An Interview with Tony McKee – By Philip Smolen

Tony McKee loves film music. You can ask him anything about film scores and famous movie composers and Tony will wax poetic for hours. It’s clear from corresponding with Tony that he knows and appreciates the colorful and varied history of movie music. Well, Tony himself has started making inroads as a film composer. His score for the indie hit Volumes of Blood has garnered a lot of attention and indie producers have put Tony’s cell number on their speed dial list.

Wanting to know more about Tony’s interests and passion, I reached out to the Tennessee native and he graciously took time out from his busy recording schedule to answer my questions.
RC: Tony, where is your base of operations?
TM: I currently live in Franklin, Tennessee which is about 15 minutes south of Nashville.

RC: Who was your primary musical influence growing up?

TM: That’s a loaded question. I come from a musical family and was surrounded by all kinds of music. At a very young age I started collecting film scores. Batman Returns and Gettysburg were two of my all time favorite film scores.

RC: When did you become aware of the importance of film music to a film?

TM: Probably when my mom introduced me to the film Gone with the Wind. “Tara’s Theme” is such a powerful piece of film music and Max Steiner totally knocked it out of the park with that movie. Then later in life I saw my first Halloween flick. Carpenter’s score was a character in its own right. If you didn’t have that score, you might as well not of had Michael Myers either.

RC: What is your primary instrument and what additional instruments do you play?

TM: I’m a drummer of sorts (laughs). I have a Cajon that I like to play. I also poke around on the keyboard a bit.

RC: Do you have any formal music training?

TM: I was in high school band and then studied percussion in college and performed with the orchestra and percussion ensemble.

RC: Tony, you’ve been in bands. Does being in a band prepare you in any way to write film music?

TM: It does. You learn by being in a band that there are many things going on at once. You learn about counter melodies and harmonies that support the main melody and so on.

RC: How is composing film music different than composing music for a band?

TM: Well, with film you don’t always compose to a steady tempo. And a lot of times a single piano note or a few notes is all you need to evoke the emotion you’re trying to get. I feel like you have more liberty with film music because there are no real rules. You can kind of make your own as you go; at least as far as musical theory is concerned.

RC: What is your film music composing process?

TM: I like to have my director give me notes. It can be anything from “I want this to sound like this score or that score” to a scene by scene breakdown. It’s really fun when the director just gives you a blank canvas and tells you to do your own thing (laughs), but a little direction is always good to have. If the director has a lot of notes, I will read them first before screening the movie for the first time, if not I watch first then apply whatever direction I’ve been given. Then once I get so much of the score started, I’ll send it out to be approved or disapproved by the director. Then we tweak if we need to and keep moving along.

RC: How did you get involved with the film Volumes of Blood?

TM: I was just starting out with my film composing, and I was looking for local film festivals to attend in order to hit directors and producers up for work. I saw where The River City Festival of Films in Owensboro was coming up, so I emailed P.J. and asked if I could come and promote myself. Then one thing led to another and P.J. emailed me and asked me if I wanted to do the music for VOB, and of course I jumped on it.

RC: When you are recording a score, do you use live instruments? Do you use MIDI as well?

TM: I mainly stick to MIDI simply because I don’t have an elaborate set up in my studio. I have tons and tons of virtual instrument libraries. And they keep getting better and better. Steve Jablonsky did the score for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake using virtual instruments because there was no budget to hire an orchestra and recording time and so on. A lot of the big guys will use both virtual and live. It makes for a good rich sound.

RC: Do you agree that film music shouldn’t call attention to itself?

TM: I do. I feel that a score is there to give contrast and add color and to help tell the story, not to overshadow it. There are many scenes in films that work brilliantly without a musical score in the background. But for horror, a lot of the jump scares are almost always better with a loud hard hitting cue.

RC: Tony, let’s play a game. I’m going to list six famous film composers and you tell me which of their scores is your favorite and why.

1. John Carpenter – TM: The Fog (1980). I love the simplisticness of it. I love the main theme where the piano plays the melody and then the synth follows with the same riff. It’s a great example of a good old Call and Response. I love the instrumentation he used in this film.

2. Danny Elfman – TM: Oh my gosh, he has so many! I love his work on The Wolfman (2010). I know that movie gets mixed reviews, but his work on that film is outstanding.

3. Miklos Roza – TM: Julius Caesar (1948). It’s classic Hollywood at its best! When you hear the overture, it’s obvious that Miklos loved his work, did his homework and that his music is gonna add that something extra that just makes this film one of the best of its time.

4. Bernard Herrmann – TM: As cliché as it seems, I gotta go with Psycho (1960). The fact that it’s all strings is awesome! My favorite cues are “The City” and “The Parlor”. The fact that he pulls off the angst and terror and mystery without using a full orchestra, speaks for the talent he had. Nothing can compare.

5. Alan Silvestri – TM: Am I a complete dork if I say Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)? LOL! I dunno, that’s a fun movie I have some nostalgic feelings tied up with that film. LOL! But, then again it maybe a tie between Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future trilogy. I Love the 80s. I think the scores back then were very entertaining.

6. Dimitri Tiomkin – TM: Giant (1956)! Hands down! Such an epic movie deserves an equally epic score! And Dimitri delivers this and more! Right from the main title, you know this movie is gonna be big! And who can’t fall in love with Jett (James Dean’s character) even more after hearing the “Jett Rink Theme”? Classic!

RC: Who do you rely on most when you are composing a film score?

TM: Solitude and input from my director. Those two elements are crucial for me to work. You have to invest so much of yourself into scoring a film. You have to really get inside it and understand what is going on and become an actor yourself; so solitude for that part. Then having the director to help steer me in the right direction is a must.

RC: What are you working on now?

TM: I’m actually taking a break from film scoring to work on a new country CD. Like scoring a project, this takes full concentration and dedication. So once I am finished with that, I will be looking for more projects when I can fit them into my schedule. It’ll be hard with a tour that starts next year, but if timing is right then I will definitely do it.

RC: Tony, where can Rogue Cinemaniacs find your music?

TM: Here’s where your readers can find me:

RC: Thank you so much Tony and good luck to you! I know we’ll be hearing a lot more from you down the road.

TM: Thanks a lot, Phil.