Gabriel Mann, songwriter and composer of the Emmy-nominated School of Rock, discusses his work with the cast to create a unique television experience.
Gabriel Mann (Modern Family, Rectify) describes himself as the musical hub of School of Rock, Nickelodeon’s TV musical adaptation of the hit 2003 film. On any given day Mann can be found composing music, writing songs, recording the cast onset, recording cast albums, and managing the larger musical team of the entire show. Mann took the time to speak with Awards Daily on his integral musical leadership on School of Rock and the rewarding experience of working so closely with the cast throughout every aspect of the show.
How did you approach the writing process when you first joined School of Rock?
This version of School of Rock is the third iteration. It sort of started around the same time as the Broadway show. It borrows from the original movie conceptually, but our goal is not necessarily the same as the movie, our audience is different and younger. In the movie they are very focused on classic rock and bringing classic rock knowledge to a younger generation through Dewey’s character.
We are bringing rock in general to a younger generation, but we are doing it often through current music. The covers we do are a big mix of some classic stuff and some new stuff that we turn into rock versions, and then there are original songs that sound fresh and new. It’s all produced through a lens of rock instrumentation, but we are more focused on making the show and the music more relevant to a younger generation as opposed to being a historical artifact.
How did you go about turning genres like classic and hard rock into more accessible music for kids today?
A lot of it had to do with song choice. In terms of the covers, we are doing a lot more current music. We aren’t doing so much AC/DC as we are Twenty One Pilots. Instead of doing Led Zepplin we are doing Panic! at The Disco. The original music is rooted in more contemporary pop/rock. There’s not that much rock music in the zeitgeist but there is some and we look to that as our motivation as opposed to Journey and Led Zepplin.
That’s not to say it doesn’t exist in the show. There are a lot of voices from production, the network, and Paramount, and all of these people have the stuff that they like but as a general rule I think we go for the more contemporary version of what rock is as opposed to old school.
It’s not just for the audience. The reality is that, for the kids in the show, we aren’t out to show them music they had never heard before. We are out to take the music they know and love that is relevant to them and look at it through a different lens and turn it into music they care about even more that they can play with their own instruments and sing themselves. The original music we are doing is also looked at through that lens and the whole thing has been contemporized and we are trying to take our cues from the kids and what they are into.
I imagine your experience on the show so far has been a lot more hands on than with other composition experiences. How does your role on School of Rock differ?
First of all, it is a very unusual situation. Normally I am like everyone else where I sit in my studio and write my score. I am entirely working from the backend where they’ve shot the show and sent it to final cut, and we send it off to mix and we are on the air two weeks later. That is the more typical composer process. This is a very unusual situation, and it is extremely fun for me because I get to be involved with the show as a real member of the team from the script stage all the way through the mix which almost never happens. There are some shows where I’ve done songs, and you are working in advance. Generally, on a live action show, that’s not the norm.
So for this show, I go to a production meeting every week, and we talk about the needs of the show and what the song is that week. I go off and write the music. They have to have the music to shoot relatively quickly, so I make demos that are shoot-able. Then, I have the kids in recording their vocals the weekend before the shoot. It’s a super-fast turnaround. Then the kids perform and shoot, but they are usually also shooting a video in addition to the episode. The production meetings tend to be on Thursdays, and everything needs to be ready to go by Monday. It’s nuts, but also fun. Even while they’re shooting, I’ll have to make tweaks, and we have to make a new track that reflects the needs of the production in like 20 minutes.
What is it like working with the young cast and writing for their strengths as performers?
It’s wonderful! It’s been an amazing experience. I’ve gotten to know them very well, and I’ve gotten to watch them grow in the studio. I’ve seen them become studio musicians over the course of three years. When you give somebody a piano part to learn, and they’ve never played the piano before and then three years later and you give them another piano part to learn and they can really do it, that’s really exciting. I’m carefully making their parts for their abilities and their abilities have grown and it’s exciting to see that. That’s in terms of their live abilities, but in the studio their singing has improved as well as their professionalism. What used to take a longer time to get a vocal takes a shorter time, and their ability to hear harmonies and their ability to improvise and make up their own stuff has improved. That’s really interesting and exciting and they recognize how fun that is.
What is the song selection process like for the show, and how much of it is a collaboration with the rest of the team?
We worked together often. What essentially happens is that they write a script and the music is there in service of that. The music is often central to what is going on, but generally it’s there to serve the story. Sometimes I’ll get a call from the writers asking if some sort of thing would work, but the more typical situation is I’ll get a call saying that they need a song about blank or this week we’ll cover blank song.
My job is to go then write that song given parameters from the producers and writers but also Nickelodeon. They also have a perspective. Between those three parties, there has to be an agreement on what the song is and what it is for, and I need to collect as much information from everybody as I can before I start making the song whether it’s music I am writing or producing. It’s very hands on.
We often talk on the telephone because I do my best to get as much specific information as possible about how the song will be used, what it’s about, the motivation of the lyrics, and what the song is supposed to feel like. There is no time to mess it up. If I give them the wrong song, we would be in big trouble with such a short turnaround.
Are there any song covers you have been dying to incorporate into the show? Is there any song or artist the kids have been begging to cover?
Through this show I have been exposed to more current music than I would listen to, but when I get into the car, I turn on NPR like any normal adult and I don’t listen to pop radio. So the show has introduced me to music and bands that I had never heard of and have no reason to be listening to as well as stuff I have grown to love. It’s interesting to me to see what songs get included and covered, but I don’t have a particular agenda. I appreciate getting exposed to the new stuff that exists in the world. I find myself listening to it now. I think Panic! At the Disco is awesome, and it’s interesting to be exposed to music my kids like. I don’t have a particular agenda to voicing my own history with music onto the current youth of America. [Laughs]
The kids on the other hand… their taste in music will often be reflected in the choices we end up making. Not necessarily a particular artist but the sounds of their voices will be influential… for instance Justin Bieber, Twenty One Pilots, or Ed Sheeran… and try to go into that universe. I think the opinions and the tastes of the kids are definitely reflected in the music choices that are made by the show, by Nickelodeon, and by what they want written for the show.
You’ve mentioned before that you always try to ensure there is something visually stimulating in each piece of music you write. Throughout your process, what steps do you go through to make sure that the actors have something interesting to inspire their performance and excite audiences?
We just did a song that is going to have a paint fight. The song itself has moments that are geared towards the cameras. I worked with the executives to find out exactly how they were going to shoot the scene. From there I figured out we could do a stop or in a different moment we could do a hit, or go half time or include a high note or whatever it is. If I know in advance what the song is going to be used for or how they are going to shoot it, I can insert it into the music. That’s a valuable and visceral way to deal with songwriting. So, yes, just as much as I think about the song in terms of meaning, the sound, and the purpose I have to think about how it will be presented onscreen.
What can we expect musically from the third season?
I think you can anticipate more involvement from the kids and also a little more variety and some songs you know very well that you’ve just heard. That’s all I can say.
We aren’t just putting the music on the kids. In the actual show, they play more instruments and are capable of more stuff. As they become more capable musicians, we give them more stuff to do which is really fun.
Where can we see your work next?
Actually, I just finished pilot season. I have four network pilots that I worked on, so I don’t know what will happen to those. Hopefully some of them will be picked up. I am going into Season 9 of Modern Family and a Disney project called The Three Caballeros. I just finished the whole run of The Dawn of The Croods for Dreamworks Animation on Netflix. I just finished the second season of Dr. Ken and Rosewood. That seems to be all for now.