‘Green Book’ Composer Kris Bowers on Mahershala Ali: “We Became a Team” | In Studio

‘Green Book’ Composer Kris Bowers on Mahershala Ali: “We Became a Team” | In Studio

(upbeat music) – Hey, everyone. You’re watching our episode of In Studio, and today’s special guest is Kris Bowers. Hey, man. How are you? – Hey, good, Brian. – Thank you for coming in. – Yeah, my pleasure. – Congrats on your recent engagement. – Thank you, thank you very much. – So what we’ll talk about today, you’ll obviously featured
in the most recent episode of our Magic Hour series, which is incredible if you
haven’t checked it out. Definitely go watch it. Have to talk about Green Book,
but I kind of want to talk about your start and what’s the most interesting about you? I mean, there’s so many things
interesting about you, but what’s beyond interesting is that what was decided for
you was decided before you were even born kind of. – Yeah. – Can you kind of talk
about that and kind of how this career was kind
of decided for you and how early of an age you started at? – Yeah. Yeah, my parents were kind of the opposite of everybody else’s
parents and they wanted me to be an artist. So I think in the beginning, it really
came from probably the fact that my dad wanted to be a drummer when he was in high school and my grandfather just wasn’t having it, wasn’t even an option for him. And my parents were really
big on making sure that I did as much extracurricular
activity as possible. So like, in addition to playing piano, I was also playing sports, I was drawing, I was doing all these others things but piano specifically I
think was something that my parents and maybe even
more so my dad really wanted me to be and to do. So yeah, before I was born, they were like pulling piano CDs and like playing them for my mom’s stomach and stuff and they really did a great
job of trying to find the best schools, the best teachers and make sure that I had the best access I could as early as possible. – It was almost like you were
destined for this, which is incredible. – Yeah. (laughs) It’s pretty wild. I feel like I’m confused by it perpetually and I just try not to ask questions
just in case I jinx it. (laughs) – Now, one thing that I’ve read that is… You said that your dad pushed you a lot and when you were younger
in school, he kind of compared you to other students and when you performed at the White House, he even said to you, “Oh, you’re only doing
two or three songs?” Can you kind of talk about that push and what drove you and like what decisions you were able to make to make it your story and your career? – Yeah, I mean it was funny because that Hollywood Reporter
thing that you guys did, the Magic Hour thing, the video of me playing when I was six, my dad found it in the attic and like went through the whole thing, and they send it to me and I was like, “Oh, thanks so much,” and my dad was like, “Oh yeah, well you know,
the funny thing is that “that’s not the whole video.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And my mom was like, “Well you don’t remember that?” I was like,
“No, I was six.” And after that video and of course, it’s me at six playing piano like that, my dad proceeded to tell me about why this other girl in the
class was better than me, why like, I need to practice
more and all this stuff and that early on, he was always
trying to find somebody that he would make me look at and
make me pay attention to and then see whether or not… or what it was that they were
doing that was getting them maybe further than I was at that point. And of course, like, you know, there are all
kinds of things that are, that maybe are issues with that that like, you know, I’m dealing with in therapy. But and my dad and I are fine now like, there’s no issues there but the thing is what it really did, though is
have me constantly question what it is that I could be working on. And what that developed
into later in life was like, I started to look at not my peers, but I started looking
at my favorite pianists, and my favorite musicians, my
favorite composers and saying, I wasn’t in my mind competing with like, you know, so and so in my, that was also in ninth grade with me, I was looking at Brad
Mehldau, or Herbie Hancock, or Keith Jarrett, and
those were the people that I was looking at
as like my competition and they were so far,
obviously ahead of me that, that it made it so that I was just constantly moving the needle forward and trying to figure
out what I needed to do to get better and constantly analyzing, self-analyzing and I think
that was probably the most, the most beneficial thing
that came out of that constant pitting me against
somebody else in competition. – And even at the age of
12, you knew you wanted to go into film composition. – Yeah. – I guess, what were the
early films that you watched as a kid that made you, made you want to get into this? – I mean, obviously, like
all the Spielberg movies from my childhood, they just like shaped my life, you know? And my dad also happened
to be a big fan of a lot of the other films
that John Williams scored. So like, whether it was Star Wars or Indiana Jones and those
films were really big for him and so he showed me those
films when I was pretty young and wanted me to enjoy those franchises. But I also really fell in
love with Jurassic Park, and E.T., and Home Alone,
and all these things that for me, when I watch those films, those were the films
and that was the sound with John Williams that I would go listen to outside
of the context of the movie and still like, feel all the same feelings and get this excitement
and all that kind of stuff and still to this day,
you listen to that music and immediately, I’m transported
back to when I was like eight years old, nine years old, seeing those movies and so, those were kind of the
types of movies that early on started to shape my desire to be a composer. – Now for Green Book, how did you first get
involved with the film? – Yeah, so first, it came from a few different channels, avenues, yeah. So Tom Wolfe and Manish
Raval, who were the music supervisors for the film, who are incredible and they
did such a great job with like creating this world and this period with all the songs they chose, they’re also really integral with trying to find composers for
the projects that they work on. And so they were one of
the first people that really pitched me for this. Along with my agent, and a couple of other people who found out about me and I think
that the producers had like just done their own research but Manish and Tom and my
agent were kind of the ones that really put me in
front of these people as somebody that might be able to handle all the different aspects of the job. Like the piano playing, the composing, and teaching rehearsal, and all that. – Which you did flawlessly. – I appreciate it, yeah. It was definitely, as soon as I had that first meeting, they’re like, “Yeah, can you handle all this stuff? “Can you like, you know, “can you handle learning the
piano music and all that?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. “That’ll be easy, that’ll be fine,” and then I went and listened
to Don Shirley’s music and I was like, “Holy cow, what did I get myself into? “This is really tough.” – And in terms of listening to his music, you didn’t have the, you had transcribed everything
from listening to it. So can you kind of talk about how is that possible? (laughs) How do you do that? – Yeah. Well again, that’s something that I just happened to be very prepared for. I mean, that’s how I learned to play music was mostly by ear. I mean, I, obviously, I had to learn how to read sheet music when I was really young. I started that when I was like six, but to learn jazz, the only way
you can really learn that is by listening to it
and by trying to emulate the other people. And you’re trying to capture
more than just the notes. You’re trying to capture the way that this person’s touch is on the piano, the way that it feels when
they play something and the way to transcribe something
is to try to transcribe all of that and that’s the best way. It’s just like learning a language. You know, you don’t learn
a language by reading it. You learn it by hearing
it, talking to people, and really doing it. So yeah, so having to
do that for this film, really was just like I was back in school. Like I was just transcribing
stuff, I had to do that every day when I was at
Juilliard and I think that I was used to that part. That was actually the easier part. The harder part was learning then getting it up to speed. ‘Cause when I transcribe, I
transcribe it on the piano, and I listen, it’s just literally listening,
trying it, listening again like over and over and over again and then after I finally figure
out what the notes are, then it’s just about trying to practice it and get it up to speed and
get it so that it feels, so that it feels natural to me playing it. – Now, the film was so powerful. What scenes would you say kind
of stuck out to you the most in terms of its impact on the audience, its impact on Don’s story, what would you say? – Yeah. I think a few things. One of the first scenes
I wrote to is a scene where Mahershala gets out of the car when they have some car trouble and Tony, or Viggo’s character is putting some water into, I don’t know cars well enough to know where he’s putting the water, but he’s doing something under the hood. And, Don gets out of the car and
just kind of stands there and there are all these
field workers that are, that kind of stop what
they’re doing and they look at this black man that obviously, is dressed in a way that they maybe
haven’t really seen before and he’s being driven around by a white man and that’s even more surprising to them. – Which they have a lot
of those scenes of like… – Yeah, just that recognition of like, wow, that person is different than, the same but different. And the same thing for Don’s
character in those moments where he realizes that these people are the same
but I’m very different. The recognition but yet,
still like this isolation that you can feel in that
moment in the way that Mahershala plays that moment, that was the first scene
for me that I could really sink my teeth into. Because in general, I
can relate to that story, I can relate to the idea of like, always feeling like you
don’t belong in either side when you might be a person of a
color but then didn’t maybe grow up in that
environment as much or whatever it is, whatever reason why you might feel uncomfortable, so I could relate to that but that moment was the first moment that it really had an impact on me and so
that kind of the first moment that I started writing to. – Now one of the other amazing things to
come out of this film is your relationship
now with Mahershala Ali and his, him praising you every chance he gets. He recently just brought you on stage at the Critic’s Choice Awards. Can you kind of talk about that and working with him and how it’s been, I guess? – Yeah. I mean, it’s all been pretty wild. You know, I think you work
on these projects some times and you have some moment
where you might be able to interact with an actor and they’re worried about
so many other things that as a composer, I’m kind of like, I’m here to help you but obviously, like I’m not expecting to
generate a real friendship, at least not that quickly. And from the first day, we hung out for like three hours. And we hung out and he
was playing piano for three hours, playing a C major
scale over and over again and then afterwards, we walked
around, and we talked about, he asked me like what
I’ve been up to and like, a little bit about my backstory. We like walked into a couple
of like clothing stores and stuff like that. And I was probably trying to act normal. I don’t know if he
thought that I was normal in that first meeting, but afterwards, I was like, “Holy cow, I just like “hung out with Mahershala Ali,” and I’ve been a fan of
his for a long time. And same with Viggo. Like anytime I was on stage with them, I was like, “Where am I? “What’s going on?” And so for him to not only be that open from the very beginning and then to be as dedicated as
he was to try and get this, this role as right as possible
and as specific as possible and all the way down to how should his posture be? Where should his hands be? How should his hands be shaped? – Do a posture move. – Yeah, I know. (laughs) My posture’s really bad. All those things were things that he was obsessing over and, and then even helping me
with where we were on set and he was like, “You know what, when you play, “can you actually like, “maybe lean forward when you do this part “and maybe like, you know,
just straighten your back “a little bit more during this section?” And it really became this, we became a team trying
to figure out how to best represent Don Shirley
when he was at the piano. And I just had so much
respect and awe and admiration for him to have to memorize these lines and
figure out all these things and then have to play this or act like, pretending this, playing this incredibly difficult music and play some of it and then have to act like it’s all normal. It was pretty wild to see him do all that and do it so flawlessly. – That’s so great. And obviously, next up
is the Oscars and I’m predicting and hoping you
get many shoutouts ’cause… (laughs) I’m sure they’re coming your way. Next up, we’re going to play a game. It’s kind of our staple game here. It’s called Fishing for Answers. Are you up for that? – Yeah, I’m definitely down. – Awesome. Can you fish? Are you a good fisher? – I’ve actually only fished
like twice in my life. – Yeah, I’ve never like really fished. – Yeah, my grandfather
used to fish all the time. My dad’s allergic to fish, go figure. – Oh, really? You can just grab one of these. – Better get a good one. – [Brian] We’ll do the
whole bowl, too, so. – Oh, the whole bowl? Wow, okay. What is your hidden talent? Hmmm. – So we know what you
are really talented at. Is there anything else that maybe people don’t know? – No. Actually, maybe I’m pretty good with like visual things. I wanted to be a cartoonist
when I was younger but I don’t do that at all anymore but I think it still translated into, I usually make all like, my own flyer, all my own concert posters or like a lot of my artwork a lot of times is like designed by me and like
all that kind of stuff and I get really obsessive with like, trying to design visual things and so maybe that’s… I don’t know if it’s a talent but that’s hidden. (laughs) – [Brian] Here, grab another one. – Alright. Mahershala Ali has praised
you for your work with him on Green Book, will we see you and
him work together again and what will that look like? – Yeah, I hope so. You know, we’ve been talking about, you know, at some point
doing that together. I think that it’s more so that
whenever our schedules allow. I mean, he’s incredibly
busy and I’m getting busier. But right now, we’re just talking about going to see some like, music together or trying to like,
decompress and you know, being able to enjoy life
a little bit together but there’s a couple things that he’s been, he’s had in mind and some
things that I have in mind so I’m sure there’ll be some work done together at some point. – And I feel like it’s
genuine in the sense where you both really do want
to work together again so it will likely happen I feel like. – Yeah, yeah, definitely. That’s the hope. – That’s great. Yeah, you can just toss those anywhere. – Just throw ’em around. Favorite Aretha Franklin song. – So can you tell the story
about when you met her at the… – So I did this competition
called the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition. – Which you won. – Yeah, that I won.
– Congrats. – Thank you. In 2011 and she was receiving like
a Lifetime Achievement award when that happened and I did the semi-finals and after I finished
playing, somebody was like, “Oh, do you mind coming
out to meet somebody?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, sure whatever.” And as I’m walking out, they’re like, “Oh, by the way, it’s Aretha Franklin “that you’re about to meet.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, that’s a little different.” That’s one of the only times I’ve been speechless, like I met
some pretty cool people and I met her and I, all I kept saying is, “I, “I’m such a big fan. “I’m such a big fan of yours.” And so she asked for my
information and then… – You stayed in touch? – Yeah, exactly. So like, a little bit
after the competition, she ended up calling me randomly. I had no idea who she wa– or who it was an I answered
the phone and she started talking to me and at some point, I put together that it was Aretha Franklin that was talking to me. Yeah, and then we kind of
developed this relationship where I was playing at
her birthday parties, at her Christmas parties, and like a bunch of different things for her. But favorite song, I would have to say, maybe her version of Mary, Don’t You Weep on
the Amazing Grace album. It’s like her, that album is by far one of my favorite
albums of all time and her singing on that track
and that track just, you can hear the church,
you can hear like, everybody with her as the
song builds and grows and it’s a pretty emotional experience
listening to that album. (laughs) Alright. Looking back, what’s
one thing you would tell your younger self? I would say just to one, be patient, which I
still have to tell myself now. But also just to trust myself more. You know, I think that like in general, I was always
questioning whether or not I was like, doing the right thing when it came to progressing in music or working on my music or trying
to figure out like what my style was or how I would
approach composition or how would I approach
improvising stuff like that and kind of going back to my dad, I think a lot for a long time, I was constantly like comparing myself to others but in an unhealthy way. I think there’s a healthy way to do that and a way to do that where you’re, you’re not making yourself feel worse as you’re trying to figure out
the things you can build on. And I think that yeah, like I probably had a time in my life where that
was difficult because I was, I wasn’t being kind to myself
as I was trying to figure out what to work on. And so I think just trying
to figure out how to be kinder to myself, you know, I
think would’ve been the thing I would’ve told younger me. (laughs) Alright. If you could go on a roadtrip with anyone, who would it be? I mean, other than my fiance. Because if I don’t say that, (laughs) she won’t be my fiance anymore. (laughter) Hmmm. Man, that’s a tough one. I’d have to say maybe Bill Murray. That’s random, but. – [Brain] Okay. – Yeah, I feel like he would
be a fun person to go on a… – Did you see the Golden Globes one? – Yeah, with the
cheersing and stuff, yeah. I feel like he’s a character and I would just be entertained the entire time. – That’d be an interesting ride, too. He’s probably the best
person to go on a road trip, actually now that I think about it. – First impression of Kanye West. – So working on Watch the Throne, can you kind of talk
about that experience? – Yeah, so it all happened because I happened to be working
with Q-Tip a lot at the time and so he was asked to work on some of the songs for Watch the Throne as
we were finishing it up and they asked me to come in to add just some additional keys and sentence and stuff like that. I think the most interesting thing about seeing him work was just one, how specific he was but in a way
that I started to understand a little bit more. You know, I think that he can kind of be talked
about or made fun of because of how specific he is but there was a moment where I
was playing through something on the piano and I started changing some of the chords because I was like, I’m a jazz musician,
I’m playing these chords that are pretty simple, and
I kind of would change it up for myself. And as he’s trying to sing along, and I changed the chord, out of nowhere, he’s like, “Why are you playing such
like, abstract chords? “Why are you changing the chords?” And in my mind at the
beginning, I was like, “I mean, these are the same chords. “Like what are you talking about?” And then Q-Tip was like, “Ah, just play, “like just stick to the triads.” And then later, Kanye explained
to me where he was like, “Yeah, when you change those notes, “like I can’t hear the melody
that I’m singing anymore “and like it totally changed
the color of the chords for me. “Now that chord is something different. “Like, I feel something
different when I hear that chord. “And so now I want to
sing something different “but I was trying to like find this thing “with the chords you were
playing and when you changed it, “it just totally changed
the way that I heard it.” And that, that actually made me
all of a sudden respect, I mean, even just like pop
music on a different level. Because I think for me, I had always thought as a
jazz musician that like, it was simpler, but it’s not simpler because
it can’t be more complex, it’s simpler because
there’s a reason for it, there’s a feeling behind it, or there’s a, there’s just more specificity
than I thought there was to it and so it made it so that as I was approaching more popular music, I was
trying to approach it with a different level of
respect, which I think was pretty cool to get from that. – Last one, which is actually the funniest one, I think. – See, I did it purposefully. – I don’t know how it ended up last. – You lucked out. Have I ever eaten a pizza
like Tony Vallelonga? Man, first of all, I’m lactose intolerant, which sucks. – This is not that funny. – Yeah, this makes me a
little angry, actually. (laughs) No, I mean, I used to eat– well I used to eat pizza a lot. I used to eat cheese a lot. I didn’t become lactose
intolerant until like college. And I used to be a really chubby kid. Like I was between middle school and high school
I probably lost like 80 pounds and it was probably
’cause in middle school, every single day, I ate a personal pizza and a Cherry Coke almost every day. Which is not healthy at all. Yeah. So, I did fold that but it was an individual pizza. I’ve never eaten a full. – He had so many quirks in
the movie that were just so interesting. – Yeah, and the cool thing
is apparently, that came out of Viggo just hanging with the family. They were at a pizza place
and somebody told him that that’s how Tony used to eat pizzas and so he went back to
Pete and he was like, “Can I do that in the film?” And he’s like, “You can try it once and
if it works the one time “then like, sure, we
can keep it in there.” Then they did it once and
of course like, obviously it stayed in ’cause it’s just so specific and funny. – Seriously, thanks so much for coming on. This was great.

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