Tom Hagerman Talks About the CSO's New Collaboration with Local Artists

DeVotchKa's Tom Hagerman has been working with the Colorado Symphony, helping the group with writing the orchestrations for the music of various bands, since his own group's first show with them in February, 2012. DeVotchKa's lush orchestration and arrangements make them an ideal band for a symphony to collaborate with, and it will do so again with at Red Rocks on July 23.  

Tonight, May 28, Hagerman, will lend his song structuring talents to local artists Land Lines and Ian Cooke, helping them write arrangements for the forthcoming Turn Over the Keys program. The performance, which will also include a collaboration with Jump Little Children's Jay Clifford and Megan Burtt, is a chance for local artists to work with an experienced symphony and have their arrangements fleshed out by veterans like Hagerman. 

We caught up with Hagerman and asked him about his contributions to the project. 

Andy Thomas: What are some of the challenges when mixing "independent" music with an orchestra?

Tom Hagerman: I'm not sure if there is any difference writing for an "indie" band versus a more mainstream one. I'm not sure what "Indie" really means any more. All of the same mechanics of songwriting are there.

I think it is important to realize that over the larger history of popular music, orchestral instruments were frequently used in popular music in one form or another. I don't really think it was until synthesizers started taking over did we have this idea that it is odd to have strings, for instance, on a pop song. If you listen to some Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra, or Simon and Garfunkel records they have incredibly lush, awesome arrangements. Even the Beatles had tons of flourishes that folks like Sir George Martin whipped up for them. Whats more, is that you actually have folks such as Guarneri String Quartet cellist, David Soyer, playing on a lot of those old records.

What was DeVotchKa's first collaboration with an Orchestra like? What do you remember about the experience?

DeVotchKa has been using strings from the beginning— well mostly just me and my friend Tom Echols at the beginning I suppose. The arrangements kept involving more and more people as soon as we could afford to pay people to record them. I went to the musical school at CU Boulder so I was friends with a lot of musicians up there when we were living in Boulder. The first collaboration with full orchestra was with the CSO for the show at Boettcher in 2012. The one that became the "Live with the Colorado Symphony" record. It is a terrifying experience standing on stage for the first time with an orchestra as a rock musician. At least for us. I think generally most rock musicians have some combination of inflated ego mixed with horrible self loathing and feelings of inadequacy. It is humbling to stand up there trying to play your own particular brand of three chord pop music with a world class orchestra backing you up. That sentiment is not generally lost on any of the bands for which I've done the arrangements.

How did you first decide you were going to play a "classical" instrument in a rock band?

I never really decided to do that. I was in music school for violin. In college I played bass guitar in a goth band more or less. I was the kid in orchestra with dyed blue hair. Man, I was an idiot.

I started playing piano at around six or seven. I switched to violin at age nine because they still had orchestras in elementary schools at that point. I had awesome parents that put me in private lessons, I played in the youth symphony, kept it up in high school— because they still had orchestra programs in the high school— I went to the University of Colorado for violin. I played in the Boulder Philharmonic for a bit and played in a relatively unsuccessful goth band in college basically until I ended up in a summer program at Disney World playing violin at Epcot Center - I started playing with DeVotchKa when I returned in the fall. I moved to New York City after college and took violin lessons out there while I was a bike messenger, discovered an accordion in a pawn shop— I became disillusioned with it all and ended back up in DeVotchKa. The rest is history -  of sorts.   

How has the Turn Over the Keys process been going so far? What are you excited for people to see and hear?

I can tell you that I can't think of two more opposite bands that exist under the "indie rock cello band" umbrella than Ian Cooke and Land Lines. They both sort of exude this calculated intelligence, but in incredibly different ways. Land Lines is all about a cool minimalism while Ian Cooke is all about harmonic and melodic excess. They have both been fun to work on, but I'm totally fried. I'm just excited that the symphony is game to experiment with all of us in the Denver musical landscape. I hope they know that there is a lot of love and respect for the Colorado Symphony coming from the rock and roll community in Denver.

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Andy Thomas is a music journalist who hopes other music journalists write nice things about the music he performs. He lives in Denver with his wife, their two cats and a massive pile of unfinished projects.
Contact: Andy Thomas