Tyler Bates on Film Scoring

Just like many of the superheroes in the big-budget movies he composes orchestral soundtracks for, Tyler Bates rocks a dual identity.
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Bates with the Gibson ES-347 originally belonging to his friend Michael Ciravolo of Schecter Guitars. This instrument was the inspiration for the Schecter Corsair, which is now Bates’ main guitar.Photo By Victor Colomes

Bates with the Gibson ES-347 originally belonging to his friend Michael Ciravolo of Schecter Guitars. This instrument was the inspiration for the Schecter Corsair, which is now Bates’ main guitar.
Photo By Victor Colomes

Just like many of the superheroes in the big-budget movies he composes orchestral soundtracks for, Tyler Bates rocks a dual identity. In his own words, he is someone who has worked on films grossing billions of dollars, but then jumps back into the rock world as lead guitarist for Marilyn Manson. Does the animated thought balloon in this flick say “Conflicting Alter Egos”?

Actually, it all seems to make perfect sense to Bates—even though, in his own “origin story,” he had to negotiate a creative rethink about the guitar before he could truly embrace his muse. The basic plot unfolds as follows: Act I—Bates starts out playing guitar in rock bands. Act II—His brother introduces him to a movie producer who needs a rock soundtrack on the cheap. Act III (Years Later)—Bates is celebrated as the composer for mega-films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, John Wick, and Atomic Blonde, as well as television shows (Californication, The Punisher) and video games (Transformers: War for Cybertron, Killzone Shadow Fall). Epilog—Bates produces Heaven Upside Down, the brand-new album from Manson.

We’ll let Bates narrate the rest of the story…

I’d think that, for many GP readers, going from playing in a rock band to scoring movies—where you typically need tons of skills to arrange and orchestrate music for different types of instruments—would be something of a crap your pants moment. How did you survive your initial forays into scoring?

Well, it wasn’t like I was just a rock guitarist who wanted to put his guitar music to picture. I’ve always been curious about how all music works—even if it’s music I wouldn’t typically listen to. I know there’s great music in every style of music known to man, and all of it inspires me to compose. But, having said that, when I first started scoring movies, I abandoned the thing I was best at doing, and that was playing guitar. I put on this film composer hat, and I didn’t know anything about what I was doing. I think the majority of my first 20 scores were pretty terrible, and I did 18 movies before I even met another composer. But, at some point, I committed to learning as much as I possibly could about music, and I went on a journey with different directors who were very musical. Matt Dillon, for example, is very much into Cuban music, and he turned me on to a lot of cool stuff. Over time, I managed to expand my musical vocabulary, and, as a result, my ego became less guitar-centric.

And you feel that letting go of your “guitar ego” was something that opened up creative avenues for you?

Absolutely. I feel the overall philosophy that’s important to successfully scoring anything is to remove your ego from your known instrument. I mean, all guitar players want to grow up and be whoever their guitar hero was. But part of scoring is being able to understand storytelling and emotion. So you have to let go of that part of yourself that feels the need to prove your worth as a guitarist, and become that person who can create musical concepts from conversations with a director, from reading a script, and from watching film clips. Once you abandon that view of yourself as a guitar soloist, it’s really exciting to see how music can be reborn within you on a daily basis once you’re curious enough to see it from a much broader spectrum.

What are some essential tips for doing this job?

The director is the storyteller, so the most important information is the feeling the director wants to communicate. Then, you have to use your practical filmmaking knowledge to be aware that sound effects are going to be part of this, as well. More importantly, you don’t want to write music in the same frequency ranges as the dialog, because the music is going to lose that battle. The dialog always wins. So you have to figure out how to convey the emotion and energy for a sequence, while simultaneously enhancing and supporting the dialogue and all the important sound effects.

How does your work life unfold when you’re scoring a big-budget film such as Atomic Blonde or Guardians of the Galaxy?

You have to go into those movies ready to perform a triathlon. It’s daily insanity, because you’re keeping up with the picture—which is evolving daily. And, regardless if they’re testing the movie in three days or three weeks, there’s still a constant desire to look at scenes from different perspectives—to make something more or less emotional, or more dreadful, or maybe an executive has a note. So you always have to respond to the development of the film, and, in a big-budget movie, there are probably 1,000 minutes of fully mocked up orchestral demos to get to a 90-minute score at the end of the project.

Wow. That sounds like so much creative energy that may never see the light of day. Is that frustrating?

I don’t look at it that way. I prefer to see it as curating which parts are best for the film, rather than tossing out music. Everyone is trying to make the greatest movie they can, and the direction for the music may change because someone wants a different dramatic arc or something. So, as grueling as it is to write music that ultimately may not be used in the film, you just have to be prepared to let it go. There’s no digging in and saying, “Dude, that’s awesome. You should love it.” You can’t convince someone to feel right about something they’re not feeling. And this also speaks to how different film composing is from writing music in a band. A band might write ten songs every year or two. But in the movie world, in order to constantly deliver what the director needs—and no matter whether it ultimately gets chosen for the film or not—I have to write several minutes of music each day. As an added pressure, that music has to be the absolute best that I can do. You don’t live on a dream in the film business. You have to prove yourself every day. No one cares what you did five years ago. They want the best thing you’ve ever done right now. But what’s exciting about that is I have to keep my music completely on edge and alive in my daily life in order for me to meet that challenge every day.

Do you feel that film-composition schools adequately prepare you for all of the pressures of the business?

If you were to go to school for film composition, you’re mostly going to study under somebody who doesn’t do it. Perhaps the students spend a quarter taking down 12 bars of John Williams’ score for Star Wars. There’s always something to be gained through understanding that composition, because it’s brilliant. But it’s not going to show you how to develop your own voice, or how to understand and navigate the very challenging world of the movie business.

What’s the guitar gear you are currently using for many of your projects?

I love playing my Schecter Corsairs. The model was actually designed after a Gibson ES-347 that belonged to Michael Ciravolo of Schecter many years ago. We did a trade that was heavily slanted in my favor, but I couldn’t let the instrument go. I’m into several different amps. A Marshall JCM900 is a great workhorse, and I also have a Friedman Jerry Cantrell head, as well as a Peavey Classic 50 that sounds and records great. But, given all the pedals I have on my pedalboard, I’m comfortable playing through almost any amp, because I pretty much know what I’m going to get. I love loopers and any delay pedal under the sun, Earthquaker Devices stuff such as the Rainbow Machine and Afterneath, and I just started using the DOD Carcosa Fuzz, which is really nasty and cool.

You and Marilyn Manson produced his recent Heaven Upside Down album together. How did you two develop the material?

We’d typically compose in the same room. We were both on headphones, he had a mic, I might use a Kemper for basic guitar sounds, and while he’d talk about whatever was on his mind that day, I’d start creating music based around his thoughts. But it wasn’t about creating a bunch of riffs, and then having him pick out what he liked. It was only about the conversation that was happening in that moment. He’s brilliant at that. He can do things with words that I haven’t experienced with anyone, and that gets me inspired, and I come up with things in response to that.

Would you direct the flow of the composition at that point?

I wouldn’t have to verbally say, “I think you should do this or that.” If I needed to get more of an emotional impact from him, I’d consume the [frequency] space that I didn’t want him to be in with my guitar playing. For example, if I wanted his voice in a higher range, I’d jam more in the lower register, because he’d instinctively go and find the open space.

That’s an interesting example of completely in-the-moment creation.

Absolutely. We had to write the best record he could make at that moment, and one that was relevant to who he was right then, as well as all the stuff he was connecting to at the time. Much like scoring a film, my job was to understand what he needed to communicate in order to be the most effective artist he could be today. We’re not going to create lightning in the bottle in exactly the same way as something that happened a couple of decades ago.

You’ve toured in Manson’s band, and may do so again to promote the new record. But one might logically assume you’d forego the rigors of the road to stay home and score films in relative comfort.

You know, on my first Australian festival tour with Manson, a lot of the musicians said, “Dude, why are you out here slumming it on a rock tour?” I was like, “Well, I f**king love to play!” [Laughs.] Touring can certainly be a way to blow off some steam after being in the studio all the time writing music under a ton of pressure, but, more importantly, I still see myself as a guitar player when I look in the mirror as I’m brushing my teeth in the morning. That will never die.