Fil Eisler, composer for the TV show Empire and recent film CHiPs, says that "everything has a pulse to it and you have to be able to pick up on it." His ability to find that pulse has laid a foundation for his work as a session player and producer. Working toward grand orchestral compositions found in such shows as Revenge and Empire, he's been made aware of the power of the single voice within a larger ensemble and works to find the human element rather than relying on easy samples.
I spoke with Eisler about his work on Empire, which is currently in the middle of its third season, about how he balances television with film, and about how he finds a way of not being pigeonholed into a single genre.
In one previous interview, you talk about your background with bands giving you a different perspective. Could you expand on that?
There's something to be said for, at certain times, writing for different instruments idiomatically. So, if you're writing for orchestra you need to know what an orchestra can do, what those individual instruments are capable of, what sounds good on them, what doesn't. I think with instruments from rock bands, to be able to write more idiomatically for instruments like guitar and for it not to sound really corny you sort of have to live it a little bit.
When I was a session player, I used to get hired to play on records and the kind of producers that would hire me did so [both] for my musical ability [and] for my record collection and what my sensibilities were — what I grew up listening to, and what I was going to bring stylistically to their record as opposed to "yeah, I can definitely play those notes for you." I mean, there are times I think you should deliberately not write idiomatically for instruments and you might come up with something interesting, but it's a fine line between something incredibly inventive and doing something that just sounds like you really don't know what you're doing.
How did you eventually make or discover an ability to shift from that sort of band scene to what you're doing with Empire, which uses big orchestras and is a different language?
It is a very different language — which you know, I have to confess I always felt like I was catching up on. I started studying that style of music when I was very young, and then I kind of dropped it in my teens instead of going to college, which was the original plan. I remember when I went to the audition to go to music school, at that point all I was interested in was the studio they had at the school. The last thing I wanted to do was any more theory. The last thing I wanted to do was go study counterpoint, and all I wanted to do really was be in that studio and to be learning how to record and make records. So, in the end what happened was I went and took the fabled year out.
I deferred for a year, and then I ended up deferring for 20 years. I ended up working in a recording studio and my first gig really was working in a snack shop and vacuuming the floor in a rehearsal studio, which also had a recording studio: a very low-tech, early '90s 16-track studio where local bands would come and save up and do the demos.
During the week, the place would be pretty empty because it was on the outskirts of London where I grew up, in south London, in a really rough neighborhood where basically bands had day jobs and would come and play on the weekend. Most of them weren't pro bands. It gave me a really great environment in which to learn and mess things up. The classical side of things really didn't start to fall back into my life until, I guess, [my] early 30s.
Was that necessitated by getting into television and film?
Somewhat. It wasn't like I needed to go and learn to write with an orchestra. In fact, when I started scoring, that wasn't my intention at all, really. It's just I started getting turned on to lots more orchestral music that I liked. You know when you when you go to school, at least when I was sort of threatening to go to music school, it was very stuffy back then — especially in England. You learned about classical music and about the history of music, and when they say classical music they meant Mozart and Beethoven and Haydn and they weren't talking much about modern music or stuff I would have probably been much more interested in. I was interested in going to see the Kodo drummers play, or to see Archaos, which was a circus in London where they chainsawed instruments in half. That's what I wanted to go and see.
Of course, much later when I started listening to more orchestral and choral music again, I'm thinking I really want to catch up with this. Suddenly it all happened at the same time because I needed to go back and restudy the Classical period and really know what it was about again. But, I was also being flooded with all of these modern composers that were really blowing my mind, music that I just didn't know existed before.
In a recent interview about CHiPs, you mentioned how you kind of go to the dirtier side of things. Does a project like that CHiPs feed into your more classical side?
In some ways, I try not to not to let the two interfere with each other too much. I'll tell you why. One of my favorite orchestral arrangers for songs was George Martin, and he's actually one of my favorite composers. He didn't write that much music — I guess he was too busy producing some band or something — but he wrote incredibly economical, to-the-point orchestral music.
Just look at the arrangements versus, say, the Phil Spector stuff. Phil Spector was what you would expect of Phil Spector: there was a choir and that big sound. If you look at George Martin's arrangements, what really spoke to him, what [his arrangements] really complemented, was the simplicity of the harmony in the Beatles' writing. The Beatles, for guys who knew apparently nothing about conventional harmony and theory, some of that stuff they wrote is so incredibly intuitive. Just spot-on.
With CHiPs, I sort had the hardest time making the orchestral stuff and the band stuff work together. So, a lot of it was making themes. There are definitely a couple of very melodic themes in there; one main one, which is sort of the villain theme, and you can hear it in some of the band stuff, you can [also] hear [in] some of the orchestral stuff. That's where you have to be really careful because there are some scores that will have this elaborate melodic theme somewhere in the orchestral stuff and then suddenly you hear a sort of '80s sounding dystopian guitar playing and you just want to jump out of a window. So, it was finding a way to [span those worlds].
How do you do that?
One of the ways is by playing with musicians who really live in that world. I'm the one that has to sort of straddle both a little bit. I'm not an orchestral player: the most I've played in was an ensemble that was a dance band when I was a kid and I was playing guitar. It was a school dance band, so I understood what it meant to watch a conductor and stuff like that, but I never played a traditional orchestral instrument. I never played in an orchestra.
Actually, I was very lucky that one of my first big breaks was Revenge, which was an ABC show where I had an orchestra every week. They grew to love orchestral music on that show, as I did, and just sort of demanded it get bigger and bigger every week and that show ran for almost half a decade. So, for half a decade I had an orchestra to try things out, to conduct, to really learn what works and what doesn't work as a conductor. I also had some very good conducting teachers. What they do as an orchestra, they're incredible.
Similarly, [for] the band, I didn't pick a bunch of generic "Hey, we can do anything" players. They all were very individual, they're all very opinionated. I went to that even though that can sometimes make the sessions more difficult because you have people chipping in opinions and not necessarily just agreeing with you. They are people I've worked with for a long time. I want to hear their voice come through a bit more than some sort of generic copy-the-samples kind of thing. I want it to be human and inventive. The invention is part of it and that's why I think recording scores is almost my favorite part of the whole process because it's kind of like producing records. That's something that I've always loved doing and being apart.
Do you define that space — whether it be the sort of band element or orchestra — that this is what's on the page, but there's space to play here?
It depends. If it's a smaller ensemble you have a better chance of doing that. So, certainly with bands I want to leave room for those happy accidents to happen because that's what makes it magic. Otherwise I might as well play everything myself and it will just be me, and that would be a different sound.
With an orchestra that would not be a good idea. It would descend into chaos. I torture orchestras sometimes with doing stuff over and over again and I know they hate doing that, but it really is the same as when you're recording a band, it's about getting a magical take. You can play it perfectly, note for note, over and over again. But then there will be a take that makes the hair on the back of the neck stand up — and at the risk of making myself unpopular sometimes I'm going to hold out for that take, because it's going to make all the difference to the scene.
Even with the orchestra that I work with over and over again here in Hollywood, I've seen a few eyerolls like that before, and I drag them through it — and when we do get that take, I have brought a few of them into the control room, and they completely get it and then they're happy to go there as well because they want to give their best. They want to sound their best.
The only thing that is your enemy in that situation is time. That's one of the reasons I like to conduct. It's quicker for me. Things do sound different in the booth, and I have a great team to catch whatever I don't catch when they're sitting there and listening to it through the speakers, but being in the room allows me to communicate much more quickly with the orchestra. I learned to do things on a clock, and with musicians that good, when you realize that the session is going to stop in five minutes flat and you have a four-minute cue to record and you have one take left to do it in and you haven't got it yet, a whole new energy happens in the room.
This is one of the intangible things about conducting an orchestra too. Ask any good conductor about it — and again, I'm in no way comparing myself to these guys. I'm a baton owner, they're conductors. But, someone like Dave Newman who I study with, who's a fantastic teacher and fantastic conductor, would tell you — and he's been doing it for 30 years — that he has no idea what it actually means to be a conductor. There is this intangible thing about the communication between all the musicians in the room and the conductor. When they know they have a certain amount of time, it's almost like a live performance. They have to get it spot on and the concentration just gets ratcheted up to another level. That kind of tension is incredible to me. It's the place where really amazing music can happen sometimes.
I try not to question my instincts if it works great. If it works great, be bloody grateful and move on. Don't question it, whatever you do. It's the same with performance. If it's great, I don't care why it's great. It's great because somebody dropped a coffee cup in the middle of the take and happened to sound good? Fine by me. The music has to be real no matter what it does.
So, at the same time you're doing all this you're also balancing at least two TV shows, right? And you're in the middle of Empire right now. How do you balance all that and keep something like Empire, which I imagine from a normal television schedule is taxing, but then achieve it the way you're achieving it? How do you keep the voice in that scenario fresh? I imagine the workflow of it is quite something.
It is, but funnily enough, those things get easier as they go along. They're always the hardest at the pilot stage when it's more like making a movie in an incredibly compressed amount of time and ten times the amount of pressure when everybody is trying to figure out what the hell it is you're actually making. That's always incredibly stressful. The logistics are being figured out and everything's being established, and that takes a lot of, like you said, "boots on the ground" work.
But, as you get on to season two and season three, hopefully at that point everybody on the show has sort of figured out what they're doing, what they want the characters to do. When you have a writers' room as strong as the one on Empire, they have a longer-term arc in mind for the whole story. So, at that point things become certainly not automatic, but much more well-oiled and they function much quicker.
The other thing that's a huge help — I cannot emphasize how big a help it is — is being able to work with live musicians because it keeps it fresh. It keeps it always about performance. Just like the actors are always about the written word and the performance. If all you have is a sequencer, it is much harder for that to consistently be interesting in a way that has some humanity to it.
I'll qualify that by saying it's completely doable, but it takes way more time. I'm about to do a movie, which is sort of a sci-fi, almost horror film with what's essentially a love story at the center of it. It's almost completely non-orchestral, non-traditional instrumentation of any sort. Those are the hardest things to do, and they take the longest. They can be some of the most rewarding, but they take way more time because you have to find it. It's not just finding melodies. It's not just crafting a certain style with a palette you understand inside and out. It's creating a completely new palette from scratch. You don't know what your lead instruments are, you don't know what the rhythmic instruments are. You've got to find every single nut and bolt from scratch.
So, I think to make that kind of music interesting is far more work. When you have an orchestra or any kind of live group, you can write sketches and you can leave room for a great performance and it will lift the film. It also just makes it a lot easier because just making mockups, making synth orchestra sound anything approaching good is just endless tedium and hard work. It's not fun.
How do you think that helps the narrative work in Empire? You're balancing so much music, between what you're doing and the [hip-hop/R&B/pop] music of the show, which is so integral and so integrated. Is it just a matter of the orchestra sound being dynamically different from what's part of the narrative in the show?
One, it's establishing a language so if your audience sees and hears it in a certain way from the beginning and accepts that, grows to accept that, then they expect to hear a certain idiom and they feel very natural when it comes up. It's not like an orchestra suddenly popped out of the wall for no reason in the fifth episode. But, it is a similar thing of balancing because the songs in the show are so important and such an integral part. It's the closest thing I've really done to a musical, I think. You have to find ways of seamlessly getting in and out of those songs and those beats.
Again, it's about authenticity as well. They have real songwriters in there, people who make beats for a living and do it better than anybody else in the world. So, it's actually not that hard because it's inspiring watching them do their thing just like it's inspiring watching the actors do their thing. Watching Terrence Howard really dig into a scene is a hair-raising experience; he's pretty incredible.
Your approach with Empire is almost allowing a certain accessibility to ideas of canon by not being canon, but very much embracing the old guard of classicism. Do you feel that way or not?
There are a few times when we've been able to point the compass in that direction a little bit. That's one of the nice things about such a deliberately melodramatic show is that you get to do these very broad gestures that would make some sense in terms of classical music or other orchestral concert music, but would probably be a bit much in your everyday TV show. But, again, we've established this idiom that people now accept: it's part of the fun of watching the show, it's part of the gig. So that means we get to do some of this stuff and not just the kind of orchestral music, but also the kind of a very old world sort of film scoring, film noir style film scoring which is great fun to do. You know and not much opportunity to do it. So, I'm pretty grateful for that show.
It's hard to do it without It's seeming like a gimmick.
Right, there's certainly some of that. One of the things I learned early on from Lee Daniels, who truly is a genius, was not to underplay that nod-and-wink thing, because that's one of the reasons people buy into the show. People like the over-the-top nature of it, that's the whole point. When it becomes just sort of a dirge melodrama then it's lost its way. They need to have a bit of fun with it, it needs to be a little over-the-top but then just grounded enough to keep you pulled in.
But yeah, there are times when we've got to do things like an RKO 1930s monster matinee soundtrack in a context that sort of feels normal somehow. And all of a sudden, I'm having a think about Max Steiner and that kind of thing. It's incredibly fun to be in a show that's that fluid and can cover a lot of different ground — and feel, as you said, not gimmicky.