Interview: Mark Isham

With five films, a new jazz band, and a new album, Mark Isham has had a busy year. We recently spoke by phone about recording, performing, and composing. In between his crowded schedule (and some frustrating technical glitches), Isham discussed jazz, FAME, and working with Werner Herzog, proving to be a most enjoyable–and extremely patient!–interview.

You’ve been a busy man! Five film scores this year, three of which are all premiering within a month of each other…

And a couple more in the works! [laughs]

…And a new album! Tell me about Bittersweet.

Bittersweet was a labor of love and joy actually. I met Kate Ceberano about five or six years ago and we just got along so well. Even though we come from very different worlds and different continents, we found we both enjoyed performing together and we discovered this mutual love of Tin Pan Alley, the classic American Songbook, if you will. We talked about it for a number of years—Oh, wouldn’t it be fun!—so finally we said, “Let’s just stop talking about it and just do it!” So we did it and it’s had quite great success in Australia and it’s sort of now dribbling forth in America and starting to pick up some momentum. We love it and we’re just very, very pleased!

How did you choose which songs to include on the album? With Tin Pan Alley as a basis, that’s certainly a treasure trove of great songs to choose from.

Well, it certainly is. I think it was one of the things that made it so effortless to do. We said maybe we should just trade back and forth some emails on what are your favorite songs and what are your favorite recordings of them. So we’d also get a sense of the styles we might share. And it turns out that the first email was practically duplicates of each other. We’re both big fans of Nancy Wilson. In fact, on both of our lists I think the top five spots were her versions of some of these songs. We just took it from there. It was very easy to come up with what we wanted to do.

As a performer and a composer, how do you find the time to fit it all in?

Well, that’s an ongoing…


Challenge, that’s exactly the right word. At the end of the day you just put it on the calendar, you know, like a birthday or something. It’s on there and you’re just not going to not do it. And things have to mold to that. Part of the way you could also do it is you pick a really good band. You pick an excellent studio and you know it’s going to get done efficiently and very professionally so that you’re not wasting any time. I’ve done enough pre-production now in my life as a film composer that I know what to do. I also know enough about jazz players and the jazz environment to know not to over-prepare, so that you have just the right balance going in so that you can do an album like that in three days and feel confident that you’re going to get a fantastic, stellar product. It doesn’t have to take weeks and weeks.

Do you have any other albums in the works?

Well, I do actually! I have yet to figure out which one is going to surface first. [laughs] I have a brand new band here in L.A. called Houston Street which I’m very excited about. It’s a real jazz band. In other words, it’s “take no prisoners.” [laughs] And somehow you know what’s interesting about this band to me is that we’ve done about three or four gigs now, and every single gig people have come up to me and said, “You know what, I don’t really like jazz, but I really love what you’re doing.” And I can’t quite put my finger on why that is except that as a band we have this idea that even though you’re improvising, people can still be invited to be a part of that. It doesn’t have to be this stand-offish stance that a lot of modern jazz has taken in the past.

One of the things that we’re doing in the band is we’re playing tunes that are recognizable, even though the first thing we do is sort of completely deconstruct them. The fact that we’re playing a bunch of Radiohead tunes, for instance, I think it invites people into the experience. And then actually they find, “I remember that song. I really like that song!” and “Wow, isn’t it interesting what they’re doing with it?” Even if they don’t have any appreciation of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or that tradition, they still find they can have a great affinity for what we’re doing. So that’s a band I’m recording live and want to get a record out in the next six months. I’ve just started working on a project with Bobby McFerrin which I hope will show the light of day pretty soon. That’s very exciting to me because he’s an amazing talent.

He’s like an instrument all to himself.

Really! Well, more like an orchestra to himself! He’s really just remarkable! And I’ve been working on a Christmas album for a number of years and I keep missing the deadlines so it won’t make it this year. [laughs] Hopefully by next year. It’s really interesting. It’s trumpet with electronic versions of Christmas material, which is about halfway done. One of these days I’ve just got to finish it. And a few other odds and ends, but I’m getting back into playing and enjoying it immensely.

I have a really stupid question. I live in New York, and when I first moved here I thought it was really odd that they pronounced Houston Street like HOW-ston Street. I’m from Texas and we called it Houston down there. Why do you pronounce the name of your band HOW-ston Street?

[laughs] Well, because it is after the street in New York not the city in Texas, I’m afraid.

But why Houston Street in particular?

Because that’s sort of the spirit of the band. The spirit of the band is that we play very open, improvised music. I feel that New York is still the one city in the planet that sort of exemplifies that. And that neighborhood still has the main clubs that promote that and offer that to the world as a real art form. Even though we’re not residents there, the hearts of many of the guys in the band sort of half live there. [laughs]

Having been to both places, you made the right choice. Nobody particularly wants to be associated with Houston, Texas.

[laughs] Yeah…

So you have three films coming out within weeks of each other. How did you become involved with MY ONE AND ONLY?

That one came through the music supervisor, Steve Lindsay, who is also a music producer. And he and I have worked together a number of times actually. He produced a track for me once a number of years ago and I also have played on some records he’s produced for Adam Cohen and some others. So when he got the job, he found a writer and produced the title song for the movie. Since the movie was based around an original song for the movie, he was brought on quite early. And then as they were finishing the shooting of the film, the style of the score became apparent what it needed to be. He initially called me up and said, “Can you recommend somebody? I’m not sure we can afford you.” And I said, “Well, let me take a look at it.” I do movies for a variety of different reasons. Yes, I like getting paid, but if the movie strikes my fancy, money isn’t always the object. I took a look at it and I really liked it. And I had a month open in my schedule and I said, “Look, if you can keep it within this timeframe, I’ll do it.” So I did it! It was a lot of fun because, quite frankly, there are not many movies that come along that actually ask for a score in the jazz tradition. So it was a lot of fun to do.

I read on the Scoring Sessions website that you recorded the score with a small number of musicians. Was this a budgetary choice?

This is an interesting question. You come up against this all the time in the film scoring business. How do you handle these ever-diminishing budgets? [laughs] Crash was the ultimate example. But this one also, I think, falls in the same category. I can give you several examples. In this film, I took a look at it and said, “You know what, it won’t help you any to have 60 strings and a big band and all that stuff. You can do this with 20 strings and a jazz quartet.” It’s an intimate film and what the score needs to supply are the intimate moments. Some of the more larger moments are already covered with source material and things like that. And some songs. They had some songs in the film also. So I said, “Look, the good news here is that you’re going to have enough money.” Obviously there was a negotiation that took place and I tried to get as much money out of them as I possibly could. [laughs] And I think they spent more in the end than I really think they wanted to. But it was the right amount for me and what I knew would be a really good score. And it didn’t break the bank. It was the right score for the movie.

The same thing with Crash. Crash had actually less money and, at the end of the day, an intimate, electronic score, I personally think, was the best choice for that movie. We could have thrown a million dollars at it and I don’t think it would have improved the music in the movie. The opposite example that I can think of it is a movie called Bobby a number of years ago, the story of Bobby Kennedy. They had no money and they said, “You just do it electronically.” I said, “Actually, I won’t do that. This movie will suffer if you do an electronic score. It needs an orchestral score. I will do my best to keep the costs in line.” And we just negotiated and we went around to the producers and I just said, “Look, you have to come up with it. You have to find the money because that’s the right way to do this movie.” And they did. And it was the right way, and everyone agreed. So, ultimately if I have a strong opinion about it, I will fight to get the money that is needed to support the film. And that’s the basic attitude I keep these days. We have lots of clever tricks for doing things efficiently and on budget, and we get a lot out of our money. But that’s the point of view I keep.

I also read that the musicians played the score without a conductor. Is this a common practice with other composers for smaller ensemble scores or was this your choice for this film?

You know I can’t speak to other composers. I haven’t asked around these days. I’ve done it a couple of times now. I feel you have to know your musicians well. I’ve only done it when I’ve known the group really, really well. We did this in L.A. and this is the core group of people I’ve used for years. The orchestra leader is Sid Page and Sid is just a marvelous musician and I can trust him to control the group and lead them well. Quite frankly, if everything’s clicked out… And in this case we had a rhythm section, so it was more important perhaps to make sure that the rhythm section was in the can and everybody got the groove and how they would phrase things. I went through and waved the baton for a few rehearsals and things like that, which is not a pretty sight, I’ll tell you! [laughs] I can get people through it so we could find out if there were any mistakes in the parts. But it worked out quite well. I’ve also done it in London with a small group there, which is the core of the London Chamber Symphony. So, again, I can trust an ensemble like that. Obviously the bigger groups I wouldn’t do that. And I have some wonderful conductors in London and L.A. that I work with that for most ensembles I wouldn’t do without.

Let’s talk about BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS. Now that’s an awkwardly titled film.

[laughs] Yup!

What was it like to work with [director] Werner Herzog?

Well, Werner’s a unique and wonderful man. He definitely has a point of view and a way of filmmaking. It’s actually one of the reasons why I chased down the film myself. I heard he was making a film with Nic Cage, an American film, and I said, “Well, this should be a fantastic opportunity to work with one of the icons of cinema.” He’s fascinating! He’s almost childlike in his approach and, from what I’ve heard of the way Clint Eastwood and some other real veterans of the craft work, knows exactly what he’s going to do, has it all worked out so there’s very little fooling around. He just goes right to it.

And he was that way dealing with the music too. He had a very clear idea of what he needed to hear, what he wanted to hear. But at the same time very, very open for the creative input of the collaborators. That’s always a wonderful thing when you do what you do and I’ll give you the overriding sort of brief on how it needs to work and other than that, if you’re getting that, it’s really up to you how you want to do it. And he was very much like that. We had very few meetings. He came out and said a few things about the first pass that certain directions were going outside what he wanted and other directions needed to be stronger going where he wanted. And then he came back out the second time and said, “Perfect! You’ve got it. Just carry on and do the whole rest of the score like that. If you stick to that point of view, you’ll have exactly what I want.” It was a very open and creative environment to work in.

Since the film is traveling the festival circuit right now, most of us haven’t seen the film or heard the score. Tell me a little bit about the score.

It definitely has a film noir side to it. I did a real film noir score a number of years ago for [Brian] de Palma on The Black Dahlia. So I had really delved into that as a real genre, my take in 2007 (I think it was) of what a modern noir score could be, but very much in the traditional style. But I felt that having done that and even playing some of the stuff up against this picture I felt it wouldn’t work. It needed to be connected much more to the picture, the images and the time and place.

There’s trumpet in it, there’s bass clarinet. There’s some interesting sort of slightly jazzy instruments in it, but there’s very little jazz influence in it. There’s a slight zydeco feel to it. There’s a rhythm that pulses underneath the orchestra and it has this sort of New Orleans swagger to it. I think that’s the best word for it, a sort of swaggering feel. And yet the harmony is very, very dark and yet childlike. Because [Cage’s] character is so dark and depraved that you almost have to sort of have fun with it at that point. He sort of crosses a line where you can’t take it that seriously anymore. And so the score tried to do that and keep this sort of lightness about it at the same time. I think it achieved that. I was quite pleased with the balance of things at the end.

We had a very dark string section. It was mostly violas. I think we only had six violins, but 18 violas and 14 cellos and eight basses, something like that. It was very dark and we used the violins only if we needed some of those top notes that the violas couldn’t get. A fair amount of distorted, screwed up zydeco percussion, a trumpet, a bass clarinet, some alto flutes… Just some weird colors in and around it to keep the noir feeling. A celeste to keep this sort of childlike twisted perverse idea floating through it. [laughs] That’s basically it.

That sounds interesting. I look forward to hearing it. Now let’s move on to the film I really want to discuss, oddly enough—FAME. The original came out in 1980 just as I was graduating high school and getting ready to pursue my own music career. So that film has a special place in my heart. Do you think it’s premise of kids pursuing their dreams still appeals to a new generation?

I absolutely do. I saw the premiere last night and there’s a moment when the one person in the film who is sort of against people following their dreams, the practical dad [laughs] who feels that art is too risky, etc., when he turns and relents I had tears in my eyes. I’ve only seen the damn thing 15 or 20,000 times, you know. I took my 18-year-old son who is a burgeoning filmmaker and just about to leave high school and he was on his feet just roaring. I definitely think that it’s a theme that will never be old and tired and not speak to many, many people. My 14-year-old also loved it and my wife loved it. I think the film is very well made. It’s got some tremendous, amazing young talent in it. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

How did talent shows like American Idol impact the sound of the film?

Well, I’m not an American Idol watcher. I can’t say that I could really give you an honest answer. I mean, from what I know of American Idol, this movie is much hipper than that. The artists are hipper. I think that this film, unlike American Idol, still celebrates the diversity in art. And that’s my big problem with American Idol: I don’t see a lot of celebrated there. I only see formulaic pop music being celebrated. And this film still points out that a classical violinist and a ballet dancer are as beautiful and wonderful a profession as a pop star. Not that they don’t accentuate the pop stars obviously, because that makes the movie. But there’s no one view to what a great career and a great pursuit of art can be in our culture. In fact, there’s a wonderful moment where a teacher explains the value of understanding Bach and what that can do for you even if you’re a hip-hop producer. And it’s messages like that which I find really valuable and very true, and not a lot of in our culture today.

The soundtrack album that Lakeshore recently released has around an hour of songs on it. How did you fit your score into a film where the songs are so prevalent?

[laughs] Well, that was the challenge! Because there’s not that much score in the movie. But what you come up with has to feel at home amongst all of that and yet scores the emotions, the moments that are left to me to underpin. And it was a balancing act, to be honest with you. And we went through a lot of experimenting, a lot of trials and tests to get the final product. It ends up being a vocabulary of popular music, but chosen to work in an instrumental way and to still supply the other types of emotions that the songs aren’t going to give you in the places that you need them. And I don’t know how to summarize it any better than that. It was just a choice of sounds and a choice of types. There are some guitars, there’s piano, there’s a lot of electronic stuff. Ultimately it was a particular balance and orchestration of modern contemporary music we found that worked.

You mentioned that there’s not much score in the movie? How much?

I forget the final minute account. But it is definitely not a tremendous amount of music. There’s a tremendous amount of “music” in the film, obviously, but the score itself is not long.

Do you have plans to release any of these three scores?

I would love to release BAD LIEUTENANT. That’s a substantial score that would make a wonderful listen. In fact, I’ve got communications out to various people how to do that. The other two, I don’t know. I may just post them up on my radio site or something. I honestly don’t know. I think Lakeshore may have some restriction since they have the song album out about what they will or could do with the score [for FAME]. I don’t know. I haven’t honestly looked into it.

How much of your career is focused on film music?

Well, that balance has changed over the years. Obviously when I first started doing films, I did a film every couple of years and was doing a lot of performing and touring. And that slowly shifted until I was doing a couple of films a year and still touring. That was the first four or five years of my film scoring career up until I got to about half and half. And then I got married, started having children, and that had a big impact on my desire to tour. [laughs] So for the last 10 to 15 years, the performing career has really taken a back seat. That’s why this last year for me to start getting out there again and making records and starting to perform, at least locally, is a fairly substantial change for me. My kids are getting older, but I’m still not going to get out there 40 weeks a year and tour like most touring acts have to to survive. I’m not going to do that, but I’m going to try and get out there and do a couple of tours a year.

How do you see your film scoring career in the future?

I would like to, how can I say this… I would like to do the right films for the right price. [laughs] Which I think the business is having a hard time supplying that for anybody, even for Tom Cruise, shall we say, or Russell Crowe. [laughs] That’s always the thing: How do you do the exact film you want to do for the money you want to make for it? And that will be constant problem. That’s the one I keep trying to solve and I will keep working hard to solve that, I guess, along with everyone else [laughs], so I can buy myself some more touring time and performing time. But do I not want to do film? No, not at all. I love scoring films. I want to continue to do it and widen my career as wide as I possibly can.

* * *

At this point in the interview, Skype dropped the call for the second time. I apologize that you won’t be able to read Isham’s responses from the last 60 seconds or so our of interview. But Isham kindly reminded me of his upcoming film projects with two of his favorite directors. First up, Isham will be scoring director Gavin O’Connor’s (MIRACLE, PRIDE AND GLORY) new film entitled WARRIOR. And Isham reteams with Paul Haggis (CRASH) for THE NEXT THREE DAYS, starring Russell Crowe. And what better way to wrap up the interview with Isham’s own words: “I am very excited about both!” For more information on Mark Isham, please visit his website.

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