1996 Ron Jones Interview
This is the full-length version of a September 1996 interview with Ron Jones, conducted by phone from Jeff Bond’s residence in Ohio, published in Bond’s The Music of Star Trek (1999, Lone Eagle Publishing Company).
After leaving TNG, Jones worked very little during the 1990s until hooking up with Seth MacFarlane on Larry & Steve and Family Guy. Composers often have a hard time finding work after leaving a long-term TV gig: not only are they typecast, but their relationships have fallen off, as they have not needed to network for years (nor had the time to do so).
In Jones’s case, the royalties from DuckTales, Star Trek and his other shows made it less of a financial imperative to crawl his way into work that would be creatively unrewarding. So, he founded Emotif, a self-distributed record label and film composing “online university,” both of which were ahead of their time in their use of the Internet. He kept up the classes as long as he could, until the time and money demands grew too great.
Jeff Bond: Did you deal exclusively with Bob Justman during the first year on Next Generation?
Ron Jones: Basically I did; Rick Berman would just barge in every once in a while and say, “Can’t you write anything unemotional, Jones?”
Dennis did the pilot a week and a half after I did “Naked Now.” So I had all the pressure, I had all the gray suits from the executive offices at Paramount coming around and watching my every move. But after they figured out I knew what I was doing, I got to do pretty much whatever I wanted to the first year; Bob Justman would just come in and be a cheerleader and say crank the music up.
JB: How familiar were you with the music on the old show.
RJ: Well, I grew up like everybody else watching the old show, so I was familiar with it but I really wasn’t into it per se, and then the movie score that Jerry did, of course I liked very much.
JB: Did you try to incorporate any actual motifs from the old series?
RJ: What they did is they asked us to incorporate Alexander Courage’s fanfare into the fabric of the show so that people would feel that it was part of Star Trek. But thematically, as the show moved, it began to break apart just as a show and develop its own personality and we kind of threw off the shackles of the past.
JB: You used the Goldsmith march theme too.
RJ: My cue sheets would typically say Courage for three bars, Goldsmith for three bars. I wouldn’t call it plagiarism so much as development; it was more of an extension of Paramount’s franchise.
JB: Did Justman let you do what you wanted other than that?
RJ: The organization was kind of like a big playground, and music was the sandbox, special effects was the swing set area and the monkey bars was the cast and everything. The producers just kind of kept an eye on things and said go for it, go for it, and after they’d finish dubbing the show, Justman would just say it was great and really be a cheerleader. Meantime, there were all these indicators from on high that everything wasn’t necessarily the way they wanted it to be.
JB: Did you notice this right away or just after Justman left?
RJ: I felt like at first that I was being guided very gently in certain ways away from doing things more dramatically and being forced to mellow out, but I saw the episodes as needing certain things dramatically and I tried to do what I could. I really saw the series more like a series of movies, and I thought people would really appreciate that approach after we got done with the series, that they would sort of stand on their own more.
JB: You’ve referenced some other Goldsmith movies like Patton in “Booby Trap” or even “When the Bough Breaks” has a motif similar to A Patch of Blue; did you see Goldsmith as an influence for this at all?
RJ: Oh, yes. If I could have been Jerry Goldsmith, I would have been; I really, really enjoy what he’s all about and his accomplishments. I think that part of the reason is just trying to incorporate some of the sound, the familiar feel of Jerry’s Star Trek score during that first year. We were definitely trying to pick up a little bit of the feel of the Klingon music from the feature in the first Klingon episode [“Heart of Glory”], and part of the reason on that too was that the alphorn that we used for the Klingon music would only play that fifth, so I couldn’t write anything beyond that fifth, so it was kind of a weird happenstance. I said, “We’re close enough for jazz on this thing so we might as well go with it,” but it’s really kind of a departure from it too.
JB: It was a good extension of that idea.
RJ: That’s a good terminology. I thought that Jerry really captured the right idea for the spirit of what the Klingons were. We were kind of extending what had been done.
JB: Your action cues also have some of the Goldsmith, ostinato-driven sound.
RJ: I used the rhythms like Bernard Herrmann; he used rhythmic repetition to create a psychological environment. You sort of had to create this enclosed psychological environment during a lot of those scenes.
JB: You use a lot of repeating electronic figures, too. What about the sound mix?
RJ: We had a very large orchestra and I would have electronics divided into their own sections, so we had a core of a 20th-century orchestra augmented by electronics broken up into their own ensembles. A lot of these stories revolved around a virus in the computer system of the ship. You can’t express the idea of a computer virus acoustically, so I had to carry the story of the virus digitally. It was kind of an allegory of technology, with the technological elements of the story being expressed electronically and the human elements acoustically.
JB: Did you ever take the opposite approach?
RJ: Yeah, sometimes the human half of the story utilizes electronics, say where Data is trying to understand something about humanity. I’d have the technological idea carried through acoustically and the human element electronically so it was exactly the opposite.
JB: You used a signature ending for a lot of the episodes; other than the Klingon and Romulan melodies, did you have other specific melodies that you’d call upon?
RJ: Each season I had a different signature theme that I would write for the ship and kind of for Picard; it was kind of seen through his eyes. The way they kept the camera outside the ship during the captain’s logs was retained from the old show, and the early takes on those sequences were based on Courage’s theme, and I basically developed and moved beyond that, so each year I would write a little different version, until finally the third or fourth season I didn’t do too many references back to the old Star Trek show.
JB: Did you repeat material between the two Borg shows?
RJ: In fact, I developed material; in the Q episode, “Q Who,” that’s where you first encounter them, so when we saw them again I sort of took a germ from that and integrated, so if somebody was going to do a Wagner study of all the thematic connections, they’ll find that there’s probably 100 or 200 connections between all of my scores through the characters, so the Borg had a lot of thematic material like for the end of the Earth. I tried to deal with it like it was the end of humanity if the Borg actually came to Earth; that’s why there’s like an electronic requiem in there, and the producers thought it was too religious. Gene Roddenberry sent a message down saying, “Tone down the choir.” There’s all kinds of laced stuff between every episode.
JB: You did “Devil’s Due,” too.
RJ: That was a total fantasy to me. That’s the one where the lady’s like a sorcerer. I really tried to think more romantic, not like “love” romantic but like romantic in the story and I did a lot of impressionistic colors and magical things as if I was Ravel; that was the tonal language. And I thought it worked fine; I could play this kind of evil hum like you believed she was really there because you had to have that, but at the same time you could tell she was a sorcerer and a con man.
JB: It does actually suggest that because it avoids the more traditional way of scoring the devil, where you have the scratchy fiddle kind of sound.
RJ: It was more mystical and magical.
JB: You did “Who Watches the Watchers.” Were you scoring that from the point of view of the aliens?
RJ: That’s one of my favorites. The theme for the girl that was brought up, where she sees death and she goes to see God, so to speak, and Picard shows her somebody dying, I thought it was a great opportunity to really use a thematic thing, where she gets to look out on her own planet and so forth, so there’s a primitive aspect where they really think the Enterprise people are gods, and there’s a human aspect when it’s revealed that what they’re seeing is something different. It was a chance to be pretty without being soppy; it was respectful of that culture just like the Star Trek guys are trying to be respectful, but it also appreciated the values for what they were.
JB: It reminded me, not so much in the writing, but in the approach, of some of Gerald Fried’s old Trek scores where he really characterized the alien cultures.
RJ: Yeah, I think it was maybe more cultural, they tried to create a Mintakan culture for them and I thought if I was a Mintakan, how would I write this music? Even when Riker and the others are disguised as Mintakans when they have that big chase, even the chase is a Mintakan film cue, so I was thinking okay, “I’m a Mintakan doing TV, how do I write this?” The percussion group was like nine people, which is unheard of in TV—sometimes the whole band isn’t nine people on a TV score. So we basically had everything that Jerry would have on a film score.
JB: You did “Night Terrors” too, with a real choir like Poltergeist.
RJ: That was fun; I really enjoyed trying to make goosebumps rise. It was fun and I have to credit the producers for believing in my vision for that score to hire that choir, because you have to pay a lot more SAG dues for a choir. It was like hiring actors [so they] were getting 15 or 30 actors more than their budget for the show. I was constantly amazed at the level of support that I was able to get.
JB: That’s interesting, because at the same time you were really getting flak, right?
RJ: Yeah, it was a schizophrenic environment. What happened is, like in any organization, somebody has to take the fall. Like maybe one week they would go way over their budget, maybe spend $50,000 for one five-second shot of the interior of a Borg vessel, and I’d say, “How can you guys complain when I ask for four more cellos, which costs like $600 and it makes that much more difference for the show all through the show, and you’re doing that one shot of the ship interior for $50,000?” So when heads would roll, one week they’d spend the money and the next week, someone from Paramount accounting would call Rick Berman and say, “What did you do?” so for him to answer, he could say, “Well, I fired so and so.” I would always come there wasted, because every week they would just ream my whole life out doing the show. Finally, I think they’d reamed me enough and gotten everything they could out of me, and I never really went along with Rick Berman’s regime, and I thought the second season they were going to get rid of me! So when they finally brought in the device to chop my head off and did it, I was like, “Well, what took you so long, guys? I’ve been bucking for a demotion for years and I’ve been a total thorn in your side.”
JB: So what was the reason for the firing?
RJ: There was no reason, because legally—their legal department is huge, any studio, where their building is, 90% of it is lawyers—once they decided to give me the boot, they don’t describe the reason, because they could be liable for a lawsuit because they’re wrong, and usually they’ve violated some employment clause put in place to protect workers. Like, you’re not supposed to endanger people’s lives? My life was in danger every week I worked for them, I thought I was going to die. I’d come in there for 72 hours without sleep and do heavy conducting of two or three million notes and it had to be perfect every time. They don’t even know what they put me and other people through. I was thankful when I walked out of there. I was like, “What a gift to finally be able to get out of this crazy world.” And I was a good soldier; as long as I’m working for somebody, I put my complete soul into it, and when I’m released from that, I’m happy, because I did everything I could for that person. Years from now, people will still be able to say this composer cared at all times and never took the work for granted, never took the audience for granted.
JB: Some of the early shows, if they didn’t have good scripts, the music was the only reason to watch the shows. It adds tremendous re-viewing value to the shows. They seem to be loosening up somewhat on the recent shows but it’s still nowhere near where it could be.
RJ: That should be on a bumper sticker for people who come out of Paramount. All those people have such an amazing gift, they’re gifted in terms of writing, they’re gifted in terms of production, but somewhere in the controlling area they feel that the audience can’t handle it if they push it. But you don’t see that on The X-Files. The music becomes almost like a test pattern, where it’s buzzing and you can watch it for 20 minutes and it’s still buzzing. I just try to always pretend, you know, how is someone in Boston or Ohio, when they’re in the kitchen getting their hot dog, how are they going to feel when the show comes back on? Are they gonna want to leave their hot dog or stay with it? I always tried to pull them in.
JB: It’s such a wide-open format and it’s so inherently dramatic, it just seems like a huge waste.
RJ: Yeah, I don’t regret it; I just worked really, really hard as long as I could to keep the fire alive for what I could contribute, and when it was over, it was over. And the music still stands. That’s where I feel like I got revenge, because they can never go back and erase it, and so it’s like flipping ’em off, every time they hear that, it’s like me flipping them off, and not just me, but other people who tried and failed. So I’m taboo, and I’m creating CDs for the people who are pissed off, too. We’ve released one, and we have five projects. I’m creating the science fiction music equivalent of science fiction books, like Anne McCaffrey novels. They’ll have a storyline, and the different albums form an arc, and they’ll definitely have a science fiction/future vibe to it. When you do a film, you’re always holding back because you have to serve the film, that’s what’s important. But what if you have no film and you just want people to be able to put on this CD, crank the living shit out of the stereo and sit in the middle of the floor with a beer and just be totally knocked out that’s what my goal is, to just make amazing product. Eventually, there’ll be video to go with this and everything. The reason I call the label Emotif is that you’re generating emotion just like a storyline or a film does, like you’re scared. So instead of a bunch of tunes, we’re trying to think of a score, and I’ve talked to Dennis and he’s going to do one after he gets done, and I’ve talked to other composers and said we’re going to do a soundtrack label without any pictures. So when you go into a record store, there’s no bin, it’s like in the aisle between soundtracks and something that doesn’t exist. So we’re going to get a site up on the Internet and go direct to sell it to people so we don’t have to deal with record companies and distributors. What I want to do is cultivate these people every time I talk to a film composer about it, they get like a little kid and go, “What do you mean? I get to write what I want to write? And I get to do what?” So they’re all coming to me and saying, “At first I thought you were crazy, but now I think I’d love to do that.”
JB: How are you paying for this?
RJ: I’m using the Star Trek royalties. It’s poetic justice. I think the time has come and the audience is mature; we’re not making this for kiddies. This is X-rated, yummy music and we’re not cutting any corners, and it’s going to be like the classical music of the 21st century. I’ve got like 96-channel everything here and we’re just going to push the envelope. The first one’s like a down payment on what we’re starting, but if this goes well, I guarantee you’ll see eight or nine things coming out the door. I even said on the first album that this is everything Rick Berman said was taboo. I’d say, you know, Jimi Hendrix music now is actually ancient music to the Star Trek guys, so why is it we’re doing this Holst stuff that is classical to us now, but even Jimi Hendrix would seem like a string quartet to them, so why are you guys saying I can’t do this, I can’t do that, when even avant-garde music would seem tonal by now? Another thing I said is, “Why can’t you guys have any fun on this show?” Finally, in the [second] season they built this bar, Ten Forward lounge, and I said, “I’ve got source music for Ten Forward.” They said, “Great, you can score it.” So I did and they never used it. I said, “Why, do you feel like they’re going to the library?” I could release an album of music for a 23rd century lounge and it was fun, I was able to project what trends would probably be there, and expand on that. Then they said, “Well, we don’t want you to dictate what the future is going to be.” I said, “What is this whole show about? Only you get to do that? Go look up the word ‘hypocrisy.’”
It’s like they fear the loss of control over their work; I think that happens with film directors, too. They don’t really want the music to have an impact on their footage, because it implies another point of view beyond theirs.
It’s sort of like if they were making love, the producers would say, “Be still honey, don’t make any sound, honey; I will enjoy myself and you will smile and you don’t get to be involved in this, honey; in fact, don’t touch me. I’m gonna do you and you don’t get to be involved.”
JB: You’ve put together some more of your TNG music for GNP/Crescendo, right?
RJ: I did two mock-ups for them; they have a Klingon album and a Romulan/Borg album. Paramount should really think more is better. I think the audience is really fed up and a lot of the record companies are afraid to release anything with any grit because they’re afraid of offending somebody.
JB: One of the ironic things about The Next Generation is that Roddenberry seemed so overjoyed to do a show free of the network censors but they wound up producing something that at least initially was so much more timid than the original.
RJ: I just think they have the most gracious audience on the planet. Every time I would say in a meeting, “What about the audience?” Berman would say, “Fuck the audience.” Those were his words.
JB: It seems like they’re trying to do more of a movie with First Contact than Generations wound up being.
RJ: [Jonathan] Frakes would be fun to work with. That show, though, First Contact, if anybody was born to do that show, it would be me. And I don’t really care that I didn’t get it, I’m glad Jerry’s doing it, but if anyone was born to make that nuclear explosion of music happen it would have to be me. It’s in my DNA.