Composer John Swihart Crafts A “Staten Island Summer”

John Swihart_Photo Credit Susan Swihart
John Swihart - Photo Credit Susan Swihart

John Swihart works at his studio up in the hills of Los Angeles, and it’s an area that’s been known as a music haven for many artists. Dreaming about music is one thing, but thanks to his extensive work on TV’s How I Met Your Mother and such first rate features as Napoleon Dynamite and Youth in Revolt (a highly underrated film), Swihart doesn’t have much time to luxuriate at the thought of making music.

Staten Island Summer - Lakeshore RecordsHis latest work includes crafting the score for the coming-of-age comedy Staten Island Summer, a Lorne Michaels produced feature directed by Rhys Thomas.  

During the interview, held at Swihart’s studio, the composer talked about his How I Met Your Mother and Staten Island Summer experience. He also elaborated on his own music background and explained why his collaboration with Rhys Thomas was a fruitful one.

Do you have a certain time of the day when you’re primarily focused on your music? Is it pretty much a 9 to 5 work schedule at your studio?

I have a pretty regular schedule. I try to get around here around 9. I walk my kids to school, sometimes I get here at 8:15 and I work until 5:30ish. That’s usually when I start to need to go home. We live eight houses uphill from the studio here. So I walk home and have dinner with my family and hang out until about nine o’clock. Sometimes I stay home, sometimes I come back if I feel like I want to come back and work.

It depends on my schedule and what my deadlines are, but it’s a pretty regimented schedule for the most part.

With something like Staten Island Summer, how long did that process take?

That film was in post for almost a year so I had a lot of time to mess with it. We tried a lot of different things. The director really wanted to make it sound like it was a place that was sort of stuck in time. So we wanted to have a little bit of a retro feel. Especially everything to do with the party and scheming to make the party happen.

It was a lot of sort of ’70s style funk stuff with a lot of percussion (and) a lot of live bongos. I had a percussionist over here a lot – this guy from the Dominican Republic (Reynold Roque) and he played a huge role in getting us where we got with it.

But it was a lot of clavinets through guitar amps, rhodes piano through guitar amps, guitars, bass, drums and some loops to make it a little more modern.

When did your love for music and sound begin? Was it an overnight process or did it evolve over time?

I think it probably grew. First it was just starting out on saxophone and I enjoyed that. And then I started playing guitar when I was 12 and I fell in love with Led Zeppelin (laughs). But then when you start listening to music and start tearing things apart and trying to figure out guitar parts, from Zeppelin records for example, you start to realize what the different sounds are and the effect they have.

My introduction to synthesizers made a huge impact on me. I had a friend who had a brand new Jupiter 8 or something like that back in the ’80s. and that really kind of changed things for me.

I think once you get into the computers and the way we make music now, you just can’t help but sort of dive into the production of it and be a little bit of a tweaker. You just want to get the most you can of what you have. That’s just all part of it to me – part of the sonic palette of whatever you’re trying to make.

John Swihart_Photo Credit Susan Swihart
John Swihart – Photo Credit Susan Swihart

When musicians ask you for advice regarding breaking into composing or essentially the music industry, is there one common piece of advice to give?

It depends what you’re talking about specifically but mostly you just want to write music as much as you can and finish things and try and make things good. It’s easy to spit out a musical idea and have it sitting there, but for people that want to get into this field, if that’s what you’re talking about, you need to have a library of music because people basically don’t think you can do something unless you’ve already done it.

So you need to have music on hand that will work in a movie or a show, or something close and similar to what they want for their project to actually get started career wise.

During your time on How I Met Your Mother, was your workload a heavy one due to the rigors of the medium?

(With) How I Met Your Mother – I guess it started with a heavy workload. It definitely had a lot of music in it for – it’s considered a multi-camera show even though it was a hybrid. Maybe the most interesting thing about that show was that it actually had a lot of music and there was always this moral of the story moment 17 minutes in to the 22 minute program where there is usually some kind of heartfelt moment like ‘What have we learned from this episode.’

We’d have a cue in there that was a minute and a half long that was actually a piece of score. So it wasn’t a show that was just transitions the entire time. We definitely had a few transitions, but there were a lot of gags and goofs.

There was an episode where Ted (Josh Radnor) got a job as a professor so the rest of the cast bought him a hat and a whip and we were doing “Raiders” (type) music for the whole episode. So there were different things where they would do gags like that which were based on crystallized forms of entertainment that we’re all familiar with.

When you’re doing a composition like ‘You’re All Alone’ for The Time Travelers,’ a song that may seem simple in construct but in the end it had a resonant effect on  HIYM fans. What was that reaction like for you?

That was a complete surprise to be honest. I think I wrote a couple of pieces and they picked that one. People liked it. I don’t know what else to say about it. (laughs)

Did that song take a long time for you to compose?

Yeah . . . I mean it’s just a place to go. I don’t know what to say. It seemed to work with the scene really well. In a way, to me, the music is already there – you just have to pull it out.

That’s the way I think of it.

John Swihart – “You’re All Alone”

The audio clip below closes out the interview, as John Swihart elaborates on creating the score for Staten Island Summer. He also briefly talks about the solitary and collaborative aspects of composing:

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