Interview: Trevor Rabin

As a child in Africa, Trevor Rabin—raised in a family of intellectuals specializing in music and law—taught himself to play guitar. As a teenager, he became a South African pop idol as part of the band Rabbitt, and he went on to write “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” and most of 90125, the seminal album on which it appears, for the rock group Yes, with whom he played during the 1980s. Rabin, husband, father and creator of a new jazz-rock solo album titled Jacaranda, came to America and became one of Hollywood’s most productive composers, scoring more than 35 movies. He recently talked with me about his work, his family and his native country.

Scott Holleran: What is the downside of having taught yourself how to play the guitar?

Trevor Rabin: The frustration of not being able to play [exactly] what I heard and wanted to play. Sound is always difficult, and I wasn’t getting the exact sound I wanted. Practice—a lot of practice, practice, practice—is important. My guitar has been [like] my second wife. Also, I grew up in a musical family and I already had extensive formal music training [in piano]. So, I would just take the guitar and use piano scales. On balance, though, I think it was a benefit to have taught myself and not learn to play guitar by the formal approach. Formal training is less important on guitar.

Scott Holleran: Do you also play piano on your new album, Jacaranda?

Trevor Rabin: Yes, I play all the piano. And, outside of drums and bass guitar on one track, every other instrument. The album features drummers Vinnie Colaiuta [Sting, Frank Zappa] and Lou Molino III and my son Ryan [of the band Grouplove]. I also have bass guitarist Tal Wilkenfeld [Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock] who plays on the track “Anerley Road.” Liz Constantine [Dizzy X] does vocals on “Rescue”.

Scott Holleran: What does the title mean?

Trevor Rabin: Jacaranda is the name of a beautiful tree [in Rabin’s native country, South Africa]. When it’s in bloom, it is an explosion of purple. I grew up with that. I feel at home with the jacaranda tree. One of the first things I did when I built my studio here in L.A. was add a jacaranda tree.

Scott Holleran: Then why no tree on the album cover?

Trevor Rabin: That’s a good question. Hannah Hooper – the lead singer of my son Ryan’s band, Grouplove – painted the album cover.

Scott Holleran: Is Jacaranda your best work?

Trevor Rabin: As far as I’m concerned it is. I go back and listen to it and I have to say I think it’s pretty good. To me, music means constantly exploring and getting to that perfect place – I’ll have one foot in the grave and still feel that way – and there’s so much more to learn and create. All the experience I’ve had has led me to this place. That’s why I’m convinced that this is the best work I’ve done. I didn’t rearrange anything, but the flow is there. There’s bits and pieces of [jazz] fusion. There’s also bluegrass and melody and orchestral music. It’s a real musical variety. I felt totally free while I was making it and I stuck to what I was doing with no thought of whether it would be liked. It was for me.

Scott Holleran: Jacaranda is instrumental. Will you sing on your next recording?

Trevor Rabin: I will sing on a record in the future. I’ve started working on a followup to Jacaranda. I’m going to do a vocal.

Scott Holleran: You’ve worked with some of the best artists in the music business. Who else would you like to work with?

Trevor Rabin: I must say I met with Robert Plant and we wanted to do something together, so I’d love to revisit that. I did something with Jonny Lang but it hasn’t been released. The singer I’d love to work with most is Joss Stone.

Scott Holleran: Tell me about your work producing Manfred Mann.

Trevor Rabin: Nobody really produces Manfred, but, yes, I was an associate producer for Manfred Mann’s 1981 album Chance which featured the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “For You.” It was a great experience. Manfred was so incredibly intuitive and respectful of ideas and he has an amazing ability as a musician. There was one point when I was playing guitar on it and I was messing around and Manfred exclaimed, ‘oh! That’s it!’ and the engineer hadn’t been recording it because he was getting ready. Manfred said in a sort of stern tone, ‘you always record the preparation because there might be some gem in there’. He had called me when I was living in London and asked me to come produce a record for him. So, I got involved and did the record and whatever I provided for him, he provided for me with his experience and the way he works. He’s just a tremendous musician. We became close friends. We’re still close friends.

Scott Holleran: Did you produce other records for him?

Trevor Rabin: I just did that one. I came to live in L.A. soon after David Geffen invited me to put a band together. But after six months of writing songs – which basically turned out to be the music for 90125 for Yes – it turned out that he dropped me. He’d wanted me to join a band with the artists who later became the band Asia (“Only Time Will Tell”, “Heat of the Moment”) and I went to try it and rehearse with them but it didn’t feel right for the music I’d written, which I explained to Geffen. He told me that if I wanted to do a solo album, he’d drop me. He wanted me to work with a band and it turns out that he was partly right because that’s what I did.

Scott Holleran: Still, after being asked to come to L.A., did you feel shortchanged?

Trevor Rabin: No. I was a little surprised but we all remained on good terms. I’ve seen David Geffen since. I know that this kind of thing can happen in the recording business. In fact, I was on Chrysalis [Records] for three albums and they really tried to [make it work] and then they dropped me. But they were great to me. The one funny thing is that when I was dropped by Geffen, I sent my songs to RCA – [RCA recording executive] Ron Fair was the first one to really hear that I had something interesting – and I’d sent it to Clive Davis at Arista and he said, ‘no thanks,’ because he felt my voice was Top 40-friendly but that the songs were not. When “Owner of a Lonely Heart” hit number one, I sent the clipping to Clive Davis. Ironically, when we did the Union album, it was with Arista.

Scott Holleran: How did you get the rights to use “Rescue” from the soundtrack for The Guardian on Jacaranda?

Trevor Rabin: I co-own the rights with Disney. But I re-recorded “Rescue” so it’s different from my motion picture score – Liz is a phenomenal singer – so [now] it has a yearning kind of quality.

Scott Holleran: Had you seen the rescue scene from the film before you composed that part of the score?

Trevor Rabin: Yes. That’s why I had to change it. It’s a suspenseful part of the movie score that didn’t fit the album so I re-wrote it. I am happy with the score. The film has a great heart to it. The performances were great, particularly Kevin Costner’s.

Scott Holleran: Which of your movie soundtracks made the most money? Armageddon?

Trevor Rabin: National Treasure 2, then Armageddon then National Treasure.

Scott Holleran: Which ones made the least amount of money?

Trevor Rabin: Either Texas Rangers or Home Grown.

Scott Holleran: So you follow your soundtrack sales?

Trevor Rabin: Well, I get told about them.

Scott Holleran: For the National Treasure pictures, did director Jon Turteltaub tell you what he wanted?

Trevor Rabin: He is great to work with—he’s actually a nice pianist and he’s very, very musical, so he already had an idea for making something with a different emotion in the music. He might say ‘you’ve got the oboe playing, [let’s] make it more regal with a French horn’. He really gets involved, which is great. The way I look at [making a score] is that it’s a discussion. He’s up there with the best—he’s extremely funny and with Jon there’s a joke a minute. National Treasure 3 is supposed to be in the works, so I hope that happens. I also enjoy working with Renny Harlin. I’ve done four movies with him.

Scott Holleran: For scoring the war epic Flyboys, the true story of America’s first fighter pilots, did you watch classic war movies in advance?

Trevor Rabin: Not specifically as a result of that movie. I have always loved classic war movies. I was somewhat typecast in the early days with big action movies and I had wanted to do an epic with an emphasis on character and Dean Devlin was a joy to work with. I think [my score for] The Great Raid is also in that league.

Scott Holleran: How did you come to work with Thomas Carter on Coach Carter?

Trevor Rabin: I had done Remember the Titans and, when it was well-received, he just approached me and we had a chat. I really liked him – he’s a great human being – and the movie flowed. We had a good time together.

Scott Holleran: Your score for Remember the Titans was used without your permission for Barack Obama’s 2008 victory rally in Chicago’s Grant Park. As an Obama supporter, do you think your music still fits the President?

Trevor Rabin: Very much so. I was watching that [rally] when someone phoned me from Denver and said my music was playing and I thought that was great. Had it been [Democrat] Lyndon Larouche, it would have been a problem.

Scott Holleran: You didn’t have a problem with Obama using your work without your permission?

Trevor Rabin: I don’t think they have to ask for permission—because it’s [featured on] a news program.

Scott Holleran: Did anyone from the Obama campaign ever call and thank you or acknowledge the use of your work?

Trevor Rabin: [laughing] No, that call never came.

Scott Holleran: And to think your movie work all started with Soul Patrol [original title: Death of a Snowman] in 1978, which was billed as “a South African exploitation classic”.

Trevor Rabin: It’s amazing. In those days we stuck a sheet up on the wall and I wrote the score. It’s a funny thing. I recently appeared on a panel with [composers] Randy Newman and David Newman and someone waiting outside gave me a

of Soul Patrol. I still haven’t watched it. I think I was 19 [when I scored it]. There were no computers and I conducted and copied it myself. I don’t conduct my sessions anymore.

Scott Holleran: Another native South African, Charlize Theron, is one of America’s top actresses with two movies this month, Snow White and the Huntsman and Prometheus. Is it easier for South African immigrants to make it in Hollywood now than when you came here?

Trevor Rabin: No, I don’t think so. It’s the same. To go to a new place as an immigrant—to America or anywhere else—takes a lot of energy. It takes not being scared of work. That hasn’t changed.

Scott Holleran: You were an opponent of South Africa’s segregation policy known as apartheid. Have you seen Invictus and did it ring true and meet your expectations?

Trevor Rabin: Knowing the reality of South Africa, Invictus was too Hollywood to me. It was definitely glossy. A lot of negative things were left out and Matt Damon’s South African accent was hard to take, but it I have to admit that it is a tricky accent. Morgan Freeman fared better [as Nelson Mandela].

Scott Holleran: Have you met Nelson Mandela?

Trevor Rabin: Yes. When I did the Prince’s Trust, we had lunch together; me, my wife Shelley and Prince Charles. What a journey he’s taken.

Scott Holleran: What one movie should Americans who don’t really know about its history see about South Africa?

Trevor Rabin: I think Cry Freedom gives you a good idea about what’s going on there, particularly for the white population.

Scott Holleran: You were part of one of South Africa’s biggest rock bands, Rabbitt. Did the experience make you more serious about your music?

Trevor Rabin: It did. It was weird—we had the biggest band in the history in South Africa yet, at the time, playing to a black audience was illegal. We managed to push it by playing to an Indian audience. The fame was incredible. There was no manual for walking out and being mobbed and, in doing years of session work, one day I might be doing something in Afrikaans and one day I might be doing country music. So, it taught me to broaden my range. In Rabbitt, we did quite a bit of orchestra and I conducted. It’s funny because while Rabbitt was very teenybopper, it was very real and natural, so I’m proud of the music and we were really good live—the records don’t give you a sense of how powerful we were live—and there were truthful moments.

Scott Holleran: When you came to America in the 1980s, you worked with Yes on their seminal album 90125, which you mostly wrote. What is your greatest reward from working with Yes?

Trevor Rabin: The live performances—absolutely. It was a bigger than life experience. We’d play to 25,000 people and halfway through [the concert] we were all together in a room somewhere. We had the most incredible experience in 1985 playing Rock in Rio. There were 400,000 people in the audience.

Scott Holleran: In your view, does the music video for your song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” match the song?

Trevor Rabin: No. In fact, the video did well. But I didn’t like it. I think the video did well because of the song.

Scott Holleran: In a single word, what is the meaning of “Owner of a Lonely Heart”?

Trevor Rabin: [Long pause] Loneliness. The idea of the song is the insecurity of trying to procure a mate – how you can never know what the other person’s thinking; you can try, but no matter how close you get, you can never know what they’re feeling. To truly be oneself, every person is [necessarily] isolated.

Scott Holleran: Yet you have been married to the same woman for 23 years. What is the root of your marital success?

Trevor Rabin: [Laughs] We’ve been really good friends since our school days. The friendship and trust continued – and continues.

Scott Holleran: Your son Ryan plays in a rock band, Grouplove, that has played at rock festivals and appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. As a father, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned from watching your son pursue his music career?

Trevor Rabin: His spirited independence. He’s the drummer, the producer, the co-songwriter. He’s 26 years old and he reminds me of my father. Ryan’s a very old soul, very balanced. I see his carefree attitude – not a lack of appreciation for what he’s doing – and his ability to be in the moment. Seeing that in him reminds me that I was like that.

Scott Holleran: Your father was a lawyer who, when you approached him about going into law, observed that you had musical talent and instead advised you to pursue your self-interest and make a livelihood in rock and roll. What is your father’s best advice?

Trevor Rabin: What he said to me just before he died: “Remember, you never forget the truth.” His whole essence was integrity and honesty. When I was coming to the end of high school and considering going to law school, I went and told him. He listened and said ‘you can do that, but I think you have a talent that shouldn’t be stunted’. My desire was to be a conductor – my father had been the first violinist for the Johannesburg Orchestra – so I was completely hellbent on being a conductor. My dad said ‘you have so many things you do well; don’t become a conductor at the expense of everything else’ and he told me that to become a great conductor – one who can make a living – requires knowing hundreds of concertos and symphonic pieces and a huge amount of study and he urged me to consider using my interest and skill as a part of my resume. My father [had] paid for his law degree by playing jazz fiddle in a restaurant, and I think he saw something in me – taking my ability to the next step – that he didn’t want me to squander.