When people say they like all kinds of music, they usually aren’t into music much at all, as opposed to genuinely liking everything from, say, indie to orchestral.
Not Johanna Rees. A former booker for a Los Angeles rock club, Rees is the mastermind behind the concerts at the Hollywood Bowl that have paired the L.A. Philharmonic with indie heroes like Air, Belle & Sebastian and the Decemberists, who will play July 7.
The series is Rees’ baby, and the kid’s growing up quick. Since 2004, she’s put on a show a year and they’ve all sold out. This year’s Decemberists show has evolved into a small tour, with orchestral dates set for Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Not too shabby, considering Rees, 37, was hired seven years ago just for the summer to book flights and hotels for bands playing the Hollywood Bowl. When the gig turned into a permanent job as a program manager, it also sparked the idea to combine her rock and punk background with her new surroundings.
“I worked for the L.A. Philharmonic and it was a completely foreign entity to me,” Rees said in an interview with Baby Heisman. “I wanted to do a concert with a rock band and an orchestra to bridge the gap.”
Her first orchestral show featured Stereolab and Air, two ambient, electronic pop bands with a dedicated fan base.
“We sold 17,000 tickets when Air had never come into the market and done more than four or five thousand tickets,” she said. “Clearly there was an interest from an indie rock audience that maybe was growing up a little bit and wanted to have another texture included with their music, as well as maybe orchestral fans who were interested in a more contemporary rock or pop sensibility.”
Rees looks for bands with a sweeping sound that fits an orchestra, which has become easier to find as more groups add strings and other instruments to their albums. But she said tight musicianship counts most. “I really can’t mess around and put a band in front of them (the philharmonic) that doesn’t know what they’re doing musically.”
She said the Decemberists showed that musicianship at their CMJ showcase in New York last year. She started going after the band, which has been the case for each of her shows, and got final approval from her bosses, whom she said have approved all of her picks.
“I ran into more resistance from artist managers than anyone else,” she said.
The actual writing and arranging of the orchestral music is being handled by freelance composer Sean O’Loughlin, and it’s all being done on the computer; the band and the orchestra won’t actually meet until the day before the show.
O’Loughlin has spent about six weeks turning the Decemberists’ songs into music fit for a symphony. He uses a synthesizer computer program to make rough MP3 tracks that can be e-mailed to the band for feedback.
O’Loughlin said that, with the band’s songs frequently pushing past five minutes, it’s been a challenge composing music that complements the songs without overpowering them.
“I was a bit surprised with the length of the songs, but as I am working through them, they are revealing even more layers,” said O’Loughlin, who will also conduct the shows outside L.A.
He said the set will rely heavily on the band's latest, "The Crane Wife," but he stayed silent on actual song titles.
The Decemberists — Sons and Daughters (MP3)
O’Loughlin also composed Rees’ Belle & Sebastian show last year. It was after that concert that orchestral promoters started noticing the creative and financial success and asking how they could get involved, which led to expanding the Decemberists show out of the Hollywood Bowl. Rees realized that the cost of the shows, which she said can easily reach $50,000, could be split among the orchestras, making the promoters less squeamish about the investment.
“To be successful in anything, you have to take chances along the way; Johanna takes those chances she knows she can make happen,” O’Loughlin said.
The concerts have pushed just about everyone — the bands, the orchestras, the promoters, Rees herself — into new musical territory, and Rees plans to keep going. She’d like to get Kanye West or another rap/hip-hop act. Beck, Bjork and the Arcade Fire are also on her wish list.
“For a lot of the bands it’s a daunting, daunting prospect,” Rees said. “But once the bands start thinking about it, and certainly after a certain point in their career, they love the idea of adding this whole new dimension to their music.
“For me personally, it’s watching this all come together and the band finding this new place to go.”