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Mike Thorne: Whats the arrangers own job description? What do you tell people you do at parties?
Jimmy Biondolillo: I always use the parallel to the script doctor in Hollywood who comes in when the story is almost ready to shoot and does some finishing touches, fleshing out the story so that it works. I think that my arrangements as a string arranger/horn arranger are often just that. Great work has already been done. How can we accent it? How can we make it seem even larger than it may already be? So, I consider myself in a way a musical doctor. I just call in and give a once-over, and say, Well lets add a little, lets tip here and tuck there and make this work that way. If I do my job right, when they go to mix they will have many options on how to make the record explode -- if I do it right. If I do it wrong, then they keep the faders down.
Youre talking about the specific sweetening arrangement.
But, you work with groups--you work with all sorts of shapes and sizes.
True. I was answering the question as to what my main role has been in the last 18 months, and thats been a sweetening perspective. When I do arrangements from the get-go, like for film or television, then its basically taking the song and, if Im asked to produce as well as arrange, then I dont really have to check with anybody. I can just go with the flow: cast it properly --keyboards, guitars, real drums, drum programming. In television and film it is often very time-oriented. They need 30 seconds here; a minute and a half here. So, I just figure out how Im going to scope this and how I am going to get drama out of it. Ive learned that in film or television, when there is a question asked when theres a question in the script, it demands a certain kind of an answer. And, when theres an exclamation or a statement, it demands a certain kind of answer. You learn little tricks of the trade. So, when Im asked from the get-go on a record, I think as an arranger. I look at the producer, such as you, and I say, Okay, Mike, whats the goal? And, if the goal is to make it ride, make it rip, make it slow, make it large, I have to use my file of tricks and craft to make that happen.
is really the key, right? Youve always casted well in terms of
records, and I
think thats one of the things about New York that I love:
you can get great cast. And, also, you steal from people their casting
techniques, and I attribute that to great producers. The way they cast
is so important, and the cleverness of casting, and producers like you
are really good at mixing and matching. I was more traditional in my mixing
and matching cause I came up in a traditional arrangement style.
But, when you work around producers who dont really care that
this is the best trumpet player in the world--they just care that this
is the right trumpet player--that changes the way you operate.
Boy, thats for sure because in knowing the notes Ive learned a great lesson as Ive grown older. The technique of sitting down and orchestrating is a fun one, but it is
a technique that Im not at my best with when Im working on
a 3- or 5-minute pop record. Im great with it if Im working
on a film or television queue, but in pop records I would love nothing
better than to be able to hum the parts and have my orchestrator orchestrate
them, and then I could either flesh them out or orchestrate the original
line, and he fleshes it out accordingly. Because, to me, the process--the
50/50 process youre talking about, with half ideas and half performance--thats
right on the money. When you orchestrate and you give too much time to
how this is going to be perfect, I dont think you leave any leeway
for personality. Thats where arrangements either fall flat or stand
up tall. You take a great arrangement--even work that Im very proud
of--and you give me the Memphis College Band to play it. Their intention
may be good but theyre going to make me sound foolish no matter
how good the notes are because they are not going how its supposed
to fly. And in this town, you are surrounded by musicians who, if anything,
have to be reigned in to make sure that it doesnt become their record.
You have to know how to pull them back, and thats a good place
From a professional prospective I can say that for me New York has always
had an immediacy to it. Actually, this immediacy is something that, as
Ive grown older, Ive come not to enjoy so much. When I was
younger, I always disliked the laid-back approach in LA and Nashville
where they take their time with it. Now I want to take time with it! In
Los Angeles, and you used to know this, when you do string dates wed
have three hours to do one string arrangement. In New York its three
arrangements in three hours!Now I do one string arrangement in three hours,
and I know why I want it that way: I need a great amount of give and take
in a session. I need to make sure everybody is comfortable. If we get
it on the first take, fantastic; but if not, I need to know that the artist
and the producer are comfortable in sharing ideas, and that I have the
proper amount of time to execute because to me that makes it work. Now,
maybe its because Ive grown older.
It seems as if youre suggesting that here in New York it is more rough and tumble and that the boundaries between, say, production and arranging are not quite so clearly defined.
Yeah, they werent clearly defined when I was coming up in the business because some of the best arrangers I knew were left to run the sessions while the producer would be on the phone finding his next session. Thats how certain people were trusted, like the man who taught me, Charlie Calello. They trusted him to go and make a record. There were times the producers wouldnt even be there! Wed just go in and knock it out and then say, Well, jeez, what did he produce? Then, whend you get the mix back, youd say, Well, thats interesting. I wouldnt have thought of this, I wouldnt have added that.
The problem I have nowadays is that I need to encourage younger producers to be themselves. I also need to educate them to what my talents can do. You know this, youre a guy whos familiar with the whole gamut. The orchestra doesnt frighten you, and the electronics doesnt frighten you. I know the orchestra frightens a lot of these young people because they feel that their musicality is lacking. I feel just the opposite. Their musicality is abundant. Their ability to interpret is limited so thats where I come in and say, Hey, why dont we try this, why dont we try this or that.
So, this is your technique?
Theres a certain standard which we tend to take for granted after a certain point.
Yeah, and I am trying to shake myself free of being condescending to those who dont have that standard because, ultimately, they are the ones who are hiring me. I noticed that in meetings: early on when I was trying to get business I noticed my attitude was not being well received. So, I thought Id better change my approach and be a little more understanding that theyre young and need my experience.
Do you think in an age of home studios and do-it-yourself electronic composition people are likely to assume they dont need specialist help anymore?
Yes. They find they dont need specialist help and often you would hope that somebody along the line who knows what the record could be is confident enough to call you and that youre in their Rolodex. Generally, that would be where you would hope an A&R person would say, Boy, this is great. OrLets try this. We have this; lets try that. And there are fewer and fewer of our comrades in those positions of lets try. So, I find it important to connect with the younger producers who, in some cases, are 20 to 25 years younger than me, to get them to understand that lets try is not me saying that theres something wrong with what theyve done. Theres an ego there. What do you mean, my records perfect, and you say, Yeah, it is; what if we did this. And, thats starting to loosen up a bit.
I think there are some guys -- theres
one producer, a young man named Rodney Jerkins, whos done a lot
of great work. Hes from, I believe, Bed Sty, and was a child prodigy
and just one stunning keyboard player. I hear what he does on his synths
with his strings, and Id love so much to use an orchestra doing
his parts. I wouldnt even try to improve on them. But
Ive never found myself in a position socially
to compliment him and then take it to the next level. And I know, when
you come to the record company, they worry because they think you are
trying to get yourself in a position to influence somebody politics Rodney
is my guy. So, I just back off on that. I dont need that.
Yeah, influence! This kid is so talented that I really want to be part of what hes doing. So, hes influenced me in a lot of ways because I recognize, wow, this guys bigger than my talent! This kids the kind of talent I need to be around, you know. Lets go! And a lot of times I get nervous when I am the most talented guy in the room because then weve got trouble. Thats not how I operate best. I operate when Im with people who are really at the top of their game because Im at my best when Ive got to be like the deer in the woods waiting to see which way the hunter is coming. When Im the guy thats come up with the idea, I never feel comfortable with that because thats not my forte.
So, I never worry about anybody. What I say is once you have that feeling, once you know what its like to be surrounded with excellence and have your own ideas, you never feel pressured that you have to be better than anybody. I just want to get to where I feel comfortable and thats usually quite good. I have a pretty good standard there. Over the years I think its gotten better and also in some ways I think its gotten a little bit stodgy, but Im working on that.
You talk about experience, and, of course, we all start somewhere, and some of us come to it with a classical education and we gather piecemeal experience in order to make the rounded personality we hope we become around age 85. Do you think a formal musical education helps or hinders making accessible pop music? Do you think it could be a hindrance?
And, schools dont train. In fact, I would be -- and you would be the same an excellent teacher on that level because Michael -- we see through the things that need to be seen through and whats on the page. Some kid could come up and play or orchestrate like Mozart, and youd say that is absolutely great, but do you know how much of that is going to be necessary on this little 3.5 minute pop record? But if you want to go orchestrate for the opera, thats fine. I never had the desire to go opera -- mine is pop music. I have no idea how to be anything other than that. Thats been very comforting to me; I can be comfortable in my ignorance!
But youve also introduced a third aspect of arrangement. The first is the notes; the second is the musician, but youre talking about reading the room. Thats quite a rarefied idea.
Well, reading the room is something you do with your orchestra and you also do it with your politics of music. You and I recently were at a party together ,and it wasnt a place to go in and look for work. It was a celebration of great work, and what was pleasant about that is that everybody read the room properly. It was great to reunite with old friends and colleagues. Every morning I have my breakfast at the Brooklyn Diner, and I read the room. I look around and it looks like its the music crowd today and theres a table I can say hi to or not--thats reading the room on a political basis.
In an orchestra or in a recording session, you have to read the room. Youre an expert at that yourself, especially with dealing with female vocalists of strong character. You have a unique knack for that--strong vocalists in general--you have a unique knack for knowing how to read the room, knowing how to make them comfortable. My strength in reading the room is knowing what not to do, and that comes from basically having done the wrong thing enough to see that theyre not calling you and it cant be your talent--it must have been something you said or did. Among musicians in an orchestral setting, reading the room is very simple. If my musicians have an attitude problem and its affecting the way theyre performing, then its my adjustment to make, not theirs. I have to go out there and adjust the session so they start working the way I need them to work.
Ive corrected it now, but I used to make mistakes when I had inexperienced people in the control room--behind the board--and I would be in the room conducting the orchestra. Then when Id come back in after the first run down, the fear in their faces having just heard this orchestra on their record was I like, oh, my god, what are you doing! Now I have it very cool. I have my partner, Mark, run the orchestra down. I sit right there with these inexperienced people, and I read them carefully. I see those eyes go wide, and I say Dont worry, they dont know the song yet . Dont worry, this is going to happen, and I explain the arrangement the way it is going to happen. Now these sessions move flawlessly. My biggest problem was trying to be everything to everybody, and then I figured I had to read the room differently to make these sessions with younger, inexperienced people work.
But it is often true that, when a high level of musician comes in to play solo or the string section opens up, it changes all the rules in the music itself. How do you cope with that? Do you always anticipate it? Do you always call it directly?
I dont, but thats where you need three elements to be
at their best. The engineer has to make that musician sound terrific on
tape. That is something I dont do. The musician has to feel that
they are the right person for the job; thats my thing, or your thingcasting.
And I have to be so on that I make sure that what I get is what the record
needs, not what makes this record become this solo artists record.
They come in and play a saxophone solo, and it sounds great but its
out context with the rest of the record, you know. Another element I can
control is making sure that the performer comes in and the string section
comes in. I give them the play grate and contribute whats necessary,
and I think thats the easiest part of it as Ive grown older.
Its almost like what doesnt belong kicks itself off the record,
and for years I was so petrified to take it out. Now Im thrilled
to take it out.
Knowing that you knocked it out brilliantly, and you get the final mix. Its not used or its edited, or its used in part, and you recognize that somebody came in later and took your part, put it on a synth. Theres your part and it sounds okay, but itsplayed because a synth player felt that this would be more what hes used to, but it says Arranged byme! Take the credit, but its not how you heard it. So, thats difficult--not getting the final mix. Maybe a film director would say, Thats not my final cut. I didnt mean for her to be naked in this scene. I just wanted a nice shadow on her!
So, politics are probably getting more and more serious. Do you find that they are sometimes difficult with high-level acts that you work with such as Britney Spears? Is there a committee at work here or do you find thats a fluid place to work?
Now, Ill be honest. If the team comes out with something the label doesnt understand, it is not going on the record. No matter who screams--Britney or whoever--its not going on the record. They made it very clear that they wanted Britney to start to appeal to her audience thats growing old with her. They know that shes absolutely adored by young women, by young kids of a certain age. They know that, but its a big risk because shes got extreme gifts. But they want to get her into movies--that whole pop thing. Im not an expert at it, I can only judge somebody by when they are there: are they prepared and do they put into it what you need. What she did is she brought her level of talent, and it made everybody else come up to that level. I was impressed because I had heard so many stories, but shes not a lazy person thats the key. If youre lazy, then stardom can pass you up; if youre not you build there and you go from there. Shes got gifts. That was a fun session. Those are fun dates.
What sort of contrasting sessions do you remember? Not contrasting meaning not fun sessions but just different style sessions?
Its an unusual thing. These past three years I dont think theres been one session that has overwhelmed me. Just experience alone; I dont get overwhelmed. I have never been overwhelmed by artists because egos are what they are. I have been overwhelmed by the insecurities of producers, but that hasnt been in the last three or four years because people know me and my work, and they tend to call me in because they want that. But, I have had sessions where I think Ive been embarrassed in front of orchestras by somebody saying something as simple as, Do you really think thats making this record better? Its like youre the producer. I dont want to say that and, when someone says that to you, you start questioning. Well, how bad is it? It sounds good to me. Am I the wrong person? I came to the conclusion a long time ago that if I give my best effort and its not working, then its the producers fault for casting me.
Do you find sometimes that classical arrangements are generated or instigated just to provide a pretensive quality rather than for their own reasons?
Yeah. I think that its very unimaginative to go classical on a pop record to try and think okay, Im going to upgrade this pop record; Im going to bring class to it, and I think thats become so obvious in some records. Then, I think whats wonderful about it is there is a place called Muzak, and where those records usually end up is in your elevator. I think that classical music is absolutely the best and highest form. I truly believe that, but its not what I do. So, I dont aspire to it. I dont do it well. I enjoy it, but its not what I do. I also love the Demon Drums of Japan, but I dont do that. But I suspect, if people want to look down on pop music or what we do, then thats fine; its just an art form thats a lot of fun for me.
Well, you find yourself having to arrange elements such as strings and crash guitar chords in the same track. What crosses your mind when you have to meld those together?
This is how you can answer that with experience. There are times that my strings need to be felt and there are times that my strings need to be heard. I didnt
that when I was young. I always thought they had to be heard and because
of that I would do things that would make them stand out and compete
and, therefore, never sound right. But, there are times now I can tell
you that a guitar sound sounds great, but you dont recognize that Ive got four cellos and two upright
bases playing fifths underneath it. Theyre never going to be heard,
but its going to be felt, and I know that its going to make
it sound and feel better.
Boy, thats the truth, and you dont often get a chance to do that with the instrumentalist because their participation is rather quick. They come in, they do it, and they understand its going to go through quite an osmosis. But it is fun if you ever have a chance to sit with somebody after the fact and say, Heres what it was before; heres what it was with you; heres what we did to make what you did even sound better with this track. Thats a fun thing, but how often do you really do that? The session goes in and out unless youre having a situation where youre also much more social, and musicians like to drop in and say hi, and theyre comfortable with that. Today its just bing, bing, bing, bing. You dont get people dropping in and hanging out like it used to be. That was a very important part of the Media thing we were talking about.
Used to be some very good bars just around the corner.
Exactly. Bars around the corner and bars on the page. People used to come in, different arrangers, saying You know what I did this on that session? or, Have you ever thought of putting trombone on that fifth? We dont do that anymore. People dont share like that anymore. But, at that time and in that space, when you and I first met in the mid/late seventies, the fun of it was that there was a great deal of sharing going on. I dont know whats changed, but I notice that the sharing is not there as often, but people can always come and hang out on my sessions. I dont mind.
Well, there were more large studios in the olden days.
Yeah. There were staff engineers. Engineers were very, very loyal to musicians and also to arrangers. I used to get great work. I met you because of an engineer you know recommending me to your work. I dont think that happens anymore.
Do you think thats removed an apprentice-type approach to training? Do you think that this, in general, is going to limit peoples horizons?
Well, thats why I wouldnt mind at some point if I could sit down with young musicians who are ready to hit the marketplace and tell them that part of the connect-the-dots in their career is going to be to remember to look at the picture you are drawing, and not just connect-the-dots. Whats the big picture supposed to be? Most of the people I know who can be encyclopedic about Mike Thorne and his career, right, and every record that youve ever done, Ill meet them on occasion. I say Im a friend of yours and theyll say, Oh, I know this record and it stuns me because they are truly fans and yet they are not musicians. But musicians who you would wish would be fans are oblivious sometimes to the records theyve played on! Oh, I didnt know I even played on that!. Theres something not quite right about that, is there? I bet that every musician that played on a Beatles record could tell you the bars they played. But, I know guys who say, Hey, remember when you worked .... or What record? I dont remember that. I did 55 sessions that month. Theres something about that seems very, very uncomfortable, but thats how it works.
Would you ever recommend to somebody that they take a career in music?
Yeah, as long as they are not a relative! Because you know, Mike, theres a part of me that understands the sacrifice that we make to be pursuing what we pursue, but I think if it is someone I truly love, I dont want to see them go through the pain. But if theyve got a gift, whatever I say isnt going to matter, anyhow. If they are so driven, theyre going to say Thanks but I am going to go do it anyhow, because Ive even had people say to me, When are you going to get a job?
But if we make it, we achieve the privilege of being paid for something we like doing.
Yeah, and those days bring me back to what Charlie Calello said: You did what you did well. You did a great job, and you will pursue that for the rest of your life. You do pursue that feeling and the fact that people will pay me to sit for three hours to orchestrate or sit for three hours in a session and conduct and put it together its nice. If I had a half dozen of those a month with todays rates, thats a high income. But, with the state of the business you can get hot and do a dozen in three months and not do any for the rest of the year.
Hot and cold cycles seem to be a characteristic of a lot of businesses, but theyre quite acute in the music business.
Yeah, I think were even experiencing that now. The entertainment business, has a soft belly. So, when something as absolutely devastating as what happened just down the block from here happens, people recoil, and then they say, Lets go and make a commemorative record. Therell be ten thousand commemorative records in which I have no interest. Id rather donate blood, it seems to be a much more commonsense thing. I think the old joke is that were in season when were working, and were out of season when were not. Ive had very busy times when it didnt make sense, but generally, I know the seasons. I know around the holidays the business just unplugs. Thats whats unnerving about now: we can all point back to September 11, and its felt ever since then as if Ive been on an extended Christmas holiday. I just cannot seem to get anybody to move forward. Whats that about? Im ready, but it doesnt feel right yet.
But its a resilient city.
Were here for that reason you and I. I respect you enough to say, Okay, I am going to go down to see Mike. I am going to do this interview because it is important. Why? Because youre important; you make it important. But theres something I want to counter with that. We are also in a business that, quite honestly, is a luxury item. So, I dont want to take it for anything more than it is. Its what Im good at, but its still a luxury item. When people are in a luxurious mood, they go and spend money and we get hired. I think at critical points people need entertainment, and were there. And I truly want to give lovingly of my gifts--whatever those might be--but I also think theres a critical financial point at which you say, I cant afford to do this anymore. Ive got to go do something else. I just hope that this Sahara Desert that we are traveling through in terms of emptiness--a void of the business--I hope it just carries a little bit more and then we get back to normalcy.
Another version of the hot and cold cycle is that we are indulging in a labor of love.
So every so often it works.
And, every so often it doesnt. Is there any reason for those cycles?
I think its a good point that has a lot to do with age. Our business, unfortunately, tends to glorify youth. Its unfortunate because you can take some of the best records made by some of the youngest artists, and you look at who was behind it and its always someone who is seasoned like you or me --that know how to bring it out. Youth in its exuberance tends to overlook that. Its, I did this; I did that. An artists an artist, and youve got to sit back and let them say that. But we also know that, unfortunately, the record company business is now being populated by people who believe that.
There were days when people believed, Okay, Elvis, thats fine, but let me put you in with these guys because I know it will work. I get a sense of uneasiness when I see an interviewer asking a question of an artist that makes me realize the interviewer is clueless as to how music is made.
Thats a very depressing scenario, but whats an optimistic version of that.
Well, I didnt mean it to be depressing; its realistic. The optimistic version of that, I guess, is with the artist, its not about age, its about talent. The artist who recognizes that they need more, that their gifts are certain and theyre confident but they need it to be more They are not afraid to go out and bring in talented people. And then the talented people coming into the room will think they are coming to the rescue. Thats the real key: when an artist gets a sense that the people in the room are there to rescue the record, then the whole project goes south. The optimistic approach is that youre there because they need you to make this even better than it is. I always see the A&R people at the mastering sessions where they have the least amount of control; now they feel they are contributing the most because a mastering engineer is saying I am going to take five dB and turn it this way, and they feel like, There you go; I knew all along that five..
When I see them appear at the mastering sessions, I always chuckle. I think, be there when youve got to be courageous. Come in when there are forty musicians in the room and change something. Then Im impressed. I must say Ive had people come in and make changes that have impressed the hell out of me, and Ive said, Oh my, lets pull that out and lets do this. And, Ive been glad that they spoke up. Whats optimistic is when people trust the talent. Im optimistic that theres enough talent to be trusted.
Ultimately, thats all we can do.
Thats all we can do. Were in the business of trusting the talent. Im always amazed--even with you--I always get charged just by watching you listen to your music because its like, when you watch someone whos done that listen to the music, you can see that music in them. For me, as an arranger, thats a very comforting place to be because music is also very visual for me. I can be walking in the park and see something that immediately stimulates a musical response not just a verbal response especially in a city as tenacious and edgy as New York. You walk out the door and two cars screech together and you hear baaaannnng. You hear that discordance: wheres my brass section when I need it! And, there are times when you see a mother comforting a child thats just fallen and then bringing the child from tears to giggles, and you hear this wonderful lilting violin come from violin to banjo and everybody goes on their way. So, the musical aspects of our visual city make New York the place to be for me.
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