“Follow trends.” It’s common “knowledge” that a musician should chase hot new trends and styles in order to fit in. Your reward, so they say, will be acceptance and demand for your abilities. For me, this was particularly ruinous. When you conform to trends, you’re swept into a dangerous current of mass invisibility. Your voice becomes indistinguishable from the next, and you are infinitely replaceable. However, I began to notice studio executives were complaining about mass homogenization in the industry. They really wanted something new! Right then, I decided to focus exclusively on my most unique musical qualities — I’m really good with strings, I love Balinese Gamelan music, I grew up playing gospel and Irish fiddle music. These were the musical styles that came naturally to me. More importantly, these influences create a truly unique blend of sounds. The day I decided to rely on my own musical history was the day my career took me to places I couldn’t have imagined! There’s no better collaboration than when people come to you for your sound. I know it’s cliche, but be yourself!
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chris Thomas, a composer for film, television, theme parks, and a TEDx speaker. He’s won a Hollywood Music in Media Award, Gold Medal Prize at the Park City Film Music Festival, Best Film & TV Music award at eWorld Music Awards, and has been nominated for a Film & TV Music Award. Chris has written music for several Emmy-nominated films, and for Woman Rebel, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. In television, he works as a composer, orchestrator, and conductor for studios such as Sony, ABC, FOX, CBS, and HBO.
Chris’s work can be heard in theme parks all over the world. He has written music for the Evermore Adventure Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, Queen Mary Chill, Dreamland Theme Park (UK), Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, and many more.
Chris’s works for the concert hall have been performed from Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, to the Hollywood Bowl. He recently premiered a series of concert works in France, Belgium, and Germany. His Symphony #1 (the Malheur Symphony) was the subject of a TED Talk in 2019. His works are published with The FJH Music Company, Walton Choral, Wingert-Jones Publications, and Carl Fischer Music.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Well, thank you! It’s such an honor to chat with you today. Becoming a composer for film, theme parks, and a TED speaker was a long distance from where I grew up. I was raised in Pendleton, a small rodeo town in eastern Oregon. I was very lucky to have grown up with musical parents who were fully supportive of my creative goals in life. While far away from the educational advantages of the big city, I grew up in a world without limitations. In fact, I was the epitome of the “free-range” child. I splashed around in rivers, slept in snow caves, and ran amok in the open countryside. My parents allowed me all the free time I needed for creative exploration. I could spend entire weekends writing new pieces to test out on my school orchestra, choir, and the local symphony orchestra. The advantage of being a country kid is that I had these creative resources at my disposal. There were no other composers monopolizing these ensembles. Imagine something like Scout Finch having her own crash-test orchestra — that was me!
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was very young when I aspired to be a composer. Yet most people met my interests with discouragement and fear. They characterized composing as a life of poverty and loneliness. I hadn’t yet figured out that my love of cinema and my love of music could become one. That was before I saw Edward Scissorhands. There is a scene when Edward goes to a mall and sees Kim in the distance, with a boyfriend undeserving of her love. The sound of the world melts away, and the music begins to narrate something tragic and beautiful. Right then, I realized this was the magic I wanted to dedicate my life to. From that moment on I feared nothing. Poverty and sadness be damned, I was going to become a film composer.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Working in the motion picture business, I have a lot of stories. I’ve kicked over podiums, fired an entire orchestra at Capitol Records, and broken into a friend’s house (with his blessing) in my efforts to finish a score on time! Given these options, there is one particularly special story. I was asked to score a short film after the first two composers quit the project. I was told we had one more chance to get the score right because the director was dying. Actually dying, with 4–6 weeks to live. When I accepted the job, the music was the only unfinished aspect of her movie, and time was not in our favor. Two days into composing I had the worst flu of my life and had no choice but to work through it. I was bringing music to her hospital bed to get feedback, then returning home to make fixes. Once the cues were approved, we quickly recorded and delivered the final mix. She was unable to attend the premiere event at the DGA building, but Skyped in after to see the audience applauding her heroic accomplishment. A week later, she was gone. I’ve never cared so much about getting the music just right, and I’ll never forget Cathy’s fight to the very end.
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?
I’ve never been comfortable with technology. I’m an old-school, pencil & paper kind of composer. On my first low-budget film, I was responsible for mixing my own tracks. It was a large ask of me at the time, but I welcomed the challenge. Having booked a studio space on the USC campus, I invited the filmmakers to hear my latest musical progress on the good speakers. When I hit play, I had mixed the bass line so loud that it blasted the cones right out of the speaker cabinets. It was a painful shock to everybody’s ears, though I’m sure my credibility absorbed most of the damage. That day, I learned there was no shame in outsourcing. There are professional mixers who could help my ideas become presentable. I am very good at some things, but I cannot do it all. None of us can do it all. The right collaborators will add strength where you have weaknesses. I’m glad I learned from that experience, before damaging any more studio monitors or filmmakers’ ears.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
In the past few months, I’ve had two films go out to theaters (Haymaker, Don’t Look Back). I’m excited for these movies since they raise the bar for diversity and inclusion in the industry. Don’t Look Back is a film written and directed by a black filmmaker with a powerful, black female lead. Haymaker is a love story between a retired Muay Thai fighter who becomes a bodyguard for a touring transwoman music star (Nomi Ruiz). Lately, I also worked on a short film project called Imagine Symphony Live. It was something of a love letter to symphony orchestra musicians everywhere. It managed to win the 2020 Hollywood Music in Media award.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
It’s critically important the true range of human experience and culture be reflected in media. Just weeks after the election of Barack Obama, I visited an inner-city kindergarten class to play my cello. Being in Los Angeles, it was a very diverse group. I was struck at the realization these kids will grow up knowing a black man can be president of the United States. Normalizing such a thing is an immense psychological shift for society. Today, despite increased attacks from a new breed of extremists, we have still managed to accelerate the pace of representation and acceptance. Imagine never having met a trans person, then seeing a film where you find yourself identifying with the humanity and feelings of a trans character. Such an experience makes it just a little harder to rationalize hateful thinking. Every little step further erodes bigotry and fear. These days, there’s never been such mass progress in this effort. From actors and musicians coming forward to stand against harassment and unequal pay, not to mention media integrating with significant movements such as Time’s Up and BLM.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I love this question, but may I reframe it slightly? My most valuable insights came from the wreckage of bad advice I had been given in the past. The five points I have for you are still all too common in the music industry. Hopefully, my mistakes will provide valuable learning opportunities for others. Here they are, the five things I wish I had never been told:
Here’s a link to the filmed answers: https://youtu.be/oldyRndV674
Untruth #1 — “You don’t have what it takes.” I left college believing I wasn’t talented enough to make it. I was so discouraged by faculty opinion that I quit composing for over a year. This nearly caused me to miss out on everything that was to come! When I arrived in Los Angeles, I was surprised to discover that I was not only talented enough but surprisingly good in some areas I didn’t expect. The lesson was clear — it is easy for people in high up, safe places to tell you what you can or can’t do. The truth is, only you can discover this for yourself. Don’t let other people’s opinions hold you back!
Untruth #2 — “Follow trends.” It’s common “knowledge” that a musician should chase hot new trends and styles in order to fit in. Your reward, so they say, will be acceptance and demand for your abilities. For me, this was particularly ruinous. When you conform to trends, you’re swept into a dangerous current of mass invisibility. Your voice becomes indistinguishable from the next, and you are infinitely replaceable. However, I began to notice studio executives were complaining about mass homogenization in the industry. They really wanted something new! Right then, I decided to focus exclusively on my most unique musical qualities — I’m really good with strings, I love Balinese Gamelan music, I grew up playing gospel and Irish fiddle music. These were the musical styles that came naturally to me. More importantly, these influences create a truly unique blend of sounds. The day I decided to rely on my own musical history was the day my career took me to places I couldn’t have imagined! There’s no better collaboration than when people come to you for your sound. I know it’s cliche, but be yourself!
Untruth #3 — “You failed, give up.” The first EP didn’t land well. The audition was brutal. Or “I tried LA for 6 months and didn’t land the deal” story. These are real people who gave right before my eyes. Then came the friends and family with these dangerously soothing words — “You tried, now it’s time to give up.” While well-intentioned, this is truly the most insidious untruth that can undermine an artist’s career. For some reason, most people measure success in music against overnight sensations. Expecting an “Insta-Success” career is delusional and unrealistic. All real-life careers are built on years of personal development and cultivating professional, trusting relationships. I’ve met several coffee shop owners who told me their businesses weren’t very profitable during their first 4–6 years. Similarly, musicians should measure success on larger time-scales. You are starting a real business. It will take years to find your footing. Painful rejections are not failures, they are only small bumps on the road to a successful business. Be like a coffee shop, give it a damn minute to grow.
Untruth #4 — “Avoid rejection.” That last point is a great segue to the rejection rule. As musicians, you will be rejected and personally burned more times than you think you can handle. You have to jump in knowing this business will be hurtful. At the same time, rejection happens to be your best metric for success! I’ve observed a simple pattern: the more rejection you risk, the more success you come away with. For instance, if you try out for only a few projects a month you’re not likely to win any of them. If you try out for 50 projects at a time, you’re likely to win several. One perspective is that you’ve absorbed more rejection. Another perspective is that you came away with more work than expected. Embrace rejection, it really is your friend. Measure your success in rejections, not victories!
Untruth #5 — “Play it safe.” When I was 12, a hospice nurse told me that dying people share some common regrets. One of these was knowing they could have lived their lives in a more meaningful or authentic way, and simply didn’t do it. They could have done any of the things they wanted to, but some excuse always got in the way. That night I made a pact with myself to do things differently. This compelled me to design a unique way of living optimized around my values and goals. All I’ve ever wanted out of life is to write as much music as possible. It’s a very simple goal. To accomplish this, my daily life cannot operate by customary conventions. In fact, my life often appears strange and confusing to some. Normal workday hours, weekends, or a house with a picket fence is of no interest to me. Instead, I’ve intentionally designed a life around the pursuit of all things I find meaningful. Yes, this life I’ve chosen comes with its share of chaos. Even then, it has allowed me the creative space and flexibility to write a symphony, score films, write theme park soundtracks, and compose concert music for my publishers. I’ve even managed to fit in delivering a TED Talk. Take a lesson from a hospice nurse — you only live once, make it count!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Burnout is hard to avoid in this industry. It’s especially hard to avoid when you’re starting out. It will be brutal and I wish I could tell you otherwise. However, there comes a point when the abusive schedule must be reigned in. You’ll soon be keeping up with the pace of production. This is when you take a stand for your long-term survival. Keeping a strict schedule, simplifying your diet, and getting some exercise will help you survive the months of sustained work. This way you will only need to burn hard a few weeks before recording, instead of three solid months at a time. A healthier you is a more creative you. The better your creativity, the more value you bring to the industry. There’s no honor in abusing yourself or reinforcing a culture that normalizes self-destructive habits. Yes, as film composers we have elected to work under the untenable pace of motion picture production. That said, learning to navigate this gauntlet is critical to your long-term success.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
While this may seem painfully dry, I would encourage a revolution in critical thinking! I believe this plays an outsized role in the erosion of social progress here at home. That’s why I choose to fight in the war for truth. Today, it appears we are witnessing the breakdown of epistemology itself. Our culture is increasingly unable to discern opinion from fact. In education, I believe the standards of the scientific method must be applied to the social sciences and other humanities. In the humanities, the equivalent of the scientific method is the study of subjects like the philosophy of logic and epistemology. This is where our thoughts meet a barrage of scrutiny. Only after meeting strict criteria may a thought qualify as “logical.”
Since the 1970s, Carl Sagan warned that the erosion of critical thought would produce dangerous consequences to both democracy and national security. He, and others like Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, also strived to make scientific thinking more accessible and relatable. An aggressive continuation of this work is necessary. My belief is that existing social movements will profit from such a renewal of critical thinking. The challenges we face, from erosion of democracies, climate change, and reversals of gender and racial equality, require a robust empirical basis. There is a growing distance between action toward systemic change, and action that achieves nothing more than virtue points. We need to train a new generation of discerning, investigating, truth-seeking minds. My hope is that future adults will better detect and deflect the spurious constructions and emotional triggers underlying most misinformation. Without making progress on this matter, I don’t see how even the most poignant social movements will make meaningful progress. Simply put, the truth matters.
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 about that?
For me, it was a parade of supportive individuals who crossed my path early in life. First, to my good fortune, I was born into a musical family. My parents were always the right mix of supportive, and task-masters who pushed me to practice hard enough to get somewhere. Bill Mayclin for bring a constant musical mentor, introducing me to world-class musical events, and encouraging my taste for adventure, travel, and world music. Sue Nelson for teaching me to truly read and understand music, and introduced me to several important mentors. To maestro Ken Woods for teaching me how to deeply understand and analyze music, then bravely lending me several of his orchestras to test out my first symphonic works. They say it takes a village, and they were my village. Most composers I know succeeded alone, without a safety net of encouraging people. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think of each of these people, and thank my lucky stars they are in my life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always admired resilient people. Resilience, learning from mistakes, and embracing adversity is necessary for success. In fact, I’ve come to think of my failures as having freed me to do things better. Failure liberates us from things that aren’t working. With pain, we are rewarded with clarity, insight, and a better path forward. We can’t change everything about our circumstances, but we can transform our fate by learning from our mistakes. This is why I have always been inspired by these words from the philosopher, Meng Tzu (Mencius) — “When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent.”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would choose Danny Elfman. Early in life, I was a big fan of composers like Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota. Their off-beat, quirky, and inventive music resonated with me. The music I hear in my head is so similar to theirs, I knew I was going to be an odd-ball like them. Since I wasn’t going to be the next John Williams, I began to wonder if there was really a place for me in film music. Discovering Elfman’s career gave me the courage to keep going. I thought that brand of crazy died off with Herrmann and Rota, but I was wrong. These composers had only passed the torch to Elfman. This is the torch I choose to carry forward. Knowing that I’m part of this lineage of quirky composers gave me the courage to discover myself and not give up.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me at www.christhomasmusic.com, Instagram @chris.thomas.music or listen to my music on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/chris-thomas-composer. Please feel free to visit and say hello!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Goodness, I can’t thank you enough for the wonderful conversation. This interview has really made me pause and think deeply about the world beyond my music and career. It has been rather therapeutic. I am humbled and grateful for this experience. Thank you!