Conventions are a place to discover what's new while paying tribute to the past, and there is no better convention to discover new artists than Son of Monsterpalooza in Burbank, CA. Artists, writers, painters, directors, actors, and everyone in between gather to make new friends and show the community all the amazing things they are capable of. It is at this convention that I met and shook hands with the future legends of film. One such artist is composer Carl King whose music is exciting and inspiring. I was lucky enough to dig up the dirt with Carl and find out how he creates these incredible sounds for the screen.
KillDozer: I can honestly say that your album THE ARCANOSIS is spot on one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. Each track immediately inspires scenes and situations in my mind that don't actually exist on screen. Do you have a plot or back story in mind when composing?
Carl King: That's crazy, thank you! For most of my life I did not write Program Music. I have focused on Absolute Music. For those who don't know what the difference is, Program Music is written for to accompany something else, like a movie or play or video game or commercial. I was always told that I should be writing for video games (probably because my sounds were so cheap in the old days) but I was too much of an egomaniac to write Program Music. I always thought, "Why should my music need an excuse, or be in the background of something else?" As I have gotten older I'm totally into it. Besides, I love film scores. But it wasn't until a couple of years ago that I started learning to score. It is a totally different process from writing music for its own sake. But here's where I am lucky: for the past 10 years I have worked professionally as a video editor. And I have come to realize that the editing of video and scoring of music are the same thing. So I was instantly able to switch into writing music from the brain of a video editor, and suddenly it's very easy. Without that experience it would have been a huge challenge and I don't know if I'd be able to make sense of it. Some of the tracks on THE ARCANOSIS are homework assignments from my Berklee film scoring classes. Some were just made up without any visuals. The big difference, I think, is that you don't need a whole lot of instrumentation and complexity to make a point when scoring to a visual. Just a few notes that might seem pointless otherwise can totally do the job when there's a visual happening. It requires a lot of restraint.
KillDozer: You cover all the bases from fantasy to sci-fi but do you have a personal favorite when writing music? Why would you choose one genre over another?
Carl: I love writing heroic adventure melodies. It's the most satisfying part of composing. Second, I love horror music, since it's based on so much 20th century composition. I am hoping to get to write a ton of that for a new documentary I'm going to be scoring soon. Today there was even mention of adding death metal in the score.
KillDozer: I was lucky enough to meet and speak with you at a convention. Have you had a good response to your work at conventions? What other ways do you get the word out about your incredible work?
Carl: Most people just walk right by my booth when I'm at a convention, but I'm not really there to reach a general audience. So far I've gotten 3 small scoring projects from last year's conventions. I happened to meet 3 super creative people I am collaborating with right now. I'm going to be writing an orchestral suite for the comic book called "Guns A Blazin" which is a Western Sci-Fi Time Travel / Dimensional Travel adventure series by Mike Wellman. I just wrote a short theme for a LeeAnna Vamp project, and I'm also doing some music for this unbelievable sculptor named Dug Stanat. I met them all at my convention booths and we hit it off.
KillDozer: How long does it take you to compose a piece? Do you ever abandon pieces? If so, why?
Carl: It's not too often that I have to abandon a piece. It happens sometimes, when I am just experimenting. When I have an actual project I'm more focused on getting it right and I fall back on my skills. I've been writing music for something like 30 years, so it's mostly a very familiar and structured process. I think I might work very fast, but I don't have much to compare myself to. The last time I measured it was around a minute of music per hour. But orchestrating (assigning all the notes to various instruments and setting all the articulations) maybe triples the time required. It's not a mysterious process, and it's all based on "the language of music" (music theory). There's only one album I made where I just hit a dead end, and that was Dr. Zoltan / Why I Am So Wise, Why I Am So Clever, And Why I Write Such Good Songs. The album had a ton of great ideas but I just wasn't able to expand on them. That was back before I learned about Theme and Variation. So that album ended up being a bunch of short blasts of ideas that would suddenly end and move on to the next. Very frustrating.
KillDozer: The artwork for the albums is always epic and fun. Who does the artwork and do you think the cover says it all?
Carl: Thank you! Lance Myers has been my cover artist for my last few albums. I will usually give him some reference images and say "can you do something in this style?" and he does his thing. He's really awesome and I am so glad I found him. He is based in Austin, TX and I believe he works as a full-time animator for a video game company. I've never met him in person and never even talked to him on the phone. Having a cover that represents the sensibilities of the music is so important.
KillDozer: Tell us about GRAND ARCHITECTS OF THE UNIVERSE. The list of musicians involved reads like a super group. How did you go about putting this project together and recruiting the talent?
Carl: GRAND ARCHITECTS OF THE UNIVERSE was my return to music after that Dr. Zoltan album I messed up. I took pretty much 10 years off music and focused on the video editing career. A quick aside, one reason I "quit" music for 10 years was because I developed a sensitivity to sound after being in a car accident. I wasn't physically injured, but I was in the passenger seat sleeping when the accident happened on the freeway at night. It was raining, and I woke up to a huge black SUV slamming into us head-on, and being thrown into a wall. We were trapped there for I don't know how long, with more cars crashing into us in the dark, and I thought I was going to die. Supposedly I ended up with PTSD from it. I've been different after the accident, developed extreme anxiety and panic attacks, and very sensitive to sound, which made me not able to listen to music for a long time. I still listen to music very rarely, but I am at least able to listen again and make my own.
It really is my idea of a super group, and I have so many musician friends from working in video production that I was able to ask them to play on my record. I'm not even sure most of them knew I was a musician. It was kind of like "Oh, I guess Carl makes music, too. Huh." So pretty much everyone on the album I was already friends with or had worked with before on video projects. Aside from Travis Orbin. Luckily he remembered some of my music from years earlier and was willing to play on the record.
KillDozer: You and I connected over the Mr. Bungle track you did on Arcanosis. Have you always been a fan of theirs? Do you naturally gravitate toward "progressive" musicians when listening to music? Is that a conflict when scoring?
Carl: I have been a Mr. Bungle fan from the very first moment I heard the first track on their debut, which was a cassette at the time. I took it home and listened through headphones and I was so amazed. I faked sick the next day so I could stay home from school and listen to the album on repeat. I waited until my friends started getting home from school so I could call them and play them the cassette over the phone. Mr. Bungle was instantly my favorite band. I ended up befriending Trey years later when I moved to San Francisco. We did a vague buddy deal to release my Sir Millard Mulch / How To Sell... album on his Mimicry label. I learned a lot from listening to Mr. Bungle, and I've gone on to really love some of these recent Secret Chiefs 3 albums. One of my favorites is Book of Souls: Folio A. Such an asymmetrical collection of music, and I love the orchestration on it. Especially through headphones. Regarding progressive music vs. scoring... there are elements that are so similar. But scoring isn't about showing off the music. It always has to be secondary to the visuals, so I need to hold back. There are restrictions, because you need to compliment what is already there, the style of the project. I will say that my favorite scores lately are from Jeff Russo, the guy who did the Fargo and Legion TV shows. It's over the line and brilliant. It's one of those situations where the music can be too loud for normal tastes and can be the awkward star of a scene. I have heard the director Noah Hawley is involved with forcing that aesthetic as well, because I haven't heard those same choices in Jeff Russo's other scoring projects. It's maybe a similar thing you'd hear in a Kubrick film, where the music has such a strong identity, in a shocking way. I'm thinking of Eyes Wide Shut, that striking piano theme by Ligeti that's just 2 notes. It's so obnoxious and great.
KilDozer: Tell us about "The Oracle of Outer Space" project. Where did the inspiration come from? How can we support it?
Carl: The Oracle of Outer Space -- I came up with the concept before I started work on Grand Architects. I bought this big Cintiq screen and started studying drawing and animation. I was going to animate it myself. Anyway, I came up with the concept not too long before that when I was on vacation with my wife. We had gone out to Las Vegas for a few days. I am a HUGE Art Bell and old Coast To Coast AM fan from back in the day. Used to listen to him all night when I was driving around in Florida, and had to flip from one station to the next to hear him as I drove. On a whim, since we were in Las Vegas, my wife and I decided to drive out to Parumph and peek at his house. We drove by, pointed at it, "wow there it is" and kept going. Didn't want to disturb him. It was so wild that this is where all of it came from. This small house in a small town (and of course the great mind of Art Bell). I think the next day we decided to head out near Area 51. We ended up at this little trailer park in the middle of nowhere, and these people had built a sort of visitor's center / cafe in one of them called The Little A'Le'Inn. On the walls were polaroids of famous conspiracy theorists I used to read. I just got this "vibe" that brought back memories of listening to Art Bell all night, and how could I try to pay tribute to that somehow? It was a sentimental feeling I wanted to capture. I don't know how well I did that by this point in the process, but it is a show about the last AM radio station in outer space. So that's the original inspiration. I hired a couple of my old friends to write it with me. Level Nivelo and HisCheapMoves. Long-time collaborators on many of my projects. Details can be found on OracleOfOuterSpace.com.
KillDozer: What is your work space like when writing and recording? Do you work in quiet or seek out things for inspiration?
Carl: My work space is totally underwhelming. I work in quiet. I have a desk with a laptop and external monitor, some hard drives, and a second computer (Mac Pro) that I have most of my samples on. The two computers are networked together, so I have most of the samples coming from the Mac Pro, and the audio and MIDI data on the laptop. I input all of the notes with the mouse, one at a time, in Cubase. Click click click. If I play something it's usually guitar or bass, and for that I run them through a Fractal Audio Axe-FX II XL+. For overdubs I have a Shure KSM32 and a Millennia preamp, and a Universal Audio interface. It's actually a very tiny setup. I could do most of my composing just on my laptop from anywhere. There can be a lot of pressure to have all this expensive equipment, and to feel you can't make anything "real" and worthwhile with just a few inexpensive things. But I've never had a "pro" studio in my life. I get by with the minimum. I have good sound libraries and plugins (which I pay for, by the way, no file-sharing here, proud of that) but honestly most of what I have fits on my office desk. I have some typical KRK 8s and a KRK 10s Sub that I monitor and mix through.
KilDozer: What should people expect from your podcast? Where can we go to listen in?
Carl: My podcast is really falling behind. I have 5 or 6 episodes recorded that I have not released yet. The Carl King Podcast is on iTunes, Soundcloud, YouTube, etc. I've interviewed Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Trey Spruance of Mr. Bungle (unreleased), Mark Borchardt of American Movie, Travis Orbin, etc. Whoever I feel like talking to. There are no rules to it and no regular schedule. I love doing it, but I have very little time to devote.
KillDozer: What do you like or dislike about modern film scores? How do you feel about the return to synth heavy scores that we have been experiencing the last few years?
Carl: This is only my opinion, and you asked, so... I don't personally like these synth-heavy scores (Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL). I think that is what you are referring to. I can appreciate the work that goes into them, but I don't aesthetically enjoy them. I would never say those guys don't know what they're doing, and besides, who the hell am I? It's impressive, so much detail goes into it, their Cubase templates are insane, but it's not something I want to hear. To me the timbre is anxiety-provoking, and I just can't sit through it. I saw Blade Runner 2049 in the theater and it was painfully loud, I had to plug my ears through a lot of it. I can't watch a movie and enjoy it when there is that much stressful synthesized / distorted / echoing sound blasting in my ears. That's just my own tastes in that situation. There's a place for extremely jarring music, and of course I love music that is all over the place and crazy. But I just can't get into that when it's in Blade Runner 2049. Doesn't feel like the appropriate choice to me. I hope I don't sound like I think I'm an expert. It's just my own taste, and what can I do about that?
KillDozer: Where can we go to follow your work? Are you on social media?
Carl: I am staying off social media as much as possible, but the one place I am posting candid "behind the scenes" stuff is Patreon. I'm not updating it as much as I should, but I'm posting demos and random things in there for subscribers only.
KillDozer: Okay, now for some quick fun questions. Best non horror, sci-fi, fantasy score?
Carl: The first thing that comes to mind is the Fargo TV show, as I mentioned before. Jeff Russo and Noah Hawley. What they did together is so creative and unusual and fun. And it fit my tastes.
KillDozer: Favorite silent film?
Carl: Man, I don't know anything about silent films. Sorry I can't answer this one any better.
KillDozer: What is the worst thing you have ever been asked to write for?
Carl: Wow, I have an answer for this, I think. Back in maybe 1995 (I was like 20), I was hired by my local high school's "therapist" -- he was sort of a guidance counselor / shrink that was on-staff. He was this freaking giant, intimidating, loud guy. And it turned out he had some problems of his own. He had somehow conned this literacy organization into letting him record a theme song for them. So he wrote these lyrics and hired me and a friend to perform it in a studio. It was so terrible and uncomfortable, for me to have to try to sing these cheesy lyrics about reading and writing. "Write it now, you know that you can do it!" I don't remember what ever happened with that project, but this is where the story got interesting. During the sessions he started telling me about how he wanted to take kids and punch them in the chests so hard that he could rip their hearts out. And if I recall he was wearing some kind of Native American jewelry in the studio (I don't *think* he was Native American). He was kind of starting to crack, and it was scary being in the room with him. I don't remember how long after, but he was arrested for beating up some kids at the school. He rode around on a golf cart in full-on Native American costume, feathered headdress and cowhide vest / no shirt and everything, and told people he was a famous philosopher or something. He'd accuse kids: "why are you looking at my crotch, are you gay?" and go chasing them around, roughing them up. When they arrested him he tried to explain it was just a teaching method. I think it was revealed he had been fired from a few different schools for doing this, and no one ever bothered to check his background. Such a crazy thing. I don't know what ever happened to that guy, and I only saw him one other time. A few years later I was at a Dave Weckl drum clinic. And that violent guidance counselor shows up. He starts screaming at me. "Carl King, you little mother fucker! You little piece of shit, asshole!" So random. I was glad to make it out of there.
KillDozer: We have seen a lot of re makes lately. What film would you like to re-score ?
Carl: What a question! So many films have such bland, stock scores. I don't think it's the fault of the composers, I just think that's probably the way the industry is structured. I'm trying to think of a movie that had a really disappointing score for me, and maybe that would be Bladerunner 2049. It's one of the only times I can think of where I thought, man, why did it have to be like that? But I see so many movies where I don't even remember any music at all when I leave the theater. I would actually love to score Adult Swim-style stuff. I also loved the editing on The Big Short. I think I could work well in that style, with whoever was responsible for it being so all-over-the-place.
Visit CarlKingdom.com for more info on Carl's music and video work, and to keep up with new projects he's working on! You can also subscribe to his Patreon HERE.