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Interview: Scoring Foo Fighters' 'Sonic Highways' Documentary with Bryan Lee Brown

by Carolyn Menyes   Jun 24, 2015 15:04 PM EDT

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Though it may have seemed like the rollout of new music from Foo Fighters may have been the soundtrack to the band's HBO documentary Sonic Highways, the actual musical map of the show came from its score work. The low, ambient tones, the dobro, just the right amount of drama and intrigue marked Dave Grohl and co.'s personal and musical journey across the U.S.

Now, eight months after the Foo Fighters' album Sonic Highways dropped, the documentary's score is available for fans of instrumentals, rock music or anything in between. The composer, Bryan Lee Brown opened up to Music Times in an exclusive Q&A about his relationship with the band, the show and his own journey to becoming a composer.

Music Times: Can you tell me a little bit about your musical background as a composer? I know you left school, so that's interesting.

Bryan Lee Brown: I was in music school actually, at a university in Arizona. I was immersed in orchestral and jazz and theory. But I really wasn't feeling it so I picked up and I split and moved out to California and just really wanted to start my own thing. I wasn't quite sure what that was going to be. Through a process of playing with different people and on and off with my brother I started a few bands and then at a time when I was touring a lot I was working at this art school in Pasadena - Art Center College of Design - and you could take classes for free when I was there, so I focused my studies in film and digital recording and I was just sort of watching film all the time and then listening to the critical analysis afterwards of student films and watching people be torn apart on a daily basis. So it kind of just happened naturally. I just fell into it. One of the last records I recorded with that band [Bluebird] was an instrumental record and it inadvertently started to get a lot of placement and I really enjoyed it so I went in that area. It just happened really naturally.

MT: In your band were you primarily the drummer? Because I know you were mentored by drummers.

BLB: Yeah, drums were my first instrument, even now. I've toured once or twice with other people but I don't really feel confident playing live in front of other people, I'm sure I could figure it out if I needed to. But yeah, just really a drummer. I'm always making drummer jokes. But that was my thing and it still is. I still hope at some point that I can get back out on the road and tour and play because it's really its own thing; it's a very cathartic experience. For me, it's the best form of self-expression. You have to usually have other people involved, nobody wants an hour drum solo.

MT: I've talked to a few other composer before and usually their first instrument is the piano or the strings. Do you think being primarily a drummer affects the way you do score work?

BLB: Definitely. Certain drummers are more hands on but drummers are in the background, you count songs off, a good drummer at least knows what's going on at all times. But that being said I did start off with piano, I kind of shunned it because it wasn't very much fun. The way things are right now as far as home studios go, I don't want to say you can fake things because without an idea you don't have anything. Without actual content, you don't have anywhere to go. But I can get around okay on the guitar and the piano by just punching in; I can handle it for a couple measures and just edit myself together and at least just get the idea down if I can't handle it, just get someone else to come in who's a real player and just play the part. It's funny because lots of time when people need to do cues, most composer friends that I know are not drummers. They always need a drummer. So I guess I lucked out in that department -- I can just do it myself. I can go to the keyboard and punch in and roll with it.

MT: How did you get involved in scoring Sonic Highways?

BLB: I've known Dave [Grohl] for a long time. I've known him since the first year after I moved to California. I knew that he was going to take on a project and they were writing for it and they'd started shooting. But I came through another weird way of it. I wanted to be involved in the project but it's not that easy just to ask somebody -- you have to go through the proper channel. Usually the way it works is if you have an in you can submit music for somebody to listen to and see where it goes from there. And I did and I had a conversation over coffee with a writer Mark Monroe and producer James Rota about submitting some of my music to the editors and seeing how it worked against picture and they just kind of went nuts on it and so it went from there. I started meeting with the editors, got down and it turned into more of a composer gig at that point.

MT: This show seemed like a unique challenge because you're dealing with a bunch of different environments and genres of rock and people. How did you balance all that? What was your thought process going into making this score?

Bryan: It was weird at the beginning I just went ape sh*t. I was just like, I know it's a story I would figure out what's happening in each city. Chicago, they're going to be talking about Dave's roots with punk. Same probably a little bit in L.A. and definitely with D.C. so I would just go through and blast out 15 or 20 tracks that were derivative of what was happening in that time period musically and just keep them short. I just would kind of do some set up work, and again, knowing Dave and what the story was about helped me. I got a little bit of a head start as far as Nashville and things like that. Instrumentation for those cities it's pretty obvious what certain instruments - you hear a dobro or a slider you immediately identity with country music or a region where that instrument's from. So I kind of just went that way to have something to pull from.

But weirdly enough, most of the music that we ended up using and that I ended up scoring was its own thing. It was this cohesive, ambient thing that went through the whole show, more or less as a little machine that helped people when they were telling their own personal stories about what's happening. There was a few moments here or there where it got to be a little bit heavier but most of the stuff was pretty pulled back. I loved it, it was great. It was super fun.

MT: Did you play off of the album Sonic Highways at all when you were composing?

BLB: I didn't. Each episode had its own video so I was familiar with the record why I was doing it. But I wasn't really thinking of it as I'm supporting the Foo Fighters' music. I really approached as I'm supporting the story and what's happening with the individuals in the story. Which does entail the Foo Fighters, but that was more about what they were going through personally and their own background and what's happening. It wasn't really to supplement their music. It was kind of like apples and oranges.

MT: I was looking at the song titles and they were interesting. Did you have any input on the titles for the score?

BLB: I did. I labelled them all. And again, my drummer jokes are a dime a dozen. It's funny because when I go to compose that kind of music, what comes out of me it's usually pretty serious but I'm not that kind of person at all. [My personality] it's really bathroom humor and stuff. Anyone who knows me is going to be like, "Oh my god really with that again? How old are you?" But then when I get into the composing mode, that part of my brain, thank god, shuts off.

But like "Those Who Go Before Us," that was the D.C. episode and Dave was talking about Ian MacKaye how these people were like his mentors so I tried to label some of the tracks, the pieces, about what the storyline was going on. There's one called "Moon Over Rancho," it's when Hutch, the Queens of the Stone Age sound guy, was talking about the desert.

MT: In an interview a couple weeks ago, Dave Grohl mentioned the idea of a Sonic Highways 2. How do you feel about a potential sequel?

BLB: I feel great about it. It'd be awesome. This experience was great. It's really not my place to say what's happening with all that. I know that he spoke about it; I know that's something he wants to do. There's been conversations. But I think that it's such a great idea; it can go in so many different directions. As it was before, it has so many possibilities. It could change so much. It's a really great concept.

Dave's one of those people, he's like a four-year-old jacked up on sugar all the time. He's always that guy that's like, "Yeah let's do this!" And people just go, "Okay yeah I'll do that," even though it sounds like, "Really we're going to do that right now?" But I remember when he told me the idea and then I asked somebody else that was in the room "Whose idea was this?" and they were like "His!" He's a thinker.

So it's a great concept, it could take on many different lives in many different forms. I have no idea, I haven't really talked to him about where he sees it going. One, two, five, 10 years from now. It's one of those things where everybody says this is what they should do, this is what he should do - everyone has an idea of what people should do. And which is all fine and well but really what I think you should do is come up with your own idea and do it and then let me watch it. That would be cool.

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