Monday, February 18, 2008

10 Questions for...Tom Burns

Have you ever noticed how a film's score can add to the experience of watching a memorable movie? With subtle undertones, skin-crawling crescendos and light melodies composed to get the hair on the back of your neck to stand, Tom Burns has been stamping his fingerprint notes on many award-winning independent films like The Blood Shed and I'll Bury You Tomorrow as well as with his indie rock group, The Kimballs. A musician since the tender age of five, Tom Burns is also the founder of his own music production company, Really Horrible Music. It's truly my pleasure to give to you, 10 Questions for…Tom Burns!

1.) Dave: How did your career in music begin?

Tom: My Dad worked as a double bass player, and my Mom had done some singing, so music and musicians were regarded very highly in our house. When my aunt bought me a tiny drum kit for my fifth birthday, I realized that making music was what I wanted to do.

I played music in school every chance I got, and in my teens I played in bands with my friends, including drummer Michael Mark, my partner in THE KIMBALLS.

I also studied privately with the late Jack Winters, a brilliant percussionist and composer from the Manhattan avant-garde music scene. He introduced me to great 20th Century composers like Gy├Ârgy Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and Iannis Xenakis, whose works inspired me to write and record my own compositions.

2.) Dave: Can you explain your process of scoring a film?

Tom: I start by watching a final cut of the film, and I talk with the director about what stylistic direction he or she wants to take the project in. We make notes regarding specific cues. Then I decide on the instrumentation and sound design, write some parts and record the music.

When I work on film projects with Alan Rowe Kelly, the process starts a lot earlier. I often go location scouting with him, so I start to get ideas for the score by walking through the “movie” in real-life!

3.) Dave: What inspires you creatively?

Listening to great, recorded music and watching great musicians perform always helps.

4.) Dave: What musical composition (either in film or outside of it) are you most proud of?

, “Main Theme. ” Orlando Wells is a world-class violinist and violist, and is also a good friend. He performed all of the live string playing on the recording. His virtuoso technique and his knowledge of extended techniques gave my score the balance of pretty/scary that I was shooting for.

5.) Dave: What is your all-time favorite film score (not your own) and why?

Max Steiner, KING KONG, 1933. The vivid musical themes make all of the characters bigger than life; the instrumentation is so rich, from Manhattan to Skull Island and back. It’s the template for the modern Hollywood blockbuster score.

6.) Dave: In most B-movies, the audio typically suffers, but not in the films where your music appears. How does your music remain so crisp in these films?

I was fortunate to learn from some of the best recording engineers in the industry, when I worked as an assistant engineer at Axis Studios in New York City. Pioneer, dance music producer Francois Kevorkian owned the studio, and his attention to detail is legendary!

After Axis closed and I started working as a freelance editor/engineer, I was able to put together a good project studio of my own, which is how I started Really Horrible Music. My dear friend Alan Rowe Kelly was my first client, and the first project we did was his film I’LL BURY YOU TOMORROW.

7.) Dave: Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked and if so, how do you get over it?

Get out of the studio! This weekend I went to a punk rock show with my wife, scream queen Katherine O’Sullivan and my good friend actor Jerry Murdock – we had a blast! After I’ve had some fun, I’m usually ready to get back to work.

8.) Dave: When you score a film, how much musical direction do you get from the director?

I think a good director knows he or she is working with a good composer when they can give you a final cut, tell you what they’re aiming for and then leave you to it.

Working with Alan Rowe Kelly is a special situation for me, because we’ve been friends for so long, and we have a lot of the same ideas about what’s cool in a horror film!

9.) Dave: What upcoming projects do you have in the works?

I just finished the score for Alan Rowe Kelly’s upcoming horror short, A FAR CRY FROM HOME. I used all vintage, analog equipment to convey the 1970’s grind-house feel that Alan had in mind. Now we have to sync everything to picture and mix the sound, so there’s plenty of work ahead.

I’m also expanding my Really Horrible Music studio to include post-production services, which is exciting but requires a lot of planning.

In March, I’m recording a free improvisation session with my old friend Richard Kimball; that should be fun. His band, Panic Attack Pills, has a terrific song in A FAR CRY FROM HOME.

10.) Dave: If you were able to pick a project, any project, what would your dream project be?

My dream project is always my current project. I hope they keep coming!

Between composing films, writing or performing with The Kimballs and managing Really Horrible Music, Tom is incredibly busy, so I am truly honored that he has taken the time to spend with us here today. To learn more about this magical composer, check out his Myspace page at For more on The Kimballs, visit or the band's official website at

*Photo by George Schaller

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