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Saturday, 8 January 2011


If you want to know something about composing music for film or television, you ask SHAWN CLEMENT. You can use many labels to describe him; award-winning, work-o-holic, obsessed with music. My favorite definition to describe him is: artist. 

Shawn picked up a guitar when he was 12, and he's barely had a moment since without music being at the centre of his life. Incredibly, he has over 150 IMDB credits as a composer; with work on a diverse range of projects such as 'BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER," and "QUANTUM QUEST." As he shares later in this interview, he was also a key-player in developing the sound and styles we have come to expect from reality-based television shows. 

You don't need to be a composer to get something from this interview. Shawn's wisdom and experience as a writer and composer is applicable to all creative fields, which makes this a must-read. 

KID IN THE FRONT ROW: Every time I catch up with you it seems like you’ve scored another 10 projects or something, and I just wondering how the hell you find the time to do all this work?

SHAWN CLEMENT: Well I don’t really know, I tend to work pretty fast. You get a lot of projects and the deadlines always freak you out, but  the schedules always seem to shift and move and you always find a way to do it. I’ve been very fortunate to pluck a lot of projects and stuff like that but it’s truly never been an issue. It’s a lame answer.

Are there ever any complications with projects overlapping with each other or does it tend to work out?

Yes, that does happen, things tend to work out but there are times when things are really nutty and you’re on five or six different projects and everyone’s wanting their stuff right now and it's all stressful but you just kind of make it happen. About 4 years ago I was literally doing 9 projects at the same time and I was like, what am I thinking, this is nuts! Every single one of them was completely different and they were all overlapping, it was about a month or so where they were all happening and it was insane. I have a very good assistant and a couple of interns and stuff so all the other work that has to be done they kind of help out with all that kind of stuff so I can concentrate on writing.

How do you keep your mind focus creatively on each project? Most people would find that very difficult. It’s hard enough to focus on one project let alone all these different things. How do you do that?

I have a really short attention span. For me if I’m doing the same thing over and over I get really bored and that makes it hard for me to focus. When you have multiple projects with different styles and you have a limited window it kind of makes me focus more, cause then I go OK, this needs to get done today, I’m in this zone I’m locked in here and I'm all about that project. Then I can move on to the next one because now I’m doing something completely different. That is kind of how my mind works, obviously is not day to day switching projects, you might be spending 5 days on this one project, deliver that stuff give them time to review it you jump on to the other gig you get into that whole world. For me it’s harder when you’re doing the same thing over and over and over, I go bananas, I go OK, I can’t do another action cue right now, I just can’t. You make it happen either way but I like changing gears a lot.

Would you say that there is a particular style that characterises your work- obviously you do such vastly different things but is there any kind of something similar about them that’s a Sean Clement touch or are they all just completely different.

I’d like to think that everything I write has a sound to it that’s unique to me, I mean, I hope so. I tend to be very aggressive with the way I write. I have certain subtleties in the way I write that you can tell it’s something I did. As far as things I really love to work on, that’s hard to say I tend to like darker things or things that are more involved more layered. I’m a pretty ??? kind of person, I really like a lot of colours and things like that. When there’s a project that allows me to just kind of go out there, that’s always a blast. However, I mean, lately I’ve been doing a lot of these small Indy type films and the music has been simpler and it’s kind of been cool because you have to say the same thing using less and that’s a different type of challenge. I’m getting older too, I mean I’m not old but I’m just saying when you age you start painting differently and all the experience you have from doing past things you can now do 3 notes and get the same effect. That’s kind of interesting too. It’s not really a straight answer but whatever I do whether it’s a comedy, and action Sci-Fi or whatever it is, I definitely like to think there’s a certain sound to it that I no matter what it is you go on to my kind of cue.

Interesting you talking about doing indie projects and stuff. I always think the relationship between a director and a composer is a very complex thing, and I find it more difficult, for example when I’m making films that when I’m working with a director of photography, for me getting the relationship right and the creative thinking right between me and the composer is difficult. The question to ask you is, what are you looking for personally when you’re working with a director.

Well that's a really good question. The main thing, on any kind of film or TV show -- the thing that everyone needs to serve is the film, what's right for the film. At the end of the day a film is it's own living and breathing creature. What does the film look like? What is it doing? You have to serve the film first.

Everyone has their vision, of course the director does because it's their project. It's a hard language, a director talking to a composer-- I like to get to know the director on a personal level, aside from the film. You're trying to get the sensibility of the director but you gotta kind of understand where that person's coming from, to understand what he's trying to say. This is kind of a lame example but -- say you're on a project and you're trying to talk about score, and all the director keeps talking about it songs. That's a common problem, especially in the indie world, It usually means they don't really understand what a score and song is. So rather than try to figure that out directly, I just get to know the director. Why do they like these songs? what is the feeling they're trying to get? What is all that? Then I find, okay, he likes to go to this place, go to this club, he likes this scene. Then it makes sense. It's not necessarily these songs he likes, but there's a certain feeling he's getting-- how does it relate to this film? It's almost like a psychological analysis! I think as a composer you really have to be good at that. It's part of figuring out what they really want, what's behind it.

I don't think people realise the amount of work that goes into being a composer. Do you think people understand what you do?

No. Even composers don't realize until they get into it. Writing the music is the easy part, but everything else is the real work, the difficult part. To figure out how to get what everyone wants, put your spin on it, and do what's write for the film. That's the tricky part. It's a ton of work.

Also, the amount of budget allocated to this music department. You never get what you need, right? Often the music is treated like an afterthought, like 'oh right, we'll get to that'. I guess that's become part of it now -- or are you always trying to challenge that wisdom?

Budget is always a problem, it's a nightmare. I don't understand it. I'm always talking to young filmmakers who I'm working with, and upcoming filmmakers and I always explain you have to plan the whole thing from front to back; and they never think about post period. That's half your movie! It's such an integral part, and you can't skip it. I think filmmakers really get caught up on getting the right shot, or whatever-- but post is a giant part of your film. It's like, you really shouldn't have made your movie, or really scaled back to include it.

You said it kind of best, it's like an afterthought, and it really shouldn't be. It's funny because, a lot of deals I've been doing on these indie films -- I don't want anyone coming to me saying they have no money, cause then, well, you have no score.

I've also been producing more in the last couple of years, I have a real good business head. So I'm putting together budgets and I don't really see what the problem is, there should be money for this stuff: and there is.

A lot of composers bend too easily. They say 'okay, fine' - but it's not. We have real expenses too, and we have to have expenses and gear, and it costs money. So when you can't make any money, it's like -- what's the point in doing this? It makes it hard because you want to do a great job but when you have all these constraints--- y'know, limitations make you create more that's for sure, but it can get to the point where it's impossible, and I just can't give you what you want, we don't have it, and that's a shame you know.

Now of course, a lot of people are making short films, it's just creative people getting together, with no money - including a composer. So they'll work for free. But I think sometimes they get into that mentality; they've done three or four short films for free, and then someone asks them to do a feature; and they do it..

The problem's been around a long time. It was there when I started out, it was there back in the 50's. One of my all time idols is Bernard Hermann and I was reading about him -- and back them he was complaining about tight budgets. It's always been there, but it's worse now. When a composer keeps doing that, not only does it devalue the music and their services, but there's no respect for the composer. Everyone is always like 'hey, we'll get you on the next one' but they never do. Unfortunately a lot of younger composers don't believe that when you tell them.

When I started out it was the same thing. I was a starving musician, I got offered gigs and they wouldn't pay. So I wouldn't do the gig. They were like 'how dare you?' but I had to pay rent. And the time I spent doing that I could do a job and pay my bills, which is exactly what I did. But what happened was, I did the gigs anyway and got paid.I gambled, but I won a whole lot more than I lost. I lose a lot of gigs lately due to people who do it for free, but great; I'm not going to do it for free. It doesn't make any sense, unless it's a friend or there's something you're passionate about. Just my opinion!

Looking more specifically at your work; I think a lot of people know your music from 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer'-- would you say that was a particularly important of your career?

Yeah, it was one part. It definitely had a high profile, and creatively it was awesome. What was really cool about the project was I got to work with a lot of great people, and creatively really ran the gambit of styles -- there were romance elements, action elements; all sorts in one show. And of course it was a popular show, and that kind of raised awareness of me I guess. But yeah; it was really cool.

At the same time Buffy was happening, or just before, I was doing a lot of shows for Fox, a lot of police-chase shows, and that was actually the beginning of reality TV shows but it wasn't even called that. The significant thing about that, is it was the beginning of a whole new genre and I got to lay down what would become the soundscape for reality shows. I mean, I didn't know it'd happen at the time but then it exploded. They both happened at the same time, and I think that ironically boosted my career more than Buffy did. I was working for the Studios, and on nearly every network on television.

I always think the best work you're going to create is when you emotionally relate to the thing you're creating-- but when you're doing music for a police show, or 'American Idol' or something, it's got to be different, right? Is it harder to motivate yourself for that kind of work?

On every project I try to find the thing I can relate too. Of course, the better the project the more passionate you'll be -- that's like any creative thing you do. I'm more drawn to doing movies and stories so yeah-- that's true, it's easier to relate to that, and find something in you that relates to that character or the story.

With the police stuff and chase shows at the beginning-- I looked at them as action movies. It was like, okay, I'm going to write this big orchestral action score. That was my approach-- I look at it as if it were a film. But you're right, for me, if you can really get into something you're going to write more from your heart. But going back to what I said earlier on - you do what's right for the project. That tells you beyond anything what has to happen.

Tell me about your home studio - it sounds great.

It's an interesting place. I have a small ranch, about forty minutes North of Los Angeles. I'm a big nature person, an animal freak. So I wanted to have space, wanted to have my animals and wanted to be able to work where I could be comfortable and do what I want to do. The studio itself is a hodge-podge of things. It's old gear, new gear, prototype gear -- it's kind of all over the map. A lot of different types of equipment. I still use big mixing boards and all that, and I have all the latest crazy software stuff.

Technically my studio is wired completely bizarre. If you were in here it's easier to explain-- but, the idea is that I can recall a piece of music I wrote fifteen years ago It'd be exactly the same. In order to do that, when I get new gear, I never get rid of old gear.

I have tons of crazy guitars and odd instruments. Everything in here gets used.

How do you switch off from working? Is it easy to say 'it's the end of the day,' being that you work from home?

Not really. For me the work is 24/7. I'm a work-aholic. I do try to shut certain things off at night. Lately I've been doing that. As it gets to eleven o'clock, midnight, I'll chill and watch some TV or whatever; or spend some time with the dogs or horses and stuff. It's really hard, because you're always on. Even if I go to an event or a party, you're schmoozing looking for work. It's like a never ending job.

Do you get tired? Do you get the rest you need?

You never sleep. I'm always fried. It's not just me -- you talk to any composers who are working, you never sleep. There's no holiday, no vacation.

Were you always like this as a kid, a teenager?

I started playing guitar when I was 12. By the time I was 13 I was gigging all the time with bands and always working. If I wasn't rehearsing or gigging, I was practicing. Never went to school, I skipped constantly. Always doing the music thing. It's always been a drive-- I'm very driven to do that.

I get bored really quit, so I keep busy all the time. I've always wanted to work - it's like an addiction!

Do you feel satisfied when you're working on a project, or are you looking forward to the next thing?

That's a really interesting question. I'm satisfied to a degree, because I'm working. But you always want that next gig, the better gig. And if the gig isn't that great you're not really satisfied. You're glad to be paid to write music but you really want something you can dig into. So the satisfied part is a tough question.

I know you're exec-producing a TV series called 'Masters Of Sound' - what can you tell us about that?

Right now it's still in development. We shot a pilot, and we're still trying to sell the show, so there's not a lot I can say about it but the main idea is, it's highlighting and focusing on the engineers and producers who made all the great records. We know the artists, but it's the guys behind the boards who made these records happen. They're artists in their own right. Some of these guys and the things they've done are incredible. Especially with some of the older guys, while they're still here and can talk about it. These guys invented how we hear things, and how things are recorded. Some of the classic records. For me it's awesome because I get to meet and hang out with people who I idolized as a kid.

What would you like to achieve in the next ten years?

More feature work. I'd like to get more into the studio films, and working more and more with budgets that allow me to have live orchestra and live musicians. Part of the cool thing, being any kind of artist, is you always want to have challenges. And the way you keep challenging yourself is to work with better people. I want to keep doing that. That's what makes you grow and get more excited.

For young people starting out now who want to be composers; what advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you do and is just starting out?

That's a tough one. The thing I always say -- the question they've gotta ask themselves is: why do you want to do this for a living? If the answer is 'I want to make a lot of money' go find another job, you'll never make it. You have to go through so much just to get anything in this business. You have to just want to go and do it. I always say that even if I never made a dime, I'd still be sitting here doing this, because it's what I do.

You need a thick skin and perseverance. The competition is way high, there's way to many guys out here trying to do this, and it gets tougher and tougher every day. My advice is, you've got to give it time, you gotta be a team player, and you've got to be a super sociable creature. It's a relationship business. A lot of artists and composers are introverted, but you gotta get out of that quick. People have to like you. A lot of people get gigs, not because their music's good but because people like hanging out with them. That's always been the case. Often the best music doesn't always win, and often times it never even gets heard.

Does that frustrate you or do you deal with it now?

You're never just okay with it. It always happens. It's just the way it is though. You get rejected more times than not, it's insane. I have classic stories of being turned down by people and some of the stuff that was said to you; it makes you want to slit your throat. But you've got to pick yourself up and keep moving forward. You have to be realistic, if someone's got constructive feedback, listen to it.

When you start out, especially, you don't know anything. You get these kids who come out of school and think they know everything about film scoring. But you're a kid, you don't know anything! Yeah, you went to school and learned all this stuff, but it doesn't really mean anything. You have to understand film, you have to understand people, and all this other stuff. But you really learn as you grow. People have to be cognizant of that. There's all these other parts to composing, it's not about writing music all the time, it's all these other things, and life experiences which help you write better.

Care to share?


  1. You have quite a gift to interview people I'd never heard of and make me be completely enthralled.

  2. brilliant interview.

  3. Fantastic interview; I particularly liked Shawn's advice to people starting out in the industry because I think you can apply that to a lot of different careers in the industry. Don't do it for the money. Give it time. And always have a thick skin. Definitely tips I'd give anyone!

    PS as for your other post - I recommend watching the other two Toy Story movies first so you get oodles of nostalgia in before watching the third. Just my humble opinion! ;)

  4. Fantastic stuff! -Mayle