Before he was even finished with college, keyboardist/composer Alexander Burke was working as a Musical Director for Chicago’s Second City comedy improv troupe. It was the perfect training ground for a varied career that would expand to include composing for films, TV shows and ad spots; playing on recording sessions for national artists; and performing as a member of Save Ferris and of his own band, Magnolia Memoir.
Just a few places you can hear Burke’s music: He composed for the "Iron Man 3" soundtrack and wrote songs for the upcoming Sharon Stone film "All I Wish." He also has composed music for the web outlet Funny or Die, produced the American dub of the anime series Skip Beat, and scored the new Netflix series A Mortified Guide. And when we caught up with Burke, he was in the midst of sessions for a new Jill Sobule album, parts of which are being tracked in Burke’s personal studio.
We talked to Burke about his creative process, his gear, and how he stays on top of such a busy and multifaceted career.
You’re doing so many different things at once. How do you meet all of these deadlines?
It’s a crazy world where everything is done by a phone call and a handshake. People say, “I want to go on tour in February,” or “I want you to score my movie in January,” and then both things wind up happening in April at the exact same time. No matter how well you try to schedule, life can just turn into mayhem sometimes.
That being said, I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life. Even when I work 20-hour days for six months straight, I’m working with my heroes and getting to do things that I love more than anything, which is how I’m able to tolerate a horrible schedule when it does become horrible.
Right now, I’m playing on Jill Sobule’s new record, which is fantastic. It’s produced by Ben Lee and we have Wayne Kramer from the MC5 playing guitar on it.
I also just co-wrote a children’s book with Richard Fairgray that comes out next month. He and I co co-wrote a musical version of the book with Jill Sobule. It’s called "Sweet Penny and the Lion," and it's all about teaching young kids to stand up for themselves and speak truth to power. The book will be out on SkyPony Press on March 6.
Meanwhile, A Mortified Guide premiered on Valentine’s Day and I scored another film on Netflix called "Hunters" that came out January 2. And then my band, Magnolia Memoir, has just finished a new record. So yes, it’s a lot.
Tell us about your start with Second City?
I went to college at Columbia College in Chicago and through a weird series of events, when I was in 18, I wound up getting to become musical director at Second City. I believe I was the youngest musical director in their history.
Second City taught me to be a film composer and a session player in a way I never realized at the time. Six days a week I did all these shows, and I never knew what was going to happen. It could be a love story or a horror story—all different things.
This person walks onstage crying and, for your underscoring, you can make her come across like a little girl, or she’s 80 and her husband just passed away, or she’s 14 listening to a Cure song. You can do all of that with just a piano.
When I moved back to L.A. later and started getting session work, I did a session for David Lynch that he produced for Chrysta Bell, and he said, “Make the synth bass line sound like a girl in love for the first time but she doesn’t know her heart can be broken.”
I did a session once with Linda Perry and she said, “I want the piano to sound drunk on the chorus and sober in the verse.” If it weren’t for my experience at Second City, I would have been clueless on these things.
How long did you do that job?
I did 5 to 15 shows per week for 5 years. And I still do it. There are improv theaters here in L.A. and I will still go and sit in a couple times a month just to stay sharp.
Moving on to your composing work, what’s that process like for you? Do you always write at the piano in your studio?
A lot of writing for me at this point is just thinking and going on long walks away from my cell phone. I’m talking about writing for TV right now; writing for records is a different thing.
Writing for TV or film is figuring out what the sound should be and never making it obvious that it’s a film score. The reason I love guys like Jon Brion and T Bone Burnett is that you don’t immediately know you’re listening to a film score.
A Mortified Guide, the show I just scored with Gordon Bash, needed to feel very homemade. It’s a show about diaries and childhood angst and things you did and made when you were a kid. I made the score 80 percent with a Mellotron 4000d.
Why was the Mellotron perfect for that homemade feel that you were trying to create?
If you do it right, it sounds like a recording from an old Disney ride. When you write an orchestral piece, and you play it all from the Mellotron, stacking up all these Mellotrons, it can feel like a lost 1950s recording or a broken ride at Disneyland. I also had fun running it through pedalboards and effects, and then recording drums, upright bass, mandolin and a couple other things; it gave the score this really beautiful, low-fi, homemade quality to it. I ran everything direct to mono through my Wunder Audio mic pre’s. It makes it sound like something you’ve heard before.
I think of every project like a relationship. If you treat your new girlfriend exactly the same as your previous one, it will get real weird real fast. It’s the same with composing for a film or TV show. They’re all different. I did a score where I wrote everything on Mandolin, which is funny because I’m a below average mandolin player at best. But the sound of the piece can also result from the way I work around that.
For example, I played mandolin on the latest album by Billy Ray Cyrus. I have good tone but I’m not virtuosic. And since I can play whatever I can think of on keyboards, I had so much fun sublimating with all these cool keyboard ideas around it. That made me really creative and inspired me to go in a completely new direction.
I will also have fun with miking. You can record a grand piano in a way that takes up the entire recording sonically, or you can throw a [Shure SM] 57 on it and record it so that it sounds really thin. I’ll do this on pop records as well as scores. I might play a crazy virtuosic line but if I record it in a way that sounds thin, it won’t get in the way of the recording and call attention to itself.
What is your studio like?
It’s in my house. I have duplex in Hollywood, kind of in the heart of the crazy. I live in the front half and the back half was gutted and turned into a studio. It’s got a control room and a live room, where I have my grand piano, a vibraphone, a Hammond B2 organ with added percussion, and about 20 synthesizers and different keyboards as well as amps, pedalboards, guitars, drums, bass. I work mainly in Pro Tools. When I need to work in MIDI, I’ll jump to Logic and program in Logic, and then I just export it back into Pro Tools.
I’ve scored multiple TV shows that have been MIDI only; the work can be so fast and furious that it’s not doable any other way. But I would rather not use MIDI in place of instruments if I can avoid it. I played with Save Ferris for years, so one thing I’d do is, while I had horn players in my studio, I’d give them an extra hundred bucks to record on something.
What is your studio piano?
It’s a Chickering baby grand from the early 1900s. My friend Chris Constable, an amazing engineer—his parents were selling their house and didn’t have room for it, and they asked if I wanted to hold onto it; it very quickly became the love of my life. It has so much character, but not to the point where it forces you to play a certain way. I feel free to play classical, or jazz, or pop, or rock, or songwriter or whatever.
How about when you go on tour? What do you like to have in your rig?
My Nord Electro 4D goes with me everywhere. I love the fact that it works like a backpack and I can throw it in the overhead when I fly.
It’s also just fantastic for piano or B3—having real drawbars, so I can just jump in the hand positions, and having all the built-in pedals. I also like that the B3 sound of is a variation of a normal B3, but it’s a lot more compressed sounding, so it slices through. I also have a Korg CX-3; I love the B3 sound of that one, but it’s a less compressed sound, so that one is better for pads and background parts.
My rig varies depending on the tour, but for my band I will tell you my setup is usually the Mellotron, a Microkorg, my Nord, and a [Moog] Sub Phatty. And then I’ll have a big pedalboard and run all my keyboards through it in different ways. I always try to find ways to make the sound unique and my own.