SPREADING HIS WINGS: Grammy Winning Birdman Soundtrack Composer Antonio Sanchez Talks Drums, Bad Hombres, And Pat Metheny Ahead Of His May Barbican Concert

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  • SPREADING HIS WINGS: Grammy Winning Birdman Soundtrack Composer Antonio Sanchez Talks Drums, Bad Hombres, And Pat Metheny Ahead Of His May Barbican Concert

There’s never been a movie soundtrack quite like the one that Antonio Sanchez created for the 2014 Hollywood movie, Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance), helmed by the much-lauded Mexican director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu. That’s because it consisted solely of improvised drum patterns played by its composer, who used the instrument’s array of percussion sounds to reflect the many moods and mindset of the film’s troubled central protagonist, Riggan Thompson. Superbly played by Michael Keaton, Thomson is an actor famous for his portrayal of a masked, crime-fighting superhero character (Birdman) but doesn’t want to be typecast and instead desires to be taken seriously by drama critics. The film, a mordant black comedy with some surreal fantasy elements sprinkled in it, charts Thomson’s attempts to become a bona fide thespian by starring in his own Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.

If you’ve seen the film – which deservedly garnered a plethora of awards, including four Academy Awards – you’ll know that Sanchez’s drum soundtrack is an essential component of the whole Birdman experience. On Saturday May 4th at London’s Barbican venue – as part of the capital city’s keenly-anticipated Latin music festival called La Linea – the British public will get an opportunity to see the Mexican-American drummer/composer play the complete soundtrack live in sync with a screening of the film. It promises to be nothing less than a singular immersive spectacle and to tell us what to expect when he takes to the Barbican stage, Antonio Sanchez talked exclusively to SJF’s Charles Waring…

You’re coming to the Barbican in May to present what I can only think of as a unique performance experience. Just you, a drum set, and a film screen…

It really is unique in that sense. I don’t think there is any other show or screening where you can just go and watch a drummer and a film interact for a couple of hours and where the score is mainly improvised. So just to see one drummer on stage is unique already but then the really interesting nature of the show is that every performance is completely different, because the objective, when we first did the movie, was to improvise it. I want to stay true to that spirit and that’s why I improvise during the shows. I’m very careful to fulfil the dramatic effect that we achieved, obviously, because that’s the most important thing to me, but once I feel like I’m doing that then I do variations on the same things. So each performance is pretty much its own thing. And also for me as a performer, I’m always feeding off the energy of the audience, so if it’s a really lively audience, it makes me play completely differently.

It’s a groundbreaking project in the sense that nobody’s done a soundtrack like that before. You set a precedent. 

That was one of the great things and terrible things about it because when Iñárritu proposed the idea to me I wasn’t going to say no, because just the chance to work with him, who is arguably my favourite filmmaker, was something that I couldn’t pass. But immediately after I accepted then panic set in because I had no idea how I was going to pull this off and there was nothing really for me to see how other people had done it. But, at the same time, because there was no blueprint then I had complete freedom to create it from a blank page, so that was great about it.

Did you talk to any of the cast or go on the set in order to immerse yourself in the characters and action?

Yeah, absolutely, I went to the set, but actually, when we did the first batch of demos, we did them before we started shooting the film. We worked off of the script. So we did the full movie from beginning to end, just Iñárritu, myself, my drum set and a studio and he would explain the scenes to me in great detail and then he would just have me improvise. But then when they started shooting the film, I went over there to get as much information – either consciously or subconsciously – but it was mainly Iñárritu who was guiding me as he was the mastermind, obviously, behind the whole thing. Even though he’s not a musician, he’s an incredibly musical guy. He used to be a DJ of my favourite radio station in Mexico when I was growing up, and that’s how I first heard of Pat Metheny, through him, so, you know, later, of course, I started playing with Pat. And that’s how I met him, too, after a Pat Metheny group show in Los Angeles, so it’s all very serendipitous in a way.

Had Iñárritu been following your career?

Yes, because obviously, he’s Mexican and he was very excited to hear somebody from Mexico playing with one of his favourite artists, so then we hit it off immediately.

Are there any plans for you to do anything else in regards to soundtracks? I know you’ve done the music to a TV series called Get Shorty, based on an Elmore Leonard novel.

Yes, I’ve been doing that and even though the main resource is the drums, I do a lot of other stuff, atmospheric stuff mainly, and sounds and vibes. It’s not the kind of score where they wanted something traditional but I really want to do one where I get to do something more traditional because I studied composition, classical music and piano, so I can do all those things. But I just need a good place to showcase that kind of stuff.

Do you think the Birdman soundtrack has helped dispel the notion that drums are a supporting instrument rather than a solo instrument?

I don’t know if that was what it did but it definitely showed that the score doesn’t necessarily have to be what everybody thinks a score should be. So it was highly effective, even though there was absolutely nothing else but a drum set. That is always groundbreaking when you do something that has been kind of established for so long by so many people and all of a sudden you break the mould. It’s great. And actually (noted film composer) Hans Zimmer, when I met him at the Golden Globes, said, “I love it when there’s something really different because that opens the door for all of us to do different things.”

I think he’s right. You won several awards for your score, including a Grammy in 2015, but it transpired that your soundtrack was ineligible for an Oscar.

It was nominated for the BAFTAs and Golden Globes but it was ineligible because of a technicality, supposedly. They came up with two reasons, which we thought was strange. The first reason was because they claimed that there was more incidental music than the original score, which was not true, so then we did a recount and proved that that was wrong. But then they came back with a second reason, which didn’t have anything to do with the first, and said the original score was diluted by the other music in the film. To me, it just seemed like they wanted to get rid of it no matter what (laughs).

But you did pick up some awards.

Yeah. I wasn’t expecting anything. The only thing I was looking forward to was working with Iñárritu and having the drums featured in a Hollywood film. I never thought the movie would actually go and win four Oscars, which was pretty amazing.

Your drums really personify Birdman’s main character, Riggan Thomson, don’t they?

I think so. A lot of people said that it kind of became like another character of the film because it does portray a lot of the inner struggle that Riggan Thomson’s going through. When he’s in a good mood, the drum sound happy and peppy, and then it’s also introspective and violent, but it’s always the same sound: it’s always the drums that draw a straight line through the whole score.

What did it feel like to see the finished film at the movie premiere?

I did the score and then I didn’t see the movie for the longest time. The first time I saw it was just with a script, and the second time I saw it in a tiny TV in a dubbing studio where it was a rough cut and hadn’t been edited right. There was no credits and the sound was all weird, so it didn’t really hit me. When the movie opened I started reading reviews and it seemed to be going really well. At that point, it hadn’t hit me, so I didn’t know why people was so excited about it. Then I came back from a tour and went to the movie theatre with my wife. We paid for our tickets and saw it and then it hit me. I was like, this is amazing. So it was a pretty incredible feeling just hearing my drums in surround sound in a movie theatre.

altMost of your albums contain orchestrated compositions played with other musicians but after doing a soundtrack album Birdman, is there a temptation for you to do a solo drum album?

I did that on an album called ‘Bad Hombre.’ It’s authentically a solo record because I did everything. I played all the instruments. I recorded it at home and mixed and produced it.  Its title, Bad Hombre, makes an allusion to the infamous phrase used by Donald Trump about Mexicans. So basically, there are no melodies or anything, it’s just all based on the drum set and then layers and layers of sound. So that was very satisfying to make and I’m making volume two next year because the critics liked it and it was nominated for a Grammy. But I never got to tour it so now I want to do another one and then go out and play that music.


Your new album is ‘Lines In The Sand,’ which came out at the end of last year.

Yeah, I’ve been touring that since November, so we’ve done a couple of tours and tomorrow, we’re going on a three-week tour all over the States.

Your music has a very cinematic feel to it in terms of its sound and arrangements.

Yes, I would agree, and I think a few things have informed that. One is obviously film music and another is Pat Metheny with his very orchestral way of writing. I love the human voice as well so Thana Alexa, my wife, sings on the record with the band. For me, nowadays, the most interesting part about playing and performing and composing is the storytelling and for me, it shouldn’t be constricted by time, so if a song needs to be 25 minutes, and that’s how long it takes me to tell the story correctly, then I’m all for that. As you know, two tracks on the album are over 20 minutes, and then some other ones are a lot shorter. Different stories require different things so to me that’s the most important part right now.

What’s the story behind ‘Lines In The Sand,’ because it has a political dimension behind it, doesn’t it?

Yeah. This all happened after Trump got elected and then I went to the Tijuana-San Diego border to play at a festival and I saw the horrible fence has been there for a long time, but obviously now it’s a lot more in people’s consciousness. The festival was fantastic because it’s basically a jam session with Mexican music that is played on both sides of the fence. There are people on the Mexican side dancing, singing and playing instruments and then people on the US side come to the fence and do the same thing. It’s a big jam session so that really made a huge impression on me. Then I started walking around and snapping pictures and the cover of the album, actually, is a picture that I took of a little kid who was playing right next to the fence. I thought it was a very interesting juxtaposition of something as innocent as a kid and then that horrible metal thing that really is like a line in the sand because it goes along the beach and then it loses itself out in the ocean. So it was a very striking sight and the album is about the immigrant experience, But it’s not my experience, because I’ve been incredibly lucky to come to the US and study music and do what I wanted to do legally. So this is more about the immigrant that has been constantly ostracised and demonised in the name of nationalism lately. It’s quickly eroding very basic human functions, which is basically just feel empathy for other people that are not as lucky as we are.

How do you feel about America? Do you have ambivalent feelings about it because on the one hand it’s helped you in your career and give new opportunities but on the other hand, the regime at the moment is hostile to immigrants?

Absolutely. That’s why for me it’s almost like an obligation to speak up because, to begin with, I’m Mexican first and then American second. I became an American citizen three or four years ago, right before Trump got elected. So I feel it’s my patriotic duty to speak up against a regime that is perpetrating all these atrocities. I feel that to be an American and to be a patriot right now is to speak up against that precisely. So yes, there’s some ambivalence and a lot of conflicts but, of course, I will stay here and fight for what I feel is right. To me right now it’s a matter of right and wrong.

Some people believe that musicians should be above politics and shouldn’t use their art to express political views, but I imagine that you have a different viewpoint on that?

Absolutely, I think quite the contrary. Musicians and artists, in general, should have a very clear pulse of what’s happening in society and the world because that is going to inform our art.  Otherwise, what are we doing? Art cannot be the same, because it has to be informed by what’s going on around us and we’re just a filter where everything goes through.

Going right back, do you remember the moment when you sort yourself, “I want to be a drummer.”

Yeah, but it’s hard for me to think of the time when I didn’t play the drums because I started playing them when I was five. I saw a drum kit, very similar to John Bonham’s, which was a beautiful Ludwig Vistalite kit, a transparent one, so I just fell in love with that kit and then the person who later became my first teacher, he played along to a song from a Led Zeppelin album, ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ so for me that was it, and I was floored. I started playing rock and later I slowly transitioned to fusion jazz and then later into more pure forms of jazz.

Did you have any other musicians in your family?

No, no musicians, but my grandfather, Ignacio López Tarso, just to give you a point of reference, I would say he is the Laurence Olivier of Mexico. He’s an incredibly accomplished actor. He’s 94 and still acting. And he’s arguably the oldest, most revered Mexican actor right now. He’s been getting tributes and awards just for being alive right now, even from the president, so he was a huge inspiration to me; just to see somebody that was doing what they loved and they could do it well and be happy. And then my mother was an influence, where she wakes up and listens to music so I always listen to music thanks to her. Between the two of them, I had enough going so that I wouldn’t be afraid to try doing this for a living.

You mentioned John Bonham. Were there any other drummers that were your musical heroes when you were growing up?

Oh yeah, absolutely. All the British bands, starting from the Beatles and Ringo, and Keith Moon with The Who. Ginger Baker with the Cream. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, then the Police with Stewart Copeland, Rush with Neil Peart. Then I started getting into more complex, sophisticated playing with Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiutu, Dennis Chambers and then later, Steve Gadd. After that, I discovered Tony Williams and from Tony, I started discovering all the other amazing jazz drummers.

You mentioned Pat Metheny earlier and you spent several years with him. What did you learn from working with him that helped you evolve your own compositional style?

Oh man, so much. I mean this year is basically 18 years since I started playing with him. His work ethic is second to none, so that’s always been inspiring. And also, compositionally speaking, I love the way he just develops his compositions and the way he orchestrates them. In jazz, it’s so common to have one structure and everybody solos over the same one, but what I like about what Pat does is that every solo is in a different form or structure and section of the same tune. I do that a lot now as a composer. Pat’s also a master of melody and storytelling so I’m always very aware melodically of what I’m doing with my compositions and my playing.

You also played with vibraphonist Gary Burton on three albums. What did you glean from working with him?

He’s such a completely different musician than Pat is but they have so much in common. Pat started working with Gary when he was really young so the most amazing thing about Gary is, besides his incredible proficiency and technical prowess, is just how he could play the perfect solo in such a short time because a lot of us musicians need a little bit of time to develop something good. So we start from nothing and then end in a huge climax but Gary could play an incredible solo in one go-around, or one chorus, or where everybody else would need five or six. So if you’re playing in his band and he just plays two choruses, obviously you’re not going to play six, so then you have to really adapt to his approach to soloing and how long his soloing is. That is a huge challenge and a huge mindset that you have to adapt to.

Both Pat and Gary are masters of their respective instruments but very different from each other. 

Yeah, but Pat was also in awe of Gary and how he could play the perfect solo. I remember we did an album together (2009’s ‘Quartet Live’) with Pat, (bassist) Steve Swallow, and Gary. Pat edited it and he told me that it was pretty obvious when everybody played their best take, but with Gary, it didn’t matter what take it was. He could put any take and it would work just fine because he was so proficient and so consistent.

You mentioned The Beatles earlier and you recently appeared on ‘A Day In The Life: Impressions Of Pepper,’ a various artists jazz recreation of the “Fab Four’s” Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

That was a lot of fun, too, and scary, obviously, to touch anything that The Beatles had done (Antonio recorded a new version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ title song). You have to be very careful and make sure that you’re paying tribute first and then do your own thing on top. It was a great experience because the tunes had so much meat in them, so it’s not hard to do something creative with them.

Looking forward to the future, what new music have you got in the pipeline?

This year I’m going to be working on ‘Bad Hombre’ volume two, which is very exciting for me because I got signed by Warner Records so it’s going to be a huge jump for me. I’m also auditioning for a couple of little TV series because at this point I still have to audition because I’m not completely established in that world. I realise that for me, with my lifestyle and what I like doing, doing TV is better than film. It’s more stable, it’s less hectic, and it’s more predictable in the sense of schedules and things. Because I tour so much I feel like TV has really shown me that it is a really good medium to try to get my feet deeper into.

Finally, what’s been the biggest highlight of your career so far?

There has been a few, for sure. Starting to play with Pat Metheny when I did in 2001 was a huge thing for me. And then, of course, Birdman was the other big one. I feel like those two propelled my career in different ways. So now the biggest challenge for me is trying to do my own thing, do my own records, and go out with my band and play. These Birdman shows, of course, are a lot of fun. I used to be the consummate sideman and play with a lot of people and then slowly but surely I started quitting a lot of the bands I was doing and dedicating myself more to my own craft, which is what I want to leave behind as my legacy. I want to leave behind a lot of music that was created and conceptualised by me rather than to be a hired gun for somebody else, so for me, that’s been the most interesting part; discovering what I can do as a solo artist and as a conceptualist of music.

Antonio Sanchez will be performing his Birdman score live at The Barbican on Saturday

May 4th 2019 as part of La Linea Festival.

Lines In The Sand is out now on Cam Jazz