Jay Ferguson Interview
By Jon Aanensen
Jay Ferguson was a member of the rock
groups Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne in the '70s, before he started a
solo-career in the early '80s. In 1985, he started scoring movies, and
he's still active in the business. Here are some questions about his
career that I managed to ask him in the middle of his tight schedule:
Jon Aanensen: What made you
stop releasing solo albums and become a film composer in the mid- '80s?
Jay Ferguson: It was really a
case of necessity meeting opportunity. I'd enjoyed success as a
recording artist through the late '60s and '70s, but after 12 albums
and God knows how many tours the routine was getting dangerously close
to a grind. It's worth noting that my first album with Spirit took two
weeks to record and my last as a solo artist took nine months! But that
was the trend of the whole industry. My record sales and tours were
leveling off. It seemed time for a change in direction. The opportunity
part came when my manager, Budd Carr, called and asked me if I had any
spare songs lying around for a movie he was music-supervising. That
movie was The Terminator, and
suddenly I was involved with a hit film. Hollywood is big on
coat-tails, and my association with The
Terminator opened doors. I told Budd that what I really wanted
to do was score a film. Shortly after that I was doing a small film
called Deadly Passion.
JA: In The Patriot (1986) we hear your
melodic side, which sounds a bit like Christopher Franke's solo works.
What would you say about this project?
JF: It was one of my very first
films, so there was still a sense of feeling my way through. It was
also one of the last Crown International films -- a studio with an
unparalleled history of making classic B movies. That was cool. The
subject matter was chillingly familiar -- terrorists trying to smuggle
an atomic bomb into an American city. Then came the Crown International
twist: they were going to take over an offshore oil platform and send
the bomb through an undersea pipeline back to shore. Hmmm. Oh yeah, it
was also Leslie Nielson's last serious role -- as a Navy admiral.
JA: What happened to the Best Seller soundtrack-release?
Only two tracks are available on The
Best Of Hemdale.
JF: I think it was a case of
falling through the cracks. A lot of people wanted to see that come out
as a soundtrack. Personally, it's still one of my favorite scores. Very
JA: In Pulse (1988) your score creates a
great atmosphere and excitement, like in the chilling end credits.
JF: Pulse was a very moody film about
the world-wide electrical grid gaining a consciousness of its own, and
then attacking a family in their home. The score was very ambient and
industrial, and is also one of my favorites. For me it was a great
lesson in how you can create an unsettling atmosphere by removing all
the usual musical points of reference.
JA: The soundtrack releases
from Johnny Be Good and License To Drive don't feature any
Jay Ferguson-material. Was this a disappointment for you?
JF: Yes. I liked those scores.
There's just a lot of commercial pressure for these kind of song-driven
JA: Was Bad Dreams ever released on CD, or
is the Varese Sarabande CD listing a mistake? This disc was a highly
wanted item among film score collectors for many years.
JF: Yes, it was released. I
hear they came up on e-bay from time to time.
JA: In Bad Dreams and A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream
Child your music is cold and a bit difficult to listen to. Why
didn't you write any melodic music for these films?
JF: Ouch. Actually, I think
Ellen's theme from Bad Dreams
was quite melodic. But on the whole, these scores were done with more
shades of gray than my others. Part of the reason was a decision to
continue in an ambient/atmospheric mode -- remember that both these
films were about dream-states. The other was, for good or bad, a desire
to avoid horror film music conventions. I would characterize these as
JA: How much music did you
write for Melrose Place?
JF: I got a call from Howie
Deutrch, who was directing the pilot. I had scored Howie's two Tales From The Crypt shows and
loved working with him. I scored the pilot but declined to do the
series, as I had just been offered Going
to Extremes, which was the follow-up series by the creators of Northern Exposure.
JA: You scored several of the Tales From The Crypt episodes. Were
you the most used composer on this project? Did you enjoy working on
JF: I never kept score, but I
may have done more shows than any other composer. I loved working on
the show, and they gave me some plum episodes -- Tom Hanks', Arnold
Schwarzenegger's, Howie's, It was a chance to work with great directors
and actors -- all done with an anything-goes spirit. It was like
everyone was playing hookie.
JA: Are you pleased with the Double Dragon CD, which features
about 18 minutes of your score along with a lot of pop music?
JF: Every composer likes a
100% underscore soundtrack album, but these score/pop song hybrids are
a fact of life. You just hope the mix makes some kind of sense.
JA: What kind of music did you
write for Driven (1996)?
JF: Driven was written and directed by
Michael Shoob, and drew on his days driving a taxi in L.A. It was a
great film about this subculture of taxi drivers, and a lot of the key
score moments were not about what was physically happening in their
world, but what was going on in their heads. Michael did not want the
score to make any easy or obvious choices. It was challenging project,
but possibly my best score.
JA: Did they choose you as
composer for Sweetwater
(1999) because of your past as a rock artist?
JF: That obviously didn't
hurt. But ironically, what convinced Lorraine Senna (the director) to
hire me was hearing my quieter, more introspective pieces. Again, a
director who did not want to go with just the obvious choices.
JA: What would you say about
your most recent score, Tremors 4?
JF: I love the Tremors films. They exist in their
own universe -- low tech, hi concept, off-center funny. Steve Wilson
and Nancy Roberts (director/producer) always make it feel like family. Tremors 4 takes the Tremors characters back in time to
the old west, when the subterranean worms first arrive. The score mixes
old-school Big Sky Western elements with Tremors style horror. I really
enjoy that kind of genre-bending.
JA: Have you ever worked with
an orchestra or are all of your scores electronic/rock-based?
JF: For the most part I score
electronically, but we've used orchestras and ensembles on Elm Street, Driven, Tremors and others.
JA: What is your own favorite
score of yours?
JF: It's probably a toss-up
between Best Seller and Driven.
JA: You made it big in the '80s
and were often mentioned along with Jonathan Elias, Sylvester Levay,
Jan Hammer and Harold Faltermeyer. Did you have to change your music
style to survive as a film composer in the '90s?
JF: I think we all did. The
'80s were the heyday of purely electronic scores. Not just the sounds,
but the style -- sequencing, drones, etc. By the end of the '80s
traditional scoring elements, especially acoustic/orchestral sounds,
were making a comeback. Now it's very rare to hear a completely
electronic score. When you do, as in Run
Lola Run, it's very refreshing. Today's scores are either
completely acoustic sounding or are acoustic/electronic hybrids.
JA: Would you say that
1988/1989 were your busiest years in Hollywood?
JF: Yes, I was scoring four
different studio features in 1988 alone.
JA: Did you ever release a
promo CD with some of your film music?
JF: No. I'm constantly creating
compilations of cues for directors and producers, but I don't release
JA: What are your future plans?
Will you continue writing film scores?
JF: Oh yes. I'm starting a new
feature (On the Rocks with
Timothy Hutton and Daryl Hannah) right now, with another in the
pipeline after that.
JA: Anything you'd like to add,
now that you're at your 20th anniversary as a film composer?
JF: Twenty years?! Time flies
when you're having a good time.
You can contact Jon Aanensen at