An Interview with Todd Haberman

   In Cameron Crowe's classic 1989 movie Say Anything..., we're introduced to one of the all time great heroes of film.

   Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) doesn't have any superpowers or wealth or connections which make him stand out from his peers yet, somehow, against all odds, it is he who manages to convince the school's sweetheart, Diane Court (Ione Skye), to go out on a date. His friends are in awe and want to know his secret - how, just how, did our protagonist achieve this feat?

   Dobler, as succinct as he is bold, replies with four straightforward words: "I called her up."

   Many years later, as I'm speaking to composer Todd Haberman, I'm reminded once more of Dobler's "dare to be great situation". As I interview the musician over Skype he reminisces with me of the moment when, having finished college, he had to make a choice on where his life should head next. Many of us plump for the simple option of stacking shelves or working as a barista whilst life figures itself out for us. Many of us believe our dreams will come to us and not the other way around. Not so Haberman.

   "My girlfriend at the time, we were talking, and she said: 'What do you want to do now?' And I was like: 'I dunno - I'd love to go work for Hans Zimmer but you can't just knock on a guys door who's just won an Oscar you know?'" This seemed like a reasonable conclusion to me but, as Haberman further recalls this is not where the life-changing conversation ended. His partner decided to challenge him. "Why not?"

   Haberman concurred - perhaps this was a good point. Why shouldn't he just pick up a phone, like Lloyd Dobler, and see what happened next? "I called up [Zimmer's Californian studio Remote Control] and the woman who answered is still a good friend of mine today. She was like, 'Yeah - come on over! Have an interview and there could be an internship open'. I came out from New York, did an interview and got the gig."

   I ask Haberman, who has since gone on to write for multiple films and TV shows including Arrow and Hemlock Grove, what it was that inspired him to pursue composing  as a vocation - was there one particular soundtrack which influenced his career? It is not a surprise when, taking the previous anecdote into account, the musician takes me back to a point in his young adulthood when he went to see the Hans Zimmer scored True Romance.

   "I had just gotten to college and my freshman friends were in the film school and they were all excited to go see this new Quentin Tarantino movie or whatever - y'know we all went out to watch it." The experience has clearly stayed with the musician. "I just remember loving the music and talking about how interesting it was. It wasn't a traditional orchestral score by any means. It was a lot of fun to talk about and dissect. That really got me involved in film music, that one particular score."

   Prior to his career in composition, Haberman was always interested in music - he played the trumpet initially before learning guitar. "That changed everything for me - [I] started growing out the hair and doing all that stuff. My background was all in rock and roll and jazz."

   This too helps explain his attraction towards working with Zimmer - a musician who found his way to film scoring via his band The Buggles (most famous, of course, for their 1979 breakthrough song Video Killed The Radio Star). "I got into film music in college, that's where the orchestral side of things kind of came at me but my brain is still rock and roll. So working with Hans was great - what he was doing with an orchestra was so powerful!"

   Indeed, in a career which has seen him compose for Gladiator, Inception, The Lion King and many more, Zimmer has won much acclaim (and occasional criticism) for the manner in which he diverges from traditional approaches to "classic" movie-scoring techniques. Dr Emilio Audissino, the film-maker and academic, has described Zimmer's work as containing "simple motifs characterized by homophony, basic chord progressions, no contrapuntal writing or use of inner voices, synthesizer pads as harmonic backing for acoustical instruments, a pounding rhythmic section, and overwhelming low frequencies."

   Whilst the passage is meant to primarily highlight the negative aspects of the German composer's work, it unfairly negates the ground breaking, often-visceral and pulsating qualities which make Zimmer's frenetic pieces loved by directors, producers and cinema-goers worldwide. His edge-of-your-seat compositions are largely written behind sets of keyboards, synthesizers and laptops - something which undoubtedly causes suspicion, and negative judgement, for those such as Dr Audissino who hold specific, and perhaps archaic, notions of what a score could and should be.

   Haberman, it should be noted, is very much a modern composer of the Zimmer school of thought and one who also composes primarily through digital equipment. "I'm on a Mac right now for my sequencer and I write in a programme called Cubase," Haberman explains. "I have another Mac where I have my Pro Tools rigged on where everything is mixed and where my video lives too. And then I have one more machine - a Windows based machine - which is a sample tank running VE Pro. Its down to three computers [whereas] the first studio I set up had maybe 12. I have guitars here, I've got some cool synths - I have a Moog."

   It is rather clear from the composer's explanation that he is more than au fait with the inside of a modern recording studio but, thinking back to the first days of his internship, I wondered what it must have been like for a self-confessed rock and roll enthusiast walking into as Oscar-winners' studio full of the most cutting edge technology for the first time?

   Haberman remembers how he'd begun to look into music technology himself whilst at college. "I had bought a computer and a synthesizer and was learning that stuff really on my own - studying manuals and looking online at forums. It was all so new! So getting over to Hans' studio was so amazing - all these synthesizers and computers and all these fun toys I was reading about in magazine, he actually owns!"

   Despite the many years which have passed since this moment, its impossible for the musician to disguise the glee in his voice as he recalls his introduction to the studio. "Anything you could read about, you could actually touch at his place - it was an amazing place to learn. What I got out of that place in the first four weeks versus what I got out of college in four years were just night and day. It was a truly eye opening experience - amazing!"

   So, I wondered, what is it actually like interning for such a big name in the film industry? What does that actually entail? The beginning of Haberman's recollection doesn't veer too far from what one might expect from any such work placement: "The first three months as an intern - I was getting coffees and running to Staples for blank CDs and all that, you know?" Yet, even this proved invaluable in the long-term: "For me, to tell you the truth, it was great - I was learning LA."

   As the internship progressed, the recent graduate was able to get more hands-on with his involvement at the studio. "After a while I started working for two specific composers there - this guy PJ Hanke and another guy Roy Hay" (of Culture Club fame). "That was amazing - they were both doing network TV shows. I didn't know what the process was, what the schedule was. Watching those guys bang out so much music every week no matter what - if you're computer breaks down, you have to fix it and get back to work. You have to get it done on time and get it out of the door. There's so much more than jut writing the notes."

   As noted earlier, the experience proved both eye-opening and of incredible value. "Just being involved with the projects you learn so much just by keeping your eyes open. And those guys were really great just letting us sit in the room with them whilst they were writing so I could watch the process go down."

   Having worked with leading figures in the industry, and with a wealth of experience accumulated on dozens of scores himself, I take the opportunity to ask Haberman if he has any specific processes for composing he's able to share with me. Our exchange, however, mirrors that of Death and Block in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. The dialogue in the movie sees Death carefully consider a request to share the answer to life's mysteries with four short words: "I have no secrets".

   "I wish there was a process!" responds Haberman. "I wish I had a better answer - I wish I had a process as that would make every day of my life easier." It is clear that much of Haberman's methods are based on the type of intuition which can only come from years immersed in music.

   "I would say every project kind of takes on its own life, y'know? How I approach the music varies based on the project. As I'm watching it, I'm figuring out in my head where the music needs to change and what should the music be conveying."


   The composer continues with some recent examples of his own work, beginning with 12 Foot Deep and as he speaks, his NY accent occasionally rings out - the vowels in the word "sounds", for instance, betray his birthplace: "With this music its more about sonic textures than it is about melodies. With this particular film I'm looking for sounds which really speak to me about what the scene is trying to do - it all stems out from there."

   As a counter-example, Haberman explains: "Other things I've done (like Hemlock Grove) it really started with the melody or string movement and then everything kind of came from there."

   Throughout his eclectic career, Haberman has composed multiple works across a number of different genres. I often wonder how musicians manage to keep their ideas fresh as they keep working, managing to avoid repetition or formulaic works?

   "That's also a great question - I wish I had the answer to that! I guess listening - always listening to new music that's out there or old music that's always inspired me in the past."

   Haberman ponders and suggests a practical way he keeps his mind open. "A funny thing - even just buying new sound libraries, things like that. Going through a synthesizer and looking for new sounds... these little things which just spark creativity. And you never know where they going to take you so you have to look for inspiration wherever you can find it. There might be a sounds that's really good but, you know, I've used it thirty times! When I hear it I just don't want to hear it any more so I find a sound that does the same thing and that just refreshes my brain."

   In a career which has encompassed film, TV and even video games, Haberman has written for practically every genre imaginable and has, too, created a rather substantial back catalogue of ghost-written work. I suggest that music is one of the most personal and intimate forms of expression imaginable and that to give away a little piece of one's self, of one's heart, must be incredibly difficult. How, I wondered, would it be possible to reconcile with this?

   Haberman takes a moment and replies with brutal honesty: "The need to get paid?!" We both laugh as I realise the composer isn't just a Dobler-esque dreamer as the opening to this post may suggest - he's also a realist and a pragmatist.

   "I never had any idea ghostwriting even existed - you see someone's name on a movie or on a TV show and you assumed they were the person doing all of that work. You come out to LA and you see that that's not necessarily the case! It basically boils down to time and budget constraints -with a TV show you have to get so much music done every week. You've got to write the music, get notes back on the music from producers, you've got to do the notes and get it off on time. It can be physically impossible for just one person to do - depending on the show of course. I was never concerned with giving away a piece of me - I was more concerned with gaining the experience I don't have any problems with it at all."

   I push for one such example of a positive experience and wonder, too, if trying to ape someone else's style during such projects is a good way of learning new tricks or achieving new perspectives? "I've worked with Blake Neely [and] every time I've written for him, its been a great thing. Any time I work for him I get better - how's that a bad thing?! I don't lose a piece of me at all, I gain a skill set."

   With such a broad background, spanning years, I wonder how one steers clear of fatigue too and I'm delighted to hear a very positive response: "I have a good time doing everything - its one of the things I love about the job. Maybe its a cliche to say 'It keeps you young' - that constantly changing... I've done TV shows for 8 or 9 months but its funny to thing 8 or 9 months is a long time to be on a job, you know what I mean? I've got friends who've come out of college and they got their job and still have that job twenty years later. I've done 5 or 6 films in the past 8 or 9 months or something. Its one of the things I love about this job, the constantly changing. Your brain never gets stale in one area. You work on something for a while and really dig in, finding all the nooks and crannies... and then I'll have to open up my brain for a totally new experience. That is just so much fun!"

   As we reach the end of the interview it's clear to me that Haberman is living the dream - he's doing the job he loves but knows that its hard-work and studious endeavour which allows him to keep at it. I wrap up the interview by asking about future projects and it is almost like I can hear his smile down the phone as he replies: "I don't know what's coming up next... but I know its going to be something!"

Thank you

A huge thank you to Mr Haberman for following for volunteering his time for this interview.

Please be sure to check out Tod Haberman's website: http://www.toddhaberman.com/

2 comments

  1. Fantastic composer!! Would love to meet him in person!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I very much enjoyed chatting to him via Skype - and listening to his compositions too for that matter!

      Delete

© The Totality | All rights reserved.
Blog Layout Created by pipdig