Tom Boyd Interview

Tom Boyd, is one of the most heard oboists today. He has been a featured oboist in over 1,400 motion picture soundtracks including Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Beauty and the Beast, Castaway, Schindler’s List, Titanic and The Lion King. He has just finished sessions for Spiderman 2.

I interviewed Tom on Feb 21 2014 about his extensive career and the changing industry. Listen to extracts from his recordings along with most of our conversation here, with the full text transcribed below. I’m very grateful to Tom for his time and look forward to meeting him in London in 2014.

First break

PT: What was your first film score performance and how did you break into the film music industry?

TB: When I came out of Julliard, I auditioned for the Honolulu Symphony job, which was thriving then, that orchestra, and they had a First Oboe opening and everybody, all my teachers called me – “There’s no way you’re gonna get the job” – I was green as can be. I hadn’t done the repertoire anyway. That just annoyed me – it made me that much more determined to practise that much harder to win the audition. So I won the job. The first concert I did was a piece called Quiet City with Aaron Copland and I didn’t even own an English Horn. I was hired to be the principal oboe player of the orchestra and here I’m playing Aaron Copland’s Quiet City and guess who’s conducting? Aaron Copland.

PT: Wow.

TB: Yeah, so the reason I’m saying this is so I spend ten years in the Honolulu Symphony, come here in LA, to answer your question, the first call I get is “will you please play Quiet City in the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra here in Los Angeles?” and I go, “oh my God”, I still don’t own an English Horn, I don’t have a reed, and so I said, “look guys, I’m really tired of playing the classical repertoire for ten years, I want to see what it’s like to be in the commercial end of it.”

So I turned the call down and then I said to myself about 15-20 minutes later, I thought I was just being called to play First Oboe, I didn’t know that they were actually calling me to play this, again, this English Horn part that I actually played with Aaron Copland ten years earlier. So I called them back up, I said “By the way, who’s playing the English Horn part in Quiet City?” “Well you are; we want you to play it.” I said, “Ok, fine, I’ll find an English Horn”, I found a reed and I played the concert and three days later I got a phone call from a service saying “John Williams wants you to play in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Now I had no idea at that moment, obviously, what had happened so then what happened is that I found out, maybe a week later, I was on a movie called The Right Stuff and then I was on a movie within six months, The Natural [and then] The River with John Williams. Anyway so it all catapulted. I couldn’t figure out why this was all happening so fast, ’cause everybody said it was going to take a year or two to break into the studios, if even you could pull it off.

So it turned out that the house contractor for Fox Studios just happened to be the double bass player in the Santa Monica Symphony, where I played Quiet City. Doing Quiet City has haunted me but it’s pushed me into a dream world that I never in a million years imagine would possibly happen. So that’s how that went down. So that’s how I started getting my movies and then it just sort of chain reacted, you know, one movie after another, after another, and before I could blink I had done, probably I think the first year, I had probably done about 25 movies. The first year I was already in the industry and of course after about two or three years we were working so much in Los Angeles. There were so many movies going on in Los Angeles, in fact, we were going around the clock and from probably around ’85 to about 2002, I don’t think saw the sun very much!

PT: Wow. I was going to say, with about 1400 scores, you must have done one a week for 30 years and that’s just tremendous.

Daily schedules

TB: To add to that, I was averaging somewhere between 40 and 50 a year plus I would do in between – this is another thing that blew me away – I still can’t believe I did this but we would have morning sessions starting around, I’d go to work starting around seven thirty / eight o’clock, start my sessions at ten and go till one and then I’d have an hour off for lunch. Everybody would take lunch but I’d run over to Santa Monica ’cause they’d ask me to do a commercial. So I’d run from Sony or Fox to Santa Monica, which is about ten miles from the studio, do the session for 20 minutes/30 minutes, get on a jingle, come back just in time to give an A to the orchestra for the afternoon, then be done with that recording session, go to sleep for about an hour in the next studio, I’d go to another studio and I’d start working with Jerry Goldsmith as an example from about seven o’clock until 11/12 at night and sometimes we’d go even into the early mornings and that was my life for all those years and then I finally said “Oh my gosh.”

I saw the writing on the wall, you know, Phil, I saw the technology was advancing at a very fast clip. I also knew that melodic writing was not as prevalent as it was when I was doing it. I started seeing more sound design and that kind of writing and then I saw it actually getting to the point where – and of course – the directors and producers started getting smart and why would they want to hire Tom Boyd when they could take it to China or, we both know, any of the far Eastern European countries and do it in Bratislava or wherever they could do it? They could get an oboe player for 1/10th the price they were paying me so I knew that eventually it was going to slow down and I just happened to see it coming faster than, I think, a lot of my colleagues did and so now we’re down to about, I think, probably not even 125-130 really working. If we have three double sessions in one week as opposed to, where I was working, seven days a week, triple sessions, that’s a very good week.

Life as an oboist

PT: Right, wow, it really has changed. So you’ve been doing the Hollywood Soloists. Is that still going?

TB: I put it on the backburner. I was going to franchise it so actually I could license out the books and so I did that but then it got to be [where] I couldn’t do it myself, on top of my studio scene, on top of the fact that I started really enjoying doing coaching so I was doing a lot more of that and I also started, Phil, realizing that, my gosh, I really enjoyed performing and once in a blue moon I would be performing solo with orchestras and I actually loved it. I’d thrive on it and the audiences seemed to love it and so my goal was then how can I put this frickin’ oboe on the map?! That was my goal so, well you know how it is, I don’t like to be looked at as an oboe player and most people say “You don’t even look like an oboe player, you don’t even act like an oboe player.” I said, “I don’t”, I just have this piece of stick in my hands and, you know, give me an oboe, give me a reed, I don’t care really how good it is, I’m going to figure out a way to make it work and I’m not going to get so caught up in all the reed making and all the hours and being anal. My goal is to use it; it’s my tool to voice my heart and what my heart has to say.

PT: Yeah, I’ve been watching your reed making sessions (I’m a double bass player as well so, I’m not even a wind player) but I can see where you’re coming from on that.

TB: Well, I went a little bit extreme as far as, you know, I mean I think it’s crucial as I said that oboe players learn how to make their reeds but the amount of hours that we put in, I mean it’s an art in itself, the amount of hours and the time that we put into making reeds is ridiculous. It takes… I mean, you don’t have a life! It’s as simple as that.

PT: It’s a career in itself isn’t it?

TB: As a matter of fact I have one woman, who will remain nameless, but a friend of mine and I got together and we said, “hey, look if you can make us reeds to a point, because the two of us play pretty similarly, we’ll give you a certain amount of money if you can make these reeds to a certain point.” It turned out the word got out and within about, I’d say, a year from that day where we hired this person to make reeds for us to a point, to almost the very end, where it only took maybe ten minutes to finish it up, that person was making over $100,000 a year making oboe reeds for people throughout the world and today that person has to turn people away.

PT: That’s amazing.

TB: Well, it’s funny, there’s room for two big jobs in the oboe world and that’s repair (oboe repair) and reed making. If you can get a person that’s really got good hand-eye co-ordination and a person that really knows how to repair their instruments you’re going to make a lot of money. That’s what I tell the kids.

Tom Boyd with Alan SilvestriScoring sessions

PT: Have you ever sat in a scoring session, playing something that’s unknown by perhaps an unknown composed and thought “Wow, this is really going to be huge” or “This person is going to be a new great composer”?

TB: Oh yes, all the time, Phil. I was lucky enough to start out with James Newton Howard, I was lucky enough to start out with Alan Silvestri [pictured, left], when they did their first movie (one of their first movies) so I had a pretty good idea, I mean, I had a pretty good barometer for who was gonna make it and as I got older I could see some of the young guard, like in their twenties and early thirties, and I said “this one’s gonna stand out, this one’s gonna make it big, this one probably will have a harder time” and then again we have to look at today, it’s the 21st Century, as opposed when I was working so hard in the 20th Century, is that today it’s not always about just the quality, it’s the package: how you market it.

Like for instance, as you know, Hans Zimmer and I have been very good friends and Hans is a perfect example of somebody that can sell just about anything and I think his compositional chops are very, very admirable for one reason and that is that he’s so adaptable to the times. He knows how to be that chameleon, to be accommodating where somebody like the Tommy Newmans when we did Shawshank [Redemption], they’re finding it a struggle, or Ishams, they’re finding it to be a struggle to get work whereas people like the Zimmers, James Newton Howard – there was a reason why he hooked up with Hans on Dark Knight – he knew he needed to reinvent himself. As, quite honestly, looking at myself in the mirror, I had to reinvent myself, I’m still having to reinvent myself constantly.

It’s not the same [now], when we were doing Spiderman the other day, Spiderman 2, I mean, this is amazing, the way we record today, it’s called ‘striping’, where, you probably know about it, but it’s one section – you take the winds, you put them in a room, you put the brass in a room, you put the strings in a room and then they record them individually. They go into a big mixing room and they put them all together and they have complete control of the mix, so basically the ensemble playing is gone.

PT: It’s a big change since the Silvestri Back to the Future sessions (I’m a huge Back to the Future fan) and looking at the footage, was it a 109 piece orchestra, the biggest orchestra of the time?

TB: It was a big orchestra, I think The Color Purple, I’m not sure which orchestra was bigger but we had big orchestras but they had enormous budgets too so it was not unheard of to have a 110-piece, 120-piece orchestra. I’m trying to think of some orchestras that I was in and then of course choirs, choruses too, we had huge choruses in the same room at times so I was just listening to this movie that I posted the other day on Facebook… The Postman, that James Newton Howard did, and that was really a very, very, very well scored movie, it’s just that the movie bombed and I was just trying to point out that there are a lot of soundtracks out there that never get enough credit because the movie bombed and didn’t do very well at the box office. That was a perfect example of an orchestra plus a choir of probably about 40 or 50 singers, so can you imagine being at Sony and/or Fox or Todd AO (when it was open) having these huge orchestras on top of a huge choir?

PT: Amazing!

TB: And I was stuck right in the middle – I had surround sound around me, I was in seventh heaven and getting paid for it. How lucky a guy could I be?!

Top tip for students

PT: I teach film music to my degree students; what would you say for film composers or musicians who want to get into the industry, whether it’s in England here or in America, what would you say would be your number one tip for getting into the industry and surviving, really, as a musician?

TB: That’s a good question. I think the one thing I always say to some of these young film composers, is number one, think outside the box like crazy, like on your mock ups, make sure you bring in one or two, maybe three live musicians. Spend/find the money – we have a contract where it’s minimal amount of money compared to what it would be scoring a feature where you can bring in, it’s a demo scale, it’s a very low scale and you can hire three or four or five musicians and there’s no substitute for live musicians and that will make, if you’re competing with 100 to 150 composers, it basically, it will stick out and that’s one thing.

Also, I would say, learning how to be, as I said earlier, which Brian Tyler does, Hans Zimmer does, we have to look at the people who are successful today, the Giacchinos, what are they doing to make themselves successful? And it has to do with they’re very accommodating and adaptable and they’re chameleons to their times.

PT: I think that’s a really good phrase. Thank you for your time today.

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