Stephen Trask ’89 on Scoring Films, Composing Off-Broadway, and Debbie Harry’s Small Dog
When it comes to the performing arts, Wes alum Stephen Trask ’89 has been around the block. Since graduating, he’s worked in the holy industry trinity of music, theater, and film (as a composer). As music director of the New York club Squeezebox, he has performed with icons from Joey Ramone to Debbie Harry. He later went on to compose the music for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” an Off-Broadway musical in which his actual band, Cheater, played the members of the character Hedwig’s fictional group. Whether you’re into indie films or romantic comedies, there’s a good chance you’ve heard some of his music setting the scene for Ben Stiller or Tina Fey.
Trask returned to campus to advise and encourage some of Wesleyan’s career-oriented go-getters at a Career Resource Center-provided luncheon as well as let The Argus pester him for half an hour this past Thursday.
A: You graduated in ’89. Have you noticed any differences between then and now since returning to campus?
ST: Well, the place that’s the Career Center didn’t exist. I was told that the Career Center was in the old squash courts, and as far as I knew they were new squash courts, so that building’s not only been built, but it’s in its second life. So there’s that difference. I have to say Middletown seems relatively the same as when I left. Route 66 is the same place. There’s less tie-dye, I guess.
A: Yeah, I don’t know if that’s trendy anymore.
ST: It doesn’t seem that different thus far. It seems like Wesleyan is still Wesleyan. It’s one of those things where you think, “Oh my God, it’s totally going downhill, they’ve changed so much, and they’re not gonna do need-blind, and that’s gonna ruin the Wesleyan culture, and they’re instituting this requirement, and it’s really just gonna destroy the whole—” It doesn’t. What I kind of suspected while I was here was that frosh and sophomores learned the culture from juniors and seniors, and it gets passed down like that, and there’s very little that the University can actually do that’s gonna fundamentally change the culture of this school. I was here—how many years is it now?
A: I’m bad at counting. Let’s see, it’s 2013…
ST: It’s over 20 years later. It doesn’t really seem any different.
A: Were you a music major here?
ST: I was a music major.
A: How did that influence your post-grad years?
ST: I thought there was an audience for weirder music than there was.
A: What kind of music were you making here?
ST: I had a band. But towards the end, I was trying to explore sort of avant-garde jazz, and that became kind of my obsession. I learned how to do two things during my time here: one was I wanted to become a really good blues piano player. I was a terrible piano player when I showed up—like awful. I’d never done scales or anything. And I taught myself how to play not all the great people, but like Otis Span and Professor Longhair. At the same time, I was getting very into avant-garde jazz and trying to learn techniques by people like Cecil Taylor and Don Pullman.
These collided when I got a gig backing up Joan Osborne, and she used to do this awful blues rock thing, like fake soul crap. It involved people taking tremendously long solos. So I would play like I was in a bluesy soul, Booker T and the MGs kind of thing up until my solo, at which point I played like I was Cecil Taylor. And she fired me. We’d go to these clubs, and I hated the music so much. I always thought somebody would, like, dig it. It was my way of saying, “I don’t like this idea of taking solos, but if I am gonna take solos, this is how.” You know, play with my elbow. And it was not appreciated.
A: Your musicianship has certainly gained some appreciation since then. How did you end up where you are now?
ST: One step at a time. I don’t mean it to be flip, but I had a band, and I was also ambitious to do other things, so I explored things like working in a theatrical production. “Hedwig” wasn’t the only one that I tried out. After that, it was like, “What to I want to do post-Hedwig? I want to score films,” so I tried to make some opportunities to do that. And something that was kind of weird was I got there, and I didn’t really know what to do. Like, creatively, I didn’t have a plan, and I worked with my agent to come up with a five-year plan, like how to start doing indie films and then studio films. But once I got to the studio film level, I didn’t have that much of a sense that I needed to purposefully direct where my career went.
With every job, I tried to find the commission within the assignment, tried to do something creative with what I had, even if the movie itself wasn’t asking for creative music or even music. Sometimes you’re just trying to make a scene a little tearjerker-ish, and that’s the job. Suck it up. So I looked at this period of time in which I was being given sizeable budgets to work with and big orchestras and budgets to go to nice recording studios as almost like getting paid a really nice stipend to get a graduate degree. So that’s how I approached it, like, “This is what I’d like to learn on this. I’ve never really explored Steve Reich-type minimalism or how he put his compositions together, and I’m going to do that now in the context of a movie.” And maybe that would only show for a few pieces, but it would be suffused into the whole thing. I’m getting paid to make music, and I’d rather also learn things. A lot of the time I would look for what the film needed that I didn’t know how to do so I would have an excuse to learn something.
That kind of reached its apex for me when I did “Little Fockers,” at which point I was like, “I don’t want to do hundred-million-dollar comedies. It’s not who I want to be.” And so the stuff that I’m writing now, both for the Tina Fey movie “Admission”—which is kind of more of a romantic dramedy, or a dramatic, drama-comedic…
A: Something, something…
ST: Romanticism-thing…well it’s not a romantic comedy. I really liked the music that I wrote for it. I have a movie coming out in the fall called “Lovelace” that I actually did before “Admission,” and that has a lot of stuff that I’ve been working on for a long time, like trying to learn how to write for a string quartet and incorporate studio effects and synth design and some classical instrumentation to an overall musical presentation. It’s something I’ve been kind of honing for a few years and did it in this movie.
So I think how I got here was just a little bit at a time, making a plan, moving forward, seeing where I’m at. It’s funny, cause I got to a place where any other film composer would have been like, “Get me as many big comedies as possible”—I’m sure my agent hates the shit out of me—but I decided I would like to focus on music that, when I’m retired and old, I can look back on and go, “I’m glad I wrote that.” Does that answer your question?
ST: You can also insert other questions and make it seem like I didn’t talk so much.
A: No, I love ramblers. It’s the quiet ones you gotta watch out for… So you get to research a lot of different styles of music depending on the film you’re scoring?
ST: Yeah, like I’ve done a couple movies that involved Arabic instrumentation and Arabic scales and did a lot of work finding out what that was. I’ve written for and recorded 15 orchestras or more at this point, and I never studied that at all. I didn’t know what the bottom of a violin was; I didn’t know how they were tuned, what a downbow was, what the difference in sound would be if you were playing with a mute, or if you were playing at the bridge or the neck—I didn’t know any of this stuff. And now I do. I taught myself.
When I got to working on “Lovelace” with a string quartet, sometimes I wanted to make it sound bigger—some of it is making the voicings resonate, using double-stops and triple-stops (two notes or three notes from the same player), and it’s a doable thing. I’d research all these videos online and just watched them over and over again. Eventually, I also hired a 20-piece group for one day because the movie [“Lovelace”] expanded in size. In comparison, the 20-piece group sounds huge; whereas on “Little Fockers,” that would be the intimate group. I’d keep my mandolin next to me at all times, and any time I wanted the violin to do something, I would see if I could play it.
I’d book a little extra time with the string quartet to have back and forth with them like a composer would—when you’re working in movies, you’re on the clock. Everyone’s putting in union wages, and you’re in a very expensive studio. But with four musicians, I figured I could afford the time to have a conversation. What was gratifying for me was that on the next project—“Admission”—the concertmaster asked if I was a string player and said “You write like you’re a string player,” so to that extent I felt like I’d kind of made my own curriculum to write for strings, and I passed!
A: Nice. So back when you were working with Joan Osborne, was that at Squeezebox?
ST: Joan Osborne was way before Squeezebox; we just played little clubs. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but she paid me 75 bucks a gig, so it meant less time in a coffee shop. What do you want to know about Squeezebox?
A: Well, you performed with a lot of big names; were you ever starstruck by anyone?
ST: I was the first music director; I was part of starting the club. We performed with a different drag queen every week. I was very starstruck by the drag queens; I thought they were just amazing. I was starstruck by Debbie Harry.
ST: First of all, I was very excited, because my band—not the house band, but my regular band, was asked to be the opening act. We did a good 15 songs—it wasn’t a regular Squeezebox set; it was like a Debbie Harry concert. So for an evening…we were Blondie. I was playing keyboards and singing backup and, you know, doing it. And she was really good. What was funny about Debbie was I was starstruck before I met her, [but] then at the rehearsal, not at all. She had driven up in a four-year-old Mercedes, and she was dressed like somebody’s stylish mom. She was carrying a small dog and just seemed like a regular lady. She was really casual during rehearsal, and we had a great rehearsal, but it was just like hanging out with somebody’s really talented mom. And then we got to show time, and she looked different and acted different. She had that rockstar persona, and she put it on. It was like, wow. When she was on stage, she was unbelievable.
A: Are you still playing with Cheater?
ST: No. But we’re still friends.
A: What’s the hardest job you’ve ever had? Doesn’t have to be performing arts.
ST: Foot messenger. It was physically exhausting. I was broke and wanted to make bike messenger money, but I didn’t have a bike. I only did it for a week ’cause I had really crappy sneakers and totally blew out my knees. But during that week, I sprinted as fast as I could every single message. I was like a bike messenger but on foot for 12 hours.
A: That sounds awful.
ST: [Laughs.] It was awful. I was still coming back to Wesleyan and composing music for a friend’s dance, so I’d eat like a pound of spaghetti and go back to Middletown to write. So that was my life. Let’s see, was there anything else that awful…
A: I can’t imagine.
ST: No, but the paralegal jobs were bad. Part of the job was how many hours in a row you could work, so pulling two all nighters in a row with a 15-minute nap under a conference table. It’s not always like that, but when you’re a temp, they’re like, “We’re looking for as many hours as you have the strength to last.” I would have periods of time when I would go on unemployment and just write songs for “Hedwig.”
A: Your real-life band Cheater played the character Hedwig’s band on stage right?
ST: We performed as the Angry Inch.
A: How did you like performing for a theater audience?
ST: Well, when people finally started showing up, it was awesome! At first you’re standing there performing your heart out, and you’re like, “Where is everybody?” We used to show up a half hour before the theater opened for sound check and just jam for a half hour and then go put on our makeup. One day, I learned to play “Watermoon Sunset,” so I came in and taught it, and everyone did “Watermoon Sunset” that night. You could do that. And you’re out there on the stage, and there’s no audience, and you’re just, like, playing for the stagehands. It was fun.
A: Do you still compose for musicals?
ST: I never stopped. It’s just that not everything you do makes it to Broadway.
A: Any advice for students trying to make it in the performing arts?
ST: Um…be yourself. [Laughs.] Know yourself. Make your own opp—it’s all cliché crap. Work hard. Look for people to work with that you like. Be supportive of your friends’ work. I guess don’t be too careerist.
A: That’s a great liberal arts attitude!
ST: Yeah, but at the same time, don’t think there’s something wrong with a career. But if that’s all you’re looking for then you’re probably not getting there anyway.