Several months ago, Indieshare.com hosted an online independent film composer contest which featured the musical stylings of over a dozen indie film composers and amateur musicians. After the votes were cast, only five of the composers made the grade, including first place winner Michael Damon. Since claiming victory, Michael has been busy on a variety of projects, including the continued joy of running Virtual Productions with his wife Carolyn. Thankfully, Mike has taken a brief moment out of his immensely busy schedule to answer some questions from yours truly, concerning his career as a musician, and the indie music biz in general.
First off, Michael I’d like to congratulate you on your first place spot in the Indieshare Indie Composer Contest and I’d also like to apologize for taking so long to get this interview done. I may be a busy man, but I’m sure that in your line of work you must be ten times busier.
Thanks Jordan. I’m very pleased to have a chance to do this interview. The Indieshare contest was a great experience. There were some fantastic compositions entered, and I’m flattered to have been chosen from such a talented group of composers.
All right, for my first question Michael, I’d really like to know more about your musical expertise. How long have you been composing music and where did you learn your craft? Are you self taught, did you get private music lessons, or did you go to school for it? And, out of curiosity, what musical instrument(s) do you play?
My parents were both classical musicians, so I grew up listening to a combination of orchestral, pop and rock music. I played brass early on, then studied privately on piano, guitar and voice through high school and college. I played in a series of rock bands while working on my electronics degree, then discovered recording and studio work shortly after graduating from college. I’ve been writing songs and composing instrumental pieces for years. I don’t have any formal training in composition, so my music comes composing. My instrumentals have always had a cinematic feel, and when we opened the studio I focused on that aspect of my music. I started to look for scoring opportunities in indie film, and with game companies and music libraries. As far as instruments, these days I play piano, synthesizers, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and assorted hand percussion. I also do orchestral simulations and drum programming using sequencing and samples.
In 2001, you and your wife Carolyn started up Virtual Productions. Were there any difficulties in starting up this sound & music design facility and did your business grow up quickly or has it been a slow and steady process?
It’s been pretty much a slow build. We were fortunate to be able to launch the studio with a big corporate client who was doing an ongoing series of technology-based audio magazines. This gave us enough cashflow for me to be able to work here full time. I also had a few small music and advertising clients at the start. Up until that time I had been doing freelance engineering for several Connecticut studios and composing projects from a small writing studio in our home. For the first couple of years we reinvested much of our revenue into gear upgrades so we could compete for more serious music, film and game projects. At this point we feel like we can offer a nice mix of composing, post-production and recording services.
Virtual Productions works on the music and sound for a lot of indie films and video games. What are some of the more high profile projects your company has worked on in recent years?
We were involved with sound design for two films which have screened at the Sundance Festival – GOWANUS, BROOKLYN (Best Short, 2004), and SWIM TEST (Official Selection, 2005). Earlier this summer I did the sound design for the mob comedy JOHNNY SLADE’S GREATEST HITS, which stars several character actors from The Sopranos. The film just premiered at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and has festival screenings scheduled in Germany and Boston for the fall. (Checkout the Johnny Slade Video Clip.) Earlier this year I had a chance to score the short noir thriller BURNING RED for NYC director Julissa Carmona. The film has a very Hitchcock feel, so I went for a sound reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s classic Hitch scores, gradually shifting to icy metallic soundscapes and crunching rock as the film progresses. On the game front, I’ve been doing a lot of music for Grand Virtual, a company which produces games for online casinos. Their games often revolve around cultural themes, and I’ve done pieces for them in a variety of world music styles. Just last week I was composing Asian and Egyptian themes, and I’m about to start into a piece for a Tibetan casino. I also do the sound design work on these games, creating interface, item, ambient and character sounds to complement the music.
(Interviewer’s Note: Check out the Video and Audio pages of Michael’s Virtual Productions website to get a taste of his work.)
Just to play devil’s advocate for a brief moment: If given the option, would you ever abandon your work on independent films in order to do music and sound work for blockbuster Hollywood films?
That’s a tough one. I enjoy the flexibility and personal feel of working on indies. You’re right in there working with filmmakers on what’s often their first or second picture, so the passion and drive is all very fresh. At the same time I feel that my music is well suited to big action/adventure or sci-fi films, which you rarely see in independent productions because of budget restrictions. Bottom line – if I were fortunate enough to have a chance to do an epic orchestral score for a major picture, I would definitely jump at the opportunity!
Concerning your compositions, are there any musicians/composers that have had a major impact on your work?
On the film side, I’ve been heavily influenced by folks like Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Thomas Newmann and Danny Elfman. For classical composers, it would have to be Igor Stravinsky, Modest Mussorgsky, and Aaron Copland. I also enjoy experimental world-influenced artists like Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson and Jocelyn Pook.
Just for my peace of mind: Who is your favorite musical composer and why?
I’d have to say Danny Elfman, both for his whimsical and more serious music. He’s managed to forge a unique style that sounds both new and old-style TV theme quirky at the same time. I also find it very inspiring to see someone coming from the pop/rock world and having such success with a minimum of formal training.
You’ve done some work for several major television networks over the years, including NBC, USA, and The Fox Speed Channel. What type of projects did you do for these networks and was there a lot of stress involved during the work you did for them?
Most of this has come from my involvement with Sonic Librarian, a production music library based in Los Angeles. Over the past several years I’ve composed a variety of orchestral, electronica, and rock tracks for their library. Sonic works closely with the promo departments at NBC, USA, Disney and others, supplying music for on-air promos, electronic press kits, movie trailers, etc. I did a piece of quirky circus music that’s been used by both THE BIGGEST LOSER and MONK, and my orchestral music was used for a THIRD WATCH EPK last season. In the case of Fox Speed Channel, I responded to a post last fall from the music supervisor of the reality show UNIQUE WHIPS, and was able to place one of my metal tracks in the opening episode of the series. We get called on from time to time to do voiceover sessions for major networks. For example, last month we did ADR work for the MONK show. Emmy Clark, who plays the daughter of Mr. Monk’s assistant, lives nearby in Connecticut. We set her up in the booth with a Firewire video feed, and hooked up to the post house in LA via ISDN so she could loop her lines remotely. We’ve also done similar sessions for HGTV and PBS.
What other music/sound projects will you be tackling in the near future? Are there any that you are particularly looking forward to?
The big goal this year is to do my first feature score. All of my film scoring to date has been for shorts, and I’m on the lookout for a high quality feature to get involved with. I’m currently talking with a production company in New Jersey about scoring a kid’s martial arts film, which sounds like a good fit for my style. I just worked with them on a TV spot for a chain of martial arts studios, they want me to take a look at some scenes from the feature. (Here’s a clip of the TV spot: http://www.virtualproductions.net/video/mpg/kumsung.mpg) Julissa Carmona has a new horror feature in pre-production now with plans to shoot next summer, so it looks like I might be scoring that film as well. I had a great experience working with her on Burning Red, so I’m looking forward to hearing more as this new film starts to take shape. One current project is an album with Christian singer/songwriter Carolyn Cavanaugh. I’m serving as producer/arranger and engineer, as well as playing many of the instrumental tracks. Her music ranges from pop and rock to new age/celtic styles, and often includes orchestral work as well. We’ve recently finished a preliminary version of the title track: http://www.virtualproductions.net/audio/client_mp3/I_Will_Bow.m3u
Do you have any personal projects that you’ve been working on that you care to talk about?
Personal projects? Yikes, who’s got time for those?
Thank you very much for your time Michael. Before we finish up here, do you have any words of wisdom and any helpful advice that you’d like to offer to the aspiring musicians and composers that may be reading this interview?
I’m not really a big “tell you whatcha gotta do” kind of guy, but here are some thoughts: If you’re getting into composing or film scoring, try and get as much training as possible, both musical and technical. Composers these days are expected to be capable of producing finished quality masters in addition to composing music. Get a DAW (Pro Tools, Logic, Performer, etc.) and work with it until operating the gear is second nature, that way you can concentrate on creativity without getting bogged down with technology. Get the best quality synths, samplers and sample libraries you can afford (either hardware or software), and learn how to wring the maximum amount of music from them. Work on as many composing projects as possible – paid, unpaid, student films, games, etc. NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK!
For more information about Michael Damon visit his website at www. virtualproducitons.net. If you’re interested to see all of the projects he’s worked on, view his online portfolio here! Thanks again Mike and congrats!