Jesse Zuretti has spent years as a professional touring musician in the hyper-competitive field of heavy metal that’s bigger now than ever before. Now, he faces the biggest musical challenge of his career yet, answering the call to compose music for the legendary Marvel Studios. Zuretti has been composing material for their official YouTube channel for their web series, “Today in Marvel History…” and even won a “Webby” (a Grammy Award for online content) for his work.
Zuretti chatted with us about why Marvel characters connect with massive audiences, why becoming a composer helped become a great career move as a professional musician, the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his ambitions to score feature films in the future, and more! Jesse also discussed the current state of the music industry, pivoting into doing composition work, Marvel’s impact on modern pop culture and his dreams of the future of his career.
(This interview is the second half of a longer chat with Jesse Zuretti. The first half focuses on music and Zuretti’s band Binary Code.)
Yeah, well actually that’s a perfect opportunity to pivot into some of your soundtrack work because I notice you use a lot of symphonic influence that heavy metal lends itself to in a strange way. The way you’re able to shape it for the music for the Marvel web series has gotta be a really, really fun kind of mad scientist type experiment when you’re able to tinker around in that toy box. Which must seem endless at times.
Jesse Zuretti: “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. When I do stuff for Marvel, it was really just like, ‘Here’s the characters. Have at it!’ I didn’t really have anybody tell me what to do. Once in a while I would get, ‘Hey, this is a little too dark for the type of stuff that we’re doing here.’ Ultimately it still worked out because saying something’s too dark is one hundred and ten percent that influence of Trent Reznor because his music is very dark.
Like I would say that some of the stuff that Trent has done is darker than most metal stuff I’ve heard. Metal is more aggressive than Nine Inch Nails at times but Nine Inch Nails goes down a seriously dark path a lot of times. Especially his composing work, so yeah, it’s really cool to do music for these characters because we see these comic book characters, these superheroes and super villains, as these insane, out of the ordinary beings that could never relate to us everyday.
But upon further analysis, they’re actually very relatable in a lot of ways and I think they come from a kind of realistic perspective. I mean when Jack Kirby or Stan Lee were working on these characters, I think they were taking influence from people that they know in their real lives so it’s easy for me as, I guess you could call it like a musical empath.
I’m very capable of taking a scenario and knowing what the feelings are supposed to be for that. It’s really easy for me to do that with characters that I can relate to. The ones that I don’t relate to, it’s incredibly difficult, don’t get me wrong, but for characters like Carnage or even like Deadpool or something, I understand what these characters are about. So it was really easy to at least have something in my mind, like a little light was flashing in my mind at the bare minimum. So it’s cool to experiment to try and find those voices for those characters through music.”
Yeah, well it’s funny because despite them being in or considered to be in an escapist entertainment genre, the truth is that the reason a lot of those characters have lasted and made such a massive impact on popular culture is because they have flaws. Much like real life, nobody’s perfect, right? So whether you’re Thor the God of Thunder, destined to live in your father’s shadow as this thousand year old emperor or you’re just Bruce Banner having a really bad day, I think that’s how these characters connect to audiences despite operating in such a fantastical fictional realm. You know what I mean?
“Yeah. I completely agree with you and those are actually two really good examples. Bruce Banner’s constant struggle was that he would see the aftermath of what Hulk would do and it became very stressful for him. He actually got pushed to the point where tried to get rid of himself.
He didn’t know how to control it and he woke up with a bullet in his mouth. He ate the bullet but it’s a constant struggle for him. Thor on the other hand, if anything, is more relatable for anyone who has a sibling. I have a little sister who’s 20 years younger than me so I don’t necessarily know exactly how it feels but I’ve seen it enough in movies where I see the dynamic between brothers or brother and sister and then furthermore you have this living in your dad’s shadow type of thing going on. Then failing to live up to those expectations and your own expectations, nobody else’s, you create your own sometimes.”
“Ultimately, he kind of lets go and feels like a total waste and feels a lot of resentment and remorse and responsibility for a tragic thing that happened. I think it’s relatable even though none of us can fly or call Mjölnir by name, none of us can do these crazy things that Thor can do, an average person could sit down and have a conversation with Thor and relate. You know what I mean?”
Yeah. So now that you’ve got your foot in the door for doing the soundtrack to this web series, in a perfect world, what would be an ideal opportunity for you to take a crack at scoring an entire feature film?
“Well, completely disclosed, that’s something that’s definitely going on right now and my business partner who’s actually my drummer, Austin Blau, he’s a composer as well. He and I have a business where this is probably going to be the norm for us going forward. We’re going to be a duo where we both work on things, we have some really cool stuff coming up that we’re working at. There are a lot of things developing on our end that are still taking shape and still a work in progress, but it’s definitely happening. We’re both heavily influenced by movies in general and him video games very specifically, but ultimately what I’d like to be doing is very down the road.
We’d have to skip ahead a little bit because we are starting to kind of do other things, but I would love to get into kind of that John Carpenter position where I’m composing to something I’ve directed as well. Way down the road. I want to do the David Lynch, John Carpenter thing down the road, way down the road, but it’s something I would really love to do at some point.”
Yeah, well with that as your North Star and everything going on in the world when nobody knows exactly what a post-pandemic touring schedule is going to look like.
Not to sound like I’m doom saying or anything, but I can imagine, especially with the condition of the music industry, beyond touring with the advent of streaming becoming mainstream, that composing would actually be a very viable option as a career move for a lot of career musicians and professional musicians looking to make a living. Not just win an Oscar or anything, but knock out those bills and be able to still put their skill set to use in a very cool context that they might not have thought of before, right?
“You’re absolutely right. I mean he and I are very fortunate that being in a band is a secondary form of creativity for us. I mean he and I are writing music 70, 80 hours a week sometimes. We’re very fortunate to be able to continue to do that without having to worry about, ‘You’ve gotta go on tour, you’ve gotta play this show,’ you’ve gotta do all these things that are, not only at this point incredibly dangerous for health, but financially very low ROI. There’s not a huge return on investment with touring and doing that.”
It’s a big gamble and people don’t take that into consideration because they’re so used to seeing it from the audience perspective, right?
They’re used to having a few beers and hanging out with their buddies and having a great time, right? Whereas they don’t see the actual nuts and bolts of this is our crew, this is load-in time, this is sound check, our van got stolen, we have to pay tons of taxes on t-shirts and blah blah blah. They just see the rock star image or dream of that lifestyle, when actually that’s the tip of the iceberg and that’s like ten percent of what it’s actually like to really be on tour.
“No, you’re on the money with that and it’s amazing that you can see that because that’s something that’s very overlooked. A lot of people, just listeners or fans of music or people who like to go to shows, some people think music is made in the Spotify factory.”
“Yeah, like somebody went to the Spotify factory and said, ‘Hey, let’s try this out.’ And all of the sudden this machine poops out the record that a band puts out. Then furthermore, I think a lot of people who are involved in the music industry, they didn’t necessarily shift when music shifted in terms of record sales, right?”
“The industry shifted behind closed doors, money started getting lost, pirating started effecting things and decisions were made for different reasons to record labels and stuff. Why would someone who buys records and goes to shows care about that? They may have shifted the way that they consume music, but their perspective on how music is produced and created and served didn’t change. I still think that they think of the ‘90s and how vibrant music was then and the ‘80s, and how much money there was to it.
Thinking about a band living in a big house and having all these things and this tour bus is a major thing. I think that idea is still subconscious, but in reality, most people in bands who are touring if they don’t have another means of income through music whether it’s endorsements or creating a product. I’m using Misha Mansoor (of the heavy metal band Periphery) as an example right now. He has GetGood Drums with his bandmates, he’s got endorsements, and signature guitars. He’s got his own content that he creates, he has all these multiple elements of separate income that he can use to supplement his music career because a band like Periphery in the ‘90s, they’d all be living in million dollar homes.
They’re a huge band that would be living in a much different lifestyle if the music industry was very different, but fans don’t see that. They just see the end result, which is the band onstage, the CDs, the music videos, they see that.”
Just as you said, the way people consume might have changed, but their perspective on how this stuff comes together didn’t really change, but at the same time too, it’s a double-edged sword, right? Because now you have a REAL Marvel Cinematic Universe that you never could’ve done before thanks to that. And it’s viable because of how hardcore the fans are because people were waiting for something like this for arguably forty years, since the ‘70s, and you couldn’t do it onscreen unless it was completely animated, right? So what is it like being able to sink your teeth into this massive imaginary universe that puts so many stars in so many people’s eyes?
“Yeah, I mean it’s pretty amazing. First off, one of the huge differences, to put it in a tier, I would say video games make the most money these days. Secondly, movies are making a TON of money, they’re making more money than they ever did before. They’re making billions of dollars and they’re crushing, Marvel in particular, just crushing box office performances. Every single thing they put out, it’s just one thing after the other, they’re just destroying by billions of dollars.
There’s no music that makes billions of dollars anymore (laughs). Then there’s little ol’ music, little shitty old music there at the bottom like we don’t matter. Just making peanuts basically. You getting a Spotify royalty is 0.000318 cents per stream from a person. I don’t know exactly what royalties are like because they’re all negotiated differently for streaming services. Like Netflix and stuff like that so when a show gets picked up, well if it’s an original series it’s a totally in house production, but then there’s Hulu getting the rights to a lot of Disney stuff because they are owned by Disney.
Those streaming royalties are probably pretty substantial I would imagine because I know comedians make quite a bit of money from their stuff they do on Netflix and all these different specials and stuff. So it’s a very interesting thing to think about how all these things are shifting. Being able to do this stuff for a company, like I am not the biggest comic book nerd in the world. When I liked sports, when I watched baseball or basketball, I always liked players more than I liked the team. I was never like, ‘I’m on team this, that, or the other thing.’ I liked the one player on the team that maybe I identified with.
I kind of was the same way about comic books. I always really liked characters, like Galactus is my favourite character, I liked all these different characters. I never really sat down and busted out comic books or just learned them as a kid. I was more in sports and stuff and I got into music as a teenager, playing music. I started really getting into it when I was 16 years old even though I was deeply into music before that. I could have never in my life imagined being able to do something for a company that has had such a massive impact on the world. There’s such an amazing thing that’s happening there.”
Oh yeah. The original Captain America movie way back when, but I know what you mean because as somebody who was into comic books as a kid it was just amazing because they kind of popped off at the perfect time. I remember that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man dropped when I was like twelve years old and it was kind of one of those things where there’s no really looking back now. I know everyone within the film industry and the entertainment industry is just like, “Yeah, whatever, that stuff’s for kids.” Meanwhile, here we are 20 years later and it’s the hottest thing going.
“Right. Yeah, I agree. I think more than anything what Spider-Man, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man (films), was it reignited the same feeling like when Batman came out, when Tim Burton did Batman. I think there was a time, especially when I was a kid, where Batman transcended being a comic book character for people. I don’t think a lot of people knew that Batman was a DC character, I’m talking about comic book people not comic book fans, but my friends in elementary school who are wearing Batman shirts and eating Batman fruit snacks and stuff.
I don’t think they associated that as a comic book character, I think they just thought of it as a really cool movie about a superhero. I don’t think those Batman movies really helped the comic book industry a lot, whereas Spider-Man, when that came out it regenerated this interest in comic book characters and movies. Then we started getting more attempts, (laughs) really interesting attempts, like the first Daredevil with Ben Affleck.”
To be fair though, not to play devil’s advocate but on the flip side, on the other hand you have those Wesley Snipes Blade movies which were dope as hell.
“Yeah, the first one especially.”
Yeah, and I love Guillermo Del Toro, so that second one is just so entertaining. It’s funny too, especially with you because you heard some movie fans, not comic book fans saying it’s kids stuff. When I’m like, “Look at Deadpool, look at Blade.”
Those movies are savage as hell and it’s going to be really interesting where Marvel winds up going in the future incorporating more hard-R characters like Punisher, like Daredevil and stuff like that when they are typically seen as a family brand moving forward.
Even now that they own the rights to X-Men, it’s going to be a really interesting ride to see how they reshape what the MCU becomes in the next five to ten years. Because I know right now the next phase is set to be a lot of number twos.
Black Panther 2, Captain Marvel 2, Doctor Strange 2, and there’s no real Avengers type movie to tie it all together at the end of the tunnel right now. There’s so much gas in that tank I can’t see it letting up any time soon.
“Well, you know what? Strangely enough there might not be another giant Avengers style cast thing that they might not be promoting right now, but there is a really big movie in the works I’m absolutely not allowed to mention at all. But there is something really big in the works that’s years and years down the road. I mean we’re talking three or four years down the road.”
Oh, at least.
“Something really big is going to happen again and we’re going to get another one of those giant, ‘oh there’s this big thing coming out and everybody’s going to be in it.’ But there are movies that have to come out before that.”
To set it up.
“Where they have to develop, yup, exactly. It’s very smart what (Marvel Studios president) Kevin (Feige) does with Marvel, how he runs everything. He makes you get into the characters and their origins before he throws those characters into a movie without any background. So you have a background with each character, they have a whole movie dedicated to them, he makes you read a book basically. Before you can see them in a bigger environment with other characters, he wants you to know that he doesn’t want anybody to get lost in the mix. He’s super smart.”
Infinity War had 68 characters in it, so when they do these massive ensemble movies they can hit the ground running because they’ve already broken the ice on a lot of these characters, right?
“Yes, I agree.”
It’s very interesting to see how it tools. Not to go full geek on you, but my Marvel fan theory for the next tentpole Avengers style thing Galactus or Dr. Doom so that way they can reboot Fantastic Four and X-Men at the same time while putting them in the alternate reality or alternate dimension, in the same universe as the Avengers, right? I think it would be really cool if they did the X-Men versus Avengers comic book and then of course they all unite to fight Galactus or Dr. Doom because I think that somebody as steeped in these characters doing the soundtrack for the web series as you are, having a Big Bad like that would just drive overall or overarching story for the next phase in such a huge way.
“Yeah, I mean Galactus is something that’s on the table right now. I’ve heard talks about Liam Neeson doing Galactus and I’ve heard some really cool ideas. It’s a character, like if they mess that up again, which they messed up real bad in making him just a cloud. I think that would be detrimental. I think they would need to be like, ‘We can’t do Galactus anymore.’ They have on more chance basically to try Galactus and then it’s like, ‘Alright guys, how many more Fantastic Four movies can you do? How many different things can you do? You’ve gotta do it right.’ Nail it. Do it right this time, get somebody who really gets these characters in charge and let them have a stab at it and do it justice. Because I mean Silver Surfer alone is like such a cool character.”
Oh I know!
“It’s just infinite with Galactus, it’s been around too long and has made too many heralds out of too many characters, it’s so hard to capture that. I would say focus on Silver Surfer like they tried before, see what you do can do with it, and see how you can bring it all together.”