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Composer Interview: Woody Jackson

posted Feb 10, 2011, 8:38 AM by Kaya Savas   [ updated Feb 24, 2011, 12:40 PM ]

I got the chance to sit down with composer Woody Jackson who is best known for co-composing the score to Red Dead Redemption with Bill Elm. Although you may not have heard of Woody you most likely heard him play as he's been a performer on a number of scores such as Ocean's 12, Oceans's 13, The Girlfriend Experience, The Devil Wears Prada, Fun With Dick And Jane, Tenacious D: The Pick Of Destiny, and many more.

Kaya: 

You said you've been here for a year in this place?


Woody:

Mmm Hmm, I've recorded here though [pause] past six years.


Kaya:

6 years?


Woody:

Yeah


Kaya:

Who was here, who owned this before?


Woody:

Alan and Bert Gottschalk ran it from 1931. It was and is still called Electro-vox. It’s the oldest privately run studio in LA. A lot of film composers have recorded here. From Max Steiner to Dimitri Tiomkin to Henry Mancini. Mancini recorded Moon River here. Also Nat King Cole rehearsed and recorded here too. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie recorded here in 1945 with Slim and Slam. I’m right across from Paramount Studio’s, They used to have tie lines to here and would record radio shows. Jack Benny would do his East cost show and come here to check out his performance for the West coast. The patchbay is still on the wall over there


Kaya:

Wow. Everything for Red Dead was done in here?


Woody:

Here and at my house. It was all mixed here. All the horns were done here and a lot of the overdubs were done here. I recorded all the Harmonica here with Tommy Morgan. He’s my favorite musician and has the best stories from way back. And played on so many great songs, like the theme to Sanford and Son to the Waltons, A lot of people don’t know this but he also scored some of the Twilight Zone TV shows. But Yeah the room is just magic.  I worked on a few movies here too last year. It just gets a great sound, you don't have to do much. There's not too much of moving and tweaking, etc. Just play.  Just get it close to the person and let's go. So you know everything is fast and fun. Oh yeah the whole add-on was done here too.


Kaya:

Undead Nightmare.


Woody:

Yes


Kaya:

Have you heard of Diego Stocco?


Woody:

No.


Kaya:

I first got introduced to him when he played on Sherlock Holmes.


Woody:

Which one? The Zimmer one?


Kaya:

Yeah.


Woody:

Have you seen the TV show?


Kaya:

Yeah.


Woody:

The one that just came out? The BBC one called Sherlock?


Kaya:

Oh, no.


Woody:

Oh, you gotta see that.


Kaya:

Really?


Woody:

It's based in modern times. It's three episodes, but each episode is an hour and a half. You gotta see it. It's really, really good. 


Kaya:

Oh, wow. Well, I brought Diego up because he's an experimental type musician, and his stuff is crazy. He has stuff on YouTube. He built what he calls an "Experibass". He built this giant thing where it looks like the Frankenstein monster of instruments. But he gets the most unique sounds out of stuff. And the stuff you just showed me, that you build stuff. And he attached microphones to a Bonsai tree and would play on the Bonsai tree like strings and would get unique and crazy stuff.


Woody:

That's also why I love Ennio Morricone cause he did so many things that crossed over into more sound effects. 


Kaya:

So, at what point in your life did you find music or did music find you?


Woody:

I've been paying music since I was in junior high school.  It kind of saved me in high school. I was in all the bands and my senior year was all music classes and one study hall. I was in a rock band but quit to study music They were called Live.


Kaya:

Oh, you were with Live?


Woody:

Yeah, I was the fifth guy.


Kaya:

Okay [Laughs].


Woody:

They went on to do their thing and I went to school, to college. I dropped out after about a year and a half. I was really into jazz and I wanted to be a jazz musician. That's all I wanted to do. I was going to school in Virginia and there were really great people there. But then I ran out of money and had an epiphany, I was in a counterpoint class.  And I'm like "well that note doesn't go, that doesn't fit. And what's that note called now?" It's called decorative. And I'm like "Oh, it's decorative. So it means it doesn't fit. But it fits." I started realizing that there are concepts and there are things to be studied. But if you can argue your point and validate your point then you're correct. So then you're cocky because you're young and you start thinking "I don't need this." Then you run out of money and you're really like "I don't need this".  So I got a job and kicked around Richmond, Virginia for a few years. 


Kaya:

Oh yeah.


Woody:

Then I came out here and it was just devastating. It was like what the hell am I doing? 


Kaya:

I think everyone, not only me, but my roommate has been out here for a year and I just met someone else. And it's like you get out here and it's 6 months of severe depression.


Woody:

Well, it's more than months.


Kaya:

Yeah.


Woody:

I mean, god. It's been years. I got this job working for a composer that did a lot of film and TV stuff, a lot of commercials. And you start seeing how it’s done. I learned how to use a synclavier too! It was creative! I was there once and they had a Morricone-like cue and one of the composers was like "I did this for a life insurance commercial". It was really morbid. And he goes "didn't make it" [Laughs]. 


Kaya:

Right.


Woody:

But at the time I got turned off on that and I just started working at a music store, and joined a band and we toured a good four years. The music store was really great because I could leave for a month and still have a job when i came back, I did that for awhile, then I met my wife who saved me from myself but then things took a turn for the worse and I really got more and more into esoteric instruments. I started playing a guitar called a Guitorgan which is a guitar with an organ built into it from the 70's. I'm obsessed with it and I own 10 of them. I toured with this one girl who Jon Brion produced and played most of the instruments on her record and I played all the guitars and the keyboard parts on the guitorgan live.  And that's what I was talking about taking things that are kind of gimmicky and making them useful in music. So the Guitorgan kind of kept me going in this world of "that's really weird, what the hell is that?" Then I got it to control a Chamberlin keyboard and used it on the Ocean's 12 Soundtrack.


Kaya:

Right.


Woody:

When I collaborated with David Holmes on Ocean's 12 and 13 I really honed in on Fuzz guitars, and there's a constant "you find the right guitar and the right Fuzz". Honestly, nothing can be new because it doesn't sound the same no matter what you do. So that was kind of a great primer for the Red Dead thing. Bill [Elm] who got the gig called me up and said "hey, you wanna work on this stuff" and I was like "yeah, this is perfect." We really kind of took it to the limit with 14 hours of music.  It's that thing were it’s your first job and you want push yourself  and the music as far as possible.


Kaya:

So you did 14 hours for Red Dead Redemption?


Woody:

14 and probably more. there was a lot of stuff that didn't make it.


Kaya:

I mean the CD is only... How do you narrow down 14 hours of music? I guess there's a lot of suites and music that's able to loop.


Woody:

Well instead of 2-minute loops we did 5. It was a curse and a blessing at the same time, because with a 5-minute loop it's not really a loop. 


Kaya:

It becomes a track.


Woody:

And with all the space it becomes more natural. I mean I honestly have only gotten through a quarter of the first game. I’m afraid, it’s so addicting 


Kaya:

[Laughs]


Kaya:

Were you familiar with the first game they did for Playstation 2, Red Dead Revolver?


Woody:

I bought that one, and died too.


[Both laugh]


Kaya:

That game for me was awesome because Leone is my favorite director. Everybody knows The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West, but that score I mean that game brought in Bruno Nicolai, Luis Bacalav among others.And through that I'd say that exposed me to those guys. So spaghetti westerns are not just three movies it's a huge genre.


Woody:

And there's Jodorowsky. The western he did. It was the midnight movie before Rocky Horror. like the most crazy, weird shit. 


Kaya:

Oh, El Topo?


Woody:

El Topo, yeah. Bill and I used to be in a band years and years and years ago. He still has the band. When touring. I used to have scores on cassette to drive to, and my favorites, were Morricone mix tapes. Those are are great to drive across Texas to, but I would also listen to Dead Man and I actually just recorded the entire movie onto cassettes. So you'd just listen to the movie while driving. I was fortunate to meet Jim Jarmusch and ask him questions.  Just grilling him, you know? "What was Neil Young like? What were you doing? How did this happen?" Dead Man. Now that's a western. The score is just bam! A classic, raw thing.


Kaya:

For Red Dead I'm guessing Rockstar heard Friends Of Dean Martinez?


Woody:

Yeah, Ivan is always on the lookout for the obscure 


Kaya:

After playing Red Dead Revolver and loving that they used the music of those films. It felt like you were playing a classic spaghetti western. And I remember when I heard the announcement that Red Dead Redemption was going to be an original score.


Woody: 

Could be bad.


Kaya:

Yeah, I got nervous. I got weary. You know I've been waiting for this game for two years.


Woody:

Oh certainly, believe me. But Ivan at Rockstar really had a vision.


Kaya:

I remember I put the disc in and that first track "Born Unto Trouble" played and I got chills. And I was like "okay, it's good."


Woody:

Thanks! David Holmes produced the record. I was excited because I thought it would just be sitting back going "cool". But it was me sorting through file after file going "oh this!" and trying to not forget something.  "oh wait I remember doing this, let's put this in here." So it was 3 weeks of nonstop work for me of finding files and transferring them.  It was everything opposite what I thought, but I'm glad that it happened. Rockstar really made it special! They put it out on vinyl too!


Kaya:

Obviously Morricone was an influence for the genre.


Woody:

Oh yeah.


Kaya:

But I mean what other scores were you looking at? Did Rockstar say we want it to sound like this?


Woody:

Well, it was sort of obvious.


Kaya:

Right, like you have to.


Woody:

Oh no, no, no. That's what I was getting to. It's more to get the themes written. But yeah the influences were the standard stuff. It took us two years about so there was a lot of time for research.


Kaya:

Would you compare doing a video game to doing an animated film? What kind of footage were you getting? Was it still rough?


Woody:

It kept getting better. There was one part of the game that I always made me laugh, You're in Mexico and you're shooting a cannon. I don't know if they fixed it or not, but you'd shoot the cannon and people would fly 200 feet in the air!  


Kaya:

So you said you recorded over 14 hours of music. Did that all get used in the game?


Woody:

Yeah, that all got used in the game. 


Kaya:

Well I think when people think of video game music they think of background music. Just looping background music that doesn't really progress. The way games are becoming more cinematic and everything. A lot of composers I talk to, film composers because a lot of film composers are doing video games now. I always ask them what's the difference between video games and film and they go "there really isn't any". Do you agree with that?


Woody:

The cut scenes are just like movies, a start and and end but the gameplay is completely different.


Kaya:

Are you trying to put yourself in the mind of a gamer?


Woody:

More of how's it gonna be more real. What instrument am I gonna add, how's it gonna be played and how is that gonna change the feeling of when you're playing the game. Because that makes it more like a movie. When you watch a movie you don't realize it. It either changes tempo or a cymbal crashes. It's different and the same. Cause there's a lot of music in films that are just grooves. The other thing is the 3 and 4 note motifs is my favorite part of... 


Kaya:

Well I think the simpler a melody is the more effective.


Woody:

And that's why I like Morricone, that one... what is it? 


[Woody plays on the piano]


Woody:

And that's First Youth from Cinema Paradiso and thats just an ascending major scale.


[Woody plays the solfege scale on the piano]


Woody:

And I'm like "cool, I got that." I mean probably everybody's got it. And you know they say that everyone's got one song in them so it was like "do I have one song? No, I got a couple songs." I think of it that way and I'm the guy that plays these simple melodies to compliment the other things. 


Kaya:

I mean when I listen to a composer's body of work you see elements that repeat, and even if it's subconscious it's part of the way their brain is working. I know that Hans has stated on several occasions that the melody in The Ring is the same thing in Hannibal which is the same thing in Angels & Demons. It's a motif he says he's using. Also when you read forums people are like "so and so is a hack. It's just a copy. Self plagiarizing." Well when you look at directors you know the auteur theory?  If you say a director is an auteur because he reuses the same shot you know? 


Woody:

Yeah, well the other thing too is you don't know it but the person they're working for could be asking them to sound like what they did. 


Kaya:

Yeah. So if you're composing a western like Red Dead. What makes a western score a western score. Not thinking about what Ennio Morricone set up in terms of standards but to you what makes a score a western score.


Woody:

God, there's a bunch of things. It could be a few instruments. Fuzz guitar and tubular bells kinda nails it, which is nice. Let me think. 


Kaya:

Is it just the instrumentation?


Woody:

Instrumentation. Western score. That's a good one. It's a tough one. There's classic stuff that we use. There's a whistle, a harmonica and guitar. And a lot of space, open space. That's a western and you can add anything else and it can still be a western to me.


Kaya:

[Laughs] Well a lot of people when they ask me what's the Red Dead score like I try to describe it to them. I tell them it's like if Ennio Morricone's music had a baby with Nick Cave & Warren Ellis' music and it was raised by Quentin Tarantino.


Woody:

That's great! I think the Red Dead score is rough around the edges. 

I always liked being in a band when it was a garage type of band. I played in a garage salsa band. Not technically garage but it's just raw. And to me somehow I'm hoping it adds a little of that because that's my favorite time period before you become really good. Or slick. 


Kaya:

If creating a fresh approach to a western wasn't enough you had to do Undead Nightmare, the zombie one. How did you take your music and mesh genres?


Woody:

That was fun. I did it really fast, like in a month. 


Kaya:

Did you guys know you were gonna have to do that when you signed on?


Woody:

No, no, no.


Kaya:

Or did it come after everything was done for Red Dead.


Woody:

Way after. That was really fun because I got a little more modern with it. Also the influences changed, which is fun.  I always thought of The Shining. You know not so much tongue in cheek about it, but just scary. 


Kaya:

Were you trying to channel Wendy Carlos?


Woody:

No Krzystof Penderecki.


Woody:

There was that and I used an SP1200. It only has 10 seconds of sampling time so I did all the modern stuff in Red Dead on that. I would record live drums to it and pitch them down and then play them and sequence them. That's how I came up with a lot of the modern beats.


Kaya:

Yeah, a lot of the drum loops and everything felt modern.


Woody:

Yeah, they were. But it was gritty and fun.


Kaya:

I love the third track, "Get Back In That Hole, Partner". It feels like a western, you could put it in a western. It's awesome. Did they send you footage for that?


Woody:

No, there was no footage for that.


Kaya:

So it was all on ideas.


Woody:

Yes.


Kaya:

I remember they had John Hillcoat come put together a short film.


Woody:

Yeah that was a whole other thing. They took all the music and put it to the short film.


Kaya:

Did he just take music you already did?


Woody:

He used music from the soundtrack record.


Kaya:

In the future do you want to go into film composition? I'd love to see you in a big film. You've played on a lot of movies.


Woody:

I would love to.


Kaya:

Well I guess to wrap things up I like to ask composers if you had the opportunity to score any film ever made with no disrespect to the original composer, which film would you choose.


Woody:

Any film... It's a tough one. Touch Of Evil maybe. Or Cape Fear. One of those. Yeah Touch Of Evil is pretty high up there. There's already two scores for Touch Of Evil.


Kaya:

Yeah.


Woody:

Have you heard the other one?


Kaya:

Oh, no I haven't. Well, Thanks for doing this it was a real pleasure and an honor.


Woody:

Oh yeah, yeah.


Kaya:

Well would love to do this again sometime in the future.


Woody:

Anytime!



P.S. Woody sent me an email the day after saying the film he would want to score is Mickey One. Glad to know it kept him thinking about it! Both Red Dead Redemption and Undead Nightmare are available digitally on iTunes and Amazon MP3.

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