Keith Baxter And Greg Sims Talk Creating The Music For The Tom And Jerry in New York Animated Series

Recently I spoke with Keith Baxter and Greg Sims about their work on the music for the Tom and Jerry in New York animated series and their careers.

How did you get into composing?


KEITH: I’ll be answering all these questions as specifically a song writer. My first song to get airplay was a comedy song written for comedian, Yakov Smirnoff, entitled, “What a Country.” My band was playing on the same bill with Yakov. I suggested doing a song based on his comedy routine. He was on board with it. It was structured a bit like the song, “Those Were the Days,” and went….


I wanted to leave Russia but the waiting list was large

I applied for Visa but they gave me Mastercharge

I tried escape Siberia no matter what the cost

And finally two years later KGB tells me, “Get lost!” Etc etc etc


A couple years later, I started working as an artist in animation. I submitted a theme song on spec for “Beethoven,” a cartoon I was doing character designs for. My song was picked. From there I moved on to “The Mask” animated series. Same thing. I was hired to design characters. Submitted a theme song on spec. It got picked. Plus they asked for a second theme song for the syndicated cartoon.


GREG: Even though I started playing piano at age five, then saxophone and violin, I didn’t do much composing until college. I was arranging and orchestrating for different size groups early in life, but composing wasn’t a part of academia life for me until college. While I was still in high school, I remember hearing Bill Evans perform on Marian McPartland’s radio show, and thought, “Wow — I’ve got to learn how to play like that!” So I got a Bachelor’s degree in Jazz and learned the basics of improvisation (which is basically composing on the fly) but soon realized I’m not a performer. I ended up getting some freelance work at a post house in Orlando where I got to compose music for advertising, theme park rides, and marketing videos, and found that I was pretty good at it. I enjoyed writing music for media where you get to create emotions and accentuate drama. This led to scoring my first feature, which was an animated film that starred Jim Belushi. I eventually made the move to LA because I used to joke that I was on the 200-year plan and wanted to speed things up, sink or swim.


Where do you find your inspiration when composing?

K: Before I begin composing, it has been determined what moments of the project feel like they need a song. (“I want” “Introduction of character” “denouement” etc) There is never time to wait for inspiration, or to listen to music for inspiration; whatever inspiration I’ll resort to is from music I’ve already internalized.


G: Since most of my composing is done to picture — either film or television — I have the luxury of the images to inspire me (Assuming the images are inspiring!). Sometimes I’ll pull up a favorite string patch or go to the piano and expand on a motif that might pop into my head. I usually find that once I get started, even if I don’t have a clue where to go with the music, ideas start to flow. If I get really stuck, I’ll go for a walk and get some fresh air. I’ve written entire themes in my head while hiking.


What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a project?

K: John Williams. Then everyone else. Ashmen and Menken, The Sherman Bros. Sondheim. Lerner and Loewe


G: I’m a sucker for the sound of an orchestra, and my favorite film composers are the ones who were trained in that genre like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. In junior high, while my friends were enjoying Pink Floyd or AC DC (oops, I’m dating myself) I was wallowing in Beethoven, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff. And I never missed an Ashman and Menken Disney film. Usually the only time I’ll listen to music before starting a project is for style reference. Keith and I were writing a song for a series in development, and he wanted the style to be Beatles-esque, so I listened to a bunch of Beatles to get into that space. I was hired a few years ago to score an Indian period film, so I spent a couple of weeks learning ragas so I could incorporate that vibe into the score.


What would you say is your favorite part of your score and why?

K: Re: “Torched Song” For my contribution I’d say the rhyme scheme. It’s quite unusual. For Greg’s contribution, I enjoyed Greg’s score at the beginning of the cartoon. I hadn’t heard him write that type of thing before.


G: On “Torched Song,” it was coming up with the dueling pianos segments that got zanier and zanier. And there’s this crazy descending piano flurry I used to play as a joke when Keith, my wife Annie, and I would be jamming for fun. I found a place for it in the final version of the score. I’ve been waiting for decades to use that!

Were there particular areas of the score that were more difficult to compose for than others?


K: Probably the moment when the keys on Tom’s piano fly in the air and come down in random order.


G: I agree with Keith, in that just trying to figure out what the sound of keys falling back down onto a keyboard would sound like after they had become magically detached, was a challenge. (Keith calls this “cartoon physics.”)


What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced and what have been your greatest triumphs?


K: The biggest challenge in my career has been to get jobs that utilize both my song writing and animation skills. Greatest triumph? Being asked to write the songs for a movie because the director had heard a CD of some country tunes I’d written.


G: One of the biggest challenges for me was writing the score to that first animated feature. And it wasn’t just because it was my first big orchestra score. When I was initially hired, I was elated. That elation turned to bitter disappointment shortly after I walked into the first production meeting. The director said, “Hi, Greg. I’d like you to meet the composer. (He points to the guy seated next to him.) Everyone, this is Greg Sims, the orchestrator for our film.” Interestingly, I ended up being the composer on the film because the original composer fell off the project. The lesson here was to keep a smile on your face and nod “yes” no matter what, because you never know how things might turn out. This outcome, come to think of it, may have also been my “greatest triumph.”


Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing?


K: First spotting songs- locating where in the movie songs would best fit. The structure of the movie gives hints about how musical moments will need to relate to each other. When a story theme threads it’s way through the movie, it’s good to thread it musically and lyrically too. The setting of the movie might also dictate what style the songs will be. When I have enough information about what the song needs to accomplish, I write a stream of consciousness ream of ideas, anything and everything I can think of or research that pertains to that moment in the story. If the movie is about established characters or an established moment in history I’ll do as much research as I need to generate ideas. Then, I’ll sleep on it. The next day, in almost every case, the song has been written in my sleep. It feels more like transcribing than writing. There have been a few instances when this process has failed, however. I was in quite a panic. After 50 false starts, I literally wrote myself a flow chart- Do I know what I need to write this song? If yes, write the song. If no, what do I need to know to write this song? I broke it down until I knew in principle what the song had to accomplish, then what does the first verse need to be about? What is the big idea of the song that I can construct the chorus out of? Once I had the procession of ideas, it was much easier to work my way through the music and lyrics.


G: My process varies depending on what I’m creating. If it’s a film score, I watch the film several times until I think I have the tone and vibe, and then I start playing around with themes and begin coming up with a palette of sounds and a style that works. If it’s a song, and I’m the lyricist and composer, I start brainstorming on what the kernel of the song is about, and then usually complete a first draft of lyrics before even thinking about the music. Occasionally, I’ll come up with a hook with lyrics and go from there. Often when I’m working with Keith, he hands me the lyrics and sometimes a chunk of music, so I can just concentrate on expanding it from that point.


Knowing there is such a long history with the characters’ how do you balance modernization with staying in touch with their early works as there was always a distinctive sound to their classic cartoons.


K: Tom and Jerry, like all classic cartoon characters have their heyday as well as those forgettable years when a studio was trying to make a buck off the cartoon’s former glory. I just wanted the music to feel honest, meaning an organic part of the whole.


G: When we finished our first draft of “Torched Song,” we were a bit worried that there would be some push back from the Warner execs because of our decision that the song in this episode needed to sound like a classic jazz standard that was being covered by a lounge singer. But they loved it. And I used a more modern drum groove in the bit of action scoring leading up to the song. But Carl Stalling was definitely hovering over us the whole time. He’s part of Tom & Jerry’s DNA.


What do you like to do when you’re not composing?


K: Play the guitar. Create chord melody arrangements. Play with a band. Write stories. Draw. Attempt to understand particle physics, astrophysics, Quantum Electro- Dynamics. Play video games with my kids.


G: Sleep. Relax, read, cook, drink wine, travel, go hiking or camping. Did I mention drinking wine? And then go crazy because I don’t have anything to work on.


What else do you have coming up that the readers can look forward to?


K: More Tom and Jerry’s coming soon. It’s too early to announce other stuff.


G: Well, this business is very fluid. I may or may not have a few summer films to score, and a musical I’ve been working on for fifteen years may or may not open on Broadway in two years. What I’m really excited about are the songwriting projects that Keith has been cooking up. He gets a lot more phone calls than I do. I just feel lucky to be along for the ride.