If you’re creating the soundtrack for the film version of a book that has become a worldwide phenomenon, it makes sense that you would go to a producer that has an unassailable track record and extensive experience in a variety of musical styles. When legendary producer, T-Bone Burnett was looking for a collaborator on his soundtrack for the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, he turned to Greg Wells, a legend in his own right whose influence can be heard in artists as diverse as Celine Dion, Katy Perry, Rufus Wainwright, Adele, Mika, and the All-American Rejects. I had the chance to speak with Wells from London (where he was working on his next big project) about his career, his musical philosophy, and what it was like to create music for a global phenomenon.
Wells’ parents didn’t listen to the music of their peers, preferring the earlier treasures of 1950s music instead, so Wells “didn’t grow up with The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, or anything everyone else grew up with.” However, he’s been a music fiend since the age of five, growing up in a time when “there were no video tape recorders. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas would only come on once a year, and you had to be there or you’d miss it until the following year. It was that kind of world. So I’d see bits of The Jackson 5, or I’d watch Soul Train pretty religiously every Saturday afternoon … and music had this immense exoticism for me. I’ve never described it that way before, but it’s true. It just felt so Martian, so far away, and so appealing, and like such a pipe dream. I never thought in a million years that I could be involved with it, but I wanted nothing more than to be involved with it.”
After a Toronto childhood filled with second-hand snare drums, piano lessons, and the inevitable transition to indie bands after college, Wells moved to Los Angeles on the recommendation of a producer he’d worked with, and tried his hand at breaking into the music industry. It was slow-going at first, but one thing led to another. He joined K.D. Lang’s band at 23, touring with her and eventually writing his first songs with her. That three-year gig led to an introduction to Miles Copeland, which led to a failed attempt at a solo album (“Thankfully, that record never came out. [laughs] There are some moments on the record that are not a disaster, but most of it is just a fabulous lesson in what never to repeat again. I’m glad I got to do it, but I’m glad it never came out.”), which led to Copeland encouraging Wells in pursuing a producing career, directing Wells’ talent toward his already-established stable of artists.
Wells’ subsequent resume reads like a Who’s Who of the music industry. He broke through with his first hit, Celine Dion’s “The Reason”, a track co-written with Carole King and Mark Hudson at Copeland’s castle in France. Produced by Sir George Martin, the track became a Top 5 hit in Europe and helped the album Let’s Talk About Love sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. In the years to come, he would essentially be the band on Mika’s “Grace Kelly” and Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas”, and his skilled musicianship and diverse taste in music is what has allowed him to partner with Snoop Dogg and Adam Lambert with equal success.
As for the The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond, “It was T-Bone’s idea to bring in another producer that was more in line with Top 40 radio, which sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not,” Wells says. “But I made it to the top of his list of who he should talk to.” The first task Burnett gave Wells was creating a version of the Taylor Swift/Civil Wars song, “Safe and Sound”, that would be different than the version on the soundtrack, and more appropriate for Top 40 radio.
Wells explains, “[Burnett] said, ‘I’m not going to come watch you work, I’m not going to sit over your shoulder. I think you should just take these vocals and take this main acoustic guitar track, and just do what feels right to you. When you feel like the cake is baked, or baked enough, I’ll come by your studio and give it a listen.’
“So that’s exactly what I did, I just followed my nose. And that’s pretty much what I do with whoever I’m working with. I try not to overthink things, I just sort of lead with my gut feeling. There were some rhythm elements in his original version that I really liked that sneak in toward the end, kind of a rolling, marching snare drum thing, and I thought ‘Maybe we can start the song with something like that.’ It was important to me to have the same kind of intention and feeling that his version did. I didn’t want it to sound like apples and oranges. I just wanted to give it a bit more momentum. Then they came by and really liked it, and everyone, including Taylor, encouraged me to take it even further, and up the energy even more. And I’m quite proud with how it turned out.”
However, the real gem of the soundtrack is the Kid Cudi song, “The Ruler and the Killer”, which Wells co-wrote with Cudi and Burnett. The track has been universally hailed as the highlight of the album, and Wells knew it was special the moment the song was born.
“It was really just as good as writing and recording sessions get,” he says, his fondness for the experience palpable over the phone. “The three of us all showed up in my studio — Kid Cudi, T-Bone, and myself. And you really couldn’t have three more different people sitting in the same room to work on music, and we were all kind of laughing about that! But, without much fanfare, we just started. I had put down a couple of different drum beats, and they both liked the ideas. Cudi in particular gravitated toward one that’s kind of a reinvention of the famous old Bo Diddley beat. And the origin of that, I believe, comes from this old Benny Goodman hit, “Sing, Sing, Sing”, with Gene Krupa playing these great kind of jungle beats. So I did my own version of it, kind of a rockier version of it, and he loved that. He thought that’s what we should build the song on. And he took out a guitar he brought with him, and just started jamming. We really weren’t cerebral with it at all. We just started experimenting and trying stuff. T-Bone and I picked out certain moments in his guitar part that we really liked, and the three of us agreed on what the standout moments were and kind of stitched that together.
“Then Cudi would leave the room for about five or ten minutes and come back in and say ‘I think I got verse one! Let me just hold the mic and I’ll do it right here in the control room.’ So he did it right in front of us. One take. Everything was one take. He never re-did anything. And I thought he would, but he’d just say ‘OK, that was it.’ Like Frank Sinatra never did overdubs, it was a bit like that! [laughs] And I loved it! I’m not used to working with people like that. You know, everyone wants to hone it a bit, and he was just like ‘This is what it is.’
“I played some bass on it, and T-Bone played this kind of very vibey little acoustic guitar pass, he did the same kind of beat, he just jammed on acoustic guitar over this track. And pretty much everything he played in the first take was just this great little, fantastically weird little notes. They’re quite featured in the final mix I did on the track. And then I did a mix of that, we listened to it and lived with it. Cudi came in to tune up the guitars a bit … and we had it. It was quick.
“I love how kind of quirky the thing is, and none of us knew we were gonna write a song that sounded anything like that! It’s a weird little menacing song. And Cudi just really tried to dial in the Donald Sutherland character in the movie. It’s very oppressive and messed up — evil. That’s the perspective of the singer in that song, and I like how creepy we got it.”
His success with the song was interesting, considering that he didn’t have any prior experience with The Hunger Games. “I usually have a couple of projects going on at the same time, and between that and having three kids, I’m just so busy I don’t take in a lot of new stuff that doesn’t get put right in front of me,” Wells says. “So, I was somehow unaware of the massive phenomenon that is that book series. But I got played a very long trailer that I don’t think was ever released, a ten-minute trailer that was put together and really gave me a huge feel for what the movie is, and the arc of the whole story — and I was so sucked in. It was an incredible little vignette from that movie, and I was pretty much just like, ‘OK, I’m in! This is amazing. There’s nothing like it.'”
The soundtrack itself stands as one of the great film soundtracks of recent years. It, like Burnett’s soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and every soundtrack for every Quentin Tarantino film ever created, is a narrative in its own right, allowing the listener to know and live in the world of the film long after the screen goes dark. The album boasts talent like Taylor Swift and Kid Cudi, as well as The Decemberists, Arcade Fire, and Neko Case, among others, creating a rich tapestry true to the dystopian, Appalachian core of both the film and the books.
So, Greg Wells has worked with the cream of the crop in the music industry, and is a part of what is sure to be one of the most successful film soundtracks ever. Is there anything he still wants to do? Any dream collaborations he has yet to make come true?
“In my head it kind of goes to people who are dead now,” he says, laughing. “I mean, I always wanted to work with Kurt Cobain, which is probably a ridiculous thing to say, but that would’ve been amazing.
“In terms of people who are alive and breathing, I think Bjork has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and I think that Thom Yorke is a pretty compelling music-maker. I just kind of marvel at anyone who can really concisely and simply tell a story you haven’t heard before, which is really hard to do. I don’t care so much about the genre — I like a lot of different types of music. I have to say, I’m lucky enough to have worked with a lot of people on that list, just from having done this for so long, which is really a thrill. From the Count Basie Orchestra to Taylor Hanson. It’s funny, when they first came out I was like “Wow. I’d love to get in a room with Hanson and just see what happens,” and I actually got to work with them ten years ago! Rufus Wainwright is another one, getting to work with him was amazing. When I heard Mika, I flipped out and got to work with him. When I heard All-American Rejects, I mean, I always flipped out over their stuff, and just thought ‘I’ll never get to work with them, but it would be great to get the chance to!’ Then that call came in …
“I don’t mean to sound arrogant. It’s just that I’m an old man. I’ve had the chance to do a lot!”
Greg Wells is clearly giddily in love with music, and the industry is better off for it.