Tyler Bates is a composer, producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and all around musical force. From scoring such films as 300, The Watchmen, to the John Wick and Guardians of the Galaxy films to video games like Killzone Shadow Fall and God of War: Ascension. Hitting the road this summer with Marilyn Manson, scoring the new Charlize Theron action movie, Atomic Blonde, playing music from John Wick live in Spain, and writing a song with David Hasslehoff are just all in a day's work for Tyler Bates. I had the pleasure of talking to him right after he had just finished all the music for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Tell us a little bit about your recent movie, The Belko Experiment.
Belko is completely insane. It's gruesome but there is a dark sense of humor behind it that I enjoy, I think? (laughs). The film is about the moral decay that permeates a group of colleagues. As one after another terrible events occur, the characters are forced into survival mode, and self-preservation begins to skew their sense of morality. In an idealistic world, we readily distinguish the type of person we are – what we will and will not do under any given circumstances, but when this ideal is tested in a life or death situation, the idea of who we think we are, and what is right and wrong becomes flexible as the dominoes fall.
Was the score mostly synth based and comprised of a lot of sound design? Was there any additional orchestration?
It’s truly an independent film so our resources didn’t afford us a live orchestra as an option. But given Greg McLean’s vision for this movie, and the antiseptic generic office building that is the primary location of the film, it seemed apparent to Greg and I that an electronic driven score would be the most appropriate approach. I recorded much of it with my Korg Mono Poly, which is an old synth that I love. The soundscapes are derived from sounds that my long-time friend and collaborator, Wolfgang Matthes and I created over the years, plus a slate of new sounds made specifically for this movie. The film is so brutal that I needed to really have fun with the score to digest the graphic nature of the visuals. Working with old synths is a more visceral and physical process for me than programming entirely on a master keyboard. So, wrestling with that old synth distracted me from the heinous gore and violence, much like we as a society don’t seem to feel shock or great compassion for the many people killed in senseless violent acts every day. We were having a good time until I just said that. Don’t mean to be a buzzkill. (laughs).
Can you describe your experience working on The Belko Experiment?
Greg McLean is an insightful and fun collaborator, so it was a very cool experience. It was also interesting because I first read Belko seven years ago when James Gunn wrote it. I kind of forgot about it because James Gunn and I did a couple other movies after he wrote Belko. I’m glad it came back in this way. It was intriguing to see how it developed with Greg directing, as opposed to how I originally imagined it years ago when I anticipated that James would direct the film.
Let’s talk about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. How does your score differ from the first film to the second?
We had more resources on the second movie, so I was able to work with a larger orchestra and choir, and take more time in the recording process at Abbey Road. There was an opportunity to add more detail and complexity to the music overall. On the first film, I knew that we only had time enough to get a first or second take from the orchestra, so the writing was simplified for this reason. Thematically, GOTG Vol.2 is broader than the first film. The Guardians of the Galaxy theme permeates the film, yet there are new themes specific to this story.
Did you have a robust team to help with you with the score for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?
Scoring a film like Guardians of the Galaxy is like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s a tall order. The expectations I place upon myself, let alone those of James Gunn, require a very intense effort to achieve what we are aspiring to accomplish. And even then, I tend to see where I could have made better choices once it’s too late to make changes. It’s kind of maddening, really. (laughs).
James and I work together from the script phase, and I develop themes based on discussions he and I have about the storytelling and emotion, the color palate, the style of cinematography – you name it, and then he’ll give me a priority list of scenes or themes that he would like to film to. Interestingly enough, these initial sketches tend to remain closest to their original form than the music developed after the film is shot, and this is probably because he directs to the music, the actors and crew flow with the music, and that tends to manifests in the sequence. This process begins sixteen to eighteen months before the film is completed, so it’s a long haul that requires stamina!
A film such as Guardians is in a constant state of flux until the very end, given the constant picture editing and the development of visual effects that continuously reveal critical information that directly impacts the music. So, as music is written, it’s often the case that the picture has changed by the time I present it to James and the studio. So, our music editors - Darrell Hall, who has worked with me since Dawn of the Dead, and Nashia Wachsman, will make music editorial adjustments to accommodate the new picture, or it may need to be readdressed altogether. In any case, as the score develops chronologically, the existing music is rearranged or rewritten, which involves very intense programming to demo it so that it sounds very realistic. I am fortunate to have Tim Williams, Dieter Hartmann, Kurt Oldman, and Joanne Higginbottom on my team. They are all very talented composers with great programming chops. We delivered close to eleven hundred minutes of fully mocked-up score cues for Guardians 1, and probably several hundred minutes of mock-ups for this movie, so it’s not possible for me to write and produce music in this style without help and support from a team in every phase of score production – from demos to final score delivery.
Dang, that's like multiple albums worth!
It’s pretty crazy to imagine that you will create 10-15 hours of music by the end of the process. It’s the musical form of flogging. (laughs). To put it into perspective, I met with James in Atlanta on December 9th of 2015, and the movie will be completed for theatrical release the end of March, which is only a couple weeks away. We literally finished the music yesterday, but James just asked me to write a song for the movie with him.
How do you coordinate your team's work flow for a project like that?
Making a film of this scale is a large-scale collaboration. The director, producers, editors, music editors, and my immediate creative team all have a measurable impact on the final product. I approach collaboration with other musicians in the context of a film score similar to how I work with artist songs and records. My goal is to cultivate an environment where everyone I am working with is excited and invested in what we are doing. Making music is very personal for me, and life is too short to not enjoy sharing ideas with other artists who have formidable talents and interesting points of view. This concept expands into orchestration, copying, and of course, recording and mixing with my great friend Gus Borner, who has an excellent team and facility where the recorded music is edited and mixed for final delivery. It’s a huge process, for sure.
What's your earliest memory of playing music?
I started out on a recorder, seriously, I played the hell out of that thing. (laughs) But my first concerted experience as a musician was at age nine, playing in my school orchestra, marching band and jazz band. I started on alto sax and then I got a guitar when I was 12, which changed everything for me. The earliest photographs of me are holding 45’s of Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, and KISS. I have always been fascinated with the emotional power of music, and also production and musical arrangements. Not that this relates to KISS - I never felt that I fit in with other kids when I was growing up, and music always seemed to be the guide for me to better understand myself and others.
What were some of the early records that influenced you?
Okay. Lets get in the way back machine… Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats, Santana’s Abraxas, the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar, anything by Black Sabbath. Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Jackson Five, and of course, KISS, and various classical and jazz artists. Also, a lot of prog-rock. RUSH’s La Villa Strangiato changed my life as a guitarist. That song was huge for me.
As a kid, I wasn’t a fan of film scores in particular – not because I didn’t like the music, but it didn’t occur to me that scoring was an attainable career until I was offered the opportunity to score a low-budget movie. I just wanted to play guitar, write and produce music, and tour the world, and I had never really considered the music for films as independent bodies of work. It was always integrated with storytelling, so I identified with it from that perspective. And besides, I had become a guitarist who wanted to rock!
But once I got into scoring, I was really drawn to Bernard Herman, Henry Mancini, John Barry, Franz Waxman and a lot of the older stuff. In the modern era of film music, Thomas Newman’s music has always resonated with me. Give the man an Oscar already!
When did you realize that being a composer was a viable career path?
That’s a funny question because I don’t think there has ever been that moment for me where I’ve said to myself, “You are now a film composer.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the the craft, and I am thankful for every opportunity to work in our business, but I think that composing for film and television is just the thing that I’ve been doing for a good chunk of time. In the late 90’s, my band, Pet released it’s first and only album on Atlantic Records. It was a volatile band but everything started off very promising. We had a song on a platinum soundtrack album by the time our record came out so it looked like things were really happening.
Then, just before we left on a lengthy tour, our manager attended a screening of a jazz film that I scored, and he said, "Tyler, you shouldn’t be putting your future in the hands of singers and other musicians. This is what you should do" (laughs). Not exactly what you want to hear from your manager as you embark on a year-long tour where you’ll be eating Del Taco on a daily basis, and hoping you don’t lose your apartment in the process. Anyway, after the tour the band imploded just before we were to record a second album. I started playing in L.A - fronting my own band, just to see what that experience was like, and to not end on a sour note in the event that I was near the end of my career as a performing musician.
Luckily, Emilio Estevez hired me to score Rated X. I really enjoyed working with him. It was the first time I felt like a film composer. And then Stephen Kay brought me onto Get Carter, and at that point I thought, maybe I should put my focus on scoring movies? I had already done like 25 or so movies, and most of them were very small films, for which I did some not so great scores. On Get Carter, I realized that I should approach scoring from my strengths of writing, and my experience producing music. Then I really asserted in learning more about the actual craft of underscoring a movie, and various styles of storytelling and emotion. Soon, the palette of what I was capable of doing expanded, and I began working in TV, higher profile movies, games and stuff. I am happy that this journey has led me back to making records as well, but I feel like I am just beginning, to be honest with you.
So, it seems like the learning never stops, and that is the beauty of it.
I think that you have to continue to put challenges in front of yourself to remain enthusiastic about the possibilities life holds. If you stop pushing yourself, you start dying, creatively speaking. Sometimes you need to give yourself breaks from the grind to recharge your batteries and inform your art with new experiences, and that’s one of the great aspects I enjoy about touring with Marilyn Manson. I get to go play music that I make with him and break guitars with my friends. No deadlines. It’s totally fun. I am fortunate to have this outlet in my creative life.
It sounds like you get the best of both worlds. You get to be a composer and then you get to be a rock star when you want too, right?
(laughs). Rock star adjacent. None of this is lost on me. You probably couldn’t write the day in day out details of my life. I step back sometimes and shake my head when I think about some of the crazy shit that happens. I put myself in pressure situations all the time, so it’s often stressful, but a lot of fun. I am thankful for that, and for my family, friends, the great people I work with who support me doing all of it.
That's cool. Listening to the John Wick 2 soundtrack, there was definitely a metal/rock theme vibrationally. How did that musical direction come about?
Well, the director, Chad Stahelski loves rock music. I scored John Wick with my good friend, Joel Richard. Our musical sensibilities definitely align when it comes to the John Wick world. Initially, I became involved because the directors wanted a Manson song for the first movie. Manson and I had just finished The Pale Emperor, and one thing led to the next, and we ended up playing the record for Keanu and the directors in my studio. They immediately loved the song 'Killing Strangers’ and wanted it for the movie. They asked me if I would score the movie, but I was is the trenches on Guardians, so I proposed that Joel and I work out the sound and the main theme together, and that he would run with it until I was done working on Guardians. There was no way I was going to compromise my effort on Guardians, but I was so psyched after seeing the sizzle reel for John Wick, that I wanted to be involved, if at all possible. Chad and Dave were cool with the idea of Joel and I working together so we took it from there. Joel definitely did a lot of heavy lifting on John Wick and his talent as a composer and musician shouldn’t be overlooked.
You are featured onscreen in John Wick 2 playing guitar. Tell us about that.
Yes. I am playing a Guitar Viol. The director called me from Rome last January and said, “I can't find an extra who can do this. There is just no way.” Chad had already flown my friend’s Le Castle Vania and Nostalghia out to be part of the shoot so I knew it would be a fun experience. It turned out to be freezing cold, but we had a good time. Chad loves when I play the Guitar Viol, so he asked that play it on camera, and also that I put make-up on my face similar to when I perform with Manson. Hilarious but pretty cool too! Joel and I worked together on the score for John Wick 2, as well. Joel plays many instruments on the score as well. We are going to play some John Wick music this July, at a film festival in Malaga, Spain.
I saw a cool clip of you playing the Guitar Viol at the Grammy museum.
Ugh. Yes. I actually watched that clip. It’s unpleasant for me to hear my speaking voice. (laughs). I was using a loop station and a delay pedal. I was demonstrating the motive for various motifs in the most definitive scene in the movie, Watchmen, for the audience. Essentially, I recreated a score cue on the spot, which to some people is mysterious and kind of fascinating. When you play into a loop station, you’re kind of screwed if you make a mistake because it's going to loop back around again and again. Scares the hell out of me every time I do that in public. Again… Flogging. (laughs). Even though I’ve used it on many film scores, the first time I really ever used the Guitar Viol in a live setting was recently at the Samurai Jack premiere. Genndy Tartakovsky asked if we would do a performance to open the premiere - that was really fun.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 hits theaters nationally on May 5th.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy | Paul Goldowitz
Extending gratitude to Tyler Bates.