Interview: Tonic Guitarist Talks 20th Anniversary & Scoring Fargo Season 3

Chances are you’ve had Tonic’s “If Could Only See,” or “You Wanted More” stuck in your head at some point. If you are comedy-crime drama fan or just a big Billy Bob Thornton follower, you most likely have come across FX’s TV series Fargo. What do the two successes have in common? Jeff Russo.

A founding member of the Los Angeles rock band Tonic, Russo has further developed his craft and is now also a renowned musician within the world of TV and film. His scoring work can be heard within numerous TV shows such as – Power, CSI: Cyber, The Returned, Hostages, Tut, Complications and the award winning hit series Fargo. Russo’s feature film resume includes contributing score to Watercolor Postcards and Free Ride.
Though Russo has been gladly sucked in to the world of scoring, it’s his band Tonic that he credits as the foundation to which all his other accomplishments build upon.

Days after Fargo season 2 premiered, Alternative Nation had the chance to speak with Russo from his studio in Los Angeles, about the many projects he’s involved in, including the upcoming 20th anniversary of Tonic’s debut album Lemon Parade.
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I assume it’s safe to say you are pretty busy right now. What is currently on your plate?

It’s pretty incredible right now. I’m super busy writing music and still playing with the band. It’s a lot but it definitely good.

I just started working on another show, an HBO mini-series that will come out some time next year. I also write the music for a show called CSI Cyber and Manhattan. I seem to always be doing a lot. It’s funny, people don’t really see what you are up to until it comes out, but sometimes shows or particular pieces of music don’t actually come out for a year. We started Fargo season 2 back in January, finished over the summer and now it’s finally coming out in the fall. We’ll start season 3 probably next summer, but I will have done four or five projects in between.

How did you get introduced to scoring and writing for TV?

A friend of mine named Wendy Melvoin from the group Wendy and Lisa introduced me back in 2008. At that time, the band was basically taking a break. Emerson was making a solo record, I was just writing on my own and in another band. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went over to Wendy’s studio and watched her write for the shows Hero’s and Crossing Jordan. She just asked me if I wanted to help write for Crossing Jordan. I started writing music for her and then I just got the bug to write for visual media. I never really knew what I could write in terms of overall music and what I was capable of. I had only written for my band. But I think I get the most joy writing music for a much larger pallet. This more orchestral and melodic pallet that I created for Fargo, I just love doing that. It has now transitioned me from writing music in my band only to doing this more and more.

What was the first instrument you learned how to play and how many different instruments can you play?

I was first a drummer when I was kid. Then I picked up guitar after that. I also play bass and piano. Basically anything with a strings on it or that can be strummed I can play. I mess around on bode instruments, but not well enough to play on any of my own scores. If it can make music, I’ll pick it up, figure out what to do with it and how to make music out of it.

How difficult is it to jump right in and write music for a show without being a part of its history like you did with Crossing Jordan?

It’s very difficult. Part of what the job is, is to support the narrative. With Fargo for example, I would read the script and know the story, then start writing. I normally write music to picture though. So, as I think of these themes I’ve written, I’ll adapt them to the picture.

When you are writing in general, do you ever have trouble determining if it should be a Tonic song or go towards a score?

That actually has happened. There are a few songs on Tonic’s last record that started out in my studio and I initially thought it might be score. It rarely happens the other way, but I will apply songwriting knowledge to writing score. It’s different. The way pop songs are written is different from how you would write score. Musical motifs can come back in different forms, but there isn’t a repeat or a chorus in any way.

Has your songwriting for Tonic changed since you’ve started scoring? I would imagine, naturally, your writing would get influenced by the more atmospheric feel of score music.

It has changed. I look at harmony and melody differently now. Now, I write with a wider thought of pallet, not strictly for just strumming guitars and vocals. When I think about it, it may have changed no matter what I was doing now. Songwriting matures. So, I do think it would have happened regardless, but naturally it has certainly been influenced by what I now do for TV or movies. Sometimes it’s subconscious.

When you work on show like Power, and 50 Cent is an Executive Producer, does he want to collaborate with you on placing music in the show? He must want to have a say as to what music is in there.

I have never spoken to 50 Cent before in my entire life. I’m not even sure he knows there is a score composer involved. He’s more interested in the actual songs we use within the show. We use a lot of both on Power. I feel the score is just as important though for setting the mood and the tone of the show. With that said, I’ve never gotten a note of any kind from 50 Cent.

Is the songwriting process for a show or film the same for the musician as it is for the actor preparing to play the role, in that you have to submerse yourself in the mind of the character?

I don’t know if there’s a major difference. I approach it from a way that is meaningful to me to get involved in the story telling process. I don’t try to get involved in the character perspective; I try to gain my own perspective on what the story is. I apply that to what I’ve seen and the part of the narrative that I am trying to support. Sometimes music plays its own character. It’s sort of my own addendum to the story.

How do you go about getting your scoring gigs?

It’s all about relationships and making relationships with producers, filmmakers and directors. I’m not locked into anything though. I start a show then hope to continue with it as long as people are happy with the creativity that you are bringing to the project. Sometimes it’s as simple as hearing about things that are happening and trying to get involved in it. Still, a big part of it is who do you know and what have you done?

Is there a certain type of show or film that is easier to write for?

No, I think the easiest stuff to write for are those that have the best storytelling ability. It becomes more difficult when a filmmaker relies on music to help make their story better or change the audience’s perspective because they couldn’t get it with picture or dialog. The easier projects are those with great storylines, great acting and great dialog. It’s then my job to support what’s going on, not make it better.

You’re coming upon 20 years with Tonic, that is a major accomplishment, what does Tonic mean to you now?

Tonic is the thing I’ve spent the most time, blood, sweat and tears on. It’s the thing that has been responsible for almost everything in my life. I grew up with those guys. We wrote those songs and played those songs together when we were making ourselves. I met Emerson when I was 16 and we started playing music together at 21. We basically came up together. Everything that I am, in my mind, was formed from those early years. The fact that we continue to play, continue to write and enjoy doing it, is a testament to how sincere our love for the band is. It still feels fresh and new when we get together and play, even songs from the record 20 years ago. It’s just near and dear to my heart.

Where you surprised at all that “If You Could Only See,” “You Wanted More,” or “Take Me as I Am,” have been your biggest hits?

Well, with “If You Could Only See,” it was one of the first songs that Emerson and I ever started working on. At one point we were not going to even put it on our first record. When we went to record it, we had to do it about five different times. It then got on the record, but it was not going to be a single. A radio station in Birmingham, Alabama just happened to start playing it. Then people starting calling in and were really digging the song. It took off from there. That’s actually a very little known fact about that song. There were so many obstacles with it. Even from a practical standpoint and having to record it so many times. We actually lost the first tape. Initially there were twelve songs selected for Lemon Parade and “If You Could Only See,” was number 13. I still don’t understand how that happened. There was a lot adversity with that song, but it persevered.

Every time we’ve had success it caught us by surprise. We never expected to have success to begin with, or to have success with our second record or receive Grammy nominations. You write songs and as long as you love them that’s great. If someone else loves them, that’s even better. I still get surprised when I hear one of our songs on the radio.

So what’s next for Tonic?

We have a few shows coming up and we will be in the studio soon for a week, doing something special for the 20th anniversary release, which is a surprise!

TONIC – IF YOU COULD ONLY SEE

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  • Boddah98

    Pretty sure Emerson Hart is the frontman of Tonic

  • Billy

    Shocked but happy to see Tonic being covered on here.
    Mountain is also a terrific song of theirs