“Can I call you back in five? The Godin Guitars guy is at the door,” Michel Cusson apologizes halfway through our phone interview. As we resume our conversation, the man is ecstatic: “I just got my two custom-made guitars: a Porsche and a Ferrari!” He’s like a 60-year-old boy whose wildest dreams just got granted, chomping at the bit, passionate.
Michel Cusson has covered a lot of ground since scoring the Omertà TV series in Québec, 20 years ago. The guitarist composer’s know-how has left a huge mark on Québec’s film and TV landscape: Unité 9, Napoléon, Aurore, Maurice-Richard, Séraphin, un homme et son péché, Riopelle, the Cavalia and Odysseo equestrian shows, IMAX 3D (Ultimate Wave Tahiti, Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, etc.), a documentary on the late great painter Corno, and so many more it’s easy to forget some, garnering seven SOCAN Awards throughout the years.
“I say yes to everything,” he readily admits. “That means I often end up working on more than one project at a time. And the reason for that is, projects are financed by various institutions, and their approval sometimes comes six months after the planned deadlines, so you need to be able to deliver when the train pulls into the station.”
Obviously, work methodologies and technology have evolved since Omertà. Thus, Cusson has set up an alias, Mélodika, that he uses for more electronic projects. “I can compose anywhere, even in a hotel room,” he says. “I’m never sitting on a single chair, and I always have my two laptops with me.
“I was fortunate to have two outstanding teachers, Pierre Houle and Francine Forest [a director and a producer]; they’re the ones who taught me musical dramaturgy. I learned how to look at an image. To be a good movie [and TV] composer, you have to listen, ask questions and leave your ego behind. That’s crucial. Nothing is taken for granted. Sometimes it means editing out a silence, how your soundbite enters the sequence and, above all, how you exit it! Producers, directors, screenwriters, they all have a different language. That’s why it becomes vital for me to know how to decode what they’re saying.”
To date, Cusson has scored nearly two dozen TV series, totalling between 300 and 400 episodes, and has worked with about 30 different filmmakers and directors.
“When you do screen music, you work vertically,” he says. “You watch the same sequence over and over, to really understand what emotion fits best: what do I want to say, how do I illustrate it, using what emotion and from what angle; now, I don’t need to watch the whole scene. I write the music bearing in mind the corresponding emotion… It makes a big difference, the music is much stronger when you can work away from the image.”
And how are things going with Unité 9?
“I’m at episode 122,” says the composer, as if to gauge the amount of work accomplished. “I like that TV series because I can really go in-depth with themes and variations. All the characters have their specific palette. I know all of them like the back of my hand. In this case, I watch the full episode before I start composing. On Unité 9, my partner Kim Gaboury [a.k.a. composer and producer aKido] also plays some instruments.”
A few months ago, he found some time to launch Michel Cusson Solo, which was inspired by family photos that he found somewhere in Maine. Nine tracks were recorded, but the intimate and striking audio-visual show that emerged from the album is constantly evolving.
“I felt like re-inventing the way I work,” says Cusson. “In this process, I combined improv with writing. I can sit onstage at my spaceship [that is, his ton of gear] and start writing immediately. I build my soundtrack on the fly, live in front of the audience. Then, using the loops I’ve just created, I build on top of that and improvise. Plus, there are a few pre-recorded tracks that mix in. My show is 100% guitar sounds. Each time I provoke an idea, it’s great fun!”
Last December, UZEB returned after a 25-year hiatus, shocking pretty much everyone. Bass virtuoso Alain Caron and master drummer Paul Brochu will always be part of Cusson’s DNA, but how did three fully-booked musicians find their motivation?
In 1992, the outdoor farewell concert at the Montréal Jazz Fest seemed to have fully capped the trio’s 15 years of high-flying, acrobatic jazz-rock fusion – which won them high praise throughout the world. “I won’t pretend there weren’t beefs between us,” says Cusson, “but we’re all big boys and we started seeing each other regularly in the last few years. At some point, we felt like starting up UZEB again. We don’t have new compositions for the time being, and we’re not setting any kind of deadline, we’re taking it slow. But we’ve already booked 18 gigs so far, several of which are in Europe, and there’s the reunion show in just over a month and Wilfrid-Pelletier, which is selling very well, with more than 2,500 tickets gone already. UZEB separated in 1992, but we never divorced!”