Moran: 'I'm definitely always banging on things.'
Ever since a he was a kid, Madison native Buzz Moran has been on a voyage of sound. Blessed with an ear for music and sound effects, Moran performed as a musician around Madison before packing up and heading for Austin, Texas, in his 20s to escape the cold. Since then, he has made a name for himself in just about every aspect of sound production, be it through his award-winning work in theatrical sound design or helping in the recording and mixing of motion pictures such as Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly.
His most recent endeavor is designing sound effects for the play The Intergalactic Nemesis, a "live-action graphic novel" that is now on tour after the success of its initial run in Texas. His next stop is Madison's Overture Center on Friday. In anticipation of the event, Buzz talked to The Daily Page about his work over the years and a return trip to chilly Madison.
The Daily Page: What's the first sound you remember piquing your interest?
Moran: I can't say for sure, but I do know that I found it really interesting back when the original Star Wars movies came out. They would show these "Making Of" documentaries on television about the first one and The Empire Strikes Back, and I remember being really fascinated by the sound effects segments on those shows.
I remember specifically a part where they'd go around hitting the metal stabilizers to power lines -- those big cables -- and that's how they created the laser sounds. And I remember thinking like "Whoa! Wait a minute...that's how they made the sound of a laser?" It blew my mind. So I think that's when it really clicked.
What would you say it is about manipulating sound that resonates with you as an artist compared to something more visual?
I'm a big fan of visual arts as well, but I'm not sure what it is about sound in particular. Sometimes you're just wired that way. I've always been listening to music, and when I do I can pick out the individual instruments, or the little percussion things that are hidden under the mix. And I think that's just the way my brain works.
It's a good question because it makes you wonder why you do certain things. But I do know that I just truly enjoy sounds. When I'm in a store shopping, I'm not just thinking, "Oh I need that" or "I like the way this looks," but I'm actually conscious of their contents. So I hit them. [Laughs] And maybe play with them a little bit to see what sound they make.
Growing up in and around Madison, did you find it a sonically rich environment?
Well it's too cold to play with sound effects a lot of the year, which is kind of a bummer. So I always gathered things that made sounds that I liked, whether it was a toy or some sort of effect, and I'd amass a collection of stuff and try and figure out a way to use them later. I think one really great thing about up north is that you have basements, so you can store a lot of stuff. [Laughs] We don't have that in Texas, so I miss that a lot.
Was music a gateway into sound design for you, or did they go hand-in-hand?
I was definitely a musician first, and planned on having that be the thing I did. I was in lots of bands in Madison, played a lot of the clubs. I played mainly guitar and drums. But I've had some wrist problems over the years, which makes it pretty impossible to play too much.
So in the face of that, sound design was an alternative?
Right. I had this interest in music and sound, and I remember buying a cassette four-track recorder when I was around 15. So it just seemed like a natural segue to go from playing to doing more recording and effects-oriented stuff.
To be honest, with the sound effects stuff, getting into it and getting into what I'm doing now was almost a fluke. Jason Neulander, the director of the show The Intergalactic Nemesis had asked another guy living in Austin (who's also from Madison and a friend of mine) named Tony Nozero to do sound effects for the play, and Tony asked me to help out. And just over the course of their run, Tony kind of faded out of the project and I stayed in. And since then, it's been the kind of thing where it's like, you've done sound effects and you record, why not do the sound design for a play? Why not record other plays? Why not record friends' bands?
You seem to have a healthy interest in trying different things.
Well it's pretty much whatever comes along. [Laughs] That's basically it.
In '91, you moved from Madison out to Texas after some friends invited you to come along. Where were you at that point in your life that you decided to head south?
I don't care that much for the cold. So life was always a little rough in Madison as far as that goes. I also didn't have an active band at the time. I was 21, which is a good time to move someplace that you've never thought of before. And while I was there I basically hung out with friends and got involved with project after project.
With The Intergalactic Nemesis, what were the challenges in bringing the sounds of a comic book to life? Also, were you a fan of comics growing up?
I probably like underground comics more than I like superhero comics, but I've definitely always enjoyed comics. I have older brothers, so they've always had a bunch of great comics for me to read. With Nemesis, the show was originally performed as a radio show, and since I've been with the show since those days, it wasn't so much trying to bring the comic book to life, but more making sure we had all the sounds to make the live comic book version be as good as the radio version. There's a lot of the same sounds, but we've been mixing things and tooling things over the years.
I'd imagine performing the show live is more fulfilling for you as an artist than listening to it on the radio.
What I've definitely found with this version of the show is that with the aid of the comic book images, it's a little easier for the audience to follow the story. So we get a much bigger reaction from the audience. And it is a lot more exhilarating to perform this version of it because it's very obvious how much fun the audience is having and how much fun we're having. I guarantee anyone who comes will enjoy it.
Apart from theater and music, you've also done recording and mixing for motion pictures like Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly and his upcoming film Bernie. What has that experience been like? Were you a fan of Linklater's films before working with him?
I definitely enjoy his films, but he's great also because he's almost his own institution, in that not only is he a well-known director, but he specifically loves the idea of keeping things local in Austin, Texas, trying to keep productions and the money in or as close to Austin as possible. He spends a lot of time there, and I think he likes to make a "Hollywood" film and then come back to Austin to do a smaller production. He also started the Austin Film Society, which has done a lot of good for artists in the area. He's just a really interesting, cool guy.
For me, my work on those movies came from my relationship with Graham Reynolds, who was the musical composer for those films. Graham and I have worked together for 14 years now or something like that. When he was starting bands, I had a four-track recorder and recorded things, so I put out his first record and have done a lot of work with him.
So it's been really cool, and when these films came up, A Scanner Darkly was a really interesting situation in that because they were animating over the film, there was a much longer lead time on getting the music and soundtrack done. So normally when you do a soundtrack you have a couple months, but I think he was working on that soundtrack for over two years. We both worked for a year and a half on it. So doing that project was really cool in that we'd never done anything on that scale before.
We spent a lot of time going to meetings and meeting with the director, where he'd listen to our work and say, "Oh this is good" or "I want something more like this," and then we'd go back to the drawing board and work some more. The extra time made it a whole lot easier than to work on something like Bernie, but it's still been fun and kind of a stretch. We had to do everything from country music to French music on that one. But Graham is a very strong composer, has a very strong melodic sense. And of course we recorded it excellently. [Laughs]
I watched A Scanner Darkly recently in preparation for this interview and paid special attention to the music, and I've got to hand it to you, you guys did some funky stuff with that soundtrack.
Wooo! [Laughs] Glad you think so.
The music for the opening scene where the guy is crawling with bugs and the scene where Robert Downey Jr.'s character and someone else go from a diner to their apartment in fast forward were two of my favorites
Oh yeah! [Laughs] I really love that soundtrack. It's really moody and weird, and has some crazy sounds on it that I'm really happy with going back and watching it.
What's the process of finding objects to create sounds for films and for something like The Intergalactic Nemesis? Do you just stumble onto objects in your day-to-day life? Does something like a glass fall off a table onto a cardboard box and you're like, "Oh, that's interesting"?
I think for anyone, once you have sort of a focus or a reason to think of things a certain way, you'll just notice things more. Like if you're a gag cartoonist, you'll automatically start thinking of things that could be a gag or a punchline. I'm always looking for sounds that are surprising. I've been doing it since i was very young.
But definitely now that it's my career, my ear is always open for those kinds of things. My process is that I find the interesting sound, then ask myself if I can capture it, and if so, I need to try and remember it so if the need comes up one day, I can put it to use. I'm definitely always banging on things. [Laughs]
There have been times where I've bought a toy and not used it for seven years or more, and then all of a sudden we'll have a need for it and I'll think, "I have the perfect thing for that!" Need the sound of cracking knuckles? I have this toy necklace thing that sounds just like it! Or need the sound of a cash register being thrown? I happen to have this cookie pan that I've saved from seven years ago! [Laughs]
Of all the sound work you've done, which do you find to be the most enjoyable?
I definitely think that a lot of the enjoyment comes from not having to do one thing all the time. I think that's really fun. But you get a fairly different reward from each different thing. For working on a soundtrack of a movie, it feels really good, because you know people are going to see it, and unlike a play, people can rent it or whatever and listen to your work. But at the same time, when you work on a play, there's a shorter amount of time, so you can do some cool things, experiment more and really go crazy. And then a show like Nemesis, you get to perform it for people, and I don't think there's anything better for instant gratification than being able to perform for an audience. The immediate feedback from people is amazing. I'm just glad I get to do all of it.
Which do you find to be the most difficult?
It's weird -- working on a big movie, you're always worried about things not being good enough, because it's such high stakes. But for something like a play, it's really crazy work. Sound design can't start until the play is sort of pinned down and put together, so you usually have two weeks or less to do sound design for the whole production. And that's often not enough. So you have to work really hard day and night.
Being on the road with this thing, though, is one of the most fun aspects as well, because you really know what you're doing. You travel to a place, you set up your stuff, you get to perform for people, and everything is really great. But making sure you have all the sounds is really tough.
Recently I talked to a poet who said that although music can convey an emotion without words, it's limited in the array of emotions it can represent. For example, you could play something that people would recognize as happy or sad, but you wouldn't be able to convey something as complex as "guilt" through music. As this is your profession, I was wondering: How would you convey guilt through music?
A sound for guilt. [Laughs] That's pretty awesome. That's definitely something I run into in theatrical productions a lot, because if you have an emotion that you want to punch up with a bed of sound, it usually sounds really spooky, like something out of a horror movie. It's very difficult to find a way to express subtleties. I think there are limits to sound effects, and I think you pointed out one of the main ones. So I don't know. A sound for guilt? I'd probably use a slide whistle.
Buzz Moran and The Intergalactic Nemesis will be in Madison for a show at the Capitol Theater in the Overture Center on Friday, November 4, with the action starting at 7 p.m.