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Exclusive Interview: Composer Joseph LoDuca on the music of LEVERAGE and SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND

Posted by Confessed4Life on Friday, April 9, 2010 Under: Interviews

The story of Joseph LoDuca’s rise in the world of movie and television soundtracks is a classic. Jumping in with both feet in 1982, he became involved with the trio of Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, and actor Bruce Campbell for the iconic splat-stick horror film Evil Dead. He developed such a strong bond with them that whenever any of them would request his services, he would jump at the chance. After paying his dues in the horror film circuit, the team graduated into epic television franchises, first with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and then to greater success with Xena: Warrior Princess.

Although there have been low points as well as highs, LoDuca attacks each project with equal enthusiasm. He eventually added producer/director Dean Devlin and actor-turned-director Jonathan Frakes to his list of working partners, and his career exploded into more feature film and high-profile television work.

Currently, LoDuca is writing music for two popular television series simultaneously, Leverage for TNT and Spartacus: Blood and Sand for Starz. Until it was cast aside indefinitely in early March by Disney/ABC Television, he was also working on the Emmy-winning fantasy series Legend of the Seeker.

Read on, as we sit down and discuss the manic, musical world of Joseph LoDuca!

Although it happened a year ago, congratulations for winning an Emmy for your work on Legend of the Seeker. That must have been a pleasant surprise for you.

Yes, yes it was, especially for a show that is on the fringes of viewing. Yeah, absolutely. It’s not exactly a popular show that most people would have seen, so it’s great for it to get noticed.

Were you working on Seeker (before it was suspended), Spartacus, and Leverage simultaneously?


How is your mind able to segregate itself so proper attention is given to each project and restrained enough so there is no bleed-over of styles?

I think the hardest part of doing a series is the startup, because that is when the most attention is given to creating the sound of the show. Once the show is off and running, it has its voice and you abide by the rules that you’ve created and the sound palette that you’ve coordinated for the show. In some ways, it actually gets easier.

I spoke to Bear McCreary last year about his work on Battlestar Galactica, and he was saying how massive and expansive his palette had become season after season. And he mentioned that if he had to do another season of the show, he wasn’t sure where he would start, because it was already so big. Did you run into a similar issue with Xena?

Well Xena was actually a unique experience in terms of a series that can never be replicated. Xena ran the full gamut of writing opera, rock musical, Three Stooges comedy, and melodrama. I don’t know of another show that has crossed that many genres in the course of the six seasons. Hercules was similar, but certainly not as expansive as Xena. I think a lot of what makes for interesting music has to do with the writing. If the writers are continually challenging and pushing the envelope, the music has to follow.

I was reading the liner notes to the Leverage soundtrack, and it seems like they like throwing curve balls at you, for which you have to react accordingly in an allotted time frame; like the funky bass line theme or the Irish punk rock song.

Right, but usually, those tend to be one-off requests, and they are interesting challenges. But the fun about Leverage is that it is more in the mainstream and is more in the vein of fun – the world isn’t going to blow up every second episode, nor is the devil incarnate going to be resurrected [laughs].

Is the music you write for Leverage closer to the music background from where you grew?

No, but it certainly references a part of my life that was important. There was a time in my life when all I did was play jazz. It was a long time ago, but when I was in it, I was fully committed to learning about the music.

When I put the disc on, it really took me by surprise at how different it is from other scores. It’s light, but not too light, breezy with a suspenseful undertone, and very eclectic. It was quite a departure from what we’ve come to know of you as a composer.

I would hope to consider myself as a complete musician, and in many ways, a career is carved by the work that chooses you. I wasn’t necessarily a fan of horror movies growing up, but I ended up doing a lot of them. I enjoyed the people I was working with on them, and I enjoyed the carte blanche that goes along with writing for them. But I don’t consider myself a ‘darker movie’ person.

So how did the producers know you were capable of expanding into these other realms when you were chosen to do Leverage?

Well, I had been working with Dean Devlin since he made his foray into television. And I think he has really come to enjoy working in television, because there is a quicker turn-around time between conception and realization than there often is in working in the feature film world. I think he just had confidence in my abilities. He knows that any challenge he’s ever thrown at me, I’ve been able to come through for him. I had to write songs for him before, like in The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines and all kinds of other little challenges, like writing African music, Cajun music, Middle Eastern references in some of those adventures. And through that, I think he got a sense that I’d be up for this, as well.

Are they all elements of your musical repertoire, or did you have to research those cultural and ethnic styles?

I think what I enjoy about writing for film is that you get to reference all of that. I am interested in music in all of its shapes, sizes and forms, and being a film composer allows me to get deeper involved in that. It’s like a huge wheel. This is certainly not the first time I have referenced my jazz background, but it comes up every now and again, and in Leverage, it surfaced – the same way my referencing Middle Eastern music crops up in Spartacus. I’ve been involved with it for many years, but here I get to approach it in a fresh way for this show. In many ways, working in film music is learning on the job – it certainly has been in my career.

But what I really enjoy about your work on TV is that there is a cinematic quality to it, which I think is a carryover from your experience from Hercules and Xena. I would go so far as to say that you are among the composers who have paved the way for the modern, cinematic approach to television scoring. Before, TV music was very cheaply made, superficial, and sounded “canned.”

I’ve been fortunate to work with producers and directors who are not afraid to put that on the small screen and try to fit all that extra information into the palette. They have been supportive and have provided the orchestra budgets. But that is going away quickly, but we’re still able to do it creatively. That’s one of the things I love about working in television, because a lot of the time, it doesn’t feel like television; meaning that the palettes are broader, and the colors that I can bring into the emotional landscapes aren’t as limited. Leverage is a refreshing change, as a result, because it’s breezy.

So how do you go about coordinating the palette for each project, because Leverage yields an odd modern-noir quality that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before?

I think we’ve been very fortunate that I had done some other projects that utilized that kind of music. As I mentioned in the liner notes, the whole idea of capers and cons and funky jazz music was not invented by me. But hopefully, I can bring a little something to it that will update the rhythm sound and other things that make it sound fresh and not like the 1970s.

I had given Dean some of the music when he began to shoot the pilot, and that really became the template for the show. It was all conceived ahead of time. And the situational techniques were developed around that, but we really had the sound of the show before he shot a foot of footage. That bass line was originally from the piece I had written for the hero, on the caper theme.

So what were the producers’ expectations of you when you were approached for Spartacus: Blood and Sand? Did they want you to go in the vein of Gladiator, Rome, and 300, or did you draw any influence from Alex North’s work from the 1960 film?

No, no, not at all. But that was a great score! It has nothing to do with that. The idea was to come up with something that was fresher and more contemporary in approach. Ultimately, in developing the music for the show, there seem to be three or four techniques that serve the story well. But through the course of using them, there are these operatic moments with choir that emerge to help tell particular parts of the story.

There are Classical forms that develop through the series. In one episode, I wrote a passacaglia; in another was a five-voice for string choir. But on top of that, in the arena, we kick into third gear and go headbanging rock! And we were very fortunate to find an Iraqi mawwal singer, which we placed on top of that. And we started getting into playing guitarviol instead of taking guitar solos over the top, as it has more of a bowed quality.

Some of the drama is more ambient with soundscapes playing Arabic instruments, either by our team or by myself. I’ve acquired quite a lot of Middle Eastern instruments over the years. It quickly becomes a very eclectic approach, and when you are using this graphic novel style of approach I think the composer has a lot more freedom than doing a straight narrative all the time.

Did you find it challenging to invent a palette of music for Spartacus, which essentially occurs during a time period where we have no physical evidence of what music sounded like in that era?

Well, it’s actually irrelevant, because this is made for today’s audiences. There is some obligation on the part of the writers to be historically accurate, but at the same time, the language is a hybrid of profanity and Shakespeare. It’s a primetime soap opera, but the backstabbing is literal. I’m trying to create something fresh and original. They have certainly pushed the boundaries of violence and sexual situations on this show – it’s pretty outrageous – and yet, it’s appropriate to the story.

Did you find yourself taking extra care with Spartacus, given all the hype surrounding and leading up to its premiere? Networks seem extraordinarily invested in these premium channel television series’.

That’s really not part of my concern. I know that Starz is relatively new to the concept of original programming, but ultimately, they seem to have come around to full support of the project. And that extends into my arena, as well. They want to do a soundtrack album – they’re on board for the ride! I

t’s difficult for a new project with new partners for everyone to find their footing, but I’m really happy with the work on this show. And everyone is so pleased with it that we’re doing a second season. I think the directors are doing a wonderful job. It’s very different, and what I like about it is that there are plenty of places for music.

I’m not just laying a carpet for narrative – there are many moments throughout the series where musical montages go on for a minute to a minute and a half. You sometimes get that in a feature film, but you are rarely afforded those opportunities in television. Usually, those spots are reserved for licensed songs. It’s great to have that imagery to play against.

Something else that resonates through your body of work is an underlying sense of fun, be it in attitude or in obvious tongue-in-cheekness, like The Librarian series.

Yeah, I do what appropriate to the story, but I try to have fun regardless. But if the music allows for a sense of lightness, then yeah, let’s go for it. Comedies would be fun to do, I just don’t get offered them. The Librarian series was the closest I’ve come to it, because they provided that classic style. Writing for woodwinds, what a concept! They seem to have disappeared from feature films, unless you’re doing a family adventure. What happened to the woodwinds?

Is there going to ever be a fourth Librarian adventure, or has everyone moved on?

I really don’t know where things stand with that. There was some talk about doing another one, because there was some momentum for that character, but I don’t know what the latest is on it.

Aside from the Hollywood big guns, like Williams, Goldsmith, etc., you have been very fortunate to have most of your work become commercially available. Was that something you actively pursued as an artist?

I think that is really based on two relationships – working with Bob Townson [Varese Sarabande] during the Hercules / Xena run. He was very supportive, and we just seemed to be prolific enough to where we could put a lot of music out there for the fans. And now, a lot of my television work with La La Land Records and Michael Gerhard have done a tremendous job picking up the gauntlet and getting this music out there for that fan base. He puts a lot of effort into the booklets; there’s a lot of detail in the notes. I think it’s great to have all of that documented. To be able to hold that physical document is a really great thing.

And I think because of the availability of your catalogue, you more than anyone else has been able to transcend the Evil Dead stigma. I think it’s actually humorous that even though Sam Raimi has made millions with the Spider-Man films, he’s still regarded as “the Evil Dead guy.”

Well, yeah, it is a part of our roots, and we’re both embarrassed and proud to have been a part of it. Regardless, I feel very, very fortunate to be a part of all these long-running television series’ with Sam.

And it is also great that after all these years, you are able to wield your diverse abilities on a range of projects, like the aforementioned Leverage, Spartacus, and Legend of the Seeker.

Yeah, each team is composed of great people. At this point in the journey, it’s about the collaborations and the people involved with them. You can’t control the end result, but the experience of going through it with everyone has been really, really great.

So, my last question for you is, given your longstanding devotion to loyalty and friendship in the industry, if Dean Devlin, Jonathan Frakes, and Sam Raimi all came to you at the same time offering different projects, which would you choose?

All of them. I’d say yes to every one of them and figure out the logistics later [laughs]. I’ve always managed to find a way to work through those things. There is no choosing between them – they’re all great guys! It’s the truth! 

In : Interviews 

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