“It was almost like writing music for a non-existent film, there was a story that had to be told and I had to stick with it,” says Martin Tillman, of his new album, Superhuman, which finds the acclaimed film composer (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring), moving out of the realm he’s best-known for but still delivering the kind of effortlessly beautiful music his admirers know he’s capable of.
Tillman had long wanted to do an album of non-film-related music. If he wasn’t busy composing for the screen he found himself on the road or in the studio with any number of acts, ranging from Elvis Costello to Sting to Beck. “What finally did it,” he says, “was that my wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about nine years ago. It really re-calibrated my life. Because of that I started turning down a lot of outside projects, which opened up the possibility of me spending much more time at home.”
He moved recording gear into his guest house and set up shop there. “I knew I wanted to fill the time with music,” he says. “There was a purpose for this album, too, which was to write something beautiful for her. To me, music needs to be an energy; it needs to give you a smile. I like music with a soul. When I hear Chaka Khan or BB King, or Santana or Pink Floyd I get chills because I feel everything those performers do. It’s meant to come from the middle of their embodiment. It’s their expression at the fullest. That, to me, is what’s most important.”
Tillman was extremely purposeful in the writing process, wanting to compose something that was, in his words, “very energetic, something a little bigger than life.” Inspired by music of Pink Floyd and the group’s tendency for conceptual pieces, he decided to make one of his own. “The title,” he says, “came fairly quick. The concept was really to write music that was up, nothing sad or tragic about it or melancholic.”
The album became a celebration of their relationship as well as reason enough for listeners to find their own happiness in the music.
Joining Tillman on Superhuman are players such as bassist Leland “Lee” Sklar (James Taylor, Phil Collins), drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting), guitarists Davey Johnstone (Elton John) and Michael Landau as well as Toto’s David Paich. “When I think of my favorite musicians and the best possible musicians on earth that you can get, it’s all of them,” Tillman says, “because when you combine their musical knowledge and experience, you get 800 years of making music.”
The tone of his voice shifts slightly, taking on a quiet candor. “Also, I don’t know how long they’ll continue to do sessions,” Tillman adds. “For me, it was very important to chronicle the best musicians I could think of on one album because maybe my next record won’t happen for 10 years; time is fleeting and what could be nicer than inviting my friends to play with me?”
He knew them through a variety of avenues, including shared concert gigs, some of them stretching back to Tillman’s early years in Los Angeles. He had met Colaiuta on a studio date with singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard roughly 25 years ago. “She was with Michael Landau at that time so that’s how I met him,” Tillman recalls. These are also players who are part of a dying breed.
“I remember, 20 years ago, when I was a receptionist at a studio, I would see Landau come in for a session with David Foster for months on end, doing Michael Bolton, then doing a Chicago record, then doing an Earth Wind & Fire record,” he says. “Now, when I talk with some of my friends, I hear about how they don’t work in studios anymore because most big studios no longer exist. The kind of pop songs that have a middle part with a guitar solo or sax solo are also gone. And then there’s money. Most people finance their own records, which is pretty much what happened to my record, with a little bit of help from Sony. It is a totally changed field, for the good and maybe not-so-good. It’s sad to see that the session world as I saw it in the last 25 years, literally, is over.”
Some can still find work in film, though most are on the road more than they were before. “It’s a tough world out there,” Tillman notes. “I don’t envy the next generation.”
Tillman’s own journey began when he was very young, though he says that scoring films was never part of the life he imagined for himself. “It’s too many months, too many people cooking in the kitchen,” he adds with laugh. His parents ran a boarding school in his native Switzerland and organized summer music camps for children. “I was surrounded by about 30 kids every summer: From the top floor to the basement, there were oboes and clarinets and violins and cellos playing,” he recalls. “We would even dress in period clothing. It was a pretty crazy upbringing.”
Though he appreciated classical music, he soon fell in love with Toto and Supertramp. Later, he learned about Santana and Pink Floyd. By 16 he had started music school. It was then that he had a vision for himself. “I knew that I would end up in L.A. because I would look at the backs of the albums and see ‘Recorded at Ocean Way’ and think of those places. I read all the liner notes and the credits and I thought, ‘That’s such a cool town. That’s where I need to go!’”
“I didn’t know that it would take me almost another 18 years to find a way to make a living and get into it,” he says. “I had many, many detours.” (Including working as a receptionist, the decision to take up electric cello and many side gigs that ultimately brought him into Hans Zimmer’s world in time to create music for Face/Off.)
His friends, he says, were skeptical of his personal vision. “They thought I was completely nuts and arrogant and a dreamer. They probably thought, ‘What a crazy kid.’ I played with BB King and Chaka Khan in Montreux. I knew that those moments existed before I played with those cats,” he recalls. “I think that when you dream big and you’re unafraid of dreaming, things will come your way. That’s not just in music. You, me, everyone.”
Another dream he had was making a record that was meant to be held. Superhuman‘s sleeve somehow enhances the listening experience, the way that poring over a Pink Floyd or Alan Parsons sleeve in the past would conjure its own set of creative possibilities in the mind. “I love the smell of the paper and the print and how you can elaborate on the artwork. You can have all the senses involved. I remember going to a record store in Zurich and how I would unwrap the covers. It was a beautiful discovery,” he adds. “Now, it’s a little sad with direct downloads: it’s easy to overlook something because it’s only a click away.”
Tillman hopes to issue the record on vinyl in 2017. He’s also planning a concert hall tour in the future (he mentions a 2018 European launch date). “We’ll do 15-20 performances of music from Superhuman together with a chamber orchestra,” he says. “We’ll have dancers and multimedia. The idea is to take the music into the world of classical concert halls and turn everything upside down.”
The 2018 rather than 2017 date comes down to practicality: the halls in Europe book up roughly two years in advance, though that gives Tillman time to plan the gigs down to finite details. “We might do some one-offs and festivals,” he says, “but the idea is to make it more like an event than just a show.”
By then the music will have been heard by many people, some of them unaware of the record’s origins or the artist’s intentions. Tillman says that he hopes listeners will find themselves in the music somehow. “Take what you need,” he says, “people experience places like France way different than I do and the same thing with music: it depends where you listen to it, it depends on what type of music you like. If I can put a little smile on somebody’s face when they listen to the music, even if it’s just something that happens for someone on one track from all the 11, I’m ecstatic. Happy.”
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