“Write for you. It’s important to develop a good sense of interpreting specific directions or briefs in general, turning someone else’s vision into a piece everyone is happy with. Just as important, in my opinion, is to set aside time where you write something with either zero direction, or something you set out to do by yourself. It’s a muscle you want to keep trained as well. Then there’s the obvious advice, which I should personally apply more often: stepping away and recharging. Easier said than done in this industry. Coming back to your rig excited to write can do wonders. Take a break, even if it’s a short break, a half day, a hike, or a museum visit. I find it helps with my writing.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Vlad Berkhemer, a Los Angeles-based composer and multi instrumentalist, originally from Amsterdam. With genres ranging from up tempo pop to cinematic scores, his work can be found on shows and advertisements from around the world. Vlad is known for bringing a level of authenticity and playfulness to everything he composes, often tapping into his wide network of world class session players and vocalists, lending his projects a premium feel with a sound that is undeniably his own. Vlad got his start working as the Musical Director for the acclaimed improv comedy theater Boom Chicago where he spent his time composing, producing and improvising music alongside the likes of Seth Meyers (Late Show), Matt Jones (Breaking Bad), Jessica Lowe (Wrecked), Amber ruffin (Late Night with Seth Meyers) among others. He went on to compose for a series of online short sketches, directed by Oscar-winner Jordan Peele. His recent work includes composing for the award-winning comedy series, “Boderline,” on Netflix. Other TV credits featuring his work include: Superhuman (FOX), NBC’s The Biggest Loser, Comedy Central News, and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (Bravo!). Vlad also has a large body of work composing for advertising, where his credits include commercials for Google, Mercedes, Verizon, AT&T, Toyota, Duracell, Samsung, Gatorade, Heineken, Visa, and Coca Cola among many others.
Thank you for joining us, can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I went from being a ‘gigging musician,’ to working in theater with the Second City and Boom Chicago. I’ve always been interested in music and movement and had great improv training throughout the years, as I was kept on my toes having to improvise in different genres (on the spot) alongside some talented people. I also always wanted to dive deeper into music production and composition, so I was writing music for just about any project that could use original music at the time, including theater productions for entertainers and short films or videos my friends were putting out. I did some sound design and composition for Comedy Central Netherlands, among other things. Basically, anything to try it out and get the hang of it. It was when I started getting opportunities to pitch my music for ad campaigns and won my first big job for a long-form Google brand story when things started taking off.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since becoming a composer?
I was in Athens, Greece when a job came in that happened to be for Nike Greece. They needed authentic Greek elements at the front half of their pretty dark and morose spot.
The deadline was tight, as usual (less than 24 hours).
In Athens, you need to look no further than just about any street corner to find amazing Bouzouki players. I picked my favorite player, and before we knew it we set up in my Airbnb makeshift studio and recording parts. Any time a challenge like that presents itself and I can solve it with a live player, rather than going with a sample library, it’s great.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on when I was first starting out, I was tasked to do an arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s “In The Hall Of The Mountain King” to be used during an America’s Got Talent segment. It got turned down for sounding legally too close to the theme song from Captain Gadget. Lesson learned in that case — you can get passed on for the strangest reasons.
In terms of mistakes made on my part, I’ve made plenty of those too. Anything from leaving the click track on in the track or forgetting to re-pitch something after being asked to change the key with virtually no time to re-record every element, resulting in some very (preventable) blue notes. Those mistakes are easily addressed, but no matter what, always check your mixes before sending out.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not “burn out”?
Write for you. It’s important to develop a good sense of interpreting specific directions or briefs in general, turning someone else’s vision into a piece everyone is happy with. Just as important, in my opinion, is to set aside time where you write something with either zero direction, or something you set out to do by yourself. It’s a muscle you want to keep trained as well.
Then there’s the obvious advice, which I should personally apply more often: stepping away and recharging. Easier said than done in this industry. Coming back to your rig excited to write can do wonders. Take a break, even if it’s a short break, a half day, a hike, or a museum visit. I find it helps with my writing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My parents. They are classical musicians. Being around that level of talent, craft, never-ending practice and discipline taught me a lot. David Schmoll, my colleague at Boom Chicago who mentored me and introduced me to music production and helped me develop a sense of live scoring scenes. Diederik Van Middelkoop, Creative Director and Producer extraordinaire who called me in 2006 to demo on some crazy Heineken campaign, which turned into a career and a life-long friendship.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am always thrilled anytime I get to be involved in a project that promotes positive social causes. The Dutch Kidney Foundation being one, who I worked with on a short film that I composed for. Goldivox, a company that literally provides voices to the voiceless through technology is another. They made a charming short animated film with my music as an underscore.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be happy.” My grandmother, Lelia Zuaff. She was a sculptor and an unbelievable artist.
Also, some words from the great philosopher, Jerry Seinfeld. I remember an interview where he mentioned something along the lines of a few key things young people need for success: “Kill yourself and fall in love.”
Kill yourself meaning, especially when young: work harder, more rigorously than you thought was possible. Until you think you can’t take it anymore. Fall in love, and not just in the romantic sense. Fall in love with a good cup of coffee, or a particularly good sandwich.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before becoming a composer” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
-Networking is not scary. The idea of marketing yourself, to a lot of musicians sounds like a foreign concept. If you’ve put in the time to have something worthwhile to put out there, creating relationships with those who can be of mutual benefit is an obvious step. It might not seem this way though when starting out.
-Worry less about whether you have the latest tech. Learn to do great things with what you have. There are an overwhelming amount of plugins and sounds available to any composer starting out. These are important to have and to build up as you go, but it takes time to get to know them and build up a familiarity with your favorite go-to sounds, mixing techniques, plugins. Sticking to whatever comes with your DAW (digital audio workstation) in the beginning. Learning fewer libraries really well rather than obsessing over the new synth that just came out is important. Of course, it’s a balance as you do want to have an ever-expanding library/palette to build toward, but it doesn’t mean much until you’ve really mastered a select few.
-Find a balance. Don’t knock on anyone’s door looking for projects unless what you have to show is undeniably valuable. Similarly, don’t sit on great work looking to make it just that more perfect or add just a few more compositions to the list before reaching out, as you have to start somewhere.
-Deadlines are your best friend. Why wasn’t I able to get things finished on my own time and on my own terms? Because nothing gets one (me) moving more than raised stakes, money offered and an expectation to have something delivered by a certain date for a certain opportunity/project.
-If you’re great, people will find you. Going back to the first point, yes building relationships is vital, but prioritize being great. If only one agency or client knows you, but they know you to be great, sooner or later people are going to know.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
-Since I don’t have world hunger-ending answers (though I wish) I did, it’d be creating a score to remember, something that touches people.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@blueberrygun on twitter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at medium.com