Lee Curreri Sequential Tart Interview 2004


From Fame To The Aquabox

Lee Curreri

by Jennifer M. Contino

Chances are that if you were a child of the 80s, at one time or another you caught an episode of Fame or saw the movie Fame. If you remember the cute, Italian, curly-haired synthesizer player named Bruno, then you've seen Lee Curreri. While working on Fame, Lee wrote a lot of the songs his character performed and helped out with other areas of the show. He left after a few seasons and began putting his musical skills to work with artists like Natalie Cole and scored episodes of some TV series, along with some other artistic challenges along the way. Lately he's been in the recording studio working on an original CD, Aquabox, which is now available for purchase.

Sequential Tart: How old were you when you began playing musical instruments?

Lee Curreri: I was four when I started hiding behind the piano at my next door neighbor's house. Playing the piano was my solitude — a way to escape the drama of a crisis-creating Italian family.

ST: Which ones were your favorites?

LC: Piano and trombone. Above all, I really wanted to play the drums, but that would not have been allowed in my house — way too loud!

ST: How supportive was your family of your musical inclinations?

LC: They were kind enough to buy me a Mason & Hamlin baby grand (there goes the new car), and keep me in music lessons for 7 years. When I chose to pursue music as a profession, they were dead set against it. Being school teachers, the only musicians they knew were in the school system, and those band leader/choir directors made $4000 a year! Not exactly a good example of success for my parents. They didn't realize I wanted to be Lalo Schifrin and write cool music for TV spy shows.

ST: When did you begin taking music lessons and what was the most valuable "lesson" you learned from your instructors?

LC: I started studying piano at five. I had a local music teacher who made house calls and looked at his watch all the time. The good thing about him was that he didn't mind if I played something other than what was on the page, as long as it was close, and it sounded okay. This gave me a great ability to fake my way through anything, but I lacked discipline and technique. It wasn't until I switched teachers five years later that I started learning technique.  After the new teacher tore me a new orifice, he made me play scales — and Bach inventions. The most valuable lesson I learned from my instructors was: Even if you don't know where you are, keep playing. The audience doesn't have to know you're clueless!

ST: What made you pick the Manhattan School of Music over other musical universities?

LC: I went Manhattan School of Music on Saturdays when I was in my Senior year of High School — I just always heard that it was great, and it was.

ST: After the Manhattan School of Music, you studied at a few other places, what influenced your decision to change schools?

LC: I decided to go to Mannes College of Music, because it was more suited to people who wanted to become composers and conductors. Manhattan had great teachers, too, but I really enjoyed studying with Charles Jones — he was a contemporary of Darius Milhaud, and Aaron Copland (one time Copland came to one of our composers concerts and signed his autograph on my Piano Sonata!).

ST: What did you like the best about each place you studied?

LC: The thing I liked best about Mannes College was that we would study composition in Charles Jones' house, which used to be Stravinsky's house. Mind you, this is a regular house with a tree in front of it, located in midtown Manhattan — there were very few of these! Every once and a while Soulima Stravinsky, Igor's son, would stop by and we could hit him with tons of questions about his father and his music. The thing I liked the best about Manhattan School was my Composition teacher, Neil Waltzer, and a particular female cellist...

ST: What did you like the least?

LC: Homework.

ST: Being a native of New York, were you familiar with the School of the Arts before Fame?

LC: I had some friends who went to Music and Art, which was the music version of Performing Arts.

ST: What made you audition for a role on Fame? What did you hear about the project?

LC: Neil Waltzer, at the Manhattan School, gave the MGM casting person my name. They called me to come in and audition.

ST: What acting experience did you have — if any — prior to Fame?

LC: None, really. When I was 10 years old, I saw an ad for a pre—teen program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the New York Times - I asked my Mom if I could go, and she said yes!

ST: How much of Bruno Martelli was already on paper and how much of this character did you create?

LC: It was all on paper, but I guess I filled in the role with my own quirks. I wrote most of Bruno's songs, and Bill Blinn, the Executive Producer and writer for the show, tended to build our personalities into the scripts.

ST: Contrary to popular belief, Fame wasn't filmed in NYC, was it? Where did the production of the series occur?

LC: Fame the TV show was filmed in L.A. on a set, and for outside shots, there were some New York pick-ups, and then some downtown L.A. locations.

ST: While working on Fame, besides acting what other roles did you have in the series?

LC: Mostly just writing the music that Bruno played and sang, writing some of the dance pieces, and playing on the recording sessions as much as the scheduling allowed.

ST: What was your favorite song that you created for Fame?

LC: Could We Be Magic Like You?

ST: While working on Fame you established a relationship with Capitol Records. How did you become acquainted with them and what were some of the first projects you worked on?

LC: I met a woman named Ruth Burkhardt at an MTV party, and she, in turn, introduced me to Bobby Colomby, the former Blood Sweat and Tears drummer. Bobby was an A & R guy at Capitol at the time. He had come from Columbia, where he produced one of my favorite records of all time, the "Jaco Pastorius" debut. He hooked me up with Natalie Cole, and, later, singer Phil Perry.

ST: How was that experience different from composing music for Fame and acting on Fame? How was the experience similar?

LC: Producing great vocalists was obviously different for me because I knew these singers could do absolutely anything you threw at them. The more difficult it was, the more they kicked ass. With me, writing a song for Fame was fantastic, but singing it was a whole different story! I used to bring in a friend named Doc Holliday to coach me (now he coaches all the boy bands), and I'm sure the feeling he had while coaching me was akin to pulling teeth.

ST: What were your first impressions of Natalie Cole? What inspired you when working on Good To Be Back?

LC: Natalie's just a first rate artist, and as great as she is, she is the sweetest human being. Her vocal feel and her soul inspired me to showcase her with the best possible arrangement and production.

ST: When looking back at that project now, is there anything you would have changed?

LC: I don't think so — except for the fact I would have loved to do something on Unforgettable!

ST: Why'd you leave Fame?

LC: It wasn't my choice — MGM didn't pick up my option — they let go of all the expensive elements of the show, including the great Bill Blinn, the Executive Producer/Writer. I think after one year of syndication, the priority for MGM was making the show as cheaply as possible, since they already made their syndication deals.

ST: I have to ask, because several people from the Yahoo Fame mailing list have asked, do you have any regrets about leaving Fame?

LC: I think the time was right for them to say goodbye — leading the double life of a musician/actor on a TV series was taking its toll on my health. Back then, as a 22 year old, I didn't really know about boundaries. Now, I'm more realistic about what I can accomplish in a day, I'm more knowledgeable about health and nutrition, and I'm careful not to run myself into the ground.

I've got a little one to be around for, and another little one on the way. One profession is enough for me, for this lifetime!

ST: You appeared in several films after Fame. Did you miss acting? What interested you in those projects to work on them?

LC: I don't really miss acting. The reality is, it's a lot of "hurry up and wait." You spend about 5% of the day acting, and the rest of the day dealing with makeup, wardrobe, and waiting. And at the end of the day, you're still tired! I suppose it's a money/fame thing for most people, but I never really cared about having a famous face, I really just enjoyed working.

ST: Besides acting and writing for "live" TV, you also worked on some cartoons. What drew you to writing the scores for cartoons?

LC: A friend of mine, named Rusty Andrews, turned me on to scoring cartoons – he had a great love for them as a former art-student-turned-composer. He worked for Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) as a composer on his staff, and then we took on a French/American co-production together.

ST: How was that experience different from scoring a live-action show or movie?

LC: In the animation, I had to remember to keep the humor in every musical phrase. Rusty was brilliant at keeping the music light. I tended to get a little serious at times with the cartoons, which is weird, because people always tell me there is a sense of humor in my songs. I guess in the songs it takes a little longer to establish lightness, whereas in the animation, the art of telling a joke exists in a series of two-second segments! In the live-action shows, music serves a different purpose — less illustrative and more supportive, less short-funny cues and smoother transitions and dramatic moments.

ST: Many people remember MTV's Liquid Television, but I bet half of them don't know that you created the soundtrack for the series. Who approached you about that project?

LC: This was also Rusty's doing — actually, one of the shows, Bill And Willis, he co-created.

ST: What was the most challenging about working on Liquid Television?

LC: The fast turnover!

ST: How do you approach "scoring" a television series, what factors do you consider?

LC: The function of the music in the series — should it be invisible, or is it a character in the show? What is the demographic of the show? Does it support the style that I hear? What is the pacing — is it cut fast, or relaxed — this dictates music tempo and feel. What tempo and pitch are the actors speaking in? This also dictates tempo, and pitch of the lead instruments, so I can stay out of the way of the dialogue. Are there musical montages? Is there a budget for outside songs, or will I be cloning famous songs that are temp'd in but not affordable? Is the show humorous? Does the director or producer realize it is humorous (at times, you'd be surprised at the discrepancy of this particular intent and result).

ST: How was scoring an episode of Chicago Hope or Gun different from Liquid Television? How was it similar?

LC: In Chicago Hope, music was supposed to be invisible — the show was so well written and acted that the music really only served as a transition — smoother, and a dramatic aid. In Liquid Television, the music was a character in the show — up front — commenting and underlining the action.

ST: What prompted you to create Aquabox?

LC: Aquabox was music that I wanted to hear, but no one else had written it, yet!

ST: What is Aquabox?

LC: Aquabox is a state of being — a peaceful memory of the womb — a state of chaotic tranquillity and flow. Musically, it is soul/trip hop/electronica in song form that flows like a stream of consciousness piece, journeying through different moods and cultures like a bus travelling the globe at the speed of the Concord — a game of "Ear-Candyland" for the aurally adventurous.

ST: Fans have been clamoring for years for an original CD of your works, what made the time right NOW for you to release such an offering?

LC: Over the years, I've been very hard on myself — very self-demanding! Now, I finally have completed something that I would want to buy if I heard it. So I would really love to share this one with the world.

ST: Aquabox has got to be one of the most eclectic mix of songs that I've ever heard. What influenced you to include so many different types of music on one CD? It's also interesting to notice the different cultures that appear to be represented here. What different genres of music have you touched upon with Aquabox?

LC: My New York/Los Angeles background. I always had many cultures around me. I love the sound of different languages, different rhythms, and I live for the similarities between us as humans. Stylistically, I really love where music is going — there is much of the seventies influence sifted through the minds of 20 year old DJs — I really wanted to make a record that combined my own version of the music I grew up with, with the way life has changed in the new millennium. Records such as the ones released by Groove Armada and Towa Tei (from Dee-Lite) musically jump all around the spectrum, but still have the stylistic thread that the creator intended — I think the modern listener can handle this, and to some extent, demands it!

ST: Who are some of the creators who joined you for this offering?

LC: I had many collaborators — Gavin Christopher (wrote tunes for Chakka Khan and Rufus, wrote and sang on Herbie Hancock records, was a solo artist on EMI), Gyrl Frend, (a new, raw talent — if you like Jill Scott, or Billie Holliday, you'll love Gyrl Frend), Amerasian starlet Anzu Cristina (watch her in the movie, American Yakuza, also an artist in Japan), and some others — Shira Myrow, and June Kubo (who does a Japanese drum'n'bass rap on Yayoi/Dream Love).

ST: How can Fame fans and other fans of your work get Aquabox?

LC: Order it online at http://www.cdbaby.com. Or, send a check or money order for $16.99 ($12.99 plus $4.00 shipping & handling) to:

Xacca Sounds
520 Washington Blvd. #418
Marina Del Rey, CA 90292

In Los Angeles, it is available at Benway in Venice, or Pyramid in Santa Monica. In London, try Uptown Records in Soho. I'm working on getting more widely available in stores.

ST: What other musical projects are you working on?

LC: Aquabox 2, and a solo instrumental record.

ST: Will you be appearing anywhere as part of the Fame reunion tour?

LC: Not that I know of, now, but I just came back from London on a promotional tour of the Fame re-runs airing in England on Granada Plus. We also just did a People Magazine article.

ST: Will you be on concert anywhere promoting Aquabox?

LC: I'm working on it! I'd like to do some concert dates with Gyrl Frend, Gavin, and a DJ. I'll keep everyone posted on my website, http://www.aquabox.tv, or http://www.leecurreri.com, and in the U.K. at http://www.aquabox.co.uk, or http://www.leecurreri.co.uk.

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