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Interview With Reed Robins

By Damion Wolfe, May 2004

Though my mother and I didn't always see eye to eye during my teenage years, one thing I must credit her for was her knack of instinctually guiding to me to the right people in life. You know, those kind of people who leave you with a positive imprint that guides you later through aspects of your life. Well, Reed Robins was one of those people for me.

Mom signed me up for guitar lessons at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Music when I was 13 years old. My teacher was Reed. He was one of the best teachers an angst-ridden teenager could have. He was this laid back, long-haired guy who was always nice and never spoke an unkind word. He firmly guided me, but without too much pressure and sort of let me set the pace. Fortunately I was more enthusiastic about learning the guitar than almost anything I had ever done in my life, so I was very studious and disciplined for a couple of years. As we came upon my 3rd year Reed began speaking of moving to New York City, and eventually the lessons became less and less until he was finally gone. I thought of him often and went for a brief visit once years later.

I didn't see him again until the release of my first CD. He told me once that when he first received my CD, he was reluctant because he remembers me as a student struggling to learn chords and other various guitar endeavors, which I'm sure I was slopping through. I sent him a copy and he seemed to be impressed enough to come out and catch my first NYC show. It was great to see him again and we've remained in touch ever since.

Later I worked with Reed on my latest CD, "Here There And That Way." Reed was responsible for recording and co-producing a majority of this CD, as well as performing bass guitar on it. To this day Reed is still like a teacher/mentor to me. He definitely won't hesitate to tell me if my timing is bad or make a musical suggestion. But he's just as sure to tell me when there's a song he likes, to encourage an idea and to be a voice of reason when I lose creative perspective.

Reed is one of the most well rounded musicians I've ever known. He is a great guitarist, bassist, composer, vocalist, recording engineer, pianist, etc., etc. He's composed orchestral pieces, he's recorded a CD of Jimi Hendrix tunes for jazz-piano, he's scored several films, he does recording and mastering work in his own studio, he's played in rock bands, and the list goes on and on. And, he does it all very well!! He's one of those guys that many musicians only dream of becoming. In addition, he's a super nice guy. Like many of us Reed has had his fair share of struggles as an artist, whether it's trying to break into the Film Industry or just the initial adjustment of finding employment after moving to a city like New York. He will be talking about such subjects and many others in our interview this month.

Reed lives in downtown Manhattan with his wife Sevgi, and their dog, Tito. He has a small studio right down the hall from his apartment. The studio is MacIntyre Music Recording (writer's note: Reed and Sevgi graciously let me sleep in the studio several times during our recording sessions). For more information about Reed and his multiple projects check out www.changingtones.com and www.macintyremusic.com. If you would like to get in touch with Reed, just drop him a line at reed@changingtones.com. I hope you will enjoy the time Reed took with us to share some of his thoughts. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Reed Robins!!

Reed, you've covered a vast array of musical territory in your lifetime. I want to go back to your earlier days for a bit of initial perspective. Briefly chat with us about how you first became interested in playing the guitar and the evolution of your desire to become a composer and pianist.

Briefly?! OK, two words...Jimi Hendrix! Well, I first got a guitar the Christmas after my father died, I was about 8. I was a massive Jimi Hendrix fan even then, and while on the family vacation in Virginia Beach, Va, I happened to notice that Jimi was going to be in concert there while we were going to be in town. My mother took a family friend and I to the concert, and from then on I was hooked on the idea of being a musician! WOW! I still remember it vividly. He did the whole bit, a wall of amps, burning his guitar, playing with his teeth...Incredible showmanship. I was completely and utterly blown away.

As time passed, I played in bands around Richmond Va. where I'm from, and I was always the youngest person in the band, particularly in the beginning. I was always in a power trio, with just bass and drums, so a lot of melodic and harmonic responsibility was on me. That gave me some good practice.

Later on, I decided I wasn't comfortable not knowing how music was put together in terms of music theory, and so at about age 16 I started studying jazz guitar with a man named Jerry Fields, who was somewhat of a Richmond celebrity, at least among the guitar players I knew. A lot of the other players were going to study with him as well. He has passed on now, but I still remember him very fondly, he was very supportive to me.

When I went to college, I started studying classical guitar, which is a whole different thing - the way you hold it, the finger style as opposed to pick - it was daunting. I did finish as a guitar/composition major, but I decided after a while that I really wanted to learn how to play piano, because I was getting into composing, and realized that the piano was a good instrument to learn in light of that. Also, the piano is capable of a loud, full-bodied sound, and the classical guitar, while very beautiful, never really gets there. After playing in a power trio, loud was not going to be drained from my blood that easily!

By my last year there, I was writing orchestral music and having it performed by the school's orchestra, and I had begun writing music for dance. I had gotten introduced to the dance department by playing piano in ballet and modern classes. That was important for me, because I learned a lot about how to support a visual image, and what kind of music complements a particular motion, or physical idea. The feedback was immediate, because if they didn't like what you were improvising, they'd stop and tell you to make something else up. And...in fact, my work in the dance world is what led me to New York in the first place, which was the undisputed dance capital of the world, at least when I arrived in 1984, if not still. Well, so much for being brief!

You've done alot of scoring and recording for film and stage. Do you forsee continuing to do this, or are your creative interests currently focused elsewhere?

I always love to score for picture and theater. Unfortunately, there's only so much of that work around. You can always do it for free, but I'm not really interested in that. You'd be surprised how many filmmakers and directors want you to, though. You can tell them "I know you don't have a big budget...I'll do your film...if your budget is $10, I only want a dollar." They'll run away to look for someone who doesn't want even that...and they'll find them! Everyone I know who has become really successful (and I do know or have met some very successful composers) have gotten into the big time world of scoring by some sort of total fluke, usually by working with an unknown filmmaker who becomes known overnight. I'm into that, but I also feel that one shouldn't completely undervalue themselves.

In spite of the above rant, I recently finished a film called "Squeeze Play" about the goings on in a lesbian football match. In addition to writing the original underscore music, I also arranged two well known songs. The first for what is known as "source music," meaning the actors (or I should say the characters) are actually hearing it as they are in the scene. That was "Suspicious Minds" (the Elvis song). The other which functions as underscore was "She's a Lady" (Tom Jones).

I'm also working right now on an animated piece which is loosely based on "The Little Prince." It's a musical, brought up to date with hip styles. Right now, we're working on a Gospel number in that one.


In the 1980s you left Richmond, Virginia for Manhattan, where you still reside. How has living in New York City affected your musical perspective as a composer and performer?

I guess I've found it inspiring because of the amount of energy and talent I've found here, and humbling for the same reason. The musicians that you get to work with here are the world's finest. On the other hand, I've also had to learn how to moderate my ideas because of the costs of getting talent. You can't write for a 100 piece orchestra unless you've got some serious connections! That has taught me to use only what I need, which has been an amazing lesson in itself.


In 1995 you released "Songs of Jimi Hendrix For Solo Jazz Piano". This was such a brilliant concept and production. Would you mind sharing how you became inspired to do this?

I was studying jazz piano with a fabulous teacher named Mike Longo. Mike had worked as pianist and arranger for Dizzy Gillespie, and is an amazing talent. He originally studied with Oscar Peterson. I strongly recommend him to any serious student who's not looking to be glad handed, because he rides you pretty hard. I was with him for 7 years. Mike was the person who first taught me about touch, and had me doing nothing but Hanon #1 (a basic 5 finger exercise for piano) at every lesson for a year at least. This was a serious step back to the basics for someone who had already learned "Rhapsody in Blue", "Pictures at an Exhibition," etc., but well worth the excursion.

Anyway, at a point in the course of our study we were working on arranging, and he asked me to bring in a "contemporary" (not a so called "standard") song for us to look at. I choose "Angel" by Jimi Hendrix. It seemed to have a reflective calm beauty and interesting chord changes that would lend itself well to jazz, so that's why I did. As we analyzed the music, chord structures, and rhythm, I became excited by the amount of underlying musical interest that was involved. I had always thought of Hendrix as the greatest guitarist of his genre with a charisma that didn't let his music die, but I started realizing the extent to which his genius lays in his writing as well.

As we sat together in this lesson on this particular day, I remember Mike saying "See, this idea comes from Gospel music," and in a different spot: "This is really a substitute for a iii-iv-II-V progression." In the second case I'm sure Hendrix didn't think of it that way, but his intuitive use of techniques like harmonic substitution was far, far beyond that of his contemporaries. It was really exciting for me to experience my old hero in this new way! At that point I started looking for other Hendrix songs that had similar possibilities. Before long, I had discovered that a vast number of them could work. So I assembled 20 tunes from 4 different seminal Hendrix albums and went about the process of arranging and recording them for my CD release.


One of the recurring themes of the Artist Profile Series is having each artist discuss how they balance making a living with making their art. To the best of my knowledge you've always managed to "earn your keep" through some musical endeavor, whether it be as a performer, composer, recording engineer, publisher, teacher, etc. Can you describe the dedication and perserverance it's taken for you to maintain and balance this without having to work another job outside of the music field?

Now I run my own recording studio here in Manhattan. It started when I decided I would use a tape as an element in an orchestral piece I was writing back in 1984 ... basically as one of the instruments in the orchestra. I had an old (even then) reel to reel 4 track. I created a kind of sound collage for that piece, and I started using things like outboard gear, delay, reverb, compression, etc. in that realm. I took a 10 hour RIAA recording course at Alpha Audio, a recording studio in Richmond Va. to hone my skills. Later when I came to NY, along with using recordings in my own work, I began recording the music of others, making demos and recording what I had composed, since I didn't really know a lot of musicians. Also coming to NY tends to take you down a few notches -- at least it did me.

Fast forward (pun intended) to now. At this point I've been writing music for a variety of things. I've written for plays, films, dance, and other media, and I record and mix here at the studio. Most recently, with most of my time I've been doing the recording and mixing for an orchestral work called Merregnon 2, which is a CD release of the work of several different composers in the video game field. Video games are getting music which is more and more sophisticated and the producer we're working with, Thomas Boecher, is one of the driving forces behind that trend. I've been lucky enough to work with Andy Brick, a very successful and talented composer who in addition to contributing 3 tracks to this 21 track CD is also music director of the Merregnon project. He is another driving force for this orchestral trend in the game world.

With the Merregnon project, the strings were recorded on 10 tracks in Prague by the Prague symphony strings, and then we brought those tracks back to New York, and recorded the winds and brass here at my place, with some of the top players that are here in the USA. Composers supplied the rest (percussion, synths, etc.). We also did the mixes here as well. It will soon be released on a Sony affiliated label.

Also I did some mixes for The Sims "Rush Hour 4" recently, which is a large orchestral score as well. It is actually, at present, the largest selling video game in history. I also do a good bit of mastering here, voice overs, anything that needs to be done.


As a composer, what do you draw upon for inspiration?

A job! Inspiration is the most difficult thing for me, because I've gotten a foothold in so many different styles that I have a fear of rambling. I'm an all or nothing kind of person - and I want to make a big difference - so not being Beethoven...or Hendrix...bugs me in a big way. I'm trying to work on that though. A job forces me to put my fears aside and just do it. I've learned that's the single most important thing in life, facing your fears...


THE TEN

1. What was your favorite childhood toy?

The box the toy came in. There's actually a childhood picture of me, having fallen asleep - in the box - after some vigorous play making a train out of a group of boxes.

2. Who are your top 3 film composers?

I would say John Williams, for his incredibly skillful counterpoint. Elliot Goldenthal for his balls to the wall style (plus he's a heck of a nice guy), and Hans Zimmer, because he has been very effective in combining the old and new schools. I am #4, but I know you only asked for three....

3. Do you think Hendrix perhaps didn't really die, but instead was abducted by aliens from the Pleiades?

Well, I would say...
Oh excuse me, my cell is ringing...
What's that? Yes...Yes...could you hold a minute, Jimi?...
I'm sorry I've got to take this, it's the mothership calling.
....
....
....
What was the question again?

4. What artist and/or composer would you most like to collaborate with?

I'm drawing a blank on this one, is that bad?

5. Spelling Question. Spell the word "olfactory."

" olfactory"-
O-l-d F-a-c-t-o-r-y
-"olfactory"
Boy, that was easy...next question.

6. Although a city dweller for most of your life, you were once a country boy growing up in Virginia. Do you ever wish you owned a big-ass truck so you could 4-Wheel around the city at 3 a.m. in the morning?

AND HOW! The truth is I used to have a Chevy Surburban here in NY (it's like a van with a car's hood) that I would take out for a drive real early in the morning. That car had so much rust that it looked like it wasn't in great shape, and it had a chain that I put in to lock the engine in order to keep the battery from being stolen. I just drilled into the hood with a hole saw. It looked like a nose ring on the truck. When people saw that thing coming they'd move out of the way! Anyway, the whole truck was stolen one day, and that was it for my 4-wheeling days.

7. What advice would you dispense to musicians and > composers who want to move to NYC to pursue their art?

Have your head examined. If there's really nothing they can do for you. Then welcome...
Seriously though, get help!

8. What artist, dead or alive, would you most like to > share conversation and sushi with?

Shakespeare....Fred Shakespeare. What was his brother's name again?

9. Have you ever considered just giving it all up and hitting the travelling karaoke circuit?

Believe me, you don't want that...

10. What inspires you most in life?

Sevgi, Tito, traffic jams, pastoral vistas, sound, frets and keys, knobs and dials, yin and yang, and a really good water feature.