Mike Thorne: Whats the arrangers own job description? What do you tell people you do at parties?
Jimmy Biondolillo: I always use the parallel to the script doctor in Hollywood who comes in when the story is almost ready to shoot and does some finishing touches, fleshing out the story so that it works. I think that my arrangements as a string arranger/horn arranger are often just that. Great work has already been done. How can we accent it? How can we make it seem even larger than it may already be? So, I consider myself in a way a musical doctor. I just call in and give a once-over, and say, Well lets add a little, lets tip here and tuck there and make this work that way. If I do my job right, when they go to mix they will have many options on how to make the record explode -- if I do it right. If I do it wrong, then they keep the faders down.
Youre talking about the specific sweetening arrangement.
But, you work with groups--you work with all sorts of shapes and sizes.
True. I was answering the question as to what my main role has been in the last 18 months, and thats been a sweetening perspective. When I do arrangements from the get-go, like for film or television, then its basically taking the song and, if Im asked to produce as well as arrange, then I dont really have to check with anybody. I can just go with the flow: cast it properly --keyboards, guitars, real drums, drum programming. In television and film it is often very time-oriented. They need 30 seconds here; a minute and a half here. So, I just figure out how Im going to scope this and how I am going to get drama out of it. Ive learned that in film or television, when there is a question asked when theres a question in the script, it demands a certain kind of an answer. And, when theres an exclamation or a statement, it demands a certain kind of answer. You learn little tricks of the trade. So, when Im asked from the get-go on a record, I think as an arranger. I look at the producer, such as you, and I say, Okay, Mike, whats the goal? And, if the goal is to make it ride, make it rip, make it slow, make it large, I have to use my file of tricks and craft to make that happen.
Casting is really the key, right? Youve always casted well in terms of records, and I think thats one of the things about New York that I love: you can get great cast. And, also, you steal from people their casting techniques, and I attribute that to great producers. The way they cast is so important, and the cleverness of casting, and producers like you are really good at mixing and matching. I was more traditional in my mixing and matching cause I came up in a traditional arrangement style. But, when you work around producers who dont really care that this is the best trumpet player in the world--they just care that this is the right trumpet player--that changes the way you operate.
Youre really pointing out that arranging the notes is only half of it. The other half is knowing the people who are going to deliver those notes.
Boy, thats for sure because in knowing the notes Ive learned a great lesson as Ive grown older. The technique of sitting down and orchestrating is a fun one, but it is
also a technique that Im not at my best with when Im working on a 3- or 5-minute pop record. Im great with it if Im working on a film or television queue, but in pop records I would love nothing better than to be able to hum the parts and have my orchestrator orchestrate them, and then I could either flesh them out or orchestrate the original line, and he fleshes it out accordingly. Because, to me, the process--the 50/50 process youre talking about, with half ideas and half performance--thats right on the money. When you orchestrate and you give too much time to how this is going to be perfect, I dont think you leave any leeway for personality. Thats where arrangements either fall flat or stand up tall. You take a great arrangement--even work that Im very proud of--and you give me the Memphis College Band to play it. Their intention may be good but theyre going to make me sound foolish no matter how good the notes are because they are not going how its supposed to fly. And in this town, you are surrounded by musicians who, if anything, have to be reigned in to make sure that it doesnt become their record. You have to know how to pull them back, and thats a good place to be.
How do you contrast music making, say between New York and Los Angeles, and Cleveland, where youre from?
Well, I have experience in all those towns. My extensive experiences are in London and New York. Cleveland I cant really qualify, because when I was a young man in Cleveland, I played in wedding bands--and I played poorly in wedding bands. What I loved about it is that you could play do that and still make your way through college, because everyone was so rifted by the time the bride cut the cake that they didnt really care! As long as you knew all the major chord changes and the lyrics, it was fine.
From a professional prospective I can say that for me New York has always
had an immediacy to it. Actually, this immediacy is something that, as
Ive grown older, Ive come not to enjoy so much. When I was
younger, I always disliked the laid-back approach in LA and Nashville
where they take their time with it. Now I want to take time with it! In
Los Angeles, and you used to know this, when you do string dates wed
have three hours to do one string arrangement. In New York its three
arrangements in three hours!Now I do one string arrangement in three hours,
and I know why I want it that way: I need a great amount of give and take
in a session. I need to make sure everybody is comfortable. If we get
it on the first take, fantastic; but if not, I need to know that the artist
and the producer are comfortable in sharing ideas, and that I have the
proper amount of time to execute because to me that makes it work. Now,
maybe its because Ive grown older.
It seems as if youre suggesting that here in New York it is more rough and tumble and that the boundaries between, say, production and arranging are not quite so clearly defined.
Yeah, they werent clearly defined when I was coming up in the business
because some of the best arrangers I knew were left to run the sessions
while the producer would be on the phone finding his next session. Thats
how certain people were trusted, like the man who taught me, Charlie Calello.
They trusted him to go and make a record. There were times the producers
wouldnt even be there! Wed just go in and knock it out and
then say, Well, jeez, what did he produce? Then, whend
you get the mix back, youd say, Well, thats interesting.
I wouldnt have thought of this, I wouldnt have added that.
So, this is your technique?
Yes, this and age. Really, its an age factor. Youre a fearless producer. Im a fearless arranger. When Im around young people and Im fearless, I find I intimidate them with that. So, I have to not be as fearless and more fatherly: Okay, well, lets try that, or, Thats a good idea, but knowing full well its going to lead to disaster and trying to make sure the disaster is minimum so I can quickly turn the session. Especially, that comes mostly, Michael, when young artists insist on their horn section. Oh, no, these guys play live with me, or These are great! -- and you bring them into the studio, and you recognize why they are wonderful live and why when the tape is running they dont have that ability to make it feel like its live.
Theres a certain standard which we tend to take for granted after a certain point.
Yeah, and I am trying to shake myself free of being condescending to those who dont have that standard because, ultimately, they are the ones who are hiring me. I noticed that in meetings: early on when I was trying to get business I noticed my attitude was not being well received. So, I thought Id better change my approach and be a little more understanding that theyre young and need my experience.
Do you think in an age of home studios and do-it-yourself electronic composition people are likely to assume they dont need specialist help anymore?
Yes. They find they dont need specialist help and often you would
hope that somebody along the line who knows what the record could be is
to call you and that youre in their Rolodex. Generally,
that would be where you would hope an A&R person would say, Boy,
this is great. OrLets try this. We have this; lets
try that. And there are fewer and fewer of our comrades in those
positions of lets try. So, I find it important to connect
with the younger producers who, in some cases, are 20 to 25 years younger
than me, to get them to understand that lets try is
not me saying that theres something wrong with what theyve
done. Theres an ego there. What do you mean, my records
perfect, and you say, Yeah, it is; what if we did this.
And, thats starting to loosen up a bit.
I think there are some guys -- theres one producer, a young man named Rodney Jerkins, whos done a lot of great work. Hes from, I believe, Bed Sty, and was a child prodigy and just one stunning keyboard player. I hear what he does on his synths with his strings, and Id love so much to use an orchestra doing his parts. I wouldnt even try to improve on them. But Ive never found myself in a position socially to compliment him and then take it to the next level. And I know, when you come to the record company, they worry because they think you are trying to get yourself in a position to influence somebody politics Rodney is my guy. So, I just back off on that. I dont need that.
Well, in a sense, you are trying to influence.
influence! This kid is so talented that I really want to be part of what
hes doing. So, hes influenced me in a lot of ways
because I recognize, wow, this guys bigger than my talent! This
kids the kind of talent I need to be around, you know. Lets
go! And a lot of times I get nervous when I am the most talented guy in
the room because then weve got trouble. Thats not how I operate
best. I operate when Im with people who are really at the top of
their game because Im at my best when Ive got to be like the
deer in the woods waiting to see which way the hunter is coming. When
Im the guy thats come up with the idea, I never feel comfortable
with that because thats not my forte.
One of the attractions of New York for a lot of people is that theres always somebody better than you just down the street, and you always feel that pressure. Do you feel thats a stimulating pressure?
I never felt it as pressure because it was explained to me a long time
ago with Charlie Calello, who was my mentor -- I was kind of his squire
years ago. He said something to me that was very interesting. I was 20
years old and I had done my very first session in New York. We did it
at National Studios and orchestrated our strings and horns, and it worked
out brilliantly. In retrospect the song was horrible, and my stuff was
whatever it was, but the musicians were great. He came over to me and
said, Something very good happened to you today, and something
very bad. He said, What was good is that you did a great job,
and what was bad is that you did a great job cause youre going to
be chasing that feeling all your life. And, it hit me that he was
right on the money, and I have chased it.
You talk about experience, and, of course, we all start somewhere, and some of us come to it with a classical education and we gather piecemeal experience in order to make the rounded personality we hope we become around age 85. Do you think a formal musical education helps or hinders making accessible pop music? Do you think it could be a hindrance?
think its a hindrance if all you concentrate on is the music. I
think its a great help if a student is taken through what the business
is like. To me thats the one thing, that musicality. What you learn
in a school for music ability is subjective: someone getting the gig and
you dont get the gig; the record goes to number one and yours doesnt.
So, theyre better than you. That kind of talent I cant weigh,
but I know there are unreasonable expectations, and kids coming out of
music school are clueless as to how you read a room, for instance, or
how you understand protocol how you deal with a business that is
run by people who dont know anything other than this doesnt
feel right, and you cant take it personal.
But youve also introduced a third aspect of arrangement. The first is the notes; the second is the musician, but youre talking about reading the room. Thats quite a rarefied idea.
reading the room is something you do with your orchestra and you also
do it with your politics of music. You and I recently were at a party
together ,and it wasnt a place to go in and look for work. It was
a celebration of great work, and what was pleasant about that is that
everybody read the room properly. It was great to reunite with old friends
and colleagues. Every morning I have my breakfast at the Brooklyn Diner,
and I read the room. I look around and it looks like its the music
crowd today and theres a table I can say hi to or not--thats
reading the room on a political basis.
But it is often true that, when a high level of musician comes in to play solo or the string section opens up, it changes all the rules in the music itself. How do you cope with that? Do you always anticipate it? Do you always call it directly?
No, I dont, but thats where you need three elements to be at their best. The engineer has to make that musician sound terrific on tape. That is something I dont do. The musician has to feel that they are the right person for the job; thats my thing, or your thingcasting. And I have to be so on that I make sure that what I get is what the record needs, not what makes this record become this solo artists record. They come in and play a saxophone solo, and it sounds great but its out context with the rest of the record, you know. Another element I can control is making sure that the performer comes in and the string section comes in. I give them the play grate and contribute whats necessary, and I think thats the easiest part of it as Ive grown older. Its almost like what doesnt belong kicks itself off the record, and for years I was so petrified to take it out. Now Im thrilled to take it out.
So, what parts remain difficult?
Knowing that you knocked it out brilliantly, and you get the final mix. Its not used or its edited, or its used in part, and you recognize that somebody came in later and took your part, put it on a synth. Theres your part and it sounds okay, but itsplayed because a synth player felt that this would be more what hes used to, but it says Arranged byme! Take the credit, but its not how you heard it. So, thats difficult--not getting the final mix. Maybe a film director would say, Thats not my final cut. I didnt mean for her to be naked in this scene. I just wanted a nice shadow on her!
So, politics are probably getting more and more serious. Do you find that they are sometimes difficult with high-level acts that you work with such as Britney Spears? Is there a committee at work here or do you find thats a fluid place to work?
committee rules, Mike. The committee is in working order with Britney
from the security to where she is going to be signing an autograph the
minute your session is done. But what I was remarkably overwhelmed with
was, when she was in the control room when we were first working out
the songs, that her mom did a good job. Britney is a professional. She
was there; she gave her best; she gave her enthusiasm. These two young
producers who had never worked with an arranger before--how on and how
excited they were. So, I recognized that, in this case, even the label
in the control room respected it: they werent
there. They put the team together, and we went in and did our thing.
What sort of contrasting sessions do you remember? Not contrasting meaning not fun sessions but just different style sessions?
Its an unusual thing. These past three years I dont think theres been one session that has overwhelmed me. Just experience alone; I dont get overwhelmed. I have never been overwhelmed by artists because egos are what they are. I have been overwhelmed by the insecurities of producers, but that hasnt been in the last three or four years because people know me and my work, and they tend to call me in because they want that. But, I have had sessions where I think Ive been embarrassed in front of orchestras by somebody saying something as simple as, Do you really think thats making this record better? Its like youre the producer. I dont want to say that and, when someone says that to you, you start questioning. Well, how bad is it? It sounds good to me. Am I the wrong person? I came to the conclusion a long time ago that if I give my best effort and its not working, then its the producers fault for casting me.
Do you find sometimes that classical arrangements are generated or instigated just to provide a pretensive quality rather than for their own reasons?
Yeah. I think that its very unimaginative to go classical on a pop record to try and think okay, Im going to upgrade this pop record; Im going to bring class to it, and I think thats become so obvious in some records. Then, I think whats wonderful about it is there is a place called Muzak, and where those records usually end up is in your elevator. I think that classical music is absolutely the best and highest form. I truly believe that, but its not what I do. So, I dont aspire to it. I dont do it well. I enjoy it, but its not what I do. I also love the Demon Drums of Japan, but I dont do that. But I suspect, if people want to look down on pop music or what we do, then thats fine; its just an art form thats a lot of fun for me.
Well, you find yourself having to arrange elements such as strings and crash guitar chords in the same track. What crosses your mind when you have to meld those together?
This is how you can answer that with experience. There are times that my strings need to be felt and there are times that my strings need to be heard. I didnt
that when I was young. I always thought they had to be heard and because
of that I would do things that would make them stand out and compete
and, therefore, never sound right. But, there are times now I can tell
you that a guitar sound sounds great, but you dont recognize that Ive got four cellos and two upright
bases playing fifths underneath it. Theyre never going to be heard,
but its going to be felt, and I know that its going to make
it sound and feel better.
Its as if theres split there between say the chamber music approach of a four-piece rock n roll band and the more orchestral approach where youre underpinning an instrument and having to explain to an instrumentalist what the contribution is by showing what it is if you take it out rather than hearing it.
Boy, thats the truth, and you dont often get a chance to do that with the instrumentalist because their participation is rather quick. They come in, they do it, and they understand its going to go through quite an osmosis. But it is fun if you ever have a chance to sit with somebody after the fact and say, Heres what it was before; heres what it was with you; heres what we did to make what you did even sound better with this track. Thats a fun thing, but how often do you really do that? The session goes in and out unless youre having a situation where youre also much more social, and musicians like to drop in and say hi, and theyre comfortable with that. Today its just bing, bing, bing, bing. You dont get people dropping in and hanging out like it used to be. That was a very important part of the Media thing we were talking about.
Used to be some very good bars just around the corner
Exactly. Bars around the corner and bars on the page. People used to come in, different arrangers, saying You know what I did this on that session? or, Have you ever thought of putting trombone on that fifth? We dont do that anymore. People dont share like that anymore. But, at that time and in that space, when you and I first met in the mid/late seventies, the fun of it was that there was a great deal of sharing going on. I dont know whats changed, but I notice that the sharing is not there as often, but people can always come and hang out on my sessions. I dont mind.
Well, there were more large studios in the olden days.
Do you think thats removed an apprentice-type approach to training? Do you think that this, in general, is going to limit peoples horizons?
Well, thats why I wouldnt mind at some point if I could sit down with young musicians who are ready to hit the marketplace and tell them that part of the connect-the-dots in their career is going to be to remember to look at the picture you are drawing, and not just connect-the-dots. Whats the big picture supposed to be? Most of the people I know who can be encyclopedic about Mike Thorne and his career, right, and every record that youve ever done, Ill meet them on occasion. I say Im a friend of yours and theyll say, Oh, I know this record and it stuns me because they are truly fans and yet they are not musicians. But musicians who you would wish would be fans are oblivious sometimes to the records theyve played on! Oh, I didnt know I even played on that!. Theres something not quite right about that, is there? I bet that every musician that played on a Beatles record could tell you the bars they played. But, I know guys who say, Hey, remember when you worked .... or What record? I dont remember that. I did 55 sessions that month. Theres something about that seems very, very uncomfortable, but thats how it works.
Would you ever recommend to somebody that they take a career in music?
Yeah, as long as they are not a relative! Because you know, Mike, theres a part of me that understands the sacrifice that we make to be pursuing what we pursue, but I think if it is someone I truly love, I dont want to see them go through the pain. But if theyve got a gift, whatever I say isnt going to matter, anyhow. If they are so driven, theyre going to say Thanks but I am going to go do it anyhow, because Ive even had people say to me, When are you going to get a job?
But if we make it, we achieve the privilege of being paid for something we like doing.
Yeah, and those days bring me back to what Charlie Calello said: You did what you did well. You did a great job, and you will pursue that for the rest of your life. You do pursue that feeling and the fact that people will pay me to sit for three hours to orchestrate or sit for three hours in a session and conduct and put it together its nice. If I had a half dozen of those a month with todays rates, thats a high income. But, with the state of the business you can get hot and do a dozen in three months and not do any for the rest of the year.
Hot and cold cycles seem to be a characteristic of a lot of businesses, but theyre quite acute in the music business.
Yeah, I think were even experiencing that now. The entertainment business, has a soft belly. So, when something as absolutely devastating as what happened just down the block from here happens, people recoil, and then they say, Lets go and make a commemorative record. Therell be ten thousand commemorative records in which I have no interest. Id rather donate blood, it seems to be a much more commonsense thing. I think the old joke is that were in season when were working, and were out of season when were not. Ive had very busy times when it didnt make sense, but generally, I know the seasons. I know around the holidays the business just unplugs. Thats whats unnerving about now: we can all point back to September 11, and its felt ever since then as if Ive been on an extended Christmas holiday. I just cannot seem to get anybody to move forward. Whats that about? Im ready, but it doesnt feel right yet.
But its a resilient city.
Were here for that reason you and I. I respect you enough to say, Okay, I am going to go down to see Mike. I am going to do this interview because it is important. Why? Because youre important; you make it important. But theres something I want to counter with that. We are also in a business that, quite honestly, is a luxury item. So, I dont want to take it for anything more than it is. Its what Im good at, but its still a luxury item. When people are in a luxurious mood, they go and spend money and we get hired. I think at critical points people need entertainment, and were there. And I truly want to give lovingly of my gifts--whatever those might be--but I also think theres a critical financial point at which you say, I cant afford to do this anymore. Ive got to go do something else. I just hope that this Sahara Desert that we are traveling through in terms of emptiness--a void of the business--I hope it just carries a little bit more and then we get back to normalcy.
Another version of the hot and cold cycle is that we are indulging in a labor of love.
So every so often it works.
And, every so often it doesnt. Is there any reason for those cycles?
think its a good point that has a lot to do with age. Our business,
unfortunately, tends to glorify youth. Its unfortunate because you
can take some of the best records made by some of the youngest artists,
and you look at who was behind it and its always someone who is
seasoned like you or me --that know how to bring it out. Youth
in its exuberance tends to overlook that. Its, I did this;
I did that. An artists an artist, and youve got to
sit back and let them say that. But we also know that, unfortunately,
the record company business is now being populated by people who believe
Thats a very depressing scenario, but whats an optimistic version of that.
I didnt mean it to be depressing; its realistic. The
optimistic version of that, I guess, is with the artist, its not
about age, its about talent. The artist who recognizes that they
need more, that their gifts are certain and theyre confident but
they need it to be more They are not afraid to go out and bring in talented
people. And then the talented people coming into the room will think they
are coming to the rescue. Thats the real key: when an artist gets
a sense that the people in the room are there to rescue the record, then
the whole project goes south. The optimistic approach is that youre
there because they need you to make this even better than it is. I always
see the A&R people at the mastering sessions where they have the least
amount of control; now they feel they are contributing the most because
a mastering engineer is saying I am going to take five dB and turn
it this way, and they feel like, There you go; I knew all
along that five..
Ultimately, thats all we can do.
Thats all we can do. Were in the business of trusting the
talent. Im always amazed--even with you--I always get charged just
by watching you listen to your music because its like, when you
watch someone whos done that listen to the music, you can see that
music in them. For me, as an arranger, thats a very comforting place
to be because music is also very visual for me. I can be walking in the
park and see something that immediately stimulates a musical response
not just a verbal response especially in a city as tenacious and
edgy as New York. You walk out the door and two cars screech together
and you hear baaaannnng. You hear that discordance: wheres my brass
section when I need it! And, there are times when you see a mother comforting
a child thats just fallen and then bringing the child from tears
to giggles, and you hear this wonderful lilting violin come from violin
to banjo and everybody goes on their way. So, the musical aspects of
our visual city make New York the place to be for me.
Home Albums Artists Contact Downloads Help Links New Shopping Words
We encourage shopping:
site maintenance by empathydesign, York, England