'The real part is super-networking' The X-Files composer Mark Snow on music-making process and more
Mark Snow is the legendary 21-time ASCAP-winning TV composer behind the music for hit shows Blue Bloods, Smallville, One Tree Hill, Kojak and The Twilight Zone. He is also responsible for one of the most popular, recognisable TV show theme tunes of all time – The X-Files. Yes, that one. Here he talks to Mandy News about his career so far, what aspiring composers can do to get noticed and his music-making process for television.
Mark, please give us a little introduction about yourself and how you got into the industry.
I’m going to try to make this short – all my daughters say “shut up, get on with it!” [laughs]. I was a Juilliard student – an oboe player – and was preparing to be an oboist in some orchestra, somewhere in the world. I had a room mate named Michael Kamen and we put this band together. My girlfriend at the time knew someone who was an engineer at Atlantic records. We wrote three songs, went in there in the middle of the night and got a record contract with them. That was easy, wasn’t it?
That lasted five years and then the band disbanded and the guitar player and I went off and went to a so-called record company. We could sing and play everything – I was percussion and keyboard, he was guitar and bass so that was basically all we needed and he was a great singer and we wrote songs. My wife said “C’mon, let’s get out of here, you can do better than this! My relatives out in LA will introduce you to people and you could write music for TV shows and movies." I said “Well, that’s fine but I haven’t done that before.” She said “Don’t worry about it, it’ll work out!”
A thousand dollars and a station wagon, with two kids, off we went to live with her father in a fancy part of LA called Brentwood. After two weeks, he said “Here’s another thousand dollars, now please leave. Maybe go to Malibu where there are these shacks you can rent for $400 a month." And we did that! I started to meet some people and there was a lot of pretty well-known people who saw me because of her father and her sister, they were just giving me a little encouragement. It wasn’t that I was going to get hired to do a major movie or anything. But, her brother-in-law at the time, was in a TV show called The Rookies. It was an Aaron Spelling show and they gave me a chance to do a score for one of the episodes. They seemed to like it because then I did another one and it just grew from that point forward.
I think that's probably a turning point, because I was basically working for them, that is. the Aaron Spelling company. There was a show that came along called Dynasty. I did a few episodes, they had a new producer and he said “I want Puccini and Verdi, I don’t want this kind of music." So they got rid of me which, actually, turned out to be great because I got to work for some other places and that really accelerated things.
I did a lot of two-hour TV movies and mini-series. It was the early 80s, that was a big deal then. I did Starsky and Hutch and Hart to Hart and I forget some of the other early ones but that TV movie thing just kept going pretty good and then the next deal was The X-Files in early '91. I didn’t realise at the time but that turned into quite a big deal.
That’s the brings us into Smallville, Ghost Whisperer, Blue Bloods and all the new X-Files stuff – the two X-Files movies and now the second iteration of the series – and probably the greatest time I ever had writing music for anyone was the the last four movies of the great French director Alain Resnais. He was in Paris and had heard some re-runs of The X-Files on TV. He wanted me to do this movie of his and I didn’t know who he was and I remember telling my wife, who was much starter than me about these things, and she said “He’s a big guy – he’s a cult hero, he did this and that!!!”
Going to Paris, meeting this guy, and the editor and the other producers, it was just the greatest experience writing music for anything. They were so incredibly generous. My wife was with me and they took us around to all the secret Parisian places. I remember Alain,, he was in his 80s at the time and, when I first saw the movie he said “now I’m going out for a coffee and, when I come back, and you’re not here, I’ll know that you didn’t like the movie and I respect that. But I hope you stay!” So I stayed, obviously. They said “do whatever you want, there’s no temp track, this is just wide-open space just for you”. That doesn’t exist anywhere else!
I came back to Connecticut, I did the whole thing in my electronic studio, sent it over and crossed my fingers and it was a good response! I did the next, next, next and then he was in the middle of the fifth one and unfortunately he passed away and it was very, very sad because those experiences were better than anything. Granted the X-Files is a worldwide phenomenon and all that, a huge big deal, but those last four movies of Monsieur Resnais, Private Fears, Wild Grass, You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, Life of Riley, were just fantastic.
What kind of equipment do you usually use to compose and what’s your approach to working on a project? Does it differ between something like those films and something like The X-Files?
Well it only differs, hopefully, in that the music is very different but how I approach it with my set-up of gear and instruments, I’m probably one of the last people on Earth who uses this thing called a Synclavier which was invented in the '60s by three professors from Dartmouth University. It doesn’t have a specific sound itself but it’s like a big architectural workforce, where you can pile all these libraries and sounds into it, change them up all the time, add more or less, whatever. I use Logic and I use Pro-Tools and Kontact, which I am sure most every other fellow uses too.
But the mother ship, the main instrument of my set-up is the Synclavier and that’s nine years of The X-Files plus movies. There are a lot of buttons on it, but it is lightning fast and it cost as much as a house when I bought it in 1986. Now you can get them for $2, 000 (£1, 431). The company went out of business but luckily, I know someone who lives a few hours away who, when things break or need adjusting, he can come down and help me with that so that I’m in good shape. I have three of them so the redundancy is just foolproof.
Do you still play the oboe at all? You mentioned that that was your first instrument...
I don’t but it’s still in a drawer in my house, all wrapped up. Every once a year or so I open it up just to see if it needs to be polished, it’s survived all these years pretty well. I should really donate it to some wonderful charity or something. If I had the time, maybe I’d pick it up and start practising, see if I could get anywhere with it again.
So we're sure people ask you a lot about The X-Files but we wanted to ask if there’s anything that’s changed about the way that you write for this show, or anything about this show that you feel’s changed over the years that’s kind of kept it fresh?
Well, the very first show – the pilot – they took music from some movies, I forget which ones it was, but it was all just sustained and atmospheric. Not melodic, no harmonies, just basically ‘sound’. They said "we like that, do that". OK, I did that for about six shows but I thought "boy, this is getting tired, I’d like to try something else". So then I started using a sort of modern/classical sound that I always loved when I was younger. I always thought that music was really cutting-edge, cool avant-garde stuff. And it worked out pretty well on the show! The producers really liked it and they said "What is that?" I said "Do you like it?" And they said “Yes!"
It was fun to turn that home studio music into a big orchestra score. I think that it was kind of important to keep a sense of the sound from the past. I mean when I did those French movies and some other projects, you wouldn’t know that I was The X-Files guy.
But one of the great things about The X-Files was that they just let me go crazy on it, they just let me do whatever I wanted to do. Every single episode in that first nine-year run, everyone would come to my studio in LA and they listened to every note, whether it was the producer, one of the writer-producers or this one or that one, they never missed a beat so to speak. I said “This is going pretty well now – you don’t have to do this any more!” They said “Don’t you understand? This is so much fun for us! We leave the studio, we can sit here, relax and just see how the music is just helping the show so much, it’s just great!”
“I said OK but I’m not going to make you breakfast or tea or anything like that!”
Last question about the X-Files. Your theme tune has been in almost everything as a parody or homage – where’s the strangest place you’ve heard it played?
A lot of TV shows, when they wanted to do a funny bit about either aliens or mystery or something, this would creep in. But I think most remarkable are the different recorded versions of it that came out when it was most popular. There was heavy metal, there was a country version and the instrumental, though, that was pretty great. Punk, all kinds of things, in fact, the guy who did Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield, he did a version of it as well.
But probably the funniest thing of all was a pure accident which was when the composer John Lunn who wrote the music for Downton Abbey. He didn’t know it and I didn’t know it but the key of his theme for Downton Abbey and the rhythm was exactly the same as the X-Files. I mean exactly!!! Some clever fellow mashed them up and stuck it on the internet and it was unbelievable! I mean, there was no editing, there was no pitch-shifting or tempo-shifting it just laid in there.
I remember seeing John at one of these events in LA and I said “Hey! Did you listen to The X-Files and get your idea from the thing?”(I wasn’t having a go at the guy). He said “Absolutely not!!!” So I said “Well, alright then!” He’s really a very good and talented composer.
So, what’s coming up next for you Mark? We know you’re working on the X-Files now, but what’s down the line for you, have you got anything planned in the future?
Well nothing at the moment. There’s this TV show Blue Bloods that I’m working on as well, that’ll probably be back but other than that, nothing at the moment. Although pilot season is coming up so there could possibly be some new things coming my way.
Do you always work at your studio at home, now?
Yeah. It’s a lonely existence no matter where you are. I remember when I was working at Fox during the Hart to Hart days, the producer and I were looking for a room with a piano so I could play him an idea for a theme for Hart to Hart. We stumbled across this room that had a piano, it was a very small room with no windows and there were some music on the piano and, looking at it, it’s a score by John Williams, a movie called Dracula he did. And so I’m looking at his sketch for the orchestra and that was where he was working – that was where he wrote that move score in this miserable, jail-cell of a room, you know?
Whatever the circumstances are, it doesn’t matter. I have a very nice view from my studio now, looking out over the woods and hills and so forth and right now the weather is so miserable it doesn’t much matter but it doesn’t matter when it’s just pristine and bucolic outside, it’s just – you’re in another space, another world. I know all composers who do this, it’s the same situation, you could put them at the beach, or put them in a room like the one John Williams used for that score. It's all in your mind, I guess.
For up-and-coming composers, up-and-coming people who wanted to get into TV and film, what would you say to them?
Well, interestingly, tomorrow I’m going to NYU where I teach a class and have done for the last 10 years, where all the students write pieces at their home studios and then, in June, they are played by a small live orchestra that the Musicians’ Union in New York City donates to us. Sometimes it’s just home studio pieces and I just critique them. Not as bad as Simon Cowell does on American Idol! I never say “that’s horrible, that is bloody miserable, you have no business here, get out!”
In terms of advice, every time these classes are over, I’m always asked “how do I get started, blah blah blah!” If I was courageous and bold at the beginning of these sessions I would say “How many of you here are 35? OK 35, let’s see! Maybe 33 of you might sneak in somehow, and anyone can have a home studio, but you still have to know something about music.“ I don’t say that because that’s not encouraging. But anyway, the answer is everyone can have a version of a home studio. Your dentist, your doctor’s son can go out and buy some gear – that’s great but you still should know something about music.
When I started there was nothing. There were no videos, there was no such thing as video tape or anything, everything was done in the old fashioned way. A small orchestra would be put together and you’d go in and conduct, you’d write it out, the copiest would do the parts and that would be that. Then, slowly but surely, this technology started to show up.
Basically, anyone if they think they have some musical ability can follow their passion. But, beyond that, the real part is super-networking. In my case, I was lucky because I had a family member who was in a position to help me. That’s really a fantastic way to get into the business, so everybody go out and get married to someone who has relatives in show business, but I think it’s just networking as much as possible. You write a little 10 minute film for someone and that someone, tells someone else, etc, etc…
I remember there was one young man who said “What should I do?” I said “Are you married? “No” “Do you have kids?” “No.” “Do you have anyone you have to take care of financially?” “No”. “Do you have any debts?” “No.” “OK so here’s what to do – you go and you rent a crummy little apartment in Burbank, California, then you look in the trade papers and you try to find the phone number and addresses of all the working composers. And you write to each one of them."And this one young man did just that! And now he’s working for a big composer, and hopefully he moves up as time goes on. There are guys who did that for Hans, who is extremely generous in helping young talent.
In fact, I have someone right now from Connecticut of all places – I couldn’t believe this young man lived just 20 minutes away from me. Someone told me about him, he came over and showed me his stuff. I thought it was great. He helped me out on some shows and he said “Well, what do you think I should do now?” I said “You know, if you can afford it, you have a wife, she seems to be nice and smart maybe she could get a job out there in her field.” The guy moves out there, he moves to a less-expensive part of LA, out in the valley, some place far from where the studios are but still out there. He calls up this composer, Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL), who lives in the neighbourhood! This fellow calls him up and Tom says "well come on over let’s see what you have" and now he’s working for him! He’s on his way!
But you have to have pretty lucky. That came out of nowhere, but when your young and pesisstant good things usually happenI. Every successful composer has a different story about how they got started.
I know that a certain music editor took some of Alan Silvestri early music and used it as temp in Romancing the Stone. The producers loved it, hired him, and he was off and running.
Sometimes all it takes knowing one person or a friend who has directed, produced or edited some early film of theirs, and to be asked to follow him as his or her career rises.
So I would like to thank all the people at Mandy.com for the opportunity to tell my story.Tags: