"Star Wars" fans are still lamenting the loss of "Star Wars Detours" after the animated series went on unexpected hiatus following Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, eventually winding up cancelled. But the comedy still has a fond place in the hearts of fans and composer Michael A. Levine, who joined AXS for an email interview to talk about how his work on the "Star Wars" saga that wasn't long enough wound up opening another career door for him, as well as his current work crafting "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," the main theme for "Resident Evil: Biohazard."
AXS: You're one of many composers who has a background in mainstream music. How would you describe your music history?
Michael A. Levine: From the time I was quite young I wrote both stories and songs. While still in my teens I wrote a rock opera. So music and storytelling have always gone hand-in-hand for me. I first began scoring professionally by writing music for modern dance companies in NYC. Later, the transition to scoring commercials, then film and television felt like a pretty seamless extension of what I had already been doing.
AXS: You've composed for a variety of projects, some of which have led to others. What are the projects that have been particularly meaningful or important to you?
MAL: "Cold Case" was my breakthrough, my first gig in the big time, and remains near and dear. The Lorde version of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (which I produced with Lucas Cantor) probably led to my writing the theme song for "Resident Evil 7." The choir arrangement of "Spider Pig" from "The Simpsons Movie" was one of my favorites while working for someone else, in this case Hans Zimmer. One of the “small” projects I’m proud of is Lysa Heslov’s "Served Like A Girl," currently making the festival rounds. I also had a blast on the "Lego DC Super Hero Girls" films. The one that got away is "Star Wars: Detours" - 39 episodes of animated genius produced by George Lucas, directed by Todd Grimes, starring Seth MacFarlane and Seth Green. And Disney is sitting on it. No one knows why. Who’s up for a march on Burbank?
AXS: It was "Star Wars" that got you the "LEGO" project?
MAL: I was recommended for the LEGO project by the aforementioned Todd Grimes, who was the original director. He left to work on another project and miraculously, the producer Sandi Smith and new director, Rick Morales, kept me on.
AXS: Then how did you get involved with "Resident Evil" and that music, which is completely different?
MAL: I am fortunate that I have an agent, Koyo Sonae, who is Japanese-American. He made the connection to Capcom, the people who created the "Resident Evil" series. He not only translated their words but also their intent, something that can be easy to misunderstand as a foreigner. Capcom wanted something familiar but radically rethought. Because I was born in Japan, I knew "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and a Japanese children’s song, "Musuunde," had the same melody. I made it much darker, expanded the song by adding verses, and tweaked the chorus lyrics from "the old grey goose is dead" to "everybody’s dead."
AXS: That project also has a family connection for you, in that you worked with your daughter Mariana.
MAL: Mari sang all the background vocals on the Lorde and "Resident Evil" projects and is, to my knowledge, the only person other than Lorde to ever sing on a Lorde recording. [We also did] a recent album called Samira & The Wind.
AXS: With such wildly different sounds, what is your composing process?
MAL: The core question is always, “What is the story we are telling?” This is true whether it is a film, a TV show, a game, or a commercial. [Legendary film composer] Elmer Bernstein once said to me, “Let me tell you a dirty little secret, kid. We’re not really composers – we’re dramatists.” Interestingly, I think this is true of “pure music” compositions as well. The great pieces are always “about” something, even if it’s an abstract idea. Take Beethoven’s 5th – it’s “about” what happens when you explore the consequences of repeating three notes in quick succession and follow it up with a long note a third below. Everything else (at least in that movement) stems from that incredibly concise idea.
"Go Tell Aunt Rhody" is now available for download on iTunes.
For more on Michael A. Levine, visit his artist page at AXS.