We Interviewed The Man Behind The Music Of Guardians Vol. 2

Since scoring his first feature film in 1993, composer Tyler Bates has developed recurring collaborations with several prominent filmmakers, including Zack Snyder, Rob Zombie, and the duo behind John Wick (David Leitch, Chad Stahelski).

However, a case could be made that his most fruitful collaboration has been with James Gunn. To date, Bates has scored all four of the thriving director’s feature films, namely Slither, Super, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

With the latter arriving on home video today (read our Blu-ray review here), the prolific composer—whose other 2017 credits include Atomic Blonde, John Wick: Chapter 2, several TV series, and his ongoing role as Marilyn Manson’s touring guitarist—generously found time to tell us about his latest collaboration with Gunn.

Space: Why do your think your collaboration with James Gunn works so well?

Tyler Bates: I’m glad it feels like it’s working well. I know that James trusts me, not only as an artist, but he trusts me to not ever become exhausted through the process. Sometimes we hit a hole-in-one and sometimes we have to continue to work on an idea for myriad reasons, not just because of a musical concept, but to really tie the room together with storytelling, the actors’ performances, the visual effects, and the kinds of sound that we’re going to be hearing. James knows that he can push me pretty hard and I’ll stay in there and give it my best, but I also write music that resonates with him and his sensibilities as a filmmaker.

How have things changed in your collaboration since you worked together on smaller films like Slither and Super?

Obviously the expectations placed upon him are much, much greater because the investment’s huge, and all eyes are on you when you’re doing a movie of that caliber, really for all of us. But no matter what James has done, I’ve always given it my 110%. That’s how I approach my work in general. That’s the responsibility that comes with saying “yes,” whether it’s an indie or a massive tentpole movie. I would say that our communication has always been very direct. There has not been the mincing of words that can sometimes lead to frustration that’s not necessary. We just get down to the point and I try to make it as musical a process as possible, even if it requires that I perform a sequence of the movie live—just with a guitar, a loop station, and effects—to create a music moment, so we can continue to stimulate the development of the music and the process.

What about all the songs in the film? Do they have an influence on the way you approach the score?

Absolutely. First off, James’s selection of songs communicates to me how he’s relating to those segments of the film emotionally and psychologically. The tone of that is important, even if the point of my score is to directly juxtapose that, so it is helpful in that regard, and I like working with songs in a film. I think the challenge of transitioning seamlessly into or out of them or bluntly setting them up so they pop is fun. By nature, I’m a rocker, so I love all the music anyway.

In terms of your contribution, what are the big differences between Vol. 1 and Vol. 2?

The great thing about Vol. 2 is that we had established the language of the film, so the musical approach had been determined, but the content certainly had not. We knew we had a couple principal scenes that were going to be reiterated throughout the second film, but there was also the challenge of creating a couple of new powerful themes that would stand up to our main Guardians theme and another one we call “Black Tears.” It was great to have the confidence of James and the studio that we were going to reach our destination successfully. There’s also the pressure or challenge of raising the bar, making a better movie, making a better score, and hopefully one that resonates even more deeply with the audience.

Were there any cues that were especially exciting or challenging this time around?

Once we get into post-production, James’s schedule is so dense that every 15 minutes of his day is scheduled. So I go to a music editor’s suite at Marvel to preview music that I’ve written for the film, and we discuss it and determine what needs to be addressed, in terms of any further developments or changes, but that can become a very antiseptic process after a while because music’s just coming out of the computer. There’s a cue—I think it’s entitled “I Know Who You Are”—for one of the last sequences to come together in the film, and I asked my music editor Darrell Hall to get an extra 10 minutes on the schedule for our upcoming meeting because I wanted to play live to picture. So we had our meeting, the meeting went great, and I said, “Okay, guys, can you hang on just a minute?” I played that sequence somewhat improvised to picture and it created a lot of excitement, a lot of energy. I felt that at that moment in the process, we needed to stimulate the music process with something living and breathing. So that was cool. Luckily, James really loved the music and we recorded that meeting, so I basically transcribed that and we orchestrated it for orchestra and choir, even though you can still hear my guitar.

Is there ever any discussion of musical influences in advance? Do you discuss precedents that might help shape the work you’re doing?

There are movies we’ve seen where we’ll say, “That was kind of cool,” but we don’t get too literal with that. Any movie or music that’s referenced is usually something from before we were born. There are definitely movies that we share in common that have a tone that we can reference in conversation, even if it’s not apparent in Guardians. Just knowing, “I love Rosemary’s Baby and here’s why.” By understanding those types of things—the movies that have impacted James—I tend to have a greater understanding of his sensibilities, especially as it applies to storytelling and emotion. That’s evolving eternally. When you’re in a collaboration, you shouldn’t consider that you’ve figured someone out. We’re all growing and learning, and we’re going to continue to bring new references to our conversations.

What about your larger place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Does Marvel have any scoring guidelines or input in your process or do you have free reign with James Gunn to do whatever you think works best for the film?

Marvel’s been supportive of the fact that Guardians is a different animal than other Marvel properties, and they’ve been receptive to a score that feels a little bit different than some of the more traditionally superhero oriented scores, as far as the style is concerned. They’ve been very cool, very direct about what they’re looking for. They want something that resonates with the audience, and they want themes, and that’s directly in alignment with what James wants and what I want as well, so we’ve had a very copacetic process working together. The stress level is very high because the picture is always in development and music is re-drafted quite a bit to accommodate those changes, but at the end of the day, we’re working toward making the best movie possible, so it’s just part of it.

How do you feel about the resurgence of soundtracks on vinyl in recent years? Do you like the idea of people listening to your scores outside the films they were created for?

I love when soundtracks or any music is experienced on vinyl because the sequencing of the music plays a factor in how it’s received. It’s a practice of people setting aside a dedicated amount of time to really listen to the music, even if they’re doing something else in the room or on the computer. It’s different than listening to one earbud while you’re having a conversation. It’s different than listening to a playlist that’s published on Apple Music or whatever. The true interest in the music and the details in the music is experienced at a deeper level by people who are interested in vinyl, and putting vinyl out tells people, “Hey, this is special to us. We want you to really pay attention to this because we love this.” Therefore, I am all for it. I love vinyl anyway. It’s thrilling for me. It’s thrilling for me to see it released in that format.