"I love jazz! Any time I sit at a piano, it's going to happen!" Interview with Film and TV composer Adam Dorn
Adam Dorn is a musician with a huge musical legacy. The son of renowned jazz and R&B producer Joel Dorn, he was mentored by Grammy-winning producer and musician Marcus Miller as a teenager, before attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. For years, Adam went under the moniker Mocean Worker, as a successful jazz-oriented dance music producer and DJ. His music can be heard in numerous films and television shows including Six Feet Under, The Devil Wears Prada, The Bourne Supremacy and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
In recent years, Adam has transitioned into a composer for film and television. His credits include the score for HBO’s Emmy-nominated docuseries, The Weight of the Nation, from thirty-one-time Emmy-winning producer Sheila Nevins and four time Emmy-winning producer John Hoffman; the trilogy reboot of the Kickboxer action film series; and Melissa McCarthy’s TV Land comedy, Nobodies. Additionally, Dorn scored the end credits for AMC’s Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated crime drama, Better Call Saul.
Adam's most prolific work as a composer is in documentary film-making and he has scored for the music for the likes HBO’s critically acclaimed documentary and Sundance selection Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind and Emmy-nominated film Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, both directed by Emmy-winner Marina Zenovich. His music will be heard on Showtime’s docuseries, Enemies, from Oscar and Emmy-winning director Alex Gibney, which recently premiered in the US. The four-part docuseries provides an in-depth look into the long history of conflict between American presidents and the FBI, and features a dark, melodic musical palette.
I had the pleasure to chat to Adam from his home in LA about his work as a documentary series composer, his previous experiences as a music producer and DJ and the legacy of his early career mentored under Marcus Miller.
Hi Adam, thanks for taking the time to chat to The Digital Fix. As a composer, music producer and DJ, you've got a lot of different skills under belt. What, for you, is the most exciting thing about working in music professionally?
I would say that the ability to be flexible and work in many different contexts. Because if you have the skill as a musician to compose and play and produce, the variety of settings where you can be placed in are really where the most exciting things happen.
You know, in any given month, I could be doing a gig at the Hollywood Bowl but also writing and composing music for a film; I'm using all the same skills but not being stuck in one lane. That was always the issue when I was younger, learning how to be a musician. I didn't want to just do one thing. I know a lot of people focus on being a great guitar player or a great singer; I always wanted to be able to be in a lot of different settings. As a result of learning different little subsets of skills in this field, I've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of totally unique settings as a result. I think the variety being the sort of 'spice of life' aspect of music is the most exciting thing for me.
Currently, I would say what is the most rewarding aspect of being in music, is to be able to be a composer for documentary films and TV shows and get to underscore great storytelling. I'm a real huge fan of working in the documentary field.
Before we talk a bit about the specific work you are doing, I wanted to ask; what are your big musical influences?
I'm really from a Jazz background. So for me, it's the late 1950s Miles Davis; the entire band that he had with Bill Evans, with Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, Paul Chambers. A lot of what I'm really into is born out of that, even though ultimately the music that I write might not always reflect that; harmonically it kind of does with the chords and the kind of structures that I use. Maybe stylistically things deviate, but there's something about that period, specifically with Miles and Cannonball Adderley, where so many great things come together.
And I was fortunate enough when I was a teenager, seventeen, eighteen, to spend time around Miles and work with his producer, also a composer and spectacular base player, a musician names Marcus Miller. It's one thing to have a specific influence, but it's also another thing to have that influence chart your course in person and having had a relationship with as a pupil to Miles through the 60s and 70s.
I'm really steeped in jazz and RnB and I think it's kind of interesting that I ended up making dance music records because I'm kind of the most reluctant DJ in the history of DJ-ing! I'm really proud of the musical lineage and the group of folks that I got to learn from. When I started making more accessible jazz, a kind of electronic music, I always wanted to have a focus on these little things sneaking into the records; you think you're on drugs and having a party but here comes Miles!
So yeah, it's just this pride in that education and continuing that 20th century story of music. I'm really a jazz guy at heart and I'm really proud of that.
As the son of renowned jazz and R'n'B producer Joel Dorn, did his work influence your path into music?
Very much so. At age ten or eleven I wasn't yet a musician, but my father was working with a group called the Neville Brothers, a really famous band from New Orleans that also had a side project called The Meters. And The Meters are to any band that any musician that plays RnB, a right of passage. You really need to know their music.
So the keyboard player from the band, a gentleman named Art Neville, was hanging out with me as I was in the studio just watching them work. And he said to me "I don't know what you're going to do in life, but you have a great sense of rhythm, and you have a really, really good, what's called a pocket - a sense of where the groove is." And it was really kind of funny. It resonated with me at the aged of eleven.
So just buy virtue by having this proximity to the people my father was working with as a very young kid, that opened up my eyes into wanting to go into music, making records and wanting to be in music. I subsequently worked with some artists that my father had introduced in the late 60s and 70s. I toured as an electric bass player with Les McCann, who was spectacular; it was a great experience for a nineteen old to be thrown into the rigours of night club work and play with some amazing musicians.
So yeah, my father's influence was really great, but at the same time he had a really hands off approach. He didn't want to point me in any one direction. He let me find my way; it wasn't just my way or the highway. I discovered a lot of music he wouldn't have put me onto.
So very supportive but he didn't want to mould you into a mini version of him?
No, not at all. As a matter of fact, my main actual event work came through Marcus Miller. My father said to me at around aged 16 "I know you're going to do this and I'm not a musician. You have to get yourself around the best musician you can". At the time, the only thing I could think to do was write Marcus a letter. So I wrote to him an he answered. [Laughs] It was kind of that simple!
I mean we live in a much different day and age now. The charm of a written letter is lost on today's generation but it really meant something and resonated with him and that led to a really great relationship. He knew my father's work and he had worked with artists that my father had worked with but it was a "hey, I know your pop and I really respect his work. I know you're going into this so come and hang out!" It really was a leap of faith.
It was actually! I loved that experience, I'm not going to lie. It was really, really great.
And how long were you mentored by Marcus Miller?
The better part of three years, until I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was just one these things where I left the last two years of High School to be with Marcus. It was very unconventional. It's funny, I was talking to a friend last night and his daughter was saying I want to do the same thing. And he was saying No! You've got no idea the table that was set up for me, that I set up for myself as opposed to some random kid with a foundation in music.
But yeah, it was very much one of these 'don't waste your time in school, get around your profession early' moments. Because music, unlike now, was almost like a guild mentality. Like in fifteen century Germany, if you want to know how to make beer, start making beer at eleven! Because you're only going to live until your thirty eight!
So I guess it's all relative. But my father said get into it now. Get around the best people that you can. I was fortunate, I got very lucky with Marcus. But it opened me up to everything that I do today. In a way, you come through someone's mentorship, but you have a completely different voice musically. I think that's lost on a lot of young people. Coming through someone's filter doesn't mean you sound like them. It means that you get access to a set of skills to then develop your voice.
I understand you got to hang out with a number of big artists. You mentioned Miles Davis and there was Luther Vandross as well. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
Well I spent a lot of time with Luther, a lot more than Miles. Miles was older and the process for making records for him had changed. The records were really getting made while Marcus was doing everything and Miles would come and go. Luther was there all the time. In fact the very first day I started working around them - well sitting and watching around them at the aged of seventeen - Marcus had said we're starting this Luther Vandross record and I'll be honest, if Luther doesn't like you or he doesn't like your energy, your vibe, honestly by midday you'll be asked to leave and there's nothing I can do about it.
I was like wow; here I am, this high school drop out. I should be in the eleventh grade and getting ready to go to a session next day and I might be disinvited. I spent the entire morning so nervous; I dressed up and I called everyone Mr, "nice to meet you Mr Vandross". And by noon, Marcus says to be, you're good. He really likes you, you're good to go. And I was like ahhh! And then I ended up spending ten months with him.
I don't think people realise singers are musicians. Luther was one of the best musicians I've ever been around. And that includes Miles and that includes really, really heavy people from the jazz world. I learned more watching Luther work, in a way, than almost anyone. And he was such a gentlemen and such a classy guy; we would be done from work at two in the morning and Luther would be like "I'm giving you a ride home." We would listen to music [in the car] and we would laugh and he was like a big brother. He was so supportive.
So that really fostered my development. As a matter of fact, he actually wrote my letter of recommendation for Berklee and they didn't me accept me to the school because they though it was a forgery! They were like why would Luther Vandross write a letter for this kid? I remember that he got so angry he ended up calling the school and we worked it all out. They ended up saying okay we're sorry and they made me come up and audition as opposed to just accepting me like they usually did back then. I mean, what a great guy!
It was a spectacular experience, to spend the better part of ten months every day with a mega star. I mean he's so loved and so loved in the UK. I love how much people love him over there. I remember him talking about going to the UK and performing all over the country and he was like man, they just love me! They're so supportive. It was really cool to see him really appreciative of his fans and the adulation. It was great.
That's lovely to hear. Okay, let's talk about your work as a composer. You've talked about your background and musical influences; do you rely on your jazz background when it comes to scoring?
Yeah, it's hard not to. It's funny. So I did a film in 2014 about the life of Richard Prior, (Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic) a very famous comedian and actor and that film was literally a jazz score. As a matter of fact, Miles Davies' son Aaron was one of the producers of the film and I worked with him on certain sets of music in the film where they wanted to use Miles but they could only clear certain pieces with their budget - because music is expensive to clear in general. So it was surreal to be sitting there with Miles Davies's son playing music that was an approximation of late 60s vintage blues Miles. I mean, we're like buddies. he said don't worry, you'll kill it.
So that was very much an RnBish jazz score. You know, moving forward, the main thing I bring from that world is sense of harmony and a sense of musicianship. On recent projects, jazz, in the literal sense, has not been employed. Because when you talk about political dramas like Enemies or Robin William's life story, it's a more emotional, organic score. You're just drawing on your musicianship; but with jazz, well I got into a couple of friendly disagreements with the director of Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind Marina Zenovich. He was such a masterful, improvisational comic and I said we need to have a little bit of jazz, because jazz is all improv. She said no, but I tried to add a bit of jazz here or there, every bit once in a while.
Like on Enemies, the Showtime series that is just getting released here in the States and I think is going to be out in the UK shortly, there was an initial intention of it being a dark, brooding, almost avant-garde jazz score and I delivered about seventy minutes of that kind of material. And it was all very politely rejected! [laughs] So we did a very quick course correction. It wasn't my wrong interpretation of it, just the request.
But yeah, I love jazz! Any time I sit at a piano, it's going to happen!
You've mentioned director Marina Zenovich who you've worked with on the Richard Prior documentary and Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. Is this a working relationship that you're looking to continue with in your future work?
Absolutely! In fact I was just texting her. She's just starting a new film that I hope I can work on; I can't say what it's about unfortunately, but it's a political profile of someone I really respect. I don't take it for granted that you're always going to work with the same folks. But the relationship is strong, the two films we've worked together on are truly beautiful films. The Robin Williams one is a really, really -I'm almost hard pressed how to describe the film - it's a beautiful profile of a genuinely incredible beautiful human being. He just was a force of nature.
I knew I was excited for the right reasons; whenever someone asked what I was working on, no matter who it was - friends, people in entertainment, other composers, - I would mention I'm working on a documentary about Robin Williams and the reaction universally was just awwww. I loved him! People just loved him. What a thrill to work on a story about someone I was, and am, a huge fan of. Richard [Prior] too.
It helps when you like the subject; in fact it's kind of vital. It's hard not to work on a documentary you're not passionate about.
Of course. With the Robin Williams documentary, how did you convey that emotion, that love and passion people have for him, into your score?
I wanted the music to be kind of light, to be honest, because the ground covered in certain aspects of the film wasn't light. He certainly had his demons, he had his addiction problems and there are periods of the score that sound like they could be from Broadchurch or something equally dramatic. But, by in large, it is such lovely story I wanted it to have an organic, very subtly rhythmic score that pushed the story along. I never wanted anything to be cold or edgy sounding. The idea was to be organic, warm and really support this really loving profile.
So the vast majority of the music I guess, is pretty - I don't want to say light, because light has a connotation that its fun and airy, which it's not.
You mentioned it was warm. I think you can get a sense from that.
Yeah, warm was the key and apparently not jazz! [Laughs] And you know, it's one of those things where the music kind of writes itself when you're looking at him. There's a joy to it. Warmth and joy was the goal, so that when it does get darker you have that yin and yang, that kind of balance. I'm very proud of it because its an area of music that I've never really ventured into.
So how it does it compare scoring documentaries as opposed to a fictional television series?
They're very different. Fictional television series is more thematic based and more character driven. I've done episodic comedy for TV and I've done some drama for TV, but mostly helping composers who are having a hard time. I used to be a bit of a Winston Wolf, the Pulp Fiction character that Harvey Keitel played; you would come in and fix the problem. I was in that kind of lane for a while and I got very sick of it, because you find out that you are fixing problems and never getting any credit for it, or accolades. It only leads to fixing more problems!
So I was fortunate to get some experience working on some shows that way but also very fortunate to get out of that line and get my own projects. It was a great learning experience but there are some huge differences in so much as a film you're going to work for a couple of months hopefully, sometimes longer. But episodic TV, especially scripted TV, you have three or four days to turn around an entire score. You're really on a time crunch and you're also really locked in to a specific palate. Once you figure out, after the first one or two episodes on a scripted show, there isn't a ton of deviation. The sound oft he show becomes apparent and you stick with it.
I've been fortunate to work on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul; actually I created the theme for Better Call Saul. We worked with a great UK band called Little Barrie. The ending theme is me and the show's composer Dave Porter. Then as a result of working with Dave on that I got to work on a bunch of episodes of the show and it's like when you're dialled in, you're dialled in. You have a sound and barring any strange circumstances, you're off and running.
Documentary films are different. There's some thematic development but primarily you're telling a story with its twists and turns and music doesn't repeat as much. There are some themes but they're dependant on a thematic sort of process. So they're a different kind of challenge. Although the current series I'm working on with Alex Gibne, Enemies[: The President, Justice & The FBI], a political series does actually buck that convention; it has themes and it feels very much like a scripted series in that respect.
That was fun, because you got to work on a documentary but treat it like Homeland or a show along those lines where you are really challenged and you can't just have a spooky ambience and that's it. This has to be a score and it has to feel very cinematic; and it has to last for ninety minutes! [Laughs] So I'll get more into that when I talk about the Donald Trump episode! It's wall to wall, Lord of the Rings of documentaries! Yeah I'm really proud of it but Alex Gibne kicked my ass!
So what's been you're most rewarding piece of work as a composer?
You know I'm one of those guys who the last thing I did is the thing I am most excited about. Now this is not an insult to any directors or anyone I've worked with, but I have to say episode four of Enemies. It's a ninety seven minute film that literally has ninety one or ninety two minutes of score and I have never been prouder of something with the intensity and the rate of speed I had to do it in; that there was a level of quality I could still maintain is rare. I'm really, really proud. I essentially score a film for Alex. I mean, he's the Miles Davis of documentary filmmaking directors. In my eyes, it doesn't get any bigger. And I love Marina Zenovichbut but with Alex, boy the body of work is ridiculous!
So yeah, so proud of it, and so proud that it's so current and so of the moment. We're all ensconced, in both of our countries, in a political morass all of a sudden where everyone is engaged in politics, almost to a fault. And to be engaged in something that is so of the moment...
You know, after 911, I worked on a 911 documentary for HBO and that was not a good experience to be ensconced in the moment. I didn't want to write music about the World Trade Centre attacks, that was a horrible place to be in the moment on. But to be in the moment when we're watching history unfold and hopefully getting to curb the tide of interventionally in my country right now...
It's the same here in the UK; we're facing the same types of issues for different reasons and politics is huge for everyone right now.
It really is. I don't even begin to understand Brexit. We agree to the Brexit deal! We don't agree!
It's okay, we're struggling to understand it too!
Though I will say this and I hope you appreciate this reference and my absolute love for what I'm going to talk about off the cuff. I am such a gigantic fan of the show Peep Show and the fact that Donald Trump is a running joke; there are all these references to him throughout the course of the nine seasons. Mark is always under his breath, through his inner monologue saying "take that Trump!" It's just surreal that we're where we are. We have this reality presidency, so to be able to write music and be able to underscore the realities of what that means is something I'm really passionate about.
You've also gone under the moniker of what's I've seen described as a jazz-oriented dance music producer and DJ, Mocean Worker. Are you still touring?
I used to tour with a full band and that was financially reckless but a lot of fun! I remember the very, very beginning of a movement called Electro-Swing which was 30s and 40s dance music effectively mixed with House music or breaks. So around the same time there was an artist in the UK called Mr C, a really cool DJ and cool producer and I was kind of his US counterpart. It was interesting to see that style of music develop. I was there in the very early days, using full length LPs of this Electro-Swing style, but very much in my own sort of form of it. Subsequently the likes of Caravan Palace and Chinese Man became really massive in it.
I was really fortunate in the early days of it to, maybe not perform or DJ as much, but have music supervisors on film and TV really appreciate my music and use it. So the music from my albums really got my foot in the door in the composing world. The Devil Wears Prada, Mr and Mrs Smith, The Bourne Supremacy, CSI, Six Feet Under; there were so many usages of my work in these iconic films, academy award winning films to be quite honest. It was cool that the artist side and the album-making side and the producer side, while it didn't really lead to a big touring DJ performance career, really cycled into film and television, particularly the documentary side.
And that's when you got into composing?
Yeah, it was around 2000, early 2001, the executives at HBO reached out to me because they'd some music of mine on a drive home on the radio. I'll never forget, I went into a meeting with HBO to talk about a documentary project and I was so excited and so enthusiastic that at a certain point, this man John Hoffman, who I've worked with on a number of projects, he just looked at me and said "Adam, you know you have this gift right? I'm not auditioning you, I'm calling because I love your music." And I was laughing and was just like so enthusiastic about the project he was talking about that I didn't stop to realise that what he was saying was I love what you do, would you even want to work for me?
It's funny, you put on all these different hats and you don't know where it is going to lead. It kind of goes back to my first answer to the question that you asked, a really good question what's your favourite thing? My favourite thing is the things you don't expect.