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Dec 06 2012

Exclusive Interview – Bob Thiele Jr.: How the Music of Sons of Anarchy Takes Chances

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Sons of Anarchy has not only become FX’s premier drama series but it has also redefined how a TV series utilizes music as a powerful narrative element.  The partnership between series creator Kurt Sutter and music supervisor Bob Thiele Jr. has resulted in a distinct sonic style in which the music parallels the importance of visuals and the acting. As the show was about to wrap up its fifth season, I spoke to Thiele about the show’s music style, the release of Songs of Anarchy, Vol. 2 (Music from Sons of Anarchy), and the finale’s music.

Ever since season one, viewers have been responsive to the show’s music. Since it isn’t uncommon for fans to create buzz about television music in social media, I was curious about Thiele’s continued reaction to this phenomenon. While sharing his unique perspective, he appeared to be amazed by the fans’ steadfast dedication.

When you’re in the garage, for instance, and the guys are talking, there is music going on. It’s hard to hear but there is music going on, and the super hardcore fans will go to the website and they want to know everything about the show,” Thiele explained. “This band had a cool song, we used on the show, it will never be heard but some fans will go, ‘Wow, you were on Sons of Anarchy, cool!’

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Bob Thiele Jr. says Kurt Sutter has a great sense of how a song’s narrative “fits the story that we’re telling.”

Sutter is the architect of the show’s music process. “Most of the time, Kurt has an idea of the song that is consistent with what’s going on thematically with the show,” Thiele said. “He’s extremely good with that. He’s got a great sense of what the song’s narrative is and how it fits the story that we’re telling.”

Thiele then searches and matches the elements according to the storylines. “Because our show has such a strong visual context, music has to have the same thing. I’m able to draw from musical, instrumental, and rhythmic elements that are coherent with all these themes that are going on with the show and the characters.  That’s why I feel like Kurt in a way uses music as just one more character. It’s one more actor that has a sense of involvement in the story and is driving the story. If it’s not driving the narrative, it’s underscoring the narrative and it has some significance to what is going on story wise.

Since the music plays the role of a character, song selection becomes critical. As a result, the selected artist also takes up a role similar to an actor.

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The partnership between series creator Sutter and music supervisor Thiele Jr. has resulted in a distinct sonic style for Sons of Anarchy.

“The artist that we may be using, a singer or a songwriter, they are in a weird way like a character. They become a character because their voice resonates in a certain way: their musicality, their instrumentation. Certainly, if their lyrics aren’t right, we don’t even open the door but we know lyrically they’re something that fits the scene and that works with the moment that you’re watching.”

These are areas where Sutter or Thiele’s familiarity with a certain artist or songwriter they’ve discovered (and who fits in with their musical palate) yields to recurring collaborations.

In an earlier interview, Thiele explained how he believes music resonates with the show’s fans because of its authenticity. I wanted to explore this further. Thiele’s starting point was a wise choice; he goes on to define what he considers inauthentic in music.

There is so much out there that is deceptive in its creation. I’m not making a value judgment; I’m not really saying this is right or wrong because of what is selling a lot in iTunes or playing in contemporary radio but when the artist becomes secondary, it becomes a producer’s music. The voice of the artist is not as significant as it once was and that is well and good; it was like that in the 50s.”

I, too, believe an artist’s work should reflect that person’s unique voice, along with the feelings they seek to evoke. Thiele understands this well and witnessing his commitment to authenticity, it’s no wonder the show’s music continues to resonate strongly with fans.

There is just a tone to the show which sort of demands a truth; it just has to derive a place of truth, a place of honesty. That is usually incumbent on the artist who has created that music. The artist has taken a chance, there’s a certain element of risk. Authenticity means the artist is not relying on clichés or familiarity.”

I asked Thiele how he keeps it fresh while staying within SOA’s sonic style.

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A reminder of the FX hit series at Thiele’s LA studio.

Just as Kurt is looking at new characters and adding each season, or subtracting, that’s what we’re doing, too. We’re always looking to introduce new music,” he said.

Speaking of taking risks, Thiele walks the talk.  For this season’s first episode, “Sovereign,” the script called for a song that wasn’t meant to be an original so Thiele tried to challenge himself by writing one. This is something he doesn’t do often and it turned out to be a writing collaboration with Kurt. He explained:

I kind of had the idea for the title of the song. When I write songs, I have the music and melody but in this, I was sort of mumbling a phrase that was the title. The title, it wasn’t even conscious, it turned out like, ‘Wow, that title sort of really fits perfectly where this story is taking us and where we’re going.’ So when I played it for Kurt, he was like, ‘Wow this is great,’ and Kurt wrote this amazing lyric.  What we have is really powerful and it’s incredibly simple.”

The end result was “He Got Away,” recorded by Noah Gundersen with the Forest Rangers.  Thiele elaborated on how he rose to the challenge.

I wanted to try to write a song that was the simplest song I’ve ever written to see if it was possible. Just something that was the shortest song I ever written, just structurally. When I say that, I mean it’s a 12-bar repeating song. To my knowledge, I’ve never written a 12-bar song that wasn’t a blues. It’s not a blues song but it’s a 12-bar phrase. I know I may be getting technical now so this is taking chances.

Thiele’s goal was to break away from following formulas and conventions. “I’ve written something that is just so far from my scheme and yet its simplicity goes back to, say, country blues, 1920s-1930s. This song really didn’t follow any rules and yet it doesn’t sound like a rule breaking song. But if you take it apart and analyze it, you’ll go like, ‘Wow, so that is taking chances,’ which is really cool. I doubt many people would go like, ‘Oh, wow, structurally that is very different, or harmonically that is different, or lyrically but it’s actually very simple.’ But to me, that is doing something new.”

We also discussed the music direction for season five.

I’m working off elements I didn’t use in the past. In the past, I would have had an understated acoustic guitar. This time, I’m having a more aggressive musical score approach. It’s more aggressive, it’s darker, and it’s edgier. I think that will probably relate to what is going on with the transition of the story. As Clay makes his exit, Jax makes his entrance. How is Jax going to be defining himself and the club?  I need to do something different. I can’t play Sons of Anarchy Clay as president music; I have to have a new context for my musical palate.

Songs of Anarchy, Vol. 2 (Music from Sons of Anarchy) features songs from The Forest Rangers, Curtis Stigers, Audra May, Franky Perez among other artists.

Although there will be differences, fans won’t see a dramatic change. “We’re spending time in a new environment so there is a certain musicality that is going to define that new environment, not just Jax’s presidency. There are some characters that are living and working and breathing in a new environment so there will be a musicality that would have to live there. I don’t think it’s a musicality that people are going to be ‘wow; it’s kind of a different musicality.’”

It was my turn to get more technical. I wanted to know how much in advance Thiele gets the scripts from Sutter and how much freedom he has to select the music.

It varies. I know in advance what the song is, and then I see the script. Then, I’ll start playing with ideas and I’ll have some musical context. “

He then provides Sutter with a demo –a close representation of what it will be like –and gets feedback.

That’s when the real collaboration begins so once I have that, I’ll record it. Then, I have to wait for picture which doesn’t give me a whole lot of time but sometimes, I’ll have an early cut and then I’ll know, it will be either a little longer or a lot shorter, but at least I’ll know just how it looks.”

This is the time when Thiele makes adjustments, and the process can take one week or it could be four weeks.  “It just depends. If it’s episode one or two, the timeline might two or three months. With ‘What a Wonderful World,’ it was like three or four months.”

Ultimately, while Sutter drives the direction, Thiele offers his ideas and expertise, and fills in the blanks based on the emotions of the scene.

I’m like an actor. I’m working with his vision, with his concept. While I’m not working with his words in the script, it’s what I do with the song that he suggests; it’s what I do with the lyrics that he suggests, how I frame it. You can read a song as many times as you can say a line. What I’m doing is what Ron (Perlman) or Charlie (Hunnam) or Maggie (Siff) or Katie (Sagal) are doing; they are just saying ‘Ok, I’m going to read it this way.’”  He proudly added, “Then Kurt will go, ‘That’s why I hired you, because I love the way you read it.’”

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Thiele with Davey Faragher, the bassist for the SOA home-band The Forest Rangers.

Personally, I couldn’t agree more. Just as this season closed with a much darker feel, I’ll be anxiously waiting to see if Sons of Anarchy’s musical tone shifts during season six.

In the meantime, Thiele said he’s in the final stages of recording Katey Sagal’s CD, and hopes to have the album mixed by the end of the year.  We should expect a release announcement soon.

Then, there’s Thiele’s other project, Songs of Anarchy, Vol. 2 (Music from Sons of Anarchy), the second soundtrack for the series that was recently released. It boasts re-interpreted rock classics and other tracks that have been primarily featured in season five.

I asked Thiele about his perspective on the release of the soundtrack. “I think it is more cohesive. Because the music has strongly established itself over the last few seasons, I believe we have a collection of songs in this new soundtrack that reflects that tone of the show more consistently. The songs really speak to the series’ unfolding narrative.”

As expected, the soundtrack features music from Sons of Anarchy home band, The Forest Rangers, as well as artists who are frequently featured on the show and have become viewer favorites, such as Curtis Stigers, Audra May, and Franky Perez. An exciting addition is the Jane’s Addiction cover of The Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” which was featured in the season finale that also guest starred the band’s guitarist, Dave Navarro.

I was genuinely thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the band. They all came to the party with the same energy and intention that all of the people involved with the show do,” Thiele said. “They were a fantastic fit and the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. It was also cool to get them to record a song that was a part of their original repertoire from their early days back in the late 1980s.”

Collaboration and passion seem to be the name of the game in the Sons of Anarchy universe, and Thiele is a great example of it. The way he has interpreted the storylines has only served as enrichment, one song at a time.

 

elleL

Soaker of life. I like to experience things and see the world. I consider myself a professional traveler. My love for movies and television goes way back but I'm a sucker for action-oriented films and shows. Oh, and I make excellent martinis! Follow me on twitter @LutzElle.
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About the author

elleL

Soaker of life. I like to experience things and see the world. I consider myself a professional traveler. My love for movies and television goes way back but I'm a sucker for action-oriented films and shows. Oh, and I make excellent martinis! Follow me on twitter @LutzElle.

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