Whether it’s the intertwined lives and combinations on Modern Family, the dysfunction that rules Arrested Development, or the dramatic events unfolding on Rectify, these TV families and many more often play to the tune of one man: composer, producer, and musician, Gabriel Mann. His work moves effortlessly between comedy, drama, and thrillers, as well as between the mediums of TV, film, and video games, all while working and performing with his band The Rescues. We chat to Gabriel about all that he brings to all manner of creative tables.
Hello Gabriel, and thank you for kindly taking the time to speak to us – it’s an incredible pleasure.
In the world of media music, composers tend to come in two opposing yet equally enjoyable flavours: those who do as many different things as possible, and those who focus on really specific things to bring to the table. When a director or a producer calls Gabriel Mann, which of these composers are they getting?
Well, I guess both. Within each project I definitely dig down deep and focus on whatever specific things the show requires, but I also love to be involved in many different projects. I’m afraid I might get bored otherwise; every time I switch from one project to the next it’s like I have a whole other job.
Your comedy work spans traditional-style sitcoms (i.e. those with a laugh track) such as The Exes and The McCarthys, as well as modern style comedies such as Marry Me, Trophy Wife, and Modern Family, not to mention dramedies like Jane by Design. How does the difference in the shows’ styles of presentation affect your musical approaches?
There are technical differences between traditional multi-cams and modern single cams that change the musical requirements. In a multi-cam music is used as a punctuation mark and/or a transition at the end of a scene, or between two scenes, whereas single cams use music to support the action, often in the middle of a scene. In that way the single cams are more “scored,” whereas in multi cams the music is more of a flavor that appears and reappears throughout the show.
Let’s talk about Modern Family. How’d you first get involved writing music for the show? What challenged you most, and what rewarded you most, as your role evolved over the years?
I had worked on another show with the director of Modern Family’s pilot, Jason Winer. He and creators Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd weren’t sure how much music, if any, they were going to need, but Jason invited me to the set to meet the creators and get a feel for the show. I wrote the theme shortly thereafter, and the rest is history. My biggest challenge on Modern Family was that just as the show was beginning, my band The Rescues got a record deal with Universal and began to tour. So I was on the road getting calls about cues while filling up the van with gas and doing sound checks. The most rewarding thing about the show is still people’s reaction to the show and the fact that I get to do music for it at all. People ask what I do for a living, I tell them I write music for TV, and they say, “Oh, anything I would know?” And I get to say Modern Family. They can’t even believe it.
We weren’t going to let you go without talking about Arrested Development, now, were we? Your involvement in this show as resident songwriter seems to be in quite a different capacity to your other work, so where in our other favourite dysfunctional family do you fit in?
Arrested Development was the first show in which I had any sort of recurring role. I had just returned from a solo tour, and my former boss/mentor, composer David Schwartz, asked if I’d like to co-write some songs for this new show he was working on. Of course I said yes, and I’d go in every couple of weeks and we’d write crazy songs that I’d often get to sing. We usually have Mitch Hurwitz on the phone at some point giving us direction, and it’s just a great time. So thankfully when they make new episodes, I find myself back at David‘s studio, and it’s like old times.
Bold analogy, but I’ll make it: you’re like a Bryan Cranston of composers – easily comfortable in comedy, but you can get down to business and get dramatic. Your credits include TV dramas and thrillers such as Twisted, Star-Crossed, and most recently, Rectify. Is it easy to switch back and forth between comedy and drama? Or is there some kind of “getting in the zone” ritual required every time you switch gears?
I like the back and forth. Usually I get to spend at least a day or so in a zone, or on a single project, and then I’ll start fresh in the other zone the next day. If I do need to go switch gears in the middle of something (at this exact moment I am about to go from School Of Rock to Rectify), I just use coffee or e-mail or a phone call to turn one part off and be ready for the other part to turn on.
With all your TV work, and the nature of long-running episodic television, one might almost forget that you’ve also written a heap of music for films and video games! Obviously, the processes involved in each medium can be starkly different. So what do they have in common in your experience, if anything? Is there one thing – anything – that can you consistently bring and rely on, whatever the project?
Music for media is all serving the project. We write music for the world in which the music will live, and not the other way around. So in that way, 4-second multi-cam comedy cues are not different from 75 minutes of dark underworld score for a first-person shooter – they both need to fit in their world. The only thing I bring that is consistent on each project is my experience. I’ve had the unique opportunity to work in many genres and many platforms, and I genuinely enjoy the variety. I bring my education, my love of music, my excitement about my job – basically all of that comes back to “experience” in one way or another, whether I’ve done it before or experienced it in life.
When considering a project, do you tend to seek out more creative freedom or more direction from the creative team with which you will be working?
I’m OK either way, frankly. Sometimes I’m asked to take more of a lead creatively, sometimes I working with someone who had a very specific idea of what they are looking for musically. At the end of the day we are all working towards the same goal, which is usually artistic unity, if I can be so bold and say something so intense in an interview that contains the words “Arrested Development”.
Our compositional and musical tools are, of course, worthless without the talent and the vision to bend them to our creative will. But let’s face it, we love our gear. So what are the staples of Gabriel Mann’s studio and creative environment? And any luxuries you just love to indulge in?
I came from making records, so I write and record in Pro Tools. Within that, I have all the usual plugins and samples that everybody has, but I record a lot of live guitar (which I don’t play, by the way) and live percussion. On Rectify I use a lot of cello, so while I write I’m using samples, but all of that ultimately gets replaced. I do indulge in an expensive reverb and delay. And I just bought a vintage Fender P-Bass and a 40’s Leedy drum kit. Also, I’m having my piano outfitted with a removable felt thingy so I can mess with how it sounds. And I have a pair of Distressors I can’t live without, and a Wunder FET mic, and a ton of other stuff. The more the merrier.
You are an extremely busy man! How do you about keeping your life balanced, keeping yourself sane, and avoiding burnout?
I go home for dinner almost every night, and I try as hard as I can to avoid working weekends. I really try to keep this job just that, a job. It’s wonderful, and it’s definitely my dream job, but I find that I’m better at it when life is just that, balanced. I like being with my kids so I’ve learned to work quickly so I can get home to them. My wife and I go on dates regularly. I play soccer on Sundays. I’m also very organized. Not like freaky organized, but I use technology to make sure I’m on top of everything and ahead of the ball, so I can be ready when the phone rings unexpectedly. That way I don’t have to freak out. There are times, however, when I have that nightmare where you don’t know where your classes are at school and they’re not going to let you graduate because you didn’t turn in some major project like 3 years ago. But it happens less frequently now.
Thank you again, Gabriel!
Thank you, that was fun!