Jay Ferguson was a member of the rock groups Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne in the '70s, before he started a solo-career in the early '80s. In 1985, he started scoring movies, and he's still active in the business. Here are some questions about his career that I managed to ask him in the middle of his tight schedule:
Jon Aanensen: What made you stop releasing solo albums and become a film composer in the mid- '80s?
Jay Ferguson: It was really a case of necessity meeting opportunity. I'd enjoyed success as a recording artist through the late '60s and '70s, but after 12 albums and God knows how many tours the routine was getting dangerously close to a grind. It's worth noting that my first album with Spirit took two weeks to record and my last as a solo artist took nine months! But that was the trend of the whole industry. My record sales and tours were leveling off. It seemed time for a change in direction. The opportunity part came when my manager, Budd Carr, called and asked me if I had any spare songs lying around for a movie he was music-supervising. That movie was The Terminator, and suddenly I was involved with a hit film. Hollywood is big on coat-tails, and my association with The Terminator opened doors. I told Budd that what I really wanted to do was score a film. Shortly after that I was doing a small film called Deadly Passion.
JA: In The Patriot (1986) we hear your melodic side, which sounds a bit like Christopher Franke's solo works. What would you say about this project?
JF: It was one of my very first films, so there was still a sense of feeling my way through. It was also one of the last Crown International films -- a studio with an unparalleled history of making classic B movies. That was cool. The subject matter was chillingly familiar -- terrorists trying to smuggle an atomic bomb into an American city. Then came the Crown International twist: they were going to take over an offshore oil platform and send the bomb through an undersea pipeline back to shore. Hmmm. Oh yeah, it was also Leslie Nielson's last serious role -- as a Navy admiral.
JA: What happened to the Best Seller soundtrack-release? Only two tracks are available on The Best Of Hemdale.
JF: I think it was a case of falling through the cracks. A lot of people wanted to see that come out as a soundtrack. Personally, it's still one of my favorite scores. Very Tangerine Dream-ish.
JA: In Pulse (1988) your score creates a great atmosphere and excitement, like in the chilling end credits. Comment?
JF: Pulse was a very moody film about the world-wide electrical grid gaining a consciousness of its own, and then attacking a family in their home. The score was very ambient and industrial, and is also one of my favorites. For me it was a great lesson in how you can create an unsettling atmosphere by removing all the usual musical points of reference.
JA: The soundtrack releases from Johnny Be Good and License To Drive don't feature any Jay Ferguson-material. Was this a disappointment for you?
JF: Yes. I liked those scores. There's just a lot of commercial pressure for these kind of song-driven soundtrack albums.
JA: Was Bad Dreams ever released on CD, or is the Varese Sarabande CD listing a mistake? This disc was a highly wanted item among film score collectors for many years.
JF: Yes, it was released. I hear they came up on e-bay from time to time.
JA: In Bad Dreams and A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child your music is cold and a bit difficult to listen to. Why didn't you write any melodic music for these films?
JF: Ouch. Actually, I think Ellen's theme from Bad Dreams was quite melodic. But on the whole, these scores were done with more shades of gray than my others. Part of the reason was a decision to continue in an ambient/atmospheric mode -- remember that both these films were about dream-states. The other was, for good or bad, a desire to avoid horror film music conventions. I would characterize these as horizontal scores.
JA: How much music did you write for Melrose Place?
JF: I got a call from Howie Deutrch, who was directing the pilot. I had scored Howie's two Tales From The Crypt shows and loved working with him. I scored the pilot but declined to do the series, as I had just been offered Going to Extremes, which was the follow-up series by the creators of Northern Exposure.
JA: You scored several of the Tales From The Crypt episodes. Were you the most used composer on this project? Did you enjoy working on this?
JF: I never kept score, but I may have done more shows than any other composer. I loved working on the show, and they gave me some plum episodes -- Tom Hanks', Arnold Schwarzenegger's, Howie's, It was a chance to work with great directors and actors -- all done with an anything-goes spirit. It was like everyone was playing hookie.
JA: Are you pleased with the Double Dragon CD, which features about 18 minutes of your score along with a lot of pop music?
JF: Every composer likes a 100% underscore soundtrack album, but these score/pop song hybrids are a fact of life. You just hope the mix makes some kind of sense.
JA: What kind of music did you write for Driven (1996)?
JF: Driven was written and directed by Michael Shoob, and drew on his days driving a taxi in L.A. It was a great film about this subculture of taxi drivers, and a lot of the key score moments were not about what was physically happening in their world, but what was going on in their heads. Michael did not want the score to make any easy or obvious choices. It was challenging project, but possibly my best score.
JA: Did they choose you as composer for Sweetwater (1999) because of your past as a rock artist?
JF: That obviously didn't hurt. But ironically, what convinced Lorraine Senna (the director) to hire me was hearing my quieter, more introspective pieces. Again, a director who did not want to go with just the obvious choices.
JA: What would you say about your most recent score, Tremors 4?
JF: I love the Tremors films. They exist in their own universe -- low tech, hi concept, off-center funny. Steve Wilson and Nancy Roberts (director/producer) always make it feel like family. Tremors 4 takes the Tremors characters back in time to the old west, when the subterranean worms first arrive. The score mixes old-school Big Sky Western elements with Tremors style horror. I really enjoy that kind of genre-bending.
JA: Have you ever worked with an orchestra or are all of your scores electronic/rock-based?
JF: For the most part I score electronically, but we've used orchestras and ensembles on Elm Street, Driven, Tremors and others.
JA: What is your own favorite score of yours?
JF: It's probably a toss-up between Best Seller and Driven.
JA: You made it big in the '80s and were often mentioned along with Jonathan Elias, Sylvester Levay, Jan Hammer and Harold Faltermeyer. Did you have to change your music style to survive as a film composer in the '90s?
JF: I think we all did. The '80s were the heyday of purely electronic scores. Not just the sounds, but the style -- sequencing, drones, etc. By the end of the '80s traditional scoring elements, especially acoustic/orchestral sounds, were making a comeback. Now it's very rare to hear a completely electronic score. When you do, as in Run Lola Run, it's very refreshing. Today's scores are either completely acoustic sounding or are acoustic/electronic hybrids.
JA: Would you say that 1988/1989 were your busiest years in Hollywood?
JF: Yes, I was scoring four different studio features in 1988 alone.
JA: Did you ever release a promo CD with some of your film music?
JF: No. I'm constantly creating compilations of cues for directors and producers, but I don't release them publicly.
JA: What are your future plans? Will you continue writing film scores?
JF: Oh yes. I'm starting a new feature (On the Rocks with Timothy Hutton and Daryl Hannah) right now, with another in the pipeline after that.
JA: Anything you'd like to add, now that you're at your 20th anniversary as a film composer?
JF: Twenty years?! Time flies when you're having a good time.
You can contact Jon Aanensen at email@example.com.