Composer Interview: John Dragonetti

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do

The first half of my music career was mostly focused on song writing, making records and touring in bands. At first in Boston and then more recently in Los Angeles, where I started The Submarines with Blake Hazard. I love producing albums-and still do-but have in recent years started to focus more on composing for film and television.

You’ve written music for several television shows, including Weeds and AMC’s Small Town Security. When did you first get started in writing for TV?

My first experience with television was co-composing an NBC/Dreamworks show with my friend Mark Rivers called “Father of the Pride“. It was a really strange animated show that ran for one season. We wrote and recorded the music in this tiny room with a dirt floor under my apartment in Silverlake. We monitored visuals on a little trucker tv/dvd player and used stopwatch. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing. But it was fun and we came up with some cool stuff.

How do you manage to fit scoring for TV shows into your schedule in between touring and producing albums?

It’s always been a tough balance – being pulled in one direction or another. But it always somehow worked itself out. I also love the variety so by the time I finished a television or film project I’m ready to get back into song writing and record making mode. When you’re touring you can’t really do much else so that pretty much dictated whether I could take a scoring gig during those phases. In the end, I’m a studio hound and have always preferred recording to performing.

What does your studio currently consist of hardware/software wise?

I have a fair amount of analog front end. Shadow Hills Equinox, Brent Averill Neve + Avedis preamps, Chandler LTD-1, A couple Daking Fet II compressors, Retro 176. Spring Reverb and analog delays. My AD/DA converter is a Lynx Aurora 16. Currently monitoring with a pair of Dynaudio BM15A’s and a Panasonic boombox that I’ve had since high school. On the software front my recording platform is Protools but I use a variety of instrument software including Kontakt, Korg, Propellerhead, Ableton, Battery, Korg, Vienna Strings…to name a few. Real instruments include a Yamaha P22 piano, a handful of vintage guitars (’65 Jazzmaster, Guild X500, Gibson J-45 – to name a few), ’66 Ludwig drumkit, and a few synths including MS-20, OP-1, a couple Casios – and lots of weird little toys including electronic bagpipes.

Do you ever experience “burnout” and if so, how do you combat it?

Yes. On the micro level it’s just getting up and out of the studio for a breath of fresh air. After I’ve finished a big project, a film or a television series, I usually feel like I could never go through it again. I try and take a little time off and then focus on song writing or producing album tracks. I need to change it up.

John Dragonetti Composer Interview

You’ve recently just finished up the score for The Internet’s Own Boy. Tell us a little bit about the film and how you approached the score for it.

The film is about internet innovator/activist and Reddit co-founder, Aaron Swartz, who took his own life just over a year ago . It’s an intense and personal story and unlike Brian Knappenberger’s other film, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, I wanted the music to reflect that; to feel more personal. I started writing as soon as Brian and I talked about the film. I hadn’t seen anything yet but had a strong impulse to pick up this old nylon string folk guitar and start writing. Aaron’s story made me quite sad at first – someone so well loved and with so much potential – but eventually I felt the anger and then hope that emerged from his story. The film called for some darker, foreboding tones so we ended up with a fairly eclectic score…Ranging from sparse acoustic guitar with light strings to distorted cellos, super subs and heavy beats.

Your tracks have been featured in a couple of high end TV spots by companies including Apple, Coca-Cola and EA Games. How did this come about?

Mostly through being in The Submarines. We were fortunate to have had two songs licensed for iPhone commercials – and it really increased the profile of the band. The film and television department at our label was amazing. But those are songs that were written for no one but ourselves. Straight from the heart and not with some commercial value or intention attached. On the other side of that, I do write “songs” specifically for commercials and films, and even though I can access a lot of the sound and feeling that comes from writing a real song, it’s not the same.

What was your favourite project to have worked on so far?

I really loved working on We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. The director, Brian Knappenberger, let me go bananas. We had direction and focus but I was able to try so many things and get sort of freaky. For whatever reason, everything just clicked.

Have you ever ventured into writing library music specifically?

Not so much. By default I’ve ended up with a nice little vault of tracks, but I’m really not that interested in building up someone else’s library. I believe strongly in the artist retaining publishing and masters when you can. Of course this isn’t always possible…. That said, if you’ve got some down-time, why not try something new that could be useful down the road. I usually just want to rest my ears or listen to other people’s music when I’m not on a project.

Talk us through your daily routine.

I try and wake up around 7:30-8, get outside for a run or something and then maybe have a little breakfast, some coffee and catch up on the news. Afterwards, I take care of business, emails, etc and then saddle up in the studio by 11. Sometimes earlier – sometimes later. I may break for lunch around 2 or 3 and then work until 7 or 8pm. But it really depends on workload and deadlines. I’ll work for as long as it takes and sometimes I’m in the bunker into the wee hours… but I prefer to work during the day.

What’s your definition of success?

Getting to the next project, the next level…overcoming a challenge and feeling like “OK, cool, I did it. Where do we go next?” I’m hard on myself and rarely feel satisfied.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were originally starting off?

Be fearless! Don’t worry so much – especially about making a fool of yourself. You’ll find your way, if you love what you do and strive to get better at it. Stay open and don’t give up the ship!

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

Film and Game Composers

www.FilmandGameComposers.com offers a wide range of interviews, reviews, guides and tutorials for composers and musicians who are interested in writing music for film, TV and video games.

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