For the people who still think that spending too much time in front of the video game console is a waste of time…this interview is for you. A child of the eighties, who was influenced by The A-Team and Nintendo as much as he was by the Cold War and Thriller, Nathan Hanners is the very definition of a modern-day composer…but don’t ask him to wear a powdered wig. Whether he’s scoring a corporate DVD for Sony, or doing pro-bono work on a film he believes in, on any given day he can be found tirelessly striving to put the perfect music to moving images to create his soundtrack to this life. Currently serving as Creative Producer of Music and Multimedia development for Really Really Big Industries, Hanners took some time away from his home studio in Austin, Texas to talk about his ideal projects, the curious absence of interesting TV show theme songs and how technology “flattening the playing field” is a good thing.
What is your definition of a “sound designer”?
I don’t necessarily consider myself a sound designer, which is someone who creates lots of sound effects and interesting noises. I am interested in that area, but it’s not my primary focus. I prefer the term “composer”. This term has a lot of baggage associated with it, since we normally think of composers as guys wearing big wigs or rendered in marble on some pedestal, but I don’t know what else to call it. I write pieces (usually instrumental) consisting of a variety of instruments. Sometimes it’s a cello melody, other times it’s a banjo riff. I suppose I could call myself a “music producer”, but that seems like an even more loaded term.
What do you look for when choosing your projects?
I am up for anything usually. But I do try to encourage clients to stick to a reasonable timeline, so I can spend time working on the audio mix, which is an important aspect of producing music that can easily fall through the cracks. When possible, I prefer to take the finished project to a professional mixing / mastering person, who can do it efficiently.
What would be the ideal project for you?
A video game soundtrack, or a feature film, would be a lot of fun even though it is a tremendous amount of work. I would love to write the theme song to a TV show. I always loved the themes to shows like Magnum P.I. and Knight Rider. Sadly, TV shows don’t seem to place as much emphasis on the theme these days.
How is scoring a film or a commercial different from recording a record?
If you are an artist recording an album, presumably some A&R person has signed you to do what you do best. As a composer, you have clients with their own ideas, which you have to listen to carefully and incorporate into your work. You have to keep in mind that the goal is for the client to be satisfied with the product you are making, rather than to find your own personal vision or statement.
Basically, it’s the difference between “art” and “design”.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I am a musician who is not afraid of technology. Musically, I’ve been influenced by a lot of traditional American music, but at the same time I’ve always been drawn to more experimental and contemporary sounds, and I dig Texas music, in general.
Your work on your piece “Remembering Tokyo” is reminiscent of early Stewart Copeland compositions. Who are some of your influences?
I’m terrible at coming up with influences, the best I can do is belch out a random handful: Phoenix, Ray Charles, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, Vangelis, Brian Eno, Doug Sahm, The Band, Jimmy Reed, Koji Kondo, and Mike Post.
In terms of creating art, how important is a formal education?
I think a formal education is no substitute for talent; however, being in college does provide you with an opportunity to experiment and learn from your peers, outside the constraints of the working world. I’d say a formal education is valuable but not important. “Important” implies that you might not be able to succeed without it, and I don’t think this is true. Hard work, dedication, and experience will get you pretty far – a degree isn’t very useful by itself. I do think that it is important to push your boundaries and keep expanding your body of knowledge, using whatever means necessary.
How has technology affected the playing field in your profession?
Production-wise, It has almost flattened the playing field completely. Things that used to require a huge investment can now be done on the computer for a fraction of the cost, with a minimal if any loss of quality. My writing methods are also affected by technology. Computers allow for a lot more trial-and-error. You can write something and hear how it sounds immediately, without having to make copies of the score and hire musicians to perform it.
With the endless options that modern technology provides for musicians these days, what do you see as some of the triumphs versus some of the pitfalls? Does one outweigh the other?
I think that it is easier to make music than it has ever been, which is a good thing. This makes it less of an exclusive club, and harder to stand out from the crowd. As long as you bring your A-game and work yourself hard, I think the pros hugely outweigh the cons.
As a musician, what would you define as the major, driving creative force behind your work?
I just love making music, and I have discovered that the more I do it, the more I am convinced that it is what I am “meant” to be doing. I find it immensely satisfying.
Who are some of the artists, musicians or producers working today whose work you admire, and with whom you would like to work? Why?
Mike Post. I mentioned him before, but look him up. He basically wrote the score to my childhood, along with Koji Kondo, the composer for Nintendo. Otherwise, Stevie Wonder, Hisashi Joe (Studio Ghibli), Brian Eno…I could go on and on and on really, there are so many talented people in the world. It makes me sick to think that I won’t get to meet all of them in person and say “Thank You”.
Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years?
I want to steadily improve, day by day. If so, after 10 years I will look forward to being better at what I do. I’d like the chance to work on some larger, higher-profile projects, make 1 or 2 records a year for personal projects, and continue producing bands. I have a bunch of wacky ideas. If I manage to execute half of them I’ll be quite happy.
A mostly self-taught musician, Hanners has studied with a handful of notable musicians, including: J.P. Whitefield (Anson Funderburg, The Fabulous Thunderbirds), Rick McRae (George Strait), Danny Barnes (Bad Livers), Mady Kaye, and Matthew Hinsley. Originally trained in graphic design at the University of Texas, he has also studied at the Berklee School of Music Online. Visit his site at www.nathanhanners.com