Element: Whiz-kid James O'Brien has a lot of cool things going on for someone whose main ax is the trombone.

By Published on .

Most Popular
It'd be nice to say that James O'Brien wrote the BMW Films theme before he was old enough to drive, but that'd be pushing it just a little. Nevertheless, there's nothing particularly hyperbolic about calling the guy a prodigy. He graduated high school at 14; he was principal trombonist of the Pasadena Symphony when he was 15; he was in a punk band called Redfish, signed to Atlantic, when he was 18; and at 21 he opened his own music/sound design house in Santa Monica, called Element. In the past four years, O'Brien, now 25, has racked up plenty of commercials work for clients like Bud, Sony Playstation, CBS and Sprint, and he supplied the music and sound design for the opening theme and credits for the web phenomenon known as BMW Films, the 2001 Creativity Campaign of the Year. Now he's made a full-fledged feature move with the score for a Jennifer Aniston film called The Good Girl, which premiered at Sundance in January. He can also play some 20 instruments, though not all at the same time.

Oddly enough, this California native is not from a musical family. He's just a natural whose wildly eclectic taste perfectly suits the ad business. "I used to be impressed with the intricacies of commercials music when I was just a viewer," he recalls. "The music is frequently a collage of styles," and O'Brien has wide-ranging tastes. "In my car CD player right now is Bach's 'Goldberg Variations'; a trip-hop compilation; Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um; the latest Radiohead album; and the soundtrack to The Talented Mr. Ripley." He can comfortably leap across categories, but the categories themselves are becoming ambiguous. "Music today is kind of losing 'style,' especially in commercials music," he says. "People use words like 'texture' and 'aggressiveness,' and they don't seem to mind whether it's tribal African drums that are blazing across the track or a two-bar techno loop. It could be a jazz thing, a rock thing, it really doesn't matter. You can mix and match these elements in commercials and come up with what people are looking for."

There was a time when O'Brien didn't quite know what he was looking for, but blame it on his youth. After high school he was mainly in the classical camp, auditing courses at UCLA, then he veered into punk. But after 10 tours of the U.S. and a couple of songs on the charts, he had a musical epiphany. "I was on the beach in Pensacola, kinda drunk, and I realized I was playing the same songs night after night. Even though I'm writing new songs, since we're only going in one direction, they're just like the old songs. Plus, I was playing the guitar every night, and though I love the guitar, it's not my main instrument." Punk trombone is a stretch, even for O'Brien. "So I quit right there."

At that time, O'Brien says he hadn't really considered scoring for commercials; he was aspiring more to film music. But, going off on another tangent entirely, he found himself working as a photographer's assistant and a freelance art director. While AD'ing a local Pepsi commercial for production/design company Fuel, he struck up a friendship with director Seth Epstein, who gave him a shot at the music for the spot. "It was a techno track, people dancing in an elevator," O'Brien recalls. That's when he had a commercials epiphany. "I can play all these different instruments, I can work in many styles of music - it was just what I was looking for." He began to work regularly with Epstein, later got a Sony Playstation gig with Chiat/Day, and things just started happening. O'Brien credits much of his success to his "If you don't like it, don't use it," approach of offering agencies and directors unsolicited demos. Even his BMW gig started this way, with a "Just gimme a shot" offer to Fallon/Minneapolis.

Though he's the only composer/sound designer on board, the decision to open Element and hire a producer and reps was based on the fact that "the business side is a different side of my head," he says. "I can't compose music and do business. Now I have a support team that can fill in the blanks for me." As for the company's name, "I wanted something that would convey a sense of organicness. I like natural sounds and natural instruments." Even if he plays them all himself. "Overdubbing is much more efficient," he insists. "Live musicians can be very time-consuming; you have to explain every little nuance to everybody."

By the same token, O'Brien isn't looking to expand; "I want to keep Element small so I can work on only the commercials I want to work on." It's nice to be able to say that, especially in a rotten marketplace. Is he dazzled by all this success? "Definitely. Luck has something to do with it, but it's dependent on how much you want it. Right now, I really want it."