An Interview with James Venable by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No 83/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
How did you start out in film music?
Basically, when I was real little I played piano because my grandma made me, and then I switched over to drums in high school because that was cooler, and played in rock bands and that kind of thing. That was in the ‘80s when all the synthesizers and all the technology was really started to flourish, as a drummer at that time I kind of got into the electronic drums and drum machines and stuff, and realized that these synthesizers and samplers and drum machines were capable of so much more than just drumming. So I started getting into that stuff and writing music for myself to play drums to, and realized I really liked doing this. So I started studying with a gentleman named Lyle “Spud” Murphy, who is in his ‘90s now, and he had a whole course on how to arrange and compose and orchestrate from the perspective of pencil-andpaper, pretty much the old school way of doing it, plus he kind of invented his own system, so it was a really nice blend of looking at music from a new way but at the same time with a foundatin of someone who has been doing it for such a long time. While I was studying with him, I still kept going with the whole synthesizer and electronica thing, and realized that I was never really drawn to writing lyrics, so where would I have this music played? It didn’t take me long to realize that I’ve always dug film music, and that would be the perfect place to try to break in. So that’s kind of what got me into it.
How did you actually make the plunge. You started out with the television work first?
At the very beginning, when I started doing student films for AFI and USC and that kind of thing, and I would take on like any project I could get my hands on, little industrials here and there, and any kind of low budget cable commercial I could find. One of the students of Spud’s was real busy at the time and started having me help him out with some of the work he was doing, so I started ghostwriting for him and a few other guys, and through those jobs I was led to the POWERPUFF GIRLS, which was the first show that had my name on it, and was sort of my break into the business. From there, Kevin Smith was doing a cartoon called CLERKS: THE CARTOON, and was aware of POWERPUFF GIRLS, and said “I want that guy!” And then I was lucky enough for his producer, Scott Mosier, to suggest me on JAY AND SILENT BOB and they both said “yeah, let’s call him up and see if he wants to do it!” And that kind of was a neat thing because it’s so often in our business we get pigeon holed into one type of writing, but these guys had enough vision to go “he can write music, let’s try it with live action.” That was really great because, I mean, Kevin had already done a few films so he had budget for a full orchestra and the whole deal, so it was like the ultimate first film!
Let’s move back a little bit into POWERPUFF GIRLS. As your first gig in this field, what was your experience sarting out and writing music to fit specific scenes, and working with directors? How did you acclimate to the work environment at Cartoon Network?
One thing that really was sort of a shock that I was glad to have taken the time to do other projects like student films and that kind of thing, is that you have to write a lot of music really fast. It took a little bit of getting used to, actually, even before POWERPUFF GIRLS, to realize that you can’t sit around, There’s really no time to think, you just have to do. I’ve kind of come to the point now where I actually enjoy and dig the music that I write under those circumstances even more than if I’m able to sit around and think about it for days at a time. That was probably the first thing that I noticed, and then with POWERPUFF GIRLS, I produced it all out of my studio, so there was a whole level of wanting everyting to sound realistic, so I really found I gained a lot of experience getting my sampled orchestra to sound pretty good for that show. The creator of the show was pretty into different alternative musics, so that kind of turned me onto some bands that I hadn’t heard of before. Also, at the time when I was starting out, I DJ’d on weekends, so I was kind of up on a lot of the different electronica that was happening at the time. So that show allowed me to bring both experiences to the table.
What kind of music were you asked to write, based on your initial conversations with the producers for POWERPUFF GIRLS?
Initially it was going to be a mostly electronic svcore, and then we realized – I kind of brought to the table that there were some opportunites to use the orchestra with beats and that kind of thing, because the show’s real fun and lends itself to the action of electrnica, but there’s a lot of moments that kind of harken back to the old ‘50s monster movies, because they have monsters come into the show, and the town itself was sort of the perfect ‘50s town, lending itself to old ‘50s filmstrip music. So I kind of brought that to the table and said why don’t we try to combine these so that it never gets to just a pure orchestral sound and always have a hybrid electronica/orchestra score.
How would you contrast that experience with CLERKS: THE CARTOON?
Well, CLERKS: THE CARTOON, probably the biggest difference between those cartoons, CLERKS had a lot of spoofing of other movies, other cartoons, that kind of thing, so there was a lot more checking out different styles of particular, you know, if they were doing a spoof on, say, BATMAN or GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, I’d have to look into that style and then apply it. And also CLERKS, being that it was sort of a, those characters were a little bit older and they were into more alternative work, so there was more guitar and band-based stuff. But then, if you still wanted to take the characters through highly dramatic moments, then the orchestra would come in to support that.
Now how much time were given on some of these shows?
I actually consider myself pretty lucky, because I’m usually getting at least a week, sometimes ten days to do a show. I’ve heard of some guys who are getting a lot less than that. And I think that really affects the music. I know in my case if there is a breaking point where the music will be affected, if I don’t have enough time and I gave to paint the whole fence in a certain amount of time, then I’m not going to get all the coats I want to get on there. And I think the same applies for music, because it helps in music to have time to get away from it and then come back and listen to it. In my process, that really helps me a lot. If I don’t have time to get away from it, then the music ends up being sort of the first impression, and not enough time to have a perculating period.
On cartoons such as these and also SAMURAI JACK, are you writing a new score for each episode, or is there any re-use of material throughout episodes?
Basically, for the first season it’s all new music. By the second season, for budget reasons they’ll start re-using cues, particularly in reoccurring moments, like all three characters flying through the air, all three of them together, certain things that start happening over and over. And in a way it’s almost kind of cool because once you’ve written that ten times, the eleventh time you’re not really crying about not having to do it!
And how many times can you voice that particular moment?
Exactly. The thing that is pretty much across the board, always different, is that in, particularly in SAMURAI JACK and in POWERPUFF GIRLS, is there’s a new villain every show, so that’s where the new music’s always coming in, because each villain has their own vibe and their own sound.
All of these cartoons seem to have a very unique visual style and storytelling style, and how does that contrasting between the three of them as far as their musical needs?
One of the biggest things with SAMURAI JACK, because it came out of Cartoon Network as well, was that I kind of had this thought, and Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of SAMURAI JACK, was aware of it as well, was we didn’t want the music to sound like POWERPUFF music recycled with a little bit of a Japanese flair. We really wanted to try and give it its own unique sound. So that kind of caused me to investigate Japanese music a little deeper and check into the whole Eastern sound, what instruments are used, what kuind of scales do they use. Another thing was, we looked into a different type of electronica, kind of a more raw, dark sound, because we felt that character, Samurai Jack, was a moodier guy. I guess the direct contrast would be that the girls, each girl has her own sound – Blossom is sort of horns/heroic, Bubbles has her bells, and Buttercup has her more raw electric guitar stuff, because she’s the tougher of the three. Samurai Jack, we avoided all that kind of stuff, we never used the same kind of beats that I would have used in POWERPUFF and just gave him, his sound, which was just a more raw, dark electronica mixed with traditional Japanese sounds.
I have to ask about the episode of POWERPUFF which is, of course, my favorite, which is the Beatles episode. How did that come about and how was that to work on?
It was a blast because I’m a huge Beatles fan, and Craig McCracken, too, which is why he came up with that episode. It was a real blast because I’ve listened to The Beatles my whole life, but never from the perspective of how did they do it? I sort of really, honestly, took a lot of what they did for granted, in a way, just hearing it and digging on its brilliance, but never really, especially on the early stuff, I just sort of figured it’s basic band stuff, but I realized even the early stuff as really deep in how they got thjs sound that they did, so this show really gave me the opportunity to explore “what makes the song ‘Hard Day’s Night’ THAT song, why does it have that emotion?” Sonically, I guess more from a writing standpoint, what sort of devices did The Beatles use to achieve that emotion, if they wanted it to be sad how would they do that, how would they pull heartstrings or get the excitement going? What methods did they use? And it also caused me to also take notice of George Martin’s influence on them, especially toward the later years, and bringing in all the strings. Thank God he did that, otherwise it would have been touch to do that episode!! My approach was to feqture the different eras of The Beatles throughout, because the episode did that as well. It was a real blast because I got to really sit down with headphones and figure out what they did and then try to look at the episode from a perspective of, “If I was George Martin or The Beatles, how would I do this episode, and what would I use, and what wouldn’t I use?”
What kind of response have you gotten from people on that episode? Obviously the show’s usual audience isn’t going to pick up on these references, but they’re parents are certainly going to take notice.
That’s kind of an approach I’ve always tried to have with the music, to just throw it out there for people of any age, and people of our age, and the kids usually react to it the same way we would. Some people notice certain things, some of it’s so subtle that people don’t notice, but people who were really into The Beatles will catch things, like “Oh, I could feel the reference to the White Album here or the reference to Sgt Peppers here.” The response has been great, pretty much across the board, that’s probably the one episode that really gets a lot of attention. I got an Annie Award for that, and that was pretty exciting. It was neat because, as a youth, my mom turned me onto The Beatles when I was pretty young, and I started drumming to The Beatles, so it’s neat to have that all come full circle and come back.
You did some work for ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and HARD COPY. What kind of needs for those shows would come up for you?
The way those shows work, they build up a library of cues based on moods that they’re likely to have in the show. High drama, high action, they might need a series of moods for the types of movies they’re talking about. There really wasn’t a lot of writing to picture for those shows, it was really more about them saying “we need a minute and a half of dance music,” or “a minute and a half of dramatic music that we can possibly play under a story about two stars breaking up” or something. That kind of thing.
Then you did a Navy Seals documentary. How did that contrast, doing a non fiction documentary, as opposed to some of your other experiences?
Let’s see… you’re going way back, there! The Seals documentary was probasbly along the lines of one of the first things I did when I was grabbing anything I could… it was basically through a buddy of mine who has now gong on to do a lot of History Channel and Learning Channel shows, it was one of his early films. That documentary jhad some reenactments, and those involved scoring, and then the truck of that was to give the music underneath the interviews, to keep the energy going for the interviews but at the same time not get in the way.
Giving it an inobtrusive vibe…
Exactly. That actually came in really handy with working on Kevin Smith’s films, because he’s a writer, he’ll have moments where he’ll give the actor a pretty decent-sized monolog, and he’ll want music there too. I can’t go crazy but I can sort of highlight different moments, try to bring out certain things, but at the same time, not get in the way.
That brings us right up to JAY AND SILENT BOB. You first get into this project, and here’s a feature length film, not an episode television, although you’re dealing with very familiar characters. What kind of approach did you initially think of or were asked to provide? It’s a very comic score going over a wide variety of styles.
What was really cool was, when I first met Kevin he really encouraged me to write music that is original. He never is one to push, he never pushed me into trying to sound like anybody but me, so I’ve really felt comfortable working for him, and felt like I couild really explore and try different things. The other thing is, he told me, “these two guys, you can treat them like, they’re basically comic book characters, they’re cartoon characters, so don’t be afraid to catch every little movement. Don’t be afraid to go over the top.” That was a lot of fun, so in that way I got to go into familiar territory. The fact that it was a longer form, for me, was cool because once I had a theme I got to stretch out a lot more with that theme and do more with it, because it actually kept going, instead of ending after 22 minutes. In the case of Jay and Silent Bob, they were constantly in different situations, so it was a neat kind of musical exploration of taking that theme and putting it into different settings, be it a horror setting or a sneaking-around setting, or a really huge over-the-top chase, or whatever. It was a lot of fun. Probably the biggest difference was that they had budget for an 85-piece orchestra on the first day, and two days of 55. That was sort of the big challenge, was just making sure, you know, it wasn’t so much that it was a challenge, it was just the pressure of, wow, all these musicians waiting at the end of this process for music to be there, and you better have it done! And it better sound good! I think every composer goes through this, no matter what the stage of their career, is before the music’s done there’s a certain amount of kind of looking up to the sky and going “I hope you give it to me on this one!”
Did you work mainly with Kevin on that or were their folks from the studio getting involved?
Kevin and his good partner/friend Scott Mosier were the two main guys that I worked with. Kevin’s productinon company was doing the film, but it was under the Dimension Films company, but pretty much until the first screening, Dimension was pretty much hands-off. Once they had their first screening, most of their input was real positive because they had a good screening. It was neat because I came in early enough because I was able to do, a lot of my synth and sampler mock-ups were in the test screenings, so I didn’t have as much tempitis to get over, since most of my stuff WAS the temp.
Was the the first time you’ve had to put together a mock-up of your score? I’m assuming you don’t have time to do that on TV…
All my stuff on TV IS my mock-up, so it’s actually the opposite. The TV stuff has much fewer musicians and in many cases it’s just right out of my studio, and in this case, I think that was one of the things that Kevin and Scott really liked, was they they were able to hear the music ahead if time, they knew what they were getting before we got to the stage, and there really weren’t any surprises. In fact, after the first session, they were like, “can we go?” “No, no, stay!” because once the live orchestra kicks in, there’s going to be some differences that I might not even hear that they, particularly Kevin as the director, might catch on to, “hey wait, that’s different than how it’s been so far,” and let’s resolve that.
Coming out of the cartoon world, of which JAY AND SILENT BOB is really a live-action cartoon, primarily, coming into something like IRON MONKEY, which is a film that pre-existed, and had a score in its Hong Kong incarnation. How did you get that assignment, and how did you come up with your approach for that?
This was, I guess I could attribute it to the brilliance of Harvey Weinstein, because I came off of JAY AND SILENT BOB, and I had actually done the first few episodes of SAMURAI JACK, but nobody knew I was even doing that show. Somehow they drew the conclusion that “this Venable guy can do anything, give him this IRON MONKEY!” So I was like, actually just ready to take a deep breath and relax a little bit, and IRON MONKEY came flying through the door, actually while I was on vacation. I was really thankful that I had started SAMURAI JACK because, while looking into Japanese music, I ran across a lot of Chinese music and had an idea of that the Chinese instruments were and the kind of scales they used, and that sort of thing, basically because I wanted to make sure I was authenthic with the Japanese music. So when I started with IRON MONKEY, that was a wild one because, originally, we had planned pretty much the same type of orchestral situation we used with JAY AND SILENT BOB, and at the last minute it was revealed to me that, no, it was all going to be coming out of my studio, so it was sort of liking going from this huge orchestral experience, right back to working directly out of my studio with one player, who was a lady named Karen Han, I was lucky enough, and she played live Erhu on that. She did a great job. So I was lucky that she came in because she added a lot of wonderful expression to the score. But, basically, with IRON MONKEY, I guess I did listen to the original score from Hong Kong, and then I got ahold of some other Hong Kong releases, and I realized that, basically, at least at that time, they did a lot of needle drop stuff, where it was like, they would grab a popular song or whatever and just throw it on there, and I realized the way the Hong Kong movies had their music it wasn’t really to picture, they would capture a mood and just throw it in there, and I think the approach that I wanted to take with the American release was to try and score stuff more and build the drama a little more with the music. So it involved, there were several more dramatic moments in the film that I had to get into, and explore more darker regions of writing that I’ve had to in animation. And then also there were these huge sections where, like I think at the end there was like a nine-minute fight sequence and they wanted music for the whole thing, and it was a quick turnaround, I had to do that whole score in about a month, so it was a daunting task to look at that and also to know that in reel six there was this nine-minute sequence, leering at me! Honestly, sometimes I look back at that film and I hear some of that stuff and I harken back to what I said earlier, which is, there’s just a certain kind of music that comes out of that kind of pressure, and some times I dig it more. Honestly, I look back and I go, “I don’t even know how I did some of that stuff!”
In a film like this, obviously, you don’t have a director to work with, since it was a pre-existing film. Who were you working with?
That was interesting! In the beginning there was a gentleman named Matt Landon, and the editor basically was the director, or ,as he called himself, the Shepherd of the project, but schedule-wise, they had ran over their previous schedule, and he was slated to get married right when this thing was wrapping up, so probably about two weeks before I was going to be done, which was half way through the project for me, he was off the project getting married. My only input then was one meeting with Harvey Weinstein, who watched a couple of scenes and pointed out some things that he felt ought to be brought out, and that kind of gave me an idea of at least what they wanted, as far as, “ok, because he wanted this in this scene, I could apply it to other scenes.” But it was actually probably the most hands-off project I’ve ever done, the post-production supervisor was saying, “I guess just turn it in by this date, when we need it!’ So it was really odd, because normally I work extremely closely with directors and producers to make sure everything’s the way they want it. So this one was a wild one. It also made me have to kind of put on a different hat when I was done, and actually sit down and go, okay, without thinking, in terms of you’ve got it done and you want to make yourself feel good about the work you’ve done, how do yo view this score, and does it need anything.” I had to bring in my wife a few times and asked her to watch it objectively to get a second opinion!
A lot of the film, not only because of the previous work of Yuen Wo Ping, the director, but the popularity of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON of course, I think resulted in IRON MONKEY’s being rereleased for American audiences…
Did the affect of the music in CROUCHING TIGER at all come into play with what you were doing here in IRON MONKEY?
One of the things I noticed about CROUCHING TIGER.. I never actually saw COUCHING TIGER all the way through, and I still haven’t! But one of the things I did notice, because I did have a look at a few things, and one of the things I did notice about that score that I thought was really effective was, if there was a fight sequence, there were times when they would have an all-percussion fight sequence score. As a percussionist, that didn’t scare me, but to go on for a really long time and not get monotonous or boring was something that I noticed that the composer on CROUCHING TIGER [Tan Dun] really did well. And I had to check out what he was doing to see how he kept this thing going for so long, and it really caused me to look into less-is-more, starting off, say, with one drum, and establishing a real thematic rhythm, and then building it, kind of cycling it through different things, and themes and variation, basically, with percussion. I thought that was something CROUCHING TIGER did really well, so I tried to apply that to IRON MONKEY.
What kind of response have you gotten on your score for that?
Actually, really positive. People really latch onto a lot of the themes and things that were done for that film. I think, it’s funny, because I felt like I got JAY AND SILENT BOB done and I was so excited about it being the big orchestra and it had a lot of over-the-top, wild music, but sometimes I think people just want to latch onto a tune and enjoy it, rather than have the roller coaster effect that I think, as a composer, I’ve always found to be more exciting! Just hearing wild highs and lows, and that kind of thing, I’ve always dug that, but I’d found that, as far response is concerned, people were able to relate more to IRON MONKEY.
Some of the nicer moments of the score, too, are those that deal with the depth of character that you’re supporting in that film. You have these relationships and this drama that runs throughout the story, which is so in depth…
Yeah, there’s a lot more subtly in IRON MONKEY than in, say, JAY AND SILENT BOB! [laughs].
Yeah, just a bit! Which brings us of course to the POWERPUFF GIRLS movie, which kind of brings us to where you started, but now, oh, you’re on the Big Screen! How did the approach to the film version differ?
What was really neat was that I thought POWERPUFF was going to be my first movie, because I heard about it, I knew they were going to do one a couple of years before they did it. And it was really neat to end up coming back to that after having been involved with a few films, and I think the main difference was, one, because it’s a longer form I knew I could, like I mentioned with JAY AND SILENT BOB, I knew I’d be able to explore the themes more. The neat thing about that film was, one, it offered me as a composer, a rare opportunity, which is, there were a few scenes with nothing but music, with either no or very little sound effects, so there were two or three montage sequences, which is a lot in the film composing world, these days, anyway! There were sort of two hats I had to put on, one was approaching such sequences from kind of a score/song perspective, where I would play through a lot of thngs and really try to establish melody and treating it almost like a song, and then the other hat would be approach it from a score standpoint, writing more of an orchestra work. In all cases the orchestra always had a beat to it and the electronic element, but the writing approach was [more] similar to orchestral scoring. But I’d say probably the pointed difference between POWERPUFF, the movie, and POWERPUFF, the TV series, is kind of the obvious, which is that it was bigger, it was live orchestra, if it didn’t have orchestra in it and it was more a song-type of cue, then I would find I had time to get into it as deep as I would if I was releasing it as a record, as opposed to having be so concerned with time and just getting it done. So it was really a cool opportunity that way. The tricky part was that, because it was a prequel, I wasn’t allowed to use the Powerpuff Theme until about two thirds of the way through, and I didn’t use, the main villain is Mojo Jojo, and he has a theme that the director determined not to use until he actually becomes Mojo Jojo, which, again, was about two thirds of the way through the film, so it was sort of like tryng to come with kind of themes that harkened to the TV show or maybe showed elements that were sort of their super hero elements, musically, but at the same time didn’t treat them as full-fledged super heroes because they themselves didn’t view themselves that way.
It’s kind of like here’s James Venable’s version of doing John Williams STAR WARS: EPISODE I! You’ve got to allude to these things that will occur in the future but didn’t happen yet in our story!
[ laughs]: Exactly!
What was most challening for you on a film like this? Are you scoring to finished product, or is there still animation coming in?
I’ll tell you, that was interesting. POWERPUFF, the TV show, once I get it, it’s done. That’s actually what was going through my head when you asked that question! Probably the hardest part was there were probably two times where we thought the movie was done, and it turned out for various reasons that it wasn’t! So that was probably the biggest challenge, just adapting to the picture changes and, because of those picture changes, there were times when we were working with animatics and that kind of thing. That’s really not that hard, especially in this case the animatics were just short snippets and there was still a lot of real animation that was done, so it wasn’t too hard, but it still was the biggest challenge of the film, and just kind of, I think, doing a feature film is kind of like giving birth, you have an idea when the due date is, but it’s not always exactly when you think it is, so you have to remain flexible.
And sometimes I guess it hurts like hell!
Now, what if your personal style about developing themes and using them in a dramatic way, or do you go more for an overall vibe or atmosphere?
No, I’m a strong believer in themes. I guess if I had to pick, I like to apply a theme to just about anything I can, especially characters. If I was born a couple hundred years ago I would have gone with the whole leitmotif type of thought when doing film scores. What I do, because I work with the computer and into the keyboard, I still keep pencil and paper around to write out themes, so that whenever the same character comes back or I see an opportunity to bring the theme back or change it a little bit, give it a variation, or whatever, I have it there right in front of me. I just found that works better because after so many cues you start forgetting what you did before, and then the score loses its continuity and starts becoming a potpourri. So I like to avoid that. But as far as doing scenes just for the mood, I think that depends on the scene. Sometimes there’s times to be very thematic and then there’s other when, yeah, you just want to set a mood and not draw too much away from what’s going on in the picture.
What do you have coming up for the future?
Right now I am actually delving into the electronic artist phase of my career, at least that’s where I’m going to give a shot here, and I’m going to be working on my first record, which I’m hoping to have out in the Fall, and it’s either going to be released by a larger record company or, if nothing else, I’ll put it out on my website. In the meantime I’m also doing a remix for a band called TwoLoons, which is a new band releasing a record in recember, and they’re doing a vinyl remix version of a bunch of their tunes to kind of help promote the record, and I’m going to dive into that, which will be a first, remixing of anybody’s else’s music other than my own. I’m going to see how that goes, and then, like anybody else in this business, you put the feelers out and let everybody know you’re ready to go and see what else comes in.