Composer Tyler Bates has been scoring music for film, television, and video games for decades, but he started out in metal bands and had a record deal in the early ’90s with Pet. He’s produced two albums for Marilyn Manson, and toured with Manson as a guitarist. Photo by Piero F. Giunti
Going straight from high school to working in the stock market is an unlikely jump, especially for a musician. But this is what happened to composer Tyler Bates, who’s had a wildly interesting career. In his early 20s, Bates faced a choice: keep climbing the ladder of his firm, or do music full-time. Suffice to say, he left the finance world behind and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream. In the mid ’90s, he signed to Atlantic Records with alt-rockers Pet. Simultaneously, while working with Pet, he launched his career—learning on the job—scoring films. His gig with Pet fizzled after their debut, but by that point he was working on low-budget, B-level horror. Within a decade, he worked his way up to writing for blockbusters, although he continued working on indies as well. His long list of film credits includes 300, Watchmen, Guardians of the Galaxy, the John Wick franchise, a host of Rob Zombie slashers, and many others.
Bates also scores for video games and television, and it was through his work on the Showtime series Californication that he met Marilyn Manson. hat association led to Bates co-producing Manson’s 2015 release, The Pale Emperor, as well as Heaven Upside Down in 2017, plus two subsequent tours, which, if it were anyone else, would be an unorthodox route to the rock ’n’ roll life. But Bates’ modus operandi, whether he’s scoring a film or producing an artist—and it’s a consistent refrain throughout our conversation below—is developing a unique sonic language for telling a story.
“When I was doing The Pale Emperor with Manson, I was playing pretty clean guitar stuff throughout the whole record,” Bates says. “He was perplexed at how it sounded so heavy because the typical approach would be big, heavy distorted guitars, but I wanted to create space for his voice. I figured if I had the appropriate guitar sound I could reveal something new—like a new characteristic in his voice that maybe we hadn’t heard before—so I deliberately made that choice with the guitar.”
Bates left Manson’s touring band in early 2018 to return his focus to full-time composing. His current projects include a new feature with James Gunn, as well as a more aggressive, action-themed Cirque du Soleil.
Despite all of this project diversity, Bates is first and foremost a guitarist. “When I brush my teeth in the morning, I still see a guitarist in the mirror,” he says. His studio is a gearhead’s dream, packed full of guitars, amps, and an army of pedals. Guitars are an essential part of his process: They serve as colors in his palette, as tools to break the rhythm of traditional scoring, and to get him away from the computer.
Bates spoke with us at length about his long career, his humble beginnings as a rocker, his creative approach to film scoring, his escapades with Manson, his large collection of guitars and gadgets, and why he can’t seem to stop using his Peavey Classic 50 4x10 combo.
When did you start playing guitar?
I started when I was 12. I’d already been playing alto saxophone at that point. By the time I picked up the guitar, I had a basic understanding of theory, for a kid, but certainly good enough to sight-read well.
Did those reading skills transfer to guitar playing?
They helped me navigate the guitar. It took me a minute, but then a light went off. That, plus the help of a couple of older friends who played guitar, got me going. The first song I ever learned was “Fool for the City” by Foghat. Then “Too Hot to Handle” by UFO, though it would be about three years before I could handle that guitar solo.
Did you study music and orchestration in college?
No. I had some extenuating circumstances surrounding my family, so I went straight from high school, strangely, into the stock market. Besides high school jobs, that was my only real job. I was in a metal band when I was in high school. The other guys in the band were a couple of years older than me. A couple of them worked in the stock market, and they got me an interview with a small firm that ended up growing pretty quickly. I managed a trading firm when I was 19.
Were you still playing in bands when you had that job?
Always music first. During the day I was managing a trading firm, and doing some stock and option trading for a couple of my clients. At 22, the partners of that firm—who I’m still friends with, believe it or not—offered to finance a trading career for me. I’d never even thought of doing that. They said, “Well, you either have to get into trading or just do music.” So I decided, “I’m out. I’ll just do music.”
When did you start playing with Pet?
I met [vocalist] Lisa Papineau pretty quickly after moving back to L.A. in ’93. I was not intending to play in a band. I moved to L.A. to write with different artists and produce records. That’s what I thought I was doing with Lisa, but as people started inquiring about the band on the business side of things—when they got serious—Atlantic Records said, “We’ll sign you, if you’re in the band.” Same thing with our management. I went ahead and did that, and that was cool. In the meantime, I’d been meeting people at parties who were directing things like Roger Corman movies and Saban movies. They had very little money, but enough to pay a month’s rent or whatever. I’d score their movies. I had no knowledge of the craft whatsoever, but I was learning from the directors that hired me, and the producers and editors, and before long I started learning a lot about the business. That really informed me about the point of my job, what the purpose of music truly is in those films. I scored 18 movies before I ever met another composer. But in the meantime, with Pet, we got a deal, and we went to Ireland to record at Tori Amos’s castle. She wanted to be involved with our band, and that was a good experience, but it was one that flamed out pretty quick. We had some issues inside the band that weren’t really tenable. There was a night when we were rehearsing and I just literally stopped playing in the middle of a song and turned my amp off [laughs]. Literally, I said, “I love music too much to do this.” So that was my last note of music in Pet.
Listening to Pet, the song “Lil Boots” for example, one can hear stark dynamic contrasts in your style, which seems to carry over into your film scoring. There’s a consistency to your approach.
It is interesting, especially for people who know my guitar playing from my early metal bands. Back in the day, I did clinics with a friend who I would consider the fastest guitar player I’ve ever seen in my life. We used to play NAMM shows and all that stuff. At some point, it was so far away from what I loved about music and playing guitar that after playing a NAMM show in the early ’90s, I gave all my guitars away and quit for two months. I went back to L.A. and rebooted entirely. I got tired of playing to impress 40 or 50 dudes standing with their arms crossed in the front of the stage. It was more fun playing for people who were just into the music. I wanted to shift my focus in my playing. With Pet, I definitely began to approach the guitar much more as a support for the singer. Pet is really minimalist, almost industrial, and it’s disciplined. It was really refreshing for me to get inside the feeling of the song and not be as myopic in my musical approach. As guitar players, we have a tendency to look out for ourselves and what we want out of the song, and sometimes that comes at the expense of the song. That’s something I definitely matured a lot with.
Tyler Bates has a large collection of pedals, as seen here. One of his favorites is the EarthQuaker Devices Rainbow Machine. “I used it all over the Manson stuff,” he says. “It’s all over John Wick. I played my GuitarViol through that with a Cry Baby wah for John Wick and for the song “Cry Little Sister” that Manson and I covered.” Photo by Piero F. Giunti
Your film career started while you were with Pet, but you said you knew nothing about scoring movies. How did you learn the lingo?
My saving grace was a couple of factors. One was that I had a career in the stock market. I was literally the youngest person to ever manage a trading firm on the [Chicago] Board Options Exchange. That pressure and responsibility really helped my critical thinking. It helped with my complete understanding of accountability, responsibility. There was that. And fortunately, I fell in with some great directors who really gave over the depth of their knowledge and understanding of storytelling. They started to point me in a healthy direction. Also, I’d produced everything that my bands had ever made throughout the years. I was relying on my basic production chops to figure out ways to create and deliver a product.
You knew your way around a studio?
Oh yeah, otherwise I would’ve been dead. If I had to defer to someone else to handle all the tracking and mixing ... I had help mixing throughout the years—I don’t consider myself a mixer—but as a producer, I definitely fine-tune everything.
You grew up professionally in the ’90s, as the world was migrating from analog to digital. Were you an early adopter?
Yes and it’s really crazy. I was in my 20s when I got my first computer. Even though we used computers in the stock market, it wasn’t the same as having a PC. It was really tricky scoring films back then. As technology was being developed, the process was changing pretty rapidly. At one point, composers would put pencil to paper and play the themes on piano for the director. Then we had ADATs and we had better tools for mocking up our sketches or our ideas. With that came new technical challenges. Just working with samplers, I remember having 2-bit sounds, and those were good sounds [laughs]. Now when you hear something like that, it’s either terrible or it’s totally kitschy and cool in a horrible way.