Man in the Mirror: Tyler Bates
From scoring a long list of film and TV projects that includes 300, Californication, and the John Wick trilogy, to producing and touring with Marilyn Manson, this multitalented composer says he will always be a guitarist first.
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.
“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.