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
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?
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
(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
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.
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.
ou 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
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?
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!