Dive deep into the captivating album Monochrome Daydream, and you will find yourself in an alternative version of Ad Astra directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and scored by Cliff Martinez (or some spiritually similar combination). Los Angeles will somehow factor in heavily. It will be extraordinary.
LA is not just a favorite location for Refn, it’s also the home of Bryce Miller, the musician and producer behind the beautifully compelling Monochrome Daydream, out Nov. 8 via Spun Out of Control. Miller — who for his day job scores trailers for films like Doctor Sleep, Blade Runner 2049, and Godzilla: King of Monsters — is well known for his creative synth-score-like work. This time around he brings it to an exquisitely grandiose height.
Vehlinggo caught up with Miller for a Skype chat earlier this month. We discussed the making of Monochrome Daydream, scoring for trailers, and how Miller ended up as a professional musician, among other things. One prominent theme (and let me reference Back to the Future): If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. (Editor’s Note: The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)
Lunch with Cliff Martinez and Other LA Stories
Vehlinggo: Did you have any sort of musical exposure at home when you were growing up — musical parents or grandparents?
Miller: Yeah, my mom is very musical. She has sung most of her life and then played piano when she was younger. But I mean, when I was growing up they were semi-active. My mom would still sing here and there, but neither of them did it professionally. I think they’re just big advocates for music, so both my brother and I were into music. He played trombone, I played piano; we did the whole band life. Now he’s gone on to do something else, but I’ve kept up with music. Actually, my dad, his foray into music is happening now. He’s a woodworker and he’s gotten into building guitars.
Oh, that’s awesome. I thought you were going to say he started an industrial band.
That’s next. Once he gets the guitars going, then he’ll get some crazy effects going.
Maybe he could join Einstürzende Neubauten, that industrial Mute Records band from the 1980s who made their own instruments. (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah, I’m here for that.
So how did this solo Cliff Martinez-sounding stuff come about?
There you go. You got me pegged.
It started out pretty much while I was in college [at the University of Oregon in Eugene]. I was working on doing a score for a short film as part of a collaboration between the school of music and the school of film. The director we were working with, was, as was I already, a big fan of Cliff Martinez and a lot of synth scores. It was a horror film as well. So that’s some pretty classic use of synth scores.
So I got really into it and that was my first time really jumping in and doing it myself. Actually that score was what eventually morphed into City Depths, my first album — the actual score itself I think was only four or five minutes. But one of the tracks on that first album is just straight-up the score from the short film that has an unusual song structure, because it is following a picture.
But anyways, so from just kind of diving into working on that score I just fell into it and ended up expanding all that into that first album. Actually, I know you’ve interviewed Cliff before, haven’t you?
Yeah, three times. Once for the Drive piece, another for an in-depth last year, and another for Lakeshore’s podcast.
Three times? Wow. That’s pretty great. We grabbed lunch a few years ago, which was a great time. Just to hang out.
Whoa! How did that happen? Do you know him? That’s pretty excellent to meet someone who’s had such a huge impact on you.
How did that happen? Isn’t that a great question? It was actually while I was still in school. This was when I was planning to come down to LA. I was like, well I’ve got to make my connections, right? That’s how you make it in the business. So I just looked around online and his email address was just somewhere — I don’t remember specifically. I just emailed him directly and asked if he wanted to get lunch and he said “yes.” So it was great.
Quite the audacity on your part! But it’s also great that he offered to sort-of mentor an aspiring composer.
I know. He’s a really nice guy. I’ve kept up with him pretty actively — I mean not personally, but just with his work. It continues to amaze me and be some of my favorite.
Yeah, he’s very inventive. You always know when a score is his, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every score is the same. In fact, The Neon Demon, Solaris, and The Knick all are distinct from each other and also from fare like Game Night.
Exactly. His DNA is in every score, but he’s big on finding a palette for each movie. Then I guess his musical identity comes out in that palette no matter what it is. But yeah, he definitely tries new stuff.
So when I was listening to Monochrome Daydream, and I think it sounds like Cliff Martinez, the context that I’m thinking of is, among other scores, The Neon Demon. That’s where I find myself — even if some of the tracks aren’t explicitly such. You certainly tap into something.
Is that one that you were ever influenced by? Or one that you like?
That’s up there. Yeah. I think that’d definitely be in my top two or three of my favorite scores of his.
Actually, so it’s probably pretty apparent, but the main theme of Monochrome Daydream is the “Drift” theme, which is in “Drift, Part 1” and then “Spectral Drift” and then “Drift, Part 2.” They all share that theme. I acknowledged that in a lot of Cliff’s music, as well as in the Blade Runner soundtrack and all of my favorite synth scores, what I’ve attached myself to the most is the beautiful moments.
I can feel a shift in approach from one album to the next in the lifecycle of your discography. Just generally, when you approach composition, do you have a story in mind for each one? Are you basically scoring to a film not yet made? Or do you just have a general theme that you’re going for?
The “imaginary soundtrack,” as it’s now coined. I think with the first album that was very much just expanding from a score I had done. So that was definitely in my brain: a score for a half-real, half-imaginary thing. Then for Wasp, my second album, that was scoring to page. I was scoring the book series, the Millennium trilogy.
This one, Monochrome Daydream, is actually a little bit less so, because there’s no direct source material and nothing I’m specifically scoring. I think it was a little freeing in ways to try and just score emotions. I think my way of making it make sense: As I was working on it, as each new track would fall into place, I would try to live in the album a little bit. I’d put on headphones and I’d go for a walk or I’d go and drive around and listen to it and try and feel where it wanted to go next.
“I think it was a little freeing in ways to try and just score emotions.”
What do you bring from your trailer-scoring experience to your albums?
I think probably the biggest thing would be the atmosphere stuff. There’s not all that much similarity to the — I hate this word — “big, orchestral” stuff.
Where I think the similarities come is the first half of trailers — they usually are always the place to experiment, I would say. Where they’re floating and you have to find ways to move the tension, move the emotion.
I think learning that microscopic attention to detail that’s needed for trailer scoring has helped me in my synth music to make it all feel a little more directional and help it feel like it’s going somewhere rather than just, “Oh I made an art bloop.” Then it’s playing and now I put a thing underneath it — trying to actually give it direction and give it purpose. If that means the track only needs to be two minutes to say what I need to say, then I would rather do that than just have it play out into oblivion.
I agree 100%. No need to beat a dead horse with this stuff. On the topic of film trailers: How did you get into that? The reason why I’m asking is, you’re fairly fresh out of college by just a few years, right? You already have scored trailers for pretty big properties. Blade Runner and Godzilla are huge properties.
Yeah, no, it is a little bit of a miracle I think. I’ve been here [in LA] for about three years and out of college for about four. When I first moved down here, it was the blind faith with which I feel like so many people move to LA or move to New York… So I moved down here with zero prospects of work or a job of any kind. But I was just like, “I know I have to be in LA because that’s where movies are made.”
Which, look, I don’t know why, but I’m glad I did. So I moved down here and then, I don’t know, one day I was just sitting around and I was looking for jobs scanning the internet and I thought, oh trailers, that’s a thing, right? It’s crazy. You make more off a minute, minute and a half, than you make on an hour-and-a-half movie.
“I moved down here with zero prospects…”
That seems so bizarre.
Right? So I found a bunch of contacts online for just different houses in LA and started sending out emails… [and] ended up getting connected with one named Alloy Tracks.
That’s what I’ve been doing now since I’ve been down here. I mean the trailer world is unique compared to most of the other movie industry type things. In order to get hired onto a major blockbuster movie or even a minor Hollywood movie, you have to have experience and you have to have a lot going for you. Because these producers and the director are taking a leap of faith hiring you that you’re going to deliver what they need. More often than not, they’re not going to take that risk on you. They’re going to hire someone who knows what they’re doing.
Whereas trailers are an entirely different world. They aren’t hiring you to score a huge thing. It’s like if this two-minute track that you made in your bedroom is exactly what they want, you’re in. There’s no question. It’s just great, we want it. So the door is wide open. It’s incredibly competitive, just because it’s so wide open. But if you can manage to nail the sound and find unique ways to define your music from others, I mean the sky is the limit on what projects you can be a part of, which is amazing. I’ve been incredibly excited to get to work on some of these cool things.
“Oh, I will forever remember the day when we got that first request for Blade Runner 2049.”
Yeah. I mean it’s pretty big. You’re obviously a fan of Vangelis and Blade Runner, and then you got to work on the trailer.
Oh, I will forever remember the day when we got that first request for Blade Runner . That was one of the first big things I had worked on. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was like, “I love Vangelis and if they want me to nail the sound of Vangelis. I can do that.” If there’s something I can do, it’s that.
That’s for damn sure.
So they came to me and the trailer that I worked on — and this is the reality with most trailers — it’s a patchwork of a bunch of different things.
I worked on the second Blade Runner 2049 trailer. It was a case where they had a music bed in there that had some pulsing arp stuff and they’re like, “We need it to be Blade Runner.” I was like, “Okay, done.” I did a pass over what they had and added the themes to everything and added the little Vangelisy sounds that give it the retro flair.
What other film trailers have you worked on other than Blade Runner 2049 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters?
I’ve done stuff for Aquaman. I [also] worked on the last Fantastic Beast movie. I recently did the Doctor Sleep trailer that came out [in mid-September]. I mean talk about iconic synth scores, that Wendy Carlos theme.
Oh yeah. She’s a bona fide musical genius.
That was another one where I love that soundtrack, so that was another pinnacle one where they were like, “All right, we need the theme done in a trailer version.” I was like, “Yes, let’s go.”
You’re like, “Yes, please. Of course I’ll do this one.”
Yes. I think that’s my ultimate goal. I think when I first moved down here, that was the goal to get into feature-film scoring. I think at the time I saw trailers as — I didn’t know what I was talking about — an easy way to make money.
That’s how I first went into it. But now I’ve had some success and I really enjoy doing the trailers. So I definitely see writing for feature films still on my horizon, but I don’t see dropping the trailer side of it anytime soon. It’d be great to do them both in tandem.
Yeah, that would be awesome. A theme that I’m hearing in this whole story is you just decide to do something and then it happens. Is this a life philosophy? How does this happen and how can it happen for others? This is your chance to be a success or life coach of sorts.
A life coach, I need to inspire the kids.
Yeah. It’s an inspiring story. One day you’re like, I’m going to go to LA to be a composer. I’m going to email Cliff Martinez and then we’re going to have lunch. It’s very much an “I want to do this thing and then it happens.” How are you doing this?
How am I doing this? What’s the magic?
I mean that’s a great question. I think that rolls over into a lot of what I do in my life. It’s just that I get very focused on one thing and if I choose that I’m going to do it. It’s an “all-in” mentality.
You can pre-order Monochrome Daydream on vinyl and also stream it right now. Its official release is Nov. 8 via Spun Out of Control.