"CRAFTING A MUSICAL LANGUAGE IS A NEVER-ENDING JOURNEY, I THINK."
- Max Aruj
In this interview, we explore the compelling narrative of the distinguished composer Max Aruj, who has seamlessly woven his artistry across various entertainment realms, leaving an indelible mark on both the film and gaming sectors. With a track record of working alongside luminaries such as Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe as well as contributing to blockbuster projects like "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One," his approach to music composition transcends traditional boundaries, merging classical finesse with modern innovation. Beyond his impressive body of work, including scoring for the Netflix series "Mech Cadets" and the horror/thriller "The Tank," his persona shines through as both deeply thoughtful and remarkably approachable. On February 16, Max will be releasing his score for drama-thriller The Silk Road, which includes a rock song co-written with Antony Genn (Pulp, Peaky Blinders). His career, shaped by strong partnerships and a true dedication to his work, makes him a standout for creativity and honesty in music storytelling.
How have your early experiences with music shaped your approach to composition?
I started as a jazz and classical pianist. When playing classical pieces, it fascinated me why when getting to a certain point/bar in the piece, why that harmonic movement was my favorite. Studying the piece while learning to play it was how I learned to love classical music. When playing jazz, improvising allowed for complete freedom. These two coupled together helped shape how I wrote music. Sitting at the piano for hours, tinkering, running scales, ruminating, daydreaming; all of it really started to mold my musical mind. Listening to pieces and songs over and over trying to figure out what the harmonic changes were, what the solo runs were turned me into a student of music.
You've collaborated with renowned composers like Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe. Can you share some insights or lessons you've learned from these collaborations?
It's hard to sum up what Hans and Lorne have taught me; it's basically endless. The rest of my career I'll be manifesting everything they've taught me.
Programming is how we earn our living. Each score takes on a personality and life of its own. You have to be ruthless making samples sound the way you need them to sound. It may take an hour, or a whole day to crack the code on how to make a section work: whether it be adjusting piano note velocities one by one in order to improve rhythmic clarity; or adjusting string melody note overlaps to make that melody sing. Staying in the studio to perfect that sound/section is the only way to make that piece of music the best it can be. When you send that melody to be played by a performer, if you don't make it clear what you want, they won't know. People can't read your mind; taking the time to communicate exactly what you want is necessary. Otherwise, you are short-changing your piece of music.
Having worked on a diverse range of projects, from action thrillers like "The Ice Road" to video games like "Assassin's Creed", how do you adapt your musical style to fit such different genres and mediums?
Figuring out the right tone (from a macro perspective) comes first. Attitude starts to determine tempo/harmony/rhythms. The theme will differ based on type of film, and director. Some films demand a hummable full melody, while others may require a shorter motif (something that has really taken over the past decade and a half or so). The director may have a strong opinion about either, so I'll have to adapt to what they are responding to. I start with an idea/concept, and overtime, it takes shape.
I test and figure out rhythms that will give it a unique feel - the harmonic identity takes shape: this chord progression works for heroism, this one works for romance. Ice Road worked very well with a traditional heroic melody, whereas most of Assassin's Creed worked in a sonic world. Ice Road was creating new chord progressions to work with the theme: my hands on the piano. Conversely, creating sonic worlds for AC was more about blending/mixing/morphing sounds.
What's your approach to crafting a unique musical language for each project that still reflects your personal style as a composer?
I'm still learning that every day. I think it comes with practice. Over a decade of being a musician has to come first I think, so you start to develop an extensive encyclopedia of music of different styles. You start to develop your own preferences/style/vibe.
Then once you become a professional, you have the skills to adapt to a different project/director. And when that director/producer starts pushing you in a different direction, you have to adapt. Because if you don't, you very well could find yourself fired. Letting the time period, location of a film may be helpful to inject some specific unique colors. Infusing that into my own tastes ensures that each score will have a different flavor, but hopefully not veering too far from my own sensibilities. Crafting a musical language is a never-ending journey I think.
" Training your ear to adapt to each project demands countless hours in the studio."
You've done additional music for big projects like "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One". What's your process like when you're contributing to a larger score?
Both films have iconic main themes. This is very helpful in framing the musical style in which we'll be working. Top gun establishes guitar, synth and drum kit as primary elements. The melody must be treated with care: fans know it! When Lorne or Hans has written new material, we have to implement it exactly, to the decibel, so that when we use it for a scene to picture, it sounds EXACTLY like the suite.
Listening to the suites (themes written separate from picture); looking at Cubase projects and MIDI files becomes the Bible for the project. It's all there right in front of you! My job as an additional is to maintain the tone/rhythm as it has been established. And when writing original material, I must use my compositional acumen to ensure it sounds like the rest of the score. For example, using a strummed ukulele after the epic top gun theme will raise some eyebrows. Creating music that sounds natural to the flight world takes time/trial and error. Training your ear to adapt to each project demands countless hours in the studio.
Your recent work includes scoring for the Netflix series "Mech Cadets" and the horror/thriller "The Tank". Can you share some of the creative processes behind scoring for these projects?
Firstly, both projects went so smoothly, and were a pleasure to work on!Mech Cadets had no temp; I was able to establish a musical language from the get-go, which is not always the case. Each episode came to me completely dry. I watched the first two episodes, and was able to determine quite a few themes I needed to write to get us started: heroism, Stanford (main character), Olivia (our second main character), mother-son theme, robo theme. Once I had a few of these approved (or close to it), I was able to start writing to picture. Using the same melody in different ways when presenting the first episode was crucial to create a musical DNA the director would recognize. The opening motorcycle scene was the hardest scene to get in the show, which went through many revisions!
I had previously worked with the director on The Tank, so jumping back into the swing of things with him was easy. From our first meeting, Scott had a very clear idea of what he wanted for the score. I wrote the family theme and the creature's theme first, which got us going immediately. Having worked on Crawl, I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted the score to speak to the audience.
You've also ventured into the pop music world, co-producing Gryffin’s Gravity Deluxe orchestral album. How does your experience in film scoring influence your work in pop music, and vice versa?
Gryffin hired me because I had so much experience working with big orchestra. Bringing my skills into this domain seemed pretty instinctive. Also, Gryffin's music is very melodic and catchy, so working with and around his material feels natural. When his choruses hit, orchestrating all those elements really packs some punch!Having worked with Gryffin has definitely opened some doors as well. My latest pop music collaboration is with artist Jeryko. Our song "If I Forget" was released September 4, which also features an orchestra woven in with voice/lyrics. It's a different way of thinking in that I am supporting a voice/lyrics, whereas in most film scores, lyrics do not come into the picture. The listener hearing/understanding the words is paramount.
Being the composer for Well Played Studios VR/AR firm, how does composing for interactive content and gaming experiences differ from traditional film scoring?
The goal is always to write a beautiful/engaging piece of music. I try not to think of length/requirements stems until I think I have created a piece of music that creatively matches what the director/creator is looking for. I want to be confident in my writing of a theme that encapsulates the brief and tells a musical story. Then when producing the piece (adding sounds), I make sure I have enough material to make the piece a lot longer. I create sounds that are similar, but different enough to spin out and create variations. But all in all, telling a musical story is the priority - everything else comes after.
Can you share any upcoming projects or collaborations that you're particularly excited about?
I co-composed the score for Scottish thriller "Kill" with long-time collaborator Steffen Thum. Very excited for people to hear what we've done for this nail-biter. It played at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August - awaiting a larger release date... Will keep you posted.
What guidance would you offer to budding composers aiming to make their mark in the industry?
Take the time to fall in love with music. Develop a passion for certain pieces/composers/artists. Listen to them over and over. Figure out what about these pieces draws you to them, whether it be a chord progression, unidentifiable synth sound, groovy rhythm. I think focusing on career too soon can prop up a budding artist too soon; you wouldn't want to get your dream project, and not be ready for it, and things go south. (Perhaps it's social media that makes this thought come to mind first.) Composing is like practicing an instrument, in that the more you do it, the better you get. The idea that a composer/songwriter just wakes up and is a genius, is almost always not the case. To summarize: skill/craft before marketing.