Learn about Colin Bell’s musical influences and his career course as a composer

Colin Bell is among the successful music composers with over 20 years of experience in composing music pieces for wind ensemble, orchestra, percussion ensemble, marching band and movies. In this interview with Colin Bell, we’ll get to learn more about his life and career, the influences that led his creativity to go this far, and how he switched lanes to composing music for movies.

You have an interesting background; can you tell us more about that?

My father’s side of my family – his parents, my grandparents – immigrated over here from Scotland post World War 2, just after that, and they grew up playing bagpipes and drums and performing Scottish Highland dancing. My grandmother was a teacher of Scottish Highland dancing, so the whole Scottish traditional music culture was strong in our roots. Everyone took part in the culture by playing either bagpipes or drums, and doing Scottish Highland dancing.

When my grandparents came over, they were responsible for spreading that; it was already somewhat prevalent in the states, but they spread the culture through the network of people, they created a competitive bagpipe band circuit, they created a family pipe band in New Jersey, where I live, that became one of the best pipe bands in the country. They traveled to Scotland and all my uncles and aunt were playing bagpipes and drums, so when I was born, my entire family was into it, and I was just thrown into it immediately.

I was born, and two weeks later, I was in a car going to Montreal for my first Scottish music festival. You know, when bagpipers play they stand in a circle, and my parents just put the stroller in the middle of the circle (I was the first child, and I was like their experiment), and I was sleeping as a baby with bagpipers playing around me. That’s the only form of music that I understood when I was a young child, and the records my dad played, which, you know, old bands and stuff like that that he would play at dinner.

So I would be two years old with a set of play bagpipes, marching around my living room, mimicking my family, and that really established my core roots of music, the Celtic style of music. So that was my first core DNA fingerprint of my music. Celtic music is typically coming from the heart. These melodies can be hundreds of years old, so I feel like that was one of the first defining things as a musician. It comes from a place of the soul, and I think there’s a reason why we’re still drawn to pentatonic scales and traditional melodies even in this year now; it’s because it speaks to our humanity way back. So, I feel that’s a big part of who I am; even when I write more complex styles of music, there’s still a part of that with me in every genre that I work in.

You obviously grew up in that environment, and you started doing this kind of music, then you got into school. Do you want to tell us about that?

So, I did that all throughout, and then around middle school age, I didn’t know anything in terms of playing instruments. I was just in the Celtic world of music, and then a friend of mine dragged me to a school band class, and my eyes opened up. I was thrust into the world of the concert band and orchestral instruments, I knew what they were, but I never participated in it. All I knew was my cultural background, and then, a spark went off. Even at the young age of 10 or 11, I saw these other instruments and learned how to read that notation even if it was different from Celtic music. I started playing drums in the school band, and that led me to participate in the musical ensembles my school offered.

I played other instruments than percussion, like brass, just to learn it, and I wanted to absorb as much as I could. I played in the drumline, in the marching band, and that branched off into another bigger thing. Once I graduated high school, I was into the band world identity. My undergrad was in music education, and I planned on becoming a music teacher, which didn’t happen because I got the bug of wanting to be a professional musician. I ended up being in a drum and bugle corps called The Boston Crusaders. I played in the drumline, and I got to tour the country a bunch. So, I would say that the next major influence on me was the drum corps thing. It’s like music on steroids, it’s like 70 brass players with a massive wall of sound and 40 percussionists, enormous amounts of drumline drums and concert percussion instruments.

The whole thing is just meant to make stadiums full of 25.000-30.000 jump up every five minutes and scream their faces off pretty much. That high adrenaline became the next major imprint on me. That’s something that I still feel influences my orchestral writing, and that’s why I love film music too; it’s just the hugeness of it ― big brass, energy, especially in action movies. I just love the wall of sound that a huge amount of musicians play. The drum corps era really put that high-octane high-energy imprint on me as a musician.

Which led you into the reggae-style mix?

That was my next influence. I graduated college with a degree in music education and promptly decided not to become a teacher at all. I got the bug of wanting to play in a band (I was playing jazz, combo groups, and jam bands). I wanted to write music for school marching bands and percussion ensembles. I had a little business doing that, arranging and composing for that, so I was growing as a composer through that, which was awesome. Sometimes, a school would call and say “Hey, we want to do a classical music show”. I’m opening up the scores of Mahler and Shostakovich and studying them and writing arrangements of their music for different kinds of ensembles, or they are like, “We want to do a Latin show”, or “Arrange this Hindustani music for an ensemble.”

I cut my teeth as a composer and arranger by doing all sorts of impossible arrangements of taking this genre of music and putting it into this different type of ensemble, and I did that for 20 years. The reggae band came along and contacted me in the early 2000’s on Myspace (when that was a thing) and said, “Hey, we saw what you do as a drummer, and we think you might be interested in us”. I knew I wanted to go on tour, I wanted to be in a band, and these two brothers, Dave and Steve Fowler ran a band called Echo Movement and they had already established themselves in the local scene in New Jersey, which is a very specific and passionate community.

The Stone Pony in New Jersey, most famously known by Bruce Springsteen, was our backyard. So, there was this awesome local scene going on. I joined them, and I just started learning how to play reggae music, soca music, and dancehall on a drum set, which was completely out of my comfort zone at that time. Reggae drumming is very different compared to standard rock/pop; we’re accustomed to clapping on two and four with rock music. Reggae music is playing what’s called a one-drop beat, and everything, the bass and snare drums hit at the same time on beat three, turning the whole feel around from what we are used to. It took me, I would say, about two years to really get my mind and musicality around that.

To sum it up, I consider my time with Echo Movement as one of the most formative experiences in my musical career, even more so than my undergraduate college degree because I had to learn a style of music I did not grow up with, be part of an independent business, and tour a ton. The guys were very specific about respecting the reggae music culture. They were way ahead of the curve in terms of cultural appropriation before that even became a thing.

We were a bunch of dudes from New Jersey and none of us were from the islands or any type of culture, but we made sure we were very studied, and the music was written honestly, so we never tried to sing with a fake accent, and we never put clothes on that misrepresented who we were. We were who we were, and we played with groups like Steel Pulse, The Wailers, Inner Circle, etc. We hung out with these guys; they gave up props for how authentic we were and how we honored the music well. We went on, and we did a bunch of Warped Tours and self-headlining tours as an independent band for a lot of years, we owned our own bus, we drove ourselves everywhere from A to B, we ran the business ourselves, we did everything ourselves.

The two brothers owned the business, and my job was being number-three and assisting with promotions for the band. I was in charge of the street team, so we did about 40-50 dates on our tours, and I had to line up two to four people in every city to meet me at 5:30 AM at the gate to give them their free tickets and in return, we gave them fliers and sticker to go around and promote us, and told them: “You get to be here for free and hang out with us all day.” I made this network of hundreds of people that were fans of the band, so we were really in the trenches. I got a good self-promotion business sense from that as well as a musical education.

Then, the next big thing was the transition to film?

I was already composing and arranging for the marching band and drum corps stuff, and I did it for almost 20 years, and it was great and profitable and also rewarding because I felt like I knew almost every style of music at this point. But it started to run its course; it was what it was, and it was cool, but I was looking for a different kind of creative opportunity with more people in a different way. I went through a period of time, or maybe two years, when I kind of stopped doing that stuff, and it was pretty dark. To be honest, I was down.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I wasn’t playing in a band anymore. That period of time was over for me. I really struggled, and then I started noticing film music more ― I was already an avid fan, but looking at how it is made, which really is not what I thought it was. I decided to go back to school later in my age. I already had some contacts and did some small projects with media composing. I was doing podcast theme songs or maybe short little films here and there, so I was cutting my teeth, but I decided to do two things. One, if I wanted to do this, I got to get my skills up. So, how am I going to do that? I’ve got to go back to school and train. And two, I wanted to go somewhere that was going to thrust me into the center of the scene, so I decided to go to Berklee to get my master’s degree in film scoring, which was probably the best choice in my career. In a matter of a year, I completely transformed my skill set. I understood how that music was created. I moved from a “pen and paper” composer, like composing strictly through notation software, to composing through the DAW, as we do now, understanding how you do that first and then do the MIDI take-down, turn it into a score, and then you send it off to the group. I came into it later, but with it, I was able to bring this huge skill set and my own unique upbringing into it.

I was fortunate enough to do Bezos, so I got my first full-length film, and I did it in four weeks, and it was completely done by me. I hired one musician, a guitar player, and I recorded everything else. I had one engineer, Joe Costable, who’s a really accomplished engineer who helped me get the final mix in order. Still, it was a quick education on why composers have giant teams of people behind them, and I did every single step myself. That’s where I am now; I got the skills, I got the passion for it, I already got a first full-length feature, I was fortunate enough to have that opportunity, and now I’m ready for the next big thing. I got my workflow ready, and I got my team in place, so let’s go!

Where did you get the inspiration for the soundtrack?

The director Khoa Le had a very specific vision of the style of music, which was cool and minimalistic, he wanted to hear synth sounds of that era, the 80s, and early 90s, and so, for people like us, there’s a heavy nostalgia involved with the sounds of early 90s computers. Signing on America Online or dot matrix printers, Windows opening, and all those old sounds, so what I did was I knew that we have a very specific aesthetic for the film. Before I even wrote a note, I just inventoried my entire synth collection, and I made a template of all the types of sounds that represent every emotion needed in the film through the lens of those kinds of sounds. I spend about a week just getting the right crayons in the box, that’s how I usually describe it.

When you write electronic music, you have an infinite crayon box; you can do anything with them, it’s amazing and overwhelming. You need to have parameters and boundaries as a composer. So I created my crayon box if you will. I had all my synths, analog, and digital synths, lined up: this is the language, the crayon box of the film. I even assigned different types of emotions. My template was based on “dark and foreboding synths” or “uplifting lively synths”, or these kinds of pads based on mood and the emotional needs of the film, and fit the aesthetic.

“My template was based on “dark and foreboding synths” or “uplifting lively synths”, or these kinds of pads based on mood and the emotional needs of the film, and fit the aesthetic.”

That really helped a lot because then the music just poured out and enabled me to write in a short four-week time frame because I did all that figuring it out first. I sat down with Khoa, did two spotting sessions, and took detailed notes. He is great because he is very hands-off and allows me to explore things freely while at the same time being very articulate. There were times I was spot-on at the first take, and there were times when he was like, “You’re interpreting this the wrong way, it needs to be this”.

The insight on the music of Bezos was getting those sounds collected upfront. That kind of early synth, the type of sounds you might associate with early video games, and then also the dot matrix printer sound that I incorporated in a couple of groove sounds. It’s subliminal, but I feel it’s effective. When you hear those sounds, and you see the people on screen and those old 386 computers from back in the day, I think it all comes together nicely to represent the time period.