April 10, 2014

The Lonesome, Crowded Midwest: Jeff Russo's Music for Fargo

Jeff Russo<br>Photo © Vanessa Maas

Jeff Russo
Photo © Vanessa Maas

A rocker from sunny Los Angeles might seem an odd fit to score the frostbitten winters of Fargo, North Dakota. Nevertheless, ASCAP composer and Tonic co-founder Jeff Russo brings orchestral grace to the music of Fargo, a new FX limited series based on the classic Coen brothers film. A few weeks before he joins three other composer-artists for the "Rocking the Screen" panel at the ASCAP "I Create Music" EXPO, Russo spoke to Playback about how he approached the unique challenges that Fargo presented. The show premieres on FX on April 15th.

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Take us on a trip down memory lane. Tonic takes a break for a few years back in the mid-2000s, and you’re doing your thing with your other band Low Stars. When and how did scoring come into the picture?

One of my and my wife’s dearest friends, Wendy Melvoin, is a composer. And we were just talking about getting into that whole part of making music. It had been something that had been on my mind since I acted in a movie in 2000. They asked me to go in to the studio with the composer and play guitar on the score. I sort of got the bug then. 

In 2006, I started talking to Wendy about what she was doing. At the time, she [and her co-composer, Lisa Coleman] were working on Crossing Jordan, and they were starting a show called Heroes. And she had said that their workload was getting heavy – did I want to go in and assist them? I started watching what they did for like two months. I started working on Crossing Jordan, and the next season, I worked for them while they were doing Bionic Woman. And that was how it started, really. It ended up really taking hold.

Compared to your scores for, say, Necessary Roughness or Charlie’s Angels, your Fargo score feels like classic movie music. String crescendos, minimal percussion, not a ton of electronics, or even electricity! What was it like working in that style for you? 

I’ve had such a great time doing it. The reason is because my base is authentic music, played by real people. I’m not saying that doing an electronic type score isn’t meaningful and isn’t valid, it totally is. I do that as well – I did Hostages and it was sort of orchestral-meets-electronic. But this particular thing allows me to write a really nice melody on an instrument that a person is actually putting a bow to, or putting their breath into. And it has an honest sound to it. 

When I had spoken to the producer about this, who I worked with on a number of shows of his, he said “We’re making a movie here, we’re not making TV.” We talked about using a real orchestra and making it sound like what a movie would sound like. And it’s really been such a great experience, hearing a passage that I’ve written performed by a 45-piece orchestra. It’s pretty intense.

So your Fargo score is all live? 

I have used some orchestral samples in some of the sessions. From episodes 102 and 103, I used some electronic orchestral samples of just percussion, because it was just easier to do and I had more control over it this way. On the first episode, I didn’t use a single electronic element. And then I also used a couple of pads. There are a couple electronic elements that you don’t really notice that we wanted to infuse in the score. One of the main parts of that is a sample of a washing machine, which we used as a narrative device because the show starts out with the main character having a problem with the washing machine.

Do you have to approach scoring a limited series like Fargo differently than you might approach something more open-ended that could continue on?

It’s a little easier, because [there’s] a suite of themes you can revisit in 10 episodes. And the idea is that it’s anthological. So, we’ll do 10 episodes as though 10 episodes is a movie. So imagine if the movie you saw in 1996 was spread out over 10 episodes. That’s basically what we’ve done.

Obviously, the Fargo series is based on a pretty iconic film and the movie’s directors, the Coen brothers, are involved with the series. Were you at all nervous about tackling the series in the beginning?

::laughs:: Yes! Of course. It’s a big deal. I was nervous about it on a number of levels. It’s a pretty expansive musical landscape, and it was something I had done in the past but not nearly on this scale or this schedule, you know? It’s like we’re making movie music on a TV schedule, which is really difficult. I’m doing an orchestral session now every week. It’s a lot of work. But yes, there was also living up to the name.

Carter Burwell wrote the score for the movie. And he wrote a pretty iconic score and a pretty wonderful piece of music, which, at some point, I felt like… “Will I be able to live up to that kind of quality?” And I don’t know if I have. I think that the work I’ve done stands on its own and I think it works for the show that we have. 

I’ve read that the script is pretty faithful to the tone of the original film. What about the music? Did you reference Carter Burwell’s score, or go for the same tone? 

I watched the movie. I never referenced the music, but I referenced the sound field. Which is one of the reasons why I was like “We have to use an orchestra,” because if we want to sound like a movie, we really want to do movie music, we have to have a big string section, a pretty expansive woodwind section and a brass section. With that said, I stayed in [Burwell’s] musical landscape. And that’s about the extent of my referencing the score.

Suspense and black humor are two huge parts of the original film and, I’m guessing, same deal with the series. How do you achieve that mix?

Suspense and tension and beauty and expansive lonesomeness were the same, as we talked about, in terms of the score. When we try to deal with the humor, I don’t play. Normally we don’t want to play music when it’s funny because we let the humor be funny. And going dry helps that, you know? 

A lot of times, the composer will be asked like, “I know this is supposed to be a little funnier, can we punch up the humor?” Which you can do, but it’s leading the audience. I certainly feel that there’s no need to lead the audience in this show.

They’ll get it.

Oh, yeah. I mean, the humor is very apparent and then, we really just try to underscore the narrative without pushing too hard.

You just brought up the expansive lonesomeness of the setting. It’s funny, I keep returning to this theme. I interviewed Steven Price who did Gravity and Alex Ebert who did All is Lost, and these are both movies about a single person stuck in this infinite expanse. And both of them were very well-received scores. You’re scoring wide-open snowy fields in Fargo. So from your perspective, why do you think that kind of scenery is given to such distinctive music?

It’s hard to say. But when you have a long shot with a beautiful image and no dialogue, you have a lot of room to work with as a composer. And it’s a rare thing. For television, it almost never happens – when I’m looking at picture and I’ve written this two-and-a-half minute long piece where there’s no dialogue, it’s just music? ::laughs:: Music and this beautiful shot of an open road with snow on it…You just don’t really get that opportunity in television. 

I consider myself to be very lucky as a composer because I get to stretch out there. But that’s how that music is well-received – the composer has the opportunity to write something that is really meaningful. He’s not trying to get in and around anything. We’re not trying to underscore dialogue, where you’re playing it and you’re just helping the mood. You’re the dialogue at that moment. And I think that just gives the composer the opportunity to write music that’s just better, you know?

So it’s not just that the scene is more open. It’s that there’s more emphasis on the music so when you do knock it out of the park, it’s that much more evident.

Oh, yeah! The music makes the picture better but the picture makes the music better. It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship, where the music could be really good and the shot doesn’t look good. The music isn’t gonna sound quite as beautiful.

When I was listening to the cue “Malvo’s Theme” from the pilot, I heard some Twin Peaks in that creepy walking bass line. Is Angelo Badalementi at all an inspiration for you?

It’s funny…I remember Twin Peaks, but somebody else made that same comparison, and it really doesn’t ring to me because I don’t remember the score all that well. I remember Mr. Badalementi being a really fine composer, but I really don’t have much of a memory of that particular score. I wouldn’t say he’s an inspiration to me, but I’d say that the music I know he has written is great.

It’s interesting, I wrote that cue with an upright bass playing as a jazz player would play it. And I realized that it didn’t really fit into the orchestral nature of the score, so I switched it over to bass and cello playing pizzicato. It changed everything into being more like the score. And I think, maybe as the upright bass was playing it, it was even a little more Twin Peaks. So, in bringing it to a more orchestral station, I think, maybe took it a little more away from that. Because we didn’t really want to be that. The show itself is not very Twin Peaks-y. It’s more…Fargo-y. ::laughs::

A couple weeks after Fargo premieres, you’ll be at the EXPO talking with a bunch of other rock musicians that have made their way into the composing world, too. Do you ever feel treated like you’re the band guy who’s messing around in someone else’s pond? Either by fellow composers, or by directors and producers?

I started out feeling like I didn’t want to be known as the guy who somebody can get to do a guitar score. I went through a “I don’t want to be known as the dude from Tonic” [phase], you know? I would beg my manager at the time to not put Tonic songs on a reel, ever! In the end, my experience as a songwriter, and even a little bit as an actor from when I was a kid, led to helping me understand narrative and how to enhance narrative with music. I’m sort of an amalgam of everything I’ve done, so I’m not as afraid of that anymore. But a lot of that also had a lot to do with the fact that the work I’ve done is pretty diverse. It means I’m not as afraid. 

A page of Jeff Russo's score for <i>Fargo</i>

Sometimes it is easy to feel like people are trying to be composers from a completely different perspective, going to music school and learning how to orchestrate and conduct and all that stuff. They spend years honing that part of their craft. They can look upon a guy like me, or any one of the other guys – speaking of the EXPO – coming from the same place as me, as “Stick in your own thing! Don’t come and play in our pool.” But the fact is, it’s just playing music, you know? It’s just another outlet for making music.

To me, the story of this EXPO panel is more than just “Here are three band guys that now have successful composing careers.” It’s also “Look at how much TV has diversified such that you don’t just want a traditional, orchestral score for everything.”

The real issue is finding a unique, artistic voice, [especially] as the pool of people that you’re choosing from gets wider. Now you have people in that pool who come from a completely different artistic perspective, like myself, or Adam Schlesinger or Gabriel Mann. There’s a bigger group of people coming from different parts of the industry to do this work. I think that it benefits everybody.

A lot of times somebody’s like “We just want this orchestral score. Let’s get the dude who can write an orchestral score.” And there’s like, 10 guys we have to choose from. But the fact is, that’s not true. I’m writing a fully orchestral score for Fargo right now, and there’s not a guitar to be seen! But it’s my perspective on this type of music. And I’m sure any of the other guys that come from a different viewpoint look at a orchestral score in a different way than somebody who went to Juilliard and learned how to write orchestral music, which I never did.

I never studied orchestral music. I write melodies and I write harmonies by ear. And you know, I like the way this instrument goes with this instrument. If it sounds good to me, it’s good to me. It just so happens that I’m doing my chords now with five-part string sections.

Jeff Russo listens to the orchestra record his <i>Fargo<i/> main theme at Smecky Studios in Prague

At this stage of your career, do you see yourself as a part-time band guy who’s also a part-time composer? Or a full time everything?

I’m a full-time everything, but at this point in my career, I would say I’m more of a full-time composer. My band and I still record, we still write, still play shows, but I do that far less than working in the studio writing music for television or film. And you know, at 44, I feel myself slowly transitioning to that place.

Is it just that it makes a lot more sense to stay close to home given where you are in your personal life?

Well, there is that. But it’s really about where I am in my creative life. I’m more artistically fulfilled doing this now, if that makes any sense. I love playing with my band. But there’s something about what I’m doing now that…I think it’s about pushing the envelope, you know? I get on stage and play with my band and it’s very easy because we’ve been doing it for so long. We play our songs. I play guitar, whatever. What I’m doing with Fargo, and I’m also doing a show called Power, it’s really pushing my artistic boundaries. I’m doing something totally new so it’s invigorating artistically. That’s very meaningful to me.

How would you say that ASCAP has made a difference in your music career?

I’ve asked myself the same question! ASCAP looks after me as a writer. And that’s a really important job. I really feel like having someone be an advocate for writers, having writers being advocates for writers, is really important because if it weren’t for ASCAP, who would really be looking out for the songwriters and the composers? We do a job, we’d like to make sure that we’re looked after. That allows me to do my job without having to go fight with people to pay me. 

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Fargo premieres on FX on Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 at 10pm. Visit fxnetworks.com/fargo for more info.

Find Jeff Russo on the web at jeffrusso.com.