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January 24, 2013

On the Charts: Two Steps from Hell

Thomas Bergersen (left) and Nick Phoenix of Two Steps from Hell

Thomas Bergersen (left) and Nick Phoenix of Two Steps from Hell

Norwegian composer Thomas Bergersen and scoring/virtual instrument expert Nick Phoenix came together in 2006 to write and produce original music for movie trailers under the name Two Steps from Hell. Since then their bold, state-of-the-art cues have strengthened hundreds of film campaigns and been licensed innumerable times as part of the Extreme Music library. Their astonishing success came quick and decisively: with no label support, the group's 2010 album Invincible has stayed on the iTunes charts since its release, and their most recent, SkyWorld, skyrocketed up the Billboard Classical and Heatseekers charts. Two Steps from Hell's YouTube channel has racked up nearly 20 million views.

Despite these enviable stats, the literally behind-the-scenes nature of trailer music means that it often goes unnoticed by mainstream music fans. I sat down with Bergersen and Phoenix to get a better understanding of this fascinating yet misunderstood niche of the film/TV music world.

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There are two main parts of what you do as Two Steps from Hell - music for trailers and music for the production library. How often are you writing custom music for certain scenes or for certain trailers? Do you ever do that?

Nick Phoenix: Here and there, but not a lot. We realize that it's a better use of your time to write stuff that we think generally will work. I mean it's all sort of one thing. We generally write things that we think will be used.

Thomas Bergersen: I don't sit down and think "Okay, I'm going to write a trailer piece now." I just think "I have a good melody I've been playing on the piano for a couple of hours and have something that might work for a good piece." And I approach it like an artist approaches music, you know? At the end of the day if it turns out something cool, maybe you can make some changes to make it more "trailer-esque" so it will work, but you give them a different version. You keep your baby and give them a different version.

NP: With me, it's a little bit different. Like our most recent album, SkyWorld, some of those songs I had visuals running in the background when I wrote the music. It's wherever I pulled them from. I probably do that more than [Thomas does].

TB: Yeah, I never have any visuals going on.

So you both have ideas of what you want to do style wise, but would you say there's anything stylistically that defines trailer music as a genre?

TB: Loud, screaming choir and an orchestra playing full force throughout.

NP: Big drums, loud orchestra and a "Carmina Burana" style of choir.


So if Carl Orff were alive and writing trailer music, he'd be your main competition?

TB: Yeah, it's almost to the point where it's been copied so many times it's like a parody. We wanted to call one of our pieces "Carmina Burrito." ::laughs:: It's been completely de-valued through the over-use.

If that's the case, and you still want to write stuff with big orchestras and big choirs, how do you stay creative without ripping off that Carl Orff sound too much?

TB: That's tricky.

NP: You can put choir on anything! ::laughs:: A lot of times I write things [where] I'm not thinking about the choir. It's literally at the end - "Hmm, let me try some ideas and see if there's some choir to add to this that would be interesting."

TB: We have so much technology that helps you expand your palette, as opposed to the great masters of the past century. They had no computers, and they were at the mercy of pen and paper, and the musicians being able to pull off whatever they wrote. We don't have that problem. We can write the most difficult piece and if the musicians can't play it, our computers can. But you still have to maintain the artistic value in it, you know? You're not just gonna write it difficult just for the sake of it. But you use [the computer] as an instrument in its own right.

Are there trends in trailer music that you've seen evolving over the decades that you've been doing this?

NP: Yup, definitely. And some of them are not necessarily that great, from our perspective. But it is what it is. Recently it's been a lot of pop music, which I think sometimes works really well if it's a really familiar song that makes you feel a certain way, so they bring people in like that. I'm not a huge fan of the trailers that are cut to death with so many different pieces of music and so much of the story of the trailer. I've always felt like that's counterproductive to selling the movie, and I don't really understand why they do it. Apparently they know better than me, because they keep doing it. I just think the trailers that are more visual and feature [original] music leave a little bit more to your imagination, and are so much better. And to me, it seems like the proof is in how people react to some of those trailers. They get many more views.

TB: When there's a consistency in the music...

NP: And it's less choppy and more thematic. It's difficult. I know the studios have a lot of forces to come together to create those trailers.

TB: Which is another reason why we're thankful that we can just write the music that we like and give it out to the people who are in charge of this. If they like it, they can find a way to use it. As opposed to limiting ourselves to certain visions, there are three, four, five people that have different ideas of how it should be. They all come together and create a big mess, and we're not really sure what they want. The direction isn't clear because of that. So sometimes it can be stressful when you've got so many voices saying different things.

NP: The end product of that sometimes is that the music tends to be a little bit more generic or pleasing to a lot of different people. Sometimes I think they don't really want a great melody in the trailer. They want to save that for the movie.

TB: They don't want it taking away from the focus of whatever they're trying to relay with the trailer. If the music is too catchy, then maybe they take the attention away from what's going on. That's understandable, but that's a catch-22. If you write something you're really proud of, it's probably not going to get used. ::laughs::

Before we had YouTube and you could have a trailer posted and immediately see the response, you really had no way to evaluate how successful the music in a trailer was. How do you figure that out? How do you evaluate the success of trailer music?

NP: You couldn't. It was really more about whether everyone in the campaign and the studio was happy with how the trailer was, if they liked it - than if the movie did well. They did some focus groups. They showed people trailers and asked them afterwards. But there wasn't a big focus on the music. And going back 15 years and earlier, most trailers are kind of poor compared to the movies. Whereas now some of the trailers are pretty strong.

Sometimes even better than the movies!

TB: You approach it like the Pareto principle, which is that of everything you put out, 20% of that is gonna somehow resonate with the clients or the consumer. And you take that 20% and you build on that. You continue the success by taking what's seemingly working and giving it back again. I think in the realm of music, that doesn't really work as well, because you can't sit down and write another Star Wars, you know? Even though that was such a successful theme and everyone can hum it. You can't just sit down and write it, even though that's what everyone wants. The producers, directors, everyone wants that golden theme. But it doesn't work in the musical, creative world. So you just have to hope that when you sit down at the piano and you write something, it's going to be something that people will like. As opposed to a business, where you're selling t-shirts or something.

NP: And hope you'll like it and be happy with it. That's always the thing. When you spend a long time on something, you start to think "Hmm...when I'm done with this, is it going to become something I'll be happy I spent a week on?"

TB: That's why we've ignored that principle, even though it would probably make sense to try and adapt it. We keep on writing new music, experiment with everything, and we throw it out there. And thankfully people are open to all kinds of new stuff. They're not too locked in to genre to the point where if they hear some vocals or something, they're gonna get thrown off.

What is the competition like in the trailer music world? Who are you working against, or checking out to see what they're doing?

TB: I think we're always checking out just about everything. Whenever there's a good trailer that catches our attention, we'll do a little a research to find out who did it. Maybe it was even us and we forgot about it! But our competition are the guys who've been around for 15 years, including Immediate Music and X-Ray Dog and all those big-timers. They paved the way for this kind of music. So they did a lot of the legwork, and we just came in and cleaned up. ::laughs::

NP: Unfortunately a lot of the trailer music was born out of directors, producers, studios wanting sound-a-likes. That was part of the reason that I was trying to get out of doing trailers for so long, that there was so much sound-a-like stuff. I always resisted that.


So you mean wanting a cheaper alternative to actual film scores?

TB: Yeah. They'd want Star Wars, but change one note.

NP: More often than not, it was Hans Zimmer, because his music tends to lend itself to trailers. A lot of times it was like "Make it bigger," "Add drums," whatever. Or "Here's this cue we like..." there was a lot of that going. And I think our success now is that we're not really doing that. Sure, it means we don't get as many placements as we could because we're just going in our direction, but it's paid off in other ways, as we see now. The fan base. And then also for some reason, the TV world seems to be happy with it. They use a lot of our stuff. We're seeing a large percentage of the catalog used in the TV world.

TB: When we started Two Steps from Hell, we didn't want to be a big business. We just wanted to have an outlet for our creativity. It was perfect, because with trailers, we could write anything, hand it out there, and if they liked it, they used it. If not, then okay, we'd write some more and see what sticks. And we're fortunate that it spiraled into great success.

What does each of you bring to the table with Two Steps From Hell? Is there collaboration? Are you working separately?

TB: It's a separate thing. I write my music and he writes his music, and we put it together in a way that we feel like there's enough variation in the sound. I have my style and he has his, and they're both recognizable, so when you put it together and break it up - one of his, one of mine, one of his - you get a more flavorful offering. I think that's important.

We're different in the sense that we don't have third party composers in our library. We have a couple of tracks here and there. Mostly it's us, whereas a lot of other libraries have 20 to 30 composers.

NP: Right. They're more business-oriented then we are.

Break it down. What would a super-fan listen for to know that this is a quintessential Nick Phoenix, or this is definitely a Thomas Bergerson?

NP: It's tricky, and we keep evolving, too. Thomas tends to write the bigger, faster, more epic cues than I do. Sometimes I've strayed a little away from it, because I've tried to fill some holes in other areas just to get the catalog to be even more diverse. But now that we have the public, the fans, I'm starting to focus more on doing things that they'll like.

TB: A lot of people like vocals, so I started using this vocalist in Norway. She has a very ethereal, really nice angelic voice, and a lot of people like that. I've used her in a lot of tracks, and that's kind of become my signature sound. As far as you can pinpoint anything, she's probably a good example of that.


To what extent is your standard Two Steps from Hell production a synthetic creation?

TB: It's on a needs basis. We recognize that a live string orchestra is always going to sound better than computers. So we recorded live strings, we recorded brass, and every little element like live musicians, cellists, vocalists, everything that makes a difference. Then we used the technology as an instrument. We used synths to complement the live orchestra, and in that way extend the orchestral [sound]. You break through the limitations of having an orchestra, and you can be more creative about it and how you use the synths together with the strings.

NP: We're writing with samples. Very good samples, that sometimes sound very good, but we still replace it. On the last album, just depending on the balance of the way the strings are recorded, there's a section of one of my cues where it just came off as not sounding as full. Somehow it didn't have the same impact that the samples had. So I had to mix in the samples in one section, just to give it what I needed, and back them out when the rest of it was great, with just the live stuff. Sometimes you just mix things in for size.

TB: Even Hans Zimmer does a lot of that kind of thing too. He's doing samples, but he mixes in his samples with the live orchestra to make it more "rock orchestra."

I'm guessing most of your string samples are based on a live orchestra anyway?

NP: Yeah. The other part of the story is that I create virtual instruments. So I go out, sample orchestras and other things. Thomas has been doing the same thing. We're using a lot of that stuff to write with. Most of my stuff has been released commercially, and some of Thomas's has not. We have our own custom choir samples that we use, so we can at least write the choir parts before we record them live. So we're heavily entrenched in the sample world, yet we still try to go live as much as possible.


Talk about the production side. Where does your music get used beyond movie trailers?

NP: What we try to do is give it to the trailer people first, because there's a big thing about using music no one's ever heard before. Hopefully things are used, but then [production library] Extreme circulates it, and they're used in a lot of moments of TV shows where they're trying to make things seem exciting. I've seen them used in so many ways that it really surprises me. If it elevates it in some way, they really like that. We've been doing well with lots of big TV shows. America's Got Talent, Britain's Got Talent...

TB: X-Factor, all those.

NP: We've also got this crazy popularity with exotic sports car commercials. Tons and tons. In fact, the car I drive, they just used my music again. It was the funniest thing, because when I was trying to convince my wife that I should buy this car, it had my music in the trailer. And also one of Thomas's cues. And I was like "Well? That's it. It's a sign." Now they have a new version of my car, and they used my music again.

TB: It's not a coincidence, when you think about it. Because the music's very masculine. These car manufacturers cater to the masculinity of people, especially Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes and all that. So that's why they gravitate towards our music. And we're thankful, because it's a wonderful outlet for us.

So there isn't that much of a difference style-wise between the stuff of yours that's pitched for trailers, and what's used for TV?

NP: It's all the same pool of music. I mean, we have a bunch of horror music as well that gets used in all different places. We had so much, we thought "Let's put out a Halloween album!" We're big Halloween fans. We probably won't be doing too much more of that, just because there's always a certain group of people that say "What is this?"

TB: Now that they've grown to expect a certain type of music from us, when we give them something else, it's always a little bit of confusion going on.

NP: We thought it would be obvious, because it said "Halloween" on [the cover].

I'm not surprised your music as Two Steps from Hell is successful, sales-wise. But I was surprised at HOW successful it was. I mean, for a while there you had multiple albums at the top of the iTunes classical charts next to Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven compilations. How does it feel to be in that league commercially?

NP: it feels great. It also makes you aware of how the classical music scene is in need of a prod to keep it going. It's so important. And I think it's great that iTunes is supporting us and including us in the classical section. 'Cuz even though it's hard to say what the music really is - they don't have an "epic" genre category - it's sort of a new offshoot of classical music. We're not writing for film soundtracks.

TB: It's the modern day classical music, really. All that's different is the fact that we complement the music with the technology that's available, such as synthesizers and that stuff. I don't see why that shouldn't be allowed to be included, because it's equally sophisticated. Very expressive with those synths.

NP: And we're bringing in a big young crowd, which is so important for classical music. I think it's good for everyone.

Do you have a sense of what your main demographic is and what kind of overlap there is with the mainstream classical audience?

TB: The vast majority falls within 16 to 25 I'd say. And then there's still a great number of people who are into the classical scene, or soundtrack scene, who stumble upon us by accident, either looking at the charts on iTunes, or watching a trailer, or seeing some production that's been made on YouTube. We don't know what that number is, but it's pretty big.

NP: There's a pretty big number of people that are into soundtracks. The question is, how big is the number of classical fans that saw our CD in there and got interested? We really don't know what the number is. It's surprising how few negative comments we've gotten in iTunes. I was expecting more of them to be angry. Some of our cues are fine - I don't think they'd complain. But there's a certain percentage that has some guitars or something in there that might offend certain people.

TB: I think the timelessness of the music makes it appealing to all ages, all groups of people, across all ethnicities, political and religious persuasions. It's very human at the core of it. Since it doesn't have lyrics, any particular language, it doesn't limit the audience.

NP: I've been using a lot of Elvish recently. ::laughs::

TB: Elvish is universally accepted.


What would you say is the strangest place you've heard your music behind?

NP: I don't watch a lot of TV, but there was some teenage girl dance/makeup show thing that had this cue of mine from the first album [Invincible] called "Am I Not Human?," which is a little bit electronic with orchestra. That was quite a shock.

How has ASCAP impacted your career? And what did it feel like to get your first check from us?

TB: I remember the first check I got from ASCAP. I was 23, and I'd written some music for a music library. And it was $24.50, something like that. But I thought "Oh, cool!" Money for music! [Coming] from Norway, I didn't think I'd ever make any money. And then it just went up, incrementally.

NP: My first check from ASCAP was massive. And I literally ran around the house screaming when it showed up. Because my partner and I did this TV show about Roswell's UFO, and it aired on primetime on NBC. So I got a check for $50,000 out of the blue. I mean, I was working in a music store. And I was just at the point where I was hoping to quit and [write music] full time. It was like "Okay, here's $50,000 dollars." I didn't quit the store right away, but that was the end of that basically. That was a life-changing moment.

TB: I really appreciate all the work you guys do to secure the artists' rights and give back what they deserve for all their work.

NP: It's also such a source of stability. The checks keep coming, and it's a great thing for a musician to have any kind of stability.

TB: You never know what will happen, and you rely on it. It's different from going to work at nine and coming back at five every day. You wake up, and you're stressed out, as a musician. You don't know if there's gonna be a good melody, or just a bunch of crap, you know? And the more days pass where there's just a bunch of crap, the more worried you get that you're not gonna be able to write something good ever again. And then the ASCAP check comes in the mail, and you're like "Oh! That'll take care of the bills for a while until I come up with something good again."

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Visit Two Steps from Hell on the web at www.twostepsfromhell.com.

Pick up Two Steps from Hell's most recent album SkyWorld on iTunes.