We Chat With The New Team Composing Music For ‘The Simpsons’

Published on, Mar 2018

Geoff Foster (engineer) and Russell Emanuel (Chief Creative Officer of Bleeding Fingers Music). Pic by Jack Lewis

“We’ve got no power in our studio, so I’m calling from home,” begins an affable Russell Emanuel down the line from California. As the co-founder and chief creative of acclaimed composer collective Bleeding Fingers Music, he’s remarkably calm after a day of “freaking out”.

Perhaps it’s the company’s unique collaborative approach that helps ease the stress; a technique that has seen them take the industry by storm since it was founded in 2013.

Last year, they took over from long-time composer Alf Clausen on The Simpsons and have recently been scoring a wealth of praise and awards for their work on BBC’s Blue Planet II. “It’s doing okay,” he jokes. “I’d like to take all the glory for it, but I think there might be a few other people involved.”

Bleeding Fingers now has 12 in-house composers, each “surgically picked” because they bring something different to the table, and they work alongside a team of seasoned producers, which brings a second layer of musical aesthetic to the game. It’s a structure you don’t see too often in composing houses.

Emanuel’s journey to “reinvent” the licenced music industry began 20 years ago when he co-founded a company called Extreme Music, which was effectively the musical equivalent of a stock image library for film and TV.

“It was an industry that was very complacent and poorly served,” he recalls. “We were radically looking to change that business.

“I think it would be arrogant to say we were going to do that to the custom composer business. I don’t think there’s the same kind of opportunity, but certainly coming at it with this kind of team approach is definitely new.”

It’s an approach the industry is welcoming with open arms, as evident with the projects they’ve scored since forming only five years ago. It’s a point in his career he never imagined during his punk rock days in London, playing bass in various bands and working and touring with the likes of Stiff Little Fingers and The Jam. Emanuel actually co-founded Extreme Music with former Stiff Little Fingers drummer Dolphin Taylor.

“That seems to be the pattern for me,” he says. “Every turn I’ve taken has been a surprise and always a sharp left or right turn, never straight ahead. It was because of being on the road for so long that I kind of needed a change of career, but all I ever knew was music.

“I got into music for TV, all this production music library work, because it just felt like a way to get off the road. I actually thought it was going to be a nice, easy ride. I didn’t realise it was going to turn into a real job.”

Working that “real job” is when Emanuel caught the attention of composing legend Hans Zimmer, another key member of Bleeding Fingers. “We were just doing our thing and getting a lot of attention very quickly. Hans, through his then business partner, reached out to us in London, and said, ‘Hey, you know, we see what you’re doing. Come over to LA and just have a talk.’ That’s what we did and there’s been no looking back ever since.

“There’s never a wasted note with Hans. Everything’s emotionally brilliant and musically innovative. What I love about him is that he refuses to stand still, and there’s no formula. You never know what you’re going to get next. When you’re talking about punk, to me, he’s the ultimate punk. I’ve been with him enough to see. Anytime that a rule is in his way, it’s there to be broken.”

Anyone who caught Zimmer on his Australian tour last year can attest to the punk rock nature of his music and its accompanying production. It was also clear during that tour just how much emphasis the team places on nurturing younger talent.

“The composers working on [The Simpsons] are 30 years and under,” he says. “I think that’s a prime example of how we’re giving new and young talent an opportunity to work on kind of a national treasure flagship show.”

Emanuel says it was “nerve-racking” taking on such an iconic show, especially after someone like Alf Clausen made a shock departure from the hit series last year.

“I’d be lying if I said that we were bringing something massively new to The Simpsons, apart from a renewed energy,” he says. “All of us have grown up on The Simpsons, and everyone is extremely excited to be invited in.

“It was an amazing experience to be selected as the composer for that show. You can imagine the kind of excitement and energy on the camp every time a new episode comes our way.”

“We treat [Alf’s] score with a great deal of respect. Our guys are all coming at it, chomping at the bit, and there’s a lot of people working throughout the night to deliver something incredible…we’re burning the candle not only at both ends but also from the sides.”

Given creator Matt Groening’s punk rock roots, it seems a perfect fit. “He cares deeply about every aspect of that show,” Emanuel explains.

“He can make a joke out of sound. It’s kind of incredible to watch. He can put a sound into the show and all of a sudden there’s a joke there, which just didn’t exist before…I’ve never seen it before, and it was a real eye-opener.”

Even at this point in his career, Emanuel still genuinely has to pinch himself from time-to-time.

“I still wake up every morning and go, ‘They’re going to find out today. I’m going to be out of a job tomorrow.’ People’s stories are always very different…I’m always very jealous of the people that really have a plan.”

When you make a plan in any creative industry, chances are it won’t go as expected. “For me, it’s always just been hard work, just making sure that you always deliver on a promise, and never let anyone down, and really just keep building.

“It’s just head down and do the work, really. There’s no shortcut. You can’t look at what I had for breakfast and find a magic formula.”