A Conversation with Composer Cormac Bluestone on It’s Always Sunny and The Cool Kids
Cormac Bluestone is a long-time composer and musician with an extensive background in television, film, and theatre. His styles range from New Orleans-inspired jazz to hip-hop to gospel and everywhere in between. Best known, perhaps, for his original songs and music for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he’s currently composing for FOX’s The Cool Kids.
In our interview below we talk music composition, storytelling, removing creative bias, and the importance of taking a chance.
Andrew Cheek: You have experience in a variety of media — from writing music for the theatre, for film, and television—to working as a director, an editor, and even an animator, through all of these things do you feel you have one true calling?
Cormac Bluestone: You know, in this business you don’t always get to choose what you do. So I’m lucky I’ve gotten to do a lot of things. I think at the end of the day if I could write music I would be so happy to do that. All of those things [you mentioned] are interconnected, though, and having a bigger picture of what’s going on and production and post-production, makes you better at each of the individual things, too. As far as callings go, yeah. Definitely music!
Andrew: When writing music or theme music for a show, and again whether thats for theatre or television or anywhere else, how do your interactions with the actors and writers influence and shape the music?
Cormac: In television and film you’re definitely dealing with producers and the creative team, and I try to let them take the lead. You want everyone to feel comfortable and feel good. You want them to feel good that they’ve put this in your hands. So, if they want to give me music, if they want to give me scripts… just being receptive to their process. I think being a composer you have to be a translator, too. You want to be open to how they want to translate what they’re looking for to you. With a lot of scores you get a cut with a temp track. I love good temp tracks. I’ve been lucky to work with editors and producers that take terrific temps. That’s a great jumping-off point.
In a case like The Cool Kids we really were trying to get the music and theme before we had picture. In that case I talked with Charlie Day, who’s one of the creators on the show, a lot about the music and we were kind of in the same ballpark about what we were thinking—kind of this bluesy, New Orleans type theme for the music. In that case I just kept sending demos and we kept talking about it.
I feel every project is a little different and you just have to be open — or at least I try to be open — to how the producers want to run the show. I love it when producers have a lot of ideas and want to give you a lot of demos. And I also love it when they’re laissez-faire and don’t want to have anything to do with it and say “Just give us something that we’re going to fall in love with.”
Andrew: Yeah. Sometimes they may have something more specific in mind that they want to have matched up with visually, and then other times as you’re saying with The Cool Kids you’re working from the sound first.
Cormac: And you’re trying to get that music in so the editors are cutting with your music. I think that’s a big goal. So, they start to fall in love with your music because it’s been there as long as the cut has been there.
Andrew: In that case the music isn’t just an add-on but is more centrally located in terms of the importance of the whole work.
Andrew: So how did you get started writing music and working in the film industry? Those may be slightly separate things, I guess, but…
Cormac: I started writing music when I was really young! I took piano lessons and guitar lessons and I really loved musical theatre growing up and… always wrote songs and had ideas for what the next American musical would be. So I was constantly composing and once I got to high school I had a great faculty and music teachers who gave me some real, grounded music theory. I started to notate, and learned to arrange music properly.
In grade school I was really lucky — we had an electronic music teacher who taught me (I was probably the only kid interested in it) who taught me how to use MIDI instruments, you know, during the eighties when they were just inventing MIDI instruments. I really learned how to, at a very young age, sequence music using Performer 1.0, which was one of the original Apple sequencers. Just writing, and arranging, and composing it was something I was doing because I loved the technology and I loved to play so much.
Andrew: So that interest came out of initially playing music, more? And then from there you transitioned to composing?
Cormac: Absolutely. Although I think I was probably writing as soon as I could play. And I still feel I’m a little like that—when I learn to conquer a new part of my playing I instantly want to incorporate it into my tool bag of writing. You know, constantly growing outward — “What can you do?”
Andrew: What do you see — and this kind of goes off of that — what do you see as the intersection between composing music and interpreting or playing something someone else has written?
Cormac: For me, and I’ve been lucky enough to work in comedy, I think it always boils down to the same thing. Really wrapping your head around the given circumstances of the project you’re on…. whether it’s Shakespeare (which I’ve done a lot of music for), to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Really keeping an eye on the given circumstances and leaning into the given circumstances rather than the idea. I think that is generally the most effective way as a composer to be board with the storytelling. So you’re never winking at the comedy, you’re never making a dramatic moment too, what would the word be, dramedy, not dramedy… You know what I mean. Too overdone.
Andrew: Yeah. I know what you mean.
Cormac: So, that is I think the big intersection. Not getting in the way. Not adding time to the piece, just being a part of those given circumstances so the story can shine through.
Andrew: Do you have a lot of experience playing?, as a performing artist playing an instrument?
Cormac: I have played with a lot of rock bands. I lived in L.A. for a number of years where I was a side man for a couple bands. I still play. I love playing in bands with other people’s music it, it just gives you a different perspective and you kind of get to sit back a little bit and get to have someone tell you what to do (which is always nice).
I love getting to also be a cog in the machine. It makes you a better player, it makes you a better composer, and it kind of goes back to that original point — the more you know about the wider variety of the process the better. If you’re arranging for, you know, any given instrument… for woodwinds, I don’t play woodwinds, but I’ve spent a lot of years in New York arranging for a clarinet player. The more I knew about that instrument the better a score I could write because I started to learn “Oh, it doesn’t really work if you do xyz on this instrument.” So it all, I think, is very cumulative. And figuring out the larger picture.
Andrew: It’s almost like removing a bias, I think. Because then you’re not approaching other instruments with the understanding of just one instrument or even from just one media either.
Cormac: Yeah, it is like removing bias! It’s having a broader understanding of the intricacies of what’s happening with each instrument. [It] makes the whole score more effective.
When I score, one thing I really try to keep an eye on especially for parts that are going to be played live is that they’re fun to play. That’s kind of the big thing in my mind — that you’re giving the musicians or, I play a lot of my own stuff, giving myself something that is actually fun to play. That people aren’t just these little cogs in the machine there just to elevate an idea that they’re not really a part of.
Andrew: It’s easy to maybe have an idea about how a piece could function ideologically or with some contrast or… the more intellectual side behind it. But if it’s not fun or interesting it can kind of fall flat.
Cormac: I totally agree. If it’s not fun you’re doing it wrong.
Andrew: Yeah. So, how would you encourage someone to compose if they’re not really sure where to begin?
Cormac: I’ll start with this. Say yes. Take a chance and say yes. When I talk to young composers myself, they go “Oh I don’t know how to do… this that and the other.” You know, I think that’s what separates the professionals from the amateurs — that the professionals are willing to learn and figure out how to do things they don’t know. There have been plenty of times where I’ve been asked to do things — “Oh, can you do this?!” — and not having a clue how to do it in the moment you say yes. Because I have confidence that I’ll be able to not only figure out how to do that thing, but to conquer it and to deliver something really great.
People when they start out, they’re so aware of their limitations they forget how much they have to offer. And sometimes you really have to take a chance. You mentioned animation before. One question people ask me — and I’m not an animator, I’m not known for animating I just like the workflow of it — someone will say “How do you use Adobe After Effects?” And I’ll say “Well, what do you want to do with it? It does everything. What do you want to do with it?” Figure out what you want to do and then do that thing. Learn how to do that. And then that goes in your tool bag. Then learn something else. Put that in your tool bag. Young composers need to take a risk and say yes. They’ll know where they need to go — the only trick is figuring out how to get there.
Andrew: I really like that. That’s really smart.
Cormac: [Laughs] Off the record it’s really smart until you say yes and you just can’t figure it out. But I think people generally can figure it out. If you have the drive and you want to do it, do it.
Andrew: In the internet age we live in I think we’re very lucky to be able to have so many tutorials and resources. For example, I was going to do video editing and I downloaded Premiere Pro and I was like “Oh my god” — it was the same thing — “You can do everything! But I feel like I can only do two things.” So it took awhile to do even very simple things. But then once I started getting the hang of it through lots of tutorials online I was gradually learning the language of the software. So, availability of resources helps but the drive, too, is important.
Cormac: I 100% agree. I don’t think I’ve ever really called customer service for anything and I was working on something for It’s Always Sunny a couple of years ago, and I hit a real snag. And I could not fix this snag and finally said “Well, off to customer service I go.” They could not solve this problem. I actually had unearthed a bug in the software and they said “Keep an eye out for it in the next release…”
That’s what it came to. I totally agree with you, though, all the information is out there. Learn how to Google it! There’s no reason you can’t figure out how to use Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton, etc.
Andrew: Is there a dream project you have your sights set on or that you’re working on currently?
Cormac: Oh man. A dream project…!
Andrew: Maybe it’s not the project but just a type of project or something that you’ve had in mind for a long time…?
Cormac: I love the old John Carpenter films like They Live. I would love to do one of those kind of noir eighties synth-type films. Kind of like Mark Mothersbaugh a score he just did for Thor: Ragnarok. I would love to do something like that. Or work with Edgar Wright. I think his directing work is incredible. The Gutter Brothers. I just love that genre-twisting work. Or even Doug Liman I mean, he’s incredible. Kind of, one of those guys in there. Not even a big action movie but, something like Drive or something in that vein where you get to have a lot of fun with the score and it’s highly stylized.