It’s been a little while since we’ve talked to a composer, so it’s with great pleasure that we’re bringing back our Tuned In Tuesday feature. Today, we’re talking to the man behind the music for such shows as ABC’s Modern Family and Sundance TV’s Rectify. Gabriel Mann‘s journey is a little different, though. He started out as a singer/songwriter and through his connections in the business, found his way to composing for TV. I emailed him late last week and found out how Gabriel broke into the business, what inspires him and what projects he’s working on now.
TV GOODNESS: What made you want to become a composer and how did you get started in the business?
Gabriel Mann: “I didn’t want to be a composer. I wanted to be a singer/songwriter, so I did that while I worked for other composers, engineered, mixed and produced music to earn a living. So that’s how I started, as an artist. One of the guys I worked for here heard one of my albums at some point and asked if I wanted to write songs with him for his TV show, and I went from that to doing some composing, then back to the record business with my band The Rescues, then back to scoring TV shows. I’ve really been doing both simultaneously for many years.”
TV GOODNESS: Tell me about your process. How/where does it start and what inspires you?
Gabriel: “My process varies depending on the project. I often sit with the picture, watch a few times and know what to do. Sometimes I’m asked to come up with something (a theme, or even a whole cue) before receiving any video, just with a description of what is to be. In those cases it’s a bit more freeing, as I’m relying on images in my head. Generally I’m inspired by the project I’m working on. If it’s my band, well, that’s a whole different story. In that case I have to dig deep.”
TV GOODNESS: You’ve worked on quite a few comedies. How do you go about picking the projects you’d like to work on?
Gabriel: “At this point I’ve worked with many different creators and directors and producers and writers, so when they ask, I luckily get to work on whatever they have in the pipeline. It’s less about me choosing the project and more about the project choosing me.”
TV GOODNESS: How did you get involved with Modern Family? Did they send you the pilot or was it something else?
Gabriel: “Modern Family was the first show that I ever did under my own name. I had worked with Jason Winer, the director of the pilot, on an episode of another show. My wife noticed his name attached to a pilot, so I asked if he needed any help on the music side. Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan were not sure they were going to need any music whatsoever, but Jason was a great advocate and invited me to meet everyone on the set. I ended up writing a theme and a few other cues. The theme stuck and thankfully so did I.
TV GOODNESS: Modern Family has been on the air for a while now. How do you keep it fresh?
Gabriel: “That’s a good question for the creators and writers! They keep it fresh with smart, funny writing week after week. I’m always impressed with the show, they never take it for granted and are always trying to push the boundaries. Musically they push me as well – sometimes they’ll want to try something totally different, like an homage to Apollo 13 or Whiplash, and we’ll just go for it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the ideas are always there.”
TV GOODNESS: For Marry Me, how did you hear about that project and what made you want to do it?
Gabriel: “I had worked for Jamie Tarses, the producer, on a short-lived show the previous season and she suggested me to David Caspe. We met and hit it off, he’s a very casual guy and we got on well. I literally had a five minute meeting with him and we were off to the races.”
TV GOODNESS: Is your approach for Marry Me different from your approach to Modern Family? If so, in what way?
Gabriel: “Marry Me has a lot more music than Modern Family. We use it to support the energy and excitement of the action and the characters, so it’s more ‘scored’ than Modern Family, where we normally reserve score for the more emotional and/or uplifting moments at the end of the show.”
TV GOODNESS: I loved Jake and Annie and the ups and down of their relationship on Marry Me. What’s been the most fun to score during season 1?
Gabriel: “I loved the Halloween episode. David Caspe, creator gave me a lot of freedom to spook it up with pipe organs and theremins and things, mixed in with the other more rock sounds on the show that was really fun.”
TV GOODNESS: Rectify is one of my favorite shows on TV. You’ve worked on a few other dramas, but what was it about this project that made you want to do it?
Gabriel: “Rectify is a composer’s dream. Lots of beautiful, dramatic, empty spaces to paint subtle, emotional scenes. When I saw the first scenes as I was writing music to get the job, it was clear that this was a very different kind of show, markedly different than the stuff I had been working on and from most other things on television, a real work of art.”
TV GOODNESS: Season 3 of Rectify is in production now. When will you start working on it and does the way you approached composing for the show changes from season to season?
Gabriel: “I wrote the first piece of music for season 3 yesterday! I haven’t seen any footage yet, but I was asked to get started with a few ideas as Ray [McKinnon] doesn’t like to recycle material too often. So I’m just finding some new sounds, while keeping the pace about where we’ve been, just exploring new sonic territory. Ray is always looking for new ways to express himself, as am I. This is actually the first time I’ve been asked to write before seeing the footage, so the approach is already different this season from the last two.”
TV GOODNESS: How different is composing for a comedy as compared to composing for a drama? Are there challenges specific to scoring different genres, is it all about the material/tone or is it something else?
Gabriel: “Composing for drama is quite different from comedy. Both are looking for a ‘sound,’ something to provide a signature palette against which the action plays out. I’d say as a general rule, at least in television, the sound of a comedy is a bit more specific, a bit smaller in terms of its arrangement, and generally more ‘fun.’ That said, not all dramas are dark and dreary, some require lightheartedness and there are times, for example, in Modern Family, where we need to play a more emotional scene. But as a general rule, both comedies and dramas need music that matches the action of the scene and the tone of the show, so they’re both points on a spectrum. It’s often not so black and white as ‘comedy’ and ‘drama.'”
TV GOODNESS: Switching gears, tell me how you got involved in the ASCAP Songwriter Residency. It seems like such a great program.
Gabriel: “I was asked by Sue Devine from ASCAP if I’d be interested in the songwriter residence. I was a participant in the Lester Sills Songwriting Workshop at ASCAP a few years ago and it was such a valuable experience. I was happy to be able to help out on the other end. I’ve done a lot of work producing vocal music, so I think that was what made her think of me. The kids were a pleasure to work with and I think the song we wrote together came out just right, a tribute to their friends and families.”
TV GOODNESS: Anything on the horizon you’re allowed to discuss?
Gabriel: “A few pilots just got picked up: Rosewood with Morris Chestnut; a medical/crime drama for FOX; Angel From Hell with Jane Lynch; a CBS single-cam comedy; and Dr. Ken, Ken Jeong’s new multi-cam for ABC. I’m very excited about all of these. It’s exactly what I like to do, a little bit of everything. And The Rescues are back together writing new songs for an EP which we’ll hopefully have finished by the end of the summer.”
Edited for space and content.
The season 6 finale of Modern Family airs Wednesday, May 20th at 9/8c on ABC.
All 14 episodes of Marry Me are available on NBC.com.
Season 3 of Rectify premieres this summer on Sundance TV.