Interview with John Massari

By • May 2, 2018

In the annals of absurdist 80’s kult films, there’s only one movie that combines a bonkers alien invasion with a universal fear of clowns. That distinction belongs to 1988’s “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” wherein a carnival of comically grotesque creatures descend upon a small town – turning the wonderful stuff of Big Top themed-entertaining against us with a lethal arsenal that includes mutant cotton candy, shadow puppets and popcorn. The Klowns were given life from the wonderfully deranged minds of Chiodo Brothers Charles, Edward and Stephen (who’d take directing reigns as well), their talents truly bonded with the devilishly child-like glee they brought to makeup and stop motion animation in such projects as “Critters,” “Freaked” and “Robocop.”

Yet any circus would be half as effective as creating kid-scarring nightmares if not for its music. The same could also be said for any cult movie minus its loopy score. A big credit for “Klowns’” endurance goes to its NYC-born composer John Massari. Scored at the relative beginning of career that was already showing eclectic promise with the likes of “Hart to Hart,” “The Wizard of Speed and Time” and “Lust for Freedom,” Massari devised a virtual sideshow of styles for the Chiodos. On one white-gloved hand, there was the symphonic-styled bombast of a 50’s creature-on-the loose flick. The others would show off circus calliope music and rude punk rock energy – an attitude hilariously summed up by The Dickies title song. Like “Klowns,” Massari refused to let his imagination be constrained by any budgetary limit, helping the movie live on in the WTF annals of genre cinema.

In the 30 years since “Killer Klowns,” Massari has racked up over 100 credits that have touched upon every iconic personage from Sweeney Todd to Johnny Quest and a virtual Jesus Christ. But it’s arguably the Chiodos’ twisted characters that remain Massari’s most memorable subjects. Now with their anniversary, Massari’s imagination has ignited “Killer Klowns’” music into true orchestral invader status with a “Reimagined” album. Igniting the project through a quickly-funded social media drive, Massari has gathered numerous instrumentalists (including “The Walking Dead’s” Bear McCreary on accordion and flutist Sara Andon) into The Bridge Recording Studio to conjure an orchestral impact worthy of “It Came From Other Space,” mixing his symphony with such instruments s the organ and rock guitars to take his score into into a bigger, better musical dimension that’s lost none of his original lo-fi charm. With The Dickies returning to sing a souped-up title track, The result is all treat and no trick when it comes to a reconceptualization that will blow away longtime fans and likely gain new Klown cultists.

“Klowns’” three-ring celebration begins with Arrow’s special edition blu ray, continues on with a live score-to-picture performance in LA on May 19th,and concludes with a formidable special presentation on Varese Sarabande Records, whose releases includes such bonuses as Massari’s way-back-when demo and a new grrll power tune, it’s an all-in celebration of a carnival from interplanetary hell whose sinister appeal has kept on giving – particularly for a composer who ran away to join a hilariously sinister circus.

What sparked your imagination to turn you into a composer?

Mixing the reimagined Killer Klowns soundtrack

It all started at a triple feature of “The Time Machine,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Mysterious Island” when I was 6 years old. The music from those films struck me like a bolt of lightning and gave me such a transforming experience that I began to learn how to recreate that musical experience for both myself and others. I immediately started playing the piano, trying to capture and relive the sounds and sensations I witnessed.

Right before “Killer Klowns” you scored a quite wonderful feature version of “The Wizard of Speed and Time,” which grew from a short that was a favorite at comic conventions. Could you talk about the movie, and working with its wizard Mike Jittlov?

That is a wonderful question and I have very fond memories of the experience working on that film and directly with Mike Jittlov. What stands out in my mind the most is that I was asked to act in the film when I all I wanted to do was concentrate on the music score. Thanks to academy award winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter, I received expert coaching in how to face the camera, a memory I shall hold dearly and never forget. My daughters watched the movie several times and did not recognize me because of my Frank Zappa hairdo and mustache. One day I came home and while pointing at me exclaimed, “Dad! You’re the pizza guy!” I feel that this question in of itself can be an article. All I can tell you now at this time is that Mike is doing well. I spoke with him a few weeks ago and we are embarking on a small project together that I very much look forward to.

When you were approached with “Killer Klowns,” what was your first reaction?

I was struck by the brilliance and originality of not only the idea and concept of the movie, but the visual landscape that the Chiodo Brothers created. I just knew that fate would bring me to this movie somehow, and I expressed that in my first audition demo – which was thankfully well received by both the studio and the filmmakers.

Did it strike you how many styles could be part of the score?

Immediately! At the time I was listening to a great deal of Frank Zappa, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work and The Beastie Boys. While at the same time being fascinated with the later symphonies of Shostakovich and Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. I schemed a plan to somehow combine all these styles to create the perfect pastiche!

Given how wonderfully ridiculous the concept of “Klowns” was how important was it for the music to walk the tightrope between having fun with the material, while not hurting it with musical condescension?

John’s Wildcat Studio in 1987

Staying on that tightrope was of the utmost importance because if we fell off, we lost our audience. So the strategy was to play the comedy with serious music and strategic pauses in the music to allow visual and verbal gags to breathe.

Did you have a favorite Klown to score for?

Really? You are going to force me into a King Solomon style decision? Each and every Klown is my favorite. I hold each one dear as though they were one of my children. They each have charms of their own that I cherish.

John and the Chiodo Brothers at Monsterpalooza (L-R Stephen Chiodo, Charlie Chiodo, Shorty, Slim. Fatso, John Massari and Edward Chiodo)

Tell us about working with the Chiodo Brothers, and what you felt made them distinctive.

Working with the Chiodos made me feel like a 12 year old kid again. Their enthusiasm and artistic expertise is infectious. Each of the Chiodo Brothers has a distinctive expertise, so watching them work and discuss concepts together was quite illuminating. There would be times that they would all be talking at the same time, yet come to a conclusion together. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

How did The Dickies come into the picture for the infamous theme song?

John and The Dickies at the Viper Room

Prior to the films first day of shooting, music Director Bob Hunka brought The Dickies on board and communicated the basic concept of the movie at which point Leonard Grave Phillips wrote this perfect badass song that completely defines the film.

How was the original score for “Klowns” produced, especially when it came to how orchestras were sampled back in the 80’s day?

Back in the 80’s samplers that produced realistic believable acoustic instrument sounds of were very rare. The reliability was not 100% – as it would be today. You could never achieve the true orchestral sound as you can today. Bearing that in mind, we made a consciousness decision to not use a live orchestra and instead use synthesizers and samplers of the day in a unique stylized fashion to create an orchestra-like sound without sounding like an orchestra. The Chiodo brothers were very precise in their direction, especially Charlie, who specified that he wanted an elegant orchestral sound and classically-motivated music coming out of unfamiliar-sounding instruments.

What gave you the idea of doing an orchestral version of “Killer Klowns?”

Bill Begley

Five years ago I met fans for the first time that were totally in love with the movie and its score. One person in particular, Bill Begley (who sadly is no longer with us) remarked on how the classical influence attracted him to my score and he said how wonderful it would be to hear it performed by a live orchestra. Therefore the seed was planted and began to grow.

This “Klowns” was made possible by crowd funding. Did you look at similar campaigns from other composer’s “concept” album “fund me’s” in putting yours together?

Oddly enough what fascinated and inspired me were campaigns that had nothing to do with orchestral film music. One was James Lopez’s ‘Hullabaloo” a 2D animated steampunk Film by distinguished Disney veteran 2D animators. And secondly, actor and producer, Wilson Cruz’s “Out of the Box” LGBT documentary Series.

How did you want to expand the score for this version?

Komposing the original Killer Klowns

My original plan was to stay true to the score as it originally stood but performed by an orchestra. The only tow pieces of music that were expanded upon was the classic Killer Klown March – it appears several times thru the film as a motif, which no version lasting longer than a minute. It was a great experience to expand it to a full six-minute piece of music where I could develop the music to my heart’s content. I added variations and ended with a slow epic metal ballad played by guitarist Jonathan Padilla. Alex May on drums, Margaret Maria on electric cello and myself playing keyboard and bass. The second was Muscle Car Klown performed by myself, Jonathan Padilla and composer Bear McCreay, all produced with my new Cinematic Steampunk sound.

A lot of the charm of the 80’s synth, or small orchestral scores is their stripped down nature. What was the challenge of symphonically expanding your original without losing that low-fi magic? And what new instruments could you add into the mix?

Sara Andon on Flute with the Klowns Wind Section

In order to meet that challenge I had to approached the recording session as though it was 1958 recording session – with a full woodwind and brass section, percussion, harp and keyboard and a small string section. Everything from the placement of the musicians in the studio and microphone techniques were precisely set as in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s television scores. When you add to that mix some of the greatest musicians in the world, it resulted in a very gratifying production. My aim was to create an atmosphere of fun, affording the musicians a bit of leeway to ham-it-up. Overall we had a very fun and rewarding recording session. Each performance was accomplished on either Take 1 or Take 2.

What were the recording sessions like? And what do you think the musicians made of the score?

When I woke up the morning of The Bridge Recording Studio session, I blasted out of bed and could not get to the studio fast enough. Granted I stopped at Porto’s because an orchestra moves on its stomach and is motivated by good food (also Noah’s Bagels delivered). Many of the musicians grew up watching this film as kids. They were very familiar with it and their focus and enthusiasm was infectious.

John Konducts the Klown Orchestra at The Bridge Recording Studio

I particularly loved the big organ sound for this album. It’s an instrument you never seem to hear enough of on any score. Do you think there’s an automatically scary connotation to it, especially when it comes to clowns?

That is a very good observation. I imagine the big cathedral organ to be a giant circus calliope, which matches our Klown world perfectly.

What do you think of the true big top nature that the orchestra gives to the score’s “Klown” component?

When the composition changes textures and moves on the turn of a dime, the orchestra helps create a wild ride.

John and the Walking Dead accordianist Bear McCreary

How did the score’s punk rock attitude grow for this album?

These past few years I have been working on a project called Cinematic Steampunk, which is distributed by A-List Trailer Music. This sound grows from the many influences that I have experienced during my musical life. It is my own odd combination of raw energy and classical music that I most admired from composers such as Frank Zappa..

Tell us about the album’s bonus tracks.

Marcus LaCroix

I could not resist including the my original audition demo. The contrast to the re imagined score is quite drastic. This demo captures my raw initial impressions which struck me like a bolt of lighting. It was composed in one day and recorded the next. The choice of this scene to score was crucial. In this scene we get to know our main characters, we seen the inside of the Klown ship as Klowns chase our heros prior to the invasion of Cresent Cove. “Escape into Klown Kathedral” gets an old fashion theatre organ treatment inspired by loyal fan fan and classical Organ connoisseur, Marcus LaCroix. It is fun to image that Kliller Klowns may have been a classic horror film in the early days of Hollywood’s silent era. This interpretation lends well to that reminiscence. Re orchestrating and performing the orchestra version for theater organ was quite a thrill. “Tell Me What is Real” was a collaboration between my very good friends Larry Goetz and Robin Levy Goetz. The lyrics are inspired by a story my Grandmother told me when she came to America as a little girl. Larry was the lead vocalist and Robin sang back up and atmosphere voices. The musical themes stem from the iconic Killer Klown march. It was important for me to personalize the music for Klowns in some way. The “Killer Klowns” score was the last score of mine that my Grandmother heard before she passed away.

The full scope of the Killer Klowns orchestra

What did the Chiodos think of your musical re-imagining?

They were completely caught by surprise as they sat inside Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Brothers, unaware of what was about to happen. When they heard the first blast of orchestration, they looked like three little boys at Christmas time.

Tell us about the live event for the score that’s been put together for Los Angeles?

I am excited about the circus atmosphere where people can dress up in costume, have fun, be entertained and have a sense of a homecoming. The concert is taking place on the very day the movie premiered 30 years ago. At the moment, I am drowning in preparation. But seriously, all hands are on deck, armed to the teeth to make this concert a success. I am certain of one fact, when I walk onto the stage. I will pull out my baton and give a spectacular performance. My fellow brother and sister composers have been supportive and are excited for me. We all envision events such as this becoming a tradition, such as Burning Man and Coachella.

What do you think this album shows about how 80’s cult scores can be re-imagined in a more “traditional” was as such? And what other ones can you hear getting this kind of treatment – even if they might be from movies you scored?

Fans of any particular cult film could anticipate reinterpretations of their favorite music performed live. It would be fun to hear John Carpenter’s scores orchestrated and performed by an orchestra and play in concert, as well as all the classic horror films of the 1980’s like “Nightmare on Elm Street,” etc…

There’s a “Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 3D” now listed on the IMDB. Do you think this might actually happen, and how do you think they’d freak out a new generation that’s all about Cirque De Soleil as opposed to The Ringing Brothers when it comes to real life big tops?

All I can say is that this moment is that I’m held to a non-disclosure agreement!

Get tickets for the live score and Q & A “Killer Klowns” 30th anniversary event at Los Angeles’ Montalban Theater on Saturday May 19th HERE

Pre-order John Massari’s re-imagined “Killer Klowns,” available May 25th on Varese Sarabande HERE

Purchase Arrow Video’s new special edition of “Killer Klowns” on blu ray HERE

Visit John Massari’s website HERE

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