At one point while I was talking with A. J. Hochhalter, he told me he sometimes wishes he were Timbaland. That doesn’t really have anything to do with our conversation, but I thought it was funny and I thought you should know. It makes sense, though. A. J. originally got into music because he wanted to make rap beats. But rap beats, as you’ll see, were never going to be enough for him. Now A. J. is using his cinematic bent to score films like Twin Reflex, Love Costs Everything, and the 2013 Sundance Film Festival favorite Blood Brother. I think what I liked about A. J. telling me that sometimes he wishes he were Timbaland is that sometimes I wish I were Timbaland too. And it’s easy to spend a lot of time trying to be something you’re never going to be. It was only when A. J. embraced his epic, emotional, cinematic self that he started making music that resonated with people.
A purely technical note about this interview: After we were finished, I realized that my half of the conversation wasn’t recorded. I thought about adding myself back in, but then I realized the conversation was more interesting without me.
This, friends, is A. J. Hochhalter.
I started making music in middle school. It was the age when computers were just coming out where you could actually record yourself, as opposed to spending lots of money going to some guy’s studio. I joke about this all the time, but when I was in high school, I wanted to make rap beats. That’s what made me learn the software. That’s what made me get into it.
I used GarageBand when it first came out, and I had an old Korg Triton synthesizer that I’d MIDI convert through an 1/8-inch audio jack right into my Mac. I didn’t even know what a preamp was. I’d just go directly in and use my Korg Triton little sampler. I did a lot of my own vocal loop samples. I’d give my beats to people at school who rapped. They’d be like, “Wow. That sounds good, but it’s too epic. It’s too emotional. We just want a beat.”
I did have a tendency to make things emotional. I always wanted to make it more serious. It was weird to me to stop working on a song before it had a personality.
For knowing as little as I knew at the time, I look back on some of the cues in my first film score as some of the better things I’ve ever written. I was naïve, but I was really trying hard. I was putting a lot of heart into it. I didn’t have any experience to fall back on. I didn’t know what was happening. I have no classical training at all. I prefer it that way, actually. I play a lot by ear. I know very little about music theory. Whenever I hire musicians, I have to hire someone to help translate.
There are times when I’m smashing my head against the wall. But I think playing by ear forces me to get the feeling right first. The notes may not be there the first time around. The textures and the mix might not be there. When you play by ear, you don’t have a classical, “Okay, I’ll do this scale here, I’ll go into this measure here, and we’ll switch time signatures here.” If you’re not thinking like that, then you’re thinking primarily about very raw emotion, very simplified themes that can get way more complex later on.
When I first start to write, I do a weird thing. It’s actually a little secret of mine, although I tell people this all the time. I make textures first. I don’t even think about notes. I like to talk to the director and get to know the color of what’s going on. What’s the texture like? And by texture, I just mean the grit and the color. Then I’ll run that texture for a couple hours, sometimes watching a 30-second clip, or a minute, or whatever.
A lot of it is organic samples just stretched way out, taking piano notes and taking all of the high and mids out of it so it’s just the low frequency. It’s like the ethereal atmosphere. I’ll take those textures that I think fit the scene and just start humming them over and over, deciding like, Okay, what am I feeling right now? Am I feeling this? And then once I get into a rhythm of humming, I start humming where I think things should come in. Once I get that, I’ll go to the piano and be like, “These are the notes. This is the really rough feeling that I got. Now, director, did you get the same feeling?”
If I knew more about music, I don’t know if I would’ve forced myself to do it that way. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten some of the same very simple themes. People always say, “Your themes are so simple. They’re just two or three notes; but they hit when they need to hit, and they don’t try to do too much.” I think that’s because I wouldn’t know how to develop it into a John Williams-esque score.
One of the downfalls of playing by ear is you start to hear the same things all the time. Your ear is familiar with what you’re used to. So I’ve been developing some practices to get myself out of that routine. One thing I do—and this is so silly, I can’t believe I’m telling you this—but I’ll start hitting wrong notes on purpose, forcing those notes to work. You have to figure out how to get out of what is wrong and back into what is right. That makes you hit different notes. It makes you sing differently. It starts stretching you to not just hit the same U2 chords all the times. You don’t know where it’s going. If that second chord is different than what you’re used to hearing, then it’s going to make the third and fourth chord be different too. Just purposely start doing things a little bit off; it forces you to learn things a different way.
Another thing I do to keep myself out of ruts is I read. I try to learn what these guys were doing 80 years ago. So I’ll go onto Berklee College of Music’s online school. I don’t take any classes; I just look at the books they’re reading.
I worked on a thriller once called Twin Reflex, and I basically ended up making my own instrument. I wanted a certain sound, so I took apart a bass guitar. I took the fret board and everything else off of it, and then I screwed a two-by-four to where the strings went up, hit a two-by-four, and then came all the way down. I could tune it. I could pluck it. I could also play it with a violin bow. Sometimes I would go nuts and the bowstrings would start to come unraveled.
I also like to use my voice for stuff. Most people do. I’ll take the theme or whatever it is, whatever the movement of the song is, and I’ll just scream it in my studio. If I do it 12 to 15 times, it’ll sound like the choir effect—something ramping up and then ending.
Steve Hoover [the director of Blood Brother], was back from India, trying to cut a little bit of the footage together to do a rough trailer. He found a song of mine on Facebook, and he wrote to me and said, “Hey, you don’t know me. My friend has this awesome story. I want to do a documentary. I heard this song of yours, and actually, I’ve already placed it. I really, really like it. If you’re okay with that . . . Let me know if you’re okay with that.” I was like, “Dude. Yeah. Of course.”
Steve called me three months later and was like, “Man, your stuff just connects with me. Do you have any more songs we can use?” It was a very backwards way to work, but I actually preferred it. I almost force directors to work this way with me now—connect with something I’ve already done and then let me shape it.
I never wrote anything completely new for the film. But, like I said, Blood Brother was a unique project.
As far as story goes, I like to be very simple with themes, very simple with emotion. I may be one of the only composers who even when I could get paid to write another scene, I’ll just say, “Leave it. Don’t put music there. It works. Don’t pull that too far because eventually it snaps and it’s bad. Just leave it like it is.” Maybe I’ll mature and find a way to teeter on that line.
Mostly, though, you let the story be the theme. You let the narration be the notes that make you want to cry and you don’t know why. If there’s somebody talking, just leave the notes out. Just create the environment for that voiceover to almost be like a theme in itself. That’s a little deep and weird, but that’s how I think about it. If there’s a violin playing in perfect step with a voiceover, I don’t like it. I don’t like watching stuff like that. I don’t appreciate it, so I don’t want to do it. I want to tell a more honest story.
The Social Network soundtrack broke all the rules and won an Oscar for it. We all know the Star Wars theme, this big, sweeping whatever. But The Social Network said, “We’re going to compete in that same arena where we’re going to take this crazy weird approach.”
Like I was talking about with textures, The Social Network basically said, “We’re going to tell a story with noise and make you feel the same emotions with noise.” I’m sure people have tried it before, but they failed miserably. There are parts of The Social Network score that are normally annoying. I’m on a plane, and I’m like, “Oh gosh. I cannot deal with that sound for another 10 seconds.” In the film, though, it was great. That song “Hand Covers Bruise” has this texture that just . . . I don’t know what it is. Then, they hit a couple notes on a piano. The way they mic the piano is so close to the hammers that they don’t even have to hit it.
The story goes from being about a kid in his dorm room that you’re really connected with up close, and then he starts becoming this thing that no one can touch. And that piano starts getting mic’d farther, and farther, and farther, and farther away. People used to say, “Okay, the character’s going to go through this development, so this huge section of strings is going to play this differently.” But the filmmakers are saying, “No. No. We’re going to tell the story with noise, and mic placement, and weird synths that make you go batty.”
I think filmmakers could use Musicbed from a way more creative standpoint. You could decide, I’m going to listen to these songs an hour a day, and I’m going to change up the genre so I hear everything. I’m going to remember the ones I like because I connected with them, and then force yourself to create something because now you have something you’ve connected with. Instead of saying, “Okay, I need to find the perfect music to fit my video,” be more like, “Let’s try the music first, and then let’s create a story.” I think that’s how I would use Musicbed if I were a run-and-gun video guy. Other than that, use Adam Taylor’s music. He is my favorite. Gosh, that man is so good.
I’m inspired right now by anyone who’s breaking the rules, whether it’s on the film side or the music side. There’s a marriage between the two, and it’s important to be aware of how things are changing. If everybody starts desaturating and putting grain on their videos, what does that mean for music? Maybe it means it’s not overly crisp. It’s not perfect and composed. Maybe there’s some grit and some background noise from the room mic, and you don’t take that out. What if there’s hiss from the preamp? That’s okay. Leave it in because it’s telling the story differently.
Voiceovers are getting really raspy, and audio engineers are using Melodyne to lower people’s voices. The voiceover is taking this huge part of the film. Let’s not write music that competes with that. Let’s find out what range in the spectrum that voiceover is and not write with instruments that are also in that range because they’re going to compete. Inspiration is keeping up and being smart enough to say, “Okay, if a bunch of directors are going to come up with stuff that sounds and looks like that, then they’re going to like music that sounds like this.” It doesn’t fight. It works.
Art is really just stealing from people and disguising it. Not so much notes, but ideas. How are they doing that? Figure out how and then make it your own.
Make it your own. I think that’s the biggest thing I took away from my conversation with A. J. (who, I should mention, was in the Bahamas during our interview). A. J. follows his instincts. He feels before he thinks. I’m not saying that’s how it always has to be done, but that’s what works for him. And considering the fact that his work is being used in Sundance award-winning films, I don’t think it’s a bad process to adopt. Check out his albums and playlists and see for yourself. He may not be Timbaland, but the world didn’t need another Timbaland anyway.
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