The man who gave us the theme song to The Terminator, Brad Fiedel speaks with ReGen about his life and career and the potential for creativity that exists in everyone.
An InterView with Brad Fiedel
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
A thunderous, metallic rhythm – the veritable heartbeat of a merciless, murderous machine… Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, T-800 series infiltration unit: The Terminator. Not only is this imposing, menacing cinematic creation so ingrained with the image of an Austrian bodybuilder turned actor and action star, but also with the musical theme that evokes the very image of a post-apocalyptic dystopia overrun by machines and humanity’s last-ditch efforts to reclaim the world… a theme composed by Brad Fiedel. Born in 1951 in New York City to a dancer mother and a composer father, Fiedel’s illustrious career in music is one that has seen him exploring through his numerous credits as a Hollywood score composer many aspects of sound and texture. Heralded for his innovative use of electronics and synthesis and later incorporating them into full orchestra composition, Feidel’s music has served as the atmospheric bedrock for such varied cinematic thrillers as The Accused, Fright Night, Blink, Striking Distance, Johnny Mnemonic, True Lies, and Blue Steel to name but a few. And then, in the late ’90s, Brad Fiedel left the fertile fields of Hollywood, leaving many to ponder what became of the musical talent. And unlike the character with which his theme song has become so identified with, there was no indication if he would be back.
In recent years, thanks to the growth of social media, Brad Fiedel has resurfaced, continuing his musical explorations, most recently with a one-man musical show, titled Borrowed Time, comprised of episodes and compositions written throughout his life and offering an insight into the divergent paths one’s life can take as his did – beginning as a young and aspiring singer/songwriter to a stint as a touring keyboardist for Hall & Oates to his subsequent notoriety in Hollywood and beyond.
Taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with ReGen Magazine, Brad Fiedel now engages his audience on his life and career, touching on his impact and influence not only on modern electronic and industrial music, but also on his upbringing in the early days of synthesizers, discussing the Terminator theme contest he held in 2015, Milan Records’ 2016 remastered edition of his iconic score, and the potential for artistic and musical creativity that exists in everyone.
The score for The Terminator has been remixed and remastered by you and will be released on vinyl via Milan Records. What can you tell us about how this came about?
The original version of the theme is in a 13/8 time signature, and when you updated the theme for Terminator 2, it was changed to a 6/8. On the special features of the DVD, you make mention of how this may have had to do with the limitations of pre-MIDI technology (for instance, the tempo clock for one synth wouldn’t match up with the other).
Fiedel: Oh yes, it was all produced manually. Part of the rhythmic signature was being accomplished on a Prophet 10 that had a funky sequencer that the memory was sort of these funny cassette tapes – almost like tiny Dictaphone cassette tapes – and it was on a manual on/off button, so the part of the theme that is those rhythmic metallic clanks. That was looping on that machine, and the rest was on an Oberheim chain with a sequencer and drum machine. I liked the feel; it wasn’t so much a mistake as much as it was the realization that it was difficult and would not be exactly correct. In my mind, I think I originally heard it in a 6/8, but it came out differently and I thought that given the movie and the whole feel of it, I decided not to fight the river and just say, ‘Okay, this is part of the charm and what it is.’ It sounded okay to me and it may not have been exactly musically organized as it sounded in my mind, but for an artist, it’s those moments where sometimes when things go slightly out of control that people learn to accept it and actually cherish because that’s what makes it unique.
I was pretty much hearing it in 6/8, so when we got to Terminator 2, I was still dealing with some interesting equipment. My imagination was always beyond the technical capabilities that were available to me at the time, so I was always pushing it. I was actually working on two Fairlight computers at that point, and I went back to the 6/8 idea partially because I had to synchronize these two things and write out the time signature for every measure on each machine, which were separate, but compatible – it made more sense for me to have it in the more manageable time signature. You can count out that original version in 13/8, but it’s really a human attempt to quantify something that’s really kind of slipping, sliding, and undulating through time in a way that’s not exactly ever in a particular time signature – that’s just the closest you can figure.
It is an iconic theme and is perhaps your most recognized piece of music; so much so that people tend to forget how much you have done and how many scores you’ve created. Outside of The Terminator, if you had to pick a favorite of your own work, which one would you select, and why?
To go back in time, you were a keyboardist for Hall & Oates before you began working on scores… or was it concurrent that you began scoring? What is the chronology?
Fiedel: Well, the chronology is that I was trying to get a recording contract as a singer/songwriter. I was signed to Paul Simon’s publishing company in 1971 or 1972 for a year, and I had to audition in a room with a piano – things are not done the same way anymore. (Laughter) I came really close, but I just didn’t get that going, or maybe I didn’t hang in there long enough. I was in that process and also experimenting with synthesizers and I was also scoring some very small movies prior to the Hall & Oates thing. One of the early synthesizers I was experimenting with was the ARP2600, and that is old school, monophonic, plugging wires in… and I was playing with that thing, and a friend of mine who frequented studio instrument rentals and rehearsal spaces for bands in town, and there was a kind of bulletin board where he saw the sign – ‘Keyboard player wanted who can work with an ARP2600’ – because they had the equipment, but they had to find the right person who could use that equipment. Certainly, there were people, even among my friends, who were better keyboard players than I was; I’m competent, but I’m not a virtuoso keyboard player, I don’t consider myself as such. But I had an ARP2600 and I knew how to do it, and so I went in there and auditioned and I ended up doing a six month tour with Hall & Oates. It was a kind of aberration because I wasn’t doing my own songs and I wasn’t doing the scoring that I was starting to enjoy. I had a friend named Howard Goldberg who did his first low budget feature while I was on the road with Hall & Oates, and the movie was called Apple Pie, and he asked me to score it. I said, ‘Howard, I’m on the road and I don’t know how I’m going to do this on this schedule.’ He said, ‘Well, you come into New York once in a while, so we’ll just grab some studio time while you’re in town.’ He has a dance sequence in the end that was a whole lot of fun, which stole for the movie Fame. (Laughter) Or at least, it seems like they stole it, because it’s very similar with people dancing in the street, and people dancing on fire escapes and all of these weird characters and choreography; he shot it to a James Brown piece. And Howard needed a really fun dance piece, and it wasn’t my thing to try to put together the right band for that, so I said to Hall & Oates, ‘Hey guys, we’re in town for a couple of days. Would you do a session for this score?’ So, my first movie score features a jam with Daryl Hall, John Oates, and the rest of the band that we were touring with, so the director got a little bonus out of that.
Using synthesizers and sampled sounds as you did on The Terminator was not only groundbreaking for movie scores, but was also a big part of the burgeoning electronic and industrial music of the time, and I’m not sure how aware you are of your influence on that scene today. Chicago’s Cyanotic are renowned Terminator fans and have performed a rendition of the theme. PIG sampled segments of the Terminator 2 score for ‘Red, Raw, & Sore.’ In the song “Richard” by Dubmood on the Hotline Miami 2 video game soundtrack, the arpeggio sequence is almost identical to the one featured in your score during the escape from the precinct.
Fiedel: That’s interesting, because I created all of the arpeggios on that score. Now, there are all of these buttons you can push, but back then, everything you hear is material that I had to create one step at a time. All of the arpeggios were coming from the Oberheim chain, and there was a step recorder and it was a note-for-note creation.
And now, as you’ve said, there are buttons you can push and all of these methods that you revolutionized are part and parcel of electronic and industrial music today. How aware are you of today’s music in those fields?
Fiedel: There were kind of stages of my awareness of the impact of some of that work I was doing, and I was very early on the synths. I didn’t meet Moog, but I was working at one point with his assistant on some of the prototypes that Moog was putting out, and we’re talking now in the ’60s. My dad, who was a musician, had a school with my mom – a school of the arts. One of the people who worked around the school, by chance, happened to be connected with Moog, who said, ‘Hey, they’re working on these fantastic electronic instruments, I’ll bring one down,’ and so as a kid, I was playing on some of those prototypes; that was part of who I was. I was also very interested in musique concrète and using actual acoustic sounds – this was before sampling was available – and using different ways to create sound. I thought film was interesting in that for the most part, most filmmakers were happy to accept anything in the soundtrack that heightened the experience of the movie. That was wide open, so I thought, ‘Wow, I can actually make a living playing in this place where, in the past, only academics had been playing,’ in some big room in a clunky university with a computer that was as big as my kitchen. The first little inkling I had, truthfully, because social networking wasn’t happening, but I got an award from ASCAP, which is just basically for box office success – the people who were attached to that, if you were connected to one of the top grossing movies of that year, they would give you an award for making a contribution and generating income for everyone. They surprised me when Robert Patrick, who played the T-1000, came out in full motorcycle cop regalia, and he presented me the award. He’d said as an aside in a moment when we were just talking, and I was never quite clear on whether it was his friend or a relative of his was involved in…
His brother, Richard Patrick was a member of Nine Inch Nails and is the main force in the band Filter.
Fiedel: Oh, thank you! You just clarified something for me that I never really knew. Anyway, he’d told me, ‘My brother’s in this band and your music’s such an influence on that in Nine Inch Nails.’ But to answer your question, I don’t listen to too much music; we’re like the shoemaker family without shoes. I don’t like music to be playing because it kind of encroaches on whatever is going on inside my head at the time, which is likely to be musical. I’ve certainly over time become more aware thanks to social media that there are people out there who research it and are interested in analog synths and electronic music is all around, so I’d gotten the idea that I was somebody that some of these people consider a forerunner to some of the stuff that they were doing. But it wasn’t like I sit around listening to that music. I think that music is really fun to make, and yet, it’s not something I would listen to – well, as I said, I don’t listen to much music anyway – like in my car or around my house.
I was going to ask about what music you do enjoy and listen to.
Fiedel: I like to hear any good version of any kind of music, really. It’s usually when I hear it if my kids have it on, or walking through someone’s house if they have it on, or sitting in the car if they have it on… but given the choice, I prefer to listen to people talking. I listen to NPR! (Laughter) I’m trying to get in touch with what’s going on out there, and I’m looking for a break from the fact that my head is doing musical things a lot. You know how when you go to get a massage, they usually have that soft new age music on, and it’s meant to be very soothing or spiritual, but I would probably ask them to turn it off. It’s kind of embarrassing in a way since I’ve made my life off of music, but I’m not really a good music historian. I was very influenced by dad especially, because he had a really wide range of stuff, and when I was little, I heard a lot of music – that was everything from all kinds of jazz to a Bartok concerto for percussion and orchestra, which is probably closer to my scores than anything else.
Speaking of unconventional methods and instrumentation, you had conducted a contest on social media about a year ago for people to create unique versions of The Terminator theme. Who won?
Fiedel: His name is Ahmed Abdalazim Admed Al-Gendy, and I feel kind of guilty because I got really busy and I owe him; I need to write him something. But I think he deserves it, because he was one of the few people who actually understood what I was going for. My idea was – and this is how I was raised – that everybody has the potential to be creative, and especially now with budgets being cut in schools, creativity isn’t necessarily being nurtured as it should. In the end, I think that’s what’s going to save us on a global level is to help kids learn to think outside the box and be really creative, learn how to improvise and create in the arts, sculpture, music, painting, and having that part of your brain freed up is what will potentially create the scientists with the breakthroughs of the future. Nobody knows better than an artist how to take what seems like a mistake and make it into something beautiful.
You mentioned earlier your one-man show, Borrowed Time. Tell us about it.
Fiedel: The bottom line is that I’ve written all of these songs throughout my life, and that part of who I am – the singer/songwriter – came out in a few notable instances, like when I wrote the song for Fright Night. It was used musically in the first movie, and in the second film, we had a sung version.
There are a number of influences about this, but one of the things is that on early social media, I didn’t even know about the taproots of this, but I ran into stuff where people were asking, ‘What happened to Brad Fiedel?’ I thought, ‘Wow, there’s something in the air.’ I was just a guy doing his job, but there were now people out there that were appreciating what I was doing and wondering why I wasn’t around anymore in the Hollywood scene. So, that kind of made me think a little bit. And then, there was a period of my life when I literally became a surf bum for a few years and didn’t do anything musical. I ended up designing a little surf hotel/retreat on the coast of Mexico; architecture has always interested me, so I taught myself an AutoCAD program, designed this place, built it, and now people come there year after year and love it and it’s kind of cool. It’s kind of like music, except it’s standing there – barring a tsunami or a major earthquake – the theory is that it’s going to be there for a long time, and that is interesting to see the shapes and the curves of architecture as opposed to a piece of music. I was in this whole other world, and I was frankly getting depressed. I realized that I hadn’t sat at a piano or sung and used my voice, which is something that kind of kept me singing. From a very young age, I was very sensitive to what was going on in the world, and a lot of the time, it was very upsetting. I wrote songs about what I saw, and those songs… this is the youthful dreams aspect of it. I mean, sure… I was young, so I was dreaming about girls and such, but mixed in with that was a really core feeling that stuff was going on in the world and people were sleepwalking a bit, and here was a chance to make a contribution by addressing that in song form. Obviously, there were people who were doing that so excellently in the ’60s and ’70s, and I didn’t dream that I would be the next Bob Dylan or anything like that. But I would write these things, and I’d play them in clubs and they’d get a great response, but the record companies just didn’t go for it or I didn’t hang in there long enough. That’s part of what the show is about. I think a lot of teenagers have a real core gut feeling about wanting things to be different, about wanting to make a contribution, about making life meaningful. And when they don’t have an outlet for that, that’s when they become ‘delinquent teenagers’ and I think a lot of it is because our culture doesn’t allow for ways to channel that energy into something meaningful and to help them hone that.
I’ve written a couple of screenplays for a film musical that’s never been produced, but it is part of who I am as a writer. I started to look at myself and my story, and I thought, ‘This is kind of an interesting story that kind of has a moral to it and has an interesting point of view,’ and it just so happens that the guy whose story it is – meaning me – has been writing songs his whole life. So, the point in this ‘one-man musical’ where he at 13 performs one of his first songs at a battle of the bands in high school, and this beautiful girl comes up and kisses him, and he’s like, ‘Wow, this is the life for me;’ that song exists, and I wrote it when I was 13. So, I thought it would be interesting to do a musical as a memoir, and there is dialogue and I play different characters of people that I’ve encountered in my life. What was interesting to me is that it’s kind of like that movie Boyhood<, where they follow the kid as he actually grows up, and with this, these songs that I sing… like, if I sang a song in a club when I opened for George Carlin, that’s the song that I actually perform in the song. I almost have to remove myself from it because even though it’s about me, I really just use myself as a character, and there is a character arc that does have to do a little bit with selling out and getting seduced by the whole Hollywood thing. But the hardest part for me in the creation of the early versions of the show was that I would have film score fans coming up to me and say, ‘Well, don’t forget that the music you did for these scores was really inspiring to us, and it sounds like you’re putting it down.’ I’m not really, but I was just using it as what happens when you have to let go of your dream of making a difference, and I’m just hoping that the show is inspiring to people of all ages to look at their lives and say, ‘Where can I take my talents and use them to make a difference?’ That’s really what it’s about, and I’m just using myself and the songs that I’ve written throughout my life, and that I have some notoriety and I have some funny stories about people that I’ve worked with who everybody knows. It’s a mixed bag.
The bottom line is that I created it as a vehicle to get to perform again and for me to get to share these songs again that I wrote, and these songs that I feel are still so relevant about what I was seeing in the world as a young person.
Will you be touring this show again soon?
Fiedel: I just came back from doing a couple of performances in Arizona. I’m actually into writing this other music, in which I do not perform in, but which is a character piece. I realized that I love performing again and all the scariness of it. A one-man show is kind of like an extreme sport; I go out there with 90 minutes of material – dialogue, music, etc. – and there’s nobody to save me if I lose my way; I have to have it all. That was kind of exciting. And yet, backstage every night, I’d be saying, ‘Why did I put myself in this position?’ (Laughter) But it was really great, and after each show, there were people who would say, ‘I’m so glad to see that and to understand your internal process and see how you’re making decisions and that’s helping me to see that maybe I can hold onto my core dream a little longer and keep it alive.’
Anything in this world, you’ve got to hustle. Those two shows in Arizona I booked over a year ago; theatres usually book their seasons well in advance, so I don’t have anything booked right now and I’m not really hustling it right now, but if somebody really wants me to do it and I can get a few of those within a month, I might go out and do it some more. It was an interesting several years creating it, and my wife directed it and I had no experience as an actor, so I had a lot to learn. Maybe someday, we’ll do a video of it, and it may not be possible as a live thing – I haven’t seen many one-person shows that are really captured on video.
Is there anything you’d like to say to close out?
Fiedel: I guess the one thing that I would say, and it’s interesting that I had to focus on it because of the one-man show, but it was very moving… because especially when I had left Hollywood, I didn’t really understand how many people were out there really listening to the scores and being impacted and inspired by it. I had a period when I really did look at my life and feel that I’d sold out my original dream to be performing in front of people and sharing stuff that was important to me and important, I think, to the world to be said. So, the original version was more in that vein of not putting down the scoring, but acknowledging that it wasn’t where I originally planned to go. Really, the thing that I learned from doing the show and having people come to the show, for whom those scores were really meaningful, was gratitude – I’m just really grateful! How many artists kind of get to follow their creative impulses? Most of my scores were my expression in the sense that they weren’t typical by-the-book film scores, and the fact that I got to do that for so many years and that people have enjoyed it… I am just really grateful!
Photography by Cara Robbins, courtesy of Brad Fiedel