Jeff Russo is an American composer, songwriter, guitarist, vocalist and music producer, best known as one of the two founding members of American rock band Tonic. He is also a founding member of acoustic rock band Low Stars.
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Hey reddit! Now that I’m working on Legion, I thought I’d return to answer some more of your questions.
My short bio: I started out my music career as a founding member of the Grammy-nominated rock band, Tonic. Now, I am also a Television and Film composer, scoring music for shows such as FX’s award-winning “Fargo” and fan-favorite “Legion,” HBO’s “The Night Of," CBS’ “American Gothic” and the recent video game release, “What Remains of Edith Finch.”
I am excited for my second AMA here. Starting at 12pm PT/3pm ET, I look forward to answering your questions about my music or anything else. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook to keep updated about all of my projects.
My Proof: My tweet here!
EDIT: That's all the questions I have time for today. Thanks so much for joining me...I'll me back again soon.
What was the most challenging aspect of scoring Legion?
Balancing the line between what was real and what was not real without tipping my hat to what was real and not real. The idea was to never give it away but to invite the audience to join the character in not knowing what was real and what wasn't real.
I love your work! What's your love for marching band drums stem from?
I think the love is of percussion and rhythm. Since my first instrument really was drums, I always tend to go back to that at some point. To me, percussion is really the thing that moves people. Rhythm is the thing that really moves people.
What is the secret sauce to your success?
It would be a combination of mayonnaise, ketchup and relish.
How do you choose when to write the music based off of what's going on in the character's mind internally, vs. the atmosphere/context of the scene itself?
You know, it's always about the story. It's whatever the story will dictate. Sometimes it's because I've read the scene, or seen the actor, which can be significantly different, so there is no one specific time.
Do you know if the cast/crew love Mr. Wrench's drum sequence as much as us viewers?
Apparently they do! :-)
What is your favorite instrument to record with? And what is your go-to guitar?
I don't really have a favorite instrument to record with but my favorite guitar is my 1959 television yellow Les Paul special.
Do you lead a bi-coastal lifestyle? How often are you on the road/traveling as a composer?
Also, what is your favorite string instrument besides the guitar?
I tend to travel a lot less now than I have in the past. I do still try to play shows with the band so travelling is still a part of my life. I love most stringed instruments but I would say I have a tendancy to favor cello as an instrument that I write for a lot.
If you could only see the way, I karaoke this jam! Do you ever go out to karaoke nights, fire up this classic, and blow the doors off peoples minds?
I do actually go and karaoke but I refuse to karaoke my own songs.
Is it at all unnerving, when composing a theme song, to know it will consistently reappear in the future?
Yeah, it's a lot to live up to for a show trying to figure out what is going to be the thing that occurs every episode. But I try to think of it more like writing a piece of music which represents the show in its entirety.
A lot of characters in Fargo and Legion have very distinctive themes (David, Yuri, Mr. Wrench, etc.), was there one that you found particularly fun to make music for?
In Legion, writing music for David was particularly interesting to me because there were so many different aspects to his personality. With that said, it's all fun.
I know this is probably a pretty common question, but is there an estimate as to how soon we'll be able to get our hands on some of the fantastic score to Fargo Year 3?
We're currently working on the soundtrack now. Info will be made available on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
What are your personal favorite tv shows based on their score?
It's so difficult to say what's a favorite TV show. I have a lot of current shows I enjoy watching but with that said, I don't get to watch a lot of TV because I don't have a lot of time, but I certainly do love Homeland and its score. I loved Taboo.
how did you guys get Mick Fleetwood in your video? did you tell him he could only see if he opened up his eyes?
That was a management thing. We had the same manager.
How much of a show do you try to watch before composing its theme song?
I usually try to write the theme song prior to having a main title sequence but it's likely that I have read 3-4 scripts at the very least, but sometimes I haven't seen any picture yet.
Do you think music plays a more important role over acting in a show while trying to incite fear, terror, anxiety etc.?
I think you can't rank one as more important than the other, obviously it's not a show without the actors but music is normally the heart of the show. In that way, I think music plays a very important role in terms of guiding the emotional core of the material.
What were some of the big differences about scoring a video game versus a tv show or film?
I think schedule was the biggest difference. I did treat it in the same way from a narrative point of view.
Have you gotten a chance to collaborate with any of your musical heroes? Was it while touring or composing? Tell us a story!
That's a difficult question to answer. I don't think I've had a chance to collaborate with some of my musical heroes but I've had a chance to meet them along with way, I've had a chance to see them do their thing up close and personal.
Who do you believe the best tv/movie composer is and who do you think is the greatest overall composer of all time?
It is almost impossible to answer the first and second part of that question. I have a lot of favorites and a lot of favorite composers in general. In terms of overall composition, the classics will always be among some of my favorites. Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Holst and even some modern composers such as John Adams, who is one of my favorites. In terms of film and TV, I do love John Williams. I know that sounds cliche almost, but it's true - he writes a very, very memorable melody and to me there's nothing better.
Any cool typewriter-like uses of instruments in this season of Fargo? Anything along those lines in Legion?
In Fargo, I decided to introduce sounds from various automobiles because our main character is the parking lot king of Minnesota. Also I used a lot of sounds from decks of cards shuffling and cards being dealt because out other main characters were connected to bridge playing.
How did you get involved with Fargo?
Noah Hawley, who I've worked with on many occasion, asked me what do you think about working on Fargo and I said "f*ck yes".
Hey Jeff, what is your favorite rock band and who is your favorite composer?
My favorite rock band's gotta be Pink Floyd/Led Zepplin. See above for fave composer.
What do you like more, working within a particular time period (Fargo season 2) or working with Legion's combination of eras?
Neither one is any more fun for me, I think I really enjoy doing both. Working in a period is fun because I get to experient with stuff that was done in another time period. Jumping between periods is fun and really it's all just fun.
Do you think there's a secret to making a theme as catchy as possible?
No, there is no secret. I think that a catchy melody is a catchy melody and sometimes they come and sometimes they don't - it's all about catching the inspiration. There isn't a recipe for a catchy melody.
Love your work. In the Legion promos, there was a piece of music with an aggressive cello hit. Did I miss it, or was that included in OST album? You can find it at the very end of this promo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTf5xarY72Y
A lot of times, promos are made up of library music and score mixed together, sometimes edited together crazy and I've never heard before. I don't always see and hear promos so sometimes they take music out of context and use something that isn't mine.
How does it feel to be the third Russo brother?
I'm assuming you mean the directing brothers. I would love to meet those guys but I've never met them. We do share a name and that's about it.
Hey there! Big fan of the scores you have put together without knowing they were all yours! But since you and Noah Hawley seem to share a creative vision, at least recently. To me, it felt like Legion was more of a visual spectacle that the music was a bit underappreciated. However, the recent season of Fargo seemed to put a bit more emphasis on the score than in recent years. Was this something you and Noah Hawley talked about doing in advance? Or was it just an addition to the story created? Anyways, cheers to another great piece of storytelling!
Interestingly enough, there's a lot more music in Legion than in Fargo. I think context is the key to the answer to your question. Music plays just as an important as a role to Legion as it does to Fargo. S3 of Fargo we did make much more a bolder statement with music that we had in previous seasons. But there wasn't a specific conversation with its impact or not.
Have you ever written any christmas music? What is the key to this kind of music?
No, so I don't know the key to writing Christmas music.
What is the craziest instrument you have used in a score?
I definitely think utilising a drum core is probably the most different for me, I don't know if it's all that crazy.
Hi Jeff!! I was just wondering how you go about making an anthology show's score (like Fargo) where each season has to have the same vibe and has the same actors but a different feel to it. Is it difficult to come up with something new that also has nods to the older seasons and how do you go about creating that?
It is complicated. Keeping everything in the same tone does make it a little easier but having to come up with new themes makes it more complex without sounding like I'm copying myself. It's a very fine line but it does make the idea of a new season more interesting.
Was it fun to create a score for a cartoon?
I've never done a cartoon.
Do you have any gear you've used since your touring days?
Yes, most of my guitars.
What's your relationship with the showrunners, are there any you've worked with who are too set in their vision of the score or are too invested in the temp track to listen to any creative choices you make or are they normally pretty lenient on what you can do?
It varies from show to show. Some showrunners know exactly what they want and tell me, some are more open to musical ideas and it is very easy for a filmmaker to become attached to a temp score which can be frustrating at times or make things very easy.
LOVING season 3 of Fargo! I thought it was brilliant introducing each character to the music of Peter and the Wolf. In general, how much direction do you get and how much freedom do you have to make your own creative choices? Thank you for being here!
There is a lot of freedom and there is a lot of direction. The idea with Fargo is a constant back and forth discussion with how to approach scenes and episodes. Noah does have a clear vision to how he wants to show and following that vision is my goal.
So I take it you've been in charge of Fargo Season 3's music (or has it been all seasons?)
It's certainly one of the best composed shows on television- so kudos for that
However- my question:
It seems like for certain characters- you've stuck to the same assigned instruments that came from the 'Peter and the Wolf' parable- namely Nikki's 'themes' (for lack of a better term). Was this intentional/by Hawley's design or were you allowed to make the decisions in that regard? From the way she sways her figure when she walks- it seems like it's an intended effect (it also pays to have a good looking woman to actually do it lol).
First of all, yes I've composed the music for all three seasons. The idea of instruments for a character wasn't new to this season. It wasn't solely based on the 'Peter and the Wolf' parable although using the actual music in episode 4 was a decision that we thought about from the very beginning for that particular episode. In terms of the themes and motifs for the characters, that was something design from the show's inception.
I'm sorry in advance here, but the only inkling I've ever had as to how a score is composed on a TV series is courtesy of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall".
Does your own personal demeanor or mood at the time your crafting something play into it? Have you ever noticed afterwards "Wow, I don't remember making it so dark/bouncy/fluttery?"
I'm surprised that this is the first time that somebody has ever said this. When I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I thought it was very funny to see how the process was portrayed in the movie. There ware some moments just like it, mostly it's not. However my personal demeanor and mood of the time of course would have some effect to what I create since state of mind really always plays a part in almost any sort of creative process.
Favorite part about Comic-Con?
The crazy costumes.
Hey Jeff! Are you hiring any interns or assistants? How about 35-year-old ones? :)
Right now we have a full staff.
What is your favorite kind of cheese?
Do you use virtual or digital instruments in your scoring process, or are you strictly acoustic/analog?
If so, do you have a favorite virtual instrument to start with?
Yes, I use a combination of all instruments - acoustic, analog, digital, virtual, whatever works. I do love Zebra.
WHO WOULD BE CAST 2 PLAY U IN A MOVIE?? TELL MEH NOW PLEZ
I hope it's Ryan Gosling.
Do you ever worry about accidentally plagiarizing yourself?
I dealt with this earlier. I'm not particular worries about accident plagiarizing myself. I do try to make sure I'm not doing that but the fact is a score will always end up sounding like me.
As big fan of your work in Fargo, I am curious as to how you would define the central idea of the show! And the central idea you tried to get at the with the score!? Also, I particularly loved the use of the drum solo and am curious about its origin!?
I look at it like a tale of good vs evil. I think the central idea that I try to get with the score is beauty in the face of horror. A lot of that is me trying to play counter to what you see on the screen. This beautiful backdrop of the mid-upper Midwest juxtaposed to absurd violence in the same way that I look at it from the score perspective which is a lush, spare and pretty tune played against something that might be horrific.
Do you ever get a chance in your shows to do featured songs?
Occasionally I do get to record and produce featured songs as in Episode 5 of Fargo Season 3, Noah and I did a cover version of Ship of Fools.
were any of the actors/characters in Legion easier to score for than others? did any of their performances give you inspiration for a score or make it easier to come up with themes that fit their storylines???
The theme for Sid and David came particularly easy for me, I think based mostly on Rachel's performance which seemed to help inspire the piece of music for them.
Do you ever work with additional music composers? How does that workflow operate?
The answer is on occasion, yes. Occasionally that has more to do with taking themes that have already been written and arranging them into new cues. I would say new and smaller music that is used in incidental work.
What's your advice for a wannabe composer of movies/games scores with a solid piano and guitar background and good editing skills?
I think that the idea is that you want to keep writing to find your own voice. The most important part of composing music for anything is to have a unique voice. I think that is the best way to move forward. In terms of advice on how to get into the business, there's so many different ways to come up that it's impossible for me to say.
When can we see you perform your scoring work on stage?
I'm doing a concert for the Televsion Academy at the end of the month and we are currently planning some sort of concert of music from various projects I mine to happen at some point soon.
what's the strangest or most non-standard notation you've seen used in scoring a commercial project? how do non-musicians typically write down specific musical ideas for you to interpret?
The idea is to try and verbalize how you want something to be played. It's not usually me interpreting it, it would be the musicians.
What is your favorite part of Los Angeles?
Who is your favorite action film star?
Who is your dream film director to collaborate with?
I've thought another question if you don't mind me asking.
What song of yours means the most to you?
A song called Lemon Parade.
Obviously, many of the pieces in Fargo and Legion are very well thought out to match with the scene. What is your process with working with the writers and directors to get the music right?
And thanks for "Choir and Crickets". It helps me relax.
First, thank you. It's different for every project. With Fargo and Legion, we sort of set out on a clear path with the sound of the show from an overall perspecitive, and then we worked on an episode-basis to how to make the score work. It's trial and error mostly. I get a copy of the episode and I look at it and we look at what the music should be for that episode. I write then we review and may make changes.
We always talk about hard work and dedication, passion and talent, which are most important, so different barrel;
what was your biggest shortcut you ever took that worked out in your career, if you have or can recall ?
As in some amazing technique that helped you learn or progress impressively fast, or a career move ?
I feel some people could take offense to this question, but i mean none!
There a re a number of tricks in order to be able to write faster and one of them is to make sure you have a set idea as to what your sound palette is for a particular project. You're not constantly searching for a sound or instrument or articulation. I think that is I don't know if that's a shortcut, but it's a trick of the trade.
I've heard Zebra is a fantastic synth. I need to pick it up.
Do you use Omnisphere?
I have used Omnisphere in the past, I haven't used it in a while.
Who is the biggest non-musical influence on you?
My kids :-)
When you are faced with writer's block, how do you get inspired? Do you meditate?
With Legion, were you told what was real and what wasn't real before scoring? Do you watch a whole season before beginning to score, or do you score an episode at a time? How many times do you watch an episode before jumping in?
I did know what was real and what wasn't real. I started writing the music after reading the first script and I continued to write music to the scripts and to the shows as they came in. I definitely do not try to score a show like that one episode at a time, it's more like broad strokes and refining of the score in an episodic basis.
What do you think sets you part from other composers?
What makes your sound unique?
I don't know what sets me specifically apart from anyone else but I do think every individual has a sound and that's usually pretty unique even when composers are trying to sound like other composers. You can't ever truly achieve that, all composers have their own individuality. Finding a way to inact that voice is the most important part of being a composer.
Do you work closely with others in the sound department on the show? My favorite part of the series so far is the silent scene at the end of the episode 7.
Yes I do co-ordinate with Nick Forshager who's our sound organised on Fargo and Legion. Sound is such an important part on those two shows and how music and sound cooperated together is important. That particular episode was so much fun to work on, because there ere moments with just sound and moments with just music.
hello, i thought i'd just mention that i think your scores for fargo season 1 and 2 were incredible. i plan on watching legion later in the summer, so i'll keep an ear (?) out for you. my question is where do you begin when your creating the music for television? do you watch the footage first and make it up on the spot, does the creator give you an idea for what he/she wants and do you have much time to plan what you want to make?
It's different for every project. Ideally I like to start writing themes at the script stage so I do have more time to fashion a score from episode to episode.
Wow, just stumbled upon this. First off, Lemon Parade was amazing, many thanks.
Second, If You Could Only See was my break-up anthem when my first serious gf dumped me, so sort-of-thanks for that as well.
Third, the Supreme Court recently announced that they would be [taking up a case involving Gerrymandering in Wisconsin] (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/us/politics/justices-to-hear-major-challenge-to-partisan-gerrymandering.html). Do you believe the Court should get involved in what may be a political and not constitutional issue?
So 1) thank you. 2) Sorry about your girl, but thank you. 3) I think the court should get involved in potentially anything constitutional. Gerrymandering sounds like a word that connotes tampering so if that is the case, it should be looked at by a court that does handle constitutional issues. Everybody has a fair and equal representation.
Do you cry at night?
Sorry, who are you again?
I am just me.