The pressure cooker of a Cirque du Soleil creation can’t be for the faint of heart. Being creative to a deadline isn’t for everyone. Our interviewees this month found themselves thrust from one deadline-driven pressure cooker to another, resulting in the quickest show premiere to CD turnaround we’ve seen.
The tasks of both creating the music and producing the soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring creation, Totem (2010, Cirque du Soleil Musique CDSMC-10034), fell to the Montréal musical team of “Bob & Bill.” Their ‘real’ names are Guy Dubuc (Ge Doo-BOOK) and Marc Lessard (Mark Less-ARD) – so who is “Bob” and who is “Bill?” “It’s a big secret,” Marc hinted, when we talked in late October. Explained Guy, “It’s a team actually. Nobody’s nobody, the team is called Bob & Bill.”
That teams first major project was the musical soundtrack for the popular UbiSoft video Game Splinter Cell (Pandora Tomorrow). Though their production of the Kooza CD was the first time Cirque fans had heard of the team, it wasn’t the first show they did for the company. That would have been the show that turned into Soleil de Minuit/Midnight Sun. “As a matter of fact, that was the first show we ever did with Cirque,” explains Marc. “It [came about] from one of our friends [at] the International Festival de Jazz de Montréal (www.Montréaljazzfest.com), Laurent Saulnier (Ed: Vice-President, Programming and Production). He talked to the circus about us and that’s how we ended up doing the special for the 25th anniversary of the Jazz Festival and the 20th anniversary of Cirque du Soleil.” They were responsible for Remixing, Arrangements and Orchestrations and were Musical Directors for the 2004 show. “We had an orchestra of at least 70 musicians, and a lot of singers. And we were also playing. [We worked with] two great Directors, Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, who did Delirium after that.”
Two years later a concept album with arrangements and production by the pair was released, Pink Floyd Redux (2006, Zone 3 ZON-22176). “It’s a concept album we wanted to do, with lounge [versions] of Pink Floyd music sung by girls only,” said Guy. “We re-arranged some of Pink Floyd’s biggest hits in an electronica, lounge-ey, all-girls aspect.” It was two years after that that they released their first album under the team name Bob & Bill, Crime Report (2008, Orange Music OMCD-5551).
It was also in 2008 that they were asked to arrange and produce the Jean-François Côté-composed soundtrack for the Cirque show Kooza (2008, Cirque du Soleil Musique CDSMC–10028). In an interesting aside, Marc confided that the DVD was recorded before the CD. “The same team that [mixed] the DVD sounds did the mixing of the CD (Ed: that would be Rob Heaney and Brian Mercier), [and] we used tracks from the DVD to start building the [CD’s] songs. So we kept some tracks from the DVD.” This led to some interesting track credits on the CD, including guitar and percussion tracks taken from the DVD.
They also expanded the horn-infused soundtrack with three different brass sections. Guy: “As we worked with [composer] Jean-François Côté we wanted some [of the] brass parts to have a big band sound. In the live show it’s only two brass [pieces], sometimes three, but [with some of] his songs it’s really cool to [include] big brass. So in Montréal we hired a small big band to play on some songs, more like a basic big band track. And we used the instrumentalists of the show to do the solos, to [reflect] the personality of the show. We also had a classical brass section, [which was] used for the orchestral parts.”
First Nation Influence
But it wasn’t just their production of the Kooza soundtrack that gave them the inside track on the composers job for Totem (which these French-Canadians pronounce tow-TEM, not TOW-tum as Americans might). Guy: “We were already working with Cirque du Soleil as arrangers and occasional composers for special events, so we [were working] a lot with [Cirque Musical Director] Alain Vinet. And he proposed to director Robert Lepage and (Totem Director of Creation) Neilson Vignola [that we] do the music for Totem.”
The soundtrack melds many forms of World Music, but places special emphasis on First Nation (what those in the USA might call “Native American”) music. But to incorporate that music successfully involved special care. Guy: “We worked with a First Nations guy from Quebec City who is the singer in the show right now, Christian Laveau (LAV-oh, www.christianlaveau.com). He’s a Huron, and [we] proposed [him to] Robert Lepage because we knew him from working on other projects. This way we had somebody [whom] we could consult musically, to ask questions about the music.”
Marc added, “And of course the show is based on the evolution of man, so we had to find music of all different nations…”
“…In the world actually,” said Guy, completing the sentence. “For [First Nations] music, we consulted with Christian a lot. Not only about the music, but also for the staging. That was the point of having somebody [like Christian], we could ask if we could go [to a musical place] or [even] further.” They also utilized Mr. Laveau for lyrics to “Onta,” composing the others themselves in “traditional Cirque-ish.”
Songs can be like children to their composers, but do the pair have any favorites? “I’m pretty happy with “Koumaya” (Koo-MY-uh), for the girls with the bowls,” answered Guy. “It’s a mixture of African and Chinese music. We got the idea and it was a good flash.”
“And it’s a song we wrote really fast, it [took] ten minutes to write,” said Marc. “It’s been [in the show] from the demo [stage] and everybody liked it. When we tried it with the girls it worked perfectly.”
“I also like the finale, “Omé yo Kanoubé,” Guy continued, “because it’s a very happy song. And for a show it’s fun to write something really happy. Sometimes we wrote stuff that was too dark. We always came back to listening to the old [Cirque] shows and [re]working the parts that were too dark. We wanted a really nice happy soundtrack.”
“From the beginning it was important for us to have some happiness in the music,” commented Marc. “It’s hard to bring happiness to music; it’s easy to get into really dark things, and we were telling ourselves, ‘Let’s get more happy.’”
With Totem premiering in Montréal in late April, 2010, and the CD being available in October, the six-month turnaround must be the quickest in Cirque history. How did it come about, and why? Guy elaborated, “We had a quick OK from Guy Laliberté to start producing the CD. Guy asked us to do the CD right after the premiere.” It was important to Laliberté to produce the CD more quickly than had been done in the past. Which was not easy, Marc said, but, “We had a deadline. That’s what we do in life, too, [when] we produce albums. With our [own] music it was not easy but it was quick.”
The request to immediately start work on a soundtrack CD after being involved in the vortex of creation meant jumping from one frying pan to another. Marc: “We took like a two-week break and then started recording everything. It took about three months, we started in May and finished in August. [Cirque Musical Director] Alain Vinet produced the album with us, which is really important to say. Which was good; we’re so into our music that it was a big help with Alain being there, [it was] another set of eyes on the music.”
The experience the duo had working on the Kooza CD didn’t directly apply to the recording of the Totem CD: “It’s completely different,” Marc explained. “With Kooza we were only arranging Jean-François Côté’s music. [With] Totem it was our music so it was a bit different.” Guy added, “Yeah, because for Totem we wrote the music from A to Z. For Kooza we were the producers and arrangers.”
One of the earliest decisions was who should play on the album, explained Marc. “We’re musicians, that’s what we do in life. I always play drums, bass and guitar, and Guy plays keyboards.” But he then reassured, “First of all, it was a must to incorporate everybody in the process of the album, which we did on Totem for sure.”
Guy concurred. “To Alain Vinet it was important to incorporate the band and to have album versions [of the songs in the show]. It was important that the album have songs that you recognize from the show and have the same sound. It was also important to go other places and incorporate other people and different sounds to make the production a CD [that stands by] itself.”
“There were some parts where we used other people, as in “Toreador.” In the live show (drummer) Nick D’Virgilio’s singing the whole part, but on the CD we used a really traditional Spanish guy from Montréal (Marcos Marin). We still kept Nick in the response in the chorus though, because he has such an amazing voice.”
“The production [used] many instrumentalists and we decided by feeling. For example, we would think – OK, it would be nice to have Nick the drummer on “Crystal Pyramid” – and we started adding people this way, instead of recording all the tracks ourselves.”
Marc elaborated. “Sometimes we kept drummer Nick’s track and I [would] play drums over it, and then we [would] decide which track works best for the CD. It wasn’t so much a matter of us wanting to play on the album, it was [trying to get] the best sound we could. We love the guys so much that we tried to put them on the album as much as possible. That was important to us, they are a big part of the CD. Because those guys have been there since the beginning of [the shows] creation; they were there for three months of rehearsal in Montréal. They worked really hard and we know it. It’s a big thing at Cirque that it’s really important to incorporate the musicians and we did it as much as we could.”
On the finished CD, there were two songs fans wondered about since they didn’t seem to be in the show. Marc explained, “[“Cum Sancto Spiritu”] is not in the show right now. It was a number that was supposed to be [in the show] but didn’t make it. “Kunda Toyé” is the backup number, for a hand-to-hand act. But we liked the music and with Alain Vinet we decided to put both “Cum Sancto” and “Kunda Toyé” on.
Of all the musicians that appear on the CD, one, Daniel Taylor, appears courtesy of another label (Sony Classical). Guy: “He’s a guy we’ve worked with before (Ed: On Crime Report), a star international classical countertenor singer. We thought about him because the part is really really high, so he has a little feature part.”
In addition to the creation musicians, several musicians familiar to Cirque fans also appear on the disk. Francine Poitras and Mathieu Lavoie (From Saltimbanco and Quidam/Varekai respectively) sing on “Terre-Merre,” and Wayne Hankin (also from Varekai) plays woodwinds on several cuts. Guy: “We work a lot with them on [Cirque’s] special events, and they’re good friends. We used them on the demos where we presented the songs, so it was natural for us to include them in parts of the CD.”
A wide variety of musical styles is evident throughout the CD, including two songs that, on first blush, stick out. “Indie-Hip,” the music that accompanies the Rings scene in Act One is one such piece. What inspired it’s Indian musical leanings in a piece whose setting is Muscle Beach? “It actually was the aesthetic of the number; if you [look at] the costumes they come from Krisha colors,” Guy explained. “So that’s why we went with Indian music, a mix of Indian and hip-hop.”
In a departure from most other Cirque soundtracks the music from the Act Two clown piece, “Fast Boat,” is also on the CD. This wasn’t a hard choice, according to Marc. “Working in collaboration with Alain we put all the songs [together] and then decided which ones we [should] put on the CD. We really liked “Fast Boat;” it’s a clown act but it’s kind of groovy. Of course it’s a different song, but one nice thing about the circus is you can go anywhere [musically], and we went somewhere else with that track.”
“And it’s kind of cool that it’s on the CD,” Guy added, “because it’s in the show and if you saw the show it would be a reminder of that number.”
Marc also clued us in to a worthy musical inclusion. “Charles Denard, Jr., who is our chief musical director (Ed: and plays keyboards in the show), has [pretty much] the only keyboard solo on the CD and it’s on that track. He’s from New Orleans and he’s a really good Hammond B3 organ player. So if you listen carefully to the song there’s a big solo by Charles on it.”
When we asked if there was anything missing from the CD they wished they could include, we got an interesting answer from Guy. “There’s a remix from Alain Vinet we wanted to put on the CD. Because Alain is [also] a DJ, and whenever there’s a big premiere or party for Cirque he DJ’s. And he was always playing that [remixed] track and everybody was liking it. So we wanted to put it on [the CD], but it was a matter of budget.”
Dreaming the Future:
Completion of the Totem CD doesn’t mean their collaboration with Cirque ended. “We just came back from Shanghai (China) playing a big show with the circus [at] Expo 2010 Shanghai (www.expo2010.cn),” said Guy. “It was our personal Bob & Bill project – our songs, with a singer and brass section, Marc playing drums and [myself on] keyboards.”
“And it’s house music, so it’s party music,” Marc added. “And we did pretty well there.”
Guy agreed. “People were really happy. We made the Chinese people move, we had a great time. Thanks again to the circus because it was so well organized. Sound and everything was amazing.” The duo is now on to working on their second studio album, a house music project.
Their ability to tackle the wide variety of musical influences needed for a show about man’s evolution was something for which they have been preparing for a long time. Marc: “The thing that helped us most was the variety of styles we’d been performing before. It’s been happening a lot in Montréal, which is a big cosmopolitan town. Guy and I have been partners for ten years, but we’ve been playing together in [many different] bands for 20 years. African bands, Brazilian bands, a lot of jazz music, all [types of] music actually. That’s why we were so happy to work on the Totem project, because it’s the way we’ve always worked, [with] different sounds and [music from different] places on the planet.”
Guy was quick to add, “We must [give] flowers to Cirque du Soleil and Guy Laliberté. From (Musical Director) Alain Vinet to (Director of Creation) Neilson Vignola to (Director) Robert Lepage to (Founder and Guide) Guy Laliberté to (Vice-President of Creation for New Shows) Jean-François Bouchard. They respect the creators. They always let us do our thing and then choose our stuff. They never said, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” So for us having done so many different styles, it was natural to do a show like this. They just [pointed us] in a [particular] direction.”
And their words for young artists? Marc was quick to answer. “Believe in yourself. And keep working. You know, it was a big break for Guy and I to do a Cirque creation. But it’s been since Soleil de Minuit (in 2004) that we [first] thought that we could and would like to do this. We kept believing in ourselves and we kept saying don’t give up, keep dreaming.”
“Yeah, believe in your dreams,” Guy added. “It took as many years as it [did] because we had to go through [what we went through] to make this. That’s what we did. It’s all about dreaming.”
My sincere thanks go to:
Mr’s. Dubuc and Lessard for so graciously spending time with us,
Chantal Côte, Corporate PR Manager,
And my wife LouAnna for putting up with my sometimes obsessive hobby.