From Marvel to the main stage: get to know Nick Phoenix
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You may not know the name Nick Phoenix. You almost definitely won’t recognize the face of the goateed man. Put the words “Heart Of Courage” into any streaming service, however, and the epic orchestral swell you’re greeted with will transport you to all manner of film trailers and sporting events because that’s what Phoenix’s music production company-turned-project, Two Steps From Hell, has been producing since the early 2000s: music to accompany the biggest imagery imaginable.
While Phoenix has been hugely successful in this field alongside his Two Steps From Hell partner Thomas Bergersen, he’s long fostered a desire to return to where it all started. “My real love has always been rock ’n’ roll,” Phoenix tells Alternative Press from his studio in Los Angeles. While he’s here to put the finishing touches on a new Two Steps From Hell album, he’s actually discussing Wide World, his new album under his own name: a rich, melodic love letter to classic rock and country. It’s his follow-up to King Of One, quietly released last year and exploring the devastating loss of Phoenix’s son Jack, a talented artist, who was killed in 2015 by a driver fleeing police.
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So how do all of these musical projects fit together? “I don’t drink or do drugs because I got that all out of the way when I was a teenager, and something clicked in my body where I just can’t do them,” Phoenix explains. “So I tend to always be working.”
What has your relationship been, as a musician, with rock music?
When I first came out to California when I was 20 years old, I was in a band that was going to get signed to Atlantic Records. But then the singer ended up going to jail, so that fell apart. After that, I went back to college. I’d always had an interest in film music, and I’m a classical pianist originally, so I eventually ended up in that area. I tried to write rock songs in my 20s, but I couldn’t really do it — I couldn’t write great songs. But after working hard in this other field for all these years, when I went back to it, it came really naturally to me.
How did you become involved with writing music for film trailers?
I came back to Los Angeles after going to college in Connecticut. I actually never graduated… I was just going crazy trying to find musicians to play with, but everyone was playing heavy metal, and that wasn’t what I was looking to do then. When I came out to LA, I got a job at West L.A. Music, selling musical equipment. I got really into the gear at the store, and I ended up building up my own studio. One day a customer asked me if he could borrow my gear, as he’d got a job doing the music for a trailer, so I suggested that we could do it together — and that’s what we did. It was for an old Whoopi Goldberg movie called Corrina, Corrina . Somehow we pulled it off, and from that point on, I started studying everything I could, figuring out orchestration.
And how did that pan out?
The whole concept of scoring a trailer started in the late '90s. They realized it wasn’t enough to just use film score — they wanted something more over the top, condensed and more epic-sounding. From about 2000 to 2014, I did tons and tons of trailers, with my music cues used in every trailer for a Harry Potter or superhero movie. I have thousands of credits, but eventually we moved to a different model where companies like Sony, who distributed our music, started using it on TV. Once that happened, the trailer thing fell apart because they saw our music was on TV and didn’t want to use it for trailers anymore, as it had lost its exclusivity.
After such a rewarding detour from your love of rock, how did you end up returning to it?
I got really into the Grateful Dead when I was a teenager and eventually got to do a project with [one of the Grateful Dead’s two drummers] Mickey Hart about six or seven years ago. We were working on a project around sampling, where we made a virtual instrument out of all his crazy drums, and he said he was working on a record. He asked me to write a few songs, which got me back into writing songs again, though by the time I turned them in, the record was already done. But it was a helpful process.
Do these two sides of your music-making complement one another?
I have this great band I’ve put together. My partner, who I’ve done this software stuff with over the years, owns EastWest Studios, formerly Frank Sinatra’s studio, and the best in LA, so I have unlimited time there. Through the studio, I met the band, which features members of John Mayer's band and Death Cab For Cutie. The orchestral stuff is a lot of work, and so much goes into it; with the rock stuff, the songs come to me really easily. It’s so much fun, and it is a vacation from the other stuff.
What can you say about the artwork for Wide World, a cabinet of curiosities in which your head is one of the items within it?
There was a first album [2021’s King Of One], which I released quietly last year and didn’t really promote because of COVID. I also knew once I’d written this album that it was better. “Wide World” is supposed to be a post-pandemic kind of song, encouraging us to get out there and celebrate life. The artwork is therefore about depicting that. I wanted to have a bit of the Neil Young classic-rock vibe with it, as well as convey the world without showing it, so I liked the idea of those curiosity shelves, which we filled with relevant items.
What can you say about your previous record, King Of One, given that you didn’t have the chance to champion it when it was originally released?
The other record was quite a bit about my son. There’s a song on there, “I Will Not Forget Your Face,” that’s about him. I also think that’s part of where some of the songwriting has come from — what I’ve been through. My family has done really well, considering, and are really strong, which beats the odds. On the one hand, COVID affecting the release of the record felt cruel, but on the other hand, I just got on with the next one in the studio in my house.
Was there ever a moment when you weren’t sure if you would be able to write about the loss of your son?
With me, it was just about staying busy. Literally within three days of it happening, I was already starting to look at his artwork and compile it. We had a service for him that was basically an art show, where 20-30 of his pieces of art were mounted in a gallery, and I wrote a song for it. That’s how my brain works when I have to deal with something. I can’t even remember that now… I’m not sure I want to remember it. It’s a journey, and you just keep on going.
You’ve described the spacey-sounding “Andromeda” as "the story of a scientist dreaming of space travel, but also a love story between him and his assistant." Is there a concept for Wide World?
That’s a tough one… because I think I’m still finding the voice. I tend to write melodies at the piano, essentially singing nonsense at first, but then the word "Andromeda" came out of nowhere, and I realized that the song was, so I started writing the lyrics for it. It reminds me of the best space music ever written — the David Bowie stuff. I’m not comparing myself to him, but that’s what it feels like. It’s my Ziggy Stardust moment, in a way. "Andromeda" is basically about dreaming about going to another solar system, but it’s also a love song. We’re just finishing the video for that song, and I’m really excited about it. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. I took some chances, and I think it paid off.
Back on Earth, the song “Which Side You’re On” sounds very world-weary — sick of the endless arguments from both sides of the political spectrum.
That’s dead on. I didn’t want it to too obviously be on one side or the other because I didn’t want to go there and piss anyone off. On the other hand, I wanted to say something about those people who have gone off the deep end. I had a friend who turned into a big COVID-denier and anti-vaxxer and ended up pissing off everyone and losing all her friends. I was trying not to be judgmental, but she eventually lashed out at me, despite the fact I’d done nothing wrong. All the information had made her crazy. The point of the song is about letting those things go, whatever side you’re on, and getting back to normal.
What’s the ultimate goal for this music?
I want to get to a place where we can do some real gigs. Obviously, it can’t be somewhere too small, though, but somewhere more substantial, as I can’t drag these guys [in the band] to some dive bars. That’s my main motivation. I don’t care about how many albums it sells, or money; ideally some band I’d like would say we can open for them. That’s what I’m looking for.