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Tuned In Contenders: Composer Gabriel Mann [Exclusive] 

Tuned In Contenders: Composer Gabriel Mann [Exclusive]

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We’re talking to a number of composers in the next few weeks as part of our Tuned In Contenders series. Our next interview is with Gabriel Mann, who is another favorite here at TV Goodness. Probably most well-known for his work on Modern Family, Gabriel makes sure to make music on a variety of different shows to keep things interesting. I talked to him about his work on Rectify, his proudest musical moment and what his ultimate dream job would be.

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TV GOODNESS: Let’s start with Rectify. I love the show and your work on it. What can you tell me about the evolution of the sound and how it’s developed from Season 1?

Gabriel Mann: “That’s such a hard question. I think we started we started in a slightly simpler place, in some ways. We had a lot of what I would call ambient cues that slowly but surely enveloped you. There were little, subtle hints and melody here and there was also this dark cloud of music that would happen when we were dealing with the case and the darker figures involved in the case.

Any time there was a flashback or anything to do with a location like the swamp, we would hint at a little bit of a swampy thing. And there were these moments of beauty and light. As we have gone along, we’ve gotten a little more specific with the music. There’s a lot more solo cello and solo piano and if they’re not solo, at least they’re more specific in terms of their melody.

We still do have these, for lack of a better word, ambient cues that come and envelop you without you really knowing. But we do have more specific tunes going on now than we used to. They’re more spare. Sometimes it changes from cue to cue. Sometimes we’ll have a solo guitarist or we’ll have strange, upside-down mallet kind of cues. We’re just experimenting a little bit more with different sounds. We’re not so strict anymore about what sounds we’re using. Anything goes as long as it works.”

Ray McKinnon on the set of the Sundance Channel original series 'Rectify' - Photo Credit: Annette Brown
Photo Credit: Annette Brown/Sundance TV

TV GOODNESS: You’ve worked really closely with series creator Ray McKinnon. Tell me a little bit about that process.

Gabriel: “Well. That’s another enormous question. [Laughs.] You know, that has also changed from season to season.

The first season we had more time. I spent a lot more time with him and we would spot the shows together and then after I was done with a pass he would give me a few notes. I would address those notes, then he would come in and we would literally move things around note by note, bit by bit here in the studio together.

Then the second season came around. There were many more episodes and there were much more demands being put on his time. So, I started to basically write a first draft and a pass of notes without having spoken to him. Then we would never even get to do this final review until we were on the mix stage. Then we would tweak some things here and there on the mix stage.

Then last season we got to do somewhere in between that and I would predict that this season it’ll be similar to last season where we do it together. But I basically make a pass of music without him. He gives me a general idea, and sometimes he’ll have specific pieces of music that he’s put in already as temp music that is either something I’ve written from previous episodes that he grabbed from wherever and we talk about what’s working in those and stuff like that. That still happens on every episode, but he just has less time then he used to have. So when I do talk to him it’s about something very specific.

This past season I could tell you there was one very big cue with big strings that happened over the pool. That cue was very important to him. We went to the studio and recorded a big string section and he was super psyched about that. That was the first time that ever happened in three seasons. So, in other words everything changes all the time.” [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS: Well, that must keep things interesting for you.

Gabriel: “It certainly does. He’s a creative guy and if something strikes him as being important, first of all, then he pays more attention to it. Not that not every moment is important, but some moments I think he feels like we’ve built- like that particular cue there was no dialogue. There’s big long shot [of the pool] and he had something in his mind that he wanted to do musically, so we really focused on that.”

TV GOODNESS: When do you start work on Season 4 and what are you allowed to tell me?

Gabriel: “I’m not allowed to tell you anything. They’re already shooting, but I don’t think I’m gonna be writing music until August. I was asked to give them some location-specific music in advance, which I did and I will not tell you what that location is. [Laughs].

I don’t know anything else. I know where they’re shooting. I don’t know the story yet and I usually don’t know ‘til I watch it. And I watch it, usually, about two weeks before it airs and I score it. Then about a week before it goes to air we mix it. I generally have between a week and 10 days.”

TV GOODNESS: Is that a tight turn around or is that usually how long you have? That seems fast.

Gabriel: “Well, sometimes it’s even more than that. Sometimes it’s more like two weeks. You have two weeks, but then you have to start the next one before those two weeks are up. I think it’s about normal for episodic TV for a drama. Some shows, you’ll get 10 days and also it depends on how much live instrumentation the show has. If you have a lot of live players then they usually have to allow at least another couple days for that.

This show, the live stuff is me playing the piano and then I’ve got a cellist who comes in regularly. There’s other things that happen sometimes like that crazy string section we did for one episode. There’s another episode where we have a live saxophone and violin and clarinet and all kinds of things, but they’re usually a single person at a time so it’s not exactly a huge ensemble that I’m here with.”

Photo Credit: Justin Stephens/FOX
Photo Credit: Justin Stephens/FOX

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about some of your other shows. What have you been working on lately?

Gabriel: “Right now I’m working on School of Rock for Nickelodeon. I’m working on Dawn of the Croods, which is an animated show for Netflix from Dreamworks Animation. I’m working on another animated show that I can’t talk about, but it’s for a Chinese company. And then I just finished the first season of Rosewood for FOX and the first season of Dr. Ken for ABC. I’ve got Modern Family and I’ve got a new show on Amazon called The Kicks. That’s actually happening right now. That’s a tween show about girls middle-school soccer. It’s actually a great little show. I basically wanted to work on it because my daughter’s really into soccer, so that’s been a treat to work on.”

TV GOODNESS: Well, it sounds like you’re busy so that’s great.

Gabriel: “I’m definitely busy. I’m not looking for work, really. But that’s not exactly true. I’m always looking for work because I am trying to find my next Rectify. That’s what I’m looking for.

I’m not saying that it has to be that show. Every creative person wants to be involved in something that they are just so thrilled about and each of my shows has something I love doing in different ways. That’s why I like working on a lot of different things. I like going to work and being excited and not being bored by what I’m doing. It translates, I think, into better music for each of these projects. If I get to go from blasting Marshall amps to writing more ambient stuff for Rectify to songs for Rosewood that are sort of hip-hop, it just means that when I go from one to the other I have a lot of energy.

It’s like dessert. You always have room for dessert, right? You eat your whole meal and you’re like, ‘I couldn’t possibly eat another bite.’ And then someone presents you with chocolate. You’re like, ‘Oh my God. Give me that chocolate.’ That’s sort of how I feel about writing music. When I spend too long in one genre or one kind of thing, it’s not bad. It’s just that when you move to the other genre and you get to flex a different muscle, you have a lot more excitement about that. Then you come back to the other one and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah. I remember this. This is so fun.’ And that’s the benefit of working in different genres and on different shows.”

TV GOODNESS: To follow up on that, do you have a dream project or is there a genre you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to work on?

Gabriel: “I haven’t done a horror movie. That would be fun, but I don’t know. You see a lot of horror movies and you realize they’re all kind of doing the same thing. [Laughs].

I would like to do a musical. My dream gigs are ones that combine songs and score and I have a few of those right now and it’s just awesome. It’s so fun to be able to do that. I come from a song background, but I studied score so I really feel like it uses all the things I love to do. I don’t know exactly what that project is that’s my super dream, but something that involves songs and score.”

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TV GOODNESS: In what way has being in your band, The Rescues, influenced how you go about composing music for your shows.

Gabriel: “I think coming from a song background and being a song person in general gives you a little bit of a different take on how to write. I’m very melody-oriented, but I also recognize that an audience needs ebb and flow. I think that when you play live with a band you’ve seen how that ebb and flow works. We always used to design our set list in a certain way to hit hard at the beginning, and then dip down to the more serious stuff in the middle and then make sure we gave them the killer thing at the end.

The way that an audience experiences music is something that you learn by playing live in a band. The same experience can be looked at in terms of when you’re writing music for media. You can’t just overwhelm them with one thing the whole way through. There has to be a shape to the episode and there even has to be a shape within a cue. So it’s not always the same shape. In Rectify, for example, there is an arc. It doesn’t always find the same path. There is often a big push at the end and it starts pretty early. So that’s one thing that happens. You can learn something from writing music with a band and playing music with a band about how to shape the music to make the audience feel it more.

In terms of how hard you hit it at certain times and how fast you go and how light and all that stuff. There are things you learn from scoring a lot, things you learn from writing songs and things you learn from playing live music. They’re all related and they all are useful pieces of information to gather along the way.”

Photo Credit: ABC/Bob D'Amico
Photo Credit: ABC/Bob D’Amico

TV GOODNESS: Do you have a cue or a piece of music you’re most proud of?

Gabriel: “I’m very proud of the theme from Modern Family. It’s one of the few opportunities that you get to have a piece of music that is going to be remembered in the world. It’s not a work of art. It’s not the most genius thing in the world, but it sure does serve its purpose.

There are times when I was younger and I would look back on pieces of music that I had written and just think, ‘Oh my God. That is just embarrassing.’ I’m not embarrassed of the Modern Family theme. I’m not embarrassed of this music. There are particular themes in Rectify that I am very proud of, but [Modern Family] put me on the map as a composer and that was just luck. It’s the right piece of music for the right show at the right time. It does the right thing and so I am proud of it.”

TV GOODNESS: It’s so recognizable and after hearing it what seems like a million times, I’m still not tired of it. That really says something.

Gabriel: “Yeah. That’s exactly right. There’s something to be learned from that also. It’s not terribly melodic, actually. It’s just like a big bang and it works for that reason and it has enough personality without hitting you over the head with a cheesy melody.”

Edited for space and content.

The fourth and final season of Rectify premieres later this year on Sundance. Modern Family returns this fall on ABC. Rosewood returns this fall on FOX. Dr. Ken returns this fall on ABC. The Kicks is available now on Amazon. Dawn of the Croods is available now on Neflix. School of Rock is airing now on Nick.

Interested in our other Tuned In Contenders? I also talked to Jeff Russo, Mac Quayle and Laura Karpman.

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