Artist Spotlight - John Van Tongeren

If there was ever something to demonstrate the power of music  to bring the moving picture alive, then Tom &  Jerry has to be up there. Not only was the animation top-notch but the music could take a chase scene and fill it with almost limitless tension and excitement. That music could then create a moving emotion in the very next scene. This was due largely to the genius of Scott Bradley.

So imagine getting the gig to score the remake of Tom & Jerry. With so much nostalgia woven into the orginals it must have been an impossible task to take on. Exponential Audio artist John Van Tongeren got the gig. As a musician  he has worked with Chicago, Robbie Nevil, John Parr, Starship, Jeff Beck, Quincy Jones and Al Jarreau. His break in film music was with Hans Zimmer where he worked on films such as Thelma & Louise, True Romance and Drop Zone.

We sat down with him to talk about his work and the task of scoring Tom & Jerry.

So John how did it all start for you?

I've always been a performing musician so I didn't really think I was going to be a film composer at the beginning. But I did always feel like that was an avenue I was going to take eventually.  I'm a big fan of music and a big fan of film so through my music performing career, opportunities started to present themselves.  I moved to Los Angeles from Phoenix, Arizona, looking for more opportunities as a musician. I eventually got connected with people that were doing some really great things.  I was fortunate enough to become a session musician in Los Angeles and work on a lot of records.  I guess they don't call them records anymore but it was great, I had a nice little career going as a keyboard player-arranger and a producer. Right as things were going pretty much full-on for me, I had an opportunity to meet Hans Zimmer through a mutual friend who had gone to school with him back in the day in England. That was Jay Rifkin, who was my engineer through most of my productions. Obviously when you meet somebody like Hans, it can be life-changing and it was. I think I met him actually the first day he moved to Los Angeles.

Was this before Remote Control?

Yes. It was just a glimmer in somebody's eye at that point and I happened to be the first guy, the first guy that actually moved in and shared space with him. So I was in from the ground floor there and obviously that's what got me going on the film and television road. I was actually splitting my time between the two for this first few years and then things pretty much shifted all the way over to film.  So that's how I got started with the film business.

We’ve talked with several film composers over these interviews. What's your approach?

It's basically getting inside that person's head [the director] and the film's head (as I call it.) So typically, in an ideal situation, I'd like to look at the film or the show and actually look at it without any temporary music. That would probably be after having a conversation with the director or producer--whoever is working with me on the film--and see what they were interested in having. What were their thoughts about the film? And sometimes I will read a script.  The danger with a script is you make your own movie in your head. So you have to be careful unless that's the only thing that's available. So you have to approach it on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes you feel like you're not getting a lot of information from the directors and producers. Then you rely more heavily on watching the film and trusting your instincts. And then you have to find out if your instincts are on track with theirs.  Ideally I would like to see the film as that's ultimately what you're going to work with. And I don't necessarily start with the piano every time even though I am a piano player. A lot of times I don't really want to be strapped into something that falls under my fingers technically or naturally. Because that's not what is necessarily going to serve the film. So I tend to try and write things in my head, hear things in my head and then pull those down out of my brain and relate them to the sequence or whatever I'm going to store the stuff in.  I don't really write to paper anymore because it's just too slow.

Let’s talk Tom & Jerry. The Scott Bradley stuff was so core to the original Tom & Jerry. Surely that must have been coming back from your subconscious as you were thinking about doing the music for Tom & Jerry?

Well, absolutely! And when it's something so fantastic as Scott's music is, it's hard not to want to embrace it.  It also made the task pretty daunting since there isn't a budget for musicians on it.

It's just so fantastic to be involved in a project where the quality of not only musicianship but the composing was so top notch and that inspired me. I definitely became a student of his. But one of the major tasks in the new Tom & Jerry project was to figure out what I could actually do musically with samples--to get close enough so everyone’s going to go "oh this is the right vibe".

It must be very different doing a score for animation or cartoon where you're almost painting it on with a roller as opposed to the nuances of let’s say, a kitchen sink drama. I'm guessing perhaps you have to be encouraged to ham it up?

You totally do.  It's a unique beast in the music world.  You need to be able to turn on a dime and go from all these emotional situations one after another and you only have a few seconds in each one. So you must be able to musically transition between soft and something raging to something high to something low, all these things.  That's a difficult thing, especially if you're coming from a songwriter world where you've got a lot of time to shift to the next section. That's the craft of doing animation. You want to try and be as transparent as possible so it doesn't feel like it's that kind of herky-jerky situation musically.

Let's talk tech. You're a keyboard player and probably have your favorites. And we could probably wax lyrical for an hour about vintage keyboards that we've owned in the past. But let's talk now. What's the toolbox?

Kontakt would probably be the top of the list, only because I do a lot of sample-based music. So all of my orchestral and world sounds live in Kontakt. Without that I probably wouldn't be able to do my job.

I use Cubase to write and with that I'm using the VE Pro software from Vienna.

I'm using Pro Tools as basically a glorified console recording box. So I actually run all of my audio interfaces into Pro Tools hardware and my HD3 system. I'm a few versions back because I'm basically just using it to record my music and my stems.

What's the reverb journey been and when did you start discovering the whole Exponential audio thing?  Were you a Lexicon fan?

Yes, I've been a very proud owner of many Lexicon boxes. I think the PCM70 was my first purchase, I then had a PCM80, but the workhorse Lexicon I had for many years from the start of the film career onwards was the 300I.  I purchased one of those even though it was a bit more expensive than my budget. I just needed to have a really good reverb and that served me really well up to probably 5 or 6 years ago.  I still have all of them.

I was pretty happy with what I had going with Revibe and Pro Tools, and I use Ircam. I use that for stage positioning for my orchestra, not necessarily for the reverb tail, but I use it for putting everything on the stage and putting it in the proper position. That's been very helpful.

Now I’m using Exponential Audio reverbs in Cubase. They are just beautiful and I'm really happy that I took the time to jump into them. Not every reverb has got that nice clear natural feeling where it's not screaming "hey this is reverb".  It just really does what it's supposed to do in a natural way. 

I read that Michael had started Exponential Audio, but I followed him for a while without actually jumping in. I don't necessarily jump in the pool with somebody new just because other people are. I had a system that was pretty hard to beat but I've got to say,
he's beat it.

Now there's one last thing we always like to ask people when we have these conversations: just thinking back to the beginning of this journey that you've traveled as a composer, what would you say to somebody that's trying to make a life doing this?

The answer to this question is more complicated for me to give today than it was ten or fifteen years ago.  I think you have to work on having something that's unique enough.  I think you have to try and strive for a unique voice and be really versatile, which isn't necessarily unique.  You have to try and find the balance between bringing something new to the party and being able to bring everything to the party.

You have to have a way to poke through. It's not necessarily just poking through with your bold statement musically, you've got to get a forum--you have to get an audience with people.  So that's the trick now, to somehow be able to promote yourself and to take care of your finances correctly from the get-go so you can afford to do some things where you're not going to make much money.  There are so many people working for free now, even at what I do.  I go up against people that offer to do it for nothing, just so they can get the gig away from some established people.

The film world is more competitive than ever. Studios must produce content just to fill the vast amount of channels. This leads to continually shrinking budgets, especially for music. It's important to be reminded that the talent found in John Van Tongeren is worth its weight in gold!