“When I was with Manson, I had makeup on my face, and guitars that looked fun and were fun to play,” says Bates. “It just seemed almost like a sport.” Photo by Annie Atlasman
In your compositional process, how do you get your creative juices flowing?
It’s great if you have a blank slate, which is the case sometimes. I’m starting another movie now with James Gunn. It’s been part of our practice for me to write music in advance of him filming, so that we at least establish the basis of the film’s musical language. It gives him a chance to beta test it. They’ll play the music on set. Oftentimes the actors are listening to the music in earbuds, which are then digitally removed in post-production. But typically, when I’m on a film and get a cut of the movie, I’m looking for—or opening myself to—a feeling. In a way, I’m trying to capture the feeling that I would get when I bought a new record as a kid. There were times when I needed to listen to it two or three times to understand it or to get it. Back then, because the accessibility to music was so limited, you would work hard to buy an album, but you didn’t hear it before you bought it. So you would just give it a chance. There was no scanning and scrolling through music back then. There was a certain feeling you’d get when you’d listen to a new record over and over again. It’s pretty cool and inspiring. I try to create that atmosphere and wait for the picture to literally force me to write my first passage of music. I’m trying to connect something with my own life experience, with my own emotional and psychological palette, that may draw a parallel to the film that I can relate to on a personal level.
Does improvisation play a role in your process? Not just in the creative process, but during the actual recording as well?
Totally. It’s all performance based, especially the atmospheric stuff. Even for a more emotional piano passage, I won’t use a click track or anything like that. I want to feel it to the picture, then I’ll tempo-map it after the fact for the sake of applying delays to various instruments, just so it tracks well. There are some scores, like Killer Joe, which is a tiny score. There was no click track, no grid. It was all improvised to picture.
You watched the film and played guitar along with it?
Just played along watching it. The actual score that’s in that movie, I did that score in probably three days.
How does the demo process differ from the final product?
The demos become part of the final product for sure. Somewhere deep inside me there’s this rock attitude, and I think there is a certain attitude that comes through my writing, whether I’m using full orchestra, choir, or a combination of guitars and synths and ensemble and orchestra. I seem to create hybrid scores quite often. The type of films I find myself working on and the tastes of the directors I work with is, typically, they want something that’s a mashup of pop culture meets traditional storytelling. But I look for an opportunity to create a sonic signature for each of the directors I work with. I’m trying to not give them the same thing I gave to a different director on a different movie, even though oftentimes they ask for it. I try to expand on those concepts to make my stuff obviously sound like me, but to apply certain characteristics to each director. There’s a distinction in how I approach their films.
It’s similar to what you were saying about the difference between being a shredder versus playing for the song, but in this case the movie—and by extension the director—is the song.
Exactly. At the end of the day, no matter what it is, it’s still storytelling and emotion. It’s important to remember that. Something that’s pretty fascinating is, I literally went 15 or 20 years of my life, where during the course of that time—besides the two months that I told you about—I maybe didn’t pick up the guitar 14 days of that time, vacations whatever. I always had a guitar with me. I always had to play a couple hours a day or else I didn’t feel right. Then in the late ’90s, after Pet imploded, I fronted my own band for fun, but I wasn’t feeling the camaraderie that I once felt, that I really loved about being in a band.
It was a different type of camaraderie working with directors, and working with musicians that would lend their talents to my scores. When I brush my teeth in the morning I still see a guitarist in the mirror, but I became less focused on playing guitar and more about expanding my mind and musical concepts. I did play when I needed to, but I wasn’t practicing much during that time. Once I started Californication, I really started playing a lot of guitar. Through that I met [Marilyn] Manson. After not touring for 14 years, I was able to go out and handle myself pretty well touring with him. It’s a very interesting gig playing with him. It requires about 110 percent of your concentration because anything can happen at any point when you’re onstage with him. There’s things flying and breaking and burning and we fight a little bit—we throw stuff. To stay on point, you have to still be an accomplished musician to not lose yourself on a gig like that.
Was there a learning curve? What’s it like stepping in front of a massive audience like that?
Strangely, I wasn’t too nervous. When you’re in film and television, if you start working on blockbuster films, you’re in the room pretty regularly with heads of studios, executives, and directors. You work under a tremendous amount of pressure, sometimes duress. When I was with Manson, I had makeup on my face, and guitars that looked fun and were fun to play. It just seemed almost like a sport. We would go out and just bang the shit out of the set. It was fun. It was more of an adrenaline rush than an intimidating scenario.
It was like a vacation for you?
That’s a strange word. People have used that in the past. You’re on vacation touring with Manson. Well, actually I was always flying home on days off. Sometimes if we had two days off in Europe I might fly home to be home for 12 hours, just to work on some music not in a hotel. I would always travel with a studio, but my business definitely requires face time with my collaborators and that’s always been my number one priority. I appreciate the fact that Manson understood that and made the environment so I could come and go as I was available, and the band was very cool about adjusting to that dynamic. I’m not unaware of how rare that type of situation is.
Just to change gears, you have a lot of pedals in your studio. Are certain pedals go-tos for you?
I have a ton of pedals. I love them because they often force you to apply a different technique or they’ll inspire an idea you may not have naturally. Through the use of pedals, I’ve come up with really interesting sounds, melody lines, and riffs that I wouldn’t have played otherwise. One of my favorite pedals that’s fairly unpredictable is the EarthQuaker Devices Rainbow Machine. I used it all over the Manson stuff. 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.
Do you look at pedals as instruments and approach them the way you’d approach a new guitar?
I look at them as different perspectives on an instrument. Just like you would as a storyteller, filmmaker, or cinematographer, you’re shooting from a certain angle or perspective, a distance from your subject. That’s going to inspire a controlled perspective on the subject. For instance, if I’m using a Cooper FX Generation Loss—I love that pedal, too—it’s going to force me to play from a different perspective that I couldn’t if I didn’t have that engaged in the signal path. By its nature, you have to play into the pedal. Just like with a movie, where you’re processing an emotion and an action through the lens that the director and cinematographer and editor have chosen the audience to see that moment through, and that impacts their psychological and emotional state. As a guitarist, when I have a pedal engaged, I always play differently than if I were to just plug straight up into an amp.
Do you use loopers as part of your process as well?
Yes, and that helps me meditate on conceptual ideas. As a composer, when you sit down to your rig and the movie is in front of you, and you’re at a keyboard—which is how you have to be for the most part—it’s a more formal work process. Whereas if I’m not looking at a picture and I’m not looking at my desk, and I’m just playing into a delay or a loop station, I may come up with a line or a phrase that I’ll then transcribe and apply to the orchestra. It’s something I probably wouldn’t naturally think about if I were composing on the keyboard or even straight up with guitar. The way I can accidentally find or create phrases working with a loop station and delays and other pedals is always fascinating to me. I do that as part of a meditative process and to spark creative ideas.
Do you use amps in your studio or do you run everything direct?
I use amps almost always. This may sound funny, but the main amp I typically use is a Peavey Classic 50 4x10. I used to use that in conjunction with my Marshall when I was in Pet, because the Peavey would give me a cleaner articulation. I would run the two of them together. When I focused my work solely on being in the studio, I just used the Peavey and I found it to be extremely versatile. The 10-inch speakers focus the sound for my GuitarViol really well. I also have a Friedman Jerry Cantrell model head and cabinet that I really love. I have an old modded Marshall that’s incredible. I use anything. I use Pignoses. But when it comes to my bread and butter, it seems to come back to that Peavey Classic 50. But I feel kind of strange saying that out loud.
What about your GuitarViol? How did you stumble upon that? Was it difficult to learn how to play?
It’s a very difficult instrument to play. I learned about it through a friend of mine, Azam Ali. She’s a world music artist. She knew the luthier, Jonathan Wilson, who created the GuitarViol. Jonathan ended up in my studio and I made enough noise on that thing within the first 15 minutes to decide that I’m going to work with this instrument. He gave me his initial tips, and then I developed my own bowing technique and sounds for that instrument.
But you’re not using a traditional bowing technique.
Not like a viola player or violinist. However, I know what I’m doing. I know what sound and effect I’m trying to achieve with it. I created my own style, which is not the most refined sound, but I think it’s been effective for my movies. That was initially the main electric instrument on 300, and subsequent to that movie, the instrument became very popular with composers.
Final thing: That David Hasselhoff disco video [“Guardians’ Inferno”] is genius.
Yes! The Hoff is now one of my good buds. We performed together on Howard Stern last year. We did a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which is on the Hoff’s new record. We’ve played together several times. He’s a great guy and a lot of fun to be around. There’s always a cast of characters coming through this place, never dull.