Sunday, June 27, 2021

A Very Candid Conversation with Lyle Workman

Lyle Workman (year unknown)


Lyle Workman has had an extensive musical career that stems from the mid-80s to the present. He first got his start playing guitar with the rock band Bourgeois Tagg in 1986. Todd Rundgren produced their album Yoyo in 1987. Their 1987 single “I Don’t Mind At All,” which Lyle co-wrote with the band’s founder, Brent Bourgeois, hit the Top 40. After Bourgeois Tagg broke up, Lyle became a session musician, both in the studio and live performances. Some of the musicians Lyle played with include Sting, Sheryl Crow, Beck, Shakira, Norah Jones, Todd Rundgren, Frank Black, and many others.

Lyle’s résumé doesn’t end there. He has composed the film score and/or produced the music for many well-known Hollywood comedies such as Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and several others. In addition to films, he has written the music for TV shows such as Love and Good Girls.

Yet despite Lyle’s busy schedule, he has found time to release four instrumental solo albums since 1996. He released his latest solo album Uncommon Measures in 2021. Uncommon Measures is a jazz fusion album that features orchestration by John Ashton Thomas, who was the orchestrator for the Black Panther and Captain Marvel films. Guitar legend Steve Vai has praised Lyle’s album.

In this candid conversation, we cover Lyle’s extensive career beginning with Bourgeois Tagg, his session work, his film and TV work, and Uncommon Measures. I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview, but most of all, I want to thank Lyle.

Jeff Cramer:  So, what got you interested in music?

Lyle Workman:  The Beatles. My dad played guitar as well, so I wanted to do what my dad did, but I also wanted to do what John and George of the Beatles did. He bought me a little guitar and taught me the basic open chords. Then I had a record player in my room, and I would play the Beatles’ music and play my guitar simultaneously. I was hitting on chords that they were using and, in the process, teaching myself how to play Beatles songs. That process pretty much just continued for the rest of my life [laughs] learning things from records. As my tastes expanded and I grew up, so did my taste in music and learned a lot by ear. I went to a college and studied music, and I still am.

JC:  How did you wind up playing with Bourgeois Tagg?

LW: Just from playing with local bands and club bands in the Bay Area. That's how I met the central songwriters of Bourgeois Tagg—Brent Bourgeois and Larry Tagg. They saw me, I saw them. We were playing in different bands. That’s how that started.


Bourgeois Tagg (Lyle, far right, year unknown)

JC: What’s interesting about the video for Bourgeois Tagg’s single, “I Don’t Mind,” is that it’s directed by future film director David Fincher.

LW: This is the first time anyone’s ever mentioned this. [To watch the “I Don’t Mind” video, click here.]

JC: Oh.

LW: Yeah, at the time, David Fincher was in his mid-twenties. We were all young. He was a pretty big music video producer at the time. I think he had directed music videos for Sting and Madonna. But yeah, I remember working with him. He was great, really fun.

JC: Did you have any idea that he would be doing movies later on?

LW: No. Neither him nor me. [laughs]

JC: Also Todd Rundgren produced Bourgeois Tagg. You would later work with him. Talk about how that went from Bourgeois Tagg to eventually working with him.

LW: Yeah, it was a big thrill for us to have him produce our record. Shortly afterwards, our band disbanded.

Several of us went on to play, tour, and record with Todd, which was a huge treat. I was a gigantic fan and continue to be.

Lyle in Todd Rundgren’s band (1990)

JC: And now Todd’s been inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021.

LW: Yeah. It's about freaking time. It's kind of a no-brainer. But, yeah, I mean if there's anyone who belongs there, he sure does for all he's done in music.[To hear a live performance of Lyle and Todd
Rundgren playing “Parallel Lines” click here.]

JC: After Todd, you worked with Jellyfish.

LW: Jellyfish was something that happened right afterwards.I recorded a record with them called Spilt Milk [1993],  which is a fantastic record.[To hear Jellyfish perform “Glutton of Sympathy,” click here.] Then I went on the road with an artist named Jude Cole, who had a hit single out at the time called “Start the Car.” That was one tour. Then I did a more substantial tour with Frank Black..

JC: I understand that you worked with Frank a lot because you even arranged some of his songs in addition to playing with him live.

LW: It was about five years of touring and recording with Frank. It was a great gig, personally and musically, yielding several records that I’m very proud of being a part of [To hear Lyle perform with Frank Black performing “Headache” live, click here.] This went on from the early to the late ’90s. At that time, I moved to Los Angeles and I've been here ever since.

JC: Around that time, I guess you also worked with Beck.

LW: Yes. That was another fantastic experience. It was almost three years of touring for his Midnite Vultures album which was a lot of fun. [To hear Lyle perform with Beck performing “Debra” live, click here.]

JC: Then you worked with Lazlo Bane.

LW: [laughs] Yeah, a good friend of mine, Chad Fischer, that’s his band. We're very good friends. Also, another composer. [To hear “Buttercup,” a song that Lyle wrote with Chad, click here.]

JC: You've performed live a lot of with artists. You had to cover a lot of other guitarist’s parts. How did feel playing guitar parts that were not originally yours?

LW: Well, you know, when you work with a number of artists and number of bands, you learn how to be a chameleon. You learn how to play other people's music and guitar parts if that's part of the job. It's part and parcel of being a session musician. It's great in that it helps widen your scope of interpretation of music when you learn other people's material.

JC: Is there anyone who stands out during your session musician time?

LW: Well, they all stand out for very different reasons. I would have to list a few of them. You know, Todd Rundgren was a huge influence on me before I started working in his band and recording with him. The most substantial are Todd Rundgren, Beck, Sting, and Frank Black. They all had a huge influence on my music and my versatility. You know, they don't sound anything alike and through their vast differences, important to my growth as a musician. It was and still is rewarding to work with such a wide range of artists.

JC: So how did you go from being a session player to writing music for movies?

LW: It was through session work. I was working with a film composer named Ed Shearmur, and his wife was an executive at Universal Pictures. Harry Garfield, who was the executive Vice President of Music at Universal, needed a guitar player for a personal project. I gave him a CD of some of my music to take with him, and that's how I ended up with Judd Apatow. [Judd Apatow is the director of Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin.] It was through that connection. Judd had his own take on comedy, his own formula—his own brand of heartfelt comedies—and it was great being part of that scene when his films were exploding, it was very fortuitous to be in his team.

JC: What's the difference for you musically as being a session player as opposed to scoring the music?

LW: I’m not writing the music as a session player. I'm not hiring musicians, working budgets, working with directors, film studios, and music contractors. It's a big responsibility being a composer as opposed to being a session musician where you essentially show up on the day. Most often you’re hearing the music at the beginning of the session and by the end of the day, you’re done. So, it’s a gigantic difference. Maybe the same difference as farming to being a chef. [laughs] It's somewhat related, but it's a different aspect. Again, it's a much bigger responsibility being a composer, I feel.

JC: Yeah, okay. Is there any particular film score that you've worked with that you're super proud of?

LW: Super proud of Superbad.

JC: Okay. That one particularly?

LW: It was an R&B and funk-based score, and Sony was okay with financing and bringing the architects of that music into the fold. So, we flew out Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, and Bernie Worrell. That kind of legitimacy in that genre was brought to my music. [To hear Lyle’s music for Superbad, click here.]

JC: Also, I understand you've worked as a producer as well.

LW:  Yes, but to be precise I produced the original score for soundtrack, I was not a producer of the film. My largest scale music production was for the film Get Him to the Greek with Russell Brand and Jonah Hill. Twenty-something songs that had to be written, recorded and produced for the soundtrack. We whittled down our favorite ones to be in the movie and then which also appear on the soundtrack CD. That was great fun. [To watch the “African Child” video from Get Him to the Greek, click here.]

JC: What is the difference between producing a soundtrack as opposed to composing it?

LW: Well, there is overlapping in the two. Being a composer, I’m automatically the producer of the music. When I’m producing a soundtrack, I’ll bring in musicians and follow through to mixing – that’s the same job between the two hats.

JC: You released Uncommon Measures in 2021. Your last solo album was released in 2009. Why did this one come out much later?

LW: The reason it came out much later was due to my workload composing over the last decade. To add to that, it takes a long time to make a record of this scope; just the preparation and planning of orchestral recording alone took a good amount of time. I worked on the record when time permitted, within a four-year period. That's why it took so long.

JC: Uncommon Measures is a jazz fusion album. That’s very different from what you’ve played on before. How did you decide on jazz fusion?

LW: I think there's a thread of that kind of music on all of my solo records. For this record, jazz fusion only applies to certain aspects, whereas other some are neither jazz nor fusion. There are elements of rock, classical, soundtrack, prog rock, funk. All the tracks are instrumental and feature high levels of musicianship. This record was an opportunity to express various sides of who I am as a musician.

JC: You brought in John Ashton Thomas who had done the music orchestrating for Captain Marvel and Black Panther.

LW: Oh, John’s an orchestrator, arranger, conductor and composer. A brilliant musician all around. We've worked together within thirteen years on some of my movies. We’re kindred spirits in music, loving jazz, progressive rock, the music of our formative years. I knew I wanted him to be involved because he's such a great orchestrator and arranger. It’s a real joy and for me, each time a learning experience in the orchestral domain.

JC: Now, had you used an orchestra on your other solo albums?

LW: Yes, on my previous record I had some strings, miscellaneous woodwinds and brass, but recorded in piecemeal fashion. hadn’t booked a studio with a large orchestra for my own project, although I have several times for my film scores.


Orchestra playing on Uncommon Measures (2021)

JC:Is there a particular favorite for Uncommon Measures?

LW: I like them all quite a bit, but I would say that “North Star” is akin to the “greatest hit” of the entire record because it features the orchestra, has fantastic solos with drums, violin and guitar. It has a section that’s purely orchestral and dynamic. That piece alone is a pretty full meal. [To watch the “North Star” video click here.]

JC: Have you ever toured behind any of your solo albums, or are you planning to tour behind this one, Uncommon Measures?

LW: I haven't toured any of my music primarily because I've been busy working for other people. That has been my primary focus in making a living, and quite frankly how I was able to self-fund such a record as Uncommon Measures. It was not done on the cheap and was a huge expense out of pocket. Additionally, it's very to expensive tour without the support of a label. I've got a family and need to be responsible and keep the money coming in. So, at least for the time being going on the road—especially with an orchestra—is not in the works.

All that said, if an orchestra in Europe would finance to have me over to do some shows, that would work.

JC: In addition to recording Uncommon Measures, what else have you been doing the pandemic?

LW: I worked through the whole pandemic. I write music for Facebook, which is another job that I have. They have a program called "Facebook Sound Collection."

JC:  Oh really?

LW: It's essentially what they call "library music." It’s license free music for Facebook and Instagram users to accompany the videos they post. It’s a free service.  The music can be downloaded from the Facebook Sound Collection web site.  I’m one of many writers for the program, and was writing music for it during the pandemic.

Also last year, I released twelve records on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotifyetc. They’re my favorite collections of songs written for the Facebook Sound Collection, in a number of styles, also all instrumental. They're available for streaming and downloading on all the popular formats. 

JC: It’s quite a musical journey you had. You first started with Bourgeois Tagg, then a session musician, then you're a film composer, then a soundtrack producer and in addition you do these instrumental solo records. It's quite a lot of destinations along the way. How would you describe the whole journey?

LW: Yeah, it's been a physical manifestation of all my interests along the way. I feel very lucky to have had these experiences in such a broad arena. We all put our energy into the areas of life we're most passionate about .My musical interests just happen to vary widely and so it was natural for me to sidestep into different genres with different kinds of artists and then into the world of composing. The key is to say “yes” to any opportunity, even if it feels like a stretch. For me, that’s what led to other projects, and those to other projects. Through dedication, persistence, and perseverance through good times and bad, I was able to sustain a career over the long haul in this ever changing music business, and feel very blessed that things worked out the way they did. 

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