John Pratt has been doing his thing for decades. Whether in his 1980s’ rock bands or putting his stamp on TV programs with his score work, Pratt has been an extremely hard worker for a while now.
After years in the business, Pratt released his solo debut, Turn the Page, in 2011…the culmination of a career of blood, sweat and tears all for the sake of music.
Ahead of his scheduled performances on December 13 at Rock Cellar Magazine’s fundraising gig benefiting MusiCares at CSU Northridge and his own headlining gig on December 20 at Bogies in Westlake Village (click here for more details), Pratt caught up with us to discuss his career & the lessons he’s learned from it.
It took you quite a while to release your first solo album, Turn the Page, which came out in 2011. For anyone unaware, what were you up to for the past few decades?
John Pratt: Well, that is a great question. I stopped performing live in 1989. My last gig was actually at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco with Bob Weir, Todd Rundgren, Huey Lewis and the late Clarence Clemmons. Hundreds of great shows led up to that with various bands, and it was clear at that point that my style was not conforming to the trends of the early nineties. ‘Conforming’ is the key word here as I decided that music was changing (as it should) and although vocalists were shifting to a new sound (which I liked), it was not me. I wouldn’t be contrived. I had studied film scoring with the legendary Don Ray a year earlier at UCLA and I was already very involved with TV and Film music, so the transition was fairly natural really.
Creatively speaking, is there a marked difference between writing and composing music for television and crafting songs for your own use?
John Pratt: Simply put, absolutely. When I started writing in my teens, my music was influenced by my sphere of listening and growing up in San Francisco. The 70’s was a great time for music. I lived a short distance from Golden Gate Park, and my brother, David, and I saw so many great bands in the park for free.
The Dead, Santana, Greg Kihn, Earthquake, to name just a few. Then there was The Fillmore, Winterland, Mabuhai Gardens and Bimbo’s 365 – all great places to see bands like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Ramones and The Tubes. As I got older and my writing evolved, the consistent note I got from co-writers and listeners was “this sounds like film scoring”.
I always wrote my music based on first-person experiences, and I was getting into bands like Pink Floyd, Crack in the Sky and Genesis. Funny thing is, in the nineties, there was a thing called “Movie of the Week”. Every major network had it just about every night of the week. My writing partner, Michael Alemania and I wrote more than 100 songs specifically for “MOW”. I wrote punk songs for Terror In the Family (MTV), country songs for LeAnn Rimes‘ and Clint Black‘s “MOW’s” and so many more. I sang on the vast majority of them, because frankly, I was the cheapest guy in the room.
There are some of these songs that have created their own identity after they aired. Unbeknownst to me, Fred Savage’s first MOW after The Wonder Years was called No One Would Tell. We wrote a few songs for that one, but one song stood out. It was actually called Out. It became a bit of a YouTube sensation, and Michael and I never knew about it until 2006.
Apparently, the film had become mandatory viewing in Human Sexuality Classes around the world as the telefilm was based on a true story concerning abuse in a high school relationship ending in the tragic death of a young girl. If you search: “John Pratt Out” on Youtube, you will see that people had a very difficult time trying to find it. So when someone did and posted it, it kind of blew up. I have kids put raps over it, cut short films to it and, as recently as a month ago, a young man posted it with the lyrics on a scroll. He was having a rough period in life and was reaching out. I reached back and gave him some words of encouragement. Bear in mind, this is 20 years after the release…
Do you have any particularly noteworthy or memorable experiences working on film and TV scores? Relatedly, what’s the experience like composing music for a score? Do you work with the production team or is it more of an individual project that you accomplish on your own?
John Pratt: As far as teams, yes. As I mentioned earlier, I partnered up with Michael Alemania in 1987. We started a company called Cinemuse that ran successfully for 23 years. We had a number of great players working with us like John Thomas on guitars, drums and keys and Angela Alemania handled pretty much all the female vocals. I bought the EMI/SBK studio in 1990 on Sunset Blvd, and we had a number of great engineers and session players who worked with us there as well.
To score a film or TV series is a whole different animal from just writing songs. First of all, your job is to understand what your director’s and producer’s vision is for this film. Then you are responsible for creating a palette that embellishes each appropriate nuance, adding a dimension to the film that does not interfere with that vision as a distraction. Don’t get me wrong, we are not wallflowers, but you need an intuitiveness to know when that score adds to the process, not detracts.
As far as memorable experiences, far too many to list. But, some that come to mind are: scoring a Ten Part series called Rock Stars for National Geographic Channel that required wall to wall score in only 40 days. That was a haul. Scoring the feature comedy R.A. Resident Advisor was another one. The director had shot a music video montage in the film with principals singing a song that eventually was not cleared by the music supervisor. I was scoring the film and creating additional songs for it as well, so after pointing out that this was going to be a potential nightmare for the production team, I wrote an entirely different song to the “video” utilizing the phonetics of the actors.
It actually came out hysterically well. I also actually rapped on the theme I wrote for the number one Poker Show at the time (High Stakes Poker, 2006 – 2010) called I’m All In. I don’t play poker well, so I asked the producer for a glossary of poker terminology, slang and expressions. That one is also apparently on YouTube with a group of fans of the show who like to argue about what my lyrics were. I actually posted them once to end the controversy and someone said that I was mistaken…Ha!
Best experience was 70 days I spent in the studio with Kirk Voelker, director of the comedy feature Park. We busted our asses to make that score just right and usually, when you spend that much time together, you go through the gamut of scenarios regarding stress, and direction, yet, we remain great friends to this day.
What can folks expect at your gig on December 20th at Bogies in Westlake Village?
John Pratt: I will be doing a ninety-minute show that will encompass my work for the last 30 years. We have some surprises as well. My band is a who’s who of great players. Gary Griffin on keys, (Brian Wilson), Rob Bonfiglio on guitars (Wilson Phillips), Dave Pearlman on pedal steel (Dan Fogelberg), MB Gordy on drums (Doobie Bros.), Chris Trujillo on percussion (Tom Petty), Rob McDonald on Bass (Jonathan Butler) and Lauri Reimer on Backing Vocals. I always say that when I work with artists I want to be the worst guy in the room. Mission accomplished. My most recent album, Turn The Page will be featured heavily in the set, and there will be some material from the Firefly days as well. We will cover a couple of tunes, too. It will be a great night.
You’ve spoken in the past about your previous bands, Roxbury Drive and Firefly…and how neither really ‘caught on’ on a mainstream level. Looking back now a few decades later, is there anything you and/or the band could or should have done to change your fate, or was that just how the music business worked back then?
John Pratt: All roads lead to exactly where I am now. Roxbury Drive, was in the words of the publisher of Music Connection Magazine: “Huge for a minute”. Precisely. We had a great run as we were a live band with an amazing show and a very loyal following. In the studio, unfortunately, we didn’t really come together like the stuff we were hearing by our fellow bands at the time, some of which was due to great studio players ghosting on huge records. That was common then. It was an expensive, frustrating lesson going to record in those days, but that served me well as I became a bit nutty becoming a perfectionist in the studio.
We were probably the biggest drawing unsigned band in LA from 2005 to 2007. I was told that we were approached by the labels a few times but we never knew about it. There was a lot of BS back then and the business model of the “Record Deal” was skewed. I have no regrets whatsoever, as I have a great career, my voice is perhaps the best I remember it to be, and most importantly, I have my wife and son. Firefly was never an actual band.
While I had switched over to film and television scoring, I never stopped writing my music. Escape Records in the UK got a hold of these cuts and wanted to release them as an album. When they offered me a deal in 1998, I was more than surprised. I took it, but they wanted to break this as a band not a solo artist so they came to me and said we have your band’s name and the album artwork already done so this is who you will be. If any of you are familiar with the “Johnny Bravo” episode of the Brady Bunch, it was the “he’s perfect… he fits the suit” moment in my career. That album, Where You Gonna’ Run (sic, I know..) ended up being well received in the European and Asian markets. King Records in Japan picked it up and then we on to make two more records under that moniker. Finally, the last was picked up by MTM records in Germany. It was always a mixed bag in the review department as I have a unique sounding voice and some people just don’t warm up entirely to it so the reviews for these albums were all over the map.
Turn The Page, my latest album, was completely different. My dear friend, Phil Quartarraro, was the head of EMI at the time, and he and I were having lunch one day. He had just heard a bunch of my songs, the ones I had cut over the years separately from film and TV and encouraged me to make this album. So I did. It was an amazing experience working again with a group of extraordinary musicians and my dear friend and producer, Ryan Greene. The album is who I am. It resonates with me and more importantly with those who listen to it. I have received much correspondence from fans (now friends) who connect with Turn The Page. They say it has helped them through some very heartbreaking events in their lives…truly life-shattering moments. That is my ultimate goal in all of this…connecting with people through my art.
You’re also taking part in a charity/fundraising gig at CSU Northridge featuring a host of notable performers, among them Albert Lee and Vicki Petersen of the Bangles.
John Pratt: Charity gigs are a blast! I have recently done a few similar events including this Rock n Rock Christmas show for MusiCares and another for the City of Hope. It is always amazing to meet and perform with some of my idols. Kevin Wachs is the executive producer and brainchild of these shows. He is a great drummer, himself, and his passion for all things musical is profound. He and a few other people took the time to hear my work and pushed me to go out and play again. These all-star shows really inspired me to start performing live again. It’s in my blood. Some of my new band members were culled from this group.
It is so great to work with Albert Lee; he is a legend. I had the good fortune to work with him awhile back as he played guitar on two songs we wrote for a Telefilm back in the day. He drove up to the studio in an old ‘Caddy, and I swear there were longhorns on the hood.
Anything noteworthy coming up in the future? Any more live shows or projects?
John Pratt: We have the gig at Bogies in Westlake Village on the 20th of December, then another one at the E Spot Lounge (Sheila E’s club) Upstairs at Vitello’s Italian restaurant in Studio City on the 28th of February 2016. I currently write music for CBS (Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, Entertainment Tonight, The Doctors, etc.) through DiamondMine Productions for the last three years. Playing live has ignited the passion to perform again, and I’m just getting warmed up.