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Fender Q&A: Chris Chaney

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Chris Chaney is perhaps best known as the bassist for Jane’s Addiction, or even more previously for his work with Alanis Morissette. But what is not widely known about his prolific artist is his participation on scores of movie scores.

Dating back several years, the classically-trained Chaney has been a mainstay on several feature film soundtracks, most recently Identity Theft starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCathy and the upcoming Hangover III.

Fender.com caught up with Chaney in between gigs to discuss his work in the movie industry.  Read the full Q&A below.

Fender.com: How did you begin working on movie soundtracks and scoring movies? 

Chaney: I kind of fell into it. The first movie I ever played on was Waterboy with Adam Sandler, and I just played on a few seconds of the movie.  The first one where I was there for a week straight, eight hours a day was one called Two For the Money.  There was a gap between those that was probably about five years, or so, but within those five years, I was playing with Alanis, playing with Jane’s, doing more record work. But anything that had to do with a movie was basically a song on the soundtrack.

It’s a fun thing, very different than doing a record. I’ve recently been over in the studio helping to work on LP’s record. She’s really great. I played on the song “Into the Wild,” which has been getting a lot of airplay and it’s on a Chase commercial, too. So, I’ve been in the studio working on albums, too.

So what are some of the differences between working on an album and a movie? 

First of all, the biggest difference would be your creative limitations. On a movie, nine times out of 10, you’re playing written parts, so it’s a different set of skills you need to execute. You have to really know how to read on a high level. The only way to get there is to practice reading as much material as you can get your hands on before walking into your first sound day. With no accidentals, no key signature. It’s like the Omnibook, which is the old book that was transcribed from Charlie Parker’s solos. They would just write all the accidentals in, versus putting it in an actual key. There’s so much music out there, and you need to practice reading. That’s the main difference.

I recently worked on Josh Groban’s record, and there were so many charts. It wasn’t just bass lines written out, but more like chord charts. You have to have great ears when doing a record, as to where they might play you a demo that’s more accurate to what they want, or other times you are allowed to take your own interpretation as to what you’re feeling on that track. I have been offered some more creative flexibility on certain cues in movies, like you hear a keyboard do one thing, and you check to see if you can make it more bass-esque.

Do you need to get into a different mindset when you’re working on a movie, then?  

The thing about how many players are there… a lot of times, as the main electric bass player, I work with a smaller ensemble as opposed to the full orchestra.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m not going to be playing with the full orchestra, although that has happened. The composer will have separate days when they do strings and when they do the rhythm sections.

I played on this movie Red, where there was 82 minutes of electric bass and drums. That’s a lot of the movie, where we’re playing, whether it’s in the background or the foreground. What’s interesting about that is that a good movie soundtrack goes by without you noticing it. It doesn’t jar you, it just enhances and compliments the movie. Whatever you want to call it, it really steps things up a bit – and vice versa. I can think back to some really great movies, and the actual music is just so dated and awful… it’s almost unwatchable and definitely unlistenable. You have to be able to execute it quickly, and on the electric bass, the different techniques I’ll pull out will vary. I might play muted in a staccato and with a pick. But sometimes, it will be too fast, so it’s like, “Hey, can you do it with your fingers? And not too fast, and maybe in a 16th notes?” So, I’ll use my left hand, I’ll put every note with my first finger, and I use my second, third and fourth fingers to dampen the string, versus doing a palm mute.

The other thing is the dynamics of a film shoot. On a film, you might start on a key that’s really soft and move your way up to a double- or triple-forte, like if a door slams or something. Or if someone pulls out a gun and blows you away. It’s the music that goes behind that.

What are the challenges of focusing on just the electric bass for a movie score?

Music in films is fascinating. You’re doing the music after the movie is pretty much finished. You might be able to do a simple groove, something that’s digestible, but then there will be a bar of 5/8, and that’s tough. It’s reading the rest. You might be only playing just sections of a long, three-page cue, and there’s a keyboard and guitar part, and you’re counting for 25 bars in 3/4 – a fast tempo – and you have to come in after 84 of those clicks. If you miss your spot, you have to do it again. If you miss your spot, you slow everybody down. Everyone makes a mistake, but time is money. I’ve really worked hard at understanding how to count where my place is within the cue. Generally, within my own experience, I’m allowed more creative flexibility on a record versus a film.

I will work on a movie, and the tempo could be much faster or slower than what’s typically in your comfort zone. If you go with your heartbeat, or it’s like if you listen to Bob Marley and those tempos, they just ooze groove. But a movie could be so outside of that realm You’re like, “I’m not totally feeling that,” but when you look at the screen, you get it. It’s like a car chase, or when stuff is getting blown up and destroyed. I did a movie called 300, and there were tons of bars that were 7/8, 9/8, 5/8, 3/8. It was a matter of really understanding your grouping of twos and threes. That pulse going on behind the scene makes sure those edits can be accentuated with the fight or chase sequences that are happening on screen.

The movie Doomsday was some of the most challenging music I’ve ever had to read. You’re reading a lot of odd-time bars, where you’re changing time signatures every bar within those cues.

What advice would you give aspiring bassists who want to get into working on movie scores? 

My grandma played piano, so when I was five, before I ever played a bass, she taught me the basic notes in bass and treble clefs. So to this day, I can read treble and tenor clefs on bass. For all bass players aspiring to read, I’d recommend these four different books with 113 different exercises by this composer Doc Vaur.  I was told by a friend of mind that Jaco [Pistorious] studied out of those books. And they’re cello books. Both my wife and daughter play cello, and I play a little upright bass. So I can read it on upright, no problem. My daughter can play her parts, and we accompany each other. It’s sort of like this… if you are a life-long musician, whether from the age of five or 12 or even later, there is access to so much music, that if you hear something and fall in love with it, nine times out of 10 there is a something you can read with that music.  I’ll find creative ways to apply that to the electric bass, like find a passage from a Doc Vaur piece and mess with the rhythm or notes to feel things in whatever tempo and time signature you’re working with.  The amount of things you can practice are infinite.

Then, when you get called for your first movie or TV show, it’s the easiest stuff in the world. You really should work on that on your own so it is that way.

So do you see every scene you contribute to?  

We just did Identity Theft a few months ago, and I watched nearly every scene I played on. And for the most part, I can see exactly what I’m playing to. That really helps, even if it is written in time, just to get a note of what the dynamic and intensity is. You get a better feel for what you’re doing.

Is your DVD collection overflowing?

It’s funny, because I’ve played on a lot of things that I haven’t been listed on, indie projects or whatever.  But I’ve never gathered it all together.  I talked to someone the other day who said, “I can call all the companies and get everything you’ve played on.”  I did the music on Horrible Bosses, and we worked with Seth Gordon, who is amazing, for seven days.  He gave us a lot of creative freedom with the music, and I really loved it, but I just don’t own these soundtracks.  I should go out and get them… and the movies!

What are you working on in the coming months? 

I’ll be sticking around L.A. for the most part. In January, I was up at Skywalker Ranch doing a record with Vinnie Colaiuta and Frank Neely for Joe Satriani.  Since then, I’ve worked on several movies and projects. So, I’m planning on getting together with Taylor Hawkins – we have a project called the Coattail Riders – and he’s been sending me some demos, so we might get together to do some writing and recording. With Jane’s, we’ve got some one offs. And there’s the Camp Freddy cover band stuff. To be a musician, the word “No” does not exist in your vocabulary [laughs]. I really like to stay busy and be challenged by different creative situations.

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