Composer Tyler Bates has worked with everyone from Rob Zombie to Zack Snyder, but his score for director James Gunn’s smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest to hit theaters. Like he did for both Slither and Super, Bates wrote a lot of the music for Gunn before filming even started. And Gunn, in turn, would play the corresponding music for the cast and crew on set during the filming of Guardians’ biggest moments, including the death of Peter Quill’s mother at the start of the movie.
The Galaxy score, which is available on Hollywood Records alongside the “awesome mix” of ‘70s pop tunes that appears in the movie, includes far-reaching orchestral themes, thundering marches, and pensive, celestial echoes. And, as if the task of scoring Guardians wasn’t otherworldly enough for Bates, he’s also currently touring with Marilyn Manson as the lead guitar player. In the middle of San Diego Comic-Con, in a crowded of room of journalists, we talked with Bates about scoring Marvel’s latest blockbuster, harnessing soul, playing live with Marilyn Manson, and why working on Guardians was like painting a bullet train.
A lot of people would be surprised to learn that you’re touring with Marilyn Manson as his lead guitarist. Not many film composers can say they’ve done that. How does playing live influence your work as a composer?
Tyler: I’ve been a guitar player for a long time. The reason I’m playing with him [Manson] is because I wrote and produced his record with him. The new one. It’s a different thing for him; it’s definitely cinematic. Doing the film thing is awesome. But it is not like playing in front of 20,000 people. It’s a totally different energy. And when you go and you do that, you can be free in the moment. Nobody’s telling you what to do. You can just be a musician. Then you bring that energy back into film and television or whatever media you’re writing for. I’ve always approached my work in a way where I wanted to capture the magic of a song that develops in a studio as something that’s expressed live. I want something to feel like it was performed live or cultivated. As opposed to just being a wallpaper for a film.
So would you say performing on stage recharges your batteries and influences your other work?
Absolutely, yes. Also, the interaction with other musicians is terrific. That’s something that is forgotten by a lot of people. Conducting an orchestra doesn’t do it for me. Cause I know so many people are so much better at it than I am. I would rather be in a booth because I’m very critical with my listening for intonation and timing. When you’re conducting, everything feels awesome; it’s all emotional. I feel that I can gauge the emotion of the performance better in the booth and that’s important to me. Part of being a live musician is something I can relate to in the type of performance I’m capturing with an orchestra or ensemble. And I don’t want to be their boss; I want to be their collaborator. It’s humbling to work with the greatest people in the world with their craft. It’s really inspiring and it makes you want to be better all the time. It’s really about the creative process and harnessing a certain energy that I would like the score to feel. And that’s mostly soul.
When you play music live and you vibe off of people, you tap into another level of expression that you just cannot do sitting at your keyboard in the studio. It’s not the same medium. So, I like to bring that together. Ultimately, I hope when people hear music that I’ve done they feel that it’s soulful. That it feels like there’s some authenticity to the expression.
With Guardians of the Galaxy joining the epic soundtracks of the Marvel cinematic universe, how much creative control did you have? Did Marvel executives tell you how they wanted to keep the tone or the sound?
No, actually. You know what, Kevin [Feige] and the other executives were great. What they want is an identifiable theme that can express and properly support the scope of the film. And that’s what James [Gunn] and I were after to begin with. I wrote music before production began and James filmed to it. So he would crank that in a PA on set so the actors and the crew felt that music to put them in the context of what James wanted to express in the film.
So, we were fortunate to have several pieces of music locked into several sequences of the film. Now, mind you, the film is going to change all the time as they’re making it. It is like paining a picture on the side of a bullet train. The picture’s changing all the time. It’s not simple as like “I’ll get around to adapting my music as you edit it.” Even if the director liked it before, we have to adjust to that. We have to adjust the score to the director. So many times you’re writing or rewriting music because of that. But I’m not the gatekeeper of the picture. The picture changes so much if you’re not with them on the hour as they’re exploring that new wave of telling that aspect of the story, you can get hit pretty hard with some major adjustments to the film score in a short period of time. That’s why, all of us, to handle a movie like this you have to have a supporting cast of talent. It’s absolutely necessary but it’s great. And the people that work with me are the closest people, as far as my friends. Super talented people that I love to help elevate as well.