LYLE WORKMAN
Uncommon Measures
(Blue Canoe Records)

 

A most gifted composer and top-flight guitarist, Lyle Workman’s illustrious career has covered a lot of ground. Perhaps best known for his roles as renowned Hollywood film soundtrack composer (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Superbad being two early hits) or from playing guitar with such diverse talents as Bourgeois Tagg, Todd Rundgren, Jellyfish, Frank Black, and Sting, Lyle’s biggest secret may be his stunning catalog of solo albums. Returning with his fourth release in 2021, Uncommon Measures represents a highly seasoned talent who has taken his musical wizardry to the next level—as composer, arranger, and virtuoso player—and also tightly integrated a majestic 63-piece orchestra (recorded at Abbey Road Studios) into the mix.

Though jam-packed with artful, articulate, and often wildly impressive performances (from Lyle and also a cast of incredible supporting players), the vast amount of instrumental prowess showcased on the album remains strictly in service to its highly inspired cinematic/symphonic compositions and arrangements. Whether executing breakneck runs, creative harmonized lines, heartfelt acoustic solos, or soulful slide-based melodies, Mr. Workman’s guitar tones remain particularly gorgeous as well. On top of this, the album’s lush orchestrations are embedded so skillfully that they become virtually inseparable from the rock-oriented instrumentation that also shines throughout.

True instrumental fusion of the highest order, the music on Uncommon Measures extends widely beyond the established boundaries that are more typically found in this type of offering. Somewhere between emotive soundtracks for imaginary movies, killer jazz-rock escapades, accessible Americana-tinged guitar melodies, and among the most tasteful of shredder-level virtuosity, the music on this album embodies a plethora of substance, vision, and depth that resonates most deeply. Very highly recommended.

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mwe3.com presents an interview with LYLE WORKMAN

Alan Benjamin caught up with the masterful composer/guitarist in April of 2021, via two extended Webex talks

 

mwe3 (Alan): I was curious to find out about how you got started with composing music—and also how you ended up gravitating toward the orchestral leanings of more recent years.

Lyle Workman: My dad had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and, as I was learning how to play (from my earliest days), I recorded myself playing Beatles songs. Once I reached my teens, I began writing my own music—at first it was just chord progressions and eventually became complete songs, but mostly instrumentals. I haven’t been without a tape recorder or the like ever since.

In the mid-’80s I joined a group called Bourgeois Tagg. We recorded two records for Island and the second one was produced by Todd Rundgren. Our band was enlisted to be his group to record the Nearly Human album with a tour that followed. (There’s a great video of a show from Japan that was commercially released.) Another Todd record followed called 2nd Wind. When it was time to tour in support of that record, I had recently married, moved to Marin County, and bought some new recording gear. I wanted to stay home and work on my own music instead of hitting the road. Luckily, my wife was very understanding. She was teaching high school English at the time and was very supportive, so I opted out of the tour and wrote my first record called Purple Passages. The gear I used at the time was an eight-track reel-to-reel TASCAM machine and a Soundcraft board.
 
It’s kind of wild when I think about it today because I turned down a paying gig with the great Todd Rundgren, whose music I adored, during a time when we had very little money saved. My wife’s salary as a teacher wasn’t much. That, combined with living in Tiburon—an expensive place to live—it was a ballsy move to stay home.

mwe3: I know Tiburon. That’s a beautiful place.

Lyle Workman: I was very passionate about writing and recording my own music, and it was the time to focus on that direction. Through that process I was building upon my skill set on the technical end because I was learning how to engineer and mix. I’ve continued to work on these skills, to this day, and am still learning how to be better at it. I moved to Los Angeles in ’97 and began doing a lot more session work and some co-writing as well—and then composing music for commercials for a jingle house, Pfeifer Music Partners. I really enjoyed writing to picture.

Landing into composing for film and TV was a result of baby steps taken along the way. Through session work I met a musician who was friends with Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn. They asked him to be the composer for their film and then he, in turn, asked me to be a co-composer. That was my first movie, an independent film called Made. A few years later a great film composer named Ed Shearmur, who had been hiring me as a session guitarist, called to say his wife—who was working at Universal Pictures—had a work associate named Harry Garfield, the vice president of music, and needed guitar work for his own music. I ended up with Harry in my studio and prior to the session I had made a CD of some of my instrumental and pop music, along with some material from commercials and some cues from the Jon Favreau film, and sent him off with it. He called me back and said, “I really like what I’m hearing and I have a movie needing some additional music if you want to put your hand in and give it a shot.” I did and the music ended up in the film.

mwe3: What movie was that, if you don’t mind me asking?

Lyle Workman: It was a kid’s comedy called Kicking & Screaming, starring Will Ferrell and Robert Duvall. Judd Apatow was one of the producers and shortly after that, he signed a directorial deal with Universal and needed a composer for his first film. I was championed by the executive who brought me into Kicking & Screaming—and Judd was also familiar with my work with Frank Black and Todd Rundgren, so he agreed to give me a shot. I was given a couple of scenes as a test and was awarded the job. That film was The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I was surprised to be chosen because I was unknown in the world of composing and Judd could have easily picked someone with much more experience. The movie opened at number one, two weeks in a row, and broke some summer records. My next movie was another Apatow production, Superbad, which also topped two weeks at number one. The combined success of those two movies made for a very healthy start to a career in composing. Creating music for film and TV has been my main focus ever since.

mwe3: Did you write orchestrally before you got into movie-soundtrack work or was it a result of getting into film?

Lyle Workman: Back with Bourgeois Tagg, we had a song called “I Don’t Mind at All” that was a hit single.

mwe3: That’s a great tune.

Lyle Workman: Thank you! It’s got a string quartet which was arranged by me and Brent Bourgeois. I always loved the sound of strings and any semblance of orchestra in pop music—certainly with the Beatles and George Martin. I’m also a huge fan of Electric Light Orchestra—and then we also have it echoed in progressive rock, influenced by classical music. And then there are the pure forms of classical music itself, which I also enjoyed while growing up.
 
I bought a sampler soon after they were first introduced in the market that had orchestral sounds on board and, with the advent of digital recording on computers, I later bought sample libraries as well. I’d mess around with orchestral sounds and incorporate them any chance I could—there’s some on my earlier solo records. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I took an orchestration class at UCLA which was taught by a great teacher. We studied Jerry Goldsmith and other greats, looking at their scores and analyzing their methods. This was around 1997 or 1998, back when I had no designs on becoming a film composer—I simply wanted to learn how to orchestrate. I loved film music as well and, as fate would have it, what I learned in that class came in very handy when I began composing for films. In fact, a spot in one of my earlier films had a John Williams cue from Saving Private Ryan placed in as a point of reference. It was a big, sweeping, beautiful piece of music. The director assumed I could pull something off in that vein. It was daunting, to say the least, but I mocked up my cue with computer samples—it was approved and, for the final production, we recorded a real orchestra.

There were a few cues with strings in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and we had a bit more orchestra with both Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The size and scope grew as I was awarded more films, leading up to a 70-piece [orchestra]. Throughout those films, a great orchestrator named John Ashton Thomas aided me.

mwe3: Who worked on your new album, yes?

Lyle Workman: Yes. Our first film together was The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard in 2008. I’d worked with other orchestrators, but they were one-off experiences and I wanted a more substantial relationship because my orchestral needs were growing. A music contractor introduced him to me and said, “I think you would really get along well with John.”—and so I hired him. Actually, he works frequently at Abbey Road and AIR Studio—he lives in between them and rides his bike to work practically every day, to one of those studios. He’s done over 160 films including Marvel movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel.
 
During our first movie together, the working relationship was very professional, but I didn’t get any feedback on my orchestral writing—whether it was good or otherwise. Not that I needed praise but certainly, in terms of orchestral work, I was a relative newbie and a bit insecure. But the funny thing is the way I won him over. The day we finished the movie I gave him my CD, Harmonic Crusader, which had just been released. He called me back shortly afterward to say how much he loved it. His entire demeanor towards me changed because he heard, in my music, influences that he loved too and that we both shared. We bonded over that and have been working together ever since.

mwe3: That’s great.

Lyle Workman: So, when it came time for me to formulate ideas for this record, I knew I wanted orchestra and to have John to be a part of it—and I began the process of writing it.

There’s one song that I heard on a John Scofield album that really inspired me at the very beginning of the process. It’s a record called 54 and it’s Scofield and the Metropole Orchestra, conducted by Vince Mendoza. There’s one song called “Honest I Do”—it’s an incredibly gorgeous song—and I thought, “Ah, I have to do something like that.” That was the impetus for the first track I wrote. And I just kept working away until I had enough material to do a full record, collaborating with John to get the arrangements and orchestration in place.

Initially I thought I would go to Metropole—I reached out to them and it was looking like that was going to be the way to go.

mwe3: Right. They’re certainly the most active orchestra in the progressive rock world, I’d say, in terms of the artists I know.

Lyle Workman: I had come to realize that all the stuff that I’d seen and heard of them were live shows and the result of rehearsal—whereas in my world, in film music, the players are seeing the music for the first time on the recording session.

Metropole suggested a couple of days of rehearsal. (I thought, “Rehearsal?”) Then I discussed things with John and ultimately decided to go with Abbey Road—number one because it’s Abbey Road, but also because he works there all the time. He knows the players and what they sound like, he knows the material (since he had his hand in it), and I felt that I would get what I wanted in less time. And they’re the best. (London and Los Angeles are probably the best orchestras in terms of film music.) And I just felt that it would, ultimately, save money not to have to book as much session and rehearsal time. In the end, it was down to all of the benefits of going with the familiar territory of John’s frequent place of work.

mwe3: That’s very interesting. On a somewhat related note, I was curious about how you got involved with the Facebook Sound Collection music and the orchestra that you’ve been working with in this context.

Lyle Workman: The Facebook Sound Collection is, essentially, library music for Facebook users who want music to incorporate in their videos. The program was started by Will Littlejohn and Leslie Barton, a couple I’ve known since the Bourgeois Tagg days. Will was in a band called Leo Swift that used to open up for Bourgeois Tagg, and we’ve been friends ever since. We used to hang out when our bands would play together. Will formed a company called WaveGroup Sound years later, where they created music for Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Karaoke Revolution—and one of the jobs he hired me for was creating sound-alikes of iconic songs. This is before video companies licensed original multitracks and, at that time, the job was recreating sound-alikes that were as close as possible in all aspects.

Once the video game companies started licensing [original] master recordings, Will and Leslie shifted more toward sound design, which included creating sounds for Facebook—like the “pop/ding” sound in Messenger when you get messages. Facebook subsequently acquired their company altogether—and Will and Leslie moved their operations to the Facebook campus. That’s when they came up with the idea to provide users with this great service—and I was one of the first people they called due to our long association. By now I’ve written over 150 songs for the program.

mwe3: The last time I looked, you had over 170 tracks on there.

Lyle Workman: That sounds right. Anytime I’m not working on a film, I’m writing Facebook material. The thing that’s been so great is that there are all kinds of users on Facebook with a myriad of different tastes, so that leaves many genres to choose from when writing material. There are people who like progressive rock on Facebook. There are people who like crazy, esoteric music. Will and Leslie are fans of my music and said, “Do what you do. We’ll give you a genre and just do your take on it.” It’s been a great job that continues to this day.

Last year I released 12 records—either EPs or LPs—of songs amassed over the previous four years of the program. The material I’ve written for the Facebook Sound Collection runs the gamut—heavy metal, blues-rock, Latin jazz, mellow acoustic music…. I’ve chosen my favorites and collections of these releases can be found on iTunes, Apple music, Spotify, etc. If you search for me on iTunes, you will find those 12 records listed from 2020. What happened is that, just last year, Facebook offered to let us content creators make this music available on all these streaming services through DistroKid.

mwe3: So people can buy this music? I’ve seen some of it on Spotify, but didn’t realize that the releases can be purchased as well.

Yes, it’s a very nice bonus to release this material. One group of songs were orchestral and I used the Budapest Scoring Orchestra for those. Balint Sapszon is their music contractor and an arranger/orchestrator himself—and lives very close to me. He’s originally from Hungary and heads their business. He puts together packages for anyone that wants orchestral music for film or other media—they did Parasite and many more films/shows. It’s an affordable option. I recorded six songs with them that are available on the EP called Orchestral Predilections.

mwe3: That’s great. And you’ve been releasing videos of the orchestral sessions from these recording sessions, yes?

Lyle Workman: I did. Budapest Scoring offered to take multi-camera video of the sessions for a great price and I couldn't resist. They can be seen on my official YouTube channel.

One very cool service they provide is “shared sessions.” For example, if you have one song and want strings, you can share a three-hour session with other people. You can book as little as a 30-minute slot. Their scheduling flexibility was perfectly suited for my needs. I’d used another European orchestra before, in Bratislava, for the film Bad Santa 2. In both cases, I monitored in real-time through my computer, listening in very good MP3-like quality, with communication to the conductor, musicians, and engineer through a virtual talk-back button.

mwe3: Very interesting. I really started to get a sense for what you were doing more recently, orchestrally speaking—that wasn’t directly movie-related—through those video clips. And then I dug in a bit from there.

Lyle Workman: That’s cool.

mwe3: It was amazing to discover that you’d written so much music for them. On a different topic, what resources do you use for writing and which tools do you leverage most in the process?

Lyle Workman: I write with guitar or piano keyboard right into Pro Tools. I put up a session and play—and have everything ready to record as soon as I have a little germ of an idea. Or sometimes I use my iPhone with a voice recorder app and improvise until I find something compelling, then start the building blocks. I don’t generally go to paper and write/transcribe—I record it. Transcribing comes later, when other players enter the process.
 
I think what’s interesting about this record, Uncommon Measures, is that the only thing I knew was that I wanted to incorporate orchestra and that was it. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas or concepts to follow—no idea of the type of music I would write—so I would just let myself go wherever I wanted to go. There were no parameters and stuff would just sort of flow through me—and I would let it happen and build upon that.

In terms of my career and making a living in music, it’s fully parameter-based. It’s stories and characters and guidelines and, sometimes, temporary music they want you to follow. And so I enjoy the exact opposite approach of just letting what happens happen. The thing that’s especially satisfying about this particular record is that my last one was released way back in 2009 and I feel like I’ve grown so much since then as a writer—I’ve written so much music through film and TV, and the Facebook job as well. It’s fun to be able to take all that experience and let it flow in the precept of a solo record. And that’s what Uncommon Measure is all about.

mwe3: Do you still do any kind of session work, live or studio, these days?

Lyle Workman: I still do sessions when I get the call and have an open window. I reached a place with film composing where my schedule was so booked that I had to turn down recording sessions and live touring for other artists. I was particularly disappointed that I couldn’t play with Glen Campbell at the Grammys a few years back. There was also a Sting tour I couldn’t do. I was asked to play for Todd Rundgren’s Clearly Human run in Chicago but couldn’t because I’d committed to a TV show. They call that “a good problem to have,” but it’s still disappointing to turn down exciting projects. I really miss playing live on tour. That said, I do get out to play when I can. I participated in some tribute shows called Celebrating David Bowie. We performed with Bowie alumni and I had the greatest time playing with the amazing Adrian Belew.

mwe3: Have you ever played any of the music from your solo albums live?

Lyle Workman: I did a thing at the NAMM show once—with Mike Keneally, Jimmy Earl, Gary Novak, and Jeff Babko—that was a lot of fun. But these days I’m not driven to tour my own music, now that I have such a good “stay at home” job. I’ve enjoyed the financial stability to put a son through private school and upcoming college, along with the comforts and security that money provides. It’s particularly alluring having come from no money. Plus I feel slugging it out in clubs across the United States and abroad is a young man’s game—or a game for those who have focused their entire career on playing their own music and have built an audience over several years.
 
Ever since Bourgeois Tagg disbanded, I took on the role as sideman, session player, and film composer, where all of those are in the service of others. My records, including Uncommon Measures, are very much a departure from those roles. My solo material is certainly no less important to me, but I suppose it’s interesting to note that something as large in scope as this record is, is somewhat of a “side project.”

mwe3: I’d like to go back and ask one more question about orchestral music if that’s OK. Do you have any favorite examples of rock records that include orchestra? What are some that you find to be the most compelling?

Lyle Workman: Well, the “big daddy” for me is the two Mahavishnu records, Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Huge, huge records—and there’s certainly a tip-of-the-hat to them. A bit of Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow has some orchestral accompaniment that I love. Obliquely there’s some Zappa too, who I absolutely love. Steve Vai has done some amazing stuff with orchestra on his Sound Theories record too. John Scofield’s 54 has some great moments, but it’s not rock at all.

mwe3: I’ll definitely have to check that one out. I wasn’t aware of it.

Lyle Workman: Yeah, it’s beautiful. And, outside of the rock domain, the Joni Mitchell records with Vince Mendoza’s orchestrations are fantastic. Mendoza’s work with Björk for Selmasongs, the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack, is incredible. The records that paired Gil Evans with Miles Davis, and those with Bill Evans are amazing. Claus Ogerman’s arrangements are sublime too.

mwe3: I wanted to ask about something I don’t think I’ve seen explicitly discussed in other interviews, about what I hear as a distinct Americana flavor in your music—something you don’t hear a lot in progressive rock. It’s very rare to hear that sort of vibe—and part of it might be the way you approach your slide playing (you’re an awesome slide player and I want to ask some questions about that too)—but could you talk a little bit about the Americana influence in the music that you write?

Lyle Workman: I think it’s just from being an American, essentially. The music from our own soil. We’re all a conglomerate of the things that we listened to in our formative years—those influences filter into our art and how we play our instrument. As far as my own music, there’s never a conscious decision to Americanize a progressive rock song that may have British roots—it’s just that my influences mingle freely. We can certainly look at Yes and the use of Steve Howe’s pedal steel guitar! Same thing at play.
 
A lot of my musical tastes are indeed British, with the Beatles and then the prog rock bands from England—the big two being Genesis and Yes, in that order. Right up there with them was the Dutch band Focus. I absolutely loved Jan Akkerman and still do!
 
On the American tip, I listened to rock and blues—Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Rick Derringer, and Robin Trower—then had to take a step back to find their influences. That led me to the Kings—B.B., Albert, and Freddie—although my favorite of the three was Albert because he was the more rock-like of the bunch. Then there’s all the great American pop music: Harry Nilsson. Jimmy Webb’s amazing songs—“Wichita Lineman” is one of my favorites of all time. The Beach Boys—big time love. The same stuff people in our age group listened to on the radio.
 
Dixie Dregs was another big influence—Steve Morse in a huge way. Obviously, there’s a lot of southern American heritage in his writing and playing. My dad bought Chet Atkins records and those were heard around the house—that influenced my playing too.
 
For slide, I dug Joe Walsh and Duane Allman—but I have to say my main influence was George Harrison because it was all about melodies and his tone. (Interestingly it wasn’t blues-based.) He had his own take on it. When I come up with melodies for guitar, I’ll play them “regularly” then try them with a slide and so many times I’ll go with the latter. There’s a little something extra that comes out of me when I play melodies on slide—and then I’ll go to the solo section and have the same thing happen.

mwe3: The last tune on the new album was written by John, right?

Lyle Workman: Yeah. He wrote such a beautiful and fitting ending for the record. It’s called “Our Friendship.”

mwe3: How much of the melody on that track is slide? It sounds to me like it’s not slide, but then I hear where it definitely sounds like slide and I can’t quite figure it out.

Lyle Workman: That makes sense because I am going back and forth. I take advantage of punching in and will always defer to what sounds best as opposed to what’s easiest to play—and even disregard what’s most logical in terms of guitar playing. There’s one bit where I wanted to play a short passage so high that it could only be reached with a slide, so I punched that in. There are few more places where I wanted some glisses to be long and exaggerated, and those could only be achieved with slide as well. Much of my guitar playing doesn’t come from patterns that I’ve learned—it begins with what I hear in my head and then I figure out how to play it on guitar.

mwe3: So it kind of goes back and forth (between slide and no slide) then. I also sensed a sort of a Brian May-like tone at the beginning of that melody. I love that.

Lyle Workman: Oh yeah. Well, he’s a huge influence too, certainly in the way I take chordal passages and separate them into single-line harmonies, like at the end of “North Star.” There’s a straight-up lineage to Brian May and if you go even further, Les Paul. But yeah, I love doing that!

mwe3: Thanks a lot, Lyle. Really great speaking with you and I look forward to seeing you next weekend to continue where we’re leaving off.

Album review and interview written by Alan Benjamin


To read the remainder of Alan’s interview with Lyle, please visit:

http://www.adventmusic.net/lyle-workman-interview-part-two





 

 
   
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