From his chart-topping tenures in Rabbitt and Yes on to his scores for blockbuster films like Remember the Titans and National Treasure, ASCAP’s 2012 Henry Mancini Award honoree Trevor Rabin has never been far from the limelight. ASCAP asked the multi-faceted music creator to reflect on his life in music.
Listening to the orchestrations in the Rabbitt back catalogue, and all the clever arrangements on the songs that you wrote for Yes, it almost seems like you’re arranging miniature symphonies for a rock band. Was it part of your plan to bring a classical sensibility to rock music?
Yeah, definitely. I grew up in such a musical family, and my dad was the first chair in the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, and my mom was a piano teacher and a painter, so it was kind of a creative environment, and it was kind of in my DNA. I just loved classical music, but I also loved playing rock guitar and I loved playing piano, so it was a natural thing that those things would merge at some point.
Would I imagine that there was mostly classical music floating around the Rabin household in those early days?
That’s absolutely correct, except my mom and dad actually met each other in the South African Army entertainment unit, because they were playing jazz. And he met her, [he] the jazz fiddle player, and her the pianist. They met in that environment but they were both highly trained classical musicians.
How did they react when you fell in love with rock music when you were young?
You know, I just loved jazz, because my mother loved Erroll Garner and Oscar [Peterson] and she turned me on to that in a big way. Then I started listening to people like Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis and Joe Pass and I just fell in love with that. And then at about 12, it just seemed like such an exciting thing to play rock ‘n’ roll guitar. But it wasn’t the rock that we know today, it was Cliff and the Shadows. That’s when I started playing guitar.
And I never actually had a guitar lesson. I taught myself the guitar from piano exercise books, which led me to have a pretty good technique on the guitar and allowed me to find different ways to do things. The only thing I have to reconcile is when you play middle C on the piano there’s one note, and on the guitar there’s several [middle Cs] on different strings, so once I kind of came to terms with that I really started developing as a guitarist. In my day, when I was a young kid, army duty was compulsory in South Africa or you go to jail. I had the choice, so I spent a year in the entertainment unit and outside of doing shows - and I used to write for, arrange for the big band - outside of doing that I actually had a rock band in the army. We’d go to the border and do gigs, which consequently led to there not being too much to do for the year I was there. I used to go into what was called the garrison. I would just go there, find a little corner and literally sit for hours practicing the guitar, and that year really ramped up my guitar playing. And then it just very naturally became my main instrument. Although I would always play piano, always.
Tell me a little bit more about growing up in Johannesburg. South Africa was so far away from any of the world’s major music capitals. What was it like being a music-obsessed kid growing up there and hearing everything coming from afar?
We had access to most of the stuff coming from outside of South Africa. The political system was abhorrent, so there were sanctions and things which didn’t allow some of the stuff to come in…and particularly didn’t allow artists to come in. There was a boycott to artists coming in, so there was a little bit of an isolation, but I think it led to a different approach in South Africa. Added to which, my family was extremely, I mean extremely anti-apartheid, and so my lyrics would go that way. My uncle on my mother’s side was this guy Donald Woods. I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Cry Freedom, but it’s all about my uncle who exposed the government. He was a very good friend of [anti-apartheid activist Steve] Biko, and wrote about it extensively, and then just coincidentally my cousin on my father’s side was the solicitor who defended and represented Biko and [Nelson] Mandela and all the dissidents pro bono in South Africa. So I grew up in this environment in which a lot of white people got the exposure to what was really happening as I did.
Since the beginning you’ve lent your talents to various social and political causes, whether with your band Freedom’s Children, or the anti-apartheid songs that you wrote for your solo records…your Remember the Titans theme was even used for a couple Obama speeches. What’s important to you about using music as a tool for social justice?
I usually don’t like it, because I think music should be a separate thing. I would try and do whatever I could do as far as voting for the right people, although only whites could vote. I would still vote, and vote for the progressive party, which stood for “one man, one vote.” But they were very underrepresented obviously, given the system. Outside of that I think the lyrics, rather than trying to make a statement, were just a natural place I would go when writing lyrics. It was just so prevalent in the front of my mind about what was wrong. I know there was a time when they looked at the lyrics I was doing with Freedom’s Children and the officials certainly weren’t happy about it, but I was never arrested or prosecuted or anything, which was fortunate because a lot of people were.
Was it difficult for you to take part in an army led by a government you didn’t agree with?
Oh it was. I had such discussions with my father about it because he hated the idea of me going, as did I, but you know I was in a non-combat unit, the entertainment unit, and I had to do it or I would have gone to jail, and I wasn’t ready to leave the country. I hadn’t finished my education. I was still learning and studying with this absolutely brilliant guy who’s dead now, Walter Mony, who was the head of music at University of Johannesburg. I studied with him for quite a while, and it’s where I developed my chops with regard to orchestrating and conducting and writing for score.
I noticed that there is one film that you scored in the late 70’s called Death of a Snowman, long before you transitioned into film scoring full-time. Can you tell me what you remember about that score?
The funny thing is there’s no real timeframe of continuation from that to doing film now. Rabbitt was a really big band, they knew that I wrote a lot of orchestral music within the band, so they asked me to do the film, and I thought “Yeah, this would be fun!” But it was long before synthesized computers, so it was really just: watch the film, take a pen and write to paper. That was the only way it could be done. While enjoyable, I think it was a pretty ordinary score and a dreadful movie.
Do you have a copy of it lying around that you trot out at family get-togethers?
It’s a funny thing; I was doing a panel thing with Michael Giacchino and Randy Newman and David Newman the other day on NPR and there was someone when I left who there was someone who brought me the movie, [and said] “Could you sign the movie for me?” I said “Oh, wow, I don’t have one!” And he said “Oh, then I don’t want you to sign it. Do you want it?” and I said “Yes!” And now I have a copy. My first question was “Where the hell did you get this?”
It must have been a VHS copy, right?
Yes, it was. It was amazing. I hadn’t seen it for 25 years. Or even thought about it.
You need to get that transferred to DVD immediately.
I should do that pretty soon, that’s a good idea. I don’t even know if it’ll play. I’ll probably take it out and it’ll disintegrate. I haven’t even opened it yet!
A couple questions about the Yes era. I find it amazing that Chris Squire and Alan White originally wanted to call your band together “Cinema,” when that’s exactly the world that you would go into later.
Yeah. In fact it was a name we all thought was perfect for the band, and the reason we changed it initially was that there was another band called Cinema, and they’d threatened to sue us and said they had a patent on the name, so we thought “It’s too much of a big deal and they’re gonna want to be paid off.” We hadn’t even finished the record; we didn’t know what was gonna happen. So we just left it while it was hovering out there. Then [former Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson heard the album pretty much 3/4 of the way through finishing it...
When I met Chris and Alan, I’d been working at Geffen Records. They’d signed me on a development deal and they liked the music but didn’t like where I wanted to do it, in essence, and so by the time we started working, I’d written the album which was basically 90125. So once we recorded and got halfway, or more, I should say 2/3 of the way through, Chris happened to play the stuff for Jon, who said “This is great! I’d love to be involved,” and that’s when that happened. And when that happened is when Atlantic Records said “You know, we’ve got something that we think is pretty strong here, so we should call it ‘Yes.’ Why not utilize that? We own the name and it’s most of that band.” I was really against it because I thought, “I’ve worked really hard to write these songs and I don’t want it to be a regurgitated band of the past.” But I was talked out of it and it became Yes.
Much of the material on 90125 started as music for a Trevor Rabin solo album. Did those songs end up sounding more or less as you wrote them?
Yeah. There were two songs that really didn’t change too much. “Changes” as a song really never changed at all, except Jon did come in at the end and write a different melody for the chorus, which I just fell in love with, so I was more than happy to change it. I thought it was great. And then “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which I was really happy about, didn’t change at all from the demo to the Yes version. I remember going into the studio, and Jon was there and [producer] Trevor Horn was there, and Jon was complaining to Trevor Horn saying “What are you doing? You’re not earning your money! You’re supposed to be producing us, it sounds exactly the same as the demo.” And Trevor Horn said “Thank you, that was my intention.” So he was smart and supportive in the right way, I felt.
So all of those little synthesizer licks, the chunkiness of the main guitar riff, all of those were in your original demo for “Owner of a Lonely Heart?”
That was all in there, and some of it purely by chance, because I had demoed it on a four-track, which meant I had to record and then premix a lot of it, anticipating how it would fit into the end result. Consequently a lot of those riffs which were really loud, those “answer riffs” in the verses and those big brass stabs and everything, they’d been mixed so loud, and when it came to the record, we’d all kind of thought “Well that’s too loud, we’ll bring it into context in the mix.” When we got to it, it was like “You know, it doesn’t feel right when you turn it down.” So, it did end up surprisingly very much the same as the demo.
It’s such a unique song in the context of rock radio at that time.
Yeah, and I mean, the big difference was Jon’s voice just sailed on top of it. He’s got such an amazing voice.
There was a point in the mid 90’s, after your time with Yes ended, where you switched wholesale over to scoring. How did you make that decision?
I’d done, I don’t know, it must have been close to a thousand shows with Yes and it just got to the point…We were actually playing in Hiroshima and my really good friend and assistant to this day, and at the time my roadie, was this guy Paul Linford, and after the show in Hiroshima, which was the last show on the tour, we went to a little bar in Hiroshima and I said “I think I’m done.” And he said to me “What do you mean?” I said “I don’t think I can, in clear conscience, play this stuff live anymore without it being work, and not being really genuine. I think I’m gonna try and do something else.” And I’d been thinking about film, and I said to myself “I’m going to try to do something else in film. And in a year’s time or so, if I’m tired of it, I’ll call the band and get back in the band or start doing some solo stuff.” And then I just started really enjoying it and, you know, 15 years later, here we are.
There’s gotta be so much ego fulfillment in being this featured virtuoso guitarist and vocalist in a rock band. Was that spotlight difficult to let go of as you transitioned into film scoring?
The idea of being in a rock band and having people wait on you all the time was different, but I never worried about not playing until I stopped playing for quite awhile. Then there were a couple of moments where I’d say, “God, I really wanna go out and play.” And once in a while I’d go jam. A couple of years ago I went and played with Yes at the Greek. It was fun, but I never got to the point where I thought “I really wanna get back and do six months on the road, four nights a week.” So while I have no problem getting up and playing again, if I was to go on tour now, I’d much prefer to go out and do this jazz album [Jacaranda]- I call it a jazz album ‘cause I don’t know what else to call it...whatever it is, that’s what I’d really wanna do.
Do you ever miss being up there in front of a lot of people and having that electric interaction them?
Yeah, there’s nothing to take place of that. That’s a phenomenal feeling, and I loved that more than anything, but I have to say, I get very excited after I’ve written a song and then I go in and record it with the orchestra, and you hear it back with the full balls of that whole entity. That’s quite hard to be upset about, you know? I love that so much.
Tell me about the first film that you scored after moving to L.A., The Glimmer Man starring Steven Segal. I heard that there’s a great story about how you came to work on that film.
It was quite unusual. The timing was really serendipitous. I had come back and decided “I’m getting into film,” which was quite naïve because I didn’t know really what it would entail…or the brick wall of getting involved in it. But there was this restaurant my wife and I would go to, and the maître d’ came to me one day and said “You know this is Steven Segal’s restaurant?” and I said “Oh, I actually didn’t know that.” He said “Yeah, it’s his studio, and he knows you come in here now and then, and he really would love for you to spend a little time with him, give him a guitar lesson.” So I thought, “You know what, I don’t mind doing that. He’s an actor and might be able to give me names of agents or something like that...” I mean it really wasn’t more than that. We spent a couple of hours [together]; I went to his house and afterwards he said “Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. If there’s anything I can do for you…” and I said to him “You know, I really want to get into film scoring. I’m very comfortable with an orchestra and I’m very comfortable with all the technology, the computers and stuff, so that’s something I’d really like to do. If you know an agent that would be able to give me some information that would help me get into that...”
He just very nonchalantly said “Well I’ve just finished a movie that’s gonna be coming out to two and a half, three thousand theaters – you can hear Steven saying that if you know his ego – and he just said “If you can do it and you want to do it, you can do that movie.” So I said “Yeah, don’t worry about names, just let me do the movie!” And he said “You think you can?” and I said “Yeah, definitely.” And I remember going for a meeting with the head of music for Warner Bros. Steven had said “This guy’s doing my movie,” and he was a little concerned, and said “Why should I be led to believe that you can do this?” and I said “Why should you be led to believe that you can talk Steven out of it?”
And thereafter we became close friends. He’s not at Warner Bros. anymore, but we became close friends and I did Steven’s movie. Unfortunately he asked me to do the next three movies, which I couldn’t, because I’d already been booked for other movies. So I don’t think he was too happy with me...
Con Air has a lot of driving rock rhythms; National Treasure and Race to Witch Mountain have electronic elements; Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a more traditional orchestral score. How do you determine the musical palette that you’re going to use in a particular film?
The thing about Yes which made me wanna stop was, you’re doing the same thing night in, night out, until you get to the next album, and then when you start the next album you’ve been asked to try and capture the same magic that you had on the last big Yes hit, and I didn’t enjoy that. Forget about that and move on, try and do something new. What’s the point of sticking in one place? It’s supposed to be a creative process. With film, I could be doing an orchestral score and the next movie might be a romantic comedy with acoustic guitar and piano, or a movie like Homegrown which was a lot of southern dobro, which I love to play, which is evident on the new album. And that’s one of the things I love about film. From one movie to the next you’re not stuck in the same place.
What do you look for in a new project to score?
I need to read the script first. If the script leads me to believe that I can really have fun on this, I can [be a] kid in a candy store from just thinking about what I would do and it excites me, then I’d speak to my agent and say “Yeah, I really wanna do this, so if they’re still interested, I’m totally into doing it.” That’s how we lead to whichever project. But I’ve done some very weird things as well. I did a theme park ride at Epcot. And that was a tremendous challenge, because it was done in 7.2 [surround sound] as opposed to 5.1, with a transducer speaker, so [there were] a lot of interesting things about that. Then even doing the NBA theme and the NCAA theme - I did NASCAR and one of the baseball themes. I really enjoyed it. I also enjoy doing sports movies which is evident by how many I’ve done.
In the last few years you scored more family-friendly films than earlier in your career. Is that a coincidence, or is there something that appeals to you about that demographic these days?
I think it’s just how things went. There was no intention to go that way consciously, because you know, I also did The Exorcist, which was a very dark orchestral score, and I enjoyed that as much as doing any kind of family-friendly film.
In terms of process, is there one way that you usually start scoring? Does it start on an instrument, or do you go right to the computer?
That changes depending on what mood I’m in. Sometimes I’ll just sketch down an idea on paper and then come in and put it down with a keyboard or Digital Performer, which is the software I use. Or sometimes guitar, but often I’ll just go straight to orchestra. It really changes very often, but once I’ve read the script and once it’s been okayed that they want me to do it, the first thing I do thereafter is I get the dailies, or as early footage as possible, when the movie’s not even put together, just to get a feel for it. I’ll play it and I won’t really be watching it, but I’ll be developing themes specific to the characters and to the situations, be it a car chase or some sad, romantic thing, or a heroic thing that needs to come up. I’ll do what I call an “underture,” which is an overture-but-underscore kind of thing. I’ll present that, usually to the director, and say “These are the themes I’m thinking of,” which then makes the flow that much easier once I get specifically into each different piece of music in the film. Because then there’s an acknowledgment, and they remember the theme and “Oh that works great there” as opposed to coming up with some new music they’ve never heard to picture. It’s better if they’re familiar with it.
Do you use orchestrators or arrangers or do you do most of that yourself?
When I did Death of a Snowman there wasn’t the luxury of orchestrators or even copyists. So I orchestrated it, I did all the copying…I did everything. And I conducted. I have actually stopped conducting now because I think it’s more important for the composer to be in the control room with the director. I have a friend I use. It changes sometimes, but there’re some very decent conductors out there who do a great job, and I just communicate through the talkback mic. But you know, I’m very particular about which musicians I use. And sometimes that changes if the genre is different. Every now and then I have to go to Seattle to do it, but mostly I do it in L.A. A couple of orchestral scores I’ve done in London. Also excellent players.
When one of your scores calls for a lot of lead guitar, do you usually play that?
I always play that. Not because I’m good, because it’s cheap!
Is there one score that you’re most proud of?
Although Armageddon was really a popcorn movie, I think there were elements of that score I’m quite proud of. Remember the Titans I was definitely proud of. The National Treasure movies I think went quite well, and I think two that really have a place in my heart are Flyboys and The Guardian, which were the two I did in London.
Do you find that the quality of the score in your estimation has any relation with like how well the soundtrack sells, or is it more in relation to how well the movie does?
That’s a good question. In the case of Titans, for people who are at all familiar with my scores, I think that’s generally the favorite. If you look for illegal downloads of my scores, Titans is the most illegally got. [laugh] So I would say that, but at the same time, if the movie is huge, the soundtrack is likely to sell better than a movie that doesn’t do well.
Let’s talk about Jacaranda, your first solo album in 23 years. Tell me about the music on it and why you decided to put it out now.
In about 2007 I decided I really wanted to get in there and write music without any kind of brief from a record company or film company. I just wanted to do music that I enjoy, and I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to write stuff that will be challenging for me to play. I just had no interest in doing a vocal album, so it very quickly turned into an instrumental album. It took a long time, not because there were problems or I couldn’t get a grip on it…when I came in, because I was so free in my thought process, the flow was really great. But I had to stop. I’d take three weeks and then stop and I’d get on a movie, and then I’d grab another week and then I’d do another movie for three months, and then think “I can’t wait to get back to it” and then my wife would say “Yeah, but we haven’t been on holiday for two years.” So I’d lose that time and say “Alright, let’s go on a holiday.” So it took a while to do, but last year I really dedicated as much time [as possible], turned down quite a number of movies so that I could devote myself to finishing it.
You’re clearly not doing this because you’re paid to do it. You have to.
No. Look, in the beginning when you need to, obviously [making money] becomes an issue. This jazz album [Jacaranda], that wasn’t an issue at all. It was really about absolutely loving doing it and finding time to do it. It was almost like a guilty pleasure.
Given that the timing was so fractured, is there a similarly fractured sound to it?
I know it involves all kinds of different genres and some songs sound different than other songs, but I really felt it was the most focused record I’ve ever done. Because there was a definite thread to the thought process and what I wanted to do, and right up until last year, where I decided “I want to get this done and finish it,” there wasn’t even a thought about “Am I gonna release this on my own or am I gonna utilize a record company? Because you can do it on your own now…” I hadn’t even thought that far. Only last year did I start thinking “How am I gonna release this?” and then Varese were just very excited when they heard it. I’d had some score albums come in on them and I liked the people so that’s how that happened.
Did you consider going with a more traditional rock or jazz label that you’d worked with? Or was Varese really the only game in town as far as you’re concerned?
There are a lot of record companies. I’m not saying every one of them is banging down my door to get me, but there are a lot of choices if they like the music. And Varese just seemed to get it. They really got what I was trying to do and understood what it was.
Your son Ryan is also doing pretty well in his own music career with Grouplove.
Oh, they’re doing so great. We’re going to New York in a couple of weeks to see them play. They’re on a headline tour now.
What’s it like to see him follow his own music path and blossom as a musician?
You know, he’s so natural with it, and I think it’s the same environment that I grew up in. It was just automatic that you’re gonna be a musician when you’re older…unless he didn’t have talent, and you know, you find that out quick. He showed that he had talent for a long time. But I’ve never told him what to do or how to do it. He was in a band, left the band to go back to USC and get his music degree, and after he did that he met people in – oh god, where was it – Crete. That’s how the band started. It was a very romantic story, and he said to me “Dad, I’ve got these people who are writing stuff. I think it’s quite special, can they come back to L.A. and stay with us for a while and record a couple of things?” Because he also has a studio here. And I said “Yeah, sure!” thinking it would be a weekend. Three months later, they had the Grouplove album.
Ryan plays on Jacaranda, correct?
Yeah, and that was something special for me. Because a lot of the stuff is very weird and [has] technical time signatures, not easy stuff for a drummer to play. That’s why I got the likes of Vinnie Colaiuta on it, who is just an absolute steamroller, and Lou Molino, who I’d worked with before. And then there were these two tracks, and I played them to Ryan and he said “I’d love to play on that.” So he did, and I started trying to explain a little about 7/8 because we’d never spoken about it, and he said “Dad, just play it for me.” And he played along and it was unbelievable. It was perfect. So he really impressed me.
Drums are pretty much the only instrument that you don’t play…and here you’ve got a son who does play drums and you just have this complete unit, just within your family.
Yeah, it could be like a legal company, Rabin & Rabin. [laughs]
After such a long time in the rock world, then more than 15 years as a film composer, do you think of yourself as one kind of music creator or another?
Not Really. I mean, I’ve done film for so long now. I’ve done 40-odd films, a bunch of NBA themes and all that kind of stuff, so I’m definitely enjoying that or I wouldn’t have spent so long doing it. One of the things about composing [was] working with orchestra. I never used that training in Yes, or a very small amount, or anything else I was doing. It just seemed like a great vehicle to be doing orchestral music, and that’s why I got into film. But yeah, that’s no more important to me than being a guitarist or keyboard player.
40-plus years into your music career, is it ever a challenge for you to find new creative inspiration?
I find, as the years go by, I have more and more reasons to do things, ways of doing things and inspiration. I’m constantly looking, and I’m searching a lot harder now than I did when I was 19. I don’t think it ever disappears. It’s funny, I remember I was producing Manfred Mann years ago and he did an interview with a real punky newspaper in England. It was a spiked hair interviewer that came in, a very bright guy, and I was just sitting in the background and he said to Manfred “How long are you gonna do this for? Do you think it would be fair for you to stop at some point and let some young blood in?” And he said “Can you imagine asking your dentist that? Or a philosopher?” He said “Why, because I’m a musician, should I stop doing it when I reach forty?” And I thought that was a great answer.
My wife said to me “When do you intend to retire?” thinking 10 years or so, and I said “I’ll be the happiest if I’m halfway through an album or halfway through a score and one foot in the grave.”
Find out more about Trevor Rabin at trevorrabin.net.