ScoreKeeper interviews BATTLESTAR GALACTICA'S Bear McCreary!!!
Published at: June 7, 2006, 6:01 a.m. CST by staff
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here, presenting ScoreKeeper with an interview he conducted with Bear McCreary, the composer of the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. I haven't watched any of the show, but from the praise it gets I'm going to have to dive in one of these days. I still conduct many interviews for the site, but I have always held the desire to talk to more composers. I was lucky enough to chat with Lalo Schifrin a few years back when he was promoting his score for RUSH HOUR 2, but never got the opportunity to talk to many others. Luckily for all of us ScoreKeeper is on the case and his knowledge of film music has mine beat hands down. Enjoy his chat with Mr. McCreary!!!
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here filling the between-seasons-void for “Battlestar Galactica” fans everywhere by posting my recent interview with “Galactica” composer Bear McCreary. The music is one of the aspects of this show that truly sets it apart from other network television series. Bear is not only the composer but also a huge fan of the show which is clearly evident in his music. Here’s a little behind-the-music magic while you’re anxiously awaiting Season Three.
SCOREKEEPER: What about “Battlestar Galactica” can you tell people who aren’t familiar with the show that this is really a series they should check out?
McCREARY: Honestly, I have yet to find a way to convince people. I think a lot of people see the words “science-fiction” or even worse, they hear the word “spaceship” and they tune out. So I’ve found that it’s easier to let people hear about it. I have friends that I’ve told them to watch the show and they said ‘I don't like science-fiction shows.’ A year later they call me up and say ‘I love Battlestar! Why didn’t you tell me how different it was?’
I think the exciting thing about “Battlestar” is that it pushes the envelope for television in ways that I don’t think any other TV show does. I don’t mean to say this is an experimental show – this isn’t “Altered States” the TV series. But what’s interesting about it is that it stays dramatically entertaining while also trying out new things. If someone hadn’t seen the series what I would say to them is set aside your expectations and be prepared to be surprised.
SK: I agree with that completely. The show is on the Sci-Fi Network so it clearly has that label attached to it. Yet why doesn’t it seem like a sci-fi show?
McCREARY: It’s a drama more than anything else. It just happens to be a science-fiction series as well. I think that is something that has been completely underestimated in regards to science-fiction fans. They want something that is dramatic and moving, they want character development, interesting story arcs and in addition to all that, spaceships and aliens. I feel like in the past decade or so it’s been difficult finding those elements in science-fiction TV.
SK: Did you as the composer, and this goes for everybody else on the production staff as well, approach this series as something brand new even though it’s coming from familiar sources? How do you approach balancing the old and the new?
McCREARY: Everybody else on the production wanted to reference the old show. It was written that way, the spaceships were designed as an homage to the old ones, the names used in the show, little hints in the dialogue, everything was hinting back to the old show trying to embrace the fans that stuck around. Now with the music, from day one before I was even involved, David Eick and Ron Moore, knew the music would be the thing that would not reference the old show at all. So I think in reality nothing is more different from the old show than the music. Stu Phillips’ score for the original “Galactica” was obviously set in a traditional, orchestral style. While I use elements of the symphonic orchestra for dramatic impact, the majority of the new “Galactica” is scored with a barrage of ethnic instruments – taikos, duduks, percussion, vocals and other instruments from around the world. A traditional orchestral sci-fi score would detract from the documentary-style camera work and gritty, often ambiguous character arcs of the new series.
SK: Many television actors take a season or two before fully developing their character. Is this similar for you? Are you as a composer starting to feel like you really understand the series now that you’re entering your third season? Or is it no different now than season one?
McCREARY: It’s hard to say. One of the things that keeps the show interesting is how dynamic it is. We feel like we know these characters but at the same time they’re complex enough that we really don’t know much about them yet. There are so many interesting characters to be mined for good stories. So as the composer, I feel like I have a grip on it and I certainly feel comfortable in the musical universe but I’m always on my toes. Every episode is its own adventure. It’s certainly not at a point where I’m on any kind of auto-pilot. Every episode has to be scored as its own unique film. All that inspiration comes from the writing and the performances.
SK: How do you think you have developed as the composer from the First Season to now and even looking ahead into Season Three?
McCREARY: Well I’ve changed a lot and my musical style has changed a lot for sure. One of the reasons that’s happened is the show continues to find new territory and whenever it does I have to evolve along with it. I can’t just set up a specific sound at the beginning of the season and say ‘This will be the sound I use the whole time’ because inevitably there will be episodes that need something different. That’s one of the things that keeps “Battlestar” really exciting as a composer. I never get bored.
SK: Scoring a weekly television show is one of the hardest jobs in show business. How do you keep yourself creatively fresh week in and week out?
McCREARY: Being a big “Battlestar” fan makes all the difference. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like working on a show that I didn’t like. The best part of my job is going to spotting sessions and getting to watch the episodes before all the other fans do. That part of it is really exciting. Every time I spot an episode, I can’t wait to get home and start writing music for it. That’s certainly how I keep my creative energy up.
SK: How were you chosen to be the composer for Battlestar Galactica?
McCREARY: I worked on the mini-series as an additional composer with Richard Gibbs. I worked with Michael Rymer (the director) and Richard who was doing a lot of the thematic elements of the mini-series and I did a lot on the percussion side of things. So when it came time to go to series they hired Richard back for a couple of episodes and I worked with him on those. Then early on, after episodes two and three of Season One, he realized he couldn’t keep up his schedule while doing theatrical films. So I met with the producers and they gave me a shot to score the next episode which happened to be an episode called “33”, which was the first episode of Season One. I scored that one and it went great and I never heard anything since so I guess I got the job.
SK: Can you walk me through a typical work week for you on the show?
McCREARY: No, actually I can’t. There’s no such thing as a typical week. The way this usually works is I’ll spot a show and then have anywhere between 7 to 14 days, at the most 20 days to do it. In that time I’ll spot one or two more shows so I’m always working on one or two shows at a time. Usually if I can get at least three days to write music I can get something that I’m semi-proud of. I usually like to get 4 or 5 days just to be creative and those are the times that I put most of my energy in. The rest of the time, the remaining 10 days, is when we’re orchestrating, recording, and mixing. We do anywhere from 3 to 10 sessions per episode – including strings, percussion, ethnic soloists and vocals – that’s usually pretty chaotic and when I start losing a lot of sleep. But I always try to make sure that I spend as much energy as I can on the creative side of it. There’s nothing worse than working really hard on recording, mixing and producing music that you wrote in a hurry and isn’t very good as a result. None of this would be possible without my co-producer and engineer Steve Kaplan who does all the mixing and recording. On a typical day I’ll be composing and orchestrating at my studio, while Steve is mixing at his studio on a different episode. It pretty much takes the two of us working 20 hours a day, every day, to get this done.
SK: Some people might be intimidated by a lack of structure in their schedule. You seem to be the type that enjoys that.
McCREARY: [Laughs] Yeah, you can’t worry about the lack of structure. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t think that’s just TV. That goes with any kind of freelance, artistic profession. For me though it’s not like work. It’s fun. It’s a great show and I really love writing the music. The musicians I work with are top notch guys. The rhythm section from Oingo Boingo plays on all the episodes, the percussionist and duduk player are very talented. The orchestra sessions are a lot of fun. It’s just a blast. It’s what I would do for fun if it weren’t my job.
SK: Are all the episodes scored live? Are there any electronic ingredients in the score?
McCREARY: There are plenty of electronic ingredients. It just depends on the cue. The general rule of thumb on “Battlestar” is if it sounds like a synthesizer it's a synthesizer, if it sounds like an orchestra it is. I don’t do fake orchestra or “fakestra” as I call it. But we definitely mess around with a lot of cool synthesized textures.
SK: When do you start up again to score the first episode of season III?
McCREARY: I’ve kind of already started believe it or not. But I really dive in and roll up my sleeves in about a month, around the middle of July.
SK: How far into Season Three have you been privy to and is there anything you can share with the fans at all about what they can expect?
McCREARY: For the most part, I don’t read scripts and I try to plug my ears whenever people are talking about what’s coming up because I’m such a fan of the show I hate having it spoiled for me. Quite honestly, the only down-side of working on a show is that it’s really hard to not know what’s coming up ahead. I can tell you guys that things will get a lot worse before they get better for our heroes. You’re going to like it though.
SK: Let’s say BG is still going strong twelve years from now. Are you still the composer?
McCREARY: Whew! Twelve years?...Ya, I hope so! I want to see it through the end. I’m always doing other projects on the side but I’m so possessive of Battlestar I can imagine letting someone else do it.
SK: What other projects do you get time to focus on aside from the show?
McCREARY: Theoretically I could take on as many as I want. I try to keep it really limited. Mainly because a movie or another TV show has to be really exciting for me to want to split my attention like that.
SK: You’ve got a big event planned on June 11th to kick off the soundtrack release for Season Two. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on that night?
McCREARY: This is the first performance of its kind that I know of. We are doing a CD release show for the second season album and we’re going to be performing the score live at an intimate venue called The Mint in Los Angeles. You’re going to see nine musicians who are the same men and women who perform the score each week. Steve Bartek, John Avila, and Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, from Oingo Boingo are going to be there playing all the crazy instruments they play. The percussionist, electric fiddle player and the duduk player are going to be there. We’re going to do live music, show some exclusive video footage and then do a CD signing at the end. Best of all you can pick up a copy of the second season album a week before it ships. I’m really excited about it and think the fans are going to really enjoy it.
[Those interested in attending the event can RSVP online at: http://bearmccreary.com/rsvp/]
SK: When is the actual public release date for the second season album?
McCREARY: The public release date is the 20th (of June) I believe. [CLICK IT HERE TO ORDER IT!!!]
SK: I want to go back in your life and give the fans a chance to know you a little better. At what age did you realize that you wanted to be a composer and what were the circumstances surrounding that realization?
McCREARY: When I first got into film music, I was probably seven years old when I saw BACK TO THE FUTURE. That was a real ear-opener for me. By that point I was already really into STAR WARS, and STAR TREK and all that big orchestral science-fiction music. But it was really movies like BACK TO THE FUTURE, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT and finally EDWARD SCISSORHANDS which sealed the deal for me.
SK: Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a film scoring student at USC?
McCREARY: My experiences there were great! I did about 30-40 student films while I was there where I really learned a lot of valuable lessons – more than I ever learned in a class there. That was where I really honed my counterpoint, orchestration, theory, and history. These were all things that I didn’t know at all. I was basically self-taught as a musician. I took piano lessons and played in my high school band but I had never seen a score in my life when I got into USC. So that kind of classical training was really handy but it was doing the student films where I really learned how to deal with filmmakers and the things to say and not to say and even a great amount of conducting and orchestral experience. By the time I left I would score everything I did with an orchestra – sometimes 10, 15 on up to 60 players. It was a great experience for sure.
SK: Can you share with us how your relationship with Elmer Bernstein came about?
McCREARY: I met Elmer through a totally random connection. He would go yachting every summer up to Alaska and when he wasn’t yachting he kept his boat docked in Bellingham, Washington which is where I grew up. So I went to high school there and I was voted Student of the Month through the rotary club. I went to this ceremony and somebody introduced me as ‘Bear McCreary, he wants to be a film composer and go to USC…’. Afterward, a guy named Joe Coons comes up to me and says ‘Hey, I’ve got a friend who teaches at USC and he’s a film composer. Maybe you’d want to talk to him?’ And I’m like ‘sure…whatever’. And he said ‘Have you heard of Elmer Bernstein?’ My jaw hits the fucking floor. I couldn’t believe what this guy just said. So I gave him a tape of my music that I had recorded on my little keyboard and Joe sent it to Elmer. Sure enough in the spring of my junior year, Elmer came up and met with me and that was the beginning of an almost ten year relationship. I took some classes from him at USC then eventually started working for him over the summer where I did some orchestrations for him. He really took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. It was just the most remarkable experience for a young musician. I definitely changed my life forever.
SK: The loss of Elmer Bernstein two years ago was felt by everyone in the motion picture industry. You had a close personal relationship with him for almost ten years. What can you tell us about him from your experiences working with him that others may not know?
McCREARY: The thing that made him so incredible was just how in control of his life he was. When I was 17 especially, I had this impression that all artists had to suffer and be miserable. You look at Kurt Cobain and Elvis and Beethoven and Gershwin and Ravel and its all drugs and brain tumors and suicide and your just like ‘Man, I’m fucked if I want to go into music.’ When you’re 17 that stuff gets into your head…that musicians are miserable people.
So I met Elmer and here’s a guy who at that time is pushing 80 – healthy, happy, revered in his industry. He’s a guy who has changed the world. He’s a guy whose music is so commonplace you forget that somebody had to write it. You forget that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN wasn’t written before 1960. It sounds as if that theme has been around for hundreds of years. Just on a personal level, forgetting about the musical inspiration he is, I saw that you could lead a happy, healthy life and be a successful composer. I’ll never forget that.
SK: I didn’t really have a question surrounding this but I did want to acknowledge that your main instrument is the accordion.
McCREARY: Yeah. Accordion is actually my main instrument. It’s the only instrument that I actually practice. I took piano lessons for about ten or eleven years and I never really got very good. When I got the accordion it was almost as a joke. Somebody in my family got me a really nice one and I picked it up. Immediately, I found how expressive and beautiful an instrument it is, and also how much fun it is to play. So I got really good at it basically. I started practicing about 6 or 7 hours a day for about six months – I almost quit writing music. When I was down in my dorm room there at USC I think people thought I was crazy playing accordion down there all the time.
SK: Do you still perform? Gig regularly?
McCREARY: Oh yeah. I have a band. It’s kind of a gypsy-jazz-rock band called SEVENTEEN BILLION MILES OF DNA. I also play in my brother’s rock band, Bt4. I play as often as I can. I played on some source music for the soundtrack for THE ALAMO (by Carter Burwell) and some other random stuff. It’s a lot of fun.
SK: I’d like to ask you the ubiquitous question everybody asks…which composers influence you?
McCREARY: Probably my biggest influences are Elmer Bernstein and Bernard Herrmann. Bernard Herrmann for his sense of orchestration and color and his willingness to ignore all the traditional rules. I’d like to think that his music has more in common with my “Battlestar” score than anyone else’s. Elmer’s music for his incredible sense of translating character and narrative story into music. He was so smart about watching a movie and figuring out what it needs. I think he was the best at that.
SK: Bear, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me. I wish you the very best with Season Three of “Battlestar Galactica.” We’ll be looking forward to it.
McCREARY: Thanks. I appreciate it.