An Interview with Gabriel Mann, composer for Modern Family
Mandy News talks to Gabriel Mann, the talented composer, songwriter, singer and band member of alternative rock band The Rescues. Gabriel Mann talks about his first steps into music for television, his experience composing for the award-winning hit comedy series MODERN FAMILY, which is in its tenth season, and some sound advice for upcoming composers.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about how you got involved in music?
My name is Gabriel Mann. I am a composer here in Los Angeles. How I got into music is an extremely long tale. I played piano as a kid. My father was the cantor at our synagogue. In college I started to get a little more serious about it but I was also pre-med. At some point during college, about in my junior year, I sort of bailed on medicine as a concept and drew myself into music. When I did that, I’m a pretty logical person I was trying to figure out what I would do after college that was going to support myself. Somebody had mentioned this programme at USC, I went to this film scoring programme that they had, which was one year at the time. That brought me to LA and through many years of totally wacky events I find myself here.
What were your first steps into taking your music into television?
Well now you’re getting into a serious version of that first question! [Laughs] I’ll try to condense it. Basically after I finished that USC programme, I was sort of casting about, trying to figure out how to support myself. I arranged a lot of music for a cappella groups all over the country. I started to record a lot of bands and singing groups and all kinds of other things and working by the hour and producing bands. At some point I was an assistant to another composer named David Schwartz, I left him and basically turned around and decided that TV music was for the birds. Then I started making records of my own solo material which was singer song writing stuff and I had a band and we toured around like crazy. Then somewhere around 2005 I came back from a big tour, I had been opening for Alanis Morisette in Europe. It sounds impressive and I thought it was impressive and then I came back home and there was no ticker taped parade in my honour having just conquered Europe.
But David Schwartz, my old boss, called and he said “hey do you want to write some songs for ‘Arrested Development’” which was a brand new show that he was working on. So we started doing that and I got to sing a bunch of them. That was the major pivoting moment from being very focussed on songs and making records to going a little bit back towards television. Then I worked for him as a sort of co-writer for a few years on a few different series that he was working on. Then one of the directors of one of those series had a pilot and right around the time that pilot happened I started a new band with three other singer song writers called ‘The Rescues’. ‘The Rescues’ took off pretty quickly, we had a lot of major placements on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. So that led to us making a record and getting a record deal and doing that whole thing. But at the same time I was doing this pilot and the pilot became a big hit and that was ‘Modern Family’. That is essentially the short version.
Not at all. Nobody knew. I have a terrible track record for predicting whether something is going to be successful. So when I saw it, it was the first pilot that I had ever done on my own and the first one that had my own name on it. I was just flying by the seams of my pants and the director, Jason Myer, said hey you should just come to the set and meet Steve and Chris and so I did that when they were shooting the pilot. They didn’t really care, they were not terribly concerned about music. They knew that there wasn’t going to be a lot of music. Jason basically said “don’t worry about it, I know we’re going to need at least a few things so just hang around.” So I wound up writing a theme and a few other incidental pieces of music for the pilot and the theme went over well. So once that happened I was like the composer on the show.
Even thought there’s not a ton of music in that show, what there wound up being was, I happen to do a lot of source for that show. So any time there’s some kind of musical event happening, I’ll deal with that. There are live musical things that happen on that show with relative frequency so that’s when I’ll go to set and make sure that everything is together for that. We have these sort of montage moments at the end of many episodes of ‘Modern Family’ which is one of the signatures of the show. That is something that I’ve become known for, wrap it up in a bow moments. But they’re very different from the theme, the theme is a big shout chorus by a big band. They don’t really have anything to do with each other. The show is a comedy, so the shout chorus theme, the big ‘hey hey’ thing is really just you know ‘hey the show is starting’ and there’s also a big ‘ba-dum-dum’ at the end of the first joke in the cold open. So we make a big joke and then we hit the joke over the head with a big piece of loud music and that works really well. Then you watch the show and then you get to the end of the show and there’s often some kind of sentimental thing that happens. That is the stuff that I end up scoring with relative frequency.
How does it work with the scheduling of the show and your turnaround?
It’s totally different every time. This season they’ve needed an unusually larger amount of musical than usual. Basically what happens is they’ll send me video of whatever they need. The editor’s trying to get the music in there before Steve and Chris see it. So I’ll often get a cut pretty early on, I’ll make something for that cut and then it will go out to them. There will usually be a week between the time that I get the video and the time that the show mixes. So there’s time in there to write it, record it and make sure that it’s all good and everybody approves so if there’s any revisions that have to be done there’s plenty of time. That said, there are many instances in which they say “hey, we’re mixing tomorrow. Chris wants to put a piece of music in this part. Can you do that?’ That happens also but usually I have at least a few days to deal with it.
Technically speaking, what do you usually use? What does your tool bag have in it?
For that show, it’s almost always a guitar. There’s guitar, there’s occasional keyboard instruments, those are in the box. Then there’s a lot of percussion and the percussion is live. It’s mainly a live score with a few instances of vocals that I usually will put on myself. That happens probably one twentieth of the time and then about another tenth of the time, there can be other synthetic elements. But generally we’re talking about very acoustic sounding instruments. That said there are plenty of times when it’s electric guitar but real instruments are the go-to in that show. It needed to feel very organic and it always has been a very organic feeling show. I will write with the synthetic stuff because I don’t actually play guitar but it just so happens that most of the stuff I work on I use guitar and I have go-to guitar players that will help me out. But generally I’m writing on some sort of synthetic fake weird sounding guitar thing and then I have my guitar player come in and we record everything.
On other shows, do you have another way of working?
I’m in the middle of episode four for this new show called ‘A Million Little Things’ which also happens to be on ABC. It’s a drama so there are 35 starts in this particular episode right now which is just a ton of music. Every episode is pretty much like that. So with this show there is sort of an organic bent to it but there’s also many different kinds of music going on. They all can sort of fit together but I use a lot of reserve things when I go into flashbacks to take us into another universe. There are plenty of synthetic pad instruments and basses and bells and other kinds of keyboards.
I use a Fender Rhodes on it pretty regularly but I’m generally playing one or two notes at a time on it and it goes through a series of plug-ins basically that make it sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Some of them are rhythmic and some of them are a little bit more atmospheric. Then there’s a very simple piano that I use throughout the score. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar, there’s lot of electric guitar. But the electric is generally pretty pretty. It’s clean and it has a lot of reverb, the lines are slow and beautiful. Then there are other incidences where things get moving and there’s a lot of strumming and moving along but it’s kind of got a little bit of everything. So the process is more, I have an enormous template for it where I’ve sort of chosen specific sounds.
Occasionally I’ll go outside the template and grab other things but that gives me at least some place to start with. I’ll do a path of the entire show then I’ll bring in my guitar player and put him on probably 90% of it. There are some cues that are solo instruments and so writing those and recording those is obviously critical. The recording element of that is critical so I spent a pretty decent amount of time getting the sound right and trying out different guitars and different ways of playing guitars. I don’t play guitar so all of that happens after the writing. I’ll write a line on an acoustic guitar and then I’ll have my guitar player come in and we will go over it. We’ll basically get into a cue and I’ll be like can you try it more like this like with your fingers or try this with your fingernails tip the guitar the low strings and rub them a little bit.
We really get into pretty specific techniques in playing the instrument and recording the instrument. I’m not always closed mic on the acoustic sometimes different stuff happens. It’s pretty involved, it’s a pretty involved show and I need to, for my own sake, I like to keep things interesting. There’s a lot of thematic material in this show. I like to come back to particular themes here and there and at the same time I like to rework those themes either with different instrumentation or reharmonisation or stuff like that. The themes from the pilot live on throughout the rest of the show. Not in every cue, but there are moments, major moments, where those themes recur.
What advice would you have for up and coming composers wanting to get involved with film and television?
That’s such a difficult question. My answer for that is a little bit standard but I think it’s the only right answer. You have to follow the path that you want to be on. For example in my own case, when I was starting I was very honest with myself that I thought TV music was stupid. I was not enjoying it, I didn’t enjoy my job as an assistant. I thought all the deadlines were arbitrary and all the people that we were dealing with were awful. So I went off and made records and that’s something that I really wanted to do. I started making songs and recordings and doing all of that. That was a wonderful experience and it was an informative experience. I didn’t earn a lot of money but I learned a lot.
Then when I came back from doing that for a long time, it led to two very important parts of my life. One, it led to my band ‘The Rescues’. The other thing that it did was it led to working on ‘Arrested Development’ as a songwriter. That pulled me back into TV and then I was sort of doing it on my own terms. I wasn’t exactly searching for a job. I was searching for what was going to make my experience in music worth doing. I was going to do something else, I was going to be a doctor and that was going to be fine. To make the choice to be a musician, you don’t go into music because you want a normal job. If you want a normal job, you go and do something else.
The reason you go into it is because you love Led Zeppelin, or because you love Queen or because you love classical music or because you love Indian music or you have some particular thing that you love. Then you figure out what it is that you love to make. In my case, I love so many different kinds of music and my career is kind of emblematic of that. I work in comedies, I work in dramas, I’ll do animation, I’ll do kids music. I’ve done everything - everything you can do. I enjoy that variety, for me the variety is a big part of it. That’s not true for everyone. I guess this is a long winded way of saying you need to pursue the music and the muse that is within you. Ideally that then leads to some kind of career. In other words, if you only search for a job, you sort of deny yourself the experience of learning and being open to the world of music that you may naturally be predisposed to do.