Tuned In Tuesday: Reality TV Composers Jeff Lippencott and Mark T. Williams [Shark Tank, MasterChef Junior and The Biggest Loser]
Known collectively as Ah2, Jeff Lippencott and Mark T. Williams always wanted to work in the music business. Not only have Jeff and Mark worked with some of the most influential producers in town, they’ve also managed to elevate the music in reality TV in the process. Below they discuss forming their partnership, their creative process and working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Mark Burnett and Bertram van Munster.
TV GOODNESS: How did you guys get into the business? How did you guys meet and start working together?
Mark T. Williams: “Great question. Both of us grew up pretty much wanting to be in the business and as a kid I was always playing music. I played piano growing up, took lessons, took the classical route, played in bands and went to school in Nashville at Belmont University. Jeff moved from New York, I don’t now exactly when, but he ended up in Nashville at some point and we crossed paths. We actually met in a film music email list forum that was based here in LA. We were probably the only two guys in Nashville on the list so we said, ‘Hey we’re both composers here wanting to score film and television so, how you doing?’ We chatted for a bit and got on the phone and said, ‘Let’s grab lunch sometime.’ So we met up, started a friendship. Shortly thereafter I moved to LA young and naive and not knowing anybody and trying to get into the business. Two years later Jeff showed up with this family and gave me a call and said, ‘Hey, I’ve moved here,’ so we got together and hung out a few timesâ€¦well actually no. You’re better at this part. I’m gonna let Jeff speak because he’s got this part a lot better.”
Jeff Lippencott: “It’s an interesting thing when two people have like minds and just kind of hit it off and Mark and I, we hit it off pretty well. We didn’t really know each other in Nashville, but when we got together here in LA it just seemed like a very natural progression for us to work together. It happened really quickly. Honestly. I kind of dropped my family off here and had to fly back to Ireland to finish this record I was doing for Curb Records at the time. It was a project I was in the middle of, while I was moving of all things. So dropped my family here, I flew back to Nashville, wrote all the string charts, flew back to Ireland for 48 hours, was back in Nashville dropping the stuff off to the producers and then came back here. The phone rings and it’s Mark and he asked me if I could do a meeting with him the next day. Now we had never worked together before but I said, ‘Sure. What’s going on?’ He said, ‘It’s an orch thing and I know you’re really fluent with orchestras. I don’t really do that a lot. So would you come to the meeting and talk the talk?’ I said sure and to make a long story short, we wind up doing the gig together and had a good time.
We wind up doing a couple of other things over the course of a year together and Mark approached me while we were up in Mammoth skiing and asked me if I’d be willing to go be partners with him. Two heads are better than one type of thing. So within that same week that we decide to form Ah2, he gets a call from the people we was working for, a company called Machine Head. They did commercials. Mark had a storied career in commercials, very involved with the American Express Blue campaign, Cingular stuff like the tone on the Cingular telephone, he actually wrote that. He was involved in all that. They somehow did this little reality show for Warner Bros. – don’t ask me how, I don’t know the circumstances behind it – but they asked him as kind of a parting shot to throw this theme in. They needed a bunch of themes to play for this reality producer. So Mark said, ‘Sure.’ He writes this great theme and sends it to them and that week we were just really trying to ramp up Ah2 – what were we gonna do and how were we gonna find work and what we were gonna go after – and they called him back and said, ‘Hey. Mark Burnett, this producer, loves your theme and he wants you to score the whole show.’ Mark says, ‘No, no. I’m not doing it. Not unless we can do it as my company Ah2 with Jeff. We’re partners and you have to let us do the show ourselves and we want freedom to pursue the relationship with Burnett.’ And they said, ‘Sure. We want to focus on doing commercials. Just take it over.’ So we took it over, finished up the show and Burnett loved the theme and we got invited to this other show premiere he was doing Eco Challenge, which was kind of a precursor to Survivor. Mark says to me, ‘We should go up to Mark Burnett and introduce ourselves. He loved our music.’ I said, ‘Well, ok. Let’s go.’ So we walked up to him and introduced ourselves and he said, ‘I love you guys. I want you guys on this new show.’ And one thing leads to another and we’re on The Apprentice and voila. Hollywood story.
TV GOODNESS: Tell me about your process. What information are you given, then from there how do you decide how to score it?
Jeff:Â “How to score the show? Here’s the situation. Reality TV is a lot different than scripted television and film in that we don’t get the picture. We get ideas, we get concepts. And in my mind it’s much more difficult to write without picture than it is to picture. And so an example would be The Biggest Loser. They came to us with the show concept and said, ‘This is what it is. It’s gonna be very heavy people and they’re gonna be trying to lose weight and X, Y, Z.’ What does this sound like? They’re gonna be stepping on scales. For us, we had to create the sound of the show before they’d even cut the show, so we’re writing the music, trying to find the sound of the show and obviously heavy people stepping on scales, it becomes very heavy music, a lot of low-end strings, a lot of low-end brass, low-end percussion.
But as they started shooting the footage, we got back a lot of emotional footage. All of a sudden these people are crying, these people – they need counseling. Seriously. They’re depressed and they’ve lost parents or children and they started eating because of it. There’s all this emotion. So that wrapped into not having the picture, finally we started seeing the picture going, ‘Wow there’s a lot of emotion in this story,’ developing thematic content that was not only for the challenge parts of it – just the heaviness of their bodies – but now you’re mixing emotion in with it and utilizing that emotion to propel the picture and the actual scenes of the show. Worked out really great, but as I said we have to kind of just go off what the producers tell us the show is supposed to be and then create the sound of that show that they think it should be.”
TV GOODNESS: What’s been the must fun show to work on and why?
Jeff: “I think they’re all kind of unique in their own way. Fun? Fun for me is walking into Steven Spielberg‘s office and having a full orchestra on the floor and doing stuff like that. I mean, that’s fun for me. The music for a little show called On the Lot, it was back in 2007…”
TV GOODNESS: I remember that.
Jeff: “Yeah. That was a great show. Working with Steven Spielberg was like, ‘Wow.’ One of the highlights of my career – it may be the highlight – is standing in his office waiting for him to show up surrounded by all these cool original Norman Rockwells and hearing him come down the hallway whistling the theme that I wrote. And him turning the corner and going, ‘Hi, I’m Steven. Did you write that?’ And I said yes. And he goes, ‘I love that theme. I’ve been whistling it all day.’ I was like, ‘Wow. That’s so cool.’ So that stuff’s fun for me. Getting in front of an orchestra, writing really cool thematic music for producers that understand thematic music. Steven Spielberg obviously understands – he’s got such a mind for music – Â Mark Burnett as well, who understand in-depth what music can be.
Typically reality music is pushed aside a little bit more as wallpaper and it deserves that reputation a lot of times. When you look at a lot of cable reality shows, the music’s not memorable, there’s no thematic content and the quality tends to be low. But when you get those shows, like we’re working on a show right now called The Quest on ABC. We’re working with Bertram van Munster from The Amazing Race, we’re working with some producers from The Lord of the Rings, we’re going up to cut the orchestra in two weeks. This is a big show, thematic music. They really care about the music and it shows. It shows in the end product. That being said, not a lot of shows get that freedom and that leeway, so for me fun is orchestras, it’s building thematic content in a show and helping the producers elevate the show to where they’re excited about it and the music enhances what’s there and not just sitting behind the scenes.”
TV GOODNESS: Mark, do you have anything to add?
Mark:Â “How can I add to that? He nailed it.” [Laughs.]
TV GOODNESS: What’s been your most challenging score or show to do?
Mark: “I think the most challenging aspect actually, as Jeff indicated earlier, is working ahead of seeing anything and interpreting what the producer’s vision is for the show. It’s definitely a challenge that we encounter practically every project we work on. At this point we’ve gotten pretty decent at interpreting very subjective comments or concepts into musical ideas. So the way that we typically go about that process is when we sit down with the producers, we start bringing ideas to the table and seeing if what they have said matches up with the music that we see as the show.”
TV GOODNESS: Do you get blocked and, if so, how do you work through it?
Jeff:Â “I don’t get writer’s block ever. Is that bad? Is that bad to say? [Laughs.] Honestly, I don’t know how to describe it, but I sit down and I write and hopefully it works. When we get new shows and we have to write stuff – this is in all humility, by the way. It’s just who I am – I’ve been storing up ideas my whole life waiting for this opportunity. I’ve only been here 11 years, but I’m 49 years old, so I’ve been biding my time since I was a kid to write like this and for some reason and I like to think it’s God, but I’m able to sit down and it’s a gift and I start writing. Typically, hopefully it’s the right music for the scene or for whatever it is and we’ve been very fortunate to do that. I come in and write even when there’s nothing to write because that’s just who I am. This is what I do. I write. I’ve just finished a symphonic work, I’m about to start work on a kind of big choral church project that I’m gonna take to London for a friend, so I just kind of always write and at least right now it hasn’t, the fountain hasn’t shut off so that’s good. Mark may have different thoughts.”
Mark: “I get writer’s block constantly. [Laughs.] No, you know it’s a blend. I think that the more you write – and Jeff and I over the last 10 years developed the discipline of being in the fortunate position of having work – we’ve never been forced to write. But it’s given us a platform and something to look forward to every day, to write for and as Jeff indicated we’ll just sit down. I think any composer and musician who’s gotten to that place and sits down at their piano or picks up whatever instrument they play and they just play and they write to write. It’s not work for them and for us the discipline of doing it day after day after day, the volume of music that we’ve created over the past decade, has certainly made us better faster and has helped us overcome the possibility of hitting those walls where you go, ‘What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?’ And both of us are extremely decisive when we sit down to write. We’re not hemming and hawing over-”
Jeff: “That’s a good point. That’s what I was kind of saying. When we sit down to write we write. We never chase music. We don’t chase sounds, we don’t chase what’s current. We don’t chase anything. We write what we write and we really hope that the producers and the people we’re working with like it. Now, for 20 years before I got here and we got to this place, nobody really liked it. And now they do so that’s not me chasing anything, that’s just finding the right people who like your music. Mark Burnett liked it and J.D. Roth liked it and Bertram van Munster liked it and Steven Spielberg [liked it.] These people finally get exposed to the music and you hope that what you’re writing is marketable on some level. But I think the key is not to chase sound, not to chase other composers. I think it’s be true to yourself and hopefully somewhere along the lines someone will like your music and you’ll make a little money doing it.”
TV GOODNESS: Do you have a dream project? Tell me a little bit about it.
Jeff: “Dream project, wow. Maybe you’d better let me take this one. Dream project would be, for me, if I look out into the landscape I would love to do a Western. A major motion picture Western on the level of TheÂ Magnificent Seven. Develop a theme likeÂ Bruce Broughton in Silverado, like wow it’s just timeless. Or even Unforgiven has a really cool score underneath everything. It doesn’t really pop out at you but, for me, it would be more of a heroic Western score.
Mark: “I dreamed of doing this and of writing scores for network television shows when I was 12 years old so I’m at a place where I’m quite content. I always enjoy new projects that give us the opportunity to explore new ideas and new sounds, new thematic ideas, but right now I’m looking at everything going, ‘Wow. Really? Is this real? Did we just do this?'”
TV GOODNESS: Other than The Quest, what else do you guys have coming up?
Jeff: “Right now, The Biggest Loser just started airing. MasterChef Junior‘s on the air right now. MasterChef, the big one just got off the air. Hotel Hell‘s coming up. The Apprentice is probably coming up. It hasn’t been officially picked up yet, but that will probably happen again in the Spring. And we’ve got Grace Unplugged, which is a movie I just scored. It’s still in theaters right now. It was released two, three weeks ago; a Lionsgate release. So we’re excited about that. We’ve got like one or two movies in line for next year. We’re excited. And we’re gonna record this symphonic work here in a couple weeks too. That’s kinda cool. We’re always looking for new projects, excited about what’s coming up and love TV and love our new foray into movies. Things are good. We’re happy.”
TV GOODNESS: Anything else to add?
Mark: “I have nothing else to add. Jeff did such a good job.” [Laughs.]
Jeff: “He hates these interviews.”
Mark: “Jeff’s really good at this as you can tell.”
TV GOODNESS: I think you’re both good at this.
Jeff: “We waited a long time to get with the movies and [Grace Unplugged] is kind of a fun thing for us. Other than that, The Quest obviously is gonna be a big show, but that doesn’t come out until after the first of the year.”
Mark: “It’s very rare for a TV show, as you know these days, to have a full orchestra. I mean, a big huge orchestra and that’s what we’re getting. They’re sending up a film crew to film it. I think that’s still happening. So that’s pretty exciting. And Shark Tank. I’ve got to mention that.”
Jeff: “Yeah. That’s going on right now too. I forgot. We have like four or five shows. Forget the cable stuff, but we have four or five network shows right now so we forget. It’s great to be busy. We never, ever take it for granted. We love what we do. We love our studio, we love our clients, and we love writing music, especially me, everyday. If I can.”
Mark:Â “Only if the fountain doesn’t shut off.”
Edited for space and content.
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