'Tyrant' FX Series Composers Mychael & Jeff Danna Talk Season 2 Episodes' Score & More! [EXCLUSIVE Q&A]
Season two of one of FX's most compelling drama series, Tyrant premieres this week, bringing us back into the tumultuous lives of some of TV's best characters from executive producer Howard Gordon. Based in the Middle East, this show brings American audiences to the forefront of many hot topics in politics, religion and most importantly, family, which is why we love the fact that brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna are the composers responsible for the layered underscore of the series, helping to tell the story of the Al-Fayeeds.
The duo recently sat down to talk to us about the upcoming season, in terms of what we can expect from evolving and new musical themes, incorporating cultural instruments into the score, and much more!
How did each of you get into the industry for composing for films and TV? Was it always a plan to work together or did that kind of just come around?
Mychael: Well, I'm the older brother and I guess I fell into it by accident first. Both of us have been playing music all our lives from classical music in choirs to pop music and electronic music; guitars, in Jeff's case. I went to the University of Toronto and I studied composition. While I was there I was working in theater and doing music for theater, and while I was doing that I ended up meeting a guy in theater who decided to make a film. And he said, "Hey, you want to do music for a film?" And I went, "Okay, sure, why not? I'll try it." Up to that point I wasn't very familiar with film music, it wasn't something that interested me. I wasn't even a really big filmgoer, so it was something new to me and something I kind of approached from my theater background and my new music background. So once I kind of ended up really enjoying it and finding it very rewarding and kind of being able to do all the fun things that I like doing in writing music, then I kind of introduced Jeff to it and had him play on some sessions and he had an immediate facility for writing. So, yeah we started, I think, collaborating right from the beginning. We've often lived in different cities and of course done many, many things on our own. We've circled back to working together pretty often, pretty regularly.
How did you get involved in Tyrant?
Mychael: Howard Gordon, one of the executive producers was kind of spearheading things near the beginning and was looking for a score that was kind of rich and had a combination of east and west to it and had some local instruments, Arabic flavor, Middle Eastern influences; but also had kind of the richness and scope of the story, which is an east meets west, kind of collides with and integrates with west story. And I think also the fact that it's a story that's very much centered on brothers was something that intrigued him-to have two brothers try to score it, so maybe there was a connection there in his mind. So, yeah I think it's a story that we understand very well and we're kind of well suited to cover both the east and the west-western aspects of the flavors.
How much creative freedom do you have on this series?
Jeff: Well the producers immediately resonated with our concepts for the score to this, which was to do something which hadn't been done on TV in a little while and certainly not in the Middle Eastern venue. We're supposed to do something fully orchestral with a strong supporting musical cast of soloists. The schedule of TV, the budget of TV, those things really dictate against this approach but once we saw the pilot, we went in and pitched that idea to them and said, "You know like, Lawrence of Arabia on TV," like something really sweeping and more epic when we need it to be, and there are two of us so we handle short turnarounds and the logistical aspect of that kind of approach. And they immediately got on it, so creatively that sort of worked right away for them and it's been a fairly straight line since then. It just seems to work in the show, it seems to work for them and it doesn't always work that way, but it did in this case.
Working with so many different instruments to get such a precise sound for this underscore, can you pick a favorite you've written for?
Mychael: Every week we record a full orchestra, well a string orchestra more precisely, sometimes with woodwind, but a pretty decent sized string section as well as four ethnic players: the Santoor, the Kaman, which is like, almost a viola sized bowed stringed instrument from the Middle East, the-what am I forgetting Jeff? The Ney-
Jeff: Right. There's all the family, the Pinkillu, the Duduk-
Mychael: Yeah they're all great instruments to work with and very idiomatic. As far as what the favorite one is, I mean I really wouldn't say I have one. I mean, it changes. The favorite one is the one that's working at the moment [laughs]. So, they're all great instruments and we have great players. They're kind of scattered all over the world which adds to the complexity of what we're doing, but I personally don't have a favorite instrument at all. I actually love all of them and that's one of the things that's been a hallmark in my career; is just being able to work with a vast array of different players from different countries and kind of get something that's not just musical but also appropriate for the story at hand-sometimes in unusual ways, but something that will work for the film, which is the bottom line of what we're doing.
The Qanoun! That's the other instrument-Qanoun is like a plucked, stringed instrument.
Jeff: It's like a Koto; kind of like a Koto, you play it horizontally and-
Mychael: It's a beautiful instrument-
Jeff: It's a great sound ... We love these colors, we love these players, and the fact we have that palette available to us is a real luxury.
Should we expect some new musical themes in season two?
Jeff: We're building off the same musical base that we created the first season, so there are no real significant left turns or anything. There are definitely story developments. Things are definitely heading to an interesting place. As far as new themes go, there are things coming for Jamal and Leila, which are new because their story is getting a little more complex. But we're still building off the base of 4, 5, 6 of the core themes, and concepts and palettes that we set up in the first season.
What other projects are you working on?
Mychael: There's a Pixar movie that we're currently just kind of getting going in, called The Good Dinosaur, which will be coming out this Thanksgiving. So that's something else keeping us busy right now.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is trying to get into the industry of composing for TV and film?
Mychael: I think the best thing is to find your own voice and be true to it. We don't need another John Williams or any other composer. I hear a lot of young guys that basically are copying the sound and style of another existing composer. And I think that can be a good way to learn and get started, but you need to have your own identity; that's extremely important. I think finding people to work with who kind of share your artistic vision and your way of thinking is really kind of the key. And that's something that just takes some-looking for other people at your level. Young people maybe beginning out in film school or animation school or whatever it may be, and making connections with them early on. That's how I would suggest.
Jeff: There are many, many ways to fall into the music business and the scoring business. And the only other thing I would add to all that is that you just-the classic "Never Give Up" and keep going. And 90% of inspiration is perspiration, and all the "rah rah" sayings-
Mychael: "When you're going through hell, keep going." [laughs]
Jeff: Well it's like any job where there are not that many positions and there are lots and lots and lots of people that want to do it, talent can only go so far. It's the focus and determination and tenacity that will carry you through.
Mychael: It's a very tough career, but the rewards are really extremely gratifying and wonderful. To hear your music played by some of the world's greatest players and see it working with an image and helping to tell stories that people share all over the world, it's extraordinary. We're really fortunate. And it's something that we enjoy working on together, and certainly as brothers there's competition and conflict sometimes, but overall, we-we're on the same team and we have the same goal in Tyrant to make the best possible score and help tell the story as best we can. Obviously we both help lift each other's game by that sense of competition and that sense brotherhood as well, so it's very good to work together on a project. That's something that I feel really fortunate to be able to do.
For more information on Mychael and Jeff Danna, check out their respective websites: