Chances are, you’ve probably enjoyed Lyle Workman‘s music more than a few times in your life. If you enjoyed Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Netflix’s series Love, then you’ve heard Lyle’s work. A notable composer/music supervisor and prolific musician, Lyle Workman has been a long-time collaborator with Judd Apatow, along with playing on a number of different musical projects. In a very honest conversation, our Screen Sounds interview digs in deep on the process of composing a score, and following your creative path.
When you’re coming up with ideas for a score, what usually first inspires you? I assume you watch a rough cut of the film, or TV show that you’re working on.
Is there anything that jumps out at you when you’re first coming up with some ideas?
Yeah I think if there’s no direction from the filmmakers, then it’s upon me to find it. So that begins a process of experimentation, and I will react to what I’m seeing – to the characters, to the emotions, to the environment where it’s set, and just until something seems to hit for everybody. That was the piece on the show Love, I sort of started off in all these different directions, and that pretty much defined the process.
That’s really cool, because I re-watched Love recently and I was like – when I first watched it, you’re kind of taking it all in, you’re taking the story in, but then the second time I watched it, things really started to stand out for me and the music was a huge part of that.
Yeah, I felt that it told the story so well. It was never something that I actively felt like I was being – not distracted by, but you know what I mean – it worked really well together with the actual narrative. I felt like the music in Love really emulated the personalities of Mickey and Gus so well. How do you go about personifying a character through sound?
Sometimes I think about the music that a particular character would like, the type of music they would listen to, just things that they would respond to that somehow mirrors aspects of their personality or their emotional tone. I think for example, if I wanna do something that’s a little bit more pop-based, I’ll ask, “what kind of bands would this guy like?” There’s a lot of different things I think about trying to come up with ideas to facilitate the process. In the case of Love, with a regional sound, the environment that it’s set in is Los Angeles, you know there’s a big Hispanic culture in Los Angeles. In the food, in the architecture, you know… it used to be Mexico! Things like that. It created a bit of a sub-character that we all thought worked really well.
I feel that way as well, especially when you point it out. I was listening to the soundtrack before I called you – I also was listening to your album, or one of your albums, I was just sitting here like, this guy is so talented! These are all so amazing, I’m so impressed that you can come up with all these ideas and… you’ve put out so much awesome work! So you’ve worked with Judd Apatow on a lot of projects, and you’re working with him now on Crashing, right?
Yeah, we haven’t started yet, but it’s coming very soon.
I’m very excited for that. I might call you and ask you to tell me about it.
You’re welcome to!
That would be great! You’ve been working together for 10 years –
Yeah, off and on.
How did you first start working together?
Well it’s a very… I came in through the side door, shall we say. The other thing I do here in Los Angeles is that I’m a session musician. I play on the records, and I play on other scores and play with other composers for their scores as a guitarist. One of my jobs was with a composer whose wife worked for Universal Pictures, and the wife was talking with her husband about an associate who was Vice President of Music, and he wanted to record some guitar on some personal project. So my name was put up for that, so I ended up with this Vice President of Music in my studio… by that time I had done a lot of work in the commercial world, doing music for commercials as a composer – and I got that through the side door being a session musician. You start doing session work, and they ask can you write?… One of the sessions I had done here in Los Angeles was with a band, and one of the central songwriters was friends with Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau and they were doing a film and they asked their friend to do it, and their friend in turn asked me if we could work together on this record. So that was a film called Made, that was my first film. By the time I had this Universal executive in my studio, I had done a bunch of jingles for commercials, and one independent film. When we finished playing guitar, I sent him off a demo CD, and he called me back. He said, “I like what you do – you’re a guitar player, but you can score and as a matter of fact, we’ve got this film right now that I think we could use some of your music on. We can enlist you to submit some material for a few scenes.” The movie was called Kicking and Screaming, the Will Ferrell kids comedy. So I wrote some music for that, and it was put in the film, and one of the producers was Judd Apatow. At that time, or around that time, he’d signed a deal with Universal to direct his own films, with the first being The 40 Year Old Virgin. So because of my association with the prior film, my name was put in the hat, and they sent me a scene to score to see if it would be a good fit, and Judd liked it and I got hired! So that’s where everything changed. How’s that for a story!
That’s a great story. An A+ story.
I’ve told it so many times, there’s not many details I forget…
I wanna hear all the nitty-gritty stuff!
That’s pretty much how it went down!
Do you feel like having a long term creative partnership with Judd Apatow, or with any director, makes it easier or more intuitive to score his projects?
I think so. They are aware of what you do, and your strengths, and how to communicate their ideas better. I get an idea of their sensibilities and what they like – for example, oh this is a really funny scene, they’re not going to want any music here, because his sense of humor… you know on Judd Apatow projects, he’s very competent with his material, so a lot of the times music is not playing comedy, it’s playing the more emotional stuff. The deeper, more three-dimensional aspects of a character or a scene. You just learn someone’s sensibilities, and that’s how it works essentially.
That makes sense. I mean, I haven’t obviously worked on as many things as you, but I’ve done a couple of projects here [in St Andrews] – like some music supervision stuff for some plays-
It’s really fun. I’ve worked with this team of people on a few projects, and for the most recent one, we all knew how we work, we knew how we… like you said, can express ideas. I know what they like, they know what I like, so it makes it easier. It makes it… not necessarily a better project, but more of a project that represents both of our creative sensibilities really nicely.
Exactly right. It’s an interesting avenue of working, because you’re talking about music, and there’s a lot about music that’s hard to put into words, you know? It’s in the air, and it can be difficult when you work with someone that doesn’t really understand music or hasn’t really had any experience communicating about music. In those cases, we don’t have to talk about music, we can just talk about the scene. I ask what they want from it; even breaking it down to what do they want people to feel? There’s a sort of ambivalence about it, in terms of the tone they wanna play on, and that’s something we talk about. Like, he’s being funny but inside he’s dying! What can we do to underscore that a little bit? It definitely helps in the times that you don’t have a director whose very musically savvy. But that certainly isn’t the case with Judd. He’s a big fan of music. He’s very articulate in that regard.
Which is a good thing! Because it can be difficult to… when you’re so musically inclined in your career and your life, it’s hard to talk to someone who kind of doesn’t know that language, or doesn’t know how to express it. It can be a bit like… breaking it down into little bite-sized pieces for them, which can be frustrating at times.
Well yeah… it’s very common with music supervision that they’re constantly trying new material. Some people’s process is, “I want to hear everything, and then I’ll make the decision.” It’s very common. It’s just the way, they work, they just have to hear it. Some people are able to express if they have an idea in their head, they know what they want, and either you give it to them right away or you have to go ahead see what’s going on in their head. I’ve been on all ends… all permutations of both scenarios. Many times over.
I would imagine, I’ve looked at your credits and you’ve worked on pretty much every movie that I’ve enjoyed for the past… ten years.
That’s nice to hear.
Do you feel like when you’re writing music for film and TV, does it come from a different place than the music that you write for your own albums? Are they different processes?
Very much so, yeah. The way I think of scoring is that it’s telling part of the story. The music is telling part of the story, and if it tells too much of the story… it’s too much. And the actors need to go away for a moment. You can close your eyes and just listen to the music because there’s a specific feel. And so it can’t overdo it – I mean there are times when there’s a montage and there’s room for the music, you’re supposed to pay attention to it. But a lot of the time, you’re not really supposed to pay attention to the music, you know what I mean? You’re supposed to just feel it and just have it be… invisible. When I’m doing my own music, it’s all about… music. Music is the complete story. There’s no restrictions on how it fits with it and with another medium. The whole process is different in terms of the writing and recording, how much of a – even technical things, like I can have a very prominent melody, and even some improvisational solo periods. You really don’t find that in film music. So it is kind of a different thing. Well… it is. It is a different thing.
How long have you been playing guitar? When did you start? How did you start?
I started playing guitar when I was nine years old. That’s always been a part of me. Listening to the Beatles, and rock music. In high school I started playing in bands, and my interest started in rock but then I started playing that and then was intrigued by… the depth of music. How deep it can go… classical and jazz, particularly. As a guitar player I was very enamored with virtuosic guitar playing. I think all my life, and all my directions I took in music, really helped me be a film composer, because it really ran the gamut. I think also by virtue of that, my skill level allowed me to have an instrument that I can compose with in other areas, beyond rock and roll.
I would imagine that having that kind of skill and experience… I played piano for a very brief period of my life, but had I stuck with it I would’ve… it’s such a creative tool, and it allows you to do so much if you know an instrument that well.
Because it really becomes a different method of expressing yourself. In the same way that drawing or painting is for other people… it’s a tool you use to extend who you are.
It makes me wish that I’d practiced piano more!
You know what I always say to people that express that sentiment? I certainly can understand it. But you kind of go where you’re most inspired, and music’s such a… it requires so much dedication, especially if you want to do it on a professional level. You really have to be driven. You have to think about it all the time. That’s what it takes. It has to be so important to you that you HAVE to do it. So when people try it [playing an instrument for a while] and then they don’t, I just don’t think it was their passion. I think that’s absolutely fine – they’re passionate in other ways. Some other form of expression.
That’s very true. I think that’s a good point. I like to be creative – I mean, I obviously write, and I do other things, but making music wasn’t my way of expressing myself. It was through writing, or DJing that I did it, and I’m super passionate about it. I love it. It’s something that I couldn’t imagine NOT doing. But for other people, it might not be as central to their lives.
Yeah. That’s your path. There’s been so many times in my life… I was eating oranges off trees. I had to live in a closet at one point, in a closet with four other guys! Literally! But the thought of going out and getting a different job never crossed my mind. I was willing to starve to be able to play music.
It’s something that’s so intrinsic to who you are that you couldn’t imagine giving it up for basic things, like food. It is one of those things that’s like… it would be like cutting off a limb, almost, to give up something that you love to go for whatever path may be more “reliable”, or whatever. But when you love it, it will happen, I think. You just kind of have to suffer sometimes.
I agree. 100%. I used to give guitar lessons for a living, for about five years. I was 19 or 20 years old. And if kids didn’t want to practice, I wouldn’t be mad at them. I’d say, “this will be a hobby”. Pick up the guitar every now and then. And then I had other students that were so hungry, and I saw myself in them. Those were the ones that are still playing today.
You can purchase Lyle Workman’s Love soundtrack on iTunes.
Image sourced here.