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John Houlihan

By Dan Kimpel

John Houlihan: Composer/Music Supervisor: A New Hollywood Hybrid

With a résumé of over 60 feature films (including The Austin Powers franchise), and having selected music for television shows, advertising campaigns and president Barack Obama’s successful election bid, John Houlihan knows what plays best to picture. Now, for the hit CBS series “The Defenders”, he is credited as both a co-composer and the music supervisor.

“A lot of people are surprised I’m moving into composing,” he says. “Those who aren’t are the directors I’ve worked with.” He is quick to credit his partners. “I would be nowhere without Jeff Cardoni and Danny Saber. We do 25 minutes of score per episode. We spot on Friday morning, and turn in the score by midnight on Monday. I deal with the executive producers on mid-day Tuesday for fixes. By Friday we’re mixing.”

In the film world, where Houlihan developed an expertise in creating temp tracks to communicate ideas between directors and composers, not all music supervisors are involved with the score. “When I first started, no one told me I wasn’t supposed to be,” he confirms. “Early on, when I was a music coordinator, I took a composing class at UCLA with Mark Isham. I knew then that this was a whole world. Sure, I could find a song for a montage, but I had to figure out how to tell the story and help the director with the score.”

Houlihan says that seeing all sides of the music for picture equation is an advantage. “I look at the entire process. Usually a composer comes on quite late. As a music supervisor, sometimes I’m on two months before shooting starts.”

Prior to his supervising gigs, Houlihan was in bands. “My highest musical achievement is being able to play four hours of punk rock in a club until my fingers bleed, and then playing 30 minutes worth of encores,” he professes. Conceivably, the environment in the home studio where he creates sound sketches of his musical ideas is more sedate. “The truth about modern scoring is that it’s all sample and computer based. No one on network TV– even with orchestral scores – has the pencil on the paper anymore.” Both Cardoni and Sabre have full production tracking rooms where the team uses live instruments to enrich the sonic textures for “The Defenders”. 

All of Houlihan’s experiences weigh into his musical decisions. “To be successful in Hollywood, you have to be a 24/7 student of the game. You’re breaking it down on every level: Directing, score, song choice. the mix, how it plays – certain films I like seeing at different theaters at different times. You can pick up stuff from everywhere if you keep your eyes open.”

Among his mentors, he credits fellow SESAC composer Chris Beck with offering sage advice and a reality check. “I told Chris that the show was going well. He said, ‘Well, you haven’t been fired, so that’s a good sign in TV.’” 

What’s On My iPod?
“We have an episode of The Defenders where the characters go to Mexico for a caper, so I’ve been listening to Rodrigo y Gabriela and Los Hermanos Castro – a Cuban band from the Sixties.”
“I like the new Foster the People track, “Pumped Up Kids.” For every 100 bands, you might find one like them, or MGMT.”
“And there is a new Airborne Toxic Event song, ‘Changing.’”

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