Josh Kramon (Music Composer)
Every week, Josh Kramon uses every tool at his disposal to manipulate your emotions. He doesn't do it because he likes it; he does it because it's his job. (Okay, he probably likes it, too.) As the composer for Veronica Mars, he's responsible for underlining the tone of the show with his many, many music cues, whether they go *rumblerumblewibbleboom* or *pingwahdahdoodoo* or *duhnuhduhbumchduhnuhnuhnuh*. He was kind enough to speak to MI.net about the process of creating a mood so that you'd never notice it, his favorite way of ending an episode and why, if you're not watching children's television, you just might be missing out. Then he and spacecitymarc geeked out about the Beatles and the Kinks, and it all just fell apart.
MI.net: How did you end up working on Veronica Mars?
Josh: I did my own record [Forward] a couple years ago, and Rob heard the record through a mutual friend. He liked what I was doing. He thought the sound could work for the show. We created an original sound for the show, but he really dug the CD.
MI.net: How long after the album came out did Rob approach you?
Josh: It came out in November '03, and the pilot was that spring, so it wasn't that long after. The spring of '04. Right? Yeah, we're '05 and '06 now, so it was '04 and '05. So yeah, it was spring of '04. So five months after.
MI.net: Are you primarily a performer? You've done a lot of TV and commercials.
Josh: Yeah, right now, I make my living off doing TV shows. That's what I've been doing for about nine years. I used to be in a band called the Imposters in the mid-'90s. We were signed to Interscope. I started doing this in '96. I still like to do my own stuff, really just to get it out of my system. I don't make a living doing it.
MI.net: Have you considered suing Elvis Costello for stealing your band name?
Josh: Have I what? [laughs] Yeah. Well, you know, what's funny is that we did copyright the name, so it's like, are we really gonna go after Elvis Costello for a band that's broken up whose record on Interscope didn't even come out?
MI.net: The album didn't come out at all?
Josh: No. It came out on the net and bootlegs and stuff like that, but no, not officially. But that's a whole other story. [laughs] That's my past life.
MI.net: How has the experience of working on Veronica Mars fit in your expectations?
Josh: It's been great. It's really been, by far, one of the best collaborations I've had working with a producer. Because Rob is really strictly about art and being creative. When we did the pilot, Rob was pretty specific about wanting a really atmospheric, kind of modern noir type of vibe. And we really nailed the pilot, so it's been pretty smooth since then, as far as sound for the show, as far as textures and stuff. He's also given me a lot of creative freedom as well, which has been great. There's a lot of trust. You don't get that a lot working on TV shows. There's a lot of trust on this show. The show's got a really specific look to it, the colors and everything, and the music really needed to reflect that and help exacerbate that kind of atmosphere. And that all came together in the pilot. Where a lot of shows, it can take five, six, even seven shows to really, truly find the sound, we found the sound right away, and it's been an absolute pleasure to work on since then.
MI.net: What has changed most since the pilot for you?
Josh: As far as what the music's trying to do, it hasn't really changed much. In fact, the finale of season one was a bit of a diversion, because it was more action-driven and a little more macabre, with Logan's dad, that type of stuff, so the music was a little more abrasive and it was a slightly bigger sound for the last show. But for the most part, the textural and the atmospheric part of the music has stayed the same. What I try to do different is I try to keep it fresh, I try to bring in different sounds here and there, even though I'm doing the same thing with them. Not to where the sound of the show is changing, because Rob really loves the sound of the show, but I try to maybe every show use one or two different instruments or one or two different textures mixed in with what I've already been doing, just to keep it fresh. Keeping it fresh, but without changing the sound of the show.
MI.net: What instruments do you use for the show?
Josh: There's a lot of Rhodes piano, Wurlitzer piano, vibraphone... I use some traditional sounds, but I process them a lot. Like I'll use an acoustic piano, but I'll use a lot of compression and delay and filters on it, so it doesn't necessarily sound like a traditional piano. And there's electric guitars. I process them a lot, filter them a lot. I use live bass. Actually, I don't program any percussion. I like to use all live percussion. Some drum programs, programmed drum machines.
MI.net: Do you play everything yourself?
Josh: Yeah, I do everything myself on the score. I've never hired a musician for this one. There's not a lot of orchestral music in this, and I play all those instruments. I play guitar, piano, bass and drums, so I haven't needed it.
MI.net: Which would you say is your main instrument?
Josh: Well, I started on guitar, so that'll always be my main instrument. But for writing for TV, you have to be somewhat proficient on piano, because beyond just playing piano, if you program drums or you're programming strings, you've gotta do it all on a keyboard. So you have to know the piano really well. So although guitar is my first instrument, piano is by far the most important instrument for working on TV shows, especially when you're doing everything yourself.
MI.net: How do you go about writing a score? At what point do you enter the process?
Josh: What usually happens is they already have what's called a cut of the show that the network's seen it, the studio's seen it. Then I come in at the end of that process when there's about a week before they're actually gonna mix all of the sound for the show. And we do what's called a spotting session, and that's where we all sit down with Rob and all the producers and look at the show and decide where there's gonna be music and what going to work and what's not. We also talk about the songs, too. I don't make any decisions as far as that's concerned, but they do that in the same meeting, where we talk about the score and the songs all at once.
MI.net: Has there ever been a time where you've wanted to underscore a scene and somebody else was pulling for a song?
Josh: There's sometimes – and it's actually cool, because the show we just did I actually got to do this – the end of the show, where there's sometimes a dramatic montage with a lot of emotion in it. I love doing stuff like that. I love doing things that are wrought with emotion, because musically, it's a great thing to be able to do. And a lot of times, the ends of the shows, that's where they put a song in. So if once in a while I get to do those last scenes, I'm happy. And actually, I have been able to do that the last show I actually did. I don't need to do every one, but it's nice if maybe I could do every four or five. But besides that, there's a lot of score on the show. Sometimes there's maybe 30 what's called starts. Starts is like a fancy way of saying cue, a piece of music. But there's sometimes between 30 and 35 starts, albeit some of them very short. And then there's maybe three or four songs, so I get the opportunity to play my music for the show.
MI.net: How long on average does it take you to score an episode?
Josh: It's more how long I actually have. [laughs] We usually spot on a Wednesday, and then they mix the show the following Wednesday, so usually by that Tuesday I have to have the music to someone who's a music editor. He's someone who takes the score and the songs, puts them all together in a ProTools session and takes them to the mixing stage, where they mix everything. So essentially after that Wednesday, I have three full days, and then if you include the weekend, that gives me five full days to do the score. So it's pretty tight.
MI.net: Have you ever not made it?
Josh: No. I have a little bit of OCD, which, this is actually one business where it's actually pretty good to have. That's why I called you right at 2:00. I always make sure all that gets done right away. You kind of have to, because some of the deadlines... I mean, this show's somewhat average, but I've had much more intense deadlines even than this show. You would think they would be impossible, but somehow you just get it done. There isn't really necessarily a specific technique or process to getting it done. Because when you go in to start working, you're not really an organism. You're not really thinking. You're just going in and doing it, so once you finish it, it's really hard to go back and say, "How did I do that?" It just gets done. When I'm working on Veronica Mars, I don't even have a specific way of approaching a scene. I really just feel it and write it, and that's how usually you get the best results. The main thing that's actually thought out and put together ahead of time is the sounds. I have all my sounds up that I know I'm going to use, so I don't have to think about finding sounds, so I can just write. The writing isn't really done with any specific technique or thought process. The more you can just vibe off of it and go with your first reflex on a scene, I think the better music you're gonna get, the truer it's gonna be to the scene.
MI.net: You've worked on a number of shows: Buffy, Life As We Know It, Malcolm In The Middle, Kevin Hill and Making The Band. How different is your approach to each one, and how do they compare with Veronica Mars?
Josh: God, that's a hard question. My approach is almost always kind of like what I just described. You have to be able to just really be able to respond to the picture and the textures and be able to really get in there with the characters and forget everything else that's going on and respond musically to that. And it's really important on each show to establish a sound palette at the beginning of a show. Almost every show has a specific set of instruments that are used on the show. Otherwise, it's gonna sound like you're trying to write a bunch of different songs in a show. But the thing that changes is, obviously, every set of producers work very differently. That's where you have to get a feel for how specific producers are about what they want on each show and where they want music. And then other shows, they're much more into letting you just go and then when you turn the music in, they see it and then sometimes they send back some notes, establishing a score that way. But as far as the way all these shows are run, every show is completely different, so to break that down, I'd have to go into detail of each show. No show has really been the same, because at least for me, until the last couple years I've worked with a lot of different sets of people, and everyone works so differently. So it's hard to say specifically how that changes. One of the reasons that I do the record stuff is because you're really providing a service. You're not there to completely express yourself creatively, you're there to serve the show and also serve what the producers have in mind. So that changes with every project.
MI.net: You wrote the opening theme for Kevin Hill. Were you ever approached about writing a theme for Veronica Mars?
Josh: No, they were pretty much set on finding a song. I think Rob had two songs in mind, specifically. We briefly thought about doing a noir version of an '80s song that maybe I was gonna do an arrangement to. But that Dandy Warhols song sort of just fell right in from the beginning. Which is happening more and more. I mean, I did the theme for Making The Band when it was on ABC, and early on, when I started do it, I did half-hours. I did a show called Nick Freno for the WB and another UPN show called Guys Like Us. Back then, I did the things for those shows because they were asking composers to just come up with instrumental themes. But since, I don't know, maybe 2000, 2001, there's been much more of an emphasis on using already existing songs, which in some ways, it's a drag for composers. But in other ways, they're using it to be able to promote the show, so a lot of times, it's good for the show, because they can do a video and all that. So it doesn't happen that much any more, where a composer gets the chance to write an instrumental piece for a show as much as they used to.
MI.net: How often do you reuse music, like for specific themes?
Josh: Maybe seven or eight episodes into a season, you naturally end up reusing material. Not really specific cues, but you end up reusing material from cues, just because you've got a piece of music for that type of scene or you've got a piece of music for this type of scene. So you naturally end up doing that.
MI.net: Do you ever get notes from the writers saying that it might be good to reuse a cue that you've already used?
Josh: Well, they temp in music before we spot it, so a lot of times there's a piece of music in there. It may be an older cue that's working really well, and we'll talk about doing something really similar to that. So yeah, you reuse material a lot. There's 22 episodes. That's 22 hours or just under, maybe 20 hours of stuff. Even if you don't do it consciously, you're naturally gonna be reusing material.
MI.net: Are you doing anything differently for season 2 than you were doing in season 1?
Josh: Well, like I said, during the hiatus I make sure I have new sounds. I always buy new instruments and new synths and stuff, and I always make sure that there's a new palette of sounds that go beyond the first season. I use the staple instruments – the vibes and the Rhodes and the guitar and stuff are always there – but as far as other synths and other textures and stuff like that, there's a lot of new stuff. And I'm using some natural strings, which I'd really stayed away from last season, because I think some of the drama of the show warranted real strings. We were really trying to be as nontraditional as possible from the get-go last season with sounds and stuff and not do what people would consider traditional TV music. So there's a lot of things I stayed away from in the first season and in finding the sound of the show. I think in the second season I was able to bring some of that stuff in if it helped the show, but mixing it with a lot of the more processed instruments that we were already using. It's kind of nice to mix the two, because the show has some dramatic elements that benefit from using real strings or real piano, even. That's the other thing, using real piano, which I didn't do at all in the first season.
MI.net: You've had one song of yours, "Supernatural Supergirl," used in an episode. Did you push for that, or did Rob surprise you?
Josh: That was something where I think the editors had my CD and they just put it in and it worked really well. That's how a lot of music gets put in there: the editors put it in and if it works, the picture doesn't lie, you know? If something's working, you don't care where it comes from. There's a song on my record called "Sister." They used a little bit of that one, too. That was last season. I don't remember which show that was. I think it was in show 2. But they're not using them now. Now the record's three years old. It's old.
MI.net: There was one music cue in particular, in "Clash Of The Tritons," when Veronica was planting a tracking device on Duncan's car. I kept on getting emails from people saying that it was "Supernatural Supergirl" being used again. I compared the two, and it was just different enough, but do you ever repurpose your own material for use in the show? It sounded like maybe you used the same drumbeat.
Josh: No, if I did it, I can't... So much music has been written, so I don't remember. I can find out what that specific scene was. But I wouldn't have done it consciously. If that was me in that scene, it's coming from the same person, so I could have used a similar loop or some similar sounds, just because it's me, you know? But I don't think it was anything where they had that temped in and they said cognitively to do something like it.
MI.net: So it wasn't a case of you saying, "Oh, it would be nice to use this song again, but the music budget doesn't cover it."
Josh: No, not that I remember. Like you saw in my email, I can be pretty forgetful.
MI.net: And similarly, a lot of people think that certain of your music cues are actually songs by Air or Sigur Rós when it's actually your score.
Josh: Yeah, that's interesting, because when we talked about the pilot, he was really into Air and Zero 7. I think there may even have been some of that stuff temped into the pilot. And I was really into a lot of that stuff at the time, too. So it kind of naturally just fell that way. The instruments that I mentioned that I use, those guys use a lot. And those are textures that just really work for the show. They work for the feel of the show, for the look, for the color of the show. It kind of fell right in. So yeah, that's actually a very good observation.
MI.net: But it's never a case where you're like, "I want to go for a 'Svefn-G-Englar' feel right here."
Josh: For a what feel?
MI.net: That was one of the Sigur Rós songs that a lot of people thought was in there.
Josh: No, them I've heard of, but I don't know their stuff, really. I think I've heard them on NPR. Ironically, I don't think they were ever specifically brought up or temped in at all. So it's just one of those coincidences, I guess. But definitely Air and Zero 7.