Aliens, witches, demons and ghouls: Tyler Bates has written music for the best (and worst) of them.
If you shuddered during “Dawn of the Dead” or “Halloween II,” felt a chill watching the TV series “Salem” or listened to anything from the last two Marilyn Manson records, Bates is partly to blame for your PTSD.
The composer, who scored both “Guardians of the Galaxy” films and is behind the new season of Fox’s “The Exorcist” and Netflix’s “The Punisher,” is a master at making audiences feel uneasy — at least in the music he makes.
“I grew up in a haunted house, I swear,” he said recently from his hillside home studio in the San Fernando Valley. “It was more like a log cabin, in the woods in a rural area outside Chicago. Al Capone once lived there. People were probably murdered there. It’s where I grew up, which explains a lot.”
Bates, who’s worked on more than 70 films, went from a broke guitarist of the minimally successful alternative-rock band Pet in the 1990s to becoming a favorite in Hollywood among directors such as “Guardians of the Galaxy’s” James Gunn. Whether it’s orchestral interludes, thrash metal guitar riffs or eerie electronic sounds, Bates conveys quietly dark then bombastic moods swings.
Listening to his scores, one might imagine Bates to be a mad-scientist sort, who works in a catacomblike studio for weeks on end, weary of human contact, joy and daylight. Bates, however, appears to be the antithesis of the music he makes. He’s outgoing, works in a studio that’s flooded with sun, and is a congenial host when guests drop by.
“Sorry about the couch,” apologized Bates, 52, gesturing toward a beige sofa in his immaculate studio. “It used to be white. But Manson’s black, leave-in shampoo changed that. He practically lived on it while we were recording. He made it gray. That’s the Pale Emperor for you.”
Though traumatizing film and TV audiences is a full-time job, Bates co-wrote, produced and played on Manson’s last two albums — “The Pale Emperor” and “Heaven Upside Down” — as more or less a labor of love. Bates gets to dabble in a world he knows and loves by performing stand-alone rock music while Manson makes his comeback.
Another comeback artist Bates has been devoting time to between his billion projects? David Hasselhoff. Yes, you read that correctly — the “Knight Rider” star who for reasons unexplained is a god in Germany. Bates met him while working on “The Guardians” soundtrack and plans to make a record with him for the sheer love of it.
“Sometimes you’re fine-dining, sometimes you’re eating a doughnut,” says Bates of the variety of projects he tackles. “You just have to enjoy it all.”
The fine-dining is the top-dollar Hollywood franchise films, where millions are on the line. Bates is prolific and in demand. But making the move from a kid who dreamed of fronting a band to a behind-the-scenes figure — albeit a prominent one — was not all that easy.
“It’s about listening to the director and taking ‘the you’ out of the immediate picture,” he said. “Your own sound is always what you want to be the through line in your life as an artist. But in something like the ‘Guardians’ movies, sure really unique, but they’re still pixels in the Marvel universe. I needed to fit them into that realm while still managing to create a distinct thematic language of my own, and from my collaboration with James (Gunn).”
Bates has also worked with directors Zach Snyder, Neil Marshall, William Freidkin and Scott Derrickson, scoring films such as “John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde,” “300” and “Sucker Punch.”
“The thing I love about film is — as nerve-racking as it is because it’s not like they give me a locked picture to score — it’s frenetic and a triathlon, but when you work with geniuses and studios that have massive investments in a property, you know what it’s like to be alive. You are running alongside failure, every day, all the time.”
Among the TV series Bates has scored are Showtime’s “Californication” and Netflix’s “Kingdom.” He’s also behind the music accompanying the Disney California Adventure ride Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout. “I rode it over and over,” he says of coming up with original music for the limited Halloween version of the ride. “I wanted the music to sound like the ride feels,” he said.
Bates’ first job as a teen wasn’t in the music business but could qualify as a horror story. As a high-schooler he lived near Chicago mobster Jerry Scalise “except I didn’t know he was a mobster. He was just my aunt’s neighbor, who paid me seven bucks an hour and gave me beer to dig 3 1/2 -foot trenches,” says Bates. “The police later found trace human remains on his property. I saw it on the news and I’m like, ‘Oh, God, I dug those graves.’ ”
At 19 Bates was introduced to a career in finance by a bandmate in a metal group he joined. He got a job at a trading firm and eventually became a trader himself. “It prepared me for dealing with people’s eccentricities and how to say cool when millions of dollars are at stake.”
But he wanted to be a musician and pursued that dream throughout his 20s and early 30s. By 2000, however, Pet split up, so Bates turned his musical aspirations fully toward scoring films. (He “had a bunch of big movies that bombed” until he landed the 2004 version of “Dawn of the Dead.”)
He connected with Manson in 2013 on set of “Californication” at a point when Bates says the singer had exhausted making music through his usual avenues and was relying too heavily on old images pushed by his label. “He has some great songs, but they were oftentimes vapid,” says Bates.
“When you get into the wagging of the dog, you become a shallow version of your once-potent self, and you get lost because you have yes people around you, with their own motives, who want to leap-frog off you to get their names out there. I didn’t need to do that — I already have a life and a career — but I love rock music. And we hit it off.”
Whether it’s Manson on the once-white couch in Bates’ studio, or Hasselhoff, or a Hollywood director, the process of finding the right music is pretty much the same.
“I listen to what they have to say,” says Bates. “They can be talking about anything — problems with their girlfriend, for instance — and I’ll start scoring it in my mind as they’re talking.”
And in the process, a soundtrack — often spooky — is born.