Interview: Alex Lacamoire

February 9, 2017

Hamilton has won 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer Prize. Its soundtrack went to Number One on the Billboard Rap chart, and the newly released collection of covers and remixes of the show’s songs just debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200 chart. Hamilton is a phenomenon, and Alex Lacamoire is its musical director and orchestrator.

But before his name became synonymous with that “ten-dollar Founding Father without a father,” Lacamoire had already built a reputation as a musical wunderkind, with an ESP-like ability to accompany, arrange, and wrestle a musical idea into shape. From his humble beginnings as the rehearsal pianist for The Lion King to storied successes with shows like Wicked and In the Heights, Lacamoire continues to be one of the most sought after musicians on the planet.

Backstage before yet another sold-out performance of Hamilton, Lacamoire talked to me about his unquenchable quest for musical excellence.

Let’s talk a little about your history. I read that your family is Cuban, you grew-up in Los Angeles, and you later you moved to Miami. Was there a lot of music in the house when you were growing up?

Funny enough, the one person that really wanted to hear music around the house was me. I do have early memories of there being a huge record player in my living room. These were the old days when a piece of furniture was the record player. It was a huge console, the size of a couch. I do remember my Mom playing Julio Iglesias records, and I remember loving this one opening song of this record: “Me Olvidé de Vivir.” I was also told that when I was two years old, I would hear music coming out of the speakers and just stare at the speakers, transfixed. So, clearly, music was something I was very drawn to.

My parents did buy me a KISS record player when I was a kid—one that you kind of opened and closed, almost like a lunchbox. You opened the lid, and the inside had pictures of all four dudes! I was told that I was so attuned to music that I knew what song I wanted to hear before I could read words, because I knew what the design of the 45 [rpm vinyl record] looked like. I knew either what the sleeve was, or I knew what the logo for the record label was. This was when I was in Los Angeles, and still a kid, at around four years-old.

What kinds of things grabbed you musically from the beginning?

I think I used to start by playing the song “Music Box Dancer.” I tried to play it on my toy piano. I was drawn to pop music a lot. I started with the classics; I played the Clementi sonatas and the Hanon exercises and all that stuff. But in terms of music I would choose to listen to? We’re talking about the early 1980’s, so it was the Thompson Twins, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna—I was all about that stuff. I was super into all of the music of the MTV era. Eventually, I would make mixtapes for myself of songs from the radio. Funny enough, it wasn’t until much later that I tried to play those songs on the piano. And that’s where I developed my ear.

So you started working on getting your musical fundamentals together?

Yeah. In fact, one of my favorite first piano teachers was young. We’re talking about when I was four or five years-old. My teacher was probably a teenager, maybe 17 or 18 years old, and she wasn’t like a concert pianist; she was just a typical gal who had studied music with another teacher. Apparently, legend has it, that this teacher went to her teacher crying because she was so distraught, saying, “Oh my God, I’ve taught this boy everything I know how to do, and I’ve run out of things to teach him! Can you please teach him for me?” I guess I kind of outgrew her. So eventually I started studying with her teacher, a woman named Raquel Achon. For me, she was my first true piano teacher. I started studying with her when I was six or seven, and what was great about her was that she taught me theory along with my piano education. She was the one that, along with teaching me how to play my exercises, gave me assignments and lessons about what accidentals were in which key signature, and how to read and write music. Of course, it was like bad medicine at the time – stuff that I didn’t want to be studying, but it was great to have that foundation.

I remember being obsessed with the [Vangelis] song “Chariots of Fire” when the movie came out. I thought the theme was so beautiful, I brought it to my piano teacher Raquel, saying, “I want to learn how to play ‘Chariots of Fire’!” And she said to me, “No, Alex, this is too advanced. It’s in the key of D flat, with five flats.” But I was not one to take “No” for an answer. So despite what she had said, I went home and, because of what she had taught me about key signatures, I learned how to play the first four measures of the song. When she saw how determined I was, she said, “Alright, this kid really wants to do this.” So that’s an example of me really pushing myself.

How old were you at that time?

I was six or seven, because that movie had just come out [1981].

You spoke about your musical curiosity in an interview last year, saying “I would try to play songs on the piano, and I would notice that the sheet music didn’t have all of the cool things… It was missing the guitar solo, and I wanted to know how that fit in.” Can you talk about that desire to go beyond the sheet-music page?

For me, it was about wanting to know how people do what they do. So, if there’s a song that I like, I want to play the whole song. Maybe that’s my perfectionist-OCD streak of needing to do the entire thing, and if I didn’t have the sheet music in front of me, I needed to find ways to create it. I still remember one day transcribing a song that I liked by the band Cutting Crew called “The Great One-Handed Brag.” I stayed-up one night, I think it was two days before Christmas, and I started transcribing the piano part just because I liked the way it sounded. I started at 10:00 p.m. and I kept transcribing until five o’clock in the morning. I was obsessed and I had to get to the end of the song. That’s the part of me that’s relentless and always searching. It’s a quest.

I read that you studied jazz, arranging, and film scoring at the Berklee College of Music. Was there ever a time that you wanted to focus on being a solo performer?

Absolutely. When I was a teenager late in high school, I wanted to be Billy Joel. That would have been the dream. But I can’t really sing or write songs. [Laughs]

I guess I just liked the idea of being onstage and making music and performing. When I got to Berklee, I thought I wanted to be a jazz pianist. I thought I would graduate and be Keith [Jarrett] and live that life. But I wasn’t really that good. I learned that years later. For whatever reason, the theater aspect was just something that I was really suited for. I guess it was because I liked to play groove stuff, I was very curious about arranging, I could sight-transpose, I had a good memory, and I could be precise when I needed to be, in terms of the routine of a song. Theater just spoke to me, and I felt suited for it.

After graduating from Berklee, did you come to New York right away?

No, I stuck around in Boston for about three years, working on The Spirit of Boston, which is a three-hour cruise boat that takes off from Boston harbor. I was in what they call a “GB” or “General Business,” club-date band, where my job was to play [songs like] “Great Balls of Fire,” or “The Macarena,” or “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” I would sing “Just the Way You Are” and play it on piano.

Did you enjoy that?

I absolutely did, because it was Top 40 and I’m a kid of the ’80s! I dig pop music, and also on this gig, during the first half hour I would be playing “cocktail jazz.” So, I would get my Keith Jarrett “Ya Ya’s” out playing that stuff, as well as getting to play “Better Man” by Pearl Jam, on a guitar sound on the keyboards! I thought it was a blast. During the day, I did transcriptions for people, and I played lessons at the Boston Conservatory, so I got my repertoire for theater happening on the side. I even wormed my way into a John Zorn avant-garde noise ensemble at New England Conservatory, even though I wasn’t a student there.

After three years, I decided to go to New York in 1998 because I had been there on visits and I felt the electricity of the city and knew I wanted to be in it. As luck would have it, a month before I moved there, I met the music director of The Lion King in Boston. They were doing a talent search in Boston, and they needed an audition pianist. So I was that pianist, playing for people who wanted to audition to be in The Lion King on Broadway. The music director from Broadway Joe Church and his associate Cynthia Kortman flew into Boston and heard me play. Now mind you, I was the audition pianist, so I wasn’t the focus of the day, but yet the music director heard me play Stevie Wonder songs, he heard me groove, he saw me transpose on sight and play things by ear, and he said, “Alex, I hear you’re moving to New York in a month. When you get there, call me.” So I moved to New York on a Sunday, and that following Saturday, I was in the pit for The Lion King, looking at the books, studying everything. And as luck would have it, this music director Joe Church who was completely instrumental for my career, basically said, “Alex, you should be subbing on Key[board] 1, and playing rehearsal piano and auditions for us.” So I kind of became a “first call” guy over there.

You were probably thinking that you’d be waiting tables when you got to New York, like most struggling artists do!

You have no idea! I’m not joking when I tell you that my bank account had literally $100 in it. Period. If I ordered a sandwich from a deli, I wouldn’t order the cheese so I could save 50 cents. So I was completely lucky. I was in the right place at the right time, but again, all of the preparation I had done led me to that point.

What happened next?

I subbed and played rehearsals and auditions for The Lion King, and I also played auditions for other shows like Rent and Man of La Mancha. I met other composers, and through that I met Steven Schwartz, who’s the composer for Wicked and someone I idolized as a kid because he composed Pippin and Godspell and all the shows that I loved when I was growing up. Schwartz heard me play as the audition pianist, and after the fourth audition, he said, “Alex, you sound really good. I’d like your card.” Steven introduced me to the director Scott Schwartz, who directed Bat Boy: The Musical which I became the music director for. That happened because they wanted to do a reading and they needed someone to be the music director for little to no pay, so they needed someone who was young and hungry. And that was me!

What did the job of music director involve on that show?

It involved playing the piano, teaching the vocals to the actors, leading the band, and being the executor of stuff so that the writer could listen, observe, and critique his own work. At that point, I was just the music director for Bat Boy, but then the show moved to Off-Broadway and it needed an arranger and an orchestrator. So the composer and I raised our hands and said, “We’ll do it!” And that’s how that happened. Bat Boy was my big “breakout” show, in 2001. It was the first show that I music directed professionally. It was my first Off-Broadway show, and where I cut my teeth being “in charge” and the leader of a department, dealing with musicians, working with a music copyist and keyboard programmer. I learned a lot.

Looking back, why do you think you were so successful early on? Was it that combination of skills and drive?

All of that. But it was also my people skills. My mama raised me right. You thank people when they do something nice. You don’t overstay your welcome, and you’re appreciative and not overbearing. It’s all of that stuff.

I read a quote by you about your work with Lin-Manuel Miranda in the show In the Heights where you said, “We had a Latin-American artist writing Latin-American music, as opposed to someone else trying to write in that style and pay homage to it…” As someone who grew-up in Latin family, did working on the music for that show feel familiar, or did it feel strangely foreign to you?

It was both. It felt natural in the sense that I recognized the music. I felt it in my bones from having grown-up listening to Salsa music. It wasn’t something that I ever put-on - I just listened to it because I was exposed to it. When I was in a car, my parents would be listening to it. Or when I was at a Christmas party, somebody would be blasting music to dance to for four hours. So you can’t help but just hear that hypnotic, trance-like tumbao. That became part of my DNA.

But in terms of the mechanics of writing it down and trying to notate it? I absolutely studied books. I read Rebeca Mauleón’s book [The Salsa Guidebook] about writing for Latin music—what it looks like and the terminology, like “Oh, this is what the bongos do,” and, “This is called the martillo,” etc. So I absolutely had to explore and listen, and it was very foreign to me, in terms of expressing to someone how to do it. Because that’s my job as an orchestrator: to notate it. It’s precision work, being specific about what something needs to be so that it can be consistent from night to night, and that it delivers what the story needs to deliver for the people on the stage and for the audience watching. You don’t leave a lot up to chance.

That brings us to the phenomenon of Hamilton. There’s a great video online of you delving into the title song, showing how you dance around a melody and lyric. How do you develop and prod it without ever stepping on it?

Well, in theater, what the actor is singing and speaking about is king. That’s where the focus needs to be, so you can’t step on that. I’m in a service industry; you know what I mean? I’m writing charts for a producer who needs me to write them, and I’m doing arrangements for a composer who needs me to do them for him. I’m doing something for somebody else, so it’s not really about me saying, “Look at me!” My job is really to help a story be told. Leave a hole, get out of the way of the melody, make sure the lyrics are being heard—that’s why I do what I do.

It seems like the collaboration must be a thrill for you.

Yes, because I feel like you make better music when you have someone giving you encouragement, or a critique to make something better for whatever reason. I think you come up with better things that way. I don’t think it’s as fun to be in a vacuum. I think that’s why the theater aspect of music felt so fun to me. The solitary aspect of being in a practice room and practicing your scales and modes gets to be very lonely! I’d much rather be with people, and also, I know what I’m good at, and that’s enhancing something. I’m much better at working with something than creating something out of nothing.

Can you talk a little about the way you and Lin collaborated on Hamilton?

Lin leaves that space for me because he doesn’t get bogged-down in the details so much of the actual writing down of the music or the sounds. He’s more like a “big picture” guy, as in, “Here’s the melody, here’s the lyrics, here’s the chords, here’s the structure. He does that in a demo, and then he hands it off to me.

Are his demos on piano?

He uses a keyboard and he works in [Apple] Logic. He finds the sounds, he finds the drum loops, he plays the bass lines, he plays the hooks. But then it’s up to me to actually have other people do that for us. Lin knows that he can give me the keys to the car. He would send me his Logic demos so I could then go in and solo all of the different parts and see exactly what sounds he used. In terms of gear, I use an 88-key, weighted Yamaha keyboard along with Logic. I also use [Apple] Mainstage and I like sounds from Massive and Kontakt. I’ve also dabbled with sounds from EastWest. I orchestrate in Finale, and I can poke around in Pro Tools, but Logic is my main software.

Why do you use Logic over Pro Tools?

Well, I think Logic is more for songwriting. I think Pro Tools is great for recording, but I don’t think their MIDI capability is nearly as expansive and intuitive as Logic. In Logic, I’m able to find a bunch of loops easily. I don’t know how to do that easily in Pro Tools. I find it’s a pain in the butt just to call up a piano sound. You have to open-up two different windows in Pro Tools! I just like the palette in Logic, and I find it to be user-friendly.

Does Lin give you a finished enough demo that you know what’s going on?

Absolutely. And his demos are so clear that you know what things are supposed to sound like. Even if there aren’t complete vocal harmonies, I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s where harmonies can go.” And even if it’s a very spare demo with just a bass line and a piano playing one note, I can tell what the chords in-between need to be so I can discern what the guitar should be playing, or what strings should be playing in that middle register. So if he’s done the extremes of the bass and the treble, I can do the midrange.

We don’t always do a lot of “side by side” work. He lets me do my thing, and then he hears it when it’s pretty much done, like when the band is finished rehearsing it, or after I’ve taught the vocals to the ensemble or the cast. Then he’ll hear it and either give his approval, or he’ll say, “I liked this but I didn’t like that,” or, “That was great, but let’s try this instead.” It’s a collaborative process.

Hip-hop has found its way into just about every conceivable musical scenario, including Hamilton, where you marry programmed beats with live performance. Is that the happy medium for you—the intermingling of both disciplines?

It’s interesting because I think that’s where music is heading. I like the human element; I’m old-school in that respect: I still like that human connection that you get from playing. But obviously, the world is moving in a digital direction, so finding ways to harness that [musically] is fantastic, because it sounds modern. It sounds hip and it sounds current.

Do you play other instruments besides keyboards?

Yes. You’re not going to hire me to play a gig on guitar, although at one point, I did have enough guitar chops to sub on the show Rent. On that show, the way it’s orchestrated is that the second keyboard player has to play keyboards, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar. So I can get around enough on guitar to be able to write out specific voicings, and play things out and have them be guitar-istic. I can do the same thing on bass and drums too. I can figure out what it is that I’m looking for because I’m always listening.

It seems like all of the musical investigation you have done, even early on, prepared you for what you do now.

Yes. One thousand percent, because what I do isn’t just about playing piano – it’s about theory and harmony, and colors, and listening and playing – the totality of everything that I’ve learned. All of that trial and error led me to where I am. Being a music director is so much more than just sitting down at a piano.

I think the best way to describe it for me is that I know when something feels right. Someone may listen to a chart that I consider half-done and think, “Oh, that’s done!” But there’s something in me that is uneasy and won’t rest until it’s right. It’s about asking myself, “What can I do to make this better or sound fuller?” I feel like a musician knows when they’re done and when a piece feels complete.

HAMILTON CREATOR LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA ON ALEX LACAMOIRE

“If Alex Lacamoire didn’t exist, I’d have to invent him. He came along in my life at a time when I was looking for a musical director as conversant in Latin styles as hip-hop, R&B, and the musical theater of my youth. And in walks Lacamoire, spoon-raised on Miami-Cuban rhythms, with his heart in the far out prog rock of Steely Dan and Rush. We just sort of started working together and never stopped.

“Musical sensibilities aside, Alex’s meticulousness both as an arranger and orchestrator is always invaluable. He has the same patience when staffing musicians as he does filling out a four-part vocal harmony in a chord. He is beloved by actors and musicians alike because he loves them, and brings out their best. “What else? He’s just the f—king best there is. And I’m so lucky to be on his team.”
– Lin-Manuel Miranda

 
 
 

Randy Cohen – Synths Under the Stage

“On Hamilton, after consulting with [Alex] Lac[amoire], we decided to use Mac minis running Apple’s MainStage,” synthesizer programmer Randy Cohen says. “We utilize Native Instruments Komplete, as well as many other sample libraries including Galaxy Vintage D and some libraries from Boulder Sound. Once we had decided on the synth gear, Lac would either send me channel strips of sounds that he liked, names of sounds he liked from the existing libraries, or names of sounds for my team and I to dig up. After my associate Taylor Williams and I pulled out sounds, we would meet with Lac to go through things and tweak the sounds to customize them to his vision and make them playable within the structure of the orchestration. Lac is great to work with because he has a firm vision in his head about what he wants to hear, but he’s also open to discovering new sounds as we put the show together.”

“To make the show run, we use Yamaha S90XS keyboards as controllers although we have an emergency audio line from the S90 to the sound board so that there’s still a piano option in event of a midi failure,” Cohen continues. “We have two Mac minis each hooked up to RME Fireface UCX audio interfaces which in turn both run to a Radial SW8 so they can both run simultaneously. That way, if there’s an issue with a computer they can press a button and switch to the backup computer without impacting the show. Keyboard 2 also has a second MIDI controller input from the bassist, so that he can play a few synth bass lines. The Key 2 player changes his patches as his music demands, and allows the bassist to just turn and play his 24-key controller, content that all his sounds will be there. On Hamilton, we also utilize Yamaha DTX-12 drum pads with kick pedals for both the percussionist and drummer. [Imagine Dragon keyboardist] Will Wells worked with Lac to provide us samples for Benny (our percussionist) to play, so that the pads have a wide variety of sounds - from various electric drums to gun shots, to special vocal effects. Benny also triggers Ableton Live with his foot at the same time - programmed by Scott Wasserman. And if that’s not enough, he also has a Yamaha Motif XF6 that we’ve loaded with celeste and vibes sounds. For the guitar, we use Fractal Audio processors, which were programmed our guitarist Robin [Macatangay] and set up to provide instant swapping between a main and backup unit by my assistant Jeremy King,”

“I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with Lac for the past 10 years, on a variety of projects,” Cohen says. “I find him dedicated to his and the composers’ vision. I’ve always enjoyed helping translate the sounds he hears in his head to playable sounds for the synthesizer, while also hopefully also offering him some more options so he can have as complete a palate as possible to create art.”

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