An In-Depth Interview With the Music Professional, ALEXANDER BURKE!
Posted On 16 Feb 2018
Alexander Burke is an established musical professional having worked as a film and television musical writer and composer, music supervisor and director, a musical performer as well as actor, producer, and writer.
Alexander always had a passion for music (he was considered a vibraphone prodigy) and while in high school joined Drake Bell’s band Drake 24/7 and went on to perform on the “Amanda Show” at the Palladium and other high-profile venues around LA and on TV. After high school, he went to Columbia College in Chicago where he became the youngest musical director for the renowned Second City and later was the musical director for IO Chicago and went on the IO Touring Company with roommate Tomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley). Alexander was asked to be the musical director for “IO 25 Anniversary Concert DVD” that included performances by Mike Meyers, Amy Pohler, Tim Meadows, Andy Dick, Andy Richter and Rich Talarico (Rich later hired Alexander to be the composer of “Frank TV” on TBS – which would be his first TV gig). While in Chicago he was also busy doing Jazz gigs around town with Jazz legends such as Von Freeman, Check Hedges, Joey DeFrancesco and many others.
After graduating from Columbia College, Alexander decided to move back to Los Angeles where he quickly found work in television (being hired as part of the house band for the short-lived Robert Townsend talk show “Night of Townsend” on TBS) where he met Eban Schletter (the composer of “Sponge Bob Square Pants”) and Grant-Lee Phillips (who was also part of the house band) and that relationship led to Alexander playing in Phillips band. These relationships lead to Alexander being asked to perform with, and open, for Ryan Gosling’s band “Dead Man’s Bones.” During this time, Alexander became friends with Monique Powell (the lead singer of the band “Save Ferris”) through his neighbor Abby Travis (the bass player for “The Bangles”) and ended up playing on records for both of them and later joining the band “Save Ferris.”
With his interests and successes broadening, Alexander has an impressive resume which includes tons of behind-the-scenes music work such as the Musical Director on projects such as “The MTV Movie Awards,” Co-Producing for Ben Lee’s album “Freedom,” and the first two “Garfunkel and Oats” albums; Composer for the song “Back to the Start” for the “Iron Man 3” soundtrack, the song “Love You Like This” for the movie “The Gift,” the song “Undercover” for the TV series “The New Girl,” the theme song for the Broadway Video series “7 Min. in Heaven,” and the score for the documentary feature film “Haunters” (as well as its Music Supervisor). He has also worked with some of music’s biggest names and influencers such as playing keys on Kate Pierson’s (The B52’s) album “Guitars and Microphones” (produced by Sia), playing piano and mandolin on the Billy Ray Cyrus albums “Change My Mind” and “Thin Line”, playing piano on the Dionne Warwick record “Feels So Good,” performing live with Gary Neumann for a “Die Hard” commercial, recording the double platinum selling Dane Cook album “Isolated Incident,” accompanying Thomas Middledich, Ed Helms and Michael Bublé for Bublé’s Xmas special, playing multiple instruments on Margaret Cho’s Grammy nominated musical comedy album “Cho Dependent,” and playing synth bass on the cult David Lynch/Chrysta Bell album “This Train” to name just a few.
Currently, Alexander is busy with his band “Magnolia Memoir,” which he writes for and plays the keyboards and Mela Lee (who is also one of the of top voice actresses in the world) is the lead singer. Alexander is also scoring the Netflix TV series “A Mortified Guide,” composing two songs for the Sharon Stone feature film for Universal “As I Wish” (one of which Universal plans to push Oscar consideration) and is co-writing (with celebrated children’s book author Richard Fairgray) a children’s book and animated short titled “Sweet Penny and the Lion” (with music for the short performed by Jill Sobule).
Learn more about Alexander Burke in the following All Access interview:
Q) Happy New Year! Thanks for your time today! Where does this interview find you?
A) Sitting on an unmade bed while my cat loudly purrs at 2:07am.
Q) Overall, how do you think 2017 was for you and your career? What are you most excited about for this year? Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? Care to share them with us?
A) 2017 was more intense then anything I could have imagined. I scored a wonderful new Netflix series called “A Mortified Guide” (premiering valentines day 2018) Scored the Netflix doc “Haunters” Produced and played on multiple records, wrote a couple songs for the upcoming Sharon Stone Movie “All I Wish” and even penned a Children’s Book with my friend Richard Fairgray called “Sweet Penny and the Lion” that will be in bookstores March 6th.There is even a song that goes along with it that I co-wrote with Jill Sobule. I feel like it was a dream year for me in terms of my career but I was so exhausted and often triple booked that ironically I hardly noticed any of it happening. Now that it’s the New Year and life has slowed down for a brief moment, I’m enjoying the success.
I didn’t make any New Years resolutions, but my plan this year, as is every year, is to travel as much as possible.
Q) Growing up, did you always want to be a musician? Can you recall your earliest musical memory?
A) It never occurred to me to be anything else. Cathy, my first piano teacher said that I was talented and that I should be a musician. I said yes and it never occurred to me to second-guess it. That was when I was ten. I am lucky enough to have incredibly supportive parents who never tried to guide me away from that idea.
I’m not sure which what musical memory is my first, but I remember being obsessed with George Harrison’s album “Cloud 9” and dancing and singing along to that album for hours. And then sneaking downstairs and listening to it even more after my parents were asleep.
Q) I always like to ask artists about where they came from and how that city or town has influenced them as an artist now. So how do you think your home has affected you and your music today?
A) It wasn’t the place, but the people. I wound up in Chicago for my late teens through mid twenties. I was lucky enough to play with and be mentored by an older generation of legendary jazz musicians. People who played with everyone from Monk to Louie Armstrong and Henry Mancini. I was so pretentious about being a jazz musician at the point in my life. I didn’t care about music unless it was of a “certain bar” which I deemed through my own set of criteria and didn’t dare listen to pop. They came from a time where it wasn’t “jazz” so much as instrumental pop. Ironically they were the ones who got me listening to everything, and being as open to electronica as Coltrane.
Also, during this time I was preforming at Second City and Improv Olympic as a musical director besides touring improvising musicals and comedy shows. There I learned a level of flexibility that I never imagined possible. At one point I was literally improvising a new hour and half long musical every day with a full band. That prepared me for being a session player and film composer more then any other training I could ever imagine. When I scored a NIKE commercial I had to give out almost 80 completely different ideas to the client until they finally decided on one. When I recorded with David Lynch he asked for the synth part to sound like someone who was in love and didn’t know heart break existed. Without that training I don’t thing those gigs or many others would have been possible.
Q) As far as new music goes, what are you up to these days? How are things going with your band, “Magnolia Memoir”? When will you be releasing new music with them?
A) Yes, we just finished recording a new album with Neil Baldock, an amazing Producer and Engineer who just moved here from New Zealand, and we’re so lucky to have him here in LA. The record was an beautiful experience and to this day my favorite album I’ve made. It was the first time in years I’ve had the privilege of doing an album in the studio were we could experiment and not be afraid to sound bad as we’re searching and discovering new ideas. It led to countless amazing moments that wouldn’t have been discovered if he hadn’t created that environment. There was no fear in the studio… except for going over budget. We’re about the film a music video for the single “After Life” and I can’t wait for you all to hear it and see it.
Q) I understand that along with your band, you have also written scores for films. Can you talk about how that process is different than writing for yourself?
A) Every score has a different process. What’s beautiful about film is that musically speaking all rules are thrown out the window. It’s really about making a strong choice and going with that. People have argued about the score for “Eye’s Wide Shut” being good or bad for years, but regardless of how you feel about, you can’t deny it’s iconic. Maybe the most iconic thing in that film. “A Mortified Guide” the new netflix show I just co-scored with Gordon Bash is mainly Mellotron. The show is about journals and childhood against, and there’s something about that instrument that invokes the memory and nostalgia that was needed in the score.
Q) What other musical projects are you currently working on at the moment?
A) It’s not musical, but I wrote a children’s book called “Sweet Penny and The Lion” with Ricahrd Fairgray that will be out in bookstores March 6th.I couldn’t be more excited about it. We’re currently preparing for the book tour. There’s animated musical version of the book as well which will be premiering soon and is co-composed and sung by Jill Sobule. The video is so cool! Richard animated it by hand it feels like “The Point” which was one of my favorite cartoons growing up.
Besides that I’ve been playing keys for Jill Sobule’s new album “Nostalgia Kills” I played keys on the new “Ben Lee & Josh Rader album” and engineered for the original cast soundtrack of the Tom Robbins and Ben Lee musical “B is for Beer.” Also I just worked with an amazing new artist who goes “Buffalo” and we composed and preformed two original songs for the upcoming Sharon Stone movie “All I Wish” which will be in theaters late March. And check out “Haunters” on Netflix. It’s a great documentary about the history and rise of extreme haunts, which I scored and music supervised. It was just released and is getting great hype.
Q) What has been your coolest and most memorable performance so far? Do you find that they just continue to get better and better over the years?
A) Probably the coolest was when I musical directed the MTV Movie Awards and played original compositions that I wrote live with Jason Sudeikis, Emma Stone and Dave Grohl. It was my first time playing a show at that level, with that level of talent and airing live none the less. I always thought I could do that, but that moment I had the proof and knew without question I was capable of it. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.
I don’t believe performances naturally get cooler and cooler. It’s like being in a relationship. It takes work. Regardless of the size and prestige of the show playing the same set every night can get dull, but you have to learn to work through that, find new quirks to the music you had yet to discover and new stage theatrics. If once something becomes dull for you (and that will always happen if you do a show enough) and you allow it stay that way you’re an asshole.
Q) In reading your bio, it’s clear that you have been a part of so many different kinds of bands and musical projects so I am curious to know what you think has made the biggest impact on you and your career?
A) Improv. Playing for all those shows taught me timing, intuition and styles. Learning how to play for a scene that required me to underscore it with grunge music in one minute and then early 2000’s Hip Hop the next, then something along the lines of Blind Lemon Jeffersona few moments later got me flexible showed me how to play a genera, not play at a genera
Q) Where can people see you perform live next? Do you have any tour dates scheduled for 2018?
A) For the moment I’m working in the studio on some records around the clock. I am always performing around LA though. This month I’ll be playing for a live stage version of Mortified, at KPFK backing a great artist named Nancy Sanchez, doing a live recording with a group called Plasty and at the Hayworth Theater backing the LA comedy staple “The Tomorrow Show with Ron Lynch.” In March I’ll be doing a book tour with Richard Fairgray promoting “Sweet Penny and the Lion” and will hopefully find a way to incorporate music into it.
Q) Where do you find that you at your happiest- on stage performing, in the studio recording music, writing songs or elsewhere?
A) I need it all. I like it always changing. If I only did one thing I would go crazy. I love having my career be constantly changing and evolving.
Q) We are living in a crazy and at times rough world right now so I am curious how you think being a musician gives you the most joy in life today? How do you think that your new music is going to reflect these difficult times?
A) There’s a new phrase called “anticipatory nostalgia.” For the first time in human history we’re as nostalgic about a burrito as we are about our wedding day. We’re so preoccupied with social media and seeing what new horror or embarrassment has just been inflicted onto our country that we are rarely present. The beauty of music is that it’s an art form were you have to be 100% present in the moment to truly do your job right. I find my friends and I (I am usually the most guilty of all) are so preoccupied with our little phones while we’re together that we are never truly together. Music is that glorious moment in the day, which we all need. Where the beeps and bops and feeds are turned off and we can just be, and collectively create something in the moment. It’s a really beautiful thing. I believe we’ll be seeing more young musicians now then ever.
Q) Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? What musicians would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
A) Chris Thile. I’m always so excited to see what he’s up to next. The last record by his band Punch Brotherscalled “The Phosphorescent Blues” was glorious. And the duo record he made with Brad Mehldau that came out last year blew my mind. Anything Jon Brion gets his hands into I’ll always check out. Tom Waitsand Milt Jackson I listen to almost daily. Nick Cave’s “Skeleton Tree,” Aimee Mann’s “Mental Illness and “Sleep Well Beast” by the National have been some of my favorite albums in recent years. I would love to work with any of these people in the studio. Or anyone who is pushing the limits of what we expect from a “studio album.” Kendrick Lamar would be amazing to record with. Father John Misty, Herbie Hancock, Fiona Apple, The Bad Plus, Glen Hansard, Passenger, Elizabeth and the Catapult, Tyler the Creator, The Mountain Goats, Kurt Elling, Wayne Shorter, Van Morrison, Sting, Taj Mahal, Kamasi Washington and Queens of the Stone Age would all be dream artists to work with as well.
Q) What do you hope your fans take away from your music? Do you find that a lot of your music has a greater meaning behind it?
A) Making people smile is what is at the heart of everything that I write and the ultimate goal. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
Q) Is there anything else that you would like to share about yourself or your music with our readers?
A) Not that I can think of at the moment. I’ll call you if something comes to mind.