowd Sting has ever performed in front of. It was at the time.
Did you pick up any gems of songwriting knowledge from working with Sting?
For the most part, I gleaned the most by learning his songs. I did have a head start though, I had played Police songs in cover bands when I was 19 years old. They were one of my favorite bands. The process of teaching oneself material, especially if it’s initially beyond your understanding of harmony, and foreign to where you put your hands, once you’ve learned it you’ve picked up many new things; new chords, how music is arranged, etc. The ear is expanded and can hear more complexity and detail.
With Sting, there was never a time when we talked about the craft of songwriting, but there’s a parallel with my experience composing for film. I have paid attention to what other people have done, try to figure it out and then put my own spin on it because ultimately, you want your own signature as a composer. I had theoretical training but not much. I took an orchestration class here in L.A., which was really, really helpful. Along with that, just listening, looking at scores, and seeing how everything’s put together has been of great help to me. Doing more and more composing is very essential for growth as well.
What do we have to look forward to from Lyle Workman in the near future?
Season three of Crashing on HBO, more The Bold Type on ABC Freeform, and Good Girls on NBC, but most exciting on the composing front is an upcoming Gary Oldman film, Flying Horse, but that is a ways away. I’m also in the midst of a fourth solo record.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Paul Goldowitz
Editing | Ruby Gartenberg, Alex Sicular
Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Lyle Workman.