[Interview - Shawn Patterson]

Composer Shawn Patterson might not be a familiar name to many of our readers - but you probably heard his music at some point.  A composer for "Ren & Stimpy", Patterson has been providing music for many television shows and projects, including the new Nickelodeon animated show, "The X's".   SoundtrackNet talked with Shawn about his career and current works.

What is your musical background?

I was a guitarist and band leader for many years before I started composing to picture. I played guitar in various groups all around New England performing and recording jazz, rock, blues. I studied music theory, jazz improvisation and composition intensely with a gifted composer named Mark Marquis in Massachusetts.  In 1988, I got to study with Max Roach and Dr. Billy Taylor while at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. That was a thrilling and humbling experience I will never forget.

I was drawn to the improvisational nature of traditional jazz.  The jazz I was attracted to (Monk, Coltrane, Parker) was very complex and for years I performed and composed in that genre. I loved the direct interaction of skilled musicians and being able to improvise and develop melodies on the spot. That is a powerful aspect of music and something somewhat unique to the genre. Also, being able to improvise in an immediate setting is something that has aided me in being able to work fast over the years on television schedules. But, small ensemble jazz typically lacked the orchestration and structure of film music and was not composed to enhance a visual story. So, I just kept searching for a way to get into film and TV music. I looked everywhere for any kind of independent film projects to try to and score, but, I just couldn't locate anything substantial.

Also, I studied orchestration and traditional compositional techniques from a few different people. Jack Smalley, who is one of kind, has been quite a mentor to me. Jack is able to reduce the emotion on screen to the simplest, most direct methods and apply that to composition. I don't use the term "genius" very often, but Smalley certainly is. Also, over the years I've dissected and transcribed many of my favorite scores and composers work and read as much on the art of film composition as possible.

How did you get your first "big break"?

I'm not sure I have had my big break yet ! <laughs> But... I'll give you the long version of how I started...

I landed in L.A. in 1990 and took a day job as a P.A. for the animated series, "The Chipmunks."  I needed any kind of job to keep me going while I looked for chances to find composing gigs.

While working for "The Chipmunks", I would have to drive all over town to all different types of  animated and sound studios delivering various materials. Everywhere I went, I just kept handing my music demos to all these people - constantly. I was probably half blind by being able to drive right into Universal and go to the production offices of many of my filmmaking heroes! From day one, I started being pals with the receptionist at Amblin Entertainment, thinking, "I am sure I can get Spielberg to hire me instead of Williams!"  Talk about blind, naive ambition... but,, I am still waiting for Steven to call... <laughs>

While still working as a P.A., Ross Bagdasarian asked me to compose the title track to one of the upcoming "Chipmunk" CD's.  It was hardly what I wanted to be doing, but, it was something and it gave me a start. Ross gave me a wonderful compliment at the time when I finished the song. He told me that my song writing reminded him of his late father's writing (Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., who had created the original Chipmunks Christmas Song). It was something good for me to hear so early on in my career and I'm quite sure it's not something he tossed around casually.

So, I would wake up to go work as a P.A., after being up all night producing demos to hand out. I would have to get lunch for the staff, drive people to the airport and have to do all kinds of degrading stuff.  But, the upside was that I got to take most of Ross' kick ass Porsches and BMW's out by myself and drive all around town screwing off. You know in Hollywood, its all about image...

You wrote some original trailer music early in your career - how did you fall into that?

When I first arrived to attend Grove School of Music in 1986, my only contact in LA was a "death metal" guitarist whom I had grown up near in Massachusetts. He had befriended a guy that worked at a film trailer company in Hollywood. Well, I got introduced to this guy and started submitting my work to them. I would ask the editors what they needed: what they were lacking in their available music libraries. But, since I owned no recording gear to produce music on, I had to go to people's project studios. I would take my music sketches to any small studio I could afford and produce demos (out of pocket) to hand off to trailer houses - simply hoping they would buy my stuff. Eventually, after months of doing this, I got a call - Terry Gilliam had heard something I did and he loved it. So, they bought music from me and used it in "The Fisher King" trailer campaign.  Within a few weeks, while sitting in a theater in Hollywood - no money and sick of being a P.A,, I heard my music for the first time in a huge movie theater. It was a little mind blowing because I started to feel that at least, it was a start.

Slowly, I started buying gear to produce my own music and as soon as I stopped spending money in outside project studios, my musical output increased dramatically. I was then able to start going to other trailer houses and pitch my stuff. Slowly, I started getting work this way.

You started off as music editor for "Ren & Stimpy" - who was composing music before you took over as composer for the show?

Well, a few people had done some original music for the show, but, the show had primarily been only edited together from a huge music library.  I became the music editor for Season 4 and 5. Only on occasion would there be an original song or element of score. Chris Reccardi (director/animator) did some original cool, bizarre stuff on the show - on his own shows he directed.

What was your musical approach to scoring that whacked out animated show?

Well, it was whatever the directors asked for.  I composed several songs for a few shows that had featured tunes in them, "Snotra" and "Sammy and Me" - all big band style tunes. I only did a little bit of score when the libraries were missing something that was needed.

When I got the position of music editor, my job was to try and remain true to the original tone that John K. had created, yet hopefully bring some different ideas to it. Very often, the show's musical approach was largely one of contrast - put something calm and almost dignified while Ren's head explodes.  This approach, while not completely original, obviously has affected animation musical styles for years now. John Kricfalusi (creator of "Ren & Stimpy") was probably the one that had the initial musical concept back when the pilot episode was first created. It worked brilliantly.

The show clearly had become musically stagnant when I got there, one of the reasons I was asked to step in as music editor. I really tore through this enormous music library of classical music to cut into the show. While there, I heard a good deal of music I had not really absorbed before; Dvorak, Charles Ives, Shostakovich. Working as music editor gave me a tremendous boost in experimenting first hand, the powerful affects of music to picture. From a library of maybe 2,000 CDs, I would sit all day long and try different moods and pieces and physically work on editing the music to fit the scene. It was a lot like scoring in that, my role as music editor was more like a composer. I was able to cut from my own choosing what went into each episode. Instead of composing though, I was editing pre-existing music to give the directors the basic emotion they were trying to convey. After work, I would go to my studio and compose original music to make demos to hand out the next day. I did for about 3 years, like many struggling composers. Stylistically during this point of my career, I was composing more score-styled music; really experimenting with long arrangement forms. No doubt, listening to Ives and Dvorak all day long was creeping into my compositional approach.

You then seemed to do a lot of Nickelodeon animated shows - did you ever feel pigeonholed?

I didn't mind being pigeon holed for the simple reason that I was just starting and still struggling to locate any work composing music. I have had to do a few lame animated things in my career so far.... but, they really have been minimal. In that regard, I consider myself very fortunate. I mean, when you see and hear some of the stuff out there...its just awful. Animation music has seen a huge degradation in quality from the days of Stalling and the Sherman Brothers, largely due to studio budget cuts.  Typically, the studios meager budgets can't attract the composers with strong abilities and experience. But, I am not trying to save the animation industry,  I am just trying to do the best work I can, regardless of the medium.

A great deal of my current work relationships were forged from that era. Guys that were animators/directors were branching out; some worked for Nick, Cartoon Network and other studios. Many of these guys liked my music and would hire me for pilots they were doing at other studios. Me and Tom McGrath (director for Madagascar) did a really cool pilot for Nickelodeon called "Louie n' Louie" which got shelved for some reason. The music was based on a "Booker T & The MG's" style - which I had never heard in animation before - all Tom's idea and it was great. Tom and I remain very close friends because of our time serving on "Ren & Stimpy".

It's very strange, but, I seem to have, so far, remained in animation, only by default of starting in animation music. Other than having affection for Carl Stalling's brilliant work as a young kid, I never sought to make a good deal of my career scoring animation. Nor do I intend to...

How did you meet director Mike Mitchell (Sky High) for "Herd"?

Mike and I met during the "Ren & Stimpy" era as did many of my closest friends and colleagues (Tom McGrath, director of Madagascar; Conrad Vernon, director of Shrek 2). Mike worked briefly there and we hit it off. I think we have a similar sense of humor in regards to film and the nature of the business.

The film "Herd" is about a simple guy that is visited by an alien. They have a bizarre relationship and eventually something terrible happens. That's the short version! <laughs> Really, the film is a great short. Mike knows how to capture the proper emotion in the most direct and effective way.

Scoring "Herd" was a little bizarre for me, because initially, Mike asked me to only edit a music score for it. As I recall, I cut from Cape Fear, Waterworld, E.T., Carl Stalling and some Star Trek music.  Soon thereafter, Mike got a little funding and hired me to compose an original score for the entire film.  But by then, Mike was very attached to this temp score so much that he wanted me to stay somewhat close to that version when I started to compose the new score for it. From a composition stand point, it was a little tough.

I had spanned four decades of film score styles from a wide variety of very different composers. But, it all worked. "Herd" went on to win a bunch of festivals and even made it to Japanese television - we knew we had "arrived"... <laughs>


What happened on Monkeybone, and do you think composers tend to be "casualties of war" when it comes to producer/director battles?

The original opening music to the film was very weird, and director Henry Selick loved it. It absolutely worked and would have made a great opening statement to the film that Henry had wanted to make. When the music I did was finished, the last I heard was that Henry was completely into it. Then we heard the news that the film was being re-edited. Not just the opening, but the entire film.

Henry and I had a few beers later and he was a little vague about the specifics. I got the general sense that he and producer Chris Columbus didn't quite see the film the same way. I think Henry's vision was more out there and less conventional, but, he had to conform to what Chris wanted - studio chain of command, I suppose...   In regards to the opening sequence I had scored, I suspect Chris simply cut in some of Anne Dudley's score because he thought what I had done was to bizarre. I have never had the chance to talk to Chris Columbus about it though. I was pretty bummed out, as it was my first chance to work with Henry and I had been a fan of his work for years, and I still am. Hopefully, down the road we can work together in a bigger capacity.

I would agree with the casualties of war comment. I think in many ways, the role of the composer and even the music itself can be pretty disposable when it comes to big changes in story and personnel on the film. You hear about this all the time in feature film; producers come in and make radical changes - often clashing with the director. The director has to roll over or get tossed off the picture, and then often, the composer may get changed. I almost never hear of this in the animation music world.  Maybe in television animation, there is less money to pay for so many executive producers...

What is "The X's" about?  And what is your musical approach to it?

"The X's" is about a spy family that tries to live in suburbia while trying to save the world.  It really is about the day to day issues that a family goes through and they just happen to be top secret spies.  It's a comedy with a decent amount of action.

The music on "The X's" has been modified a little since the before the pilot came out - over a year and a half ago. It started very gritty and also very brassy with some jazz elements to it; very much like a cross between Fight Club, Ennio Morricone and John Barry. Now, a good deal of the grit has gone and it has elements now of Morricone, Bernard Herrmann and some rock back beat kind of stuff. I treat it like it is live action; it is completely irrelevant that it is animated Saturday morning show.

Show creator Carlos Ramos gives me tremendous space and creative license.  Initially, we spent a long time laboring over the design and approach of the score.  Carlos, who is very specific, now spots with me and then really backs off.  I have been able to really let myself go within the score; there's a lot of dissonance and development of the characters themes. There is a leitmotif approach to the score in that each character has a very developed theme and it typically follows them from mood to mood.  Carlos loves to encourage experimenting with the score sonically as well. He may suddenly and unexpectedly drop the score out - where it may be needed - and it works.  Sometimes, if the family walks into an odd environment - say a laundry mat, for example, the score will continue right into the new environment but, become characteristic of that environment; say, going into muzak with "muzak instruments" . I love the fact that Carlos pushes it and tries different ideas; it is one of the great qualities of the series. 

The sound palette of the score is very organic and primarily orchestral. Most people, in fact, can't detect that the score is created almost exclusively from individual orchestral instrument samples and not a physical orchestra playing in a room. The score has been pretty tiring to produce on a weekly basis, but, I honestly feel it is my best work to date. It's a great show and has tons of potential to be a huge hit. There's nothing that looks or sounds like it on television - animated or otherwise.

What composers have influenced you the most?

Thelonious Monk's and John Coltrane's approach to harmony was a big influence on me. The primary classical composers would be Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Beethoven, and Samuel Barber. Especially Stravinsky. I think he is one of the greatest composers of all time. His work sounds incredibly fresh and as if it's were all music could have continued. Now take a listen to pop radio.... its frightful.

In terms of film music, its John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann. I would say John Williams has probably stayed with me the most. His leitmotif approach to scoring is something that has deeply influenced the way I approach scoring. It's not always the best way, or certainly the only way.... but, for simple strength in character identification, its powerful when properly executed.  Williams' melodies and variations have always made an impact on me as well; Superman, Star Wars, his early television work... I have always loved Jerry Goldsmith's approach to blending bizarre instruments with traditional orchestration.

The Planet of the Apes score had a profound affect on me. And Herrmann... as a kid, I bet I watched Psycho over 60 times one summer, just consumed by the music...

Do you have any plans to branch out into feature films?

Absolutely.  I came to Los Angeles to accomplish that and that is exactly what will happen. It's kind of strange and yet very cool seeing my closest friends all becoming major feature directors: Tom (McGrath) directed Madagascar, Conrad (Vernon) with Shrek 2 and Mike (Mitchell) has directed a few live action films.   I respect these guys as artists but, also as my friends.  So, as my friends, I can't pressure them into hiring me.  These guys breaking into the big feature world is fairly recent, even though they have all been working/animating for several years now.  So, as of now, they have not been in a position to go to the studios and make demands to hire me - although, I know they want to and eventually they will.  So, like anything in Hollywood, it takes someone who believes in you and knows your work and your work style to push for you. When the time comes, and I am confident it will come, I will move away from animated shorts and into longer feature work.

I really don't worry anymore or stress about "making it" in feature film. It's not like I need to compose for feature films to have my work validated. I love composing to picture long or short - animated or otherwise - as long as the story is decent and the characters draw you into them. If the story is good - it doesn't matter if it's a children's pop up book or finger puppets.  If a story is engaging and the director is talented with some vision, scoring a feature film can be a great experience. If the story is terrible and the director is clueless, is that going to be a better experience than composing something short or even animated with a talented team and decent story? Not to me.  The medium matters less than a great story, strong characters and a director who is talented. The bottom line is that when a story is strong, the composer's job is easy.

What is your dream project?

I guess it would be to continue to work and collaborate with directors whom I respect and admire and most certainly more into feature length film. I had one of the best creative experiences of my life scoring "Herd" with Mike Mitchell. It was a labor of love and we were all committed to making this little indie film as strong as we could. It stands on its own because we did purely what we felt served the film the best.

Stylistically speaking, I am a fan of period epic stuff and comedy.  Or, better yet, a comedy that mocks period epic stuff. I love comedy based material where lots of styles are created. For example, Team America: World Police, they go to all these exotic locations and treat the score very seriously - yet, we are not taking the film seriously. For me, that's a great project to work on - not sure if it's a "dream", but, it would be fun for sure.

I tend to go for stories that are really over the top and not afraid to push the envelope, so to speak.... I'd love to compose for the Farrelly Brothers, Todd Phillips, Trey Parker, the Coen Brothers....  I'd love to work with Henry Selick again and compose an entire score for him.

I have no desire to land big theatrical releases that are cliché and predictable - like a lot of generic action films. There are so many guys out there that do that and do it just as predictable as the films themselves. Its so much of cookie cutter garbage, I have little interest in it.

Shawn is currently working on "The X's", which starts airing on Nickelodeon in January 2006 - check your local station for showtimes. Check out his website for soundclips and more info: