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Composing for Foo Fighters: Bryan Lee Brown talks about his 'Sonic Highways' score

Sonic Highways HBO

Every composer of film and television music must consider how much sound (other music, sound effects, scene-specific audio) will already be in the project before their music comes in. He or she not only must craft music that works for for scenes, but do it in a way that is balanced with everything else.

Last year Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters (and former drummer in Nirvana) directed an eight-episode series about the making of the Foo Fighters' latest record Sonic Highways. Titled simply Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, the series was a continuation of Grohl's first feature film, 2013's Sound City, that chronicled the rise and fall of the great recording studio where Grohl and Nirvana recorded their classic album Nevermind. For Sonic Highways, Grohl looked at famous recording studios across the country in an effort to understand how those spaces, and their surrounding environments, influenced the music recorded there.

While Sonic Highways was all about music and its influence, there was the necessity for a composer to create cohesion among the show's various episodes. That composer is Bryan Lee Brown; a longtime composer for television who scored every episode in a way intended not to be noticed. I counted his work as some of the best of last year in part because he was able to create dynamic and evocative music without trying to call attention to his work. Brown believes that "[s]imilar to lighting or production design...It's not always necessary to the listener or viewer to realize that you've purposely created something for them to see or hear." I interviewed Brown about his process in the lead up to an Emmy run and the eventual release of the Sonic Highways original score.

How did you get interested in music?

I started playing drums when I was six. My mother noticed me banging on pots and pans so she put me into drums lessons. My first band was with my brother, and we called ourselves Ice Age. I think we were seven and nine years old and we ended playing the trumpet and drums at the school talent show. We performed Herb Alpert's "Rise" and the theme to Star Wars, and to this day I still have the shirts my mother made us for the show.

What drew you to working on films, and how did you first get started?

My introduction to working on films was a natural progression. In the 90s and early 2000s I did a lot of touring and recording with my band, Bluebird. We released an instrumental album entitled The Black Presence, ​which I produced. The album inadvertently did well with placement for TV and film, and during that time I also worked and studied at the Art Center College Of Design in Pasadena, California.

I worked as a projectionist, and as​ a result I studied a lot of film: ​Godard, Kubrick, Fellini, Hitchcock.​ It was great since employees qualified for free tuition. Most of my studies focused on film and digital recording and that was my first introduction to digital recording, which I use on a daily basis for my composing. I attended lectures by Ray Bradbury, Hermann Nitsch, and Frank Gehry; it was a great source of inspiration for me. Being a musician in a design and​ visual arts school gave me a unique perspective. At times it felt like an interspecies, animal friendship. After Black Presence I​ was offered the opportunity to score a documentary called Stylemasters, which I produced as well. That's when it became apparent to me that I should be composing for film and TV.

How did Sonic Highways come to you?

Dave Grohl and I have been friends since the early 90s, but I wanted to go the traditional route. When he told me about his idea for the show I thought it was a great idea and wanted to be a part of it, since a lot of my work has been for documentaries. Jim Rota, one of the show's producers and another longtime friend, brought me on a few months into shooting. Mark Monroe, the show's writer, suggested starting off with giving my music to the editors to see how it worked against picture. Everyone felt it was a good fit and it went from there.

What was the timeline for production? How did that affect your process and creative considerations?

The timeline was a little intense. I started doing pre-production in February and finished the final scenes for the last episode in November. When dealing with docs the edit can change quite a bit from day to day. I was attending the Sonic Highways premiere in New York when ​I received an email from the New Orleans editor requesting revisions for the following day. The Foo Fighters were performing downstairs — we were at the Ed Sullivan Theater — and I was in their dressing room e-mailing and texting with the music editor. So I returned to Los Angeles the next morning, went straight to the studio, and delivered the scenes that evening. Deadlines are good: they make you create.

Did you compose each episode independently, or did you think in a larger context?

I approached all eight episodes as one story. In the production office there was a huge whiteboard with a list of all the cities, studios and names of all the people being interviewed: kind of an atlas to the series. It was really helpful for me ​to see that on a regular basis. Each episode had a different editor,​ so by nature the episodes had a different feel from one another.

What were the complications from your standpoint, composing for such a music-heavy production that shifted style and tone quite a bit?

I never thought of the series as a music show while I was composing. It was simply storytelling. For example, with Nashville and New Orleans I focused on instrumentation and production to help drive the story. Composing can be a subliminal craft at times, similar to lighting or production design. It's not always necessary to the listener or viewer to realize that you've purposely created something for them to see or hear.

Why is an original score important to this series?

I think having an original score brings a cohesiveness to any series because it gives a show that extra bit of personality. It can also give the editor that extra "push" when needed. A lot of the textures I use are similar in feel even if they are being created with different instruments. Expressing "melancholy" or "inspiration" might be achieved by playing different chords or notes, but when given the same production treatment it connects the two and brings a familiarity to the listener.

How did you decide when music should drive a scene and when it should step back and play more atmospheric support?

Composing scores has always been a combination of instinct mixed with direction. Sometimes I'd nail a scene on the first pass, other times I'd have write four or five pieces of music before it started to feel right. I worked closely with the editors during most of the production and we'd sit down to discuss the scene before I started writing. For me, it really helped to know what the editor was trying to achieve before I started to write, but most of the time your instinct will take you in the right direction.

How did you find a way to compose a world dominated by the sound of the Foo Fighters without replicating their catalog?

I felt the contrast between the scenes with Foo Fighters music and scenes with score worked really well with each other largely due to the fact that we come from similar music backgrounds. Most of my music is written on a guitar or piano, then expands to other instrumentation; and a lot of the music I write is inherently introspective — Dark Brown, as I like to call it. It lends itself really well to storytelling. The series was about personal stories as much as it was about the Foo Fighters' music and I think they worked really well with each other.

Where does this take you now?

I'm currently scoring a documentary about the East Los Angeles and South Central backyard punk scene, which is produced by Agi Orsi of Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants. I'm also writing for Red Bull, a few MTV shows, and last but not least, a new Dark Brown album entitled American Instrument. It's an atmospheric, drum-inspired soundscape album featuring guest performances by Dick Dale, John Stanier of Battles, Jon Theodore of Queen of the Stone Age, and hopefully Dave [Grohl] if his schedule permits. I'm hoping to have it out by fall 2015.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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Sonic Highways HBO

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