Today we’re speaking with composer Greg Sims and animator Keith Baxter, songwriting duo and creators of “Cheesemonger,” one of a series of mini-musicals for The Tom and Jerry Show. Greg’s orchestral score for “The Lion of Judah” was selected as a Soundtrack Pick by Film Music Magazine and his recent project “Stallone: Frank, That Is,” produced by Frank Stallone, was released in January. Keith got his start at Filmation Studios working on the “Ghostbusters” series and more recently has worked on “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” “Smurfs: The Lost Village” and “Despicable Me.” Keith and Greg have had a busy year and we’re excited to share this interview with you.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What was your first job in music/animation and how did you decide to pursue your craft professionally?
Greg Sims: My first job writing music for animation was for a short film that had exhibited at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. I was working freelance at a post house at the time. I was fortunate that the owner, Michael Redman, was there to guide me through the process of writing music for all those advertising and marketing videos. My piano chops were good, so I was performing quite a bit along with some session work, but these music scoring jobs were a godsend. I concentrated on honing my skills with the goal of building a career as a film composer. My first film score was for “Tugger: the Jeep Who Wanted to Fly,” an animated feature produced by a local startup production company staffed by former Disney animators. I was initially brought on as the orchestrator, but because of various issues with the composer who was hired, I ended up with the gig. It was the most challenging and enjoyable job I’d ever had, and I knew I was hooked.
I didn’t get into songwriting until I moved to Nashville. My wife had just signed a record deal, and her manager encouraged her to begin writing songs. So we teamed up for about half the songs on her second album. Nashville was all about songwriting — it was in the air. We would always keep a notepad or our phones ready to jot down any song ideas that popped in. I was also approached to help with arranging and producing songs for a musical that was in development, and eventually became the lead composer for the show. I’m still working on it.
Keith Baxter: My first animation job was character designer at Filmation Studios on the Ghostbusters series. It was difficult to pursue animation as a working musician because I was never in one town more than a couple weeks.
But my band got a house gig at a club in LA that we played for an entire year. An art school opened up a few blocks from my home and I signed up for figure drawing classes being taught by Glenn Villppu, who is the figure drawing guru to the animation industry. One day I arrived for class early. He looked at my drawings and said, “ You should go get a job in animation, you’re as good as those guys!” I answered an ad on the school bulletin board. Filmation was looking for assistant animators. When I called, the head of the department told me, “I hesitate to have you come in and do the test because you have no experience.” But I told her, “Don’t worry, I can draw!” She let me come in to take the test. Then she sent me to show my drawings to the head of layout, then he sent me to the head of the character design department. They asked me which job I wanted. I asked which one paid the most. They said character designer. And that’s how I got started.
My first songwriting gig was for the Beethoven animated series. I was freelancing character designs for them. Victoria Jenson, the director of the first Shrek, was running the Beethoven production and was taking piano lessons from an aspiring film composer, Christopher Nelson, who I also knew. Chris was aware I was designing characters for the show, but mostly he knew me as a musician. He wanted to submit some music cues on spec, and he asked me if I would write a theme song on spec and he would produce it and submit it along with his music cues. Our song was submitted along with songs from a half dozen other composers; Producers Ivan Reitman and Michael Gross picked ours. And just like that, I was writing music for television and film!
Who are some of your favorite long term collaborators?
GS: My wife, Annie, always referred to ourselves as “The Best Team.” She’s not pursuing the solo artist career now, so we seldom write together anymore. Then Annie introduced me to Keith. I remember someone saying somewhere that the secret to success in this business is to surround yourself with people who are more talented than yourself. I was fortunate he called me that day to write our first song together. We definitely have a simpatico relationship, even though my brain runs a lot slower than his!
KB: I’ve mostly written alone. I’ve only collaborated with a few songwriters. Chris Nelson, Adrian Lee (from Mike and the Mechanics) and Greg Sims. Oops, I just remembered, I collaborated on a comedy song with Russian Comedian, Yakov Smirnoff called, “What A Country” But Greg Sims is my fave. He can do pretty much everything.
What episode was the most fun to work on for the Tom and Jerry mini-musicals?
GS: Part of the fun was the fact that each episode was so different stylistically, so we got to tap into a wide range of skill sets. “Torched Song,” the first episode, went from jazz standard to dueling classical pianos to classic rock to orchestral score — all in three minutes. It was a luxury to have several weeks to keep tweaking and reworking the final music arrangement because Keith was also storyboarding each episode. We had time to bounce ideas back and forth until we felt we had it just right.
KB: They were all incredibly fun. They actually restored my love of storyboarding. They got more and more fun as Greg and I settled into a rhythm, and as I learned how ambitious I could be given the time frame they had to be turned around in. I loved “Pied Piper of Harlem”. We brought in Jeff Snow to play a flute solo which gives Tom hypnotic powers over Jerry as well as every other mouse within earshot. “Surfer Supreme” was fun because I love surf music. I play with a band, California Dreamin’ that had a number of Beach Boys songs in its repertoire. We brought in all the members of the band to sing Surfer Supreme, and they knocked it out of the park.
What gear do you tend to use, especially in the production of Tom and Jerry: Cheesemongers?
GS: My favorite piece of gear is a musician! But when under budget or time restraints, I use mostly Vienna Symphonic Library for virtual orchestra and piano instruments, especially for a project like Tom & Jerry which needs to be more organic and classic sounding. Fortunately, Keith is a killer guitar player, and we have friends who are talented singers. We recorded Nikki Sands at my home studio. She’s an excellent character singer and does an amazing Shirley Bassey imitation on Cheesemonger.
KB: For storyboarding, I use Photoshop, a MacBook Pro and a Wacom tablet. When I create the animatic I use either Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro on my iMac Pro, ProTools and Logic. For guitar parts I mostly use a Les Paul, a Strat, a Rickenbacker 12 string, a Gibson ES175 for electric and a Taylor for acoustic guitars.
Who are some of your influences?
GS: For film music, I particularly like listening to and studying the work of the composers who were so brilliant at continuing the sound of the classical Romanic period: John Williams, James Horner, and Jerry Goldsmith, to name a few — composers who are masters of melody, harmony, and orchestration. I fell in love with jazz the day I first heard Bill Evans on the radio, and even got a college degree in jazz performance where the amazing Jerry Coker introduced me to the work of Claire Fisher. I spent countless hours trying to decipher his harmonic language. For songwriting, going to the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville and listening to the best songwriters in the business also gave me a high bar to aspire to.
KB: For drawing it’s Chuck Jones, Milt Kahl and comic book artists Neal Adams, Jack Davis and Wally Wood. For music it’s The Beatles, Joe Pass, Larry Carlton and Tommy Emmanuel.
What is your dream project? Dream collaborators?
GS: I suppose all composers fantasize about Spielberg calling up. Any film or series that teams me up with Keith, especially if it’s a musical, would be fantastic. I’m also a Trekkie, so composing for anything in that universe would be a thrill.
KB: I’m pitching several projects currently. One of them is called Cheesemonger, which was originally written for the Tom and Jerry series, but WB didn’t elect to move forward with. So, I developed it as an animated send up of classic James Bond movies- like Austin Powers, but with Looney Tunes sensibilities. My dream collaborators? Trey Parker. Matt Stone. Brad Bird. Andrew Stanton. Pete Docter. Bill Hader. Norm MacDonald. Simon Wells. Steve Martin, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
Where can we find you on social media?
GS: I mostly use Facebook to keep up with family and friends and LinkedIn for business. I check in on Twitter and Instagram occasionally, but don’t do much posting on those platforms. When I have free time, I’d rather be outdoors, off my phone and away from my computer.
KB: On LinkedIn – connect with me!