Music Spotlight: Jeff & Greg Burns

NCIS and music fans…the musical duo behind the NCIS score, Jeff & Greg Burns sat down to talk to Hollywood the Write Way about one of the coolest careers in the entertainment industry!

Born in Kingsville, Texas, the Burns brothers traveled the world as Navy brats before settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico during their childhood. The brothers later made their way to Los Angeles and after quickly landing engineering gigs, the brother found themselves working with music icons including Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith, and Alanis Morisette.

So it’s obvious why I wanted to get to know these musical geniuses right away. Here’s what I found out…

What is a TV composing session? What do each of you bring to the table?
A composing session is essentially sitting at a computer and programming. You might be surprised at how small it looks but it’s actually very powerful. We have samples of hundreds (if not thousands) of instruments available at our finger tips: single percussion hits, full orchestras, electronic synths and drum machines, vintage synths, and world instruments – you name it.

As we write the music it really is like putting together a puzzle. Each scene generally has at least a couple shifts in emotion or tone and we have to figure out 1) how to serve the emotion of the scene and 2) how to make it sound like 1 piece of flowing music.

So we start composing by writing a theme. The theme is the musical signature for the scene. Next we arrange our music to the scene and include the theme where it is appropriate. Finally, we add all the “bells and whistles” (so to speak) to finish the cue.

We each bring various different musical and technical ideas to the table. When you’re writing the volume of music we write, it’s not always easy to keep the ideas flowing. So one of us might be fresh out of ideas while the other is feeling inspired. We are generally pretty equal as far as what we bring to the table but you might say that I (Greg) bring the funk into the music and Jeff brings the orchestral/arrangement to the music.

How do you feel about computer sampling programs?
We use samples for everything we do but the samples we use aren’t pre-made musical phrases. We have samples of individual notes of different instruments.

Greg: I think there’s an amazing amount of innovative music that can come out of sampling. For example, “Mash Ups” are essentially sampling two different songs and weaving them together. It can open up new sonic worlds.

Jeff: I agree – but nothing beats the power of a great player playing a real instrument.

How many instruments do each of you play? What instruments do you want to learn how to play?
I play Guitar, bass, piano, mandolin, ukulele, dobro, banjo. I’ve always wanted to learn violin.

Jeff: I play Guitar, bass, piano, drums/percussion. I always wanted to learn sax – I studied a little as a kid, but I would like to get better at it.

Do you remember the first song you learned how to play on guitar?
We both took guitar class in high school and the first song we learned was “Rock My Soul.” It’s only got two chords. I think the second song was Ratt “Round and Round” – we were really cookin then!

Once you have created a song, how often is it changed until it becomes the final lay down?
We usually assign out the cues for the show and we each work on them to about 85% completion. We trade our cues and each bring them up to 100%. Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of time to change or refine things before we need to turn them in. Between us, we get a lot of ideas into the cues, though and they wind up being very detailed and intricate.

How much input is the director’s vs. yours?
It depends on the project. In general I would say 50/50. The director/producers have their ideas of what type of music they want and what tone they want their project to have and we often introduce new ideas and write themes which they might not have thought of. It really is a collaboration.

What has been your most challenging score?
The “unplugged” episode was a challenge. But each episode has it’s challenges. There are so many subtle shifts in tone within the scenes and between the characters, that it really keeps us on our toes musically. It’s not unusual for one scene to start with an investigative tone, shift for a very short comedic break, go to action and end with an emotional feel. This gets to be quite a musical roller coaster.

How do you combine various emotions in one song? What are your favorite emotions, themes in NCIS?
It’s not easy to combine various emotions in one piece of music. Often times we simply overlay our themes on top of each other. When we overlay a comedic theme over an investigative theme our first thought is “This probably won’t work…but let’s give it a shot.” We are usually pleasantly surprised at the end result.

Some of our favorite themes are in the Halloween episodes. They tend to be quirky themes ala Danny Elfman. Also – the big world music themes are great. For example, the team finds themselves in the middle east from time to time and it’s fun to write themes with middle eastern orchestras and wind instruments.

What have been your favorite moments on NCIS?
Our favorite moments on NCIS are usually defined by our score. There are some shows where we write our “usual” music and there are others that, for some reason really “click” and we write some amazing stuff. Just recently there was an episode where the power went out in Washington DC and the team needed to solve a crime without the use of technology and computers. We took this “unplugged” idea into the score and wrote all our cues using acoustic instrument. It was challenging but it really made for a great sounding score.

There are so many types of music worldwide, do you have a certain type of music that you want to start experimenting with?
Sure. Our main fascination has been with combining genres that you might not think would go together. For example, we have a side project called “Solamingus” where we combined house and garage electronic beats with big band horns, and dj scratching and sampling. We often combine things like zydeco, traditional orchestra, funk, and world music within our NCIS cues.

Where do you go for inspiration?
Of course other music is inspirational. Bands/Artists like The Police, Descendents, XTC, Third World, and Michael Franks – or composers like Rolfe Kent, Mark Killian, and Jeff Beal are all big inspirations.

Jeff: I also think that going to a hike can be inspirational. Or having an experience that might get you out of your normal comfort zone.

What composers have influenced your works the most?
Rolfe Kent, Mark Killian, Jeff Beal, Danny Elfman. We are also influence by artists like Fatboy Slim, Crystal Method, Massive Attack and lots of other electronic music.

Tell me about the standout moments of your experiences working with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney.
Working with Paul McCartney was great. He is a really down to earth guy. I remember working on an orchestral session with him and the orchestra was buzzing that they were going to meet Paul McCartney. There was a palpable energy in the air. When Paul came in, the first thing he did was greet all of us in the control room then he went out and shook everyone’s hand in the orchestra (there were about 20 of them) and he signed records for them. He knows that everywhere he goes people get excited about him and he makes an extra effort to say hello and make everyone comfortable.

Jeff: Working with Michael Jackson was amazing. He really is an American treasure and a once-in-a-lifetime talent. The 1st day I met him, we were recording his vocals on a track. I was running the recorder for him that day and was a little bit nervous to do punch-ins on his vocals. I had worked with a few singers where I did lots of “punches” on their vocal tracks to correct timing or pitch problems. Anyway – I was amazed when Michael started singing that his voice was in perfect pitch and was just pure and magical. I didn’t have to do any punches on his vocal – he sang it perfect all the way down. I’m proud to have worked with Michael – and will miss him, just as we all will.

Of all of the music icons you have worked with, who has impacted you the most?
I would say Dr. Dre. He is so prolific and has made making music a daily routine. He works everyday from about 2pm to 2am (sometimes longer). I think he really exercises his muse and I feel like I do the same.

Jeff: I would say Michael Jackson. His artistry and inspiration was something you could feel in the air when he walked in the room. He really demanded the best work out of everyone around him – and that has impacted me to this day.

What are your upcoming projects?
We are going to continue working on NCIS. We will be putting another Solamingus CD out Summer of 2010 and we will be working on the next Max Steel animated feature in 2010. We’ve also got a music library we will be launching in 2010 and a musical charity organization. Stay tuned!

Follow Jeff & Greg Burns on Twitter.