Holiday music for TV shows and movies are sometimes as iconic as the franchise. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and others have produced staples that are STILL part of today’s holiday lexicon. Arguably, one of the more memorable musical components of a TV series was the more holiday-esque take on the Son of Zorn franchise. So, how do you compose music for an animated character that’s straight out of He-Man? Well, we interviewed music composer Leo Birenberg to find out.
John Blabber: How early were you interested in music?
Leo Birenberg: I was the stereotypical band geek and grew up playing saxophone and my public high school had a very intense arts program. Sax eventually turned into clarinet, flute, voice, musical theater and by senior year I was basically in a music conservatory because half my day was music. That said, even though I was a band geek and a theater kid, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I thought about doing jazz performance or musical theater, but I didn’t find much appeal in that lifestyle. I eventually realized that if I didn’t do music, I was going to regret it, so one morning I ran downstairs, and I completely rewrote my applications to different schools, and soon got into NYU where I majored in musical composition.
JB: What kind of contemporary music interests you?
LB: I listen to all sorts of stuff. My biggest complaint with myself is that I have music ADD, so much so that I bought a record player so as to force myself to listen to an entire album. I grew up a huge admirer of a jazz guitarist named Pat Metheny. I also am a huge fan of a banjo player named Béla Fleck. I love classical music and opera. Day to day I listen to a TON of Taylor Swift especially when I’m working out. I like J-pop groups like Perfume, their producer is unbelievable. Classic rock like the Beatles as well as Choir music. I never listen to film or TV scores as I do this professionally, but growing up, I definitely loved the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings compositions.
JB: How did you get into show business?
LB: I was doing grad school at USC when I was introduced to a composer named Tim Davies, he is super talented and Australian. I met him freshman year in HS because he was a guest composer. 10 years later, on the first day of school at USC, my teacher was telling a story about seeing Davies couple of days earlier. He referred me to Tim, who said was looking for an intern that can do extra slave labor for video games, TV, etc. Then he introduced me to Christophe Beck who hired me. I spent years being taught by him and was he was my main intro into working in Hollywood.
JB: How did you end up working on Son of Zorn and what got you interested in the project?
LB: I loved Thundercats growing up. Eric Appel liked this earlier show I did Big Time in Hollywood Florida, and he contacted me. What I love about working on this show is that it provides an unbelievable canvas to explore musical urges. You have this character that has larger-than-life actions but he also has feelings which I love to explore.
JB: How did you approach the holiday-themed “War on Grafelnik” episode?
LB: The normal process of Zorn is, because of the animated component, things get stretched out a little more timewise on the schedule which I love because it gives me this extra bubble of time to work with to come up with ideas and concepts for music. What we’ll do is, the live-action portion of the series is shot in Spring. Then, while they are shooting, an animator is on set and he adds in a stick figure of Zorn. They will then start editing with that material and come up with an animatic lock of a 22-minute episode the latter of which is done by Titmouse and it will feature most of Jason Sudeikis’ lines. Then I’ll meet with Eric Appel and we’ll come up with ideas and insert musical spots.
With Grafelnik, I saw the animatic and I knew exactly where I wanted to go with this. I knew I really wanted to come out of left field and play up the holiday aspects of the episode. My favorite part of Son of Zorn is the world-building aspects of the series because there’s so much. You can literally go into every episode of Son of Zorn, and pick up threads of knowledge about Zephyria that would give you an idea of what this setting is all about. That’s so fun for me because it’s so mythological but I also get a lot of opportunities to play some musical jokes. So with this episode, I went to Eric with the idea and came up with the idea to use a choir to give the episode a sort of Home Alone feel with the kids and it’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done.
JB: Can you tease any compositions for upcoming episodes?
LB: I can’t say much, but there is an episode coming up that sees Zorn going on a road trip to find a mix tape and we have a lot of fun with the musical compositions there, I’ll just leave it at that!
Son of Zorn returns January 8th, 2017, only on FOX. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity