Composer Michael Giacchino Shares The Genesis Of His Debut Album And Why He Leans On Hope [Interview]

Academy-award winning composer Michael Giacchino has finally made his debut album. Travelogue Volume 1 by Michael Giacchino and his Nouvelle Modernica Orchestra tells the story of an alien's journey on Earth. Each song opens with a narration of the alien describing her experience before Giacchino and his orchestra launch into snappy, melancholic, or adventurous foot-tapping and finger-snapping tunes.

The album is a throwback to the old radio shows the composer grew up loving, the sound both nostalgic and modern. It is pure Giacchino fun with a side of darkness influenced by the unfortunate state of the world. The composer behind classic Pixar films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the most recent Star Trek and Planet of the Apes films orchestrated a sci-fi album for the times. As Giacchino told us over a zoom call from his beautiful workspace, the alien's story and his solo career won't end with volume one.

That's a snazzy office. 

This is where I work. It's behind my house, so it's nice that I have a separate place to come and work and hang out all day. Those cabinets [behind me] are filled with things from my childhood, toys that I played with as a kid, and things that I got off the movies that I've worked on. It's a bunch of memories and goofy things.

Which items make you especially proud?

There are my Star Trek action figures that I played with when I was nine or eight years old. There's my Planet of the Apes action figures that I played with when I was a kid. There's a Speed Racer toy that we had. Of course, there are all my Star Wars figures in the case, and they're all original, and they are mine from when I played with them as a kid. There's a Spider-Man puzzle that I had as a little kid, too. It's so weird — it's almost as if everything that I got as a little kid, I ended up working on in some way.

Predestined. Congratulations on Travelogue Volume 1, by the way.

Thank you.

Was this a long time coming? 

I have been wanting to do this for so many years. The problem was that I just didn't have the time. I couldn't because of work. It was a movie, after movie, after movie, after movie. For the past 15 years, it's been nonstop. Anytime I wanted to do something for me, it required a Herculean effort to get it done. I did the short with Patton Oswalt and Ben Schwartz, and then I did the Star Trek animated short for them, but every time I did one of those, it had to be shoved in between all of these other things.

Then COVID comes around and shoves everyone in their house, and all the movies that I was supposed to be working on got pushed into who knows when. I thought, well, why not use this time? That's what I'm going to do. Every day I just came up here and treated it like another project that I had. I worked on it every day because it was in my head. I knew what I wanted to do for so many years.

That's how I got started, simply because I suddenly found myself with an open space in the schedule that I could either just sit around and do nothing, or actually be creative and keep my mind off of events going on. Then hopefully, pass that experience onto other people who could then do the same. Spend an hour listening to it, forget about the rest of the world, and hopefully, you have a moment of peace and creativity that they can be a part of.

It was fun to do something that wasn't just an album, that also had a story to tell as well. I love old radio shows so much. I listen to them a lot. In particular, there's one called "X Minus One," which is one of my favorites. I think you can get that from iTunes, but it's from the fifties and it's such great stories. I thought, can I blend that with my love of music, like that Martin Denny and Esquivel and Les Baxter, can I mix that all together and create some weird experience that I can then put out into the world? That's what I tried to do.

Did the story or the music come to you first? 

It was almost concurrently that it happened. I wanted to do my own album in that weird style of lounge music from the late '50s and '60s. I thought I could modernize it somewhat. I think a lot of what happened was everything going on in the world today, it just made me think, well, what if someone else was from another planet visited? What if they're living in a situation where their world is filled with hate, with distrust, with racism, with pollution, with misinformation, with all of these things, and at some point, they just go, "You know what? Screw it. I'm out of here. I'm going to go find somewhere better to live."

So she comes down to earth and at first, yeah, it's great. You've got everything here, it's wonderful. Then the longer she stays, the more she starts to realize the similarities to her home. She realizes, well, maybe this place is actually worse than where I came from. So then comes the decision that she has to make, do I stay here and make this work or do I return home to make my planet a better place? It's that idea of, do we run from our problems or do we run into our problems to fix them? Our first instinct in many cases is to run from our problems. Think about living somewhere else, think about going somewhere else. I thought it would be interesting if that dilemma were presented to the character, and to see what she would do in the end with that choice.

The album ends with a booming sound of triumph. What made you want to go with a hopeful ending instead of a downer?

I think it's important to have hope and reflection at the end of a story like this because I do believe there's a chance for us to make this place better. I do believe we can overcome all the nonsense that is going on in the world at the moment, and try to stabilize it in some way. I would hate to leave a story like that hanging into a very dark place, but that second to last piece does start off very thoughtful and very pensive, but then explodes into this moment of hope and a desire to make things better. It's kind of where it all ends. The very ending is a moment of reflection on all of it, on the whole journey. You got to have some kind of hope, I think, especially nowadays. I think people need that more than ever.

Hard to do.

It is hard.

Do you think visually when you compose on your own? 

For sure. It's like film scoring in a way. Take a particular film, any film, and a particular scene, you really have to embody what the emotions of that moment are. When you're scoring, you have to be very careful. The music has to reflect the emotions of what's going on. You can have an action scene and just write action music, and it's not really commenting on what's really happening. Like at the beginning of Star Trek '09, there's a huge action scene, but we don't play it that way. We played it sad because what's really happening is there are two parents separated from each other. One is never going to see their newborn son, who of course grows up to be Kirk. To me, that was tragic and sad. All the explosions and all of that, that's not important. What was important was the family being ripped apart.

I'm always looking for what is going on underneath, even if it is a giant action scene. You always have to look at the subtext and figure it out. When I was writing this, that's what I was doing within the different portions of the story. It was figuring out what feels like this could be to me, but leaving enough room for the listener to also then take it where they want to go in their minds. The dialogue in the setups was written by Alison Eve Hammersley, who is a great writer. I loved working with her. Of course, the voice was vocalized by Janina Gavankar (Blindspotting), who is an incredible actress.

When you're composing, how much of the music do you already hear in your head and want to capture? How much of the process is about spontaneity and discovery? 

I think I'm always open to spontaneity and change, that's important, because I always have an idea of what I want to do, but I never know a hundred percent until my hands hit the piano and I start figuring it out. It's a lot of discovery, and that discovery is linked to what I was talking about before, which is the emotions of what that piece has to say. Until I come across an idea or a theme that feels like the emotion that I'm looking for, you just keep looking and keep searching.

Once I play something, I feel like, yes, that's the type of sadness that I'm looking for, the type of adventure I'm looking for, the type of thoughtfulness that I'm looking for. It's always about finding that, and you know it when you hear it. You can feel it inside of you when you're playing, and once you hit that, you're like, okay, then it's off to the races and you can then go and have a little more fun. The beginning is a bit of a struggle, and then once you're through that, it's like, okay, now I know what to do with this.

There is one track on the album, in particular, that has a very disco sound. 

Believe it or not, it's funny you say that because I always thought it would be so fun to do a disco album.

That's what I wanted to ask. Do you ever see yourself making a disco album or even a rock album?

Oh yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I would love to cover all of it. I had so much fun doing this. I might just do this for the rest of my life. This is just fun. So yes, there absolutely will be more, there will be more on this story in particular as well, but then there are other ideas that I have. I found an amazing partner in Mondo because everything that I have thrown at them, they're like, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's just do it." As an artist, that's a wonderful place to be, where you find a partner that can help get it out into the world like that.

Of course, they released a lot of my soundtracks over the years, but the thing that I really discovered in my partnership with them is how interested they are in putting new ideas out into the world as well, which is rare these days. There's a lot of importance put on things that are franchises, or things that people know so that they know they can sell it easier. So yes, to answer your question, absolutely, I would love to do a disco album.

Great. Obviously, we're not going to attend live concerts for a while, but do you see yourself touring in the future?

Yes. One of the other ideas with this album was so that you could do it live. That's where I want to go with it next, to be able to animate the entire album and then play it live at places like Coachella, or Life is Beautiful, or Outside Lands, any of these great music festivals that I loved going to, I miss very much, because it's a great place to discover new music and to rediscover old music. I love them. I thought, wow, that would be so fun to perform this there, with the band, do it live with the animation projected behind us, it'd be a blast.

Composing can be such an isolating job, but do a lot of film composers have the desire to perform live in front of an audience? 

I think the best experience is when you're sharing it live with people. There is nothing like that. That's always fun to do. Especially if you do, in particular, a film concert, the people that go to those really like film music, and they really like the things that you're working on. I treat them almost like a rock concert, so I encourage the audience to get really involved. It's not like a classical concert; it's much more of a visceral thing.

We have a lot of fun, and I get to communicate with the audience a lot. The real thing that I'm excited about is actually performing something like this, that is new and different, not related to something that they know already. But man, I have had a lot of fun going around performing the Star Trek films, doing music from whatever, Planet of the Apes, all of it.

What an honor to play at Royal Albert Hall, too. 

Oh man, that place, it's just one of my favorite places to perform. The people that run the hall are incredible partners as well. I feel that's a little bit of a second home to me. I've done a lot of work there over the years and I love that space and I love London. It's the best.

Are you ever surprised by audience reactions to certain songs or moments when you're playing live? 

Yes, for sure. There are moments when Star Trek comes up, and the place goes crazy in a way that they would go wild at a rock concert. You don't really expect that, but then you get the feeling of how important these things are to people and how much certain things, like Star Wars or Star Trek, or even the Marvel things, or the Pixar movies, how much it means to them, and to be able to bring them out and share them in that electric way is such a fun thing to do. You're constantly surprised at the reactions that you get from it.

You're accustomed to working fast under tight deadlines. Did you give yourself more time on this album or did you still work at that breakneck pace?

I went at a breakneck pace. I'm so used to doing that, and I don't like to belabor something. Sometimes if you overwork something, it doesn't necessarily get better. It just gets different. I learned that a long time ago, especially when I started out in video games and television. You don't have the time to finesse as much as you want to, you have to get to the point immediately, really look at what you're working on, understand it as fast as you can, and get to the heart of what it needs, and then move on to the next thing. I actually enjoy that process quite a bit, setting that time period for myself.

Even talking to Mondo, I said, "Well, I would like it to be out by October 30th." They were like, "Yeah, we can do that. You just have to deliver it by this point." I said, "That's a little tight, but great, perfect. I'm used to that. Let's do that." Deadlines push me in a way creatively that I wouldn't be pushed if I just had all the time in the world. It probably would never get done if I did it that way.


Travelogue Volume 1 by Michael Giacchino and his Nouvelle Modernica Orchestra is now available.