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Having a Ball!
A conversation with composer Thad Spencer
(Asche & Spencer)

"There's nothing positive that comes from "temping." The only "positive" thing is that the studio gets to screen their film for executives. The negative is that the final score will probably end up being a derivative of the temp music which is probably a derivative of some other score."
Thad Spencer

 
       
   

The Interview - February 21, 2002

 

 

 

General Info:
Born in Northern California

Resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota

A founding member of the band, The Jayhawks

Started in Advertising in 1988.

Opened Venice, Cailfornia facility and renovated it in 2001.

Website:  www.ascheandspencer.com (not yet public)

 
 
Feature Film Credits:
Monster's Ball
 
 
Commercial Projects:
Apple

MTV

Nike

Porsche

Milk

Levi's

Taco Bell

Coke

Saturn

Volvo

Sony

 
 

 

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Howard Shore (2006)
Trevor Rabin  (2006)
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Harry Gregson-Williams
John Debney
Greg Edmonson
Christopher Lennertz (2003)
Erik Lundborg
Ron Jones
Edward Shearmur
Christopher Lennertz (2002)
Thad Spencer
Don Davis (2001)
Hans Zimmer
Conrad Pope
Michael Giacchino
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Jeff Rona (1999)

 

Other Special Features

 

 

 


Monster's Ball has been creating a stir among film critics, since its release in late 2001. Right along with all the talk about the acting performances has been substantial buzz regarding its moody score composed by Asche & Spencer.  Tracksounds spoke with composer Thad Spencer about the firm's origins, its first film score, and their unique approach to scoring a film.

You've come from a "commercial" background prior to doing the score for Monster's Ball. Correct?

Yes we have.

Do you plan on continuing to "do" television commercial projects or are you looking to move more into doing film music?

Well, we've been doing music for advertising since 1988, so almost 15 years...and we have done a great deal of commercials. In the last five years, we have averaged about 220 to 230 commercials per year. So, we are doing a fair amount and it pays well. This has allowed us to build the infrastructure with eight recording studios and eight composers. Its almost like, "You name it...we have it."

We have always held, somewhere in the back of our minds, that we wanted to get involved with feature films, but we didn't want to do it "willy-nilly." We really wanted to make sure that we had all our ducks in a row in terms of our abilities and confidence.

So was doing film music a goal from the onset or did it just evolve?

I don't know if it was a goal from the very beginning. The main goal was to make a living and to stay in music. That lead us to the advertising world, which was a very positive environment. There were, of course, negatives, such as the committees that are usually involved in advertising. But, again, it pays very well and you are usually done with these people in a relatively short amount of time - sometimes in two or three days. So that is the training that makes us uniquely suited for the film world...because there isn't anything that world can throw at us that we can't handle.

So what are some of the differences between working in advertising and the film world?

Well, the time frame is much longer in film. Also, there doesn't seem to be, thus far anyway, a huge committee that are so common in advertising, where you have a copy-writer, an art director, a producer, a creative director and an associate creative director. In advertising, you have all these people telling you what to do and they aren't always unified in what they want. So Monster's Ball was such a wonderful situation to get into, where we just had to deal with one man and his vision. We were given a great deal of latitude to do what we wanted.

Would you say your first feature film project was positive?

Absolutely. It was an unbelievable dream. Lionsgate was incredibly "stand-off." There wasn't one ounce of creative direction that came down from the studio!

Now, I was surprised that Monster's Ball only hints at it setting in the South.

From the very beginning, after I read the script, I didn't want to do anything Southern. I felt that it would sound too much like some Ry Cooder sort of thing. I just felt that had been done to death and that the music was going to need to work with the emotional framework of the film and not the geographic framework of the film. So ruling all of that out gave us a lot of freedom. It allowed us to use an entirely different instrument palette. Mark (Forster ) was unified with us in that he didn't want anything "southern" either. He just wanted something that worked with the emotion of the film.

Do all the composers you have on your team work on every project?

That's a great question. That is how this film started out. We got the script and talked with the director and the music supervisor and laid out the framework of what we thought we'd do. That (framework) came from having a meeting with all the composers together (which is what we do in advertising.) We basically outline where we'd like to go with certain projects and then its dictated who will work on said project. In this situation, I opened it up to everybody, so we, as a group, composed both collaboratively and individually. We came up with this initial assault totaling 100 minutes of music, which we gave to them (director and music supervisor). They, in turn, were able to zip through this music, which really was a bunch of experiments from us. We worked with limited instrumentation. We all worked within that limitation but we all interpreted it differently. We let the editor and the director decide what they liked of that 100 minutes of music. The cues that they selected then told us which individual composers would work on the project. They basically ended up telling us who needed to work on the film based on what they liked. It ended up being myself and two other composers.

Now, Mark Asche was a co-founder of Asche & Spencer. Is he still involved?

(Laughs) No he isn't. You know, no one in the advertising world no one ever asked that question, yet everyone in the film music world does! I guess film music people are just sharper!

So why keep the name?

I think in advertising there are a lot more dissolved partnerships where names have built equity. Mark and I started the company about 10 years ago. He left because he got tired of dealing with the hard-heads in advertising. Now, he is much happier and just writing music on his own.

So I kept the name because I liked it. It sort of ambiguous. It almost suggested that we are this British law firm or something. People seem to remember it, too. What we are trying to do is create a situation where, even though there are seven composers or four composers, who might work on a project, it will always read "Asche and Spencer." This will help establish us as a brand. It is something along the lines of what Tangerine Dream did.

How would you compare Asche & Spencer to Media Ventures?

Well, the Media Ventures model is similar; however, there are some differences.  What he (Hans Zimmer) does is he'll sometimes take all the credit even though someone else wrote some of the music.  On the other hand, If he feels someone has contributed enough then they will get their names along side his. Our thing is a little more streamlined. It's not about whose name is credited. It's more about the company...and we are all behind that.

Now you have a policy that you'll only take a project if it has not had any temp-music added to it.

Yes. That is really important to us. We are willing to back that up with doing the work ahead of time. We'll write music beforehand and give them a palette of choices for their edit. In exchange, we don't get into a temp-music situation. There's nothing positive that comes from "temping." The only "positive" thing is that the studio gets to screen their film for executives. The negative is that the final score will probably end up being a derivative of the temp music which is probably a derivative of some other score. I think this is why Monster's Ball is starting to turn some heads. It's not that it is some completely new musical form, but you can tell that it is not based off of some other movie score from the past 30 years.

So you're saying that "creativity" is of the utmost importance to both you and your team.

Absolutely. Otherwise it just isn't any fun. I mean we make a bunch of money doing commercials, so we're not doing this to get rich. We see millions and millions of dollars every year go into the advertising business, so we are very fortunate and if we are wanting just to make money...well, we've got that going on already. We want to do (film music) for the sheer artistic expression aspect of it. Of course we want to be successful, make some money, and be revered...but it all boils down to the fact that we enjoy this collaboration within the industry of film. We want to excel at this so that we can work with those people who are making the most interesting films.

You even have your own in-house art department as well.

Yes we do. We are pretty insane about all aspects of what we do. We are sort of control-freaks when it comes to our work. A lot of companies have small composing groups, but when it comes time to record they go to big facilities. I have always hated that model because I want to have full control. I want to know that my room sounds like "this" and it is always available to me and is always functioning. We build our own studios and that same principle goes across to everything else we do.

There are a lot of things that are visual about any business; from day-to-day correspondence to the CDs that go out.

Asche & Spencer does sound design. Are you interested in doing this in feature films as well?

We do a great deal of it in advertising, but I have no interest in doing features. That's just a brutal job. They get no time and an enormous amount of time has to take place in just minutes. At the end of it, I'm not sure what the reciprocation is.

There seems to be a trend of sound design being incorporated into film scoring. Do you foresee this trend continuing or increasing in the years to come and do you think you would do that sort of scoring?

I don't think we tend to migrate to those sorts of films, quite frankly. I don't know if the emotion is going to be there to draw us or make us interested, I think that what we want to do is represent as many emotional platforms as possible. That's what interests us, makes it fun and rewarding.

In Monster's Ball there are a lot of bleak moments and our challenge was to take it and spin it so there was actually something "good" about it. Of course that is really difficult, but still rewarding. When things tend to be sort of more sound design, or, what we call, "sound scoring," it is when you are actually manipulating sound with music to develop that sort of palette. That type of thing tends not to be the sort that evokes a lot of emotions. It is more "effecty." I think of films such as Requiem for a Dream, for instance. The score was very "sound design" like. In fact the movie is like a very long commercial, in terms of how it was put together. We are doing that sort of work in advertising and we are good at it, in that format, but with features we are going to migrate towards things that are a little more emotive.

Would you consider yourselves "fans" of film music?

Yes, well, we might be a little naive, but we all have people that we like. Everyone (the team) has scores that they admire. It's not like we are in some sort of vacuum. We see movies like crazy. We know what we like and what we don't. Everybody has very differing opinions. When we have a meeting about a particular script or project, we all come at it with a lot of different opinions. It is my job to take all those opinions and distill them down into one unified front and to make sure everyone stays on track with that. So we are a sort of democracy, but at the end of it...it's really a dictatorship.

So what is coming up for Asche & Spencer?

Well, the director we worked with for Monster's Ball has been "greenlit" on two features: one with Miramax and one with Universal. Nothing has been completely signed sealed and delivered yet, so we can't let the cat completely out of the bag.

Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today! Best of luck in your future endeavors.

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Take care!

 

 
       

Monster's Ball by Asche & Spencer Available at Amazon.com

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