Q+A: "Frozen" Score Producer Jake Monaco

His compositions and music production basically have been part of huge hit films from the past decade. Frozen, The Hangover series, Muppets Most Wanted and Disney’s As Told By Emoji are a few of the outstanding projects Jake Monaco has been involved with. The gentleman who first got notice when he opened for Maroon 5 is now well on his way to becoming our century’s younger, hipper John Williams. His latest project is the DreamWorks Netflix series, Dinotrux.

When you decided to become a serious producer-composer competing with big names in the film score industry, how did you market yourself so you would stand out from the sea of people wanting to do the same thing in Hollywood? Would you say it’s all about networking and proving your intelligence?

Networking definitely has a lot to do with it, but finding something that sets you apart is also important. For me, playing a lot of instruments myself (maybe not in the most traditional way) has been a great way to produce some unique sounds that I’m able to use in my scores.

Your new Netflix series, Dinotrux, looks really cute. But doing that — making music come off cute and appeal to kids and adults alike — is difficult. How did you have this in mind and accomplish it?

The creators, Ron and David, wanted to make the show feel very cinematic; they wanted to make mini-movies. So we needed the music to really support that concept. Whenever I watch (yes, I still watch) cartoons, the music tends to come in short spurts, hitting everything right on the nose. With Dinotrux, I always aim to write 2-5 minute pieces of music that have an overall arc to them, while keeping in mind the story arc of each episode. I’m still acknowledging the playful antics of the characters but incorporating them into a slightly more serious style of scoring.

As a kid, when did your parents finally think you were talented at music? Did you often compose work as a child or teen, and have you ever used any of the themes later on in your adult career if so? Sometimes, the ideas you have and things you do as a teen are good enough to compete with professionals in any industry.

I started playing guitar when I was 6 or so, then stopped and picked it back up in high school at which point I jumped into song writing. I played in a band, recorded a couple of CDs. Then my composition professor suggested I look into the USC film scoring program. It was then that I started to pay a little more attention to music in film and TV. I haven’t found the opportunity to use anything exactly as I had written it, but some of the musical devices that I gravitated towards when song writing are still some of my go-to’s now.

You probably never expected the Frozen film and soundtrack would be as big as it is. Are you going to work on more Disney scores? How did you craft something new that also worked nicely in the Disney writing style?

Working with Christophe Beck was an amazing experience and I feel very fortunate to have been involved in Frozen. Disney Interactive then started doing some Frozen-based mobile games and most recently, did a retelling of Frozen through emojis, for which they needed some music in the style of Frozen. It’s been great to stay involved in that world. Of course, I would love to stay as involved with Disney as I can! They are a great company to work with!

Beck did a some research and found some instruments that were native to Scandinavian culture, so we experimented a little bit with incorporating those into the score. The Bukkehorn and a certain style of singing called Külning make an appearance a few times in the score.

I’m a big fan of digital classical music work and actually love adding real recorded instrument sounds onto my library. How much of your work is digital versus a live orchestra? I saw Hans Zimmer himself does a lot of digital composing, as well as just about every mainstream radio music producer. How often do you use sounds that are not natural instruments, and what do they work well for?

These days, the orchestral samples and virtual instruments sound pretty great. It will never be as good as the real thing, but on a smaller budget and with limited time, they work very well.

Dinotrux’s score is a hybrid of orchestra, small band (drums, bass, guitar) and a lot of percussion inspired by Blue Man Group and Stomp. I will typically play all the guitars, bass and a lot of pitched tubes (boomwhackers and joia tubes) as well as home made percussion; anything you can find laying around makes some sort of sound if you hit it the right way! The drums and orchestra remain sampled.

Be Cool, Scooby Doo, another show i’m working on, is mostly orchestral and is all samples with the occational soloist I may hire to come in if the episode calls for it.

If young people are stumbling onto this interview, what is your advice to them if they too want to compose film scores once, oh, they escape math homework and all that boring stuff?

Ha! Firstly, I felt like the USC SMPTV program was extremely beneficial, so I would suggest looking into that or another similar program (UCLA, Berkely, Columbia are just a few of the other schools that have a film/media scoring concentration or masters program). Also, starting as an assistant or ghost writer for another composer is a great way to gain experience and further your skills.