Michael Brook is the inventive Golden Globe and Grammy-nominated composer, producer, and guitarist, who has crafted expressive and imposing scores for feature films and television shows including Into The Wild, The Fighter, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Brooklyn, An Inconvenient Truth, The Vow, Undefeated, The Fosters, and Good Trouble. Hailing from Toronto, Michael honed his chops playing in local rock bands, and went on to explore the far reaches of ambient experimentalism and multicultural music, working with Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records and collaborating with the likes of Brian Eno, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Edge, David Sylvian, Pierre Nooten, Robert Fripp, Daniel Lanois, and Jon Hassell. He is the creator of the Infinite Guitar, a modified electric guitar which allows for a note to be held and sustained infinitely, which was played by The Edge on U2’s “With or Without You” from their seminal 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. In our informative discussion, Michael speaks on the introspective nature of his musical treatment for Keith Behrman’s coming of age drama, Giant Little Ones and his philosophy on what makes ‘great film music.’
I understand that you got your start in music performing with rock bands around Toronto. What initially attracted you to guitar playing and how did that evolve into an in-depth exploration of electronic music production?
That’s right. I used to play in bar bands in Toronto when I was in high school and after that. My parents wouldn’t buy me drums, and I don’t blame them. They bought me a guitar instead, but I wasn’t disappointed. I liked it as an instrument, and it was such a big part of the culture, maybe more so than it is now, so I got hooked.
For some reason, I was always interested in electronic instruments, and I don't exactly know why. I guess I just liked technology and thought it was an exciting new area where people could make new sounds. At the time I became interested, you could really hear sounds you hadn’t heard before, but it was very hard to control them and make them expressive. Since then, there has been so much use of synthesizers and all that, so it’s hard to say if people can create anything you could really call new.
Right. With modular synths, you could come up with something, but to recreate it would be challenging, if not impossible.
For me, and I think for a lot of film composers, it’s sort of a double-edged sword working with actual synthesizers. Yes, you can be musically and sonically creative with them in a very effective way, but unfortunately, a lot of our work involves revision. I have a beautiful Yamaha CS80 synthesizer, which I think is the best synthesizer ever, but I don’t use it much because I’ll paint myself into a corner. It’s an inspiring instrument but if I use it on a track and the director says, “It’s great but can we change this?”. I go, “Well, sort of,” because I can never get back to that sound.
These days, do you find yourself gravitating towards more soft synthesizers?
Yes, and I use the soft CS80 precisely for that reason. I think the real one sounds better and is a playable instrument, but the plug-in has the same architecture, and the sounds are similar. I just have to use that because you never know when two years later, somebody asks, “Can we change this part?”. I’m intrigued by some of the newer hardware synths where you can save the settings into your computer and go back to them later, but I haven’t explored that yet. I mainly use Arturia, u-he’s Zebra and Diva, and Sylenth.
Which prominent musical figures offered you inspiration early on?
When I first started playing music, it was people like Hendrix, Cream. I also liked R&B — Wilson Pickett, etc. And then after a few years, I wasn’t as interested in the rock side of things. It just had the kind of energy to it that didn’t sustain my interest into my twenties. I started working with Jon Hassell, a trumpet player and doing more multicultural and ambient stuff.
I believe your first taste of creating music for film was through your contribution to The Edge's soundtrack for the 1986 Anglo-French cinema film, Captive. What motivated you to try your hand at film music?
Well, I liked film music on its own, people like Ennio Morricone and Bernard Hermann. Because I’m an instrumentalist and not a singer, it felt like an area where you’re not thought of as second-tier just because you don’t sing. If you’re in pop or rock music, you are. I’d always thought it would be nice to score films. At that time, I wasn’t necessarily thinking only to do that, but I wanted it to be a part of what I did because I appreciated a lot of that music just on its own. On Captive, I was a co-producer and did a little bit of composing, but it was mostly The Edge.
After that, I did an IMAX film called Fires of Kuwait, which was a documentary and the first project I scored on my own.
Was it a natural process for you to create a sound world in support of a director's vision, or was it challenging, in the beginning, to make music with more boundaries in mind?
Well, the major challenge, which I still experience but less so, is that my way of thinking comes from an album background, and there are pluses and minuses to that. The plus is that you might not have the same thought process as somebody who went to film scoring school. The minus is that you’ve spent a lot of time learning how to go where the music takes you. I think the best album work does that or is a result of that process. In film scoring, you can’t exactly do that. You have to be guided by both what the picture is, and the director’s vision or their sense of what works and what doesn’t. It’s inherently a collaborative process, and it’s always guided by the picture and the emotions within the scene. Whereas album music, you’re free to pick any emotion and develop something based on that.
I think really great film music, or the kind I like anyway, is often slightly incomplete and the picture kind of finishes the piece of music. You kind of have to train yourself to do that. There are styles of film scoring and filmmaking where the music tells you what you need to feel, but in a lot of the projects I work on, the processes onscreen are much more interior, so it’s a matter of what emotion the music will bring the spotlight to. You don’t necessarily want to tell people exactly what’s going on, but you want to give them a bit of emotional guidance.
Giant Little Ones follows two male best friends, Franky and Ballas, who seemingly live a charmed teenage existence as popular members of their high school swim team. On the night of Franky's 17th birthday, the pair drunkenly experiment with their sexuality, which ultimately changes their dynamic and leads Franky on a winding path of self-discovery. Historically, you have mastered the art of providing sensitive musical treatments for relatable coming of age stories. What made you gravitate you towards this narrative?
Well, what attracted me is that it’s just a beautifully made film. It's such a gem of a film with very delicate storytelling. It deals with a lot of issues people face, and I think there’s something really psychologically intelligent about the film. The performances are great, the directing is great, the script is great, but there is also an overall subtlety. It shows events that could be presented in an exaggerated and dramatic way, but portrays them more gently. I think it helps people relate to it more. It’s non-judgemental, and it shows somebody going through a process where they come to a different realization about a few things. Life is like that a lot, and most movies don’t try to go there. There’s usually a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that’s all very entertaining, and I like that style, but this film is a little different in a great way.
What were the first conversations that took place with the director, Keith Behrman to dictate the tone of Giant Little Ones?
Well, there was certainly a developmental aspect of our process. When we started, they were pretty close to having all of the final songs that were going to be in the film. Those songs showed what the kids listen to and what their world is like, but for the score, we wanted to have something that could exist in their world, but deal with different aspects of their lives — the more interior and introspective side of things. I think that was one of the big reasons to go either electronic or at least ambiguous where it’s often not clear what the instrument is, to make it a little more cohesive with the songs.
Your subtle yet effective score features expansive synths, haunting reverb drenched piano, and sparse percussive elements. What emotional qualities did you aim to magnify with this palette?
I think a big one was somebody feeling like all of a sudden, they didn’t understand the world they were in, so I wanted to communicate confusion and a feeling of withdrawal. And then, for a couple of other scenes, I was trying to show a budding friendship between two people — a growing warmth. I think those were the main emotions that the score dealt with.
Freeform's Good Trouble is a dramatic and comedic look into the lifestyle of Generation Z through the lens of foster sisters, Callie, a law clerk working under a conservative judge, and Mariana, a Latina software engineer facing adversity in a white male-dominated workplace. Considering your musical involvement in the show's predecessor, The Fosters, what were the primary considerations you made in musically illustrating the next chapter of Callie and Mariana's journey through young adulthood?
For Good Trouble, we wanted to have the score acknowledge that they're more grown up and that they live in a big city now. It has a little less traditional, more contemporary feel to it, and at the same time, highlights particular emotions within particular scenes.
How do you musically convey the process of growing up?
Well, there’s much less use of acoustic guitar, piano or even electric guitar than there was on The Fosters. There's much more use of synthesizers, drums, and heavily processed sounds for Good Trouble.
In 2008, you were nominated for Best Original Score at the Golden Globes for your work on biographical survival film, Into The Wild. In working with Sean Penn and crafting parallel musical universes with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam fame, what was the greatest reward of the experience?
It was a challenging process, but I think at the end of the day, it felt like the score ended up resonating with people and seemed to really bring out Chris' character in a sympathetic way. He had quite a bit of emotional trauma in him, which explains some of his actions. There were both the flashbacks of that, and then there were moments when he was just out of it — either from getting beaten up or when he was starving to death, where he entered an altered state of consciousness.
I think it was another film where there’s a real tightrope. You want to portray emotion, but you don't want to be cheesy. And in retrospect, I think the score did that. I also liked the overall tonal color of the score, which uses a lot of resonator guitar and synthesizers.
You are the inventor of the Infinite Guitar, a modified electric guitar that allows for a note to be held and sustained infinitely. I read that aside from you, only two other musicians are in possession of them -- Daniel Lanois (record producer for Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, and U2) and The Edge. What was the catalyst for this creation?
When I lived in Toronto, I went to see Bill Nelson, from Be-Bop Deluxe, do a solo show when I started working on my first solo album. He was playing the guitar, and performed an intro to a song using an EBow. I thought, ‘Wow, he’s in an area that my whole album is based around. Now it’s going to sound like I’m copying him’. At the same time, I thought I could really use an EBow for what I was trying to do. This was so long ago now, but I sent a letter to the guy who makes the EBow. I ordered one, and it never came, it turned out he had lost my information. I thought I could make something similar, so I started experimenting. I ended up making something where one of the pickups is kind of used in reverse, so it’s used to vibrate the strings.
Eventually, I got my EBow about a year later, and it was great, but the Infinite Guitar was better for what I wanted to do. It functions very similarly to standing beside a really loud amplifier. If you play a chord fairly quickly, one or two of the strings become dominant — it never sustains the whole chord evenly. The Infinite Guitar will sustain more than one string, but not for very long. I mostly use it on a single string. The advantage, for me, over the EBow is that there’s nothing in your right hand, and you can switch strings very quickly as you need to. You can control it with a pedal. I still use the EBow, but it is very sensitive in comparison. If you move it half a millimeter up or down, the effects change radically. The Infinite Guitar is more consistent.
So, that’s what we hear The Edge playing on "With or Without You" from The Joshua Tree album?
Yeah, it’s the intro to that song. He also played it in a different way than I do, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there were a few ways to work with it.
Outside of your work in film music, you are a Grammy-nominated producer and guitarist who has collaborated with the likes of Brian Eno, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, David Sylvain of Japan, Robert Fripp of King Crimson, and many others. In your mind, what are the distinctions between collaborative work and serving your own vision?
With producing, you're always collaborating with somebody. I moved to England in 1985 and started to work with Real World Records. We recorded at Real World Studios, and it was an amazing time. I just ended up living there because I was doing quite a bit of work for them, and it was just easier to be there all the time. I also had my own studio so that I could do my own work too, but a lot of the stuff I did for Real World had me working as half producer and half composer. I would often create backing tracks, and then another person would do their thing on top of them. There was definitely a to-and-fro, conversational aspect of the process. In that sense, there is a similarity with composing for film because on those projects, you’re also trying to maximize someone else’s vision. The process can be different, in that when I’m scoring, I’m creating all the music on my own, and in a production role, I often do some of the composition, but usually not all of it.
Would you be willing to share an anecdote about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?
Well, one thing people didn’t really know was that he was a very shy, fairly introverted person. Because he had such amazing stage presence and was such a powerful performer, most people didn’t see that side of him. From what I saw, he was actually kind of a nerd in the sense that he was always thinking about singing. I went to Pakistan once to visit him, and we went to a party together. He just sat in the corner, and you could tell he was just going over tunes in his head. It’s cliché to say it, but music was a huge part of him, much more than anybody I’ve ever met.
If you were living in an alternate universe and the only way you could survive was to make music, what essential instruments or gear would you bring with you?
Well, I would probably just bring a guitar and a piano. I might bring the guitar I used on Into The Wild, which is called a Pogreba. It’s a welded aluminum resonated guitar. A guy named Larry Pogreba made them, but he doesn’t make them anymore. It has a bit more warmth, and it’s so resonant — it’s almost like it has a built-in reverb. I’d also bring an electric guitar. I’d probably take the Infinite Guitar, which is a Strat copy.
For piano, I’d just want an upright to mess around on. I don’t do that much, but it’s a pretty amazing instrument. If I had the ability to record, I would also take the CS80.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Michael Brook and Kurt Nishimura of Silverlake Media.